Roy Hattersley's warning to the coalition

He attacks the myth of Victorian values and, by implication, Cameron's "Big Society" project.

There's an interesting coda to Roy Hattersley's review this week of Henry Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor. The book, republished this month by Oxford University Press, is a landmark work of 19th century journalism that exposed the full horror of poverty in Victorian London. As Hattersley writes, it was

A sociological investigation into the abject, degrading poverty that lay beneath the glory and grandeur of Victorian Britain [...] He recounts the horrors of life in the lower depths with a chilling objectivity.

But it's Hattersley's conclusion that catches the eye. In the context of David Cameron's "Big Society", which envisages the shrinking of the welfare state and a return to Victorian-style private philanthrophy, it's hard not to see it as a warning to the present government:

Yet, although Mayhew undoubtedly excelled at what we would call "investigative journalism", it is hard to enjoy reading London Labour and the London Poor. Despite the indomitable cheerfulness of so many of its characters and the heroic resilience with which they faced the horrors of their daily lives, theirs is a story with few redeeming features.

In a city that thought itself the centre of the world, thousands of families lived in a squalor that the politicians of the time regarded as the necessary outcome of an economic system which provided prosperity for the more fortunate members of society.

The only uplifting feature of London Labour and the London Poor is the certainty that we have become a more gentle and compassionate country. Anyone who believes that Victorian England was the flowering of Christian civilisation should grit their teeth and read it.

You can read the full review in the current issue of the New Statesman

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Theresa May shows how her confidence has grown

After her Brexit speech, the PM declared of Jeremy Corbyn: "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue". 

The woman derided as “Theresa Maybe” believes she has neutralised that charge. Following her Brexit speech, Theresa May cut a far more confident figure at today's PMQs. Jeremy Corbyn inevitably devoted all six of his questions to Europe but failed to land a definitive blow.

He began by denouncing May for “sidelining parliament” at the very moment the UK was supposedly reclaiming sovereignty (though he yesterday praised her for guaranteeing MPs would get a vote). “It’s not so much the Iron Lady as the irony lady,” he quipped. But May, who has sometimes faltered against Corbyn, had a ready retort. The Labour leader, she noted, had denounced the government for planning to leave the single market while simultaneously seeking “access” to it. Yet “access”, she went on, was precisely what Corbyn had demanded (seemingly having confused it with full membership). "I've got a plan - he doesn't have a clue,” she declared.

When Corbyn recalled May’s economic warnings during the referendum (“Does she now disagree with herself?”), the PM was able to reply: “I said if we voted to leave the EU the sky would not fall in and look at what has happened to our economic situation since we voted to leave the EU”.

Corbyn’s subsequent question on whether May would pay for single market access was less wounding than it might have been because she has consistently refused to rule out budget contributions (though yesterday emphasised that the days of “vast” payments were over).

When the Labour leader ended by rightly hailing the contribution immigrants made to public services (“The real pressure on public services comes from a government that slashed billions”), May took full opportunity of the chance to have the last word, launching a full-frontal attack on his leadership and a defence of hers. “There is indeed a difference - when I look at the issue of Brexit or any other issues like the NHS or social care, I consider the issue, I set out my plan and I stick to it. It's called leadership, he should try it some time.”

For May, life will soon get harder. Once Article 50 is triggered, it is the EU 27, not the UK, that will take back control (the withdrawal agreement must be approved by at least 72 per cent of member states). With MPs now guaranteed a vote on the final outcome, parliament will also reassert itself. But for now, May can reflect with satisfaction on her strengthened position.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.