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1940's Origins of the Welfare State

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The 1946 film 'Land of Promise' highlights the extent of Britain's social problems. It calls for a more collective spirit in which skilled workers do their jobs for the public good rather than self-interest.
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Full transcript of the film "Land of Promise, The Will to Win"

Duration: 0:03:11

Three men in suits and ties stand looking straight into the camera. They are in a pub and one of them in standing behind the bar; there are shelves of glasses in the background.

Narrator: "Come on then, come on, get cracking. It's not enough to end one war, we've got to end them all. You think we've finished with the aggressor? We haven't."

The men react one of them puts his head in his hand.

An older man with a cap and coat on stands outside, an elderly woman and a young boy sit in a doorway, a crowd of people mixture of ages.

"He's trampling the dim streets under his jack boots yet. They're waiting for us down there in those occupied territories. They're waiting for D-day and the armies of liberation. Come on then you leaders; come on, where are you?"

A man climbs a ladder onto the roof of a house in the process of being built, a doctor at his desk with a patient standing in the background, several planners looking at maps, social worker sitting at a desk talking to somebody who is sitting opposite him, large group of people walking down the street, somebody looking through a microscope, group of young women, an elderly lady, large group of men some smoking.

"Architects, doctors, planners, engineers, social workers step out into the light. It's you who have to plan this invasion. We are waiting for the signal now. A thousand years we've been waiting come on then, come on, let's hear it."

Narrators voice goes quieter

Screen goes black and you see the shadow of a man walking out from behind the camera. He comes to stand in the middle of the 3 men at the beginning of the clip and is the narrator. He now talks directly to the camera. The three men stand watching and listening to him.

"So you're still afraid some of you, hey? It's hopeless; it'll never be done. You can't change human nature, and so on and so on and so on. Well you think again. If somebody came along to you and said: 'Listen you British, give it up. Chuck it you feeble democracy and admit you're beaten.' Well what would you say to that? How would you take that? Lying down? Not much! Well then, what are you afraid of now? The only real wealth of a country is the health and happiness and freedom of its people. Who dares to estimate the money value of children killed by poor food and bad housing? Who dares to put a price on the million people killed by bad housing between the two Wars? The old fashioned way of reckoning human wellbeing in terms of profits. I tell you that way of thinking has got to be eliminated, liquidated, mopped up, wiped out!"

Many people stand together all dressed in overalls and working clothes, a pilot, soldier, factory worker, a woman working in a laboratory, miner and a farmer in the fields, a man with hat, tie and jacket, back to the group of working people, shows an aeroplane in the middle of crowd.

"Look round you. There they are, the men and woman who beat fascism; the men and woman in the fighting services; the merchant seamen; the workers in the factories and laboratories; the mines and the fields. You know who you are? You, yourselves, millions of us, there's our army there where it always was, standing upright in the shoes of the common people and who's the enemy?"

View over a town with a large chimney, back to a closer scene showing the narrator with the 3 men standing very close to him listening and looking concerned. The narrator talks directly to the camera and gestures with his hand, the volume of his voice starts to increase.

"The dictator who rules by force and not by reason; him and his collaborators. Now then, I'll give you your answer to problem number three, it's in your hands right now. Yours by the constitution of this country all the ministries of this and that; they are the servants of parliament. All the MPs from the towns, cities and countryside: they are put there by us to represent us, tell them, you have the right, that's real democracy, that's what we've been fighting for."

View over a town several roofs of houses with smoke above them and mountains in the background, large crowd of people.

"Are you going to use your right? Or will you shut your eyes and let yourselves and us be lead into one crisis after another. Into worse depression, worse poverty, worse slumps, worse sickness. Come on make up your minds. If you lose this chance it may never come again. There are millions of us, you and me: we are the British people. no power on earth can stop us once we've the will to win."

