G.M. Trevelyan and the Promotion of Victorian ‘Workhouse’ Values in the 20th Century

I’ve put up a few pieces in the past few days tracing Thatcher’s ‘Victorian values’ and the modern Tories’ emphasis on conditionality in welfare support – or what’s left of it – to the doctrine of less eligibility that insisted that welfare relief should be made as hard and uncomfortable as possible in order to dissuade the able-bodied poor from going on it. The recommendation of the Tory think-tank, Reform, that the disabled should be paid the same amount of relief as those without disabilities very strongly echoes the classic statement of the principles of ‘less eligibility’ as articulated by a Victorian Poor Law Commissioner.

G.C. Peden in his book, British Economic and Social Policy: Lloyd George to Margaret Thatcher (Deddington: Philip Allan Publishers Ltd 1985) describes how laissez-faire individualism was central to Victorian economic attitudes. He notes that it became a philosophy that permeated politics and social studies, and discusses the rise of the doctrine of ‘less eligibility’ and the 1834 Poor Law establishing the workhouses. He also mentions the work of the historian, G.M. Trevelyan, in continuing to promote the workhouse and the ideology behind it into the Twentieth century, writing

One man acting as a bridge between the centuries was G.M. Trevelyan, who was born in 1876 and who was Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge from 1927 to 1940. His British History in the Nineteenth Century and After first appeared in 1922 and was still being printed as a paperback in the 1960s. In it, Trevelyan gave a classic defence of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. Before that date magistrates in England and Wales had had the power to supplement inadequate wages out of local rates – a form of relief which Trevelyan describes as destructive of self-respect and self-help, virtues which could be restored to what he called the ‘cringing poor’ only by the ‘intellectually honest’ if ‘harsh’ reform of 1834. (Trevelyan 1965, pp. 248-9). (p. 4). (My emphasis).

Trevelyan was one of the leading historians of that period, and my guess is that many schoolchildren and students studying history in the early and middle twentieth century were brought up on at least some of his works. My mother, for example, has a copy of one of them, though she certainly doesn’t share his attitudes. My guess is that Trevelyan’s works form the intellectual background to Thatcher’s ‘Victorian values’ and their re-emergence in the Tory party. Of course, she was greatly taken with von Hayek, slapping to down in front of her cabinet colleagues to say ‘This is what we all believe now’, but I think Trevelyan’s influence was already strong, at least in preparing the intellectual ground for von Hayek, Friedman and the like. And it’s disgusting that what should have gone the way of the 19th century is still blighting life in the early 21st.

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