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Is the Welfare State the Sixth Evil?

Posted: 12/12/2012 23:46

First published in the International Business Times 5/12/12, here

It's 70 years since the publication of the Beveridge Report, a landmark document that is credited with the birth of Britain's welfare state. Despite the significance of the report, this is an anniversary that the government and most media outlets in the UK chose to ignore.

The impact of the Beveridge Report is one that can hardly be overestimated, since its publication essentially marks the launch of state welfare in Britain. Identifying five 'evils' in society that the state could remedy - disease, squalor, idleness, ignorance and want - the report was hugely influential amongst the general public, and that popular will led to the establishment of the welfare state as we know it.

But Britain today is a very different society to the Britain which William Beveridge knew.

The atmosphere of solidarity and unity that accompanied the construction of the welfare state during the postwar period has now given way to colder feelings of mistrust, and as one ex-government minister put it recently, a 'demonisation' of the poor. The latest British Attitudes Survey reported that 37% of the British population think that most people on unemployment benefits are frauds, 62% believe that unemployment benefits are too high and discourage work, and just 28% of the population would approve of an increase in benefits.

Given the antipathy with which voters treat politics and elections in general (the recent Police Commissioner elections were typical on many levels), it's hard to imagine a report or government white paper gathering as much support as Beveridge's did.

When Beveridge published the report in 1942, he was a veteran civil servant who had been sidelined during the war effort. The report was widely distributed amongst the public and was even sent to soldiers on the frontlines - and its publication catapulted Beveridge into the public arena. Speaking to large audiences in the aftermath of the report, the popular support he whipped up during his brief political career ensured that whichever government took charge after the war ended would have to implement his ideas.

I spoke to Elke Heins, lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh about the impact of the report. She said: "The importance was immense - it became the blueprint for the design of the British welfare state after 1945.

"There was already some welfare state development before 1945 of course. Incidentally, it was again Beveridge under a Liberal government in 1909 who was pivotal for establishing the first nationwide system of 'labour exchanges' (what we nowadays would call public employment service or Jobcentres) and was responsible for the National Insurance Act 1911 which introduced the first state system of compulsory unemployment insurance.

"The interwar period (massive unemployment) and particularly the Second World War led to much more government intervention in social matters and paved the way for the post-war British welfare state. The fact that some of the academic literature distinguishes between 'Beveridgean' and 'Bismarckian' welfare states tells a lot about his influence."

There are many reasons why a report like Beveridge's would be rejected now. For one, he fitted the classical idea of the civil servant; born in India and educated at one of England's most prestigious private schools, he worked to create better social services, centred on evidence-based policies all his life. That route to government - the typical path for the Imperial bureaucrat - is exactly the sort of profile that has fallen increasingly out of favour in the UK. But it wasn't until his revolutionary report that he was fully affiliated with a political party (he was a Liberal MP for a brief time, before being made a peer). Unlike today's network of influential thinktanks and partisan public intellectuals, Beveridge largely worked quietly and out of the public eye - much like Jean Monnet, the French politician credited with founding the European Union in 1951.

In the seventy years since Beveridge published his report, Britain has changed radically. Society is now more open, more informed and more aware, especially of politics. It's probably fair to say that one person's ideas cannot now hold as much weight as his did, especially if they were coming from under the radar of public consciousness.

The Beveridge Report is largely of emblematic importance in 2012. But the anniversary of this landmark document's publication is nevertheless an opportunity to look past the clichés of 'Blitz spirit' and consider the unity and solidarity that marked Britain's postwar period, and to ask ourselves - if we needed to, could we pull together the way they did?

 

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