1928 - The distress in the coalfields

Charity is not enough

Very slowly public opinion is arousing itself to a sense of the terrible situation which exists in the stricken coalfields. During the past week or two there have been signs that the efforts to collect charitable aid for the miners are being intensified, and that the Government is favourable to the movement and disposed to give it help. This indicates an intention to make the results of charitable aid to the miners a little less ludicrously inadequate than it has been hitherto. In reality it is perfectly plain that the problem is of dimensions far beyond the scope of any scheme of charitable relief, no matter how extensive or how fully supported by the Government. The method of charity is absolutely the wrong way of tackling the situation. We have not a word to say against charitable help as a supplement to other and more important efforts. But as a substitute for them it is not merely inadequate, but positively bad and harmful. For it is evident that the efforts of these charitable funds can never hope to get beyond the mere relief of urgent destitution. They can at most merely keep destitute households in being, and prevent positive starvation, although we doubt if they can ever check grave physical deterioration. They cannot, in any conceivable circumstances, make any contribution at all towards solving the problem.

The public, while putting its hand in its pocket in order to mitigate some of the worst of the present distress, should demand far more insistently than hitherto the application of more fundamental measures. Private charity ought at most to be called on only to supplement public assistance to provide comforts and special help, and not the sheer necessaries of decent life, which ought to be forthcoming at the Government's expense. It is common knowledge that, over a large part of the distressed coalfields, all forms of public assistance to able-bodied men have been given up, simply because insurance benefits have long been exhausted and the local authorities can only raise or borrow enough to give help, and very inadequate help at that, to the women and children. The able-bodied men have either to live on a share taken from this inadequate relief or to subsist as they can on the proceeds of private charity. Consequently, physique is deteriorating, powers of moral resistance are being undermined and the entire standard of life in the affected areas is being allowed to slip down to a level of barest physical survival.

The condition of things is quite past bearing. It should outrage the conscience of any civilised community. It is an offence against common sense as well as against common humanity. The case is one for an exceptional measure of help; and what was done, in a far less desperate situation, just after the war, ought to be done again now. A special donation benefit ought to be paid to every unemployed miner for whom no work can be found and the entire cost of the benefit ought to fall on national funds.

We are, of course, fully conscious that the payment of donation, even on a scale sufficient to prevent physical deterioration, is not a remedy but only a palliative of a superior order. That it is, for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, an expensive palliative is one of its merits. For the real remedy, the finding of work for those who are without it, is far more likely to be sought actively by a Government which has to pay a severe fine as the penalty of failure to find it. That the finding of work for a substantial part of the miners now unemployed is a task beyond the Government's power we simply do not believe. There is plenty of work to be done, if only the State will set the necessary machinery in motion, and foot the bill.

We cannot, as civilised people, allow this sort of thing to go on; we cannot be content merely to salve our own consciences by helping to supply a blanket here and a pair of boots there to families that are going short of food every day in the week. The State must step in, both with adequate relief and with constructive measures for the finding of employment. It is our affair to ensure that the State does step in; and until we have ensured this we have no right to eat our own dinners without a sense of shame.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery