September 16, 2017
The Guardian Book Review
Bread for All: The Origins of the Welfare State by Chris Renwick
Contrary to what some may believe, the welfare state did not come into existence solely as a result of some sort of post-second world war big bang caused by the election of the Attlee government. To be sure it was the Attlee government that supplied the political will, but many of the principles and some of the measures evolved over the preceding half-century. One or two were of even earlier origin.
Chris Renwick, who lectures in modern history at the University of York, has produced an account of the origins of the welfare state, from the Elizabethan poor law to the Beveridge report, which is at once both learned and highly readable. Until the mid-19th century, most politicians and political philosophers were instinctively against the notion that the welfare of its citizens was any business of the state except maybe in the direst circumstances, and perhaps not even then. The late-18th-century philosopher Malthus argued that the poor law was an interference with the natural checks and balances on a growing population.
There were also arguments that will be familiar today about escalating cost, fecklessness and the undermining of the market, with the result that early social reformers sometimes found it easier to focus, not so much on the moral arguments, but on the suggestion that it was simply not efficient to have perhaps one-third of the population unable to make any meaningful contribution to the wealth of the nation if they were laid low by disease, malnutrition and lack of education.
The first stirrings of ruling-class interest in the welfare of the masses began in the 1830s with the appointment of a royal commission into the workings of the poor law. Remarkably, however, it concluded that the existing patchwork of local provision was too generous and needed to be replaced by a centrally imposed system of workhouses where living conditions were sufficiently unpleasant that no one save the destitute would want to live there.
Gradually, though, the grim realities of working-class life in 19th-century Britain began to impinge on the comfortable world of the Victorian middle classes. A combination of the rise of trade unions, the founding of the Labour party and the extension of the franchise, along with a handful of enlightened employers and social reformers, forced social welfare on to the political agenda. The revelation, during the Boer war, that up to two-thirds of the recruits from industrial cities such as Manchester were physically unfit to fight came as a particular shock to the political classes.
Only with the election of the 1906 Liberal government did the state start to take a serious interest in the welfare of its people. One of the new government’s first measures was to introduce legislation permitting local authorities, should they choose, to introduce free school meals. Predictably, however, many declined to do so with the result that, after five years, only a relative handful of children benefited. The first old age pensions were introduced in 1908 (£13 a year for the over 70s), but once again provision was far from universal. Only those with incomes of less than £31 a year qualified. David Lloyd George’s attempt to introduce a national insurance scheme to cover the sick and unemployed, funded by increased taxes, was famously blocked by the Tories in the House of Lords and needed two further general elections to force through.
It took two world wars and the extension of the franchise to women before the welfare state as we know it today, universal and comprehensive, became politically possible. Although the greatest credit lies with the Attlee government, Labour did not pluck ideas and legislation out of thin air. During the first four decades of the 20th century, governments of all persuasions had begun to turn their attention to improving the education, housing and welfare of all citizens. As the author says, “The fact that there were Labour, Tory and Liberal fingerprints on the welfare state was an important reason why it was not instantly dismantled by the Tories when they regained power in 1951.”
• Bread for All: The Origins of the Welfare State by Chris Renwick is published by Allen Lane (£20).