Battle in Print: Rethinking welfare

Dave Clements, 29 October 2009

The beginnings of the welfare state can be traced back as far as the dissolution of the monasteries, followed by the establishment of the Poor Laws legally obliging parishes to raise funds in their place, the introduction of the workhouses in the early 18th century, and their toughening up following a Royal Commission into the escalating costs of welfare provision in 1834. One commissioner complained that despite the escalating costs of welfare provision, it was ‘the dreadful effects which the system produces on the morals and happiness of the lower orders’ that was most concerning. Another complained that the dependent’s clothes are ‘ragged’ and his children dirty and undisciplined, whereas the labourer, for all his poverty, at least has a ‘sense of moral feeling and dignity’. In response to the narrowing of state-funded welfare, friendly societies sprang up to protect people in their old age, when sick or out of work, supported through the contributions of their ordinary working members – insurance schemes that were effectively nationalised between 1908-11 by the Liberals.

But it was what former Labour leader Michael Foot described as ‘the blissful dawn of July 1945 … [and] the promise of a new society’ that most of us associate with the establishment of the welfare state. Both the post-war euphoria, and a political class that still had something about it were real enough. The welfare state was both an elite response to revolt and Labourism at home and revolution and socialism abroad, and made possible by the ‘apparent success of the government organisation of the war effort’. 600,000 copies of the Beveridge report were sold in 1942, some of them circulated to the troops soon to return home from the battlefields. It ‘answered a kind of longing’, says one conservative critic. (1) The welfare settlement eventually began to unravel in the mid-1970s as the post-war world came to an end.

But it is only now it seems, as David Green at Civitas argues, that ‘the economic downturn has forced us to question … whether our welfare system is worthy of the challenges it now faces.’(2) According to the Treasury Committee, there has been a ‘sharp increase in public spending … borrowing is now forecast to be higher than at any time since World War II, and the national debt is set to remain high for at least a generation.’(3) According to Andrew Haldenby, director of Reform, ‘coffee needs to be smelt across the political spectrum’ (4). To his credit David Cameron says, ‘we’ve got to ask ourselves what we really value in the public sector’, and start ‘reversing those extensions of the state that do more harm than good’. Reform recommend a cut of 4%, or £29 billion, in next year’s budget, a substantial chunk of the £150 billion a year spent on welfare. This can be done, they and others argue, by abolishing so-called ‘middle class benefits’ (5).

But the focus on ‘austerity’ and ‘savage’ cuts in the absence of a convincing investment strategy to grow the economy, and to get people into work and off benefits, only confirms the lack of ideas on the part of those who should be leading us out of this crisis. The Labour government may be talking about investing their way out of it but their record speaks for itself. To be fair, the current crisis has only exacerbated a more long-standing problem with the welfare state and the assumptions upon which it was based. Its creators failed to anticipate the onset of mass unemployment, and the large take-up of means-tested benefits that were a consequence of the economic slump between the wars (6). And we’re facing a similar problem now. There are 3.3 million households today – or 1 in 6 – without an adult who works. According to the Policy Exchange ‘the number of people out of work and living off benefits’ is now ‘above 4 million’ (7). Nearly a million of these are NEETS – that is young people not in education, employment or training – or as Frank Furedi puts it, ‘not engaged in any socially useful activity’ (8). In 1951, 4% of the population was on National Assistance. Its modern day equivalent – income support – is claimed by 17%, and as many as 1 in 4 people are now claiming a means-tested benefit (9).
Instead of asking why this should be, or what is it about the economy that generates such worklessness, the critics of welfare go into moral mode. Sounding like an uppity Victorian Commissioner, former social security minister, Michael Portillo asks if this is ‘morally affordable?’ We shouldn’t ‘subsidise slobbery’ he says or ‘boost idleness’. It encourages ‘moral degeneration’. A report from the Runnymede Trust described how the likes of Portillo ‘deride and ridicule the feckless and the undeserving poor, who have squandered the opportunities gracefully given to them by the welfare state’ (10). But this is more than an old Tory pastime; it is becoming something of a national blood sport. It was Labour MP Tom Harris who caused a stir when he complained that Britain’s ‘army of teenage mothers’ are a ‘national catastrophe’ (11). While these ideas are as despicable as the policies they inspire, the problem of dependency does indeed exact more than just a financial cost. A leader in the Independent last year described how ‘generations are being brought up on sink estates mired in welfare dependency, drug abuse and a culture of joblessness’. There is an element of Hogarthian caricature and ‘Broken Britain’-speak in there but the portrait is hardly one that can be dismissed out-of-hand. 

Maybe we do have a ‘can work, won’t work culture’ as a former minister at the Department for Work and Pensions put it. In 1979 there were 600,000 people claiming invalidity (now ‘incapacity’) benefit. By 1995, it had more than doubled to 1.5 million, and by 2002 it was 2.4 million. Over half of claimants were suffering problems like stress and backache, and were concentrated particularly in areas of high unemployment – leading to the not unreasonable suspicion that people were claiming this slightly more generous benefit, rather than claiming income support or jumping through the hoops associated with job seekers allowance. The government has now abolished incapacity benefit, replacing it with Employment and Support Allowance, and introduced something called Pathways to Work. The intention is to ‘focus on what people can do rather than what they can’t’. Which sounds fair enough but have they tackled the underlying problem? 

