Potter vs Bailey: The Moral Choice Facing Britain Today
I am always touched by James Stewart’s brilliant portrayal of George Bailey particularly the ‘Just a Minute’ monologue. George Bailey the hero of that great Christmas morality tale, could have been speaking directly to 21st-century Britain in his impassioned speech to the villainous Mr Potter.
The resonance of Bailey’s words echoes beyond the film’s era, offering a compelling reflection on the contemporary challenges faced by our own society.
The greed and love of money Potter represents have increasingly taken root in our unequal land. As the super-rich get ever richer, the most vulnerable are tossed aside like cattle. Homelessness rises while bank interest rates rise and property tycoons flourish. Children go hungry as bonuses balloon in the City.
Politicians are the willing helpers in this slow strangling of Britain’s soul. They enable big businesses to erode communities, families and stability in the name of efficiency and profit. Working people see jobs shifted overseas, towns hollowed out, parents stressed to breaking point making ends meet.
While the real-life Potter’s sneers at the idea of providing “decent rooms and a bath” for the hard-working poor, the reality is that even this modest aspiration is now out of reach for too many.
Over 140,000 children across England will endure a homeless Christmas this year – crammed into temporary accommodation or B&Bs, if they are lucky. If not, they face the grim threat of sleeping rough in the cold.
Behind each of these agonising statistics is a vulnerable family, their lives uprooted and dignity stripped. Surging rents, stagnant benefits and threadbare social housing provision has created a crisis where parents must choose between food for the week and keeping a roof over their children’s heads.
Over £1.7 billion was spent last year to house the homeless, including £565 million on inadequate emergency accommodation. The increase comes as no surprise, with private rents exploding while housing benefits stay frozen. And no this is not including the money spent on accommodation for people waiting for asylum claims or refugees.
Successive governments have failed families in need. Right to Buy depleted the stock of social housing, while restrictions and sell-offs curtailed councils’ ability to replace it. Developers focus ruthlessly on upscale properties over affordable homes.
It begs the question of good business in asking: Why this money has not gone into building social housing, the fact both Labour and the Tories prefer to build what they deem affordable housing shows the path they intend to take us on. It’s not affordable it’s profit for bankers and debt slavery for the rest. They are selling mortgages not providing solutions.
The result is Diabetic patients forced from their homes and local support networks. Victims of domestic abuse rendered homeless. Children dragged from school to school, their education suffering amid constant instability. Is this the mark of a civilised society?
A George Bailey’s Christmas Wish: A Britain that Cares for its Least Fortunate
Bailey’s character draws a tear to our eyes as he fought to give working people dignity. But today’s leaders are in thrall to the property barons and buy-to-let landlords keeping families on the breadline. Only a programme of mass social housebuilding can offer hope, yet neither party shows the necessary vision.
As homelessness wrecks more childhoods this Christmas, we should demand better. Decent, secure and affordable homes should be a right for all who work honestly for a living. Until leaders remember this principle, the Potter-isation of Britain will grind on.
The social contract lies in tatters, the common good forgotten. As Potter crows – where now are the George Baileys who built homes for the lowly, instead of mansions for the mighty? Where is the concern for people over balance sheets? Compassion over shareholder value?
Yet Potter types and their sneering capitalism do not own Britain’s soul irrevocably. The George Bailey spirit – one that values human dignity over the pursuit of wealth – can be revived. But only if enough of us demand it.
Politicians can be forced to remember who they serve – not big donors, not vested interests, but the hard-working citizens who built this country, generation by generation. By organising and making noise, we can make them listen.
The Britain we inherit from our ancestors was not designed to enrich the Potters of the world alone. There is still time to create a society that honours George Bailey’s belief – that ordinary people have a right to decent, secure and dignified lives.
But only if we come together to demand it. The politicians won’t act without pressure. Too many are like Potter, worshipping money and power. Unlike Bailey’s of the working class, they have forgotten that society should ultimately be judged on how it treats its least fortunate.
The Potterfication of Britain is not inevitable, however much the profiteers wish it so. There is still time to demand the housing and dignity George Bailey fought for. But only by rekindling the spirit of reform that seized Britain before, in those lean yet visionary years after the Second World War.
Clement Attlee’s Labour government built over one million high-quality council homes between 1945-51, at a time when national coffers stood empty. Building materials were scarce, construction workforces depleted. Yet where there was political will, there was a way.
Attlee spearheaded the greatest programme of housebuilding ever seen here. Even as his government founded the NHS and nationalised failing industries, over 200,000 social homes rose annually from the ashes of war.
This was true leadership, transcending circumstance to transform lives. Attlee’s ministry ensured that even the poorest citizens might enjoy security and comfort. A tenement slum dweller could aspire to a good-quality, affordable council house with indoor plumbing – a revelation after decades making do in cramped and squalid conditions.
It is this ambition and sense of social duty that Britain now cries out for. There are no excuses – if Attlee could build decent housing amidst post-war austerity, today’s leaders have no alibis. Resources abound, the need is glaring. Only the requisite compassion is lacking.
A round of social housebuilding to eclipse Attlee’s achievements would banish the scandal of homeless children at a stroke. It would loosen the profiteering landlord’s grip on wages and livelihoods. And it would stand as a resounding statement that Britain still nurtures George Bailey’s belief in the innate dignity of all people.
The money and materials are there for the taking. But we will watch Pottersville swallow our towns wholly unless leaders rediscover the public service ethos that once sought to banish squalor. Only by demanding better can we bring it about. Workers built this land – it is time we reclaimed it.
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) – James Stewart – George Bailey’s Speech to Potter & the Loan Board…
Potter: …and all because a few starry-eyed dreamers like Peter Bailey stir ’em up and fill their head with a lot of impossible ideas. Now, I say —
Bailey: Just a minute – just a minute. Now, hold on, Mr Potter. Just a minute. Now, you’re right when you say my father was no businessman. I know that. Why he ever started this cheap, penny-ante Building and Loan, I’ll never know. But neither you nor anybody else can say anything against his character, because his whole life was — Why, in the twenty-five years since he and Uncle Billy started this thing, he never once thought of himself. Isn’t that right, Uncle Billy? He didn’t save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me. But he did help a few people get outta your slums, Mr. Potter. And what’s wrong with that? Why — here, you’re all businessmen here. Don’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers?
You, you said that they — What’d you say just a minute ago? They had to wait and save their money before they even thought of a decent home. Wait? Wait for what?! Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken down that — You know how long it takes a workin’ man to save five thousand dollars? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about, they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be.
Potter: I’m not interested in your book. I’m talkin’ about the Building and Loan.
Bailey: I know very well what you’re talking about. You’re talking about something you can’t get your fingers on, and it’s galling you. That’s what you’re talking about, I know. Well…I’ve said too much. I — You’re…the Board here. You do what you want with this thing. There’s just one thing more, though. This town needs this measly one-horse institution if only to have some place where people can come without crawling to Potter. Come on, Uncle Billy!
As we celebrate this season of goodwill, George Bailey’s words should resonate throughout the land. It is never too late to build a Britain that enshrines compassion, dignity and community. But the Potters will not yield their gains lightly. The fight to reclaim the nation’s soul starts with us.
Paul Knaggs, Merry Chrismas.