Ron debates the definition of a hero and challenges the award of Housing benefits


A hero, or heroine, to me is someone that performs a very brave act at serious risk to themselves for the benefit of others. A soldier who goes back under fire to rescue a wounded colleague, a paramedic that crawls into a collapsed building to attend to a victim, a fireman rescuing someone from a burning building, a passer-by intervening when another is being assaulted, a woman parachuted into enemy occupied territory to assist in defeating the enemy – these are all heroes to me.

What sparked my thoughts as to what is a hero was watching one of those fascinating TV programmes that depict scenes from the past accompanied by appropriate commentary. As time moves on since the invention of moving pictures we are privileged to be able to see history brought to life. During this programme there was a brief section dealing with Scott’s Antarctic expeditions and it was clear that he and his four colleagues that reached the South Pole were seen as national heroes.

I was left pondering on whether or not I would regard Scott as a hero. Brave he most certainly was, but what were his motives in undertaking these very dangerous missions? Did he prepare competently? Did he expose himself and his friends to unnecessary risks?

He undertook two expeditions, the first in 1901-1904 was successful in as much as it did provide some scientific and meteorological data. His second expedition 1910-1913 was also intended to obtain scientific data but without doubt his principal objective was to be the first person to reach the South Pole. Presumably it was largely his vanity that drove him, he had no financial support from the government. Of course it was at a time when the British public were very patriotic and proud and they were keen to see an Englishman the first to reach the pole. This was especially so because it was known that Amundsen, a Norwegian, was also intending to attempt to get there.

Scott demonstrated serious incompetence in the manner in which he organized his expedition, he could have sort advice from those more experienced in travelling in snow covered terrain. He could have used dog teams, as did Amundsen, but against advice he decided to use horses, although he recognized that they would not be of use for the entire journey and planned to eat them at some stage. Horses required too much feed and were too heavy for their relatively small hoofs so that they would easily break through snow crust or sink deeply into soft snow. Neither was Scott accomplished on skis. He did have some dogs with him but not enough and he was not experienced with handling dog teams. He fully intended that most of the journey should be accomplished with sledges pulled by the men, this he considered “more noble”. As we know, along with Dr Wilson, Evans, Oates and Bowers, he did reach the pole but, unfortunately Amundsen had been there before him. All five of them perished on the way back. Amundsen chose a starting point 60miles nearer to the pole and used dogs throughout, he appears to have had a fairly uneventful expedition. Nevertheless Scott was a national hero. He is not my kind of hero, rather he might be regarded as a fool.

In my opinion there are many like Scott, brave individuals who succeed in feats where they overcome obstacles of all sorts and most people do regard them as heroes and there is no doubt that they satisfy my dictionary’s definition of ‘hero’, but they are not my kind of hero. Sailing round the world single handed, climbing mountains, including Everest, circumnavigating the world in a light aircraft. All brave deeds but all likely to involve others risking their lives if things go wrong and all of dubious value to anyone other than the participant. Foolhardy rather than heroic?

Housing Benefit

It cannot be right that the public purse is paying as much as £30,000p.a. to some households in housing benefit – it is crazy!

How has it happened?

Because of the lack of council housing, councils have been forced to support tenants in private housing. Landlords have tended to employ six month contracts and each time the tenancy expired they would raise the rent in line with house prices and the tenants would apply for an increase in housing benefit, this public money went straight into the pockets of the landlords. A whole raft of people got rich, partly due to the increase in value of their property and partly from the fat rents – all part of the joy of a free market economy. But an increasing number of others in the community found themselves forced into depending on their local council.

It all started, of course, with Maggie Thatcher’s decision to sell off council houses – great for those that bought, of course – but a disaster for the poor and a bonanza for the landlords. The situation was compounded by the failure to allow councils to build and the failure of the private sector to build affordable houses or to increase the total housing stock. All this was combined with the reckless lending of the unfettered banks that made it possible for people to borrow the money to buy houses with mortgages up to 125%. The result was that the price of property soared excluding many people, especially the young first time buyers, from the market. This led to a demand for rented housing and the price of the rents has soared. Now it is almost impossible for anyone in an average job to find half decent accommodation that is affordable, whether to buy or rent, and the local authorities are compelled to pay outrageous housing benefit in order to avoid an explosion of homelessness.

So that is how it happened but what can be done?

I don’t know. (In the first instance I agree with the government, it is unreasonable to expect public money to support unemployed families who choose to live in the most expensive areas of our major cities.) What I do know, however, is that back in the late 1940s and early 1950s the nation faced even worse economic and housing situations than we do now. The solution was not to sack public sector workers and create high unemployment, on the contrary they embarked on a massive programme of building public sector housing and at the same time they taxed the high earners and unearned income heavily [up to 19s6d in the pound (97.5%) for very high unearned income, if I remember rightly]. As far as I recall it was a policy that worked and the nation prospered.

Ron Watts

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