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Saturday, 10 March 2012

What about 1834?

The heading to yesterday's Blog invited comparison of the situation in Britain in 2012 [in respect of benefits under the Welfare State] with what happened in 1834; but made no further comment on the earlier year. Anyone who has followed the Blog for a long time, or interrogated the system via key words, would have recognised that 1834 was the year in which a comprehensive nationwide system of family income support was abolished. There was no tinkering of the sort that Iain Duncan Smith is currently advancing, and there was no gaderene rush to fund fake jobs. Cash benefits were withdrawn. Thereafter people who could not maintain themselves had the option to present themselves to a Workhouse, where they surrendered most of their civil rights in order to be kept at a standard of living that was - by law - "less eligible" that that which could be earned by a recipient of a minimum wage in the open economy.

This draconian change in the law could only be carried once the political system had been changed. In 1832 parliament passed the Great Reform Act, which gave the vote to the taxpayers who funded the Poor Law levies from which benefits were paid: and only to those taxpayers. Recipients of  benefits had no votes. The Reform, supposedly a great step forward in the progress of democracy, enabled the taxpayers to slough off the burden of cash benefits: and they accepted the minimalist obligation to fund the [vastly cheaper] workhouse system. The economic objective of the change in the law was achieved: the rising 'middle class' invested heavily the railways, factories, shops and workshops that pushed forward the industrial revolution; and that provided employment for the vast majority of the expanding working class.

Charles Dickens and many others drew attention to the downside effects of the 1834 reform. The horrors of poverty between 1840 and 1870 were almost too easy and too omnipresent to chronicle; but the reform package of 1832+1834 was considered by the Victorian political class to have been irrefutably successful on its own terms. It took seventy years after 1870 for ideas of fairness and generosity to permit the wartime coalition government of 1940-5 to plan a complete welfare state. It took another six decades [1945 to 2010] for the system to undermine the economy and demoralise society.

Now in 2012 the recipients of benefits are voters: together with pensioners they are close to being a majority of the electorate. But they seem not yet to have recognised their potential power. They acquiesce in the 'reform' of the benefits system, and are mystified observers of the 'reconstruction' of the National Health Service. Unlike their forbears in the eighteen thirties, the political class has no clear and simple Political Economy on which to base their strategy. They have no confidence that their own mantras about 'economic growth' will in fact be vindicated; and they can point to no mechanisms that will deliver growth in practicable terms. The cuts in welfare and health spending are being made simply for book-keeping reasons. There is no underlying ideal, and no promise of 'light at the end of the tunnel'. The hopelessness of the situation is its principal characteristic; is this really the ultimate triumph of 'democracy'?

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