Citizenship and the early welfare state

The sociologist T.H. Marshall published an essay in 1949 entitled Citizenship and the Social Class. In it, he argued that renaissance legal reforms had produced civil rights, making men equal before the law, they had constituted legal citizenship. Reforms in the nineteenth century introducing democratic structures and widening the franchise, led to the development of political rights. As he summarised:


“Civil rights gave legal powers whose use was drastically curtailed by class prejudice and lack of economic opportunity. Political rights gave potential power whose exercise demanded experience, organisation and a change of ideas as to the proper functions of government. All these took time to develop.”

(Marshall, 1949, in Marshall & Bottomore, 1992: 27)


Marshall argued that the nascent reforms and development of the welfare state in the UK, and other industrial economies in the 1930s and 1940s, was leading to the development of a social citizenship, or social rights – where being a citizen of a county meant you had rights to a certain standard of living and public services and the state was actively attacking class inequalities:


“Class-abatement is still the aim of social rights, but it has acquired a new meaning. It is no longer merely an attempt to abate the obvious nuisance of destitution in the lowest ranks of society. It has assumed the guise of action modifying the whole pattern of social inequality.”

(Ibid: 28)


The way Marshall describes these new social rights, it is easy to presume this was some sort of socialist utopia. However, it has been questioned from a range of perspectives – theoretical and empirical. Theoretically, the most obvious criticism is how inclusive this citizenship was; Marshall himself wrote of social rights as “making every man a gentleman” (Ibid: 17). This was a heavily gendered conception of social rights, based on the skilled, able, white working class man, in work, providing for a wife and family. The social rights for the wife and children were construed through the father’s work. Those of you who have studied politics, philosophy and sociology, will have an arsenal of intellectual weapons to ascertain how we should have a much broader view of citizenship and one that is more nuanced to structural exclusion. We will interrogate this more later in semester


The second way we need to question Marshall’s social rights is to look at what was actually implemented in the post-war period. Most of this came from the famous “Beveridge Report” of 1942, or the report into Social Insurance and Allied Services, to give it its proper name. Again, Beveridge was not some proto-socialist, he was a very liberal man of the late nineteenth century. A lot of the thought behind the report has its origins in the same liberal thinking that led to the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, discussed in a previous lecture.


The rights of social citizenship were strictly conditional. To receive them you were obliged to pay into the system – National Insurance. The starkest example of this is National Assistance, the benefit paid to people who had no National Insurance contributions. While it was an improvement on previous assistance, and it formally abolished the Poor Law, it remained based on the less eligibility principle: benefits were low enough so as not to act as a disincentive to work and paying National Insurance. Further, it was also means-tested, which meant if you had any savings you had to spend them before you got any payments.


It was not until the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the advent of Child Benefit (1977) that we began to see a less conditional, more inclusive, social right being provided through welfare benefits.

This element of conditionality also found its way into the way specific areas of policy were implemented. For example, there is an idea that the post-war period led to “everyone” getting a council house. This was only the case from 1977 when the Housing and Homelessness Act was passed. Prior to that, families were at the mercy of local housing officers and inspectors who would allocate housing on an incredibly discretionary basis to families they felt deserving. Reasons for denying someone a home could be as varied as lack of cleanliness, poverty, or just not being white and protestant.


So, while Marshall may have argued, and we may think, that the post-war welfare state ushered in a more equal, inclusive, social citizenship, the reality was a much more conditional, partial citizenship with a state that was much less generous than might appear at first.

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