The left would do well to reclaim the language of Beveridge as a way of re-shaping the welfare state debate, or risk losing it to the Conservatives, believes Nicholas Timmins
The end of last month marks the 75th anniversary of the publication officially titled the Social Insurance and Allied Services report, but better known after its author, William Beveridge. It is the founding document of the United Kingdom’s modern welfare state.
On the eve of publication, in the middle of the second world war, queues formed outside the then headquarters of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office to buy it. In HMSO folklore, nothing outsold its eventual 600,000 copies until Alfred Denning’s report on the Profumo scandal – a decidedly sexier subject.
The public reception was such that Beveridge described it as ‘like riding an elephant through a cheering mob’ while telling his former research assistant, the 26-year-old Harold Wilson, that ‘this is the greatest advance in our history … From now on Beveridge is not the name of a man; it is the name of a way of life, and not only for Britain, but for the whole civilized world’. Only the last part proved to be an overstatement.
So what should we make of the state of the welfare state 75 years on? All of the problems Beveridge was addressing remain to some extent, though often in an altered form, as well as new ones that have inevitably arisen. None of that, however, should blind us to the huge advances that have been made since the 1940s.
In Beveridge’s day the worry was not a growing and ageing population, but a declining one, the birth rate having slumped in the 1930s. Back then, a key concern was poverty amongst the (vastly smaller number) of elderly. hese days those past state pension age are the household type least likely to be in the bottom fifth of the income distribution – a huge achievement. But the inter-generational concern is the other way around, with those in their 20s and 30s finding life appreciably harder than their parents did at the same age. And worries about deprivation in childhood remain. Some 60 per cent of children who are ‘officially’ in poverty are in households that are in work, while the importance of inheritance on an individual’s life chances – which was in decline in Beveridge’s day and was to decline further for several decades – is growing again.
His report famously called for an assault on ‘the five giant evils’ that stood ‘on the road to reconstruction’. Want – by which he meant poverty. Disease – ‘which often causes that want’. Squalor – usually taken to mean housing. Ignorance – ‘which no country can afford among its citizens’. And Idleness – which ‘destroys wealth and corrupts men’.
The most progress has probably been made on disease and ignorance. The National Health Service is something that Beveridge would definitely recognise and approve of, although he would be amazed at both its scale and capabilities. But childhood obesity, diabetes and dementia have, for example, replaced the rickets and the terrible fear of infectious disease that dominated Beveridge’s day. Ignorance – whether schooling or higher education – and for all the continuing issues, has been transformed, without the UK ever getting its technical education right.
Idleness – despite excursions into three million unemployed at times on the way from then to now – is nothing like the challenge of the 1930s that Beveridge sought to address. The unemployment rate is at its lowest for 40 years, with record numbers in work. But the rise of the gig economy and zero hours contracts, plus the requirement for tax credits and housing benefit to underpin low-paid work, makes the ‘full employment’ of today feel very different to the largely male-dominated full employment of the 1950s. Squalor? Well, the nation is vastly better housed than in the 1940s, but the housing market is, in the words of communities secretary Savid Javid and prime minister Theresa May – both Conservatives – ‘broken’.
Labour is, of course, immensely and rightly proud of the 1945 to 1951 government which implemented much of the modern welfare state. But looking both back – and forward at what needs to be done to tackle the new and continuing issues – it is worth recalling that the Beveridge report was not a socialist document – despite its author’s ill-judged remark that it would take Britain ‘halfway to Moscow’. Rather, it is better viewed as a liberal one; Beveridge himself briefly becoming a Liberal member of parliament.
Its proposals for the new social security system did indeed aim to abolish want or poverty. But it was a minimalist, or ‘subsistence’ system, that Beveridge devised and which Labour implemented. It built on the social insurance measures originally introduced by the Liberal government of 1906 to 1914 which created the ‘ambulance state’ precursor to the modern welfare state. It involved flat rate benefits in return for flat rate contributions. Despite his boast quoted above, this was very different to the modern welfare states created in France or Germany, for example, which involved earnings-related contributions and earnings-related benefits, so that when hard times hit, their systems tended, at least for a time, to preserve one’s place in society, while in the UK claimants dropped back to a minimum floor.
