The demonisation of the poor: a never-ending story

As anyone who either is- or has a sibling- aged 15 or 16 will know, GCSE exams are on their way. But this isn’t a blog about the impending terror faced by the country’s school leavers. It’s about something that leapt out at me as I was helping my younger sister with her history revision: namely that demonising the poor and vulnerable at times of economic hardship has a far longer pedigree than many realise.

Throughout British history, economic crises caused by elites have been blamed on their victims.

For example, in the 16th century, prices rose and veterans returning from foreign wars found that there were no jobs available for them. Against the backdrop of mass unemployment, Henry VIII then closed the monasteries, important sources of both work and charity to local communities.

As a result of the closures, begging and vagrancy skyrocketed. Not only were there no jobs, the very organisations that had once cared for the poor and unemployed had been destroyed.

Unsurprisingly, the response of the government of the day was to denounce these unfortunate souls as either lazy, alcoholic, or spongerFast forward four centuries to the 1980s. The price of coal was rising, social security was being cut back, and traditional manufacturing jobs were disappearing. Those fighting to defend their jobs were demonised by the Thatcher government as “the enemy within”.

Fast forward another 30 years to 2014. Pick up a paper and you can feast your eyes on horror stories about skiving welfare claimants and alcoholic mothers who spend their child benefit on cheap lager. History continues to repeat itself, and the victims of economic calamities find themselves shouldering the blame again and again. But why?

In Henry VIII’s time, when market forces rendered workers jobless and government action cut off the support once available to the unemployed, the authorities consciously chose to sway public opinion so that the majority would believe those suffering deserved their fate and were not worthy of pity.

The same process is underway in Britain today. The unemployed British worker has been transformed from a hard-working, industrious, but unlucky individual into a ‘skiver’ who shuts his curtains for a lie-in as his mate goes to work.

Don’t believe me? Then read Edwina Currie’s disgusting comments about people using food banks because they would rather spend money on wide-screen TVs than feed their family.

There are plenty of other right-wing politicians and commentators who echo her remarks. This is because the Right realise that if they allow the victims of their policies to be pitied and empathised with they will lose power at the next election. Therefore they must be demonised.

This strategy is necessary because the kind of hard-core free market capitalism many on the Right favour needs scapegoats in order to flourish. Just like in Tudor England, market forces put peoples’ lives in turmoil and when the support systems are taken away they are often plunged into poverty and despair. The only way the system survives if the majority are convinced that the plight of the vulnerable is the result of individual choice, rather than systemic weakness.  

Empathy is the enemy of individualistic capitalism, so those in power need to stamp it out and turn those feelings of empathy into feelings of spite, jealousy and revulsion. When addressing negative stereotypes, the Left needs to show that these caricatures are not reflective of reality, but a fiction spun by the Right so that it can create a free-for-all, devil-take-the-hindmost society, where the accumulation of wealth is the only measure of success. 

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