Poor lore: the shadow hanging over us

The good old days? A lecture on YouTube proves to be a timely reminder that poverty in the UK is regressing to the Victorian era. Dan Carrier reports

Thursday, 3rd March — By Dan Carrier

People queuing at St Marylebone workhouse c1900_credit Wellcome Collection

People queuing at St Marylebone workhouse in circa 1900. Image: Wellcome Collection

EVERY third child in our country today lives in poverty. That doesn’t mean one in three children don’t go on an annual holiday, or have a couple of pairs of shoes to choose from. That means they are living in crowded housing in disrepair, are undernourished, and face a lifetime of stymied opportunities and poor health.

This horrendous statistic is the chilling outcome of almost 200 years of poverty and inequality driven by the richest in the UK – and the reasons why this has happened, and what it means, is the subject on a new lecture by writer and academic Stewart Lansley.

Mr Lansley’s talk is one of a number hosted by Conway Hall, in Red Lion Square, Holborn, as part of a twice weekly programme. Taking place on Sundays and Mondays, it includes an online archive.

Mr Lansley’s latest book, The Richer, The Poorer, lays bare how our society has consistently failed to tackle these twin evils.

He says there are chilling parallels between 19th century Victorian Britain – a world of Poor Laws and workhouses, extreme poverty, premature deaths and a horrendous quality of life – and Britain today. His research paints an extremely unflattering picture of the ethics that lead policy-making in the UK.

He cites the past four decades of policies seeking a return to a Victorian plutocracy, where the poor are punished and the rich accumulate vast fortunes.

“How did the UK end up near the top of the league table for poverty and inequality?” he asks.

Mr Lansley, whose books include Breadline Britain (2015) and The Cost of Inequality (2011), cites how 19th-century social problems were obvious.

“The US businessman Elizur Wright, who travelled through the UK in 1845, said: ‘There is ignorance, crass brutality, sullen hopelessness, haggard wretchedness’”, quoted Mr Lansley. He compared this to a report of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, Professor Philip Alston, who gathered evidence in 2018.

Professor Alston highlighted “ideological” cuts to public services and had caused “tragic” poverty. And he concluded that after a period of across the board improvements following the Second World War the UK has retreated to a world recognisably Victorian that saw the rise of “misery, marginalisation and distorted values”.

He said: “The bottom line is that much of the glue that has held British society together since the Second World War has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos.”

Professor Alston’s damning survey underlines Mr Lansley’s research.

“The present situation in Germany is the poorest are at least one third better off than they are in the UK – and it is the same across other rich nations,” he says. “In the past 40 years there has been an increase in poverty and inequality. Poverty has broadly doubled, and more than doubled for children.”

This has been fuelled by successive governments adhering to new right economic theory.

Mr Lansley identifies three distinct periods. The first, what historian Eric Hobsbawm called the Age of Capital, lasted from 1800 to 1939.

“During this period, inequality and poverty rates remained high,” he says. “Then between 1945 and 1979, these rates fell. That lasted around 30 years and since then we have gone back to the 19th century.”

Mr Lansley shows how an alliance of board rooms, business leaders, financial elites and Whitehall work against civil society.

“These power games have been won by the corporate and financial elite for four-fifths of the past 200 years,” he says.

“There has been a single generation who had a more equal balance. Egalitarianism won the argument for such a short period.”

What strikes Mr Lansley is opinions that were once outdated have made a chilling comeback.

“Between 1800 and 1939 the UK was a plutocracy, run by the rich on behalf of the rich. They had a very harsh attitude towards the poor. Whatever help there was was mean and patchy.”

Social reformers gradually began changing the landscape and by the 1970s, after 30 years of the welfare state, the richest 1 per cent’s wealth was at its lowest in comparison to others.

This social contract and post-war settlement was then torn up by New Right thinking, driven by the likes of Tory politician Sir Keith Joseph.

“They said equality had gone too far,” adds Mr Lansley. “They felt we needed a stiff dose of inequality to get the economy going. They believed inequality created incentives. This slowly became the dominant philosophy, and this view is still dominant in Whitehall and in economics departments in universities.

“We see the shadow of the Poor Law hanging over us today. There has been a growing view that poverty is somehow self-inflicted and nothing to do with low wages, unemployment and lack of opportunity.”

The Beveridge Report of 1943 established a new philosophy towards a social safety net that proved to work for the good of all – but this has been eroded.

“It was a shift in philosophy but it has slowly been whittled away,” he says.

“Claimants of benefits are treated extremely harshly by newspapers. The word scrounger is used regularly.”

On top of this vicious era of sanctions, the super-rich have been taking wealth created by others out of the economic cycle.

“The financial elites are so powerful they have grabbed a disproportionate share. They use mechanisms that are bad for wages, for tax payers and social resilience to keep it,” he adds.

This is driven by monopolies who make abnormal profits.

“If so much economic activity is cornered and concentrated at the top, it cuts demand in the economy because the working class cannot spend,” he says.

“Luxury capitalism, which is what we have today, creates more economic shocks. The 2008 crisis was the fault of luxury capitalism, caused by new right thinking that deregulated markets and licensed financiers to get rich. We have had a 40-year experiment in inequality capitalism and it has not worked. Our economic performance on every measure is worse than the regulated capital of the post-war era. Wealth extraction reduces investment and innovation while profit share has risen for owners, wages have fallen and investment has fallen.”

Stewart Lansley’s talk How Britain Enriched the Few and Failed the Poor – A 200-Year History is available on YouTube: www.youtube.com/c/conwayhall/videos
Details of upcoming talks and other events at Conway Hall at conwayhall.org.uk/

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