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February 25, 2012 / Louisa Yates

UK government ‘cuts’ given a neo-Victorian narrative

The Guardian’s Patrick Butler recently contributed a brief satirical piece to a few small articles gathered under the banner ‘The UK in 2017’, in which the authors imagine the effects of the Conservative government’s drastic cuts to state spending.

I make no comment on the cuts themselves (we’d be here all day and the internet would crash) but I am particularly interested in the tropes Butler uses to describe an increase in poverty, a lack of social mobility, and a solidifying of class heirarchy and racial privilege. Let’s look at his introduction:

London, once known for its diversity, became progressively more socially and economically segregated after the 2011 austerity measures kicked in, triggering six years of social upheaval that changed the the city forever.By 2015, academics had coined the phrase “urban neo-Victorian dystopia” to describe the dramatic social and spatial changes in the city they had begun to compare, with only a little exaggeration, with the London described by Charles Dickens 160 years earlier.

In this context, Butler intends ‘neo-Victorian’ to mean a re-enactment of the social inequalities found in London in 1857. ‘Diversity’ – shorthand for the melting pot of cultures, races, religions, and people that is such a positive aspect of our major cities – is a modern invention. Social and economic segregation? That’s Victorian. Positive progress? Modern. Keeping people in their place? Victorian. This could continue: how Charles Dickens actually described London is of little relevance here, as the important thing is that we, the readers of The Guardian, know exactly what Booth means when he employs the trope of Victorian London. He means chaos, match girls, street urchins, omnibuses – most importantly, he means fantastic wealth ignoring the grinding poverty on its doostep. It’s intriguing that Butler gives the specific Victorian date as 1857; Selfridges, a department store that has never been known for its austerity, opened its doors on a riotously glitzy Oxford Street in 1856.

To lend depth to his dystopian future, Butler employs ‘a tuberculosis epidemic caused by overcrowding in Tower Hamlets'(The Victorian Web tells us that TB may account for a third of all Victorian deaths), the ‘millionth food parcel’ distributed by Salvation Army (founded in 1865 by William Booth), and a roiling mass of urban poor who are distinguished only by their disordered lives – their pregnancies and riots, drunken behaviour and homelessness – as a horrified middle class watch on and strengthen their defences. As that most Victorian of hymns has it, ‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate’ (All Things Bright and Beautiful – 1848).

This is just one element of what neo-Victorian Things do. In this context, the Victorian city is a mass of contradictions: sharply segregated whilst also socially chaotic; the poor are watched closely but remain free from government intervention; fabulously wealthy whilst simultaneously fatally poor. From a contemporary perpective, this obviously serves as a powerful metaphor for whatever you like. Just pick an element of Victorian London and you too can write a hard hitting social commentary!

It’s also evidence of the uncontainability of the Victorian – as much as we write about it, how can we ever hope to contain it? Booth gives (presumably at random), a date of 1857, only to find that this is precisely the moment in which a vast display of consumerist wealth invades the nineteenth century. Of course, if we change tack, Oxford Street actually supports Butler’s characterisation of the Victorian as an age that catered only to the rich: thousands of working-class people and homeless people were displaced as Oxford Street was developed (this is referred to in Michel Faber’s 2002 novel The Crimson Petal and the White).

The intriguing thing is, of course, is how much has anything actually changed?


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