Ah, Christmas. A Christmas Carol here, an M R James ghost story there; costume dramas by the plenty. Oh, and what’s that under the Christmas tree? It’s the latest brainwave from the government to facilitate a return to the charm of the nineteenth century. How clever of you to think of it! An option that enables you to donate to charity when you use a cash machine! Oh, you really shouldn’t have!
This initiative might sound perfectly reasonable. There can’t be anything wrong with encouraging charitable giving - can there? ‘Come on Bev’, I hear you say, ‘you’ve obviously over-identified with Scrooge as you lay on the sofa between two penguins stuffing your face with chocolates and watching Alastair Sim’s peerless performance as everyone’s favourite miser. Dig deep in your pocket, you miserable woman, and help the homeless/sick/poor/needy (delete as appropriate).’
At the risk of sounding even more Scrooge-like, I think there is something deeply cynical about this attempt to cultivate charitable giving. It is not an innocent move, and must be viewed against the backdrop of the government's ideology. Cam, remember, is something of a fan of the nineteenth century, seeing in its values and attitudes much to emulate. In particular, he wishes a return to it as the home of philanthropy.
Perhaps I have been watching too many ghost stories over the festive period, but there is something sinister about this eulogising of the values of a bygone age, not least because it suggests much about that which drives the vision of the Big Society as well as the government’s approach to the deficit.
Consider the evidence. At the same time as promoting charity and volunteering, the government are taking an axe to all areas of state provision. Swingeing cuts are on the way for public services. Cuts to the welfare budget are coming with housing benefit particularly under fire. Government support for higher education has been shredded. The NHS is facing a series of reforms that will destroy the general provision supported by state regulation.
Call me a conspiracy theorist but I find it hard to believe that it is mere chance that our screens are replete with dramas pre-1945 at a time when Cameron & Co are seeking to push back the boundaries of the state. I am, as it happens, feeling rather smug that I managed to miss Upstairs, Downstairs over the Christmas period. I will never know if it was more honest about the experience of domestic service than the teeth-grinding duplicity of Downton. I suspect it was, as it was written by a socialist rather than a new Tory peer. But I can’t shake off my distrust of dramas that use gorgeous sets and costumes at a time when we are being asked to look to the Victorians for answers to our present. Such dramas lull us into thinking how lovely such a time must have been. It wasn’t. It only looked that way if you were rich.
And that is the key point. Replacing the welfare state with a philanthropic state ignores what happens to the people who slip through the net. Our great Victorian writers were at pains to document the horrors of their society: Dickens details the warping effects of poverty, describing the degraded humanity that emerges out of the struggle to live. And Robert Tressell brilliantly describes the slow, eked out death of working class lives which end inexorably in the ignominy of the workhouse.
There is much moralising about ‘entitlement’ – usually by the sharp elbowed middle classes who always know what is due to them - but an important truth lies at its heart. All human beings are important enough to have their needs taken seriously. No one should have to beg or to rely on the kindness of strangers for what they deserve because they are human. The lesson of the nineteenth century, if we care to learn it, is that as the state withdraws, the wealthy will, as ever, be able to buy their way out of trouble. The less well off will not. The poor will sink.
There is an alternative. Its principles underpin the welfare state established by Labour in 1945. Now we need to refresh that principle, establishing a proper conversation about tax, about the nature of society, about the need to challenge the growing gap between rich and poor which fragments society and creates envy, greed and suspicion. Charity is no alternative to proper contributions made by all to the society in which all participate.
If we must return to the past, let’s at least return to 1945 and the founding principle of the welfare state: “From each according to their ability; to each according to their need.”