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Workers or Shirkers? Ian Hislop’s Victorian Benefits on BBC Two

ByChris Lynch

Apr 19, 2016

Last week, a new documentary entitled Workers or Shirkers? Ian Hislop’s Victorian Benefits premiered on iPlayer.

In keeping with the witty, sardonic style of Hislop’s historical investigations of Victorian and Edwardian England, the film sees the news pundit explore the colourful and contentious history behind an issue that for generations has been a mighty hot potato: welfare.

Fundamentally, Hislop exposes the current debate surrounding who can and should expect state support to be one rooted in Victorian debates about the deserving and undeserving poor. Though he avoids colouring the documentary with too much pushy moralising, there is a clear message: there’s nothing new or noble in dividing the poor into ‘strivers’ and ‘shirkers’.

Peppered with intelligent contributions from various voices in this contentious political quagmire, Hislop is always a little smug, but never condescending. He tells the story of five individuals whose high-moralist agendas straight out of Victorian England remain powerfully resonant. Iain Duncan Smith is visibly moved when describing the lack of hope he has encountered as minister in charge of benefits – ‘She wanted to be better than her circumstances’, he tearfully remembers. There is much discussion of paternalism and the Victorian commitment to self-improvement through incentivising work, and the use of archive reels and photos keeps the whole narrative sharp and always watchable. Pace and colour retain the viewer’s attention

Victorian paternalist Edwin Chadwick championed the workhouse and suspected hand-outs would lead to scroungers, shirkers and frauds. That might sound morally admirable – but was his solution simply too unkind? Helen Bosanquet, a proto-social worker – albeit driven by an arrogantly pursued moral crusade –  believed that poverty was caused by ‘bad character’. Are some people genuinely more deserving than others? Even if we seek to be generous, are there limits on how much we can afford to help? After we see the loss of non-contributory benefits, do we risk losing what has been gained in pursuit of greater social justice, condemned instead to reasserting the stupidity and fecklessness of those in poverty? It is with this alarming question, and all the urgency it invokes, that Hislop concludes this tour-de-force of welfare history.

Image: Samuel Dukinfield Swarbreck

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