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A brief history of Victorian welfare reform

Back in the 1830s, the Tories and the forerunners of the Liberal Democrats were of one mind concerning the need for sweeping reform of Britain’s horrendously expensive welfare provision.

Not only did the Speenhamland System constitute a direct incentive to indolence, but with the public finances in disarray after a series of ruinous military episodes in other countries, such generosity was patently unsustainable in the long run.

According to the popular caricature of the time, knocker-up Britain toiled for hours longer than their counterparts anywhere else in Europe, while the uncapped nature of outdoor relief did nothing to curb the procreative enthusiasm of the feckless.

The rightwing press was clear that too many immigrants were heading to the more economically prosperous areas, undercutting the wages of British workers. In some cases, parishes were forced to expel the jobless many miles away, in order to lessen the drain on the public purse.

True, some effort was made to distinguish between the deserving and the undeserving poor. But it is now plain that prevalent attitudes were largely born of a de haut en bas distain for the Great Unwashed, on the part of an emergent middle class and an aristocracy largely educated in the same public schools as today’s elite.

Unsurprisingly, given widespread belief in the virtues of unfettered free market economics, an institution known as the Workhouse began to emerge in place of handouts, even prior to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.

Naturally, most present day readers will find the idea of people with no prospect of gainful employment being forced to work for no wages morally repugnant.

But perhaps we should not rush to judgement. After all, the Britain of that period was a far poorer place than the Britain of 2013, and was characterised by towering levels of inequality between the superrich and the exploited majority of the population.

Incidentally, what put paid to all this was not any rhetorical commitment to well-meaning One Nation politics, but the eventual emergence of a mass trade union movement, and ultimately a Labour Party, that recognised the injustice of these arrangements and was ready to struggle to change them.

How glad we all should be for that.

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