7 things you thought you knew about the post-war welfare state

1. The post-war welfare system eradicated poverty

Seebohm Rowntree, whose earlier surveys of poverty in York led to a concern with tackling poverty by the likes of Beveridge, found in his last survey in 1951 that poverty had been almost “eradicated”.


However, this was driven by a number of factors outwith the welfare state and social policy. Labour was in short supply after the Second World War, there was a lot of reconstruction to do, and trade unions were very strong. This meant male wages were high. If you were in a household with a skilled, male worker, then you would live very well.


However, if you listen to the podcast with my mum, you’ll learn that if you did not have a skilled worker in your family, life was still very hard and poverty and hardship remained. As industry restructured in the 1960s, and unskilled jobs began to disappear, poverty started to grow again.


2. The post-war welfare state produced a “something for nothing” culture


This could not be farther from the truth (see above). Beveridge was a liberal, moulded by the nineteenth century philosophers like J.S. Mill and great politicians like Gladstone. Therefore, the social security system created from 1945 onwards was insurance based. National Insurance was paid at a flat-rate (it was not progressive, i.e. you did not pay proportionally more the more you earned) and the payments out were flat-rate. If you did not have sufficient National Insurance contributions then you got very little. This still affects many people in terms of entitlement to the State Pension.


See this paper on the resource list to understand more about motivations to work.


3. Everyone lived in a beautiful home in a new town

The new towns did provide a large number of new homes between 1951 and when the new town corporations were wrapped-up in the early 1990s. However, the new towns selected who was going to live in them – skilled workers to work in their high-tech industries.


Most new housing was in existing towns and cities and replaced very poor housing, while adding to the national housing stock. Immediate post-war material shortages meant it was actually only in the mid-1950s that new housing output started to get into the hundreds of thousands. The 1966 film Cathy Come Home shown on the BBC revealed how bad the housing situation still was then.


4. Everyone went to university and got a free education

According to this handy analysis done by parliamentary researchers in the UK in 1950 3.4 per cent of school-leavers went on to higher education, rising to 8.4 per cent in 1970, to 19.3% in 1990 and 33% in 2000. In 2015 around 36 per cent of Scottish school leavers went to higher education. The equivalent figure for England is 31 per cent, but the figures are not comparable.


So, the 16.7 percentage point increase in people attending university between 1990 and 2000 (when grants were scaled-back, loans and tuition fees introduced) is greater than the 10.9 percentage point increase between 1970 and 1990, when students had grants and the sector was expanding with the buildings of the “Robbins” universities like Stirling.


5. Ooooh matron! The NHS cured everyone’s illnesses


The “first days of the NHS” narratives are full of doctors who saw patients who had perfectly treatable problems but who had not got treatment because they could not afford it. These stories are true – healthcare free at the point of delivery was a brilliant innovation.


However, two problems emerged. Firstly, if you offer something for free everyone will want it – remember back to lecture 2, we have limited resources and have to choose how to redistribute them. This quickly became apparent as the money spent on prescriptions rocketed and the Labour government enabled charging for prescriptions in 1949. They were eventually introduced in 1952, with exemptions for many people who might not be able to afford the charges.


The second problem was the NHS was meant to tackle many of the preventable diseases that were prevalent before it was created – basically contagious diseases. The idea was that as people got healthier, costs would fall. Of course, this was not the case and people started living longer and suffering from more complex diseases and health problems.


(see chapter 49 in the textbook)


6. Everyone supported the development of the welfare state after 1945

Not everyone was waving the red flag…


Although the Labour party did win an overwhelming majority in the UK General Election of 1945, this does not mean support was overwhelming. One of the earliest social science projects in the UK was Mass Observation – where thousands of people kept diaries for researchers. Mike Savage did some really interesting re-analysis of this data which showed, because the sample was self-selecting middle-class professionals, that often had organised their own welfare and support through insurance products and provident associations, that there was actually a lot of ambivalence about this sudden growth of the state.


7. The UK was just doing what everyone else was doing

The consensual, supportive Swedes clap in unison to support themselves…


This is sort of true. Many countries had already started on the road to having greater state involvement in people’s lives – the earliest State Pension in the UK was based on us copying what the Bismarckian state in Germany had introduced in the late nineteenth century. Sweden’s welfare state developed in the 1930s, allowed to flourish by the close relationship between trade unions, corporations and the state.


But, as Esping-Anderson showed in his famous analysis, The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, countries went down different routes, although with trends shared between them. Britain is characterised by a Anglo-Saxon welfare system, of a conditional safety net and contributory entitlements.


And finally…


What might Taylor Swift say about all this?

Well, you never know? She might? This post might seem a little bit silly, but hopefully it’s started to make you think a bit more critically about the post-war welfare state. If you follow-up the references on the reading list, relevant chapters in the course textbook, and dip into Timmin’s The Five Giants via the index, then you will make good headway in doing a critical answer to the first essay question.

  1. With regards to the benefit cap, Ive seen in a few places that it is unfair because many people are not able to work for reasons such as disability but ive also seen other places that disabled people are not affected by the cap? Confused as to which statement is correct could you help me on this please?

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