Victorian values

Twenty years ago John Major's doomed government proclaimed a return to "Victorian values", by which he meant rosy ideals around duty and morality. Sadly, the current Conservative-led government seems intent on promoting its own version of those "values"... values in which people could cheerfully sing a hymn including the lines The rich man in his castle/The poor man at his gate/He made them high and lowly/He ordered their estate...

These are the "values" which blamed the poor for their own poverty, and separated the deserving from the undeserving poor, stigmatising the latter while doling out meagre charity to the former. These "values" saw pitiless workhouses as a justifiable solution to destitution, while the working poor were herded into overcrowded tenements and made to toil long hours in dangerous, unhealthy conditions for a pittance. These "values" kept the well-fed rich in their castles and mansions, often blissfully oblivious to the squalor and degradation outside their gates. And these are the "values" which were rejected by certain Victorian giants such as Robert Owen, Octavia Hill and Lord Shaftesbury, and other lesser-known philanthropists and campaigners, which we now smugly tut tut over, because a civilised, enlightened society such as ours should never treat its people in this way...

Except that we do. Over the last few days I have read too many depressing reports about the plans to plug too many gaps in welfare provision from April 1st: about food banks as the solution to destitution, and councils proposing to give restrictive vouchers to the better-behaved, more compliant poor. I read about disabled people about to lose large amounts of housing benefit, and safety nets being legislated out of existence; about the working poor being motivated to work harder by threats of greater insecurity and fewer rights, while the working rich are motivated by obscenely large bonuses and perks. And I hear the rhetoric, which divides "hard-working" poor from "idle, feckless" poor... and I wonder how long it will be before some right-wing thinktank suggests paying private companies to turn redundant factories into places which can house the newly homeless and give them work to keep them from idleness... thus "work" and "house" all neatly in one place...

And then I hear the anti-immigrant rhetoric: largely empty words and promises, but who cares, as long as poor immigrants are divided from poor natives, and poor natives have a convenient scapegoat on which to heap their anger? Maybe the next suggestion will be to make immigrants wear something distinctive, so natives can easily spot them in the street, and know who to blame and harass, and whose windows to smash. Something brightly-coloured perhaps?

Today, Good Friday, is the day we commemorate the scapegoating of Jesus: insults, violence, anger, humiliation, heaped on an innocent man. We sorrowfully recall the damage done by fickle, easily-manipulated public opinion, and pray for the grace to raise our heads above the parapet of this opinion in our discipleship and our witnessing to the love and the message of Jesus. But, will there be a bishop or other church leader out there brave enough to raise his head above the parapet and rebuke and challenge the government?


  1. May I gently suggest that a sister might be more careful before she attacked others from what may be a prejudiced position. John Major never suggested returning to Victorian values, his own childhood, brought up in the poverty of the family of a travelling Music Hall artist would never have allowed that. He did seek to return to what he saw as the basics of personal responsibility, care for others, a sense of obligation and duty as well as a recognition of rights. It isn't therefore surprising that his Government saw the poorest significantly better off. He was the first Prime Minister to espouse the cause of sustainability and he laid the foundation for he Kyoto protocol. It was the next Government under which the poor got poorer and the rich richer. All politicians have their failings but they do have the right to a fair judgement and not one which appears to arise from prejudice and an incorrect memory of the facts.

    1. Thank you for visiting this blog. The other day I saw your own blog recently listed on Britcat, and have been reading it.

      As for my memories... I came of age at the start of the Thatcher years, and I well remember the increasing gap between rich and poor, the erosion of the NHS and the privatisation of public services, among other things, which went on throughout the 80s.

      My memory of the Major years is not faulty - he did propose a return to classic Victorian values, what he called "Back to Basics". My memory of those years, in fact, chimes in with the memory of this political blogger

      I also remember The Common Good, the inspiring document produced by the Catholic Bishops in 1996 in response to so much of what was going on.

      None of which, sadly, makes the current situation any better for the poor and vulnerable who are already suffering and due to suffer more as a result of savage government cuts, and a recession they did not cause but for which they are paying. They are the reason I wrote this blogpost.


Post a Comment