Friday 20 February 2009

Paxman in the workhouse

It was very helpful - as we build up to Saturday's centenary conference on the 1909 Poor Law Minority Report at the LSE - of Jeremy Paxman to try a bit of stone-breaking and a bowl of gruel to capture the indignities of the workhouse in his The Victorians' television series on Sunday night. Bizarrely, this led AN Wilson to ask why our politicians lack the courage to call for a return to the workhouse. My piece about this on Comment is Free generated some very informed and interesting comments about the history of the Poor Laws.

The Guardian's editorial 'In praise of Beatrice Webb' yesterday declared that the minority report issued an obituary for the workhouse, even if it took another generation to achieve it.

The Webbs dealt an ultimately fatal blow to the idea that paupers were to blame for their own condition and that provision for them should be at just above starvation level, lest other morally weak individuals be tempted to join them. Hence the workhouse, an institution designed to offer no comfort, no prospects and no hope ...

The minority report and the less radical majority report were rejected by the Liberal government of the day. Workhouses lingered on in various forms and the poor law itself lasted until 1948 - but Beatrice had already written its obituary in 1909.

These points ought to be common ground across politics, but the leader has sparked an online discussion about the Webb's controversial and contested reputation, particularly around their later pro-Soviet writings. I have joined in the fray.

There are a couple of letters responding to the editorial today, one of which from Revered Michael Peet highlights the events being held across next week in both East London and Westminster to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of George Lansbury.

The other Guardian letter argues for a more participatory approach to poverty. Fabian research fellow James Gregory argues on the Progress website that the idea of the 'basic minimum' became too narrow after Beveridge.

And Peter Townsend, among those who inherited and did most to extend the Fabian tradition at the LSE, argues in his contribution to the new Fabian collection that the spirit of 1909 would today in 2009 be best applied to the fundamental reform of the World Bank.

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