If you haven’t read The Road to Wigan Pier yet, now might be a good time to add it to your reading list. It isn’t just a searing indictment of everything that had gone wrong in the economic policies of the 1930s and their effects on the day-to-day lives of millions in that blighted Northern town.
The book is more than misery tourism for the titillation of the Left Book Club subscribers who first read it. Instead, George Orwell was moved to take the train to Wigan by what he saw as the rich’s callous disregard for the plight of the unemployed.
In the 1930s, unemployment was heavily concentrated in the North of England and South Wales, while cities such as Oxford remained close to full employment. This according to another essential read for all those concerned at how the coming years could pan out, ‘The Slump’ by Stevenson and Cook. More prosperous parts of the country had little first-hand knowledge of the conditions of the worst-hit regions until hunger marchers, such as those from Jarrow, began to show up.
In such conditions, myths abounded and needed to be busted. Canards like: ‘there is work available but they simply don’t want it’ and the indignation and misanthropy wrapped up in ‘but the dole is so high they can even get married on it!’, along with:
doubtless even at this late date the old ladies in Brighton boarding-houses are saying that ‘if you give those miners baths they only use them to keep coal in’
were all examples of an effective blame-the-victim strategy which has barely needed to be altered nearly 80 years on.
True, no-one is accusing the ‘toerags’ of keeping coal in the bath. Perhaps that one could be changed to ‘cans of Stella’. For they are now permanently tagged as ‘the undeserving poor’: cheap beer-swilling, Jeremy Kyle-watching, mindlessly shagging layabouts that our brand spanking new Big Society can ill afford to have laying on the sofa.
Such misinformation stank in 1936 and is no more fragrant now. It wasn’t the unemployed that encouraged banks to act like casinos, or hospitals and schools to mortgage their futures with unaffordable PFI deals. The poor didn’t see many benefits from the cheap credit that flowed during most of the last decade, as they were left to negotiate with the baseball bat-wielding loan sharks, rather than the ones in Gieves & Hawkes suits.
In The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wondered what it would finally take to tip the British into revolution, lamenting that they had been so cheaply bought off with the illusion of wealth provided by a radio in every home and cheaper clothes and furnishings. Now it is a flippin’ huge HD plasma TV for all, Primark and Ikea that give us the warm feeling that everything is still ok, Jack, and there is no need to take to the streets in Greek-style protest as every service so hard-fought for by our grandparents gets stripped away in the name of debt reduction.
Well maybe there is a need. Another feature of the 1930s was the dearth of ideas from anyone in Westminster, on the left or the right, on how to tackle the crisis. It took the start of the Second World War to finally see off the Depression and no-one sensible should be suggesting that we go down that route now, however desperately they want to ape their Granny’s gravy-browning-and-eyeliner-pencil-for-stockings. Instead what we need is the type of good old-fashioned, D.I.Y., ‘make do and mend’ mentality that sees us switching off the plasma screen and fighting our own corners for a change.
We can only achieve that if we stick together. Refusing to sanction the branding of the worst off amongst us as cheats, scroungers and toerags is an essential first step.