In devising social security, he declared, the state ‘should not stifle incentive, opportunity, responsibility; in establishing a national minimum, it should leave room and encouragement for voluntary action by each individual to provide more than the minimum for himself and his family’. This was a rights and responsibilities agenda, entirely recognisable as that pursued by the John Major and the Labour government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as ‘welfare-to-work’ (which Beveridge also favoured) in the 1990s and 2000s.
It was this attempt at a knife edge balance around conflicting objectives – rights against responsibilities, incentives against security, and individualism against collectivism – that helped produce cross-party support for his crusade. The centre-right in the Tory party could see Conservative values in it, just as the centre-left in the Labour party could see social democratic ones.
But Labour should be careful about claiming sole rights to it. Because it is a simple fact that in the 70-odd years since 1945, the Conservatives, including their time in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, have been in charge of the welfare state for more than 40 years of its existence, against barely 30 for Labour. This should give pause for thought.
There have of course been – are now and always will be – stormy inter-party rows about the precise mechanisms in play in any part of the welfare state – whether in education, health, housing or benefits – about levels of funding, and about where the balance should lie between the conflicting objectives. But without some high level measure of very broad, rolling – and at times amended – agreement across the parties, something at least recognisable as the welfare state of 1948 would not be with us. And when that level of agreement does not exist, everything stalls.
Take the organisation and funding of social care. It has been a self-evident, and increasingly pressing, problem for more than 30 years. Since the mid-1990s, and depending on how you define and count them, there have been at least two formal government inquiries (a royal commission and Andrew Dilnot’s commission), at least eight green papers and five white ones, plus legislation (on the royal commission’s recommendation of free personal care in Scotland and in England on Dilnot). But in England, with the Dilnot legislation now parked, the country appears no nearer a settled solution than when these exercises started. Sure social care, particularly when set against a free-at-the-point of use NHS, is a stark example of the conflict between rights and responsibilities and individual versus collective responsibility. But the effect of both the main parties being parochially parti-pris about their concerns has stymied all progress. To get a lasting improvement some element of cross-party consensus – over a solution that neither side will see as ideal – will be needed.
As for how the challenges, politicians should be careful with the language. It may be the 75th anniversary of Beveridge. But few people will be celebrating this ‘welfare state’ anniversary, or indeed that of ‘social security’. Because both phrases have fallen out of the political lexicon.
An analysis of parliamentary debates shows that their use declined by two-thirds and 80 per cent respectively between the last two decades of the past century and the first decade of this one. Instead politicians of all parties – and thus the public more generally – now tend to talk about ‘welfare’ and ‘public services’ – by which they chiefly mean health and education. And this is not just a Conservative trait. But in this discourse the meaning of the word ‘welfare’ has more or less been turned on its head. It now has precious little to do with faring well. Rather, to be ‘on welfare’ is to be on Benefits Street or part of The Great British Benefits Handout – somewhere no one in their right mind wants to be.
So to sustain support for the welfare state in general and ‘social security’ in particular politicians would do well to reclaim some of that language.
Rising income inequality has probably made it impossible to rebuild the social insurance base – the ‘contributory principle’ – which underpinned Beveridge’s concept. But, via changed mechanisms, ‘social security’ still retains the sense of inclusiveness and collectiveness that ‘welfare’ has long since lost. The left would do well to reclaim the phrase as a way of re-shaping the debate before the Conservatives – and those like May who fret about ‘the just about managing’ – take it for themselves.
Nicholas Timmins is a senior fellow at the Institute for Government and the King’s Fund. He is author of The Five Giants: A biography of the Welfare State
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