‘How could you bear it yourself?’
‘This is not just about making the UK a more hostile place for illegal migrants,’ Theresa May, then home secretary, said in September 2013. ‘It is also about fairness.’ A few months later, the coalition government’s Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act, aimed at ‘putting victims first’, received royal assent.
By May 2018, more than fifty local authorities had acquired public space protections orders (PSPOs) which allow the homeless to be moved on, with nowhere to go. ‘I’ve always been a-moving and a-moving on,’ Jo the crossing sweeper tells a policeman in Bleak House, ‘ever since I was born. Where can I possibly move to, sir, more nor I do move!’
By March 2019, at least sixty councils had obtained the power to issue £100 fines for rough sleeping, begging and loitering. If you don’t pay the fine, imposed for asking for money you don’t have, you risk a £1000 penalty. What happens then? If you get a criminal behaviour order for asking for money on the streets and you ask again, you can go to prison for five years.
‘How could you bear it yourself?’ William Morris asked in 1883:
What would you feel if you were poor against the system under which you live? … if I had not been born rich or well-to-do I should have found my position unendurable, and should have been a mere rebel against what would have seemed to me a system of robbery and injustice. Nothing can argue me out of this feeling … the contrasts of rich and poor are unendurable and ought not to be endured by either rich or poor.
The same year, Thomas Hardy wrote in Longman’s Magazine that ‘the Damocles’ sword of the poor is the fear of being turned out of their houses by the farmer or squire.’ He sent copies of his ‘merely descriptive’ article to William Gladstone, in his second term as prime minister, and John Morley, a Liberal MP campaigning for universal suffrage, in support of the Liberal party’s attempts to enfranchise the rural poor. Hardy later recalled a ‘sheep-keeping boy’ he had known as a child who ‘died of want – the contents of his stomach at the autopsy being raw turnip only’.
1883 was also the year that Francis Galton coined the term ‘eugenics’ for his scheme to end poverty by breeding out the working class. He had argued earlier, in Macmillan’s Magazine, that charity was needlessly, and heedlessly, preserving the unfit. If poverty was a biological condition, it was immune to the environmental changes that could be brought about through social reform. Writing in the Contemporary Review in 1885, Arnold White divided the unemployed (the ‘nomad poor of London’) into three categories: 20 per cent were genuinely unemployed; 40 per cent were ‘feckless and incapable’; the remaining 40 per cent were ‘physically, mentally and morally unfit, there is nothing that the nation can do for these men except to let them die out by leaving them alone.’
In October 1883, Andrew Mearns launched his environmentalist counter attack on biologistic accounts of poverty, The Bitter Cry of Outcast London: An Inquiry into the Condition of the Abject Poor, refuting the idea that poverty was hereditary and showing it to be the result not of defective biology but of devastating living conditions. The Pall Mall published a condensed version of the pamphlet along with a leader, ‘Is It Not Time?’, calling for more support and action for the poor. Toynbee Hall, a settlement in the East End devoted to practical social reform, was established the following year, inspiring Jane Addams’s radical Chicago settlement, Hull House, at the end of the decade.
Cesare Lombroso’s L’uomo delinquente, arguing for a biological basis for crime, had been published in 1876, and Havelock Ellis extended the argument in The Criminal (1890). By now, George Sims was running his sensationalist series ‘How the Poor Live’, in Pictorial World, poverty porn for the Victorians, teasing his reader with ‘nameless abominations which could only be set forth were we contributing to the Lancet’. The same othering and denigration of the poor was on display in Channel 4’s Benefits Street (2014-15), quite possibly with electoral consequences.
In 1889 Charles Booth began publishing his 17-volume Life and Labour of the People in London, dividing them into eight classes. An irreducible fraction of the population, Booth argued, the ‘vicious or semi-criminal’, was destined to remain in poverty. Debating the Reform Bill of 1867 in parliament, John Bright had referred to a ‘residuum’ of ‘almost hopeless poverty and dependence’ who should be excluded from the franchise for their own sake.
The idea that national health might be controlled through a neo-Malthusian regulation of reproduction, and that certain social groups might be eliminated by intervention in the nation’s breeding practices, was gaining momentum.
In 1911, James Barr, an Ulster Tory, eugenic activist and president-elect of the British Medical Association, wrote to the Times that sympathy was ‘no business of the State’, speaking out against any move towards a National Health Service. The National Insurance Bill was ‘a long step in the downward path towards Socialism’ that was likely to ‘destroy individual effort and increase that spirit of dependency which is ever found in degenerate races’.
The notion of the residuum set the poor apart, indicating that their descent to the bottom of the social ladder, and into crime – the two were often conflated, as Hardy observed, referring satirically in The Mayor of Casterbridge to ‘households whose crime it was to be poor’ – was somehow inevitable, or natural. In Eugenics and Other Evils (1918), G.K. Chesterton pointed out that what the poor needed was more money, not eugenics. As attitudes towards poverty are hardening again, they now get less, and eugenics is back.
When money was found at the beginning of the Covid-19 lockdown to house, temporarily, 15,000 rough sleepers in hotels and emergency accommodation, it wasn’t because the government had recognised their humanity (and housing and health needs), but so that they wouldn’t pose a risk to more privileged groups.
Last month, Conservative councillors in three towns in Dorset argued for tougher measures against the homeless ‘to boost the area’s economy’ and ‘to ease residents’ concerns’. Residents, that is, with homes. The councillors in Christchurch, Poole (Hardy’s Havenpool) and Bournemouth (Sandbourne) suggested that leaving bedding or bags in doorways should count as a PSPO breach.
On 26 August, the Home Office posted a video describing migrants’ lawyers as ‘activists’. It took it down two days (and 1.5 million views) later, after lawyers (and others) complained that it undermined the rule of law and independence of the judiciary. To seek asylum is not a crime, and neither is being homeless.