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16 October 2010

Roy Hattersley’s warning to the coalition

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

By Daniel Trilling

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.

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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.

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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