The story I want to hear is how we turned this around and arrived back at Bedford Falls.

Stories reach us in a way that facts can’t. From telling folktales around a campfire, to reading to our children at night, it’s innate to human communication.

Charles Dickens was horrified by the social deprivation in Victorian England. He tried political journalism. He published pamphlets campaigning for social change. But it’s his stories that made the impact. No less a figure than Karl Marx said that Dickens “issued to the world more political and social truths than have been uttered by all the professional politicians, publicists and moralists put together.”

A Christmas Carol is a classic example. You know the plot. By relentless hoarding of wealth, Ebenezer Scrooge has pushed everyone away and spreads misery to all he meets. Four ghosts take him on a personal journey from being, well, a Scrooge, to a philanthropist. At its heart, it’s story of fall and redemption. Of showing that you can choose the kind of person you are.

It’s A Wonderful Life is another Christmas classic with similar themes. I’ll be watching it again this week, at the Tyneside Cinema with my family. It’s the story of George Bailey, who lives in the idyllic town of Bedford Falls. George gives up his personal dreams to protect his family’s savings and loan business – the American version of a building society. Things go wrong, and he finds himself contemplating his life on a bridge when he is visited by his guardian angel. Like Scrooge, George is shown a vision of an alternative reality. One where George wasn’t around to stand up to the rich banker, Henry F. Potter.

Potter has taken over the savings and loan. Bedford Falls is renamed Pottersville. Families live in overpriced slums. Sirens blare. Crime and substance abuse are rife. Women work as sex workers. Debt and pawn brokers abound.

The film was investigated by the FBI during the McCarthy witch hunts. Apparently, showing the ills of putting greed before social good was “a common trick used by communists”.

Both stories show us that when decision making considers only personal enrichment, we all end up poorer. The drive to hoard money corrupts human relationships. These stories from the past are just a fraction of where we are now. The world’s richest 26 people own more than the poorest 50%. Corporations hoard so much money they are buying up their own shares to inflate the prices and enrich their executives.

Both Dickens and Capra offer us a choice between two futures. That’s the choice we’ve been wrestling with as a country over the past decade. Since the financial crash, food banks have proliferated, homelessness has skyrocketed, and knife crime has become endemic. Austerity has squeezed household incomes. And the billionaires have made out like bandits. We are most definitely not all in it together.
The popular reaction has fuelled the Scottish Independence movement, the rise of socialism in the Labour Party, and a reaction against the status quo that led to Brexit. Few cared about the intricacies of trade agreements or the structure of the European Commission. People were angry that no one was listening.

I fear we are sliding towards Pottersville. The Prime Minister brazens out corruption, voted through by his MPs. Wages have stagnated, small businesses struggle, public services starved of funding and seen as cash cows for privatisation. Levelling up is bread and circuses. It cherry picks high profile projects while schools go underfunded, and our social care system crumbles. People are paying more tax than ever – no, scratch that. Working people pay more tax than ever. The tax havens remain untouched. And the Home Secretary is making it illegal to protest.

That’s the choice. On a personal level you have the freedom to choose what type of person you are. But society can make it easy to be a good person. I’d like to see our country have top quality education and skills training, lots of good well-paid jobs, safe streets, affordable homes, and a good transport system. And all without killing the planet. The money exists. It’s just being hoarded by the few.

The story I want to hear is how we turned this around and arrived back at Bedford Falls.

*Originally published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 20 Dec 2021.