Posts Tagged ‘Charity Organisation Society’

1914 and the Lack of Popular Enthusiasm for the War

November 1, 2014

The documentaries and commemorative articles screened and published this year about the outbreak of the First World War have repeated the claim that it was greeted with enthusiasm by the mass of the British public. I was sent this paper by Nick Jones a few months ago, and unfortunately have only just now got round to publishing it. It’s an important, eye-opening piece, as Nick argues that the general, jingoistic patriotism claimed by many historians did not actually exist, though there were local patches of support for the War. Reaction to the War seems to have been mixed at many levels of society. The Royal Family weren’t keen on waging war on the Kaiser, who was, after all, the king’s cousin. The ‘little bounder’ Lloyd George, as Nick shows, was ambivalent about the War. The Labour Party was split on the issue, between those who believed support for the War would make the party more electorally respectable, and those, like Keir Hardie, who continued their principle opposition.

Nick’s article shows that some of the support for the War came from the gentry, and from particular commercial or bureaucratic groups, which saw a material advantage in the crisis. These included cinema chains, who used it as an excuse to open on Sundays under the pretext that they were supporting the war effort. Other organisations were equally cynical, but much more malign in their attitudes to the working class. These were the guardians of the workhouses, mental hospitals, borstals and labour colonies, who took the opportunity to reduce their inmates rations on the grounds that cuts needed to be made in anticipation of food shortages caused by the War. Some went even further, and forced their inmates to leave to join the army, thus reducing the economic burden of welfare expenditure for their ratepayers. Nick shows that some employers also used the same tactic to lay off staff by encouraging them to join the armed forces instead.

So, little popular enthusiasm for the War. But it did provide an opportunity for more cynical exploitation of the poor, the ill, the unemployed and the desperate. All in the name of patriotism and serving one’s country. Here’s Nick’s article:

Little Support for the War

There has, until very recently, been a general consensus amongst historians that the nation marched happily to war in 1914. A moment’s reflection might question this.

The classic account is that of Arthur Marwick;
“As the time limit [for the ultimatum] approached a great concourse of people gathered in Trafalgar Square and Whitehall…when the British declaration of war upon Germany was issued at the Foreign Office it was greeted with ’round after round of cheers'(1)

Yet an eye-witness later recalled; “We listened in silence. There was no public proclamation that we were at war. The great crowd rapidly dispersed”(2)

Outside London things were also done quietly;
“The little country town was full of anxious people. on the Tuesday night that war was to be declared, waiting in the half-lighted streets for the news that…never came until the morning…at 8 o’clock, when the post office opened .. or postmaster read to us a telegram, ‘War is declared..’ It seemed quite unreal to us, and after a few moments of talk we settled down to our ordinary lives..” (3)

Subsequent historians have repeated Marwick’s suggestion of general optimism. John Turner remarks “The Liberal government …and the British public, entered the conflict in 1914 expecting a short struggle, brought to an end by the success of British sea-power and the armies of the Entente” and in a recent study David Silbey suggests that “By the time Britain declared war, most of the population had converted to a pro-war position (4)

But Marwick had offered a note of caution ; “The patriots did not have things their own way” (5) In York; “When war was declared [the town] went into a turmoil and nothing caused greater annoyance and upset than the commandeering of horses for the army (6)

Another writer points out a few flaws in the accepted versions. He notes a lack of enthusiasm for war in Wales and that such crowds as there were in London, consisted of “a normal August Bank Holiday crowd” . He was unable to locate any precise numbers.(7)
[Further scholarly research] has suggested the indifference displayed by the population at large, to the ‘gentry’s’ enthusiasm for the war. Bonnie White’s [assessment] of recruiting in Devon suggests that, despite the efforts of the local grandees, appeals to ‘patriotism’ were not reciprocated with ‘local ardour’. Noting that; “As elsewhere in the country, Devonians were apprehensive about leaving their communities for military service”. (8)

The Royal Family, Liberals and the Labour Party

The Royal Family may not have been too keen to enter a conflict against a state headed by one of their closest relatives. Kaiser William had also been a member of their Life Guards. It is not recorded whether he was issued with mobilisation papers after the declaration of hostilities.

