414585868_2c8513d269_nYesterday felt like a day of unanticipated juxtapositions.

The major domestic political event was the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement. This has now morphed into a mini-budget so it will take a while to fully unpack precisely what Osbo’s proposed changes add up to. But he no doubt anticipated that he’d grab the headlines with the combination of the reaffirmation of his faith in the voodoo of austerity and the return of the debt-fuelled growth that got us into this mess in the first place. The OBR lent Obso a hand in the bid to dominate the front pages when it calculated that his sums imply that by 2018 spending on public services will be reduced to levels not seen since 1948.

Commentators were quick to point out that a year or two ago Cameron was assuring us that deficit reduction was as a necessary evil – as painful for him as it was for those directly affected and only being undertaken to get the public finances back on an even keel. Over the last few weeks, with contributions from Cameron, Johnson and now Osborne, we are witnessing the gradual exposure of the ideological nature of the Tories’ austerity project. The pretence has been abandoned. It’s some sort of revolting market fundamentalist dance of the seven veils.

Several commentators have pointed out that if these plans are carried through the state as we know it will cease to exist. For those on the right this is prospect to be relished. For those of a more progressive and inclusive turn of mind it is a prospect faced with horror. Others, such as Declan at L’Art Social, are sceptical. Is the position set out in the Autumn Statement  anything other than an stunt with an eye to the next General Election? It may be that the plan is never intended for implementation.

I couldn’t listen to Osbo’s speech live because I was giving my annual talk about the pre-history of housing policy in Britain. In the talk I set out briefly the nature of the housing problems in nineteenth century and the factors influencing the slow move towards government acceptance of a greater responsibility for housing the working classes. It is a fascinating and important story.

It is a story that starts with a political elite committed to the belief that the market would solve the problems thrown up by rapid industrialisation and urbanisation. There is no need for government action. Indeed such action would be perverse.

This belief was gradually challenged by a number of developments touching on changing ideas, institutions and interests. The developments included the accumulation of evidence about the appalling conditions in which much of the population lived, changing understandings of the aetiology of disease, a critique by tenacious social reformers of the assumption that landlords’ “right” to maximise profit should trump concerns for the health and well-being of poor, a recognition that private philanthropy alone could never adequately address the problem, and the extension of the franchise so that those who were subject to the depredations of unrestrained capitalism were able to achieve political representation.

Reformers were battling against entrenched interests. As Byrne and Damer observed back in 1978:

There was systematic resistance from the urban bourgeoisies who controlled the local states to any initiative involving the mandatory construction and subsidisation of working class housing. This resistance was compounded by the fact that in many local states, the dominant local bourgeoisie were landlords of such housing and municipal housing conflicted directly with their interests.

Proper historians no doubt continue to debate precisely how we should apportion causal influence to these various factors. And was it a case of the enlightenment of the political elite? Or was it self-interest? Or reluctant action in the face of increased pressure from the working classes.

These factors contributed to the acceptance that there is a problem to which government must respond. And slowly over time a reframing of the problem occurred. Initial interventions were carefully circumscribed to issues of public nuisance and public health. From those interventions it took the best part of half century – not until the 1880s – for politicians to accept that there was a “housing problem” of affordability that the market could not solve over meaningful timescales. And it wasn’t until after the First World War that the British state adopted local authority house building and municipal landlordism as a key mechanism for delivering a solution.

The housing story is by no means unique. You can tell parallel stories in other policy areas – health, education, income maintenance. It’s the very stuff of social policy.

The juxtaposition with contemporary policy is stark. At present we appear to be accelerating in the opposite direction.

We can offer at least two very different interpretations.

The first, more charitable, interpretation is that contemporary policy operates with no sense of history. Thought is shrouded in the fog of now. Or today’s policymakers are viewing the issue through a purely idealised view of a market economy. There is no appreciation of the problems of laissez faire capitalism that social policy grew up to address.

The second, less charitable, interpretation is that contemporary politicians are perfectly well aware of what capitalism red in tooth and claw looks like. They know exactly how awful life was for the masses in the world of unrestrained capitalism. But they don’t care. The puzzle then is why a chunk of the electorate seem enthusiastic supporters of their own immiseration.

Either way, it appears, unless policy changes direction, we are destined to relearn the lessons of history the hard way.

But, as we know, Osbo didn’t manage to hold on to the headlines. Instead, almost all editors quite rightly cleared the front pages to commemorate Nelson Mandela’s death. Mandela’s outstanding achievements are worthy not only of celebration but close contemplation.

One component of the commentary over the last 24 hours has been unflattering comparisons between the self-sacrifice, inclusiveness and moral leadership of Mandela and the lack of vision, partisanship and diminished stature of the current generation of political leaders.

Mandela’s actions are far more important than his words. But his words are nonetheless powerful. And, if our political leaders were honest, they might be obliged to concede Mandela’s project was out of step with current policy thinking:

Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings. Sometimes it falls on a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.

Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed to fulfill themselves.

There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.

One of the more dispiriting aspects of the commentary following Mandela’s passing is the view that we’ll not see his like again.

There may be no obvious successor just now. But the thought that no such person could ever again emerge to fight social injustice is rather troubling. I’m not sure it’s justified. Perhaps I’m just an incorrigible optimist.

But it is equally troubling to reflect upon how someone campaigning vociferously against the established social order, in pursue of justice for the disadvantaged, would be treated by the contemporary political elite. Even in the absence of any explicit or demonstrable threat of violence, one wouldn’t get very good odds against them being carted off somewhere having been branded a “terrorist” and a risk to the security state.

And for a liberal and a democrat that is one of the most dispiriting thoughts of all.

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