No 11: Why welfare is a common good

The National Health Service (NHS) launched in 1948 is a cornerstone of the post-war British welfare state.
National Health Service leaflet, May 1948. (National Archives)

by Pete Alcock

My summer reading this year included a new biography of Clement Attlee, leader of the post-war Labour administration generally credited with the introduction of the British welfare state — Citizen Clem by John Bew. He makes the point that Attlee himself, though an outstanding party leader and Prime Minister, was very much aware that what made his government so popular (they won a landslide victory in 1945) and their reforms so successful was the changed political and ideological mood in the country. After the tremendous shared effort needed to win the war, there was support for further collective action to make the peace a worthwhile achievement for all.

The welfare state reforms of 1945-51 still provide the backbone of our social services today, most notably the National Health Service (NHS). They were based on universal principles (all should benefit) and collective investment (all should contribute, for instance through National Insurance). However, since then, they have been much challenged and much changed. These collective principles have been undermined by the weakening of universalism through the growing impact of means-testing and the individualisation and privatisation of services such as housing, pensions and social care.

Neoliberalism and the attack on the state

The challenge to the welfare state began most markedly under the Thatcher governments of the 1980s, when political and ideological criticism was directed at the collective principles of the welfare state (individuals and families should be encouraged to look out for themselves) and the growing costs of its contributory base (taxes were too high and should be cut to give individuals more control over ‘their’ resources). Academics have referred to this changed ideological landscape as neoliberalism and contrasted it with earlier Keynesian state intervention to control the economy and deliver public goods. At the heart of neoliberalism is a rejection of the positive role of the state — and it is an orthodoxy which has extended much beyond the UK.

The result of this, as we know only too well, has been a decline in the extent and accessibility of public services and a rise in inequality, benefitting especially the already very rich. It was the concern for just these issues which drove the support for the welfare state reforms of the post-war era. While reading about Attlee I began to wonder whether his was now just the history of a past ‘golden age’ for collective action — and I concluded that perhaps it was not.

A change in the mood?

Bew’s account of the 1945 election makes the point that critical to Labour’s success then were the votes of young people — the under-30s who had not had the chance to vote before (there had been no election since 1935 due to the war) and who had been at the forefront of the wartime effort both in the services and at home. The evidence was that it was these younger voters who carried Labour to victory and who shared its vision of collective support through the state.

In the 2017 UK election, the Conservatives surprisingly lost their majority due to a resurgence of support for a Labour party campaigning for increased support for public services and an attack on inequality. As the campaign slogan had it, ‘for the many, not the few’. And evidence suggests that it was amongst younger voters that Labour had the most support. This is reinforced by other polling evidence that younger voters are more concerned about the deleterious effects of public austerity and the inequities of gross inequality. Perhaps (at last!) there is the prospect of a changing public mood away from neoliberal individualism and towards collective protection through the state.

Of course, as historians tell us, history does not repeat itself. We cannot just rebuild the post-war welfare state in twenty-first century Britain. And Jeremy Corbyn is not Clement Attlee revitalised. Attlee was a pragmatist and a compromiser who had worked alongside Churchill in the wartime government. If there is to be a return to widespread support for collective welfare it will have to take a different form, and draw on different roots, from the shared experiences of the Second World War.

The common good

Central to the case for collective investment to provide social welfare is recognition of the common good that we all share in public services. The common good is the benefit that we all derive from public investment. A healthy and well-educated society is a better place for all its citizens. And, from the train journey to the local hospital to the protection from infectious diseases by public vaccination programmes, it does not take long to come up with a list of things that we really could not just buy for ourselves and our families.

Furthermore, investment in the common good is cumulative. It is previous generations of taxpayers who have invested in the roads, schools and hospitals that we now enjoy. This was, of course, central to the legacy of the welfare state left by our parents and grandparents in the post-war era. But the young people of today are becoming more acutely aware that their futures may not be so secure if neoliberalism continues its attack on the welfare state unabated. There is an element of ‘generational justice’ here, and younger voters may now be more motivated to respond to this.

We need to invest in the common good to ensure that welfare services (and other public goods) will be there for future generations, in the way that past generations did for us. The Labour government of 1945-51 wanted to create, in Attlee’s words, a ‘New Jerusalem’ for post-war generations in Britain. A revitalised commitment to such collective investment in the common good, driven by the young people of today, could help us to see that vision return to popular politics. I certainly hope so.

Pete Alcock is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy and Administration at the University of Birmingham, where he worked until 2016. He has written a number of books about UK social policy, most recently Why we need Welfare (Policy Press, 2016).

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