Origins of the British Welfare State and its Evolution in the 20th Century

Essay, 2017

11 Pages



If one was to broadly assert about the main areas of concern and interest for any given state, nation state or whichever form of governance, the domestic policies and the foreign ones would probably be the answer. Though many political entities in the past, or in the present, tend to overlook the domestic matters, it almost always proves to be the case that domestic affairs are as much important as foreign influence—if not much more. In the case of Britain, which formerly led an unchallenged imperial life from the 15th century to the 20th century, many internal social polices had to be carried out during the first half of the 20th century. This move towards the improvement of living conditions in Britain gradually evolved to facilitate the creation of the welfare state in 1945.

A broad definition of a welfare state would include the many services every state provides, but in the case of Britain the term takes a more narrowed meaning. A welfare state is that state which provides benefits to its citizens in such areas as unemployment, medical care, education and housing. Before we mention such welfare policies under the Labour Party in Britain after World War II, we will take a look at a background to it, and then we will enumerate some difficulties and the consequential comeback to power of the Conservatives in 1951.

I. Background to the Welfare State in Britain

1. The Situation During the Nineteenth Century

One of the most remarkable aspects of Britain, during the nineteenth century, was that it was an industrialised land and the centre of the largest empire in the world. But the problem was that little importance was given to the very social internal matters, such as the conditions of the poor, the sick, the unemployed or the education of the mass.

From the perspective of education, the state did not interfere until 1870 when some involvement from the government was beginning to be felt via the Foster Act of 1870— introducing secular, universal, and compulsory education in England-- under the Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone. This came as a result of a horrible awareness that poor children inevitably made poor learners and that other European industrialised nations, such as France, had begun to put great emphasis on educating all children to face the economic competition across the continent. Besides the Factory Acts of 1833 and 1834 helped somehow reduce the amount of work hours and encourage instruction for the working children since child labour was still a phenomenon in Britain. Hence some basic education was offered to the children but it was not enough. Next to these governmental efforts were charitable people—mostly factory owners and philanthropists —who built schools for children, but that also couldn’t keep up with the huge demand there was for education. Towards the end of the century, elementary education was made free and compulsory under the heading of Board Schools.

As far as social help and health care were concerned, almost little was done for the struggling working class and the British population in general. However, attempts were made during the first half of the 19th century – through the Poor Law as reformed in 1834 —to reduce the poverty of people giving basic help to the most needy, but it later came to be repealed in 1929. Britain was much prosperous as a nation seen through the lens of its political power and economic hegemony, but when it came to looking into its domestic matters, little benefit was obtained its lower class people. The working class saw little of the prosperity the Victorian Britain (1837-1901) was said to yield, not even their political rights.

As for the field of literature, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) wrote a lot to call for social change, describing the miseries of workers. For more information, one may take a look at his Oliver Twist (1839) or Hard Times (1854).

Under the angle of politics, the state discriminated against the less fortunate since the exercise of political right had to be paid for: 40 shillings for middle class people to get access to Parliament. Not until 1832 did the middle class gain this right, and the working class, in general, had to wait until the passing of the 1867 and 1884 Reform Acts to be entitled this right to vote. The blessing, of course, of these minor achievements was to be manifested in the creation of the Labour Party at the outset of the 20th century.

2. The Contribution of the Liberals in the Early Twentieth Century

Although the Labour Party was already in the political sphere and race during the 20th century, there were still two major political parties in Britain: the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party.

Armed with their desire for social reform and political change, as it had always been known for, the Liberal Party, under the leadership of David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, started to pressure for more reform regarding the living conditions of poor people. In fact, the two leaders were highly influenced by a report made by Charles Booth and Seebohn Rowntree who pointed out the miserable state in which most British were. That was noticed in the volunteers who engaged in the army on the occasion of the South African War (1899- 1902).

Even the conservative politicians were aware of some of the urgent issues that needed to be tackled, such as education. While in office, the party—under the leadership of Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour ( 1902- 1905), enacted the Balfour Act of 1902 allowing free education to all children aged 15 or less.

On the occasion of their election in 1905, the liberals implemented their targeted plans regarding the main issues the conservatives were unwilling to solve. First, they introduced the School Meals in 1906, having realised that poor children who went hungry made poor learners, along with medical inspections to make sure children are at least cared for to a certain point. Second, and certainly the most fundamental actions carried out by this government, were the Old Age Pensions (attributed to retired people aged over 75) and the National Insurance for workers (but only in times of personal need), respectively introduced in 1909 and 1911 by George Lloyd. The man occupied the function of Chancellor of Exchequer that is the one responsible for finance. Besides, in the same period Youth Borstals were created to help isolate minors from adult prisoners. All these were important steps that would later pave the way to the creation of the welfare state. Despite having been extended in the inter-war period, those services were not generally directed to the people the most in need.

