At No 11, it's Victorian values again

Tristram Hunt argues that the Chancellor is an essentially Dickensian character

In the run-up to the 1983 election campaign, Margaret Thatcher discovered "Victorian values". The Victorian age, she decreed, had been treated very badly by years of socialist propaganda. It was not an age of Dickensian squalor, but of decent values, hard work and self-respect. Reaction from the Labour Party was swift and damning: "Victorian Britain was a place where a few got rich and most got hell," retorted the young Neil Kinnock.

But that was old Labour and this is new Labour. Seventeen years on, the Labour Party can't get enough of Victorian values. New Labour is instinctively drawn to the Victorians - fiscally, culturally and politically. Much of the rhetoric and moral purpose of this government, from foreign policy to the New Deal, resonates with the old certainties of the 19th century. But while righteous government attracts many, it can put off equally large numbers. When Peter Kilfoyle recently spoke of how his constituents resented "being chastised for being unemployed", he spoke for many on the left who don't look too fondly on the Victorian past and its taste for moral hubris.

The Chancellor is undoubtedly a man of the 19th century. Prudence. Self-help. Charity. These are the Victorian values that Thatcher annexed as Conservative, but which Gordon Brown is slowly trying to regain for the centre left. Fiscally, he is attracted to the stable expenditure and low taxes of Gladstonian finances. But it is his conjunction of economics and morality that marks him out. His guiding belief in the redemptive value of work - in and of itself - is thoroughly Victorian. Brown believes in the Atonement of Employment, not the Gospel of the Free Market. As long as the unemployed remain without work, the Chancellor is there to save them. With messianic fervour, he has expanded the New Deal to encompass any remaining jobless. When Ir'n Broon says he is going to "make work pay", you sense he means it in a very personal way. The Chancellor's tight grip on public finances, his horror of inflation, his constant strictures to business to improve productivity - these are all tinged with a passionate moral rectitude. There is a distinct impression that he enjoys nothing more than making a few painful decisions.

Across the economic spectrum, the old values are returning. Whereas previous Labour governments have spent what they have not earned, Brown has followed the advice of Thatcher's Victorian grandmother: "We were taught to work jolly hard; we were taught to live within our income." It is now called "locking in stability".

The retreat from the old-left belief in the proficiency of state welfare has also changed the Labour Party's traditional distaste for Victorian voluntary provision. The 19th-century heritage of friendly societies and community-based self-help groups is actively encouraged by new Labour. Where once charity was condemned by the left as patronising and a denial of the state's function, it is now given tax breaks. Brown has positively championed the virtue of Victorian society, with its rich fabric of voluntary societies, Oddfellows and brotherhoods, as a model for a modern, post-Beveridge welfare system. Most recently, in a speech to the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, he heralded the "civic patriotism" of Victorian civil society, with its network of friendly societies, charities and self-help.

Brown himself is a brilliantly Victorian character. His thunderous stewardship of the Treasury, where he makes an early start on the day and encourages others to do the same, with its endless intrigues and imperial domination of other departments, is testimony to his personal belief in workfulness. The Calvinist sense of mission, the tragic relationship with the Prime Minister and the Heathcliff locks only add to his Victorian mystique. When the Chancellor speaks of Adam Smith, he could well have been a personal friend from university days. Had Brown lived 200 years earlier, he would almost certainly have been a role model for one of Samuel Smiles's heroes of self-help.

Yet where the Chancellor is an early Victorian, the Prime Minister belongs to the more introspective late-Victorian era. Brown is driven by a sense of sin, Tony Blair by a Christian sense of optimism. His belief structure is to be found amid the New Liberals of the 1890s. The ideas of T H Green and Leonard Hobhouse provide many of the foundations of the Third Way. Before the split between Labour and the Liberals, the forces of radical progress had been united in a belief in the moral purpose of the individual, the value of civil society and community. The idealism of the late 19th century, the optimistic belief in the power of society to redress inequalities and challenge the "forces of conservatism", produced the radical reforms of the Lloyd George era and unprecedented Liberal and Labour co-operation. When Labour swung to socialism in 1918, this radical unity was lost. When the Prime Minister talks of reuniting the progressive forces of politics, it is to the Liberals of the late Victorian era that he looks.

From new policies on elected mayors and civic regeneration to state-sanctioned circulars on teaching the virtue of marriage in school, Victorian values are back in fashion. They are solid, socialist Labour Party values. As Raphael Samuel once argued, those who stood most steadfastly for Victorian values during the 1980s, whether interpreted in terms of family solidarity, the dignity of work or the security of the home, were not the brash yuppies or tabloid editors of the Thatcherite nation, but the distinctly old-Labour communities of striking miners.