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The welfare state


On 1 December 1942 the wartime coalition government published a report entitled 'Social Insurance and Allied Services'. It had been written by Sir William Beveridge, a highly regarded economist and expert on unemployment problems. The Beveridge Report quickly became the blueprint for the modern British welfare state. More than 40 years later, even a white paperGlossary - opens new window on social security drafted by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government, which opposed many of the principles behind Beveridge's work, recognised his report as 'by any measure a landmark'.
Public opinion and the Beveridge Report - opens new window
Public opinion and the Beveridge Report
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The Beveridge Report: 'The Way to Freedom from Want' - opens new window
The Beveridge Report:
'The Way to Freedom from Want'
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'From cradle to grave'

The Beveridge Report aimed to provide a comprehensive system of social insurance 'from cradle to grave'. It proposed that all working people should pay a weekly contribution to the state. In return, benefits would be paid to the unemployed, the sick, the retired and the widowed. Beveridge wanted to ensure that there was an acceptable minimum standard of living in Britain below which nobody fell.

Although it was a complex document of more than 300 pages, the publication of the Beveridge Report was a huge success. Opinion polls reported that the majority of the British public welcomed the report's findings and wished to see them implemented as quickly as possible. This shows the extent to which the population had shifted to the Left during the course of the Second World War. The first postwar election, in June 1945, resulted in a landslide victory for the Labour Party, who were enthusiastic supporters of the Beveridge Report.
Ministry of National Insurance poster - opens new window
Ministry of National Insurance poster
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'The philanthropic highwayman'  (cartoon) - opens new window
'The philanthropic highwayman'
(Punch cartoon)
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The Beveridge Report, however, was also the result of longer-term changes in the attitudes of politicians and the public towards social welfare. In Victorian Britain it had been common to lay the blame for poverty and unemployment upon the 'idleness' of the individuals concerned. At that time a wide variety of charitable and philanthropic organisations existed, and it was not felt that the state needed to provide a comprehensive system of welfare support.
By the early years of the 20th century, the rise of the Labour movement in Britain (not to mention the introduction of a social insurance system in Bismarck's Germany during the 1880s) was challenging laissez-faireGlossary - opens new window notions of state involvement in social policy. The Liberal government of Herbert Asquith (1906-14) introduced a number of measures - most notably the Old Age Pensions Act (1908) and the National Insurance Act (1911) - that radically extended welfare rights in Britain. But neither Act was universal in scope - with both favouring the 'deserving' sick and unemployed ('deserving' in that they had previously been in regular employment). But it was clear that the principle of 'individual liberty' was now being challenged by a stronger emphasis on collective welfare rights.
Claim under Old Age Pensions Act - opens new window
Claim under Old Age Pensions Act
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Lloyd George explains National Insurance, 1912 - opens new window
Lloyd George explains
National Insurance, 1912
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The principle of state intervention was established more firmly during the period between 1914 and 1945. During the Second World War, for example, the government introduced free school meals and milk. In addition to the Beveridge Report, it also sponsored (in 1944) white papersGlossary - opens new window on education, strategies for achieving full employment, and the creation of a national health service. These changing attitudes to social policy in wartime Britain were reflected in the series of reforms introduced by the postwar Labour government under Clement Attlee (1945-51).
The National Insurance Act (1946), for example, created a comprehensive system of unemployment, sickness, maternity and pension benefits funded by employers, employees and the government. Most famously of all, the National Health Service (NHS) Act instituted for the first time in Britain a universal state health service. The Act, which came into force in July 1948, provided free diagnosis and treatment of illnesses at home or in hospital, including dental and ophthalmic treatment.
Doctors' poll on NHS - opens new window
Doctors' poll on NHS
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The doctors' case - opens new window
The doctors' case
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'Social citizenship'

Despite the rising costs of the NHS, the postwar reforms of the Labour government established a domestic political consensus that lasted for nearly 30 years. As the sociologist TH Marshall wrote in 1965, 'it is generally agreed that... the overall responsibility for the welfare of the citizens must remain with the state'. Marshall's own concept of 'social citizenship' - which put forward a new model of citizenship based on economic and social (as well as political) rights - was characteristic of this collective approach to social welfare after 1945.

'Rolling back the state'

The 'social citizenship' model was not really challenged until the emergence of Margaret Thatcher as Conservative Party leader (1975) and then Prime Minister (1979). Thatcherism promised low taxes, less state intervention, and lower levels of public spending. This involved, in theory at least, substantial cuts in welfare spending. The succession of Thatcher governments between 1979 and 1990 became synonymous with the idea of 'rolling back the state'.

Ministry of Health poster: 'The seven rules of health' - opens new window
Ministry of Health poster:
'The seven rules of health'
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National health poster Despite cuts in spending on housing and stricter eligibility rules for benefits, however, the Thatcher revolution was less radical than either its opponents or its supporters claimed. Welfare spending in fact remained stationary between the late 1970s and the late 1980s. Nevertheless, the Thatcher years eroded the political consensus in favour of the welfare state. Today, in early-21st-century Britain, the debate on welfare spending and social policy is no longer centred on Beveridge's 'cradle to grave' principle. It is far more concerned with providing cost-effective social care, through a mixture of public and private initiatives.

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