The Affluent Society : poverty rediscovered ? photo

The Affluent Society : poverty rediscovered?

Post-war Britain is characterised by Butskellism, a hybrid word formed from part of the names of the Conservative (Butler) and Labour (Gaitskell) Chancellors of the Exchequer.

This socio-economic policy was a compromise between private and public responsibility for the individual and was seen to describe a consensus between right and left which was to last until 1975 (for the Conservatives) and 1979 (for the Labour Party).

The 50s and 60s were years of the acceptance by both sides in British politics of a Welfare State, which looked after the individual “from the cradle to the grave”.

Economic and social changes

Received wisdom indicates an increase in the standard of living for the majority of British people. The average male weekly wage for men in 1952 was £8 14s, the equivalent of £36 in 1976 when the same average weekly wage had reached £65.

This represented an increase in real terms of 80% in 24 years. Or there again, considering the percentage of homes owned by their residents, the figure in the same period jumped from 29% to 54%, an increase of 86%.

For the first time in their lives, many working-class and lower middle-class people benefited considerably from the “affluent society”. They could borrow money at low rates of interest and buy new consumer goods and services. In 1951 there were 48 cars and 103 telephones for 1,000 people. In 1976, the figures were 103 and 392 respectively.

However, it must be remembered that economic growth was slower in Britain than in most other capitalist countries. This is often referred to as “relative” economic decline.

The most important caveat concerning the interpretation of Britain’s decline in growth is, however, a different one. League tables of economic performance are all very well, but what matters for people is their own condition of life…

There is no other period in history, which has seen such an enormous improvement. Indeed, this is not a story of decline; it is one of remarkable advance. However objectionable the statement may be too many, with its connotations of Harold Macmillan’s Bedford speech of 1957, it is a matter of sober truth that most people in Britain have never had it so good. What is often called the decline of Britain is therefore economic and relative.

Economic decline need not mean social or political decline; though the three are obviously related in some ways. Relative decline, in a sense, need not mean decline at all. It simply means that others have done better than Britain, though Britain, too, has done well.

What is more, Britain was the first country to do well, so that in a sense the people of Britain have reaped the benefits of industrialisation for longer, if not to a greater extent, than others.

Yet this is obviously not the whole story. Relative decline means, after all, that British industry lost its dynamics at a time during which others found it perfectly possible to move ahead…

At the same time as Britain’s economy grew (slowly) during the post-war period, so public spending as a percentage of GNP (Gross National Product) rose, to reach approximately half in the I 970s, and within public spending, the amount spent on social welfare (including housing) also rose, to reach approximately a quarter (of this half) in the 1970s.

The economic situation was difficult before the 1964 General Election so the incoming Labour Government inherited a number of problems notably a rising balance of payments deficit.

After 13 years in opposition Labour also wanted to introduce costly social measures, re-nationalise steel (also costly) and expand the economy. The underlying idea was that it was possible to improve economic performance and boost growth, over a period of years, by the national coordination of resources and investment. If Wilson and his Government in the 1960s were for something distinctive, it was for this.

The period 1964-1970 was characterised by a number of economic crises. Britain’s share of world trade fell from 13.9% to 10.8% during this time. Taxation increased from 32% of GDP to 43% of GDP.

Economic planning had failed and this failure precluded major social planning despite the fact that some social reforms were carried through (the launch of comprehensive education, reorganisation of public transport, development in health and local government).

Under the Conservative Governments (1951-1964) Rent and Housing Acts had gone some way towards freeing up rent controls, essentially leading to increasing rents. For Labour, private rents had to be controlled and more council houses had to be built.

The 1965 Rent Act introduced the concept of the fair rent. The Labour Housing Minister Crossman tried to create a parity between the public and the private sectors, with the aim of building altogether 500,000 new homes a year.

This objective was knocked off course by the economic crisis leading to Government spending cuts, rising interest rates and the introduction of SET (Selective Employment Tax) which hit labour-intensive industries like building. In the best year (1968) 426,000 homes were built.

Social mobility: rigidity still prevailed

So the picture painted of the post-war period (1945-1979) is that of a complex situation: an ever-increasing improvement in living conditions for the majority, an apparent reduction in inequality and a gradual increase in spending on the Welfare State, yet, at the same time, fundamental economic problems from the end of the 1950s and persistent social difficulties in certain groups, which became noticeable in the 1960s.

We have therefore to look more closely at the post-war period to see in what way life for certain categories of people was evolving in order to see how the situation affected those in, or on the brink of poverty.

The first post-war survey on social mobility was carried out by David Glass and his group of researchers from LSE. They took a random sample of 10,000 adults in 1949 and asked basic biographical questions.

They then produced an intergenerational mobility table which showed, according to them, that Britain was characterised by a barrier between manual and non-manual workers, by a lot of short-range mobility, and finally by much rigidity and “self-recruitment”, especially at the upper levels of society, where sons would follow in their fathers’ footsteps.

It is not surprising in the early years of the Welfare State that little had seemed to have changed in Britain since the inter-war years, only a few years before. Indeed, Glass’s picture is of British society just as the Welfare State is being introduced.

Westergaardand Resler, writing nearly 30 years later, come to different conclusions from Glass’s data: for them, it would be wrong, especially in a capitalist society, to assume that inequality is fixed from birth.

There is a certain amount of “fluidity’ but this is not incompatible with great inequalities of opportunity. Children from privileged homes still had a better off-chance of getting into high-flying jobs than did the children from underprivileged homes.

Michael Young and Peter Willmott set out in the early 1950s to examine the effects the family unit of the movement of working-class people from the city (Bethnal Green in London) to the housing estate on the outskirts of the city (Greenleigh).

Traditional wisdom stated that the wