Timothy Stanley: Tory Nostalgia for Victorian Era is Dangerous





[Timothy Stanley is a research fellow in American history at Royal Holloway College, University of London. He is the author of Kennedy vs. Carter: the 1980 Battle for the Democratic Party's Soul]

The promos for the upcoming public service white paper suggest that ideology is driving the government's agenda. David Cameron has stated that his goal is to defund and deconstruct the welfare state, to "dismantle big government and build the big society in its place". His ambition is radical in the purest sense of the word, for it is a conscious attempt to turn the clock back to the historical period for which he feels the greatest affinity: the 19th century.

Victorian Britain was a land of laissez-faire capitalism and self-reliance. Government regulation was minimal and welfare was left to charity. With little tax burden and low labour costs, industrialisation turned Britain into the workshop of the world and created a thriving middle class. The state helped promote and safeguard trade through a bullish foreign policy that created a consumer's empire. In 1839, we even went to war with China to force the Middle Kingdom to lift its ban on imported British opium....

...[T]his is a subtle point that government Victoriaphiles miss about our public services: the welfare state was the 20th century's answer to the social problems created in the 19th. Owen and Rowntree started out as private philanthropists, but they dreamed that one day free schools and hospitals funded by taxation would become national policy. The 19th century closed with the birth of the Labour party – the political summation of the era's reforming spirit. The Victorian revolution enriched and enfranchised the people and what did they do with their newfound money and power? They built the very welfare state the government is now intent on dismantling.


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