In political circles, opinion was divided The ruling Liberal Party was deeply split over the war.

The Cabinet itself was divided almost equally. The day before war was declared four of its members resigned over the issue. Lloyd George was later reported to have believed ‘There appears to be nothing for a Liberal to do but to look on while the hurricane rages”. He did promise not to campaign against the War as he had done against the Boer War (9.)

There was a near fatal split between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the ILP.

Henderson, leader of the former, opted for participation in the war effort on pragmatic grounds, He thought that ‘Labour’ could show its fitness for government by collaboration with the ‘war party’. Ramsay MacDonald resigned the chairmanship of the Party when the Parliamentary section voted for ‘supplies’. Kier Hardie after voicing his dissent, retired to his Merthyr constituency and attempted to build opposition to the war from there.

War Fever in the Gentry and Contractors for the London Mental Asylums

It is true that there was an outburst of ‘popular’ enthusiasm for the conflict in some quarters.

“Next morning…there was much buying up of stores in the town by the gentry.. Prices were going up in the town; sugar had doubled, bread was a half-penny dearer” The London County Council “Asylums and Mental Deficiency Committee faced a spate of letters from “contractors [who] sent in claims for extra payment for goods which have been supplied since war was declared” (10)

The inmates of such institutions were less fortunate. In Bermondsey, by London Docks where it might be expected ‘business’ might be brisk, the Board of Guardians decreed that;

“If the Rations of the Staff or the Dietary of the Inmates can be curtailed in any way without inflicting any hardships … no hesitation whatever should occur in carrying the same into effect”.

These generous souls offered a list of suggestions how economies might be effected; “Preserved Meat, Fish or Beef Extract” could replace “Meat”. Biscuits should be offered instead of the lashings of ‘Bread and Cake’ inmates consumed. “Egg Powder” must replace “Eggs”. Superintendents ought to “Omit altogether Eggs (and) Poultry” except for the Sick, as shortages were anticipated. (11)

Hollesley Bay Labour Colony

The supervisor of the Hollesley Bay Labour Colony, no doubt keen to minimise rate-payers ‘burdens’, reduced the food ration there at the earliest opportunity. ‘owing to the military preparations in East Anglia” As a result the men protested’ and asked for an assurance that no further curtailment would take place. As the superintendant could [or would] not give this undertaking 101 men had left the Colony”

It is not recorded where they went to. A Deputation from the remaining inmates went to” the Central Office where they were interviewed by the vice-chairman of the committee who informed them…no further assistance [would] be given..to any of the men who had left the Colony”(12)

Employers and Redundancy

Employers saw it as a golden opportunity to shed ‘surplus’ (or recalcitrant) parts of their workforce. Balfour, a leading figure in the Conservative party thought it wrong that “employers [were] offering their employees the choice of getting the sack or joining Kitchener’s New Army” (13)

All Local Authorities acknowledged that there would be problems of ‘distress’ due to the war [and prepared measures to deal with mass unemployment.


Jingoism and the Cinemas

Not everyone greeted the outbreak of hostilities with long faces though.

LJ Collins has noted that ‘the theatre was employed as a recruiting and propaganda agent, and raiser of funds for war’ filling places in the auditorium. Although they were closed when war was declared, they still had to pay the bills and fill seats. There was a tradition of jingoism in popular entertainment, theatrical managements had used it to curry respectability with licensing authorities. Charity fundraising galas proved a godsend in filling empty spaces. (14)

One group of entrepreneurs welcomed the outbreak of war with open arms. The bioscopes, or Cinematographs were a relatively new form of entertainment. Like Music Halls, they were licensed by Local Authorities and had to observe strictly regulated opening hours. These prevented them from admitting patrons on a Sunday. One way in which they circumvented such restrictions was to offer ‘benefit performances’ for charities.

