Amongst the coverage of the Localism Bill and the local government settlement my eye was caught by another story in yesterday’s Guardian. A survey had found that our attitudes to the poor had hardened to levels previously seen in 1991 just at the end of Baroness Thatcher’s political career. It’s an annual survey carried out by the National Centre for Social Research so it’s an interesting weather vane for how our society’s winds of opinion are blowing.
The report said,
… the public is now less sympathetic towards benefit claimants than at the end of the Thatcher era. In 1991, 58% thought the government should spend more on benefits. By 2009 that had more than halved to 27%.
Just over half (51%) backed policies to redistribute income from rich to poor in 1989, compared with 36% now.
The findings particularly chimed with me because it’s usually about this time of year that I dust off my copy of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I love the various films of the story particularly Sir Patrick Stewart’s version which gets very close to the original. (I have a soft spot for the Muppets’ version too before you ask. ‘There goes Mr Humbug, There goes Mr Grim. If there was a prize for being mean, the winner would be him.’ How could you not have a soft spot for that?)
But it’s worth going back to the original text. And thinking about the world of 1843 in which Dickens lived and wrote. It’s a world that feels sweetly familiar to us from all the costume drama, Christmas Cards and ‘Victorian Christmas Fayres’. But I suspect if we landed there by some supernatural mischance it wouldn’t be long before we were begging to leave.
Begging. The limits of the state’s interest in the poor was that they didn’t riot in the street or steal from those that had more than them.
At the start of A Christmas Carol Scrooge is visited by two gentlemen – from The big Society perhaps – asking for subscriptions to a fund to alleviate the suffering of the poor. He is unimpressed. Are there not prisons or workhouses for the poor, he asks?
‘I don’t make merry myself at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.’
‘Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.’
‘If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.’
I still find that sentence shocking. And I’m still shocked when I hear views that are quite close cousins to it mouthed today.
Scrooge says, ‘It is not my business.’ He turns away.
Of course the rest of the story deals with how Scrooge learns that want and ignorance are all our business. The ghost of Marley, his former partner, tells him,
‘Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business, charity, mercy, forebearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!’
The common welfare? The survey reported in The Guardian finds us far less concerned now about the common welfare than at any point since 1991. A Christmas Carol was not only popular because it was a fantasy, it was popular because it spoke to the reality of many peoples’ lives and to the essential decency of the majority of the population. Shortly after it was published the workhouse scandals – at the heart of Oliver Twist – broke and the state got involved in ensuring the poorest and most vulnerable got the standard of care and support they needed. That the majority thought it right that a civilised and wealthy society should provide.
Many of us that have inherited that fight are shortly to be demobbed by redundancy. Let’s hope our Big Society successors get a warmer welcome than the gentlemen that called on Mr Scrooge. In these days of tax avoidance and growing intolerance of the poor? I wonder.