Let's start with the early 20th century. It was a time of development of a sense that society had a responsibility to look after all its members. The Old Age Pensions Act of 1908 saw many old people saved from the fear of destitution and the workhouse. The following year Labour Exchanges were set up to help the unemployed find work. This was followed in 1911 by the National Insurance Act which enforced contributions for sickness and unemployment pay. Two world wars brought a sense that the people who had suffered for the nation should be cared for by the nation, and the growth of socialism meant the growth of a social conscience. Labour MPs brought a different perspective to the House of Commons and to government. In 1948 we had the birth of the Welfare State. The logic was simple. It was a form of insurance; one paid in when one was able, and drew out when in need. There was recognition that some people would never be able to contribute, but they would be supported. This is the system under which most of us have grown up and lived our lives. We now see it seriously under threat. Was this just a century-long blip in our history, and we're going back to normal?
I want to go back to the early 19th century. For those of you willing to read a quite long and very erudite article, I recommend a piece on the "Looking at History" blog by Richard Brown. If that's too much for you, here's my less erudite summary. In the early 1800s Britain had nothing even vaguely resembling democracy. The country was governed by an elite which was getting increasingly nervous. The French Revolution had shown what could happen if the ordinary people rose in rebellion, and there were plenty of rumblings in this country. Low wages in the rural areas; the poverty in the towns to which people flocked for work; a savage penal code; all caused growing unrest and civil disorder. The dissent was suppressed by the military. Added to this, the welfare system, known as "relief", was inadequate and patchy. There was a need for reform, and a report was produced in 1832 (the same year in which a few tentative steps were taken towards reforming the electoral system). In a free market economy there was no excuse for not being able to find work if you were physically capable of working. Relief, financial support, should only be available as a very last resort, as something which the lower orders would have to be truly desperate to seek. This was to be provided only in workhouses, where the regime would be punitive. (Later, "outdoor relief", payments to enable paupers to stay in their own homes, was allowed.) The word "pauper" became an official designation. Children growing up in the workhouse were hired out to local employers without wages. All this was enacted in the Poor Law of 1834. The system was to last through the century and into the next.
Does any of that sound familiar? It should. I don't believe that we're heading for the revival of workhouses, at least not in the foreseeable future, but the prevailing attitudes are much the same. Among all the nonsense in the media at the moment I cite two pieces. The first is on the excellent Spinwatch site, which examines an article by Sean Worth of one of those nasty think tanks. The call it "The compassionate Conservatives go to war". The second is in the Express, reporting a row in York. A Conservative local councillor is critical of food banks. "We have lots of poor people, but living standards have surged over the years. There is certainly no need for food banks; no-one in the UK is starving and I think food banks insult the one billion in the world that go to bed hungry every day and ignore the fact a child dies of hunger every three seconds. The fact some give food to food banks, merely enables people who can't budget (an issue where schools should do much more and I have said the council should) or don't want to, to have more money to spend on alcohol, cigarettes etc." The man would have been entirely at home in 1834.