On August 18th WF Pettie, proprietor of the Crofton Park Picture Theatre applied to the LCC’s Theatres and Music Halls Committee for permission to open on Sundays in contravention of a previous undertaking not to do so. he offered ‘that the proceeds…be applied wholly or in part to the Prince of Wales’s National Relief Fund.” Permission was refused. (15)

The LCC’s Committee felt obliged to assess the effect of the war on attendances at cinemas. This was deputed to the London Fire Brigade. For the most part, audiences were down. In the East End, whilst a few managers thought sanguinely of affairs. they attributed any loss of business to the warm weather.

The managers of The Britannia, Hoxton ‘stated’ that their ‘house [was] doing better than ever, packed; war not affecting them at all”. Also in Hoxton, the manager of the premises at 55 Pitfield Street stated that his “house [was] doing rather well.”

Yet the majority bemoaned a loss of business. At the Variety Theatre Hoxton ‘Managers stated [that they were] doing fairly well, but [were] affected by large numbers of territorials called up.

At the Adelphi Chapel, Hackney Road the manager thought his
‘Bad business [could be] attributed to [the] number of territorials and reservists called up, who with their women folk were regular patrons”. (16)

Audience figures for individual cinemas are hard to come by. Even when they are, a number of variables need to be taken into consideration. Above all the popularity of the programme offered, the entrance price and competition from other entertainments

The manager of the Essex Road and Packington Street Cinema offered a more informed opinion, He believed;

“The cinematograph business might…suffer somewhat owing to the renters insisting on cash for films instead of allowing a two weeks credit, as formerly (17)

Managers who had regularly opened for business on Sundays before the War, quickly found a new excuse for doing so.

At The Princess Row, Kew cinema the manager Harry Gray claimed on the 30th “I am open by direction of my employers in aid of the Middlesex War Relief Fund..” by the 13th the reply had been modified to “I am open by direction of the owners and on the advice of Counsel. The proceeds are diverted to Charity, the Middlesex War Relief Fund”. (18)

At the Electric Palace, Cricklewood, the police had reported on the 7th June 1914 “The Managers informed me that the proceeds after deducting expenses would be given to London Medical Charities” On 16th August they were; “informed by the manager Mr Hallam that the proceeds after deducting expenses would be given to the War Fund. (19)

Borstal Boys Recruited into Army

On a more mundane level, it is remarkable how many young offenders were pardoned by Home Office Warrants during the latter part of 1914. Richard Van Emden has noted that approximately 150 ‘former borstal boys were known to be serving’ at the end of 1914.

Accurate figures are not easy to gauge. The figure of 150 is given by the Association’s annual Report. In the a minute of March 1915 it was noted that “320 Borstal Boys have been discharged direct into the Army and many others have enlisted on discharge or within a few weeks”

They had an inducement to do so as “The Association was asked by the [Prison] Commissioners to provide a suitable outfit for boys enlisting in the Army from the Institutions… a piece of soap, a towel and a leather belt have been added to the outfit provided” The generous souls overseeing the borstals felt able to be this magnanimous since they no longer had to ‘make any payments on account of fares, board & lodging or extra clothing in these cases’ thus saving over £300. As the war dragged on the Army was the destination for nearly all boys who left the ‘Institution’. By September 1916 it was estimated that “Nearly 50% of the boys who have enlisted are already in action abroad”. (20)

Recruitment and the Workhouses

Poor Law Guardians and Workhouse masters took the opportunity to remove some of their ‘clients’ to the care of recruiting sergeants.

The Clerk to the Sedgefield, Durham, Union, a JW Lodge, circulated a motion passed there on 26th August to other Unions;
“in view of the large number of able-bodied vagrants … who appear to be generally living on the community, the attention of the Local Government Board and War Office be drawn to the matter with a request that legislation be passed for the purpose of utilising.. the services of these able-bodied men for the Country’s good at this time of National stress” (21)

He found some receptive ears.

