The passage and the application of the Default Act naturally caused much heartburning. Nor did the criticism come only from whole-hearted champions of "Poplarism." Many who deprecated the policy pursued in these three Unions held that the act was a dangerous infringement of the principles of local government. It put excessive power in the hands of a central department, which might be used quite arbitrarily to undermine democracy up and down the land. Even if Neville Chamberlain could be acquitted of any such intention, there was no guarantee that others would not cherish it, and there were actually, it was pointed out, in fluential persons in his party who were clamorous for tightening the grip of parliament and Whitehall on the local authorities throughout the country. On the other hand it was contended that the true interests of democracy were not served by letting it run into excesses ; the example of West Ham and Chester-le-Street and Bedwellty, if it were generally imitated, would mean an im mense demoralisation and in the end violent reaction. Both sides undoubtedly had a case in this controversy, though it was often exaggerated or obscured by party bias. But the real moral of the whole episode was not the danger of "Socialism" or of "Fascism." It was the folly of putting new wine into old bottles.
it was that the poor law reverted to a condition very like that of a hundred years earlier, save that then the bulk of the pauperism had been rural, and now it was urban. The minister of health in his 1927 report mentions one remarkable similarity. "During the past six years," he says, "numbers of young men, without employ ment and maintained on poor law relief, have married, securing thereby an increase in their income from relief, and have had families, each addition to the family bringing its addition to the family income. In this respect it may be doubted whether the present position can be paralleled since 1834." It was inevitable that such abuses should occur. The guardians were compelled to be a dole disbursing agency, filling the "gaps" of the Unemploy ment Insurance Act, supplementing its benefits, or feeding those who fell outside its provisions. They had not then, and never had, the power to deal with unemployment as a whole, or to organise any proper palliative, let alone preventive, measures. In all the circumstances it is not surprising that there were muddles, fraud and extravagance, involuntary or deliberate, or that when a whole population was workless and political passions were run ning high, the law was defied. There might easily have been a hundred West Hams and Chester-le-Streets. As it was, there were only three; and the guardians and their officials, as a whole,- might fairly claim to have struggled honestly and courageously with their herculean task.
But if the poor law managed somehow to weather the worst of the storm, that does not prove that the ship was, or can ever be made, seaworthy. What was done in the years of distress from 1921 onwards was done at a fearful cost, financial and moral. The burden of the rates lay heaviest where it could least be borne— on struggling industries and small householders and shopkeepers, in districts whose rateable value was low and in which public expenditure was bound to be high. The guardians could only ease its present weight by borrowings which spread it over the future. And the distribution of these vast sums was, and could only be, for the most part a dangerous form of charitable relief. Such a system might be justified as a temporary necessity in an emer gency like that of the mining dispute of 1926. But as a settled policy it must lead to a pauperisation which would be none the less deplorable because the old "pauper stigma" was not attached to it. The experience of these "seven lean years," in short, con firmed only too plainly the conclusions of those who had insisted, before the war and after it, that local boards of guardians could not do the work of a national unemployment authority. And the vast majority of the guardians themselves, however much they might object to other proposed reforms of the poor law, were converted at least to this.