I’ve recently been rereading George Orwell’s classic from the 1930s, The Road To Wigan Pier. It’s over 20 years since I last read it and it is interesting to see how it compares with my memories. It is definitely a book of two halves: the first is a description and reflection upon Orwell’s first-hand experience of living in deprived circumstances in the North of England during the depressed years of the 30s; the second (and to my mind, less engaging) part is a justification for his personal brand of socialism (though he does not shy away from a critique of other socialists). This latter part comes across as rather preachy, whereas the first gives insight into social conditions of the period.
Orwell, of course, is writing for an “educated,” perhaps largely middle-class audience, one that he feels does not have personal experience of the conditions he describes. Part of his mission is to challenge many of the myths and preconceptions that the middle-classes of his day had about what it was like to be dependent on the dole, and the reasons for being in that position in the first place.
One might be tempted, in 2014, to believe that the age and conditions Orwell describes are long gone. And it is true that the industrial landscape of the UK, including the North of England, has undergone radical change in the intervening 80 odd years. Clearly, there has also been great and significant social change. Barely a decade later the welfare state came into being, with the state pension, the National Health Service and many other benefits. Yet as I read, there was much that seemed familiar – drearily so, in fact.
In spite of all the positive changes, many of the attitudes towards the poor are still prevalent today. Many of the same tired myths, the classification into “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, the sheer ignorance of the psychological effects of unemployment and the way the poverty trap actually works are not only alive and kicking but fuelled by their constant repetition in the media. Reading Orwell alongside the report produced last year by the Baptist, Methodist, URC and Church of Scotland, The Lies We Tell Ourselves: ending the comfortable myths about poverty, one is struck by similar are the arguments used by those who are comfortably off to deny or limit help to those who are not, and how much we need another Orwell today to awaken the social conscience of our nation and world.
More follows, as the press agencies say.