Despite the effort of the liberals to create adequate conditions for the whole population, there was a strong opposition to them made by the House of Lords. This House rejected the People’s Budget in 1910 aimed at gathering funds for the poor and the unemployed. Fortunately, the power of the Lords tobills and contradict the Commons went on to diminish with the Parliament Act of 1911.

Blamed for the losses caused by World War I and incapable of rescuing itself from unpopularity, the Liberal Party—though so much committed to the cause of people’s wellbeing—had to step down and, again to the advantage of the Conservative Party, worse saw itself replaced by the Labour Party as the second major political party. This occurred in 1922 and Labour was quick to take office only two years later, i.e. in 1924 but only to be defeated by a coalition. In 1929, Labour was back again, but this time it had to recourse to a coalition around 1931 due to the Great Depression of 1929. Ever since, Labour has stood as the main challenger to the old Conservative Party.

II. Factors in the Creation of the Welfare State in Britain

1. World War Two (1939-1945)

To the disastrous economic situation Britain had been living in the 1930s was added the terror coming from Germany. In fact, Britain found itself obliged, once again, to launch into war against Hitler and his crew whose aim was to invade Europe first. Britain was then in war on the European continent and had to face Hitler both at the sea and on its own aerial territory.” Over a million Britons served in the civil defence forces as wardens, rescuers, medical workers, special police and firefighters” (A History of Britain 188) and this figure showed the extent to which the war was important to Britain as the territorial integrity of the country was at stake.

This earnestness of the situation provoked some political changes on the leadership. Winston Churchill was appointed in 1940, as he had already left the Liberal Party to join the Conservatives, as a replacement Prime Minister in lieu of Neville Chamberlain who was deemed too tolerant about Hitler. This unusual turn brought about the joining of many Labour officials to the coalition such as Clement Attlee ( deputy prime minister and he chaired the Lord President’s Committee in charge of the war’s domestic affairs ), Herbert Morrison (Home Secretary), and Ernest Bevin (Minister for Labour and National Services). Labour officials were mainly concentrated on the home front. And, quite fortunately, the Allies won the war and these men proved themselves.

As far as the battles were concerned, Britain suffered from two different ways. First, German planes resolved to relentlessly attack the British shipping at the seas causing much damage. On August 13, 1940 the Germans, with their Luftwaffe began to bombard Britain, and one month later they switched their bombing to civilian targets. That dreadful strategy caused physical destructions on Britain, especially in Coventry where much damage was caused in 1941. The city bombings killed 20,000 British civilians (out of the total of 450,000 dead ones) and wounded 30,000 or more.

Like any other extraordinary occurrence, the war triggered, whether consciously or unconsciously, some extraordinary measures that had never been taken by the British government. In fact, the war as it happened at that time brought all the fringes of the British population together to face one common enemy. Indeed, for the very first time people could experience such sense of community thanks to the conditions brought by the war: gathering all in one compartment, whether one was rich or poor, whether from London or from Manchester or anywhere else; what mattered was unity. Then the government intervened conveniently to provide for those in need, hence why not doing the same in peacetime too? JB Priestly, a left wing broadcaster, famously said, “we are realising we are all in the same boat “and this showed the hopes and propaganda that were bred by the wartime. The rationing and the evacuation of families from different backgrounds helped feel the conditions in which others had been living through: that was an emotional blow for some privileged people (class and regional mixing).

1. The Beveridge Report of 1942

The Beveridge Report was that document written about social conditions in Britain during World War II. It was the result of the labour of a committee led by the Liberal economist William Beveridge and its publication was in December 1942. This report stood as the theoretical phase and the foundation of the welfare state introduced in Britain by the Labour Party.

The Beveridge Report came up with a well-defined list of five giants that Britain had to fight at any cost in post-war time. These five giants were (1) WANT, (2) DISEASE, (3) IGNORANCE, (4 ) SQUALOR and (5) IDLENESS. To put it plainly, this report aimed at finding ways and means to generate jobs for people, use systems of family allowances, set up social insurance extending from the cradle to the grave, and all this via flat-rate contributions to fund the social insurance expenditures.

The main question about this appealing report reposed much more on its practicability to both the Conservatives and the Labour politicians than anything else. On one hand, the Conservatives, led by Winston Churchill, showed some fear and reluctance as to whether it was possible. This was because they feared what had happened with the Liberal Prime Minister David Lloyd George in 1916 when he was not able to keep his words over “the fit land for heroes to live in” after the war had ended in 1918. On the other hand, the Labour Party was eager to start implementing this report assignment as it was evidently in favour of equality and social reform. But the most important piece of the puzzle was how and who would win the next general election in 1945.

