John Pilger: Britain’s Class War on Children

In this abridged article published by the London Daily Mirror & based on his 1975 film, Smashing Kids, John Pilger describes class as Britain’s most virulent disease, causing record levels of child poverty.

A British family from the film Smashing Kids, 1975. (John Garrett)

When I first reported on child poverty in Britain, I was struck by the faces of children I spoke to, especially the eyes. They were different: watchful, fearful.

In Hackney, in 1975, I filmed Irene Brunsden’s family. Irene told me she gave her two-year-old a plate of cornflakes. “She doesn’t tell me she’s hungry, she just moans. When she moans, I know something is wrong.”

“How much money do you have in the house? I asked.

“Five pence,” she replied.

Irene said she might have to take up prostitution, “for the baby’s sake”. Her husband Jim, a truck driver who was unable to work because of illness, was next to her. It was as if they shared a private grief.

This is what poverty does. In my experience, its damage is like the damage of war; it can last a lifetime, spread to loved ones and contaminate the next generation. It stunts children, brings on a host of diseases and, as unemployed Harry Hopwood in Liverpool told me, “it’s like being in prison”.

This prison has invisible walls. When I asked Harry’s young daughter if she ever thought that one day she would live a life like better-off children, she said unhesitatingly: “No”.

What has changed 45 years later?  At least one member of an impoverished family is likely to have a job — a job that denies them a living wage. Incredibly, although poverty is more disguised, countless British children still go to bed hungry and are ruthlessly denied opportunities..

What has not changed is that poverty is the result of a disease that is still virulent yet rarely spoken about – class.

Study after study shows that the people who suffer and die early from the diseases of poverty brought on by a poor diet, sub-standard housing and the priorities of the political elite and its hostile “welfare” officials — are working people. In 2020, one in three preschool British children suffers like this.

In making my recent film, The Dirty War on the NHS, it was clear to me that the savage cutbacks to the NHS and its privatisation by the Blair, Cameron, May and Johnson governments had devastated the vulnerable, including many NHS workers and their families. I interviewed one low-paid NHS worker who could not afford her rent and was forced, to sleep in churches or on the streets.

At a food bank in central London, I watched young mothers looking nervously around as they hurried away with old Tesco bags of food and washing powder and tampons they could no longer afford, their young children holding on to them. It is no exaggeration that at times I felt I was walking in the footprints of Dickens. 

Boris Johnson has claimed that 400,000 fewer children are living in poverty since 2010 when the Conservatives came to power. This is a lie, as the Children’s Commissioner has confirmed. In fact, more than 600,000 children have fallen into poverty since 2012; the total is expected to exceed 5 million. This, few dare say, is a class war on children.

Old Etonian Johnson is may be a caricature of the born-to-rule class; but his “elite” is not the only one. All the parties in Parliament, notably if not especially Labour – like much of the bureaucracy and most of the media — have scant if any connection to the “streets”: to the world of the poor: of the “gig economy”: of battling a system of Universal Credit that can leave you without a penny and in despair.

Last week, the prime minister and his “elite” showed where their priorities lay. In the face of the greatest health crisis in living memory when Britain has the highest Covid-19 death toll in Europe and poverty is accelerating as the result of a punitive “austerity” policy, he announced £16.5 billion for “defence”. This makes Britain, whose military bases cover the world, the highest military spender in Europe.

And the enemy? The real one is poverty and those who impose it and perpetuate it.  

John Pilger’s 1975 film, Smashing Kids, can be viewed at
John Pilger is an Australian-British journalist and filmmaker based in London. Pilger’s Web site is: In 2017, the British Library announced a John Pilger Archive of all his written and filmed work. The British Film Institute includes his 1979 film, “Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia,” among the 10 most important documentaries of the 20thcentury. Some of his previous contributions to Consortium News can be found here.  

12 comments for “John Pilger: Britain’s Class War on Children

  1. Randolph L Garrison
    November 27, 2020 at 20:08

    this must be where trump got the ideas to do the same to Americans.

  2. DH Fabian
    November 27, 2020 at 18:44

    Here in the US, we’re 25 years into the Democrats’ war on the poor. Americans have been OK with this.

  3. Paddy Crean
    November 27, 2020 at 07:19

    Read Britannia Unchained by the Tories and The Sovereign Individual by Rees Mogg senior and you will see what is under way in Britain. 30 years ago the then Bishop of Liverpool (David Sheppard) said on TV that the Tories think there are two million poor that are surplus to requirement for the running of the country in the interest of the rich. Starving the children is a better way of getting rid of them than death camps which might upset the more squeamish of the Tories. When will we cast off our chains?