Cyril Pearce records that ‘Huddersfield’s Poor Law Guardians.. agreed to support a proposal to compel all able-bodied male applicants to enlist. Its supporters claimed that this policy would soon clear out the vagrant wards and ‘be very great relief to the expenses of the country’ (22)

In fact this had been official policy since the declaration of War. A Relief Committee was set up under the chairmanship of Balfour. When the Cabinet had sought a vote for supplies in the House of Commons, it had included measures to alleviate any distress caused by the resultant unemployment. The Local Government Board, under Herbert Samuel, set up a formal Committee for the Prevention and Relief of Distress.

Administered by an Education official Joseph Alfred Pease, it’s aim was to co-ordinate the various methods of Relief, including Charities and Poor Law Boards.

As early as August 7th. recommendations had reached the Charity Organisation Society in London, who passed them on to its members, that “Single able-bodied men and lodging-house cases should be dealt with by the Poor Law”(23) The COS was soon “asked by the Local Government Board Intelligence Department for London..to collect certain information indicating the existence or otherwise of abnormal distress” in the Capital (24)

Within a week of the declaration of war draft guidelines for the dispensation of relief had been distributed by the Local Government Board Committee. These stated; “that men living with their families should have priority over single men, or those living apart….relief should be refused to young single men capable of military service”.(25)

Notes

1. [The Deluge p.31 1967 ed citing Daily News 5 August 1914 Daily Mail ibid] The Guardian pages for the 4th and 5th of August give a far more nuanced impression of the public response and list some of the appeals for peace and/or neutrality
2. [M MacDonagh. London During the Great War, London, 1935. p.10. MacDonagh was the Times correspondent. It is good to know the Mail has maintained its veracity through the years. J.C.C Davidson recalled the occasion differently some years later; “Whitehall was simply packed with a seething mass of people…(after sending the Colonial Office telegrams relaying the declaration of war) “We started back to Downing Street, to find thousands of people milling around shouting and singing and bursting with cheers.. They didn’t know what they were in for, and they had this awful war fever..” quoted in R.R. James; Memoirs of A Conservative, London, 1969 pp.10-11].
3. M. Fordham ‘War and The Village’, The New Statesman, August 15 1914. p.593]

4. J Turner, British Politics and The Great War; Yale 1992. p.4; DJ Silbey The British Working Class and Enthusiasm for War, London 2005, p.20.
5. [Deluge p.30]
6. Peacock, York In The Great War p 294]

7. [A Gregory, British ”War Enthusiasm’ in 1914: a Reassessment’ in G. Braybon (Ed); Evidence History and the Great War, New York & Oxford, 2003 p 71 ]

8. White [citing Cox Be Proud; p.20 Mansfield; in Gliddon, 1988. p18ff]
9. [BL Add Mss. 46386 f.52. ; Cabinet Letter to George V;f,69; Runciman to Spender Nov 4th 1929 f.72. See also Ramsay MacDonald’s memoir; PRO 30/69/1232]
10. [[Fordham op cit p 593] LMA/ LCC Minutes 3 Nov 1914 pp 694-5; Report 27th Oct 1914….See also 13 October 1914, p.537 report of 29th September 1914 Printed Minutes of Proceedings, July-Dec 1914]

11. [LMA BBG 104. Bermondsey Board of Guardians Minutes and Cash Papers; Memorandum B, 8th August 1914.]

12. “[LMA /CUB 71. Minute August 6th f.75. Minute 22nd Sept. f.84.]

13. [Balfour to Lady Wemyss; August 29 1914 cited K Young; Balfour London, 1963. p.350]

14. [ [LJ Collins Theatre At War, Oxford 1998, p.3]. P Summerfield ‘The Effingham Arms and Empire’, in E & S Yeo (Eds) Popular Culture and Class Conflicts, Hassocks, 1981 S Pennybacker; ‘It was not what she said….The London County Council and Music Halls’; in PJ Bailey Music Hall, Milton Keynes, 1986]

15. [Minute 7th October LCC/MIN/ 10,735 Signed Minutes Theatres and Music Halls Sub-Committee Minutes 1914 f.761.]

