In my previous two posts in this series, I’ve looked at George Osborne’s invoking of Victorian values as the bedrock of his economic strategy for this Parliament. I’ve questioned whether this is a necessary or even practical approach to solving the social and economic challenges Britain faces during the next five years.  In this final post, I want to conclude by asking whether, in spite of the Conservative’s election victory, this is even what the nation really wants.  I think we need to be careful what we wish for.  The past truly is a foreign country and there are very good reasons why “they do things differently there”.

During the reign of Queen Victoria, Britain changed out of all recognition from the country she had been at the beginning of the 19th Century. The Industrial Revolution wrenched a society largely based upon agriculture and farming into the modern, manufacturing powerhouse that was capable of supporting a global empire of trade and colonial dominance. Millions of people made the transition from subsistence poverty in the countryside to a life of greater opportunity and advantage in the great towns and cities that exploded in size and population. In manufacturing, mining, shipping, infrastructure, engineering, medicine, religion and ethics, as well as the arts, science, exploration and geography: almost every facet of the nation’s activities was transformed.

No wonder, therefore, that politicians are quick to cite Victorian values when they need to make assurances to a hard-pressed electorate, assuaging popular concerns with memories of an era when Britain was indisputably great. The period is the British equivalent of ‘it’s morning again in America’. We were that good, we can be that good again, runs the mantra. Our public spaces are clustered with the civic legacy of the Victorian era. We don’t have to look very far to receive our comfort.

When we talk of the Victorians, however, it’s also worth remembering that attitudes towards tax, incentives and the role of the state as an economic actor were nothing like as simple as they may appear in the phrase ‘Victorian values’.

William Gladstone, a Liberal, was firmly supportive of Adam Smith’s first maxim that taxation ought to be applied so as to achieve ‘equality of sacrifice’: that taxation should “be made to bear as nearly as possible with the same pressure upon all.” As a consequence, Gladstone sought to eliminate income tax and where it was paid, maintain as nearly a flat rate and minimum as possible.

Influential thinkers like John Stuart Mill wholeheartedly agreed. Mill did not accept that ‘equality of sacrifice’ required a graduated income tax. He was only prepared to accept admit that taxes should not affect the income needed for the ‘necessaries of life’. He was certain that to do otherwise was ‘to lay a tax on industry and economy; to impose a penalty on people for having worked harder and saved more than their neighbours.’

Sound familiar?

Ironically, it was the Conservative Benjamin Disraeli, with his vision of one nation conservatism, who envisaged a greater need for the working class to receive help and support from the establishment. More so than Gladstone, he emphasised the importance of social justice rather than the individualism that pervaded Victorian Britain. Disraeli warned that Britain would become bitterly divided into two “nations”, of the rich and poor, as a result of increased industrialisation and inequality. Instead, he proposed policies that sought to improve the lives of the people by providing support and protection for the working classes to ensure that “one nation” prevailed. Good examples of Disraeli’s progressive attitudes to social justice are the Employers and Workmen Act of 1875, which made both sides of industry equal before the law and the breach of contract a civil, rather than criminal, offence. Disraeli’s government also passed the Conspiracy, and Protection of Property Act in the same year which enshrined the right to strike of workers by ensuring that acts carried out by a workers’ group could not be indicted as conspiracy. This stands in stark contrast to the modern day policies of Disraeli’s Conservative successors who have done much to defenestrate workers’ rights.

Thus, there is a flip side to the Victorian narrative, a dark underbelly that gives an uncomfortable edge to all this nostalgia. Certainly, Britain made great advances during the nineteeth-century but the improvements to society came at a fantastic price of human misery and suffering as an immature nation adapted to the challenges of industrialisation and (in particular) population explosion. Life for millions of people was unimaginably hard. And as George Osborne begins to outline his plans for rolling back the state and dismantling many of the counter-balances to poverty that previous generations took for granted, the outlines of those ‘hard times’ begin to re-emerge in modern Britain: food banks, inadequate healthcare, poor housing, labour exploitation, restrictions on trade unions. Osborne is closer to Gladstone’s laissez-faire attitudes than to Disraeli’s one nation vision.