The ‘economic slowdown’, we are told in a recent report by the Young Foundation (12), ‘is like a receding tide which reveals the many who are struggling’. In other words, the economic crisis exposes us as fish-like, helplessly flipping around on the shores edge waiting for the sea’s return to wash us back out again. But the notion that people are increasingly vulnerable and dependent is not primarily a consequence of the workings of ‘the system’, whether that is the downturn in the economy, or the damage done by the welfare state. It is our political culture that has such low expectations of what people can achieve, that encourages us to turn inward, adopt the ‘sick role’ and claim sickness benefits rather than find or fight for jobs; that promotes the relentless expansion and escalation of people’s needs by the likes of the Young Foundation, and that diminishes our potential to effect change in our own lives and in society more broadly.

In other words, getting tougher on the work-shy or blaming lone parents for the decline of civilisation as we know it isn’t going to solve the problem of dependency. The end of the contest between competing forces in society and the rise of the anxious and atomised politics of the personal in its place, has given rise to a reworking of the relationship between individuals and the state. While the ‘safety net’ has long been stretched and full of holes, the shift to welfare as a therapeutic buttressing of vulnerable individuals unable to cope with life is something else. It encourages us to invite the state into our lives to sort out our problems or to help us manage our relationships.

But the critics of the welfare state tend to miss this. One anti-welfare diatribe, for instance, combines a healthy hostility to ‘the tendrils of the state reaching into every aspect of our lives’, with more than a little contempt for welfare dependents. It takes their dependency at face value rather than interrogating it. While they are absolutely right to point out in the plainest of terms that ‘most of us could get by just fine if only the government would get out of the way and leave us alone’. But they do not put up a principled challenge against unwanted state intervention, never mind try to understand the new politics that legitimates it. Instead they turn their fire on those that they say are ‘dragging the rest of us down’; in the hope that at least we (whoever ‘we’ may be) will be left alone (13).

Which is a shame – today’s elite, lacking a faith in their ability to solve social problems that was so apparent with the architects of the welfare state, are more exposed than ever. Writing in 1912, former Prime Minister, Ramsay Macdonald said: ‘Poverty is nothing but a disease of the state caused by a failure of the machinery of distribution’ (14).These were more optimistic times and a world away from the depressed outlook we are familiar with now. Today, despite the wider economic and political crisis, the Labour government is itself in a state of ‘moral collapse’, abandoning policies in quick succession that it once apparently held dear (15 and 16). In the absence of old elite values or any urge to transmit them, the apolitical class may be relentlessly intrusive but they are hopelessly uninspiring too.

‘To live on benefits’, says Portillo, ‘has become a lifestyle choice.’ But it is the lifestyle politics of today’s elite that is so much more of a problem than what people may or may not get up to on council estates. It is the political class who are dodging their responsibilities to come up with a vision for society and to put people’s talents to productive ends. The irony is that demands (mostly emanating from within the political elite itself) for people to have greater autonomy, greater control over their lives and greater involvement in ‘civil society’ are built on this evasion of responsibility, on a desperation to connect and a failure of nerve.

Nevertheless, while a return to the parishes would be a step backwards, we should support those modern-day equivalents of the self-help approach and the friendly societies of old that want to go it alone, and defend them from a political class that doesn’t know when to leave alone. David Green argues that ‘the mistake we made during the twentieth century was to believe that the state was the best agency for discharging the common good’. But even Green, like most of the critics of the welfare state, is in fact a defender of the welfare state as it once was, or at least as it was intended – as a ‘safety net’.

Who provides welfare, today, is less important than what the welfare state is for. The ‘state vs. the market’ stand-off was always a phoney debate anyway, and not particularly helpful. Personally, I think we can and should still make certain demands of the state, however reluctant it may be to accept them: for a universal entitlement to a good education, to a nice home, to a decent income for all, to free childcare around-the-clock and to health and social care when and where we need it. At the same time we should insist that beyond this the state must remove itself from our lives.

Whatever it looks like, a new welfare settlement – or social contract, as the Conservatives prefer to call it – can only emerge out of a shared set of values, or at least a public contestation of what those values should be. Green’s call for ‘welfare reform befitting a free people’ is a good start and something that I can go along with. But we can’t imagine or coax a ‘free people’ into being by shaking up the welfare system. We need to challenge the cultural trends that keep people from claiming their independence and asserting their autonomy, as well as the material limits (when they come up against them) that stand in their way. What we need, in my view, is a welfare system – whatever form it takes – that is informed by a culture that is conducive to people having more control over their lives; a welfare system that assumes that people are, on the whole, robust and resilient, and able to get on; and a welfare system that is able to support people when they need it, rather than blaming them for all of society’s problems and holding them back from achieving their own potential.


Dave Clements is a freelance writer on social policy and related issues, convenor of the IoI Social Policy Forum and a founding member of the Future Cities Project. He lives in East London and continues to work in local government. He has written for publications including Guardian Unlimited, The Architects’ Journal, spiked-online and Community Care Magazine, is a member of the Battle of Ideas organising committee and regularly debates on public platforms. He is co-editor of The Future of Community, published in October 2008.


1) Bartholomew, J (2004) The Welfare State We’re In, Politico
2) Green, D (2009) Individualists Who Co-operate: Education and welfare reform befitting a free people, Civitas

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