John Sainsbury is professor emeritus of history in the Faculty of Humanities, Brock University.
Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates and men decay.
Oliver Goldsmith wrote those lines in 1770 in his poem The Deserted Village. Since then, Britain has experienced an industrial revolution and won and lost an empire. Yet Goldsmith's lament still resonates, as Britons prepare to vote in a general election on May 7. Much is at stake, including the future of David Cameron, Conservative prime minister in the U.K's coalition government.
Goldsmith's era witnessed a widening chasm between a landed aristocracy, growing in wealth, and the rural poor, stripped of their customary rights to land by the enclosure movement and obliged to eke out a living as casual labourers.
Today's poor are the casualties of Britain's transition to a post-industrial economy. New well-paid unionized jobs in manufacturing have all but vanished. What remains are low-paid service sector jobs. Such employment is precarious. In desperation, some are accepting zero-hour contracts (i.e. committing themselves to an employer, without any guarantee of paid employment). They are the twenty-first century version of English peasants at a hiring fair, hoping for a rich farmer to give them temporary work.
Zero-hour contracts have become an issue in the electoral campaign. Labour leader Ed Miliband pledges to ban them if he wins the election. Mr. Cameron defends them for promoting labour market flexibility.
As those at the bottom scramble to make ends meet, happy days are here again for CEO's, hedge-fund managers, derivatives traders, and property developers. (The landed aristocracy has experienced a relative decline in wealth and influence, but retains cachet among those who are unaware that Downton Abbey has no connection with reality.)
Should government intervene to reduce income inequality and improve the lives of the poor? According to the disciples of Milton Friedman, that's dangerous policy, because it leads to inflation. Unfettered free enterprise is the only sure route to general prosperity, the Friedman faithful insist.
Margaret Thatcher subscribed to that doctrine and added a dose of Victorian morality. Giving state benefits to the poor increases dependency and saps personal initiative, she argued.
Mr. Friedman's theories remain influential, but they are not unchallenged. French economist Thomas Piketty rejects their determinism, arguing that politics trumps economics.
He points to an alarming trend: in developed countries capital accumulation is outstripping anemic economic growth (echoes of Oliver Goldsmith here), a ticking time bomb of social disorder. But government action can reverse the trend. He notes that wealth disparities narrowed in Britain in the post-war period (1945-70), the heyday of the welfare state.
Where does David Cameron stand in this debate?
When he became leader of the Conservatives, he took pains to distance himself from Mrs. Thatcher's legacy. He identified himself as a Tory in the tradition of Benjamin Disraeli, who advanced the principle of "One Nation Toryism" – the political credo that the rich and powerful have a duty to act in the interest of the poor and powerless.
Mr. Cameron repudiated Mrs. Thatcher's comment that "there in no such thing as society." And he supported Labour's Child Poverty Act, which requires governments to take measures to raise the living standards of families in need.
In government, Mr. Cameron still speaks like a Disraelian (the one nation rhetoric has been ramped up in the election campaign) even as his attitudes and policies veer ever closer to those of Mrs. Thatcher.
He remains invested in the importance of family life, arguably over-invested. He blamed the riots and looting in the summer of 2011 (what Britons called "extreme shopping"), not on social inequality, but on the malign influence of a hard-core of congenitally criminal families
On the positive side, healthily constituted families, according to Mr. Cameron, give children an equal advantage, irrespective of their parents' status or income. His assertion flies in the face of evidence that, in the lottery of life, having rich parents is the surest foundation for economic success. He seems to have muddled Thatcherite aspiration with social reality, and his comments grated, coming from the lips of a child of privilege, educated at Eton College and Oxford University.
Digging deeper, it's evident that Mr. Cameron's celebration of stable families is not intended to justify generous family benefits. On the contrary, it's a preamble to slashing them. Iain Duncan Smith, Mr. Cameron's hawkish minister for Work and Pensions, claims that withholding benefits is an act of "compassion," because it jolts the poor into a sense of personal responsibility.
Mr. Cameron's most revealing moment came at the Lord Mayor's Banquet in November, 2013, when, nattily attired in white tie and tails, he addressed London's business elite. His message was that government austerity was not merely a temporary expedient to balance the books, but the first step in building a "leaner, more efficient state."
His well-heeled, well-fed listeners were delighted by the Thatcherite message. We'll find out on May 7 if British voters share their enthusiasm.