In December 1942 William Beveridge, a senior civil servant, identified five 'giant evils' that plagued society:

  • Disease
  • Want
  • Ignorance
  • Squalor
  • Idleness

He published his findings in a popular report titled 'Social Insurance and Allied Services'. Britain's National Insurance system had previously been looked after by different agencies (including charities and government departments) and was in a fragmented state. In recommending new ways to relieve the five 'giant evils', Beveridge became known as the Father of the Welfare State, although he disliked the term.

Beveridge had social security in mind: in return for paying a national insurance contribution, the citizen would gain security against the major ills. Beveridge insisted on the contributory element to the programme, as he did not want to damage people's sense of independence and personal responsibility. Neither did he want to redistribute wealth between classes, believing people should be free to better themselves if they had the ability and possibility to do so.

First measures

The first of Beveridge's proposals came into effect before the war ended. In 1944 a Ministry of National Insurance was set up in Newcastle, and in June 1945 the Conservative government passed the Family Allowances Act. The payments were 5 shillings for every child per week, lower than Beveridge had proposed, and only given from the birth of the second child. Campaigners were pleased, but further progress had to wait for the general election in July 1945. The result was a landslide victory for the Labour Party under Clement Attlee. Attlee had campaigned hard under the banner of the creation of a Welfare State and now seized upon Beveridge's proposals as a basis for radical action.

National insurance and assistance

Beveridge recommended that means testing, and other fragmented approaches to helping those in need, be replaced by one system. All workers would pay into a national insurance scheme run by the government instead of insurance companies. There would be a flat rate contribution and everyone would be entitled to a flat rate benefit. The flat rate for unemployment or sickness insurance would be high enough and long lasting enough that there would be no need for public assistance. In order to remove poverty there would be extra benefits that provided for children and health care.

Overall, there was very little opposition to government plans. As British historian Kenneth Morgan put it:

'The Welfare State, the other main government initiative of this period, also excited only limited controversy. All parties and all commentators, it seemed, emerged from the war beneath the mighty intellectual shade of William Beveridge and the 'cradle to the grave' philosophy.'
- Kenneth Morgan, The People's Peace, 2001

This was surprising, as Beveridge himself did not want people to become dependent on the Welfare State, and wanted benefits to be fairly limited.

National Insurance Act 1946

William Henry Beveridge (1879-1963) was a British economist and social reformer whose report changed the face of Britain.
William Henry Beveridge (1879-1963) was a British economist and social reformer whose report changed the face of Britain.

The National Insurance (NI) Act was passed in 1946. NI now became compulsory for all workers except married women. Most people paid the fairly substantial 4s 11d a week (almost as much as received for each child in family allowance per week). In return, workers received benefits for 'interruption of earnings' as a result of illness, and for unemployment or old age. For the elderly, a state pension was paid when men reached 65 and women reached 60. Older workers were encouraged to continue working and two thirds of men decided to carry on rather than take up their pension. Mothers received a lump sum on the birth of each child and if they had been paying NI, received an allowance for 18 weeks. A death grant gave widows help with funeral expenses and as an extension to the scheme, the Industrial Injuries Act gave compensation for people injured or killed at work.

The hope was to have all of Beveridge's plans in operation by 1948 - but this did not prove possible. The benefit provided was not based on a national minimum standard of living. Government fixed one rate, promising to review it every five years. Although Beveridge had proposed benefits for divorced women, women looking after parents and sickness benefit for housewives, these measures were not included.

National Assistance Board 1948

In 1947 200 people were living in huts on a disused gun site in Kent.
In 1947 200 people were living in huts on a disused gun site in Kent.

All these benefits only applied to insured workers, so in 1948 the National Assistance Board (NAB) was set up to cover those not insured. The NAB took over the old Public Assistance Committees (PACs) and for the first time, without the earnings of their families being considered, claimants were interviewed to see what kind of help they needed. Means testing was ended.

Labour governments also tackled some of the other ills Beveridge identified. The slum clearances (that had effectively begun after the Luftwaffe bombing in the Second World War) continued and a huge house-building programme was instituted. In 1948 Labour set up the National Health Service (NHS) and since there was already a free, compulsory state education service, the people of Britain now probably had the most comprehensive Welfare State system in the world.