So when we cite Victorian values, we have to be careful. Because the golden era that right wing politicians like to fawn over was only achieved because of social and economic reforms that Conservative policy now threatens to unravel. Even utilitarian idealists like Edwin Chadwick, an engineer of the discredited Poor Laws, came to realise that if you were going to have factories working around the clock, the workers in those factories needed homes with decent sanitation. Employees could not be expected to function like the relentless machines they administered and needed some kind of holiday entitlement. Sick workers were much more productive if they could receive treatment and return to work. Their children would be more effective employees in the future if they received a basic education rather than being sent out to work.

Of course, I am not suggesting for one moment we are about to return to child labour, workhouses and towns without sewers. But we are going backwards in terms of equality, social justice and progress. David Cameron and George Osborne’s neo-Victorian political philosophies threaten to return us to some of the darker aspects of Victorian Britain, back into the shadows cast by the bright sun of economic and imperial expansion.

Should we laud a period when:

  • there was no national health service
  • when diseases like typhoid and cholera were rampant
  • when infant mortality was out of control and children went to work at eight or younger
  • when schools could hardly offer the basics of numeracy and literacy and came wrapped up in a toxic bundle of severity and religiosity
  • when women couldn’t vote; homosexuality was a crime
  • when the sewers literally stank
  • policing was sporadic
  • people who couldn’t pay debts could literally rot for years in prison
  • there was no system of refuse collection
  • and the British economy thrived and survived largely because we subjugated vast swathes of the globe with imperialism, the consequences of which still haunt us today.?

Conservative Victorian values only tend to focus on the bits that fit their narrative of entrepreneurial zeal, order and moral rectitude. The reality was somewhat different. The tension between the ‘have’s’ and the ‘have not’s’ may be a universal feature of societies throughout history but the Victorians gradually realised the new conditions created by industrialisation polarized this tension like never before, and offered the ruling classes a stark choice. With millions of people concentrated in urban areas, with unprecedented potential to organise their demands, it was impossible to violently subjugate and oppress them in order to protect narrow, elite interests. There simply had to be a fairer settlement in order for a capitalist society to function. Businessmen like William Lever, Titus Salt and George Cadbury had already grasped this principle and created isolated examples of model urban planning structures that Britain would gradually move towards during Victoria’s reign. A society that reformers realised was necessary because the Victorian values so beloved by Margaret Thatcher equated to a pretty brutal, joyless existence of survival for millions of people when given free rein.

If this is what we now must return to, aside from being economically stupid, it’s also socially dangerous. This Tory obsession with the defunct past will destroy Britain’s future and set us back a generation, even presuming that the Union can hold together and that “Britain” will still be left standing at the end of the process. If people think this is only going to hurt the lazy, the idle, the migrants (or even in some wild imaginings, the Scots), they are in for a rude awakening. The Conservatives are going to make Britain a mean, backward looking, irrelevant island where nothing works and everyone apart from the rich is plain miserable. Orwell was right. It’s cheap gin and crap fags for the proles, who swallow up the lies and myths sold by the media machine.

Here are some different Victorian values we should consider against their modern day equivalents. And I think we can reasonably ask if this is truly progress? Are we really moving to a better, brighter, happier nation or becoming a society that is more insecure, fearful, stressed for everyone except the most prosperous and wealthy.

HEALTHCARE

In the upper-class areas of Liverpool in 1899, 136 newborns out of 1000 would die before they reached the age of one. In working class districts the rate was 274 infant deaths per 1000 births, and impoverished slums had a horrifying 509 infant deaths per 1000. Whilst we may not be returning to Victorian infant mortality levels, children are now more at risk after five years of Conservative stewardship of the NHS.

In 2010/11, 769 children aged 17 or under had to wait over four hours in A&E to either be admitted to a ward, referred to another specialist department or discharged. By 2013/14, the total number had rocketed to 1,601 – a jump of 108%. In early 2015, the number and proportion of NHS hospital patients in England waiting more than 18 weeks to begin treatment have risen to their highest levels in almost seven years.

