Orwell versus Osborne on the ‘undeserving’ poor

Orwell’s literature offers a prism for reflecting upon contemporary views of the poor that challenges the dominant narrative of discrimination and contempt

Matthew Watson
Matthew Watson

Restrictions to UK welfare budgets demand that urgent attention is given to the issue of poverty.  This is not just a question of who is actually poor and why, but also of the labels attached to people who find themselves in this condition.

Chancellor George Osborne’s juxtaposition of ‘workers’ and ‘shirkers’ was a cynical ploy designed to make the subsequent budgetary announcements more palatable to his party’s supporters.  It also reactivated a much older, but equally charged and political, distinction between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor.

The irony here is that ‘workers’ and ‘shirkers’ are both hit by real-value reductions in welfare entitlements, blurring the boundaries between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ welfare which Osborne’s labelling exercise was intended to enforce.  Modern-day distinctions between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor are really nothing more than the well-worked political practice of social stigmatisation.

This observation is captured vividly in the life stories contained within Stephen Armstrong’s new book, The Road to Wigan Pier Revisited.  They prompt us to return to George Orwell’s original work on the same theme and to place contemporary experiences of poverty in the context of his other pre-war writings.  Austerity ruled the day then, just as it does now, and searching inside Orwell’s authorial psyche casts interesting light on the political character of Osborne’s welfare-cutting policy.

Orwell’s personal discomfort when mixing in working-class circles is well chronicled. He never quite came to terms with his failure to experience a genuine sense of belonging when watching working-class people go about their daily business in the home.  Their need to overlook the dilapidated nature of their housing was shocking to Orwell, and he was unable to see beyond the differences with his own table manners, approach to cleanliness and aversion to the lingering smells he associated with poverty.

We should not forget, however, the stinging rebuke Orwell provided for one of his fictional characters who cannot bring herself to describe working-class people as anything other than the ‘lower classes’.  Words matter, he seems to have been saying, and often more so than actions, because the physical reaction you have when meeting others gets lost in the moment.  But the image you project in how you talk about people outlives the physical encounter.

One key insight running through the whole Orwellian canon is that the systematic use of particular descriptors for other people encroaches upon their ability to self-identify in autonomous ways.  In other words, naming me as a particular character-type enhances the likelihood that I will begin to act out the associated behavioural traits.  As anyone who is familiar with Orwell’s post-war work will know only too well, his anti-totalitarian writings revolve around attempts to rescue the sphere of personal autonomy from the imposition of identity through external agency.

This is Orwell at his most humane, and such instincts pervade the most important characterisations in his fictional work.  His heroes are always searching for an experience that is forever out of their reach because their world moves inexorably on around them even whilst they try to gain control of their place within it.

For example, in Coming Up for Air, George Bowling wants one last glimpse of the idyllic England he remembers in romanticised form from childhood.  But he knows in his heart that it no longer exists because industrial capitalism has created the need for an urban poor to keep the wheels of commerce rolling.  In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Gordon Comstock strives unsuccessfully to persuade other people to allow him to renounce the money-world of modern capitalism and finds his only means of release in the slow, desperate slide into the oblivion which accompanies the poverty that they cannot truly understand.

Throughout Orwell’s work – fiction and non-fiction alike – the condition of poverty is representative of broader structural dynamics over which individuals ultimately have no authority.  His underlying message is unequivocal and definitive: poverty is not the fault of the poor.

The task of writing, for him, is to produce a graphic depiction of the terrors of being stuck in such a state, whilst searching more widely for an explanation of culpability.  Throughout The Road to Wigan Pier, the conditions of the poor are described in vivid detail, but the most pointed language is reserved for the purveyors of the smug opinion that the poor bring those conditions on to themselves through wilful acts of choice.

This brings me back to Osborne’s attempts to place a significant proportion of welfare recipients in a box marked ‘undeserving’ poor.  The idea of systematic ‘shirkers’ implies a conscious choice to embrace behavioural characteristics associated with poverty.  Orwell’s humanity needs to be reactivated in the face of such associations.

What is at stake here is the ability of the poor in the UK today to be defined in any other way than Osborne’s lazy attempt at crowd-pleasing in his depiction of the supposedly work-shy.  To stand against his equation of welfare with ‘shirking’ is actually to echo the much more dramatic stance that Orwell felt compelled to take against more organised forms of totalitarianism.

It not only represents the reassertion of the right of the poor to personal autonomy – to understand themselves as something other than captives of political sound-bites – but also connotes the right of everybody else to express themselves with sympathy and compassion.

The ‘undeserving’ poor, Osborne tells us, do not qualify for such humane treatment because their impoverished conditions of existence are the result of their choice not to be like everyone else.  From Orwell’s perspective, this sort of opinion was an instance of the conceit of the privileged.  We should reach exactly the same conclusion again today whenever the current UK government attempts to stigmatise the poor.