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Opinion

The crisis has started, and Iceland’s loans are just the beginning

When a supermarket starts offering people micro-loans to pay for their shopping you know we’re in trouble. And there’s only so long those in power can ignore the coming storm, writes Big Issue editor Paul McNamee.

Iceland supermarket is offering shoppers micro-loans to pay for their groceries. The money is interest free, the repayment plans are designed to be helpful rather than loaded with threat and the loans are being provided by ethical lender Fair for You. It means people on the edge don’t have to immediately go hungry or have to visit nasty backstreet lenders to keep heads above water. If they meet repayments the borrowing also helps their credit file. 

That’s the positive. The flipside is that in 2022 people are facing such dire straits that in order to eat basics they are having to borrow money. And the best, most decent lender available is a high street supermarket that is lending so people can buy from the supermarket. There is more outrage over Jerry Sadowitz’s Edinburgh show than this shocking state we’re in.  

The oncoming financial emergency hasn’t started yet. The groceries loan isn’t so much a canary in the mine as a roaring siren with blue flashing lights and a massive barking dog on top, just in case we weren’t getting the message. The crisis has started. The hurt has started. The borrowed money will have to be paid back. And that could lead to more borrowing. When the cap is blown off the energy bills, gaps between income and essential outgoings will be cavernous. And then what?  

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It is the nation-sized question shadowing everything. Some answers are coming, some solutions are being offered. Frustratingly, most of the solutions aren’t from those in office.  

At present all policy thinking comes with the caveat – depending on who is in Number 10 on September 5. The Tory leadership battle has been going on for so long it’s turning into a piece of Beckettian absurdity, all tasselled with taxes and their intense, obsessive, tedious war on woke. Has it always been this way? Will it always be this way? Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? 

And when do grown-ups with deep thinking and hinterlands and an ability to learn from history get involved? Ironically, for all the brickbats thrown at Corbyn and McDonnell during their time in charge of Labour, they at least tried to look at positive reform of longstanding governmental fiscal structures when they formed their Economic Advisory Committee. 

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They pulled in big guns like Danny Blanchflower, Mariana Mazzucato and Joseph Stiglitz to consider ways of being anti-austerity and making key institutions work better for the people. There were two main problems (not McDonnell and Corbyn). That is, Labour were not in government, and ultimately, even if they had been, there was still a lack of elected intellectual heft.  

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We’ve been in the era of divisive ideological entrenchment with government led by soundbite rather than progressive thinking since the early days of Cameron’s majority. Take Back Control framed everything and led to post-Brexit identity politics and the lightweight nature of Boris Johnson’s premiership. His acolytes shouting that he got the big calls right can’t hide reality from the public who see what is crumbling around them.  

In lieu of the big thinking, it is the public who are filling the gap. Through strikes for a better today and tomorrow; through growing petitions calling for things as varied as price caps to all-out refusal to pay bills; through increased support, as we report this week, for nationalisation of failing services.  

There is only so long those who would lead can plug their ears to realities. The clock is ticking. 

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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