‘“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three Spirits, without their visits you cannot hope to shun the path I tread…”’
‘“I am the Ghost of Christmas Past,” said the Apparition. “Come with me,” and Scrooge followed.’ The scene was as familiar to Ebenezer Scrooge as to any Spectator reader. Returning to the past, the now-reformed former miser saw himself as Charles Dickens had described him in the last chapter of his famous short story…
‘“I don’t know what to do!” cried Scrooge, laughing and crying in the same breath; and making a perfect Laocoon of himself with his stockings. “I am as light as a feather, I am as happy as an angel, I am as merry as a schoolboy. I am as giddy as a drunken man. A merry Christmas to everybody! A happy New Year to all the world! Hallo here! Whoop! Hallo!”’
Scrooge saw himself purchase the famous turkey for Bob Cratchit and his family, and for tiny, crippled Tim…
‘“It was a Turkey! He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped them short off in a minute, like sticks of sealing-wax. “Why, it’s impossible to carry that to Camden Town,” said Scrooge. “You must have a cab.”’
‘The chuckle with which he said this, and the chuckle with which he paid for the Turkey, and the chuckle with which he paid for the cab, and the chuckle with which he recompensed the boy, were only to be exceeded by the chuckle with which he sat down breathless in his chair again, and chuckled till he cried.’
And he saw himself at Cratchit’s house a little later… ‘“A merrier Christmas, Bob, my good fellow, than I have given you for many a year. I’ll raise your salary, and endeavour to assist your struggling family, and we will discuss your affairs this very afternoon, over a Christmas bowl of smoking bishop, Bob. Make up the fires, and buy another coal-scuttle before you dot another i, Bob Cratchit!”’
Scrooge smiled, embarrassed at his indulgence. And with that, the Ghost of Christmas Past departed — to be replaced by another Apparition: the Ghost of Christmas Present. ‘Come with me,’ said the -Apparition…
The Cratchit family had now been rehoused by the local council. Gone was their shabby four-room dwelling, to be replaced by a smart semi. ‘Enter,’ said the Ghost — even as Tiny Tim, now a young man, arrived on his mobility scooter, complaining as he walked in that he had just been summoned to an interview on his possible fitness for clerical work — on pain of losing his Disability Living Allowance.
The Cratchits were seated around the Christmas table, on the wall behind them a large flat-screen TV advertising a new range of gas-fired central heating installations. ‘If Scrooge paid you better,’ grumbled Mrs Cratchit — her old, infectious good cheer somewhat diminished — ‘we could get rid of this fucking fireplace. Carrying in the coal-scuttle is doing my back in.’
‘Careful, Mum,’ said her daughter, ‘or the GP might stop signing you off sick from work. You’ve had most of this year off with back pain.’
‘You should talk, Belinda; it’s not as if Camden council have had much work out of you these last three years, what with two spells of maternity leave after that idle boyfriend of yours got you up the duff…’
‘Come, come, dear wife,’ interposed Bob Cratchit, wincing a little at a stab of pain from his second new hip, ‘Scrooge did double my wages; and I’m already taking him to court for compensation for the work-related RSI this clerking business is causing my wrist; and remember we do already get extra money from the Working Families Tax Credit; and we have been approved by the Housing Association for a Department of Energy grant for double-glazing…’
Scrooge turned aside, dejected. Had it come to this? The Ghost of Christmas Present followed him from the house. They walked away, the extravaganza of coloured LED festive lights winking its Father Christmas design from the walls of the Cratchits’ semi behind them. ‘Must I?’ whispered Scrooge: ‘Must I follow the next Apparition into what lies ahead?’ But already the Ghost of Christmas Future was by his side, taking his hand in a clammy grip.
And what a scene is this where Scrooge is led! A Whitehall corridor in a vast edifice in Great George Street: a corridor generous in its proportions as befits its history, yet strangely drab, its windows draped in heavy, grimy blast-proof curtains. ‘Come!’ said the Apparition. He ushered Scrooge through a great oaken door into a cavernous office. Head in hands, seated, bowed over a wide mahogany desk and a scattering of papers marked Autumn Statement: Draft 17, sat a much younger man of little more than 40, his always-pale complexion paler still, his dark locks dishevelled, his glance distraught.
‘There’s no money!’ he cried, though to no one in particular, and not the greying civil servant, plainly a man of very senior rank, standing by the desk.
‘There’s no growth!’ he groaned, ‘the economy’s crippled. Crippled by taxation, crippled by regulation, crippled by debt…’ He looked up with a sudden, angry resolve. ‘We must cut. Cut spending. Cut benefits. Cut everything!’
‘But Chancellor,’ interjected the senior official, ‘what can we cut? Where? You know what the Opposition will say. We have a responsibility to the poor, the elderly, the sick, the disabled, the unemployed…’
‘Bah! Humbug!’ shouted the young man.
‘But Chancellor,’ the official persisted, ‘what do you say when asked where these un-fortunates are to turn? What is your reply?’
‘Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?’
Even the Apparition smiled. And Scrooge smiled too: smiled not without nostalgia and not entirely with regret at this echo of his old self. Then, with the Chancellor’s new year resolutions echoing down the corridor behind them, he followed the Ghost from the room.
God bless us, every one.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 15 December 2012