A frequent accusation thrown at Iain Duncan Smith is that he has a ‘Victorian attitude towards the poor’.
One of the problems with throwing the epithet ‘Victorian’ around, is that like the terms ‘God’ or ‘reasonable’ it tends to reflect the beliefs of the person using it, rather than any objective set of social phenomena. In fact, the Victorian attitude to poverty underwent a profound shift, ending as one I would characterise as significantly more progressive than that of our current government.
The initial Victorian responses to the new phenomenon of mass-scale urban poverty were simply cruel. The New Poor Laws, the early workhouses with their stated intention of making life there so hellish that people would do anything to avoid seeking help…I could go on, but you get the drift.
But as Victoria’s reign progressed, these cruelties by commission and ommission were exposed. And increasingly rejected: for example, by the late 1840’s although workhouses still existed, they were at least subject to regulation and inspection which ameliorated conditions.
Running alongside were the improvements in working conditions (Factories Acts), the extension of the Franchise (for men; as usual women had to wait), the Education Acts, the great reforming surveys into the conditions of the poor by, for example, Charles Booth, and later Seerbohm Rowntree, and ongoing improvements in medical care.
In short, whilst things were still desperately grim, there was at least a desire to try to improve the lives of the poor: for their sake, as well as for the good of all.
Here comes the caveat: yes, I know this desire to ‘improve’ was patronising. Yes, I know poverty was still an unspeakably awful existence and that massive social injustices still existed. The point I am trying to make, however, is about the direction of travel: from bad to better, if not perfect.
So. Let me now turn my basilisk stare to the current….*sighs* administration.
A significant feature they do have in common with successive Victorian governments, is the utter absence of a modern democratic mandate. I remain stunned by the insouciance with which the country’s ‘Meh’ has been transmuted into an effective landslide, simply by the swaggering entitlement of the Cabinet and ‘The Quad’ (Cameron, Osborne, Clegg and Alexander) in particular. In 1997 Labour stuck to Tory spending plans for two years; this lot had an ‘Emergency Budget’ within eight weeks.
Much is made, principally by him, of IDS’ time in Easterhouse, and his apparent Damascene conversion there; it is interesting to note Bob Holman has since characterised IDS policies in office as a volte-face (http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/jun/19/thanks-iain-duncan-smith-poor-must-cry), motivated by purely political considerations.
When the Churches, and charitable organisations (many of whom were newly founded in the nineteenth century) exposed the reality of lives lived in poverty, they would at least be heard. Nowadays the CoE is likely to be denounced as being ‘socialists at prayer’, and charities as ‘vested interests’ (unlike, I presume, the Institute of Directors). Any criticism of current and proposed cuts affecting both the working and non-working poor is not given any sort of hearing, but dismissed with a sneer.
‘Self-help’. ‘Freeing’ people from the welfare state. Fine words provide neither butter nor parsnips. The brutal truth of current welfare policy is to not encourage people to work for their own benefit, but for that of corporate interests (which oddly align rather closely with those of the government’s millionaires and their chums) . Forcibly, and without pay if necessary. Quite a contrast from the Victorian move from forced work in the workhouse to a more humane system of poor relief.
All this against a wilful manipulation of the truth of lives lived in poverty, the egregiously mendacious deployment of outlier cases as though they were the norm, the rejection of objective data, the removal of the means of redress, the lying and smearing of opponents, undertaken by what were once the great offices of State who in the Victorian period and at their considerable best, acted with a constant awareness of the awesome responsibility their position conferred.
The Victorians were not perfect, far from it, but they would have looked first in horror, then in rage at what this bunch of spivs are doing in the name of those old Victorian values of self-reliance and self-help, to their party, their people and their country. IDS, a Victorian? Not even close.