George Osborne’s division of the nation into Us “Strivers” and Them “Skivers” (but weren’t we once “all in this together” ?) has reminded me of some nineteenth century history I learned at school. It provides some context for Osborne’s venomous jingle two centuries later, and a way of measuring its quality and pedigree.
I still find the nineteenth century fascinating, gripping, a revolutionary time. Of course, the be-numbing changes of our present time are even greater and yet more rapid, yet the overwhelming nature of the changes that took place nearly two centuries ago is clearer to me, more dramatic somehow, than the changes happening now. Time travels faster and faster. The world we have made for ourselves, on top of Nature’s world, is transformed through our activities at faster and faster rate. But we’re in the middle of all that, and it’s harder to see the present from inside and we can only try constantly to catch up, in mind and in psyche, as well as in behaviour.
We are now outside the nineteenth century, well past it, and therefore, at least to some degree, we are in a better position to see its shape. Also perhaps, partly because change was slower then, we can see the rate of it clearer, and can see how that rate must have seemed absolutely bewildering to the people alive at the time. Its effect upon Society was quite volcanic, as a country once mainly agricultural and rural and steady became a country mainly industrial and urban and frenetic.
Just one example : the century began with a road system consisting still largely of mud, with only the main roads dressed with tarmac. Short journeys still took days and there were not even telephones. Canals were a new invention, speeding things up no end. And digging them was speedily done. In just a few decades, the whole country was a vast network of canals. A revolution in communication thus took place within a generation, transforming the country, its economy, its social patterns. But then, only a couple of decades after that, the canals were all effectively out of date and now it was railways, spreading smoke and drama across the land, and leaving the canals far behind, already slow and peaceful havens from industrial rush.
This piece is not a history lesson. It is about the distinction recently made by a man of inherited wealth in a powerful social position, between skiving and striving. I’ll come back to him shortly. But, as I struggle to understand, I need to put him in his place and time, and to do that I need to stay in the past for a little longer.
And what we see as we follow the story of that century is the story of governments, one after the other, playing catch-up with events, as whole populations shifted into new cities formed around factories, away from the land. Slums sprang up, built on the cheap, and these horrendous new urban conditions, unprecedented in the world at that time, did not just call for urgent action, they forced minds to change their appreciation of reality, of the nature of government, of rule and social responsibility.
This was the century of Free Trade, when, for decades, that untrammelled Enterprise so beloved of present-day Tories, held sway. But all the time, Government, whatever the party in power, was taking on more and more responsibility, as the century progressed, to enforce essential standards and regulation which otherwise would not have materialised.
For example, the Public Health Acts, the Factory Acts, and so on.
We don’t have video recordings, of course, of the conditions of those times. But we do have some wonderful etchings (see those of Doré) and also we have Dickens. Dickens raged in his novels and elsewhere at what he saw all round him in the new and burgeoning city, the sub-human conditions in which the poor were living in the slums. But he wasn’t the only one appalled. Generations of social reformers, among whom Quakers were often prominent, kept pressing for amelioration, for stronger government action, for more central responsibility to be taken.
For they began to see that the earlier models of social care and responsibility, the doing of Good Works by the daughters of the gentry, with the Poor Laws and the Work House as last resort, were unable to cope with modern urban conditions. The old interventions, founded in and for a rural economy, were too idiosyncratic, haphazard and occasional. Something more systematic, more centralised, more organised and better resourced, was needed.
And what did those reformers and activists meet when they began to press for change ? They met the convictions of Osborne’s ancestors. There can be no other explanation for this human squalor and degradation, those ancestors told the distressed reformers, than that they have brought it on themselves through wanton living and idleness. It’s their own fault and they deserve it. They have no one to blame here but themselves.
But there is some excuse for this line, at that time. Or at least, I can find something human in it. People need a frame of reference, by which to understand what happens and what confronts them. And of course, all of us want to insulate ourselves a bit, if the going gets rough and challenging.
And these were new conditions, and convincingly rough and challenging, even to onlookers. No one had met such conditions before, affecting the lives of so many people. So middle-class onlookers tended to reach for the nearest and easiest way of explaining the cause, for lack of any other perspective from which to make sense of it.
The low church Christianity professed by much of Society at that time commended thriftiness, sobriety and hard work as indicators of right living, associating it with godliness ; wealth in this life was seen to be an early reward for all that effort, to be followed by grander rewards in the next.
Therefore, it only stood to reason, according to this frame of reference, that anyone poor was likely to be so for lack of virtue and thrift, rather than for any external reason. In other words, they were skivers.
Yah Boo, skivers ! Rolling in the dirt ! It is you who made this dirt your bed ! So now lie in it !
