Friday, 4 January 2013

Back to the future?

On many forums, including the comments on newspaper articles, it has become commonplace for people to forecast a return to the workhouse.  As a historian, in an amateur sort of way, I have begun to see genuine parallels between the plans and attitudes of the current governing classes and the climate of opinion which brought about the Poor Laws of 1834.
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.


  1. The "elites" (bankers) still to this day own goverments and own the system, to their own twisted ends.

  2. Perhaps people are beginning to wise up to the ultimate objective of the Tories - the destruction of the post WW2 welfare state settlement. Lest we forget, the Conservatives LOST the 1945 General Election, despite being led by undoubted WW2 hero Winston Churchill. Why?

    Because the British electorate did not believe that they would implement the 1942 Beveridge Report. The report sought to tackle the many social and economic problems that existed in Britain in the inter-war period, inc. poverty, disease and ignorance, problems that the National Gov't, led by the Conservatives, failed to address. Hence, why they were voted out of office in 1945. It was this report which the Welfare State was founded upon.

    The Tories NEVER believed in it, so it is no surprise that they are attacking it. The only surprise is that it has taken them this long to do it. Why now?

    Because the educated British middle-classes are now non-political and apathetic. In the 1930's there was widespread sympathy for the unemployed and they supported the many hunger marches that took place in the 1930's. Orwell's 'The Road to Wigan Pier' was a best seller.

    The middle-classes now do not care. They are selfish and ignorant and the Tories, correctly, recognise this. Hence, their daily attacks on the Welfare State.

    But what the middle-classes also do not recognise, because they are ignorant, is that the Welfare State also supports them via the various components of the National Insurance scheme e.g. sickness at work, maternity pay, child benefit, the state pension and that when the Welfare State was created during the Labour Gov't of 1945-1950 it was done so along with the creation of the NHS and free secondary education. They were created as an integral part of the project to tackle social and economic deprivation. They were considered part of the Welfare State, as envisaged by William Beveridge.

    When the Tories attack the Welfare State they know EXACTLY what the implications of this are - the destruction of social security AND the eventual privatisation of the NHS and education. The consequences of this for the British middle-classes would be disasterous. Do they recognise this danger?

    1. I was brought up in an upwardly mobile middle class family, have been to uni, had good jobs etc. but now am a single parent on benefits and on the Work programme, which is more a hinderance with its derogatory attitudes. I am one of the main targets of Cameron , now Im working class- and as a communist I would choose to be. The danger of Cameron is that he will destroy and reform this country into a Metropolis type state, the bankers and the Party will rule, but are we really going to let him?

  3. Agree,I attended the WP today,yet another Adviser,we went over the "action plan" and the adviser stated "the main problem with you and most of my other clients is that there are no vacancies out there".....Wow,honesty at last.
    After a little business we discussed Ed Balls and his idea of offering long term paid work,personally I am all for it and the WP are excited too,if it is brought in,why? Well most long termed unemployed are or will be attached to the WP,as the WP will be the last point of contact they are in line to claim an outcome payment in a group that pays the largest amount.Is this a last ditch effort to revive the WP or am I just reading to much into this?

    1. Just caught the last of a radio programme,they were discussing "Guaranteed Job Placement" as proposed by Ed Balls..It would only guarantee employment for 6 months,what was not mentioned was after 6 months the WP provider can claim an outcome payment,the client is back on the scrapheap and in my opinion the only reason for this is to ensure the WP survives at any cost.

      Yes I may be Paranoid,but starting to really believe

  4. Great article, but is there any chance of you posting a link to the Express article about the food banks row in York?

    1. Yes, sorry, I've inserted it now. Or you can go to

    2. Thanks historian. Well by reading that Express article, it seems the Tories lack for one thing above all else, and that is compassion...

  5. FWIW, I think that the Internet has changed the world completely. I suppose Michael Faraday deserves the blame!

    The Westminster Village discovered, in August 2011, just how fast civil unrest can spin out of control nowadays. It is not possible to mobilise the police or the armed forces as quickly as ordinary people can be invited to a party, told its location and the party becomes a riot.

    I think this possibility will deter the currently ruling elite in the UK. According to the newspapers, IDS & Osborne insist on imitating the ostrich but some of the other Cabinet members are realists.

