Monday, 8 December 2008

The new undeserving poor

The fall out from the ‘Baby P’ and Karen Matthews cases continues. I don’t know if the individuals concerned are best described as mad, bad or sad – but I can see a disturbing and predictable reaction brewing.

Arch-wanker Kelvin McKenzie is on the BBC this morning talking about the government’s scheme to force unemployed parents to seek work if their children are a year old. Apparently that's not going far enough. Presumably he would be satisfied if a program of eugenics for the underclass was adopted.

Cameron talks about society being broken. He’s not talking about his ‘society’ though – not Nottinghill and the Bullingdon Club cronies. He’s not talking about the ‘society’ of the Tory’s electoral base either – smug Middle England in the shires and suburbs. He’s talking about another society - of inner city sink estates and families trying to live on benefits.

It’s a society a million miles away from his own world that shocks and scares him - and in a perverse way this gives him a bit of a thrill. It's the combined thrill of moral censure and morbid delight in the very
‘otherness’ of this distant society.

The Victorians had the same relationship with their ‘undeserving poor’. Those incorrigibles who couldn’t be trusted to improve themselves through education or self-help, so had to be coerced into it by workhouses and harangued by evangelists.

But the same Victorian middle class had a salacious desire to walk on the wild side and visit the scary other world. So there was the phenomenon of the toff’s who slummed it visiting ‘the abyss’ of Whitechapel in the 1890’s.

You could dig out any of the popular newspapers of the day and find an echo in what is being said now: The victims of poverty described in the same way as an anthropologist would a newly discovered tribe - and with the same sense of sanctimony tinged with cheap thrills.

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