At No 11, It's Victorian Values Again

By Hunt, Tristram | New Statesman (1996), October 9, 2000 | Go to article overview

At No 11, It's Victorian Values Again


Hunt, Tristram, New Statesman (1996)


Tristram Hunt argues that the Chancellor is an essentially Dickensian character

In the run-up to the 1983 election campaign, Margaret Thatcher discovered "Victorian values". The Victorian age, she decreed, had been treated very badly by years of socialist propaganda. It was not an age of Dickensian squalor, but of decent values, hard work and self-respect. Reaction from the Labour Party was swift and damning: "Victorian Britain was a place where a few got rich and most got hell," retorted the young Neil Kinnock.

But that was old Labour and this is new Labour. Seventeen years on, the Labour Party can't get enough of Victorian values. New Labour is instinctively drawn to the Victorians -- fiscally, culturally and politically. Much of the rhetoric and moral purpose of this government, from foreign policy to the New Deal, resonates with the old certainties of the 19th century. But while righteous government attracts many, it can put off equally large numbers. When Peter Kilfoyle recently spoke of how his constituents resented "being chastised for being unemployed", he spoke for many on the left who don't look too fondly on the Victorian past and its taste for moral hubris.

The Chancellor is undoubtedly a man of the 19th century. Prudence. Self-help. Charity. These are the Victorian values that Thatcher annexed as Conservative, but which Gordon Brown is slowly trying to regain for the centre left. Fiscally, he is attracted to the stable expenditure and low taxes of Gladstonian finances. But it is his conjunction of economics and morality that marks him out. His guiding belief in the redemptive value of work -- in and of itself -- is thoroughly Victorian. Brown believes in the Atonement of Employment, not the Gospel of the Free Market. As long as the unemployed remain without work, the Chancellor is there to save them. With messianic fervour, he has expanded the New Deal to encompass any remaining jobless. When Ir'n Broon says he is going to "make work pay", you sense he means it in a very personal way. The Chancellor's tight grip on public finances, his horror of inflation, his constant strictures to business to improve productivity -- these are all tinged with a passionate mor al rectitude. There is a distinct impression that he enjoys nothing more than making a few painful decisions.

Across the economic spectrum, the old values are returning. Whereas previous Labour governments have spent what they have not earned, Brown has followed the advice of Thatcher's Victorian grandmother: "We were taught to work jolly hard; we were taught to live within our income." It is now called "locking in stability".

The retreat from the old-left belief in the proficiency of state welfare has also changed the Labour Party's traditional distaste for Victorian voluntary provision. The 19th-century heritage of friendly societies and community-based self-help groups is actively encouraged by new Labour.

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