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Britain at Christmas: From Scrooge to universal credit

WHILE the mainstream media chunter and engage in magical thinking about Brexit, for many in the other Britain, far away from the concerns of Westminster — except when Jeremy Corbyn occasionally forces Tory MPs to face the impact of their own policies — it is set to be a miserable Christmas.

The workhouse has long since been abolished, but rough sleeping on the streets continues to rise. Meanwhile the impact of universal credit means that even those in work find themselves having to use foodbanks to live.

This situation has arisen as a direct result of Tory and Liberal Democrat policies since 2010, and from 2015 just the Tory Party of David Cameron and Theresa May. Yet they did not think up the ideas about how to make life miserable for the poor themselves. Rather they have been implemented at times of economic crisis since the 19th century.

The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, which was the work of economic liberals, now known as neoliberals, was carried through by a Whig (Liberal) government.

It was strongly opposed at the time. The workhouse was its symbol but underneath lay a philosophy. That was known as the less eligibility principle — namely, that if you could not earn enough to live on yourself, the state would provide a basic subsistence. However that provision would always be less pleasant and tougher than even the hardest job with the longest hours.

Charles Dickens wrote his bestselling book A Christmas Carol for the festive season of 1843 less than 10 years after the introduction of the workhouse.

In the book the city financier Ebeneezer Scrooge is visited by ghosts and he sees the error of his ways in how he was treating his clerk Bob Cratchit. That was Dickens’s desired conclusion and a suitably uplifting tale for Christmas.

However, his description of Scrooge’s views early in the book reflect the realities of attitudes in the early Victorian City of London (Scrooge’s office was in Cornhill near the Bank of England).

Scrooge is visited by “two portly gentlemen” seeking to collect funds for the poor at Christmas. They tell him that “many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts.”

Scrooge asks the charity collectors if by some chance the workhouses and prisons are no longer operating. He goes on to make it clear that he will be contributing nothing to the less well-off at Christmas: “I don’t make myself merry at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned” (prisons and workhouses); “they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”

The 2018 equivalent would perhaps to be to collect for Crisis at Christmas or for a foodbank. Scrooge’s view was that the misfortunes of the poor were entirely their own fault and it is not difficult to spot very similar views among Tory MPs when Jeremy Corbyn raises the situation of the those in need in the Commons.

In recent weeks Tory MPs, including the architect of universal credit Iain Duncan Smith, have been pictured smiling at foodbanks. Clearly for media image purposes they have taken Dickens’s conclusion to a Christmas Carol on board — that at Christmas the harsh words and practices of neoliberalism are abandoned for a more benevolent approach.

The reality is, however, that Christmas 2018 will be just as tough for many who are at the wrong end of market capitalism as it was in 1843 when Dickens’s book appeared.

 

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