But then, around the end of the century, reports came out saying something different. There was no discipline of sociology then. So these reports had few precedents and charted new ground. But rather than theology and accusatory moralising, they offered hard evidence, based on careful and methodical observation at first hand. There was a major study by Seebohm Rowntree called “Poverty: A study of town life.”And perhaps the most famous and influential of them, “Life and Labour of the People in London,”written by a man called Charles Booth, came out in 1903. And the findings gathered by these reports influenced and finally convinced the policy-makers. The story the reports told was irrefutable and very different from “moral fault” in the victims. They made it indisputably clear that the fault and the cause lay with the conditions those people had to live in, and their powerlessness to change them.
It was those findings, providing hard evidence of the human and social consequences of untrammelled and unregulated capitalism, ruinous to individual and social well-being, in the long term ruinous to the whole of Society, which led to the Welfare State. Interestingly, the very first element of a Welfare State structure appeared, not in England, but in Prussia. This was a state-run old age pension scheme introduced by the arch-conservative and pragmatist Bismark. In the UK, the foundations were built in the early twentieth century, by a Liberal Government under Lloyd George. The task was completed by the Labour Government under Atlee, which came into power just after the Second World War.
Let’s pause a moment, just there. I am a soldier coming home after that war. I know a great man has been Prime Minister through most of these last appalling six years. He has brought us through. But I did not fight this war, under his leadership, merely to continue the world and times he belongs to and speaks for. I shall come back and vote for something new and necessary for a more inclusive and egalitarian Society, something worth all the sacrifices I have made and seen. And having built that new world, after all this pain and learning, I will not allow it to be taken back from me. I will not allow the people who once claimed precedence over me in the old world to climb back on their horses and shove me back to the side of the road.
So the Welfare State was put in place, the National Health Service being perhaps its most iconic feature. The essential principles behind the development, were that Want, and all that follows from Want, does not belong in a civilised Society and won’t be accepted there ; that the State will act powerfully as friend and guarantor of justice for the Weak no less than for the Strong ; so that a strong and enabling State, funded by and accountable to the taxpayer, will be empowered to run essential services to the benefit of the Many, so that civilised living standards are no longer just the preserve of the Few.
I think we have travelled far enough along this particular story-line, this rudimentary tracking of recent history.
It has surely shown us that the Welfare State was founded on the recognition, through decades of learning from experience, that unbridled individualism in industrial and post-industrial societies, unregulated “enterprise”, leads not to social health but to social degradation and ultimately disintegration. The story tells us too that over 100 years ago, responsible people accepted, and acted on their acceptance, that in an urban society, poverty and unemployment is not to be explained by moral fault-finding and pointing fingers ; in the vast majority of cases, the cause comes from external and other factors beyond the individual’s control.
In other words, the whole “skiver” line was disproved ages back and history has moved on.
We are safe in assuming that Osborne was taught as much history at school as I was. He knew that in reaching for the word “skiver” as an explanation for long-term unemployment, he was talking factual and statistical nonsense. He must have decided to go ahead with the lie, because more people would want to hear it, whether they knew it was a lie or not, than would be repelled by it. At worst he would get away with it ; at best, he and his friends would profit by it in some way, presumably at the ballot box.
I can just about understand that reasoning, given what is already clear about how the man works. In the same way, I can more or less understand how a dishonest greengrocer might knowingly sell me a rotten cabbage, and feel himself clever as he retires into his shop, leaving me to discover his deceit when I get home. And will I ever go to that greengrocer again ? Well, of course not. But that doesn’t matter, there will be other poor fools he can deceive tomorrow.
But there is much I cannot understand in Osborne’s wickedly deceitful sally, clearly deliberate, carefully honed to be memorable, carefully timed and swiftly followed up by dramatic skiver-stories gleefully headlined in the still unregulated hooligan press.
It is not just Osborne the individual I fail to understand in this. I believe that, at some level, everyone knows that the Skiver/Striver distinction is a cheap and wanton lie, the throwing down of a piece of red meat for the pack to gorge on. Osborne and his friends and many of his listeners find it profitable to maintain and subscribe to this transparent lie. But henceforward, we shall all know, friend and foe alike, that Osborne is a calculating and brazen liar who doesn’t care two hoots that we know that he is. Such utterly nihilistic cynicism bewilders me. However ineptly, this man holds an important office of state in a democracy. He is showing it scant respect, even while he fails in it. Democracy is a fragile entity. We all need language to speak through, Osborne included, and to use language presupposes that we agree to preserve it for the passing on of fact and truth, one to the other. Otherwise, why speak ? Why not just grunt, or snarl, instead ? The lie is a threat to democracy and to community and leaves us no human world to live in. Osborne and his friends and his tactics are destroying Osborne’s own world. What will his children say ? We are so proud of our father. He sold such rotten cabbages.
I must explain, in my last paragraph here, why this piece is included in a series on mental health issues. It is because 2/5ths of people on long term state benefits have severe and enduring mental health problems. Osborne will know that, too. Many of them will have read or heard that Osborne has called them “skivers,” even though both he and they know that they are not. He used the term, having decided that the profit he could make from his lie would override the possible loss. Manifestly, his lie’s effect upon them did not enter into his calculations.