  4. Anthony O'Connor
    November 27, 2020 at 04:22

    Whilst John Pilger continues his excellent work the rest of the British media callously turns a blind eye to the real state of the UK. Johnson is indeed allowed to get away with poverty denial along with a host of other lies precisely because he his never held to account. None of the media barons actually live in the UK and two of them aren’t even British. Pilger’s comments about none of the political parties having any connection with the working poor of this country are spot on and it remains the unseen, unheard and unspoken of crime at the heart of government.

  5. David Otness
    November 26, 2020 at 18:23

    The pot must boil over sooner or later. The same U.S. companies attacking and having subjugated their own citizens via their politicians have been busy spreading their world of neoliberal woe to all nations of the planet, but especially targeting those of similar ilk to Britain’s NHS. There is more than one pandemic scourging civilization right now.

    What has been done to the Brits since Covid-19 struck is nothing less than grotesque. It’s as if these profiteers are in some kind of gleeful thrall, rushing toward what can only be described as a hoped-for orgasmic conclusion of domination and ultimate extraction—the last drop of blood and thence on to monetise the collapsed and no longer useful veins and arteries.

    If ever there were a call for at a minimum, a national strike. And this goes for every capitalist nation subject to U.S. medical-insurance industries’ blandishments and bludgeoning. At a minimum.

    • November 27, 2020 at 06:44

      Given the surge in support for the Tories in December, I’ll not be holding my breath for a general strike by millions of revolutionary workers. British people seem to prefer to ask politely for the wealthy to give a bit back.

    • DH Fabian
      November 27, 2020 at 18:45

      It has been a US/UK joint endeavor ever since the Reagan/Thatcher years. Slowly implementing fascism in the Western world.

  6. November 26, 2020 at 17:38

    Hard to believe that with all our modern inventions, the scourge of poverty still tortures families around the globe. IMO the remedy has
    actually already been given to the world in the 1879 publication of “Progress and Poverty” by self-taught American economist Henry George. It became a world-wide best-seller, translated into most languages, and endorsed by John Locke, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Leo Tolstoy, Sun Yat-Sen and many other thinkers. Its major opponents are those who like to keep their land off the market while it appreciates in value, thus creating too-high land prices that prevent entrepreneurs from going into business, and also causing the widespread unemployment and poverty that we see today. George called his remedy the Single Tax on Land Values, and P&P still makes very worthwhile reading for those looking for a workable but non-socialist solution to the poverty that still afflicts our suffering world. (It’s in virtually every library.) c.o.

    • November 27, 2020 at 06:42

      Anything but socialism, it seems, Ms Orloff. Whilst a Land Value Tax (which I assume is what you’re promoting) is a fine thing, and has been part of the Greens’ manifestos for decades, poverty will continue so long as capitalism does. It’s not a lack of entrepreneurs that is keeping wages stagnant in Britain.

  7. Jo Wilkie
    November 26, 2020 at 16:24

    Not sure any of this is unique to the UK. I know it happens in Spain and people are falling below the poverty line in many places including the US.

    • Anne
      November 27, 2020 at 07:52

      John Pilger’s point is that from 1945 (first Labour govt which created the NHS, brought electricity, gas, water, railways, under public ownership, increased council housing – called social housing in the US) until the Thatcherites (as I point out below the social welfare, public ownership and destruction of the NHS all really began with Thatcher the Snatcher and her crew) made income inequality public policy (again). Known in polite circles “Austerity.” BUT never austerity for the corporate-capitalist-imperialistic plutocrats and bourgeoisie (moyenne – haute).

      No the full burden of austerity has to be (as ever was before 1945) borne by the working classes…and Thatcher set about that deliberately, too: Miners’ strike of 1985 which destroyed coal mining in the UK (her cabinet organized the replacement of home mined coal for cheaper Polish coal). (And yes I am aware of the problem with coal use.) Those jobs were never replaced with anything, certainly nothing that would bring in a decent income. She also aided and abetted Murdoch’s destruction of the Printers’ union….

      Meanwhile the wealthy and nicely off bourgeoisie saw (and still see) their taxes diminish…

  8. Anne
    November 26, 2020 at 09:53

    Thank you John for this piece and the film…I would only add Thatcher and Keith Joseph to your list of deliberate ravagers of the NHS (as they were also of all publicly owned utilities and housing). Indeed it was Thatcher’s intention to destroy the NHS – but because many of the working and middle class Tory voters supported, liked the NHS the destruction had to be via undermining it. The weapon chosen was financial: installing a large and previously non-existent bureaucracy which sucked up much of the funding together with the demand that hospitals needed to demonstrate that they did not make “losses.” The very notion of loss (let alone profit) had been inconceivable on the inception and establishment of the NHS – until Thatcher and her crew began their work.

    There had not been any food banks in postwar UK – at least not till Thatcher’s reign really took hold. Yes, there was some poverty, but by no means to the extent that has resumed the depths not seen since the 1930s…

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