16. [[LMA ibid 4/458 7th Oct 1914; 10,981 Visit 29th August p.1].
/ LMA ibid 10981 31st August p.3].
17. [LCC; p.2 10, 981 31st August]
18. [MCC/CL/ES/EL/1/16 Middlesex County Council; Engineer and Surveyors Department; Entertainment Licensing; Files concerning prosecutions against licensed premises no folio but dated 21st Sept.]. f.31956]
18. [3 May to 9 August : MCC/CL/ES/EL/1/33; MCC/CL/ES/EL/1/17 Middlesex County Council; Engineer and Surveyors Department; Entertainment Licensing; Files concerning prosecutions against licensed premises]
20. [Emden, Boy Soldiers of The Great War p.127. Emden’s precise quote is ‘Of 336 boys released from borstal institutions in the year ending March 1915 150 were in the forces, while in all some 60 former borstal boys were known to be serving’ quoting , presumably, HO 247/2 Annual Report, p 12. Borstal Association Records. Remarks on Income and Expenditure during the year 1914-1915. p. 2. ibid. Tss Report On Cases. Oct 1916. Some were fortunate enough to be rejected by the Military they appear to have, largely, ‘gone to sea’]
21. [reproduced in LMA/BBG /104. Bermondsey Board of Guardians Reports; Minutes Vol. XXXIV. No.8 p.27 22nd Sept 1914.]
22. [Pearce Comrades In Conscience pp 81-2 citing Huddersfield Daily Examiner 1.9.1914 Worker (Huddersfield) 5.9.1914] .

23.[ Circular No 3 7th August 1914 COS Archive; LMA/A/FWA/C/A3/49/1 between ff. 323-4].

24. [Circular August 14th 1914.ibid.]

25.[COS Minutes Vol 50; LMA/A/FWA/C/A3/50/1 between ff. 3-4 August 20th 1914. “The Local Government Board advised in their circular of August 10th…”]

So the image of cheering crowds, ecstatically greeting the news that war had come, is a myth. The reality was a deep ambivalence about the War amongst nearly all levels of society, and, for many, indifference. It was also cynically used by the nascent cinema to gain greater respectability, while employers, borstals and the managers of the workhouses and labour camps for the unemployed used it as a means to cut down on expenditure, either by reducing rations or encouraging their unwanted staff and inmates to join up.

There are several parallels to the war in Iraq nearly a century later. There was wide opposition to the beginning of the War, with a million people marching against it. The present government has continued its campaign of welfare cuts, including laying off senior military staff, while simultaneously running recruitment campaigns trying to get more people to enlist. And as the Capped Crusader, Michael Moore showed in Fahrenheit 9/11, the burden of the War has fallen on the poor and working class. It is they, who have been targeted by the recruiting sergeants, while the rich and powerful, with the possible exception of the British Royal Family, have been keen to keep their sons and daughters well away from the frontline.

And the mass media, the cinema in the case of the First World War, and the TV news now, have done their best to support and promote the War.

It makes you wonder… After all the rhetoric about the War to End All Wars, what have we learned … what has changed over the past century?

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Explaining the Coalition’s War on the Poor and Disabled

February 4, 2014

Stow Rich Poor

A rich man ignoring a beggar’s cries for charity, from Bateman’s Chrystal Glass of Christian Reformation of 1569

The Coalition is responsible for some of the harshest and punitive legislation directed at the poor, the unemployed and the disabled in recent years. Under the pretext of trying to pay off the immense debt created by the bank bailout, Cameron and Clegg have together passed highly illiberal legislation intended to pare down the welfare state to its barest minimum. The result has seen as massive resurgence in poverty in the UK, with thousands now reduced to relying of food banks or scavenging in skips for food. This has been accompanied by a concerted campaign of vilification and demonization directed at the poor, the unemployed and the disabled. The middle market tabloids, the Daily Mail and Express, are notorious for their attacks on single mothers, unemployed ‘scroungers’ and immigrants, whom they scream – one cannot, in all decency, describe their shrill headlines with anything as mild as ‘allege’ or ‘contend’ are here to claim Britain’s generous welfare payments. The BBC and Channel 4 have both screened documentaries purporting to show the reality behind those claiming job seekers allowance. The most recent of these was ‘Benefits Street’ on Channel 4. These have singled out and portrayed the unemployed as, at best, idle scroungers, and at worst a criminal or semi-criminal underclass living by fraud and theft in an underworld of drug taking and violence.

