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About this book

An established introductory textbook that provides students with a full overview of British social policy and social ideas since the late eighteenth century. Derek Fraser’s authoritative account is the essential starting point for anyone learning about how and why Britain created the first Welfare State, and its development into the twenty-first century.

This is an ideal core text for dedicated modules on the History of British Social Policy or the British Welfare State - or a supplementary text for broader modules on Modern British History or British Political History - which may be offered at all levels of an undergraduate History, Politics or Sociology degree. In addition it is a crucial resource for students who may be studying the history of the British Welfare State for the first time as part of a taught postgraduate degree in British History, Politics or Social Policy.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction: Perspectives on the history of welfare

The Welfare State is a concept which historians and sociologists alike have found difficult to define. Like socialism, it has meant different things to different people. As the distinguished social scientist W. A. Robson has remarked, it is not easy ‘to discover what is the nature of the Welfare State … there is no positive or comprehensive philosophy, no ideology that underlies the Welfare State … the term … does not designate a definite system.’ Similarly, the welfare historian Rodney Lowe admits, ‘There is no agreement amongst historians and social scientists over when the first welfare states were established or what the term actually means’, or as David Garland expresses it, ‘welfare states are familiar, even mundane, but their true character remains elusive.’1 Some features of the Welfare State in practice are clear, however. It is a system of social organisation which restricts free market operations in three principal ways: by the designation of certain groups, such as children or factory workers, whose rights are guaranteed and whose welfare is protected by the community; by the delivery of services such as medical care or education, so that no citizen shall be deprived of access to them; and by transfer payments which maintain income in times of exceptional need, such as parenthood, or of interruption of earnings caused by such things as sickness or unemployment.
Derek Fraser

2. The factory question

Child labour was not the creation of the Industrial Revolution. Many a medieval tapestry, depicting children at work, gives the lie to the idea of a ‘Merrie England’ of feudal times when children laboured not at all. Behind closed doors the domestic system hid much unseen exploitation of children, for in many ways parents were the severest taskmasters of all. There is no real case to support the hostile anti-industrial view in the early nineteenth century which invented, most notably in the words of Engels, a golden age of rural bliss in pre-industrial society: The workers enjoyed a comfortable and peaceful existence … they were not forced to work excessive hours. … Children grew up in the open air of the countryside and if they were old enough to help their parents work this was only an occasional employment and there was no question of an 8 or 12 hour day.1 The vision of children whiling away the hours in idyllic surroundings and doing nothing more strenuous than dancing round the maypole is certainly not supported by the recollections of men who had themselves grown up in the eighteenth century. They recalled arduous employment in cramped conditions and inevitable long walks in the early hours to the nearest market.
Derek Fraser

4. Public health

In many ways, despite periodic visitations of bubonic plague, there was no real public health problem in pre-industrial England. London and the centres of some of the provincial market or cathedral towns contained cramped houses, but the vast majority of the population were spread thinly over the rural areas. It was the Industrial Revolution, accompanied by a massive shift in population from rural to urban areas, which created a public health problem. As with so many other social questions, it was the very concentration of people which caused the difficulty. It was only in the so-called age of great cities that society needed that essential combination of preventive medicine, civil engineering and community administrative and legal resources known by the generic term ‘public health’. The population of Great Britain doubled between 1801 and 1851, then doubled again in the next 60 years. Much of this growth was concentrated in the urban areas, some of them mere villages or hamlets before the impact of industrialisation. In 1801, London contained well over 800,000 people and there were only 13 towns in England and Wales with a population of more than 25,000. By 1841, London had added a further million to its total and there were 40 towns with more than 25,000, two of them with over a quarter of a million. It was not simply the fact of great cities but the rate of their growth which generated such serious social problems. The table traces the growth of the largest cities outside London, and the figures give a clue to the dislocation and transformation which must have occurred.
Derek Fraser

5. Education and welfare

That there was a social problem of education in the period following the Industrial Revolution was, as in the field of public health, the result of the distribution of wealth in English society. For those who could afford to pay the fees there was an educational provision leading to the universities, but for the mass of society there was a deficiency of educational opportunity. The rich could buy themselves out of the problems of squalor and ignorance, the poor could not and the state played little role in education. There were, indeed, only three ways of getting a state education: by being a cadet, a felon or a pauper, since the army, prison and workhouse did provide some schooling. For the rest there was the occasional attendance at charity or endowed schools supported by subscription, or dame schools, some of which were no more than childminding establishments. Underlying the whole education debate, however, was the pyramidal structure of English society. The leisure of the few, the governing classes, depended on the labour and service of the many. Perhaps the poor should remain in ignorance lest they rebel against the way the social system worked. Just as the propertied classes opposed universal suffrage for fear that a mass electorate would not long tolerate the unequal distribution of property and wealth, so many feared that too much education might lead to disaffection. As an early eighteenth-century writer put it: ‘If a horse knew as much as a man I should not like to be his rider.’
Derek Fraser