EDUCATION

In Victorian England, children as young as 4 were put to work. In coal mines, children began work at the age of 5 and generally died before the age of 25. Many children (and adults) worked 16-hour days. In 1848 an estimated 30,000 homeless, filthy children lived on the streets of London. It wasn’t until 1880 that schooling became mandatory and all children had to attend a school until they were 10 years old. In 1889, the school leaving age was raised to twelve, and in 1891, the school’s pence fee was abolished and schools became free.

In June 2015, George Osborne announced that the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills would face cuts of £450m a piece from their 2015-16 budgets. For the DfE, pre-election promises that the Conservatives would ringfence spending on schools – defined as spending on education from ages four to 16 – means that the pressure will be on funding for nursery and pre-school education at one end, and post-16 schooling at the other, mainly on sixth form. What this means is more pressure for low income families trying to stay in, or enter, the labour market owing to woeful pre-school child care provision. And more challenges for sixth form colleges attempting to cater to young adults left behind by poor exam results and vocational students trying to learn technical skills that are desperately needed for Britain to improve its woeful productivity and recent track record on innovation. James Dyson warns:

“There are not enough British students reading engineering at university. Then very, very few stay on to do research. Around 88% of researchers in science and engineering in British universities are from outside the EU. And they are told they have to go home when they finish their degrees because they can’t get a visa.”

DEMOCRATIC REFORM

Although the first Reform Act 1867 provided universal manhold suffrage for the first time, it was not until the 1885 Redistribution Act that a majority of adult males had the vote. And women were not granted voting rights until the Act of 1918, which enfranchised all men over 21 and women over thirty. This last piece of gender discrimination was eliminated 10 years later (in 1928) by the Equal Franchise Act. Only in 1969 was the voting age finally lowered to 18.

The most recent general election highlights the undemocratic bias of the ‘first past the post’ system. As Peter Evans at Democratic Audit UK points out:

“Labour, with 30.4% of the vote (9.34 million), got 35.7% of the seats; whilst the Tories – obviously the big winners this time – have 50.09% of the seats with 36.9% of the vote (11.33 million votes). That means the Conservative party has 15% more clout in Parliament compared to the amount of people who wanted to empower them. This gives them just enough power in Parliament for the choice of one third of the voters to dominate the rest. Turnout at this election was 66%, which means that a party which gained the active approval of only around 25% of registered voters dominates Parliament.”

Is this what the electoral reform pioneers had in mind? Is it right to persevere with an archaic and patently unfair traditional system of voting?

EMPLOYMENT RIGHTS

During the nineteenth century, employment was to be found in the newly industrialized cities, so many people abandoned their rural roots and converged on the urbanized areas to seek work. Skilled and unskilled workers alike were paid subsistence level wages. If the work was seasonal or demand slumped, when they were laid off they had no savings to live on until the next job opportunity could be found.

There are just two words that need to be said here. Zero hour contracts. In this respect, under David Cameron’s government, we are closer to Victorian values than at any time in recent history having disbanded the labour protections and right to organise strikes and collective bargaining agreements that gave workers protection against over-zealous factory owners and managers. Nearly 700,000 people in the UK now work on a ‘zero hour’ basis and the number increased by 26% in 2014.

HOUSING

In the great Victorian cities, people typically had to live close to their employment so housing became scarce and highly priced. Tenants would often sub-let their rooms to other workers to meet the rent so hideously overcrowded, unsanitary slums, known as ‘rookeries’ developed, particularly in London.   Not until the 1875 Public Health Act comprehensively encompassed housing, sewage and drainage, water supply and contagious diseases did an extensive public health system finally being to emerge.

It’s commonly accepted that we are living in a housing crisis and that rental slums, overcrowding and tenant exploitation (usually of low income workers with almost no room to bargain or defend their interests) are a major problem. According to housing charity, Shelter:

“There are now more than nine million renters in private rented accommodation, including almost 1.3 million families with children. Renting can be incredibly unstable, with soaring rents, hidden fees and eviction a constant worry. And it can mean living in dreadful conditions too – one third of private rented homes in England fail to meet the Decent Homes Standard.”

