Little bit of history repeating …

The gap between the rich and poor is hurtling towards Victorian levels, the High Pay Commission tells us. The BBC reports “its study lists a 12-point plan to stop ‘high pay creating inequalities last seen in the Victorian era’”.

This comes as no surprise to most. It’s also not the only comparison: old Tories dominated politics, for the most part, between 1885 and 1906; Cameron’s intention to use philanthropic intervention rather than state aid makes even more chilling reading when seen as part of his long-term thinking regarding the workers of this country; unemployed workers are still told to get a job, any job, dismissed as lazy as we were by many Victorians; and food parcels are being given to the jobless who are not given the financial help they need and deserve.

But we know of Victorian poverty, don’t we? We’ve been taught it in school: it is way back when, another world, unrecognisable to the iPod carrying, Starbucks drinking, McDonald’s eating generation.

Not really. Forget the Winter of Discontent we’re re-tracing the steps of our Victorian ancestors.

As the tents go up we can recall, perhaps, the Trafalgar Square demonstration of November 1887 during which politically-motivated violence led to moral panic: police and soldiers were called in to stop the demonstration but a crowd estimated at 10,000 gathered  – with East London meeting West London in an event seen as a focus of the class struggle.

Or perhaps we can recall the London Dock Strike of 1889 which saw the unions grow among workers and brought attention to the problem of poverty and, with it, public sympathy.

Or the Matchworkers’ Strike of 1888 when workers reacted angrily to the sacking of a colleague, the poor working conditions, fourteen-hour work days, poor pay, excessive fines, and the health complications of working with white phosphorous.

In just eight days this country will see workers from at least 26 unions – around three million workers – walk out. Demonstrations will take place across the country as workers fight against government demands for them to pay more into their pensions, work for longer and retire with less.

Meanwhile, the average chief executive in the UK earns £3,740,000 compared to the average worker earning £25, 900 – 145 times more. The High Pay Commission says this is not sustainable.

Asa Briggs analysed Victorians writing about cities back in 1963 and, of those depicting Manchester, said: “As early as the 1780s writers were describing a “growing gulf” between rich and poor.”

Benjamin Disreali wrote in Sybil (The Two Nations) published in 1845: “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets; who are formed by different breeding, are fed by different food, are ordered by different manners, and are not governed by the same laws … THE RICH AND THE POOR.”

And Friedrich Engels wondered in 1844 what would become of Manchester’s “populous millions who owned nothing and consumed today what they made yesterday […] those who are daily becoming more and more aware of their power and pressing more and more strongly for their share of the social advantages.”

It is impossible not to make the distinct comparison between Victorian workers and workers now as we face the same economic inequalities, the same political upheaval and watch as the poor face homelessness, joblessness and poverty while the rich who caused this global crisis sit pretty … earning 145 times more despite their failure.

And when novelist and journalist Margaret Harkness’ wrote in A Manchester Shirtmaker, in 1890, “… it’s better to work for him than to walk about looking for work and finding nothing,” I consider my own traipse around employment agencies.

Now I intend to join demonstrations on November 30 with workers taking a stand against this appalling inequality … just as my ancestors did.


4 thoughts on “Little bit of history repeating …

  1. Sorry UH you usually speak a lot of good sense. We are nowhere near ‘Victorian levels of poverty…that was a grinding poverty with no recourse to the Welfare State if they lost their jobs or fell ill or lost limbs (as frequently happened in industrial accidents, way before H&S). We don’t have work houses, child labour (all children have free education until they are at least 16) but in those days poor children were forced up chimneys and worked in little more than sweat shops even before they hit their tenth birthdays. Disease was rife and with no free NHS (as it is now for doc appointments for all and as it is now for those who can’t afford it for prescriptions) people died (clearly that was also in part due to lack of curative treatments in those days) but illness and injury due to lack of money were left to fester. Think of the man injured in an industrial accident and sacked by his boss – how different would his fate now be than then? Obviously when we are talking about the top echelons of society today compared to then, there is still a huge gulf but to compare our society now to ‘Victorian times’ is very irresponsible, not to say wildly inaccurate.

    • The inequality of pay is reaching Victorian levels and, no, we don’t have workhouses but we’re soon to have Workfare where the unemployed work for a third of the minimum wage – which renders the Welfare State a nonsense. Unemployed workers are now being tricked into losing benefits – and there are already queues for food parcels for those who simply can’t live on what is available. Tories want a cap on benefits for those with large families. Tories are discussing plans for young people to leave school at 14 and start work. Tories are selling off our NHS and put at risk meeting the needs of everyone at the point of delivery. Tories want more philanthropy and less state help. Tories want to change employment laws that protect workers, starting with stopping our right to claiming unfair dismissal.
      We are hurtling towards pay gaps not seen since Victorian times – the words of the High Pay Commission. My comparison was to the economic, political and social unrest in reaction to the ever increasing gulf between rich and poor which will, inevitably, cause further social unrest. I don’t think it is far-fetched at all. I wish it was.

  2. Whilst I would never have wanted you to lose your job, I appreciate the fact that you have put your skills to use on different subject matter and from a different perspective. A lot of people in this country don’t have a voice and your work is helping to open up debate. OK, we aren’t all putting our kids up chimneys, but we have lost a lot and we don’t even know it and there is worse to come, as any fule kno. Please keep the articles coming.

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