7. The growing awareness of poverty

It was clear even to the most assiduous upholder of the individualist ethic that not everybody was able to practise the virtues of self-help or to benefit by them all the time. John Stuart Mill’s gradual conversion from a strict Benthamite individualism to a near-socialism was evidence of an intellectual’s acceptance of the limitations in practice of a theoretically justifiable credo. It was all too easy to assume, like one of Dickens’s self-made masters, that everyone could make £60,000 out of 6d.; that, in the words of Matthew Arnold, ‘You have only to get on the back of your horse Freedom … and to ride away as hard as you can, to be sure of coming to the right destination.’ As a perceptive cultural historian has remarked, ‘Although Victorian didactic literature constantly insists on the necessity of self-help, one of the dominant themes of a major tradition within Victorian fiction is the powerlessness of the individual.’1 Writers such as Mill and Thomas Carlyle exposed the paradox that, though a more egalitarian and democratic society might be emerging, the individual was becoming increasingly absorbed in the mass, losing identity and purpose. The Victorian response to the powerlessness (or, as it was often conceived, moral weakness) of the individual was an over-liberal dose of charity. The phenomenal variety and range of Victorian philanthropy was at once confirmation of the limitless benevolence of a generation and implicit condemnation of the notion of self-help for all.
Derek Fraser

9. Politics and policy, 1914–39

The First World War dramatically increased the role of the state and when Lloyd George continued the wartime coalition after the 1918 election it was hoped that a positive social policy would follow. He had promised ‘homes fit for heroes’ and there was an ambitious housing programme led by Addison. By 1922, however, retrenchment followed and Lloyd George was out of office, never to return. Unemployment, never below 1 million and as high as 3 million, cast a dark shadow over the inter-war years and the unemployment insurance scheme had to be bailed out by a series of expedients, which undermined its actuarial basis. The major financial crisis of 1931 overwhelmed the Labour Government of Ramsay MacDonald, though he remained as the head of the National Government for four more years. The 1930s were marked by the stabilisation of the unemployment scheme and, for those in work, a rise in living standards. Other areas of social policy had a more positive story, largely the work of Neville Chamberlain, who introduced the Old Age, Widows’ and Orphan’s contributory pensions in 1925.
Derek Fraser

10. War and welfare in the 1940s

During the Second World War the bombing, evacuation, rationing and the demands of total war produced a collectivist and universalist spirit which united the nation. From the outset, planning for a new post-war world was begun and there was no wish to go back to the 1930s. The Beveridge Report published in December 1942 exemplified popular hopes for a new deal, with its protection against ‘the Five Giants’. Churchill was widely believed to be lukewarm on Beveridge and this accounts to a large extent for his surprising defeat at the 1945 election, despite public gratitude for his role as ‘the man who won the war’. The first majority Labour Government, led by Clement Attlee, faced a period of austerity and severe economic problems. Nevertheless, it implemented the range of social policies which became known as the Welfare State, begun on 5 July 1948. The government also nationalised key sections of industry in the nearest Britain has come to a socialist revolution.
Derek Fraser

11. The Welfare State in Modern Britain

Between the late 1940s and the late 1970s there was a broad consensus in British politics which allowed the Welfare State to become deeply embedded in British society and in the popular culture. There were social policy changes but the 1948 settlement survived broadly intact. That consensus came to a shuddering end with the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. She identified many problems associated with what she called the 30-year experiment with socialism. There were perverse incentives in the benefits system which encouraged welfare dependency and demoralisation and so she wished to ‘roll back the state’ and cut public expenditure. Labour, having lost four elections in a row, reviewed its policies and rebranded itself as New Labour. Blair and Brown wished the Welfare State to offer a ‘hand up not a hand out’, through welfare TO work programmes. In the wake of the international financial crisis of 2008–9 Cameron between 2010 and 2016 pursued an austerity programme aimed at reducing the public expenditure deficit, in which welfare budgets were expected to find major savings.
Derek Fraser

12. Conclusion

The title of this book, The Evolution of the British Welfare State (and those of others which use ‘Foundations’ or ‘Origins’), may suggest a teleological process through which the creation of the Welfare State was somehow inevitable. This and earlier editions of the book certainly counteract such a view, since there were so many variables and historical processes at work, which meant that neither the timing nor the character of the British Welfare State were predetermined. However, in seeking to trace historical development over time, there is a risk of anachronism of two kinds. First, it would, of course, be wholly wrong to judge the significance of a historical occurrence solely by reference to some unanticipated later development, instead of placing it in its contemporary context. Second, it is equally anachronistic to ascribe to past societies concepts of a later age, such as talking about ‘welfare states in miniature’ when discussing the eighteenth-century Poor Law. Yet one of the main tasks of the historian is to clarify the relationship between present and past, and one of the basic questions asked of the historian to aid contemporary understanding is ‘How did we get here?
Derek Fraser
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