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9 August 2021

From the NS archive: Rich and poor

11 August 1917: 100 years hence, people will be amazed that we should have ignored so complacently the horrible evils around us.

By New Statesman

This is an unsigned 1917 review of “The Town Labourer, 1760-1830: the New Civilisation”, the second in a trilogy of books by the social historians JL and Barbara Hammond. The Hammonds’ assessment of the effect of the industrial revolution on town workers is “timely”, the author writes. It’s easy to look back 100 years and note the era’s cruel working conditions; what will people 100 years from now think of us? “It will stagger our future historian – though the fact seems not to penetrate the minds of our governing class – that nine-tenths of the wealth of the nation is in the private ownership of one-tenth of its people,” the author writes. (According to data from January 2021, the richest one per cent own almost a quarter of the UK’s wealth.) The author considers why the wealthy have not worked to prevent the spread of poverty. “They do not, with rare exceptions, believe either in the possibility or the desirability of such a fundamental social change as would remove the evils of which they catch glimpses, any more than did the wealthy of a century ago.”

***

Why is it that it is necessary to treat the great mass of the people as a class apart from the relatively small middle and upper class, to pass special legislation for them, and to hold separate official inquiries into their opinions? How is it that we are today, as Disraeli had the insight to perceive, “two nations”? This is the question which has just been answered in one of the most notable of recent books. What Mr and Mrs Hammond describe, with vivid and intensely interesting detail, is the growth of the mind of the people of England – of the labourers, the landlords, the capitalists, good and bad alike – as affected by the momentous industrial changes that revolutionised the England of 1760-1882. The result has been the growing differentiation between “The Mind of the Poor” and “The Ambitions of the Poor”, on the one hand, with their defences in “The Spirit of Union” and “The Spirit of Religion”; and on the other, “The Mind of the Rich” and “The Conscience of the Rich”. It is laid bare in a remarkably fair and considerate analysis which ought to be read by every one concerned with “Labour Unrest” and “Reconstruction”.

There are several reasons that make the publication of this valuable book at the present moment extremely timely. The “insurrectionism” and class-bitterness that marked the first half of the 19th century arose directly from the cruelties and oppressions to which large sections of the wage-earning population were subjected. It is humiliating to reflect that, a century hence, the future social historian will record, as existing in 1917, a whole series of cruelties and oppressions which he will stigmatise as being as appalling and discreditable as those of 1817 that we now condemn. It is true that we no longer make little boys climb our chimneys, nor open and shut the ventilating doors of the narrow roads in the coal mines. There is some imperfectly enforced limitation of the hours of labour for some of the workers in some of our industries; and in most parts of our towns (being those parts that are most commonly under our own notice) a considerably higher level of public sanitation has been reached. But what is now brought home to us is the extent to which the good people of the time were blind to the horrors around them. It is impossible to avoid the inference that our good people are equally unable to perceive what is happening. When the Mr and Mrs Hammond of a hundred years hence describe “the England of the Great Reconstruction”, they will be amazed that we should have ignored so complacently the horrible evils around us.

The “homes of England” are such that more than three million people “pig in” more than two to a room; in Glasgow, indeed, 28 per cent of the entire population live actually more than three to a room. The “shortage” in working-class dwellings, even at our customary low standard, now amounts to no less than one million. The infantile death-rate in the places where two-thirds of the population live is still demonstrably two or three times as great as among the poorest and most ignorant families in the West of Ireland. Our failure to provide even decent conditions for maternity in working-class families is the cause of intolerable suffering on a large scale. Children of any age, however small, may, in one part of the kingdom, still be lawfully employed for wages in various forms of industry, for any number of hours, without any school requirements; at least haIf a million of the children between five and 12 or 18 who are required to attend school are also industrially employed for hire, making a cruelly long day’s work. The hours and conditions of employment of adolescents in factories and mines (to say nothing of the entirely unregulated occupations) are such as will amaze the 21st century at our short-sighted barbarity. At least a quarter of the whole population, in the midst of an unprecedentedly large wealth production, are, as Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman once blurted out, never far removed from starvation; and so cool an observer as Huxley could declare that the lot to which our civilisation condemned the average town labourer was such that the condition of the Pacific Islander was preferable. It will stagger our future historian – though the fact seems not to penetrate the minds of our governing class – that nine-tenths of the wealth of the nation is in the private ownership of one-tenth of its people; and that of the proceeds of each year’s production three-fifths are taken by less than one-fifth of the community, necessarily leaving the bulk of the four-fifths poor indeed.

