‘Less Eligibility’ and Maggie Thatcher’s ‘Victorian Values’

Very many bloggers have commented on the roots of the current Tory policy of denying the poor, the sick and the disabled proper welfare benefits ultimately stem from the Victorian principle of ‘less eligibility’. This was the doctrine behind the ‘new bastilles’ of the workhouses erected under the Liberal ‘New Poor Law’. It was the idea that while some support should be provided, it should be made so humiliating, uncomfortable and harsh that no-one would willingly take it unless they absolutely had to. Bloggers like the Angry Yorkshireman, Johnny Void and Mike over at Vox Political have shown, again and yet again, how this doctrine is behind the benefit cuts, the degrading and humiliating treatment handed out to benefit claimants, and the determination of Atos and now Maximus to find the flimsiest pretext to throw a claimant off benefit, no matter how ill they are.

New Labour introduced the ‘welfare to work’ tests, devised by John LoCascio and the fraudsters of Unum. But the ultimate origin of the doctrine as a whole, as it was introduced into the modern welfare system, should lie fairly and squarely with Maggie Thatcher. Thatcher was infamous for her espousal of ‘Victorian values’, which many commenters and critics rightly saw as her rationale for turning the clock back to the very worst aspects of the Victorian era. And Thatcher, in her 1993 book, The Downing Street Years, talks about how she got her ideas about forcing people off welfare, from those same Victorian values. She wrote

I was an individualist in the sense that I believed that individuals are ultimately accountable for their actions and must behave like it. But I always refused to accept that there was some kind of conflict between this kind of individualism and social responsibility. I was reinforced in this view by the writings of conservative thinkers in the United States on the growth of an ‘underclass’ and the development of a dependency culture. If irresponsible behaviour does not involve penalty of some kind, irresponsibility will for a large number of people become the norm. More important still, the attitudes will be passed onto the children, setting them off in the wrong direction.

I had a great regard for the Victorians for many reasons … I never felt uneasy about praising ‘Victorian values’ or – the phrase I originally used ‘Victorian virtues’ … They distinguished between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving poor’. Both groups should be given help; but it must be help of very different kinds if public spending is not just going to reinforce the dependency culture. The problem with our welfare state was that … we had failed to remember that distinction and so we provided the same ‘help’ to those who had genuinely fallen into difficulties and needed some support till they could get out of them, as to those who had simply lost the will or habit of work and self-improvement. The purpose of help must not be to allow people to live a half-life, but to restore their self-discipline and through that their self-esteem. (My emphasis)

From Margaret Jones and Rodney Lowe, From Beveridge to Blair: The First Fifty Years of the Britain’s Welfare State 1948-98 (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2002) 54.

There you have it, in her own words. She doesn’t say ‘less eligibility’, but it’s clearly there, nonetheless. And so all the 590 people who have died of starvation, neglect or by their own hand in the depths of despair, and the 290,000 or so who’ve suffered severe mental illness because they too have been thrown off benefit, have ultimately been killed because of her and her precious Victorian values.

When she met Blair, she pleaded ‘Do not undo my work.’ Well, yes, please! All of her ideas have been shown to be rubbish, from the free market, to the removal of mortgage limits, the sale of council houses, all of it. Maggie and her specious intellectual legacy should long ago have been consigned to the political dustbin.

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