This viciousness even extends to the disabled. The pseudoscientific assessment practised by ATOS on behalf of the government is designed to declare as many of the disabled to be as fit for work as possible. The result has seen severely and terminally ill people thrown off benefit. Thousands have taken their lives in despair as a result. Stilloaks has compiled a list over that his site, and the Void and Mike over a Vox Political, and many, many other have also blogged on this. As many as 38,000 people may have died as a result of benefit sanctions inflicted by the Department of Work and Pensions and the policies of Ian Duncan ‘Matilda’ Smith and Esther ‘McLie’ McVey. These are just guesses, however, as the DWP will not release the figures for the years after 2011. This indicates that the statistics are truly shaming, even for a department run by those two callous incompetents.

I know a number of disabled people and their families, who believe that society is now much less considerate in its treatment of the disabled personally. One man I know, whose wife is sadly confined to a wheelchair, told me that he and his wife have, at times, experienced rudeness and sometimes abuse from members of the public. He initially put this down to the influence of Little Britain, where one character only feigns his disability and is, when his brother’s back’s turned, perfectly fit, well and active. My own feeling is that things are rather more complicated, and that such attitudes probably spring as well from media reports exposing some of those who have notoriously feigned disability in order to collect benefits. The reporting of such crimes is out of all proportion to the amount of fraud that actually goes on. In reality, it’s negligible – less than 1 per cent. nevertheless, this has formed another pretext for cutting and ending benefits and services to the disabled.

This situation needs explanation. Almost everyone would agree that a truly civilised society is one that extends help to its poorest, most disadvantaged citizens. Why, then, does this government, and the right-wing media that back it, support such severe attacks on the very poorest members of society.

There appear to be several causes to this. They are

1. An attitude towards poverty, derived from the Victorian, but dating from the Middle Ages, that sees poverty as the fault of the poor themselves through their own immorality.

2. A fear that the poor somehow represent a dangerous drain on public resources and a threat to the social order. State support must be limited in order to prevent them increasing.

3. An appeal to popular selfishness, by which government ministers and their media supporters present taxes levied to support the poor as being an unwelcome imposition on the good, self-sufficient moral public. These in turn are described as being somehow penalised for their sturdy self-sufficiency. Hence the comments by politicians of capping benefits so that ‘strivers’ are not upset by the sight of their unemployed neighbours living well on benefits.

Behind these attitudes are the class interests of the upper and upper middle classes. The Coalition’s administration has marked one of the most extreme shifts of wealth from the poorest to the richest since that of Margaret Thatcher. The Tories in particular have enacted a series of policies designed to break organised working class resistance and open the poor up to further exploitation by the multinational firms, who constitute their paymasters. The tax breaks enacted by the Coalition have benefitted the very richest the most. Furthermore, the denial of state support to the poor and the privatisation of the NHS is designed to open them up as a potential market for private health care and insurance. In this, provoking hatred by the insecure but working towards the unemployed and disabled is a useful tool, as it prevents the two groups developing a solidarity that could challenge and potentially overturn such policies.

The punitive attitude to the unemployed can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Then as now there was a debate between theologians and political writers on whether charitable support should be given to the unemployed. The outbreaks of mass poverty caused by the Enclosures and depressions in 16th century England also created the fear amongst the ruling class of the threat to social order posed by roving bands of masterless men. Hence the harsh legislation against vagabonds and the general unemployed. One law, which became a dead letter, state that if an employer offered a job to an unemployed man, he had to take it. If he did not, the prospective employer could seize him and force him to work for free. These days, it’s simply called workfare. Under George Osborne, the unemployed can now be forced to work for big business in order to get their benefits. A further piece of legislation dreamed up by Gideon, sorry, George, means that even those, whose benefits have been stopped by sanctions, must perform workfare for free.

