War on want: the bat­tle to build a wel­fare state

Fred Inglis trav­els the bumpy road from Vic­to­rian work­house to the mod­ern Bri­tish ben­e­fits sys­tem

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Fred Inglis is hon­orary pro­fes­sor of cul­tural his­tory at the Univer­sity of War­wick.

Bread for All:

The Ori­gins of the Wel­fare State By Chris Ren­wick

Allen Lane, 336pp, £20.00 ISBN 9780241186688 Pub­lished 7 Septem­ber 2017

Chris Ren­wick sets a crack­ing pace in a his­tory of the Bri­tish wel­fare state that should be put in the hands of ev­ery cit­i­zen-un­der­grad­u­ate. The book in­structs its read­ers in the messi­ness of this his­tory, its dis­grace­ful par­ti­san­ships, its er­rors and fa­tu­ities. But it also does abun­dant hon­our to pow­er­ful thought about the com­mon good, to the courage and moral tenac­ity of an army of philoso­phers, pub­lic-spir­ited aca­demics, hon­ourable politi­cians, and a host of fig­ures from the no­ble Bri­tish tra­di­tion of un­thanked of­fi­cers in a hun­dred char­i­ties.

Ren­wick sum­mons a vast roll call of thinkers, re­searchers and politi­cians. Many are of course well-known – Her­bert Asquith, David Lloyd Ge­orge, Wil­liam Bev­eridge and Beatrice Webb from the early 20th cen­tury alone are all names es­sen­tial to the mo­men­tum of Ren­wick’s theme, but he goes back deep into the 19th cen­tury for his ori­gins, cred­it­ing the frac­tious pub­lic philoso­pher Ed­win Chad­wick for his con­tri­bu­tion, not­ing that in 1860s Padding­ton “the work­house in­fir­mary had one towel for ev­ery 31 peo­ple”. He bends his knee to T. H. Green’s Taun­ton Com­mis­sion on ed­u­ca­tion and to John Snow, who traced cholera to a sin­gle wa­ter pump, hon­our­ing the eight-hour day that Robert Owen in­tro­duced in his model vil­lage of New La­nark, lin­ing up Lord Shaftes­bury, John Stu­art Mill, En­gels and Dick­ens for their part in the grad­ual mak­ing of a pub­lic con­science ca­pa­ble of en­act­ing wel­fare as a univer­sal sys­tem of do­mes­tic en­ti­tle­ments.

These peo­ple were, how­ever, the mer­est fore­run­ners. The bind­ing con­cept that per­mit­ted such dif­fer­ent ac­tors on the pub­lic stage to dis­cover al­lies and de­clare com­mon pur­pose is, for Ren­wick, English, Scot­tish, Welsh and Ir­ish lib­er­al­ism.

Lib­eral com­pro­mise made al­lies out of so mixed a bag as Bev­eridge (damned awk­ward as he was), John May­nard Keynes, Al­fred Mar­shall, even Win­ston Churchill, him­self so odd a mix­ture of old re­ac­tion and new pro­gres­sivism. Then, as the women who stood to be the ob­vi­ous ben­e­fi­cia­ries of wel­fare joined in and up, there came Mar­garet Bond­field as min­is­ter of labour in 1929, Eleanor Rath­bone and her dar­ing pro­posal that women be paid for do­mes­tic labour, El­lice Hop­kins and her polemic The Power of Wom­an­hood, and Ellen Wilkin­son, min­is­ter of ed­u­ca­tion in Cle­ment At­tlee’s Cab­i­net.

With the At­tlee gov­ern­ment of 1945-51, Ren­wick’s grand nar­ra­tive comes to its cli­max. A short re­view such as this must not al­low its read­ers to sup­pose that the book is no more than a heroic reg­is­ter. It is the his­tory of a world-chang­ing idea. In a lec­ture to the Bri­tish Academy, the his­to­rian Quentin Skin­ner once de­scribed the 300-year mak­ing of the idea of a free state as the in­ven­tion of “the moral agent of the peo­ple”. Bev­eridge’s fa­mous re­port pub­lished in the dark days of 1942, Aneurin Be­van’s care­ful par­ley­ing with the Bri­tish Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion in 1948, even pub­lic-school-ed­u­cated R. A. But­ler’s 1944 Ed­u­ca­tion Act and, supremely, Michael Young’s 1945 Labour Man­i­festo all acted in the ca­pac­ity of “moral agent of the peo­ple” and on be­half of a demo­cratic lib­er­al­ism scrupu­lously guarded by At­tlee.

Such is Ren­wick’s great sub­ject, rous­ingly told and finely con­trolled. In 2017, the wel­fare state is mor­tally ill. This book is a firm re­minder of just how es­sen­tial it is to all our lives.

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