    Recently, I read an article about the Universal Credit computer system. Apparently the design of the UC system relies on something called a “hashtag.” Seemingly, Joe Bloggs has a unique “hashtag” and so do his tax/benefits records. Allegedly, this “hashtag” idea fails to make an accurate match 25% of the time. Apparently, IT wizards are saying that this failure rate is far too high for a system which is supposed to “go live” later in 2013.

    I don’t claim to know anything about IT wizardry. I followed Twitter for a while during 2012 when I discovered from this blog that Jonty Olliff-Cooper was busily twittering about A4E’s affairs. Twitter seems to use “hashtags” but I don’t really know what they are.

    IDS seems content to insist that the IT wizards will resolve what he seems to think is a “minor computer glitch” before the date he has set his heart on for his UC system. Allegedly, IT experts are saying that the whole design of the UC system is wrong because a “hashtag” is not a sufficiently reliable way of making the crucial match.

    I do not know whether IT Wizardry knows of a better way to make the toy upon which IDS is gambling his political career but this sounds like a repeat of the Great NHS Computer Bungle to me. Aka a SNAFU in military jargon, I believe.

    Gissajob knows about IT. What does he say, I wonder?

    1. They have to tie up two different computer systems. That means having to use the same code for each individual on both systems. A hashtag is simply that - #historian, for instance. Why they can't just use the NI no. I don't know.

    2. I'm afraid all this technical wizardry is a bit beyond my understanding. I do not know about hashtags other than the symbol is #.
      I have had some experience of working on large IT projects and can say that the failure rate (or lack of success rate)is probably around 50%. It is far from a "given" that any project will succeed - no matter how many "resources" are chucked at it.
      I do know that in a Relational Database (which is at the heart of all these things) each instance needs a unique identifier. This is usually allocated by the system - using an NI number may seem the obvious bit of data to use but I suspect it's not good enough because duplicates do occur and NI numbers can change (e.g. when a Temporary Number is changed to a permanent one).

    3. Hashing is a technique of reducing a set of characters (a name or other string of characters/numbers) down to a simple number - This number is then used (typically) to find the string in a database or a reduced set of records that can then be processed further to extract a single entry. The problem that faces HMRC is that some records will not have a unique N.I. number (think foreign workers/students, under sixteens) and the sheer volume of data means that a hash will map to a significant number of records - If employers are meant to submit data in real time to HMRC before making payments to the employees, the system delays in finding and updating the correct records becomes a serious issue.

      For employers with more than ten workers, they are going to have to purchase software to automatically submit earnings directly to HMRC so that the appropriate Universal Credits and tax deductions can be made. This throws up additional problems for employers that use a pool of casual workers paid at the end of the shift or expats working overseas.

      Looking at some of the early reports of companies involved in the pilot schemes, there are going to be a significant number of people adversely affected by errors in the RTI process. HMRC does not appear to have any contingency plans for delays in rolling out the system in April, or for system failures when it goes live.

  6. I agree with Historian that it is highly unlikely that there will be a return to a formal work house system, but what I think is likely is that many citizens will increasingly find themselves trapped between not being able to find employment in a depressed economy and subjected to ever more conditions for a steadily decreasing amount of Job Seekers Allowance.

    The result of this will be that many people will not only start committing petty crime to obtain food, but a large number of previously law abiding citizens will take steps to deliberately get sent to prison, such as standing outside a police station and breaking the window of a police car and waiting patiently to be arrested.

    If you have spent the previous month sleeping rough in the rain and go for three days at a time without eating, going to prison for three or six months at a stretch is a logical solution to your problem.

    Of course, detaining people in custody will cost significantly more than providing them with the basic necessities of life on the outside. Having a criminal record will further decrease their chance of getting employment.

    Noting that the current government is doing makes any sense at all.

  7. It makes sense when you look at the long term agenda of the banking elites who own goverment/s. order out of chaos, a one world dictorial goverment.

  8. I actually think that the so called 'elites' are intentionally trying to incite revolutions with the ultimate goal of world communism under the UN.

    It also explains NATO and the UN's "eagerness" to overthrow Libya/Syria etc and other isolationist governments in resource rich countries.

    There has been little done to repair the world economies besides printing endless amounts of money (AKA bailouts/quantitative easing) and reducing the deficit will have little effect on government debt, all it's going to do is anger more and more people as austerity reaches Greece like proportions.

    Sorry if that sounds like conspiracy nonsense but as far as I can see if governments had any intention of saving capitalism they should have let all of the banks go under and rebooted the system, it would have been painful in the short term but ultimately better for the people in the long term.


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