After decades of public illness, Beveridge’s most famous offspring has died
For much of its short but celebrated life, the Welfare State was cherished by Britons. Instant public affection greeted its birth and even as it passed away peacefully yesterday morning, government ministers swore they would do all they could to keep it alive.
The Welfare State’s huge appeal lay in its combination of simplicity and assurance. A safety net to catch those fallen on hard times, come rain or shine, boom or bust, it would be there for all those who had paid in.
Such universality allowed people to project on to it whatever they wished. Welfare State’s father, the Liberal William Beveridge, described his offspring as “an attack on Want”, one of the five evil giants that had to be slain in postwar Britain. But for future Labour prime minister Clement Attlee, “Social security to us can only mean socialism”.
Yet there were critics. Indeed, it is thought that as late as yesterday, an unnamed twentysomething PPE graduate at Policy Exchange was revising a document entitled “What’s Wrong with Welfare?” In the end, however, it was not a rightwing think tank that killed Welfare. The proximate cause of death was a change in child benefit from being available to all to a means-tested entitlement. That marked the end of one of the last remaining universal benefits, in turn causing a fatal injury to Welfare.
It is a testimony to Welfare’s powerful charm that few immediately accepted its passing. Hours after its official death, bloggers continued to talk as if it were still alive, albeit under grave threat from the perfidious Tories.
But analysts later confirmed that the change to child benefit did indeed mark the death of the Welfare State as originally envisaged by Beveridge: a “contributory” system, where those who paid in during their working lives could count on financial help from the government when in need.
It expired peacefully on Monday, 7 January, just weeks after marking its 70th birthday.
The system had suffered many attacks over the years, from politicians talking of a “welfare trap”, government means-testing, and frothy-mouthed journalists reporting isolated cases of benefit fraud.
For many would-be claimants, Welfare had become a ragged system where, however deserving or needy, they weren’t poor enough to qualify for benefits, or the cash involved was too small to bother claiming.
Though David Cameron spoke of a “something for nothing” culture, the opposite was closer to the truth: Welfare had become a “nothing for something” system where taxpayers chipped in but got very little back.
This was very different from the scenes that greeted Welfare’s birth in 1942. Then, the BBC broadcast in 22 different languages the details of Beveridge’s social insurance scheme and the Manchester Guardian repeatedly acclaimed it as a “great plan” and a “big and fine thing”. The public was enthusiastic, buying more than 635,000 copies of what was formally titled the “Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services”.
Yet the golden period of Welfare really came in the 60s and 70s as, thanks to the work of Barbara Castle, Jeff Rooker, Audrey Wise and others, pensions and allowances were made more generous and tied to typical earnings.
“If you were poor, you were far less behind than at any other time in contemporary British history,” according to Richard Exell, a senior policy officer at the TUC and a campaigner on welfare issues for more than 30 years. “It produced a Britain that was one of the most equal societies in western Europe.”
Just before Margaret Thatcher came to power, a single person out of work would get unemployment benefit worth almost 21% of average earnings; last year, jobseeker’s allowance was nearly half that, amounting to just over 11%.
Welfare’s big decline came in the 1980s, as the Conservatives moved more benefits from available to all to on offer only to the poor. This was justified as making public spending more efficient.
But, according to a famous and much quoted study by Walter Korpi and Joakim Palme, such means-testing is far less effective and more expensive than universal benefits. In a study of 18 rich countries, the academics found that targetting benefits at the poorest usually generated resentment among those just above – and led to smaller entitlements.
This “paradox of redistribution” was certainly observable in Britain, where Welfare retained its status as one of the 20th century’s most exalted creations, even while those claiming benefits were treated with ever greater contempt.
“If you look at unemployment and sickness benefit as a proportion of average earnings, then Britain has one of the meanest welfare systems in Europe,” says Palme. “Worse than Greece, Bulgaria or Romania.”
Some of that same meanness can be seen in the way Welfare was discussed as it moved into its sixth and seventh decades. It was no longer about social security but benefits. Those who received them were no longer unfortunate but “slackers“, as Iain Duncan Smith referred to them. A recent study by Declan Gaffney, Ben Baumberg and Kate Bell of 6,600 national newspaper articles on Welfare published between 1995 and 2011 found 29% referred to benefit fraud. The government’s own estimate of fraud is that it is less than 1% across all benefit cases.
The death of Welfare does not mean an end to all benefit spending. Instead, it is outlived by its predecessor, Poor Relief, in which only the very poorest will receive government cash. Analysts are unsure about the repercussions.
“I’m not aware of any country that’s ever had a combination of Victorian-style poor laws and parliamentary democracy,” says Gaffney.
Instead of a book of condolences, there will be a special edition of the Guardian’s letters page. In separate tributes, BBC4 will air some respectful but little-watched documentaries; there will also be a truly unbearable edition of The Moral Maze.