III. Labour’s Victory at the General Election of 1945 and its Implementation of the Welfare State

Between 1928 and 1936, the number of unemployed rose up from 1.5 million to 3.5 million as a result of the Great Depression of 1929 and the incapacity of the Conservative Party to solve the problems. To this was added the closing of many factories that could no longer employ, or even survive from the crisis. The period between the two wars, and precisely in the 1930s, was a harsh time for the British population since Dole Queues, under means-tests, kept proliferating across the country. That was surely indicative of a critical economic weakening of the country and, perhaps, of a deficiency at the level of government—which was mainly formed by the Conservatives.

These bitter times lived in the 1930s were but one of the reasons the Conservatives were to be disadvantaged in the 1945 election. In fact, even medical treatment was also restricted to some workers and, more importantly, the Labour Party leaders included, without delay, the Beveridge Report into their manifesto—a thing the Conservatives could not afford to do. Although Winston Churchill declared, after the war, that never had so much been owed to a few by many, his party was defeated by Labour. The British therefore, to the great dismay of many, voted for Labour to implement its policy of social reform based on the Beveridge Report: the Conservatives won the glory, but the trust of the population went to Labour that secured a landslide victory. Churchill remained personally popular, but his party was still held responsible for the diplomatic errors in the 1930s having led to the war.

Although they did not stick exactly to the map of William Beveridge, Labour politicians, under the leadership of Clement Attlee who served as minister in the wartime period, did most of what the report said and embraced it. They did so basing themselves on some main domains such as Social Security, Medical Services, Education, Housing and Employment.

1. Social Security and Medical Services

In 1911, the Liberals introduced the National Insurance Act but it only applied in cases of personal difficulties. However, this first attempt served as a good beginning for the Labour.

Labour had already pushed for the submission of a White Paper on the National Health Services (in abbreviation NHS) and once in office, subsequently in 1948, they officially introduced the act on July 5th 1948. That was under the Ministry of Health and Housing led by the charismatic left-wing Welsh politician Aneurin Bevan. There had to be serious negotiations between Bevan and the medical professionals. In more detailed terms, the NHS is the public health services provided by the state to the British citizens and is paid for by taxes. However tense the negotiations were, Bevan succeeded in securing substantial resources for the NHS at a time of economic austerity. It matched the notion of universal health services available to all advocated by William Beveridge.

Labour also passed the National Insurance Act of 1946, and it was expanded to Scotland later in 1947. In the same vein, the National Insurance Act for Industrial Injuries was enacted in 1946 to protect workers. National Insurance contributions are in fact the money employers and employees have to pay to help the sick, the poor, etc. As for the mode of collection, the contributions were tailored to people’s ages, sexes, employed/unemployed, self-employed, but the contributions were one-rate within these groups regardless of income. In 1948 the government initiated a means-tested basis campaign under the National Assist Act through the National Assurance Board. With the same logic of help, maternity and death allocations were made to support families through the hardship they would face.

Possibly, these governmental handouts motivated a certain rise of optimism in the future triggering an exponential increase in birth rates across Britain, known as “Baby Boom.”

2. Education, Employment, and Housing

As had been suggested by the Beveridge Report, Labour also believed Ignorance was one of the main ills for the British society and it had to be hampered through tough measures. It was in the wartime period, notwithstanding the political belonging of the then Prime Minister Winston Churchill, that the Butler Act or Education Act was passed in 1944 to provide equal opportunities for instruction to all children and a framework( Primary Schools, Secondary Modern Schools/ Grammar Schools and Higher Education) which lasted for three decades. As an illustration, (1) state primary and secondary education was divided at the age of 11 and made free; (2) free school milk and meals were introduced; (3) regular medical inspections at school; (4) school age leaving revised and upgraded to 15; (5) school scale divided into primary, secondary and higher education. The process of nationalisation did not actually leave education out: the Ministry of Education was in charge of those schools, but boroughs and county councils had the responsibility for local education implementation. Therefore, in the course of their mandate of 1945-1951 the Labour politicians tried their hardest to find this equality of chances for all British, relying on contributions from taxes and the nationalisation of industries.

One of the most obvious reasons why the British voted for Labour in 1945 was that they expected more jobs to be created, but well-paid jobs. Therefore, to relieve the British from the Beveridge’s Want and also Idleness notions, Labour engaged in nationalising the country’s resources, such as coal, gas, electricity, railways, etc. So, the government thought that the more privatised the industries were, the more vulnerable the workers would be and the lower the pays. The Monopolies Commission and National Boards were set up in 1948 by the government allowed for an efficient management of the nationalised industries and aimed at removing restrictive practices. Blessed with the international economic boom by the late 1940s, the British government was able to make full employment a reality, at least for a while. Surely, Labour was against the laissez-faire system and more in favour of government control because, as it would appear to logic, free market may not always achieve full employment. William Beveridge himself wrote: “Individual welfare may be seen to depend more on a rewarding, well-paid job than on the receipt of government handouts,” meaning the welfare state should be an empowering tool rather than an impetus for addiction to help.

