Opinion

John Bird: We must move on from Dickens-style sentimental poverty

The poor must be given a chance to get themselves out of poverty – it's not a problem we should be fixing from above.

Charles Dickens delivering a speech for the Dulwich College Charity Meeting, 1856. Copyright: Charles Dickens Museum.

I recommend if you ever get to wander the streets of London’s centre, go down by Kingsway and The Aldwych, right in the heart of London; and reflect on The Old Curiosity Shop.

Wordsworth wrote a great poem about looking at London called Upon Westminster Bridge. He was overawed by Westminster Bridge in the early years of the 19th century when the River Thames was thick with commerce; skiffs, and ships, boats and boatmen, sailors and lightermen.

Go and ponder on The Old Curiosity Shop, which even in Charles Dickens’ day was ancient. He based one of his books on it, full of love for the poor, the poor providing him with the richest of his rich characters. Ponder on this still old shop, surrounded by an increasing modernising cityscape, of office brick and glass. And see the old and new, with the new seemingly making the old feel under threat.

Like Wordsworth’s great poem you can see so much in this London that can overwhelm your thinking.

The poor, it would seem, had traditionally been seen as those that you did things to

Passing and stopping and looking at The Old Curiosity Shop last week probably unnerved me. I pondered and wondered. I was thrown by its continuity in an ever-grasping modernity, where every square inch of London sucks money from the rest of the UK, or imports it from places where money seems to grow on trees. Making London one vast piece of hot property. Where soon the red phone boxes, I imagine, will be available for rent on Airbnb.

The encroaching world that surrounds the old shop, now a storehouse for a shoe company, is not though your usual commercial plundering. It is The London School of Economics. The LSE has moved from a few fusty Edwardian buildings from a quarter of a century ago into a powerhouse, a campus of countless buildings right at the centre where capital usually is allowed to hold sway. The pursuit of knowledge and self-improvement for students is given full reign whilst old hotels are made brand-spankingly new, and old office blocks of post-war concrete are diversified into modern real estate.

I was going to a talk in the LSE by The Webb Memorial Trust who take their impetus from the works of Beatrice Webb. Barry Knight, academic and writer, one could call him also agitator, had a new book out called Rethinking Poverty: What makes a good society?

And he was coming up with the novel idea that poverty might be better solved not from the above but from the below.

I was there because I love this idea. I love the thinking that does not continually describe people in poverty as abject failures who need to be administered to. The poor, it would seem, had traditionally been seen as those that you did things to. Whereas Barry, and I, were saying that you have to do things with the poor, to enable them to get out. This upper imposing has no good record of transforming people into being where they want to be.

The irony of the book being launched in the LSE is that the LSE was founded by Beatrice Webb, who among other things also was one of the thinkers who helped the creation of the welfare state. The welfare state was among other things a very carefully honed ‘imposed from the top to the bottom’ act of social engineering.

I condemned the well-heeled doing the poor-heeled a favour. I saw the cosy bourgeois home and lost the plot

What Professor Barry Knight was saying was that we need to turn the poverty debate on its head. There’s too much of the above thinking going down.

Yet here we were in the very epicentre of the big thinkers who created that magnificent but flawed thing called the welfare state.

We sat in a room with a painting of Beatrice and Sidney Webb. There was a dog, or was it a cat, on the floor. There was a burning fire in a well-made fireplace. There were the general signs of bourgeois family life. But as the couple were childless, the poor acted as their familial substitute.

I was asked to speak. I spoke. I spoke rudely. I condemned this from the above, the well-heeled doing the poor-heeled a favour. I saw the cosy bourgeois home and lost the plot.

But I also thought that the debate around poverty had not changed from the days of Dickens. Where the poor were seen as another species. Yet in fact everyone in the room came from poverty; for even the wealthiest with few exceptions could trace their beginnings back to the relative who burned the candle at both ends and got out of poverty.

I said why not gift to poor people the chance to improve themselves, rather than be stuck on the generosity of the state?

I think I abhor the debate around poverty more than anything. I feel we need to move on from Beatrice Webb, and certainly from the sentimentality of poverty much loved by Charles Dickens.

Yes, yes, he did commendable things. But the best thing you can give the poor is their liberty. And imposition does not provide that.

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