Discworld’s Famous ‘Boots Theory’ Is Putting a Spotlight on Poverty in the UK

Discworld’s Famous ‘Boots Theory’ Is Putting a Spotlight on Poverty in the UK
It's not every day Discworld gets to be part of a national conversation about economic justice. (Image: Josh Kirby/Gollancz)

Terry Pratchett’s work in Discworld may have flung us into a magical world of animated luggage and daring sorcery, but its insightful, often furious view of class dynamics and social injustice is what made it such a powerfully enduring series. Now it’s lending some of that fury to highlight a new campaign against poverty in the UK.

This week the Pratchett estate and Pratchett’s daughter, author Rhianna Pratchett, backed a new campaign by food writer and anti-poverty campaigner Jack Monroe. As the Guardian reports, the Pratchett family’s connection is in the name of Monroe’s new price index, the Vimes Boot Index, intended to provide a third-party alternative to the consumer price index provided by the UK Government’s Office for National Statistics, charting the effect of inflation on consumer goods and services, and highlighting the profound impact inflation has had on low-income families and supermarket value ranges of food and other basic goods.

“It was reported last week that the CPI measure for inflation rose to 5.4% in December, the highest level for nearly 30 years,” Monroe wrote in the Guardian earlier this week, announcing her new campaign. “The CPI and the retail price index (RPI) are used interchangeably to document the rising price levels of groceries and household goods across the UK. Yet they only tell a fragment of the story of inflation, and grossly underestimate the true cost-of-living crisis.” The campaign has already garnered a response from the Office for National Statistics, but it’s gained further prominence thanks to Monroe’s unorthodox name choice for the index.

Inspired by a passage from Pratchett’s 1993 novel Men at Arms, the second in the Discworld series to follow the magical city of Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch from the perspective of its commander, Captain Sam Vimes, the Vimes Boot Index is named for what Pratchett described as the “Vimes ‘Boots’ theory of socioeconomic unfairness.”

“The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money,” the passage from Men at Arms reads in part, and tweeted out in full by Terry Pratchett’s former Twitter account yesterday to support the Boots index. “Take boots, for example. He earned thirty-eight dollars a month plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots cost fifty dollars. But an affordable pair of boots, which were sort of OK for a season or two and then leaked like hell when the cardboard gave out, cost about ten dollars. Those were the kind of boots Vimes always bought, and wore until the soles were so thin that he could tell where he was in Ankh-Morpork on a foggy night by the feel of the cobbles. But the thing was that good boots lasted for years and years. A man who could afford fifty dollars had a pair of boots that’d still be keeping his feet dry in ten years’ time, while the poor man who could only afford cheap boots would have spent a hundred dollars on boots in the same time and would still have wet feet.”

Monroe drew parallels to the famous passage’s explanation to how low-income families in the UK have seen supermarkets either noticeably increase prices on “budget” lines of basic food and goods (an example Monroe used cited an over 300% increase on a bag of rice at one store in the last year, while cutting the amount of rice in the bag in half) as the country faces the continuing economic effects of Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, and general supply chain issues. With these lines, aimed at low-income households, either pricing up or being replaced with more expensive store-brand ranges, struggling families are being forced to turn to charities and food banks to sustain themselves, reckoning with over a decade of cuts to social support programs by Britain’s series of Conservative governments, including Boris Johnson’s current cabinet, itself rather busy right now trying to hide a long string of embarrassing, potentially illegal social gatherings by the Prime Minister during COVID-19 lockdowns.

“Vimes’s musing on how expensive it is to be poor via the cost of boots was a razor-sharp evaluation of socio-economic unfairness. And one that’s all too pertinent today, where our most vulnerable so often bear the brunt of austerity measures and are cast adrift from protection and empathy,” Rhianna Pratchett said in a statement provided to the Guardian. “Whilst we don’t have Vimes any more, we do have Jack and Dad would be proud to see his work used in such a way.”