Into this miserable situation comes a flood of unscrupulous landlords who see an opportunity to make a fast profit. With laudable free-market initiative, these “rent-to-rent” entrepreneurs create latter day rookeries that are intolerable for those who live in them but hugely enriching for those who create these schemes. One individual is reputed to have earnt £35,000 per month by renting, dividing and sub-letting over 200 rooms in 40 properties across London.

Arguably, a key reason why Victorian Britain became successful was because governments and society understood that the laissez faire, utilitarian zeal of Smiles and Mill needed to be balanced by the moderating social justice principles of Ruskin or Shaftesbury. Politicians on all sides realised that whilst it was important not to impede economic progress and entrepreneurial endeavour, there had to be a fair balance of reward between those who owned the factories and those who did the work.

But the realisation of this simple truth was long and hard in the making and can be said to have continued well into the twentieth-century. Not until the great reforms of the Atlee government did Britain truly achieve the kind of equality and welfare provision that Victorian campaigners had struggled for. And even then, those gains were a direct consequence of the slaughter of the most terrible war in human history: a home fit for heroes was the least the nation could do for those who had destroyed the tyranny of Nazism. In his groundbreaking report of 1942, Ernest Beveridge defined five ‘great evils’ that society could address through the Welfare State: squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. Arguably, these evils remain the core test for any nation or group of peoples. And whilst great progress has been made across all fronts in the last seventy years, there is no denying that Britain has new challenges in these traditional areas, created by different forces – globalisation, immigration, climate change, peak oil – that Beveridge, his contemporaries, and further back, the Victorians, could not have envisaged. As I’ve written elsewhere, ultimately one’s view of the best way to tackle these problems is a moral as well as political question. You either believe in the primacy of individual responsibility or you place your trust in a shared, collective approach to problem solving. In the middle of those opposing extremes there is a debate to be had.

My argument is that the neo-liberal, laissez-faire ideology that now dominates political thinking is, in its rawest form, as extreme and as destructive in its effects as communism and creates the same disparity between the ‘proles’ and the ‘elites’ as Marxist-Leninism. Right wingers euologise ‘1984’ as the ultimate critique of Soviet politics without a hint of irony, unable or unwilling to realise that the template of The Party fits the IMF, the World Bank and shady plutocrats like the Koch Brothers, just as effectively as it did the Communist Party of the former USSR. In the wake of the Snowden revelations and the compliance of right-wing, mogul-owned media networks like Fox News or DMG, in spreading misinformation and propaganda, the ruthlessness of these vested interests in maintaining their grip on power is as efficient as anything to be found in room 101.

In rolling back the years as part of a crusade to return to Victorian values, therefore, we should be very careful which kind of Victorian Britain we want to re-establish. The cruel, restrictive, unequal and (for many) horrific society of urbanised drudgery and vulnerability in which opportunity, if it existed at all, was tightly refined and calibrated by the privileged few? Or a genuine vision of One Nation Britain, that once upon a time had the power to unite both the left and right around the centre ground politics of social justice, progressive and embracing capitalism and strong public infrastructure, in which workers, unions, employers and government collaborate to maximise, rather than oppose, each others interests. I give the final word to Will Hutton, the economist:

“Political parties in great democracies have a double function. They must represent their philosophy and coalition of supporting interest groups, but they must also speak for the whole. Of course a centre-right party will favour less tax and state, be pro-business and be wary of working-class institutions. Equally, a centre-left party will represent social justice, equity, redistribution and ordinary workers. These are their twin roles. It is from their “turns” in government that, over time, a country builds its institutions and laws. Both are vital elements in the polity, learning from the other; and at different times, it falls to one to govern – but to do so in the interests of all. Britain owes its National Health Service to one tradition; its flexible labour market to the other.  The tragedy of British politics is that today our centre-right has gone rogue. The English Conservative party, which always had a tendency to be as fierce a partisan for its class as any party of the extreme left, has…..given itself permission to put its own interests before those of the country.”