If there was anything of paramount importance in the reconstruction of Europe, and in particular in Britain, that should have been housing matters. In fact, the bombing of Hitler we mentioned earlier had caused considerable physical destruction in Britain. Nearly half a million houses were destroyed by enemies during the war. Moreover, in the pursuance of responding to the report’s Squalo r giant and the slums phenomenon ( the existing inter-war urban sprawls), the Labour government made decisions in building houses for the British most in need. This engagement included (1) strong regulation on building and land via the Town and County Planning Act of 1947, (2) licenses for business/ private constructions, (3) replacement of slums with new buildings, (4) introduction of Council Houses that benefited from almost 90% of the licenses between 1946 and 1950. Aneurin Bevan—the then Minister of Health and Housing—was so much concerned about the most vulnerable people. Following the same objectives of land regulation, Clement Attlee’s government also passed a second act known as the New Towns Act of 1949 whose aim was to stop the proliferation of sprawls and slums near London by the creation of new decent urban areas.

IV. Nationalisation and the Defeat of the Labour Government in 1951

1. Nationalisation

As Labour had taken the responsibility to help every British citizen in getting a job, receiving benefits, getting access to free health care and education, it had to employ a majestic approach: that was the collectivist approach ( all for one, and one for all ) through nationalisation. The government, then, took control of the Bank of England (in 1947), railways and iron, coal and steel industries to be able to provide jobs. Heavily depending on borrowing and the American aid after the war, the British government issued taxes on imported goods (66% of the price of a foreign car, for example) in order to encourage the consumption of local products; foodstuffs, clothing and furniture were also rationed. But the government was cautious enough not to drift into Bolshevism, but Britain appeared more or less to be under a regime of a democratic socialism.

2. Some Problems with the Welfare Provisions and the Conservatives Comeback in 1951

The programmes on housing and education were faced with certain serious issues. In fact, regarding education the government fell short by not having taken advantage of the wartime period to introduce more radical measures, such as free education at all levels, expansion of technical education, secularisation, uniformity in the secondary school, or the raising of school-age leaving to 16 – which had to be done in 1972. Moreover, the introduction of Comprehensive Schools—that make no discrimination between children—had to wait until the 1960s. Regarding housing, many couples and ordinary people, after the war had to squat in abandoned military camps, but most people found some rooms with relatives in waiting for the new government buildings. This was accounted for by the slowness of the process of reconstruction and a scarceness of materials: so the demand quickly outnumbered the supply.

Many workers could not understand the difference the nationalisation had brought in as to their conditions, apart from the change of the sign at the gate. Besides, the government mainly relied on the Marshall Aid Programmes to run the industries. The British also faced serious problems in the winter of 1946-1947 when coal came to be scarce. Having devaluated the Pound —surely to rapidly heal from the economic crisis—the government directed its production to foreign markets, obliging its citizens to consume basic local goods. As far as national insurance was concerned, many beneficiaries couldn’t get themselves above the poverty line in spite of the government help. To explain, unlike what Beveridge suggested regarding the one flat rate character of fundraising, the government opted for another scheme, which did not yield enough money. As regards pensions, Beveridge had recommended that those who had not been in earlier schemes should pay in for 20 years to gain a full entitlement to benefits. The government settled for 10 years, however, thereby incurring heavy costs for the future . Although the Labour government tried to pursue the report’s ideal of universal health services available to all, prescriptions charges for drugs arose as the supply could no longer keep up with the increasing demand, the unbearable costs of the NHS had led to charges for dental and ophthalmic services so that Bevan and Harold Wilson were obliged to resign from the Cabinet.

It was because of all these inconsistencies and failures on the part of the Labour government that later led to the comeback of the Conservative Party. The aims of the Labour Party were, perhaps, too high to be achieved especially after such a devastating war (World War II). The British were also afraid of being a purely socialist country, or even a Marxist as workers and Unionists had begun to pressurise the ruling elites of Labour. Possibly, the promise made by the Conservatives to build 300,000 houses a year and some strategies to take the country out of the plight reduced the chances of the Labour Party. However, many of the previously established welfare policies proved almost impossible to erase, even with subsequent conservative governments. Winston Churchill, as the then leader of the Conservative Party, defeated his former rival Clement Attlee in the general election of 1951, and became Prime Minister for the second time.


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Origins of the British Welfare State and its Evolution in the 20th Century
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origins, british, welfare, state, evolution, century, Sadou Boubacar, Beveridge Report, Nationalisation, Clement Atlee, World War II in Britain, Labour versus conservative party
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Sadou Boubacar (Author), 2017, Origins of the British Welfare State and its Evolution in the 20th Century, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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