Vlad Dracula

Vlad Dracula of Wallachia, the model for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. He had all the beggars in his principality burned to death at a banquet. IDS and McVie haven’t done anything that obvious yet, but they’re trying their best to match his killing of the poor and unemployed.

This fear of the threat posed by unemployed and disabled beggars was taken to its most brutal extreme by Prince Vlad Dracul of Wallachia, the Romanian prince, who provided Bram Stoker with the historical model for Count Dracula. Concerned by the increase in beggars in his principality, Vlad organised a feast to which they were all invited. When all the beggars had entered the hall in which it was to be held, Vlad ordered the doors closed and barred, and had the place burnt down. The Coalition haven’t done anything as blatant as that, but with the poor and disabled dying of despair and starvation by the tens of thousands at their hands, the effect is the same.

Medieval ideas of the deserving and undeserving poor, and the fear of the political dangers posed by them, also underlie the Victorian ideas about respectability and its opposite. The historian Eric J. Evans describes these ideas in The Forging of the Modern State, 1783-1870

‘An important distinction in mid-Victorian Britain was between respectability and non-respectability. Respectability consisted in earning a degree of independence by one’s own efforts, in self-discipline (especially in sexual and bibulous matters), and in veneration for home and family as the basic social organism from which all other virtues flowed. The non-respectable could not provide for their families without State or charitable aid, were sexually promiscuous, regularly drunk, failed to put enough aside for rainy days and flitted from one rented tenement to another, as often as not to avoid paying their dues…

… Moral imperatives were necessary not just for reasons of ostentatiously sanctimonious piety (though the Victorians had their full share of such qualities) but to prevent a grand explosion. The Victorians dubbed those who did not live by their rules ‘the dangerous classes’ and they meant the phrase to be taken literally. The idle, drunken, rootless lower orders represented more than a moral affront; they threatened progress.’ (p. 280).

Thomas Malthus believed that state assistance to the poor was wrong, as if they were given such aid, their numbers would only increase to be a further burden on society. Hence the principle of ‘less eligibility’ in the Liberals New Poor Law of 1833 that established the Workhouses. The Angry Yorkshireman at Another Angry Voice has covered this particularly well. This was the view that conditions in the workhouses should be so harsh, that the poor would not take up such assistance unless they were driven by absolute necessity.

This attitude also extended to private charity. Margaret Thatcher the rest of the transatlantic New Right extolled the virtues of private charity over state aid, as they felt it was more effective than state benefit. It also had the advantage of being purely voluntary. The Victorians had a slightly different view. They were worried about the extent of the provision of charity in terms that are strikingly similar to Conservative American criticisms of ‘cradle to grave’ socialism. Dr Stallard declared at a meeting of the National Association for the promotion of Social Science in 1868 that ‘There is not a want, or form of human wretchedness, for which provision is not made in more or less degree … from the cradle to the grave, benevolence steps in to offer aid’. The year after he made this speech, the Charity Organization Society was set up to rationalise the amount of money given away to the poor. The ‘vicarious and indolent charity’ targeted by the Society was that which simply did not benefit the recipient. The Society therefore distinguished between the deserving and undeserving poor, and attempted to ensure that the donations given were both uplifting and actually improved those who received it. These were frequently taught the error of their ways, so that they did not return to relying on charity.

These policies have re-entered British politics through the influence of the American sociologist Michael Harrington and the welfare policies of Richard M. Nixon. Harrington was concerned about the existence of extreme poverty in America’s Black ghettos. His classic study of them, The Other America, was designed to stimulate discussion of the roots of such poverty and persuade the government and charities to act. Unlike left-wing critics of poverty, he did not trace the causes of such deprivation in the wider structure of American society and its economy, but believed the fault lay in the poor themselves. They were kept poor by a ‘culture of poverty’ that made them Other from the moral, industrious and prosperous rest of America. This attitude in turn influence the expansion of the welfare state constructed by Tricky Dicky. These were designed to combat poverty by providing state assistance, but this was to be made so humiliating that the poor would try to get off them as soon as possible.

