Joyce McMillan: In praise of Good King Wenceslas

Unlike the Tories, his policy on the poor was humane and offered them a glimpse of justice and hope, says Joyce McMillan

Ye who now do bless the poor shall yourself find blessing: The king knew it be true. Picture: Contributed

As Christmas blew in on a fierce winter gale this week, one particular old carol has been haunting my mind. “Good King Wenceslas looked out, on the feast of Stephen … ” The feast of St Stephen falls on 26 December, and we all know the story of how the good king of Bohemia, looking out at the snowy landscape, saw a peasant struggling in the cold, and set off with his page to bring meat and wine to the peasant’s house a good three miles away, “right against the forest fence, by St Agnes’s Fountain”. It’s a classic Christmas image of charitable giving to the poor and the date of the English song – 1853 – places it within a decade of Charles Dickens’s equally powerful image of Scrooge’s sudden glorious generosity, as he spreads his wealth around after his terrifying, salutary visitation from the spirits of Christmas past, present and future.

It’s the final couplet of Good King Wenceslas, though, that packs the ethical punch. “Therefore Christian men be sure, wealth or rank possessing,/Ye who now do bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.” This thought propelled the tune into my mind last week, when I saw images of the House of Commons laughing like a bunch of Dickensian caricatures over the vision of Britain’s poor fighting over reduced-price fruit and vegetables in a local supermarket.

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So far from “blessing” the poor, the present government and its allies prefer to hold them up to ridicule and hostility, the better to justify their policy of making them pay for the recent economic crisis. And they talk of the “Big Society” that will replace an overweening state with the kind of moral concern for others conjured up in the song; while every lineament of their faces suggests – at best – a patronising willingness to chuck a few pennies in the poor-box, before heading off home to their comfortable mansions.

For the truth is that, in the century following Dickens and the work of John Mason Neale, who wrote Good King Wenceslas, British society moved a long way forward from the idea that personal charity – preached from the pulpits, and embraced by many fine social philanthropists – provided the only key to a just and decent society. The impulse of empathy for the poor expressed in Dickens’s novels was vital, an imaginative leap that made possible the idea of the equal worth of all lives, and of an equality of respect throughout society.

As the late 19th and early 20th centuries progressed, though, it became increasingly apparent – not least to many in the front line of charitable social service – that the full expression of that equality required not only voluntary effort, but a state which embodied those ideas in a structure of systematic provision for all citizens, so that no-one need lead a life of humiliation and degradation, or of helpless dependence on individual charity.

The welfare state as conceived in the post-war period was the fullest expression of that spirit of mutual respect in British life, and of a profound collective determination to eliminate abject poverty. And despite all the weaknesses of the system, the fact is that the decades when the British state, across all parties, was systematically committed to a structure of cradle-to-grave welfare saw the effective and steady elimination of extreme poverty, the end of begging on our streets, a massive reduction in homelessness, huge improvements in the nation’s health, and an extension of equal opportunities in education and employment unprecedented in our history.

Those facts, though, increasingly count for nothing, in a UK political debate which has been dominated since the 1980s by an ideology which sees state action in a democracy not as the most powerful way of expressing our shared ethical convictions, but as the destructive enemy of personal morality and ethics. Every serious survey of the relationship between the state and the voluntary sector in Britain – including a powerful review of the Big Society published earlier this month by the think-tank Civil Exchange – points out that there is, in fact, a vital co-operative synergy between public and voluntary provision, particularly in poorer areas.

Yet the the ideology thunders on, pumping out the non-evidence-based assertion that public provision inevitably saps voluntary initiative and destroys the social fabric. Nor, alas, is it mere concidence that the parties most strongly advocating this view are the ones most closely linked to the new group of giant service companies who – unike the charities to whom the government pays lip service – are by far the biggest real beneficiaries of the outsourcing of British public services.

Now, of course, there are those in the UK who genuinely believe that the growth of the welfare state in post-war Britain and across Europe represented a sinister state takeover of what had once been effective and locally controlled civil society provision; and anyone who has ever confronted a state bureaucracy knows that over-centralisation, authoritarianism, rigidity and lack of imagination are indeed real dangers.

The social history of our time, though, suggests that – given the checks and balances of a democratic society – this broadly negative account of the welfare state is essentially false, and simply writes out of history the huge improvements it brought in the quality of life of the vast majority of ordinary people. If the future of the UK is threatened now by the forces of Scottish nationalism, it is partly because many people in Scotland have not been ready to have their recent social history rewritten in this way, without at least putting up a fight.

And if we want to know how best to bless the poor, in the world of the 21st century, well, we should perhaps look at the faces of the present government, as they wander around opening charitable food-banks, and having a good laugh at Westminster over the antics of the impoverished. Then look at the faces of the men and women who, seven decades ago, planned and worked in a world devastated by war to create Britain’s welfare state; and ask ourselves where the blessing lies, and who really understood how – in a democracy – to lift the people up, and offer them lives based on an ideal of dignity, justice, and hope.