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.