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Workers or Shirkers? A BBC show about the poor that’s undeserving of praise

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Ian Hislop uses his new programme about people’s attitudes towards benefits to placate his ‘One Nation Tory’ conscience, writes Tomáš Tengely-Evans
Issue 2498
Ian Hislop, appalled by the workhouse, attracted by the idea of the “deserving poor”
Ian Hislop, appalled by the workhouse, attracted by the idea of the “deserving poor” (Pic: BBC/Wingspan )

Ian Hislop’s new BBC programme Workers or Shirkers? is a worthy, but indecisive, look at people’s attitudes towards work and welfare.

Being no fan of David Cameron, the Private Eye magazine editor may seem a bit out of place among Tories. Hislop’s programme is no Benefits Street, the Channel 4 show that scapegoated benefits claimants.

But Hislop is stuck in a Victorian idea of England, having sited Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli as an influence. Disraeli’s “One Nation Conservatism” tried to tap into people’s horror at capitalism to do over the bosses’ Liberal Party while defending the status quo.

This cauldron of contradiction bubbles throughout the show. We’re shown around the workhouse in Southwell, in Nottinghamshire. It was a prototype for the liberal Edwin Chadwick’s new prison complex for destitute working class people.

A nauseating Tristram William Julian Hunt, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent, explains workhouses were introduced in 1834 because of “spiralling welfare costs”. The aim was to make life so unbearable for poor people, they wouldn’t seek help.

The sombre music and the absence of giggles from the ruling class jester Hislop’s face add to the atmosphere.


Perhaps the officially “rational” and “scientific” approach behind the workhouses is a bit out of joint with Hislop’s old-fashioned Toryism.

But don’t worry, Chadwick also pioneered sewerage pipe building because so many of London’s factory workers were dying. Hislop similarly lets Iain Duncan Smith tearfully explain his attacks were driven by the “heart”, as well as Chadwick’s “head”.

At the centre of the show is an argument about the “deserving” and “undeserving poor”, a right wing idea used to justify inequality as down to individuals’ work ethic.

But that argument is never resolved. In one scene Hislop stands with two charity buckets for the “deserving” and “undeserving”. Some people repeat the right’s arguments, but others challenge them.

Hislop’s point is that people are “confused”—but the programme only adds to this. He comes down on the side of the “workers”, who’ve tried to find solutions, not the “shirkers”, who’ve shrugged off the problems.

So, poor people may have to get their bread from the food bank, but at least Hislop has his cake—and eats it.

Workers Or Shirkers? Ian Hislop’s Victorian Benefits
BBC Two, Thursday 8pm

Russia and the Arts: the Age of Tolstoy and Tchaikovsky

Anyone with an interest in Russian literature and art needs to see this exhibition.

The National Portrait Gallery’s Russia and the Arts gives a rare opportunity to see masterpieces from the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

It focuses on the great writers, artists and composers who worked in Russia between 1867 and 1914.

They were producing art during a time of stagnation and turmoil for the Tsarist regime. Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, two of the novelists featured, brilliantly shone a light on Tsarist Russia’s corrupt society and the impending crisis it was heading towards.

The exhibition also shows how Russian art was developing a new realist style.

National Portrait Gallery,
London EC2Y 8DS.
Until 26 June.
Tickets £5, concessions £4

The Rent Trap: How we Fell into It and How we Get Out of It

Writers Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj offer the first critical account of what is really going on in the private rented sector.

Deregulation, revenge evictions and day-to-day instability are the realities for the 11 million people currently forced to rent from private landlords in Britain.

At the same time, house prices are skyrocketing and home ownership is now an impossible dream for many.

Walker and Jeraj call this the rent trap—the consequence of market-made inequality.

by Rosie Walker and Samir Jeraj

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