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What prevented the really good and able people of influence, say, after the Peace of 1815, from grappling seriously with the social evils of which they from time to time caught glimpses, was the conviction that brought them so much comfort that nothing could be altered: that for those who did not happen to possess property (and all could not be rich) privation and insecurity and suffering were inevitable and part of the order of Providence; that it was, after all, better for culture and scientific advance and the further accumulation of capital that there should always be a wealthy class, and therefore the continuance of poverty was only a regrettable incident, not unduly to be dwelt upon; and that “cheap labour” indeed, and therefore low wages, were indispensable to any continuance of the nation’s prosperity and high position in the world, without which its swollen population could not find employment at all. To practically all the “enlightened” people of the first three-quarters of the 19th century “Political Economy”, like “Christianity”, was “not a standard by which to judge the institutions of society, but a reason for accepting them”. The uncomfortable conviction emerges in the mind of the reader that this is exactly “The Mind of the Rich” of today. They do not, with rare exceptions, believe either in the possibility or the desirability of such a fundamental social change as would remove the evils of which they catch glimpses, any more than did the wealthy of a century ago.

How will the Reconstruction that will be undertaken after the coming peace differ from that which our ancestors doubtless thought they were undertaking after 1815? We delude ourselves if we imagine that, in essentials, “The Mind of the Rich” is very different today from that which Mr and Mrs Hammond describe. It is half a century ago that Matthew Arnold called upon us, as a matter of good taste, to “Choose Equality” at the banquet of life; and it may be doubted whether as many as one per cent of the propertied class have any belief in (or any genuine desire to further) the “Equalitarian State”. Three momentous changes will, however, tend to make the Reconstruction of 1918-28 differ from that of 1815-25. Our wage-slaves are now armed, not only with reading and writing, but also with the parliamentary and municipal vote in one hand, and with the tremendous weapon of industrial combination in the other. However much they may be cajoled and deceived by the politicians and the newspapers defending the status quo, the ever-present power of “holding up” the community, whether politically or industrially, will command incessant attention, and compel successive reforms.

In the second place, we have to recognise that sweeping reforms are now practicable which were a hundred years ago out of the question. There is today a potent two-handed engine at the door, which we may describe either as the highly organised and quite reasonably efficient machinery of representative government, central and local – pliant as an elephant’s trunk and capable, as the war has proved, of doing almost anything whatsoever that we desire it to do – or as the highly sharpened razor of progressive, differentiated and cumulative taxation, which has only just begun to be made use of for its legitimate purpose of social redistribution. And in the third place, there is, on the side of the Reconstruction, economic knowledge and political science. No more can it be said with sense that political economy affords any justification for the present state of things, or throws its weight against fundamental changes. The economic professors of today will be slow to take up the position of “chaplain of the pirate ship”. We know now that poverty is no more inevitable in the world than war. Like war, it is the outcome only of stupidity and ill-will. There is nothing in the reforms that will be pressed for that cannot and will not be supported and justified – to the bewilderment of the propertied class – by the most ” orthodox ” of the economists. The coming democracy will thus have on its side numbers and knowledge, and will have at its disposal the governmental machinery and the instrument of taxation. On the other hand, it will be cursed by stupidity and sentimentality, and rent asunder by jealousy and suspicion; and it will be desperately fought with all the weapons of chicanery and cajolery, individual bribery and sham reforms.

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Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)