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The hunger shames

Dan Carrier talks to the author of a new book that exposes some startling truths about living standards in Britain over the past 100 years

05 October, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Food banks are a feature of 21st-century Britain

TURNING the clock back five generations to see how our great-grandparents worked, rested and played is the starting point for a new study by Dartmouth Park-based historian Professor Pat Thane. Her new book, Divided Kingdom, takes the reader on a journey through the political, economic and social history of our nation in the 20th century and up to the present day.

Her research uncovers a shocking truth about the state of the UK in 2018 – that commonly used indicators for living standards show the same number of people are living in poverty as when Queen Victoria’s reign was coming to an end.

In the early 1900s, social researchers Charles Booth and Joseph Rowntree conducted studies of health, work, housing and wages. Their findings so stirred the nation – then the richest in the world – that the Liberal government under Lloyd George set up what would eventually become the welfare state.

“The extent and causes of poverty today are similar to those revealed by the Rowntree Trust,” Professor Thane says.

“At the time, the deeply disturbing findings led to the beginnings of the welfare state, which steadily decreased inequality and poverty through to the 1970s. But since the 1980s, poverty has increased again – mainly due to cuts to welfare, including subsidised housing and the deregulation of the economy. This has been intensified by austerity since 2010.”

In 2018, 30 per cent of children in the UK are living in what government indicators deem “poverty” – comparable to 100 years ago.

Professor Thane: ‘If reducing poverty was possible in the past it should be possible now’

“Government action could reverse this, but unlike the response in the 1900s, there is no sign of changes to austerity policies on benefits, housing and the work force which are known to be making it worse,” she adds.

Professor Thane has written books on areas including the origins of the welfare state and a history of old age.

The main aim of her latest work is to analyse patterns of progress and decline in living standards and the effects of government policies on standards of living.

“I seek to describe this complex picture of continuity and change, social cohesion and social division over time, to understand the origins of contemporary conditions and how to respond to them,” she says.

“What were the main ways to work, what were people’s leisure pursuits, what were the main social movements, and how did policy-makers react to research?”

From the 1980s onwards, the erosion of the welfare state and other neo liberal policies such as low state spending undid decades of progress– and Professor Thane shows how we are feeling the effects now. On top this, Conservative political thought today also mimics the reactions to state provision of housing, health and other areas at the start of the 20th century, she writes. “People were being told back then it was their fault because they were layabouts – it is given as reason for poverty, but obviously it isn’t,” she says. “In both eras, we see people in full-time work are not earning enough to survive.”

The book also questions the claims that the 1970s were a disastrous decade for the UK – a claim made regularly in the media today, as a warning against electing a Jeremy Corbyn-lead Labour government. It is often claimed that the election of Margaret Thatcher solved a number of problems. Instead, the books research suggests the opposite.

“In the 1970s, poverty was at its lowest level and inequality at its narrowest,” she says.

“The welfare state was at its peak. But in the 1970s, you also saw the rise of neo-liberalism – backed by the right-wing press with Rupert Murdoch – take hold. There was a growth in unemployment but that was to do with the Oil Shock rather than the welfare state. There was inflation, too, and that caused trade union militancy – again, not due to state spending. Living standards rose, people took foreign holidays, had central heating installed. We saw legislation against discrimination introduced. The 1970s have been painted very negatively but research shows the 1980s were much, much worse. Poverty and unemployment soared.

“Progress in socio-economic equality went into reverse as neo liberalism became hegemonic from the 1980s. Shocking poverty, including children starving in school holidays, is always in the news. Much of it is caused by the abolition of government measures that reduced poverty in the past. If it was possible then, it should be possible now.”

Divided Kingdom: A History of Britain, 1900 to the Present. By Professor Pat Thane. Cambridge University Press.

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