UK: WHEN SCROUNGERS BECAME JOBLESS. - Heartless Victorians felt the jobless were to blame for their wretched predicament. But, says Rhymer Rigby, even they had to see that unemployment was the mother of social unrest.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Heartless Victorians felt the jobless were to blame for their wretched predicament. But, says Rhymer Rigby, even they had to see that unemployment was the mother of social unrest.

A telling comment on our forebears' concerns about unemployment is to be found in the following piece of linguistic history. The word 'unemployment' was first coined in a political-economic sense in 1888.

Prior to that, most of the then great and good weren't that bothered about the question.

But as with every issue, there were those who took an interest. Some do-gooder was concerned enough to start jobless records in 1855. Before that, in 1816, pamphleteer Thomas Bunn was warning of an 'accumulation of distress among the lower orders', and advocated a 'new deal on a shoestring'.

Ignoring his advice, he predicted, could lead to the kind of uprising the French had recently seen, where the aristocracy had been 'the first to suffer the consequences of their own neglects'. But it was to be 70 years before views such as Bunn's began to percolate through society as a whole.

With the exception of the era's philanthropists, the Victorians either pretended the jobless didn't exist or - if their presence had to be acknowledged - treated them with contempt. Those in this ignoble state had only themselves to blame: since the total wage pool was limited, their greed had obviously priced them out of the marketplace. Any suggestion of state-sponsored handouts was frowned upon. Unemployment benefit, said the Establishment, would probably damage wages and labour mobility, and, worse, encourage 'reckless procreation'.

The only thing worse than an idle scrounger, the Victorians reasoned, was a family of them.

These less than enlightened views prevailed well into the latter half of the 19th century. But change was afoot, fuelled mainly by increasingly vocal social and constitutional reform movements, and by a growing recognition that social unrest was the child of unemployment. By the 1880s, joblessness was being touted as the cause of social ills ranging from illegitimacy to theft.

The closing years of the century saw an increasing number of unemployment relief schemes - attempts to keep a lid on social discontent. This ad hoc approach continued until 1911 when unemployment insurance was introduced (although it was only in 1922 that benefits records were used as the basis for male unemployment records, and only in 1948 that the concept of female unemployment was recognised by bureaucrats).

The first world war and conscription put a swift end to unemployment in 1914, with jobless numbers falling below 50,000 at one point. But peace brought unemployment on a hitherto unseen scale. Then came the Wall Street Crash and the ensuing worldwide recession which made for an all-time high of nearly 16% unemployment among the British male workforce in the early 1930s. As the global economy recovered, however, jobless numbers fell towards the end of the decade. When they rose once more, German sabre-rattling ensured that any slack was absorbed as the nation rearmed in earnest.

Post-war something odd happened. Unemployment did rise, although not by much. But, despite a gradual upwards trend, it stayed at historically low levels right up to the oil crisis in the early 1970s. When a disgusted older generation yelled, 'Get a job, hippie!', it was in the knowledge that the long-haired layabout in question would probably find landing gainful employment about as difficult as getting a haircut. Like all good times, however, this jobseekers' paradise couldn't last. Out went cheap petrol, plentiful jobs and great music. In came expensive fuel, serious dole queues and disco.

It was during the 1970s that unemployment's drift to the 10% mark began.

But a return to double digits was only sealed by a Conservative government with die-hard monetarist principles. This the nation found in the Margaret Thatcher administration which believed the high unemployment/ low inflation trade-off to be worthwhile. To this end, yearly average unemployment remained over 10% between 1983 and 1986.

Bust was followed by the mid 1980s boom, however, which made for a sharp fall in jobless levels. But the '80s 'economic miracle' had as much substance as the froth on the cappuccino everybody was suddenly drinking. And, when the foam cleared (during the recent recession), jobless figures went back to where they were before. Recent news has been better: the jobless total has been falling month on month for a long time now. The outlook for the future seems reasonable, too, with the latest report by the Chancellor's advisors suggesting further reductions. So is a return to the levels of the '50s and '60s probable? Look at the graph and ask yourself which era looks anomalous. Not likely.

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