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Britain’s transformation from cruelty to fragility

Britain’s transformation from cruelty to fragility

Victorians and the birth of modern Britain
Simon Hefer

Writing during World War II, George Orwell noted the contrast between the “gentleness” that characterized modern English civilization and the “brutality” that distinguished English life a hundred years ago. Although Orwell is not mentioned in The High Minds, the transformation he underwent is central to this furry but insightful political and intellectual history of Britain, mostly England, from the 1830s to the 1870s.

Journalist and historian Simon Hefer begins its chronicle in 1838, the first year of almost certainly the most severe economic depression in British history (a fact which he does not acknowledge or investigate enough). He describes a society characterized by “widespread inhumanity, primitiveness and barbarism” and suffering, due to the shocks of industrialization and urbanization, “terrible and destabilizing social problems.” By 1870, he says, “although poverty, disease, ignorance, poverty and injustice were far from being eradicated, in those 40 or so years they were reflected more than at any previous time in British history.” Its a story of civilizational transformation, during which Britain came closer and closer to a humane and decent society.

The transformation Hepher narrates can be challenged; even if accepted, it can be interpreted and explained in different ways. For example, some historians prone to materialist explanations argue that any social and civilizational progress that Britain made in those years was largely the result of smoothing out the inevitable disruptions caused by industrialization, changes in economic and political power, and thus social relations, and to the growth and dispersed prosperity generated by a sustainable industrialized economy.

Hefer, on the other hand, identifies ideas and moods as the driving force of this transformation. Here he is inspired G. M. Young the elegant, allusive, impressionistic Portrait of an Era: Victorian Britain (which remains the most penetrating book ever written about Victorians). Intellectuals, politicians, and mostly upper- and middle-class activists, he argues, were driven by “a sense of serious, selfless moral purpose” and sought to “improve the situation of society as a whole.” These noble efforts were reflected in the “measures taken by the education government”, measures that unfolded in a series of landmark parliamentary acts and administrative innovations over 40 years that Hefer is considering. They have created and improved the regulation and supervision of working conditions in industry and mining, while improving the well-being of children, schools, housing, sanitation and public health. They also extended the rights of all adult men and expanded the legal protection and independence of women. Such a policy and the mood that gave rise to them, Hefer assures in the celebration, “laid the first foundations of the welfare state.”

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