This bourgeois ethic of respectability and hard work was also shared by the working class, and was seen by them and their rulers as they key to prosperity. Just before his death in 1865, Palmerston told a meeting of artisans that ‘Wealth is, to a certain extent, within the reach of all … you are competitors for prizes .. you will by systematic industry, raise yourselves in the social system of the country – you will acquire honour and respect for yourselves and your families. you will have, too, the constant satisfaction of feeling that you have materially contributed to the dignity of your country’. It sounds exactly like something Cameron or Gove would say today.

Despite a rising class consciousness amongst some working class radicals, there was considerable disunity amongst the British working class, which had strong feelings about the proper place each part had in the social hierarchy. One working class author stated in 1873 that

‘Between the artisan and the unskilled labourer a gulf is fixed. While the former resents the spirit in which he believes the followers of genteel occupations look down upon him, he in turn looks down upon the labourer. The artisan creed with regard to the labourer is, that they are an inferior class, and that they should be made to know, and kept in their place’.

This sounds very much like the ‘aristocracy of labour’, which Marx developed to explain why, contrary to his earlier expectations, the workers in Britain did not form a homogenous class ready to revolt against their masters and exploiters. Evans in the above book considers that this disunity arose through ‘the heterogeneity of Britain’s industrial base’ which ‘worked against the transmission of shared feelings of deprivation or exploitation despite the endeavours of bourgeois intellectuals to conceptualise economic development in terms of inevitable class struggle.’ (p. 173).

Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic and their supporters in the press have attempted to play on the variety and disunity of common feelings of solidarity in the working and lower middle classes by stoking fears of the unearned privileges experienced by certain groups of employees. Last year, for example, the Daily Mail followed American Conservatives in stoking resentment of state employees, by starting a campaign against the larger pensions civil servants supposedly enjoyed over those in the private sector. This was evidence of civil servant’s greed, rather than the result of the repressive wage structures of private industry. It served to distract attention away from the economic and political causes of deteriorating wages in the private sector by stirring up resentment of better paid employees.

Hence, too, the demonization of the poor and disabled as feckless scroungers, as this prevents the development of dangerous sympathies to them that would also upset the system of unfettered private industry loudly demanded and promoted by Cameron, Clegg and their lackeys.

And the attack on the welfare state has opened some very lucrative, captive markets for private welfare provision. Private Eye a little while ago produced an in-depth pull-out section demonstrating that the ludicrously expensive and exploitative ‘Private Finance Initiative’ was first proposed under Margaret Thatcher by, I believe, Peter Lilley, as a way of opening up the NHS to private industry. Mike over at Vox Political and Another Angry Voice have blogged repeatedly and provided a wealth of details about the connections the Tories and Lib Dems have to the firms seeking to profit from the NHS’ privatisation. This includes, no surprise! – Ian Duncan Smith. Other policies that seek to transfer state benefits to the private sector include the Workplace Pensions now being lauded by Nick Hewer in the government’s ads. A little while ago there was also talk about introducing private ‘unemployment insurance’ for those worried about the state provision they would receive if laid off. I don’t think that got very far, but it’s symptomatic of the way the private financial sector sought to exploit the increasing gaps in state welfare provision.

The Coalition’s vitriolic war on the unemployed, the poor, sick and disabled draws on notions of the deserving and undeserving poor in order to further bolster and expand the wealth and power of the extremely rich, and create a divided and powerless workforce oblivious to its exploitation and resentful of its more successful, and apparently less deserving neighbours. It opens the poor further up for commercial exploitation by insurance companies and private health care providers, like Unum. In this war to expand and entrench their own class interests, those now forced to scavenge from bins or die in poverty and despair are the true victims of an increasingly harsh and exploitative upper class, which needs their demonization to force their reforms through.