Hunger courses through Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1848 novel documenting what would become known as the hungry 40s. Like Dickens with Oliver Twist, 10 years earlier, she sought to move the heart of middle England. Hunger could no longer be accepted as natural or inevitable.
In Gaskell’s novel, “hunger-stamped” men from Nottingham, Sheffield, Glasgow, Manchester and other industrial cities implore parliament in vain to act on the “unparalleled destitution of the manufacturing districts”. John Barton, a chartist and trade unionist who is one of the delegates, knows hunger. As a young child, he and his mother (who dies “from absolute want of the necessaries of life”) had hidden their hunger so his younger siblings could eat. His “little son, the apple of his eye” dies of starvation.
Ben Bradley, MP for Mansfield, self-describes on his Twitter profile as “the first blue brick in the red wall”. He has been embroiled in a storm for tweeting that in one school in his constituency in which “75% of kids have a social worker” one “lives in a crack den, another in a brothel”. The school, he notes, is “at the centre of the area’s crime”, a rhetorical move that is an affront to Marcus Rashford’s plea that we “stop stigmatising, judging and pointing fingers”. “These are the kids that most need our help, extending FSM doesn’t reach these kids,” Bradley concludes, by way of explaining why he was one of 321 Conservative MPs to vote against feeding the nation’s poorest children.
Epitomising the government’s laissez-faire approach, Tory MP Brendan Clarke-Smith, who has denied a need for foodbanks, told the Commons: “We need to get back to the idea of taking responsibility.” Where is the awareness of the relation between poverty and economic conditions that parliament’s website on Poor Law reform claims has been in evidence since the 1880s?
Bradley’s remarks don’t really add up. If an individual or community needs more intense support, as he suggests, it is unclear why their children shouldn’t receive food during school holidays. But there is also a harsh logic to his comments that is to be found across this government. Bradley’s controversial beliefs were last in public view when a 2012 blogpost surfaced in which he recommended state-subsidised vasectomies for unemployed people (for which he has since apologised).
Bradley was blogging in support of capping child benefit at two children, leaving any younger siblings to go hungry. This passed into law in 2017. His views show continuity both with the Malthusianism that underpins eugenics – the notion, since discredited, that there wouldn’t be enough food to go around because of the speed of expansion of the human population – and a moralism that stretches back beyond Thomas Malthus himself. Both are key to understanding the current political situation, and the vote against free school meals.
In A Dissertation on the Poor Laws (1786), medical doctor Joseph Townsend declared that hunger taught “decency and civility, obedience and subjection, to the most brutish, the most obstinate, and the most perverse”. Thomas Robert Malthus assimilated this idea into a racialised language in his Essay on the Principle of Population (1798): “The savage would slumber for ever under his tree, unless he were roused from his torpor by the cravings of hunger.” For Malthus, the Elizabethan parish poor laws, which provided outdoor relief, threatened the independence of the English poor, and the dependent labourer was “an enemy to all his fellow-labourers”. Here was the division on which capitalism depended. Poverty was also essential for the functioning of the English middle class; the same sense of fear and disgrace would regulate the sexual behaviour of women.
In 1800, the Tory prime minister, William Pitt the Younger, withdrew a bill that would have supplemented the wages of agricultural workers, based on family size and the price of bread. Tory radical William Cobbett declared in an open letter to Malthus in 1819 that the “laws of nature” he talked of having “doomed the labourer and his family to starve” were in fact “sitting at Westminster”. The 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act was ultimately the work of entrenched landed interests, pushed through by Tory commissioners. Cobbett pointed out in the Commons that Malthus had said to the poor “at nature’s board there is no seat for you”. But the bill passed into law, routinely referred to in the Times as the Starvation Act.
Charles Darwin urged in the Descent of Man against the intentional neglect of the vulnerable, which he saw would lead to the loss of “the noblest part of our nature”. He called his readers back to the golden rule, “‘As ye would that men should do to you, do ye to them likewise;’ and this lies at the foundation of morality.”
At the century’s end, Thomas Hardy denounced eugenic and Malthusian rhetoric, most dramatically in Jude the Obscure, through the deaths of the three children, “done because we are too menny”. As a young boy, Jude apprehends that the world is less one of scarcity than of the mismanagement of resources. Employed as a scarecrow but united by “a magical thread of fellow-feeling” to the birds he is paid to scare, he tells them: “You shall have some dinner you shall! There is enough for us all. Farmer Troutham can afford to let you have some.”
It was Victorian writers and radicals who drew the public’s hearts and minds to the hunger that comes from misgovernment. In the last week, more than 200 children’s authors and more than 2,000 paediatricians have signed open letters in support of a campaign led by a Black British footballer and humanitarian who went hungry as a child. Local businesses and councils (mainly Labour) are doing all they can. Even hyper-capitalist McDonald’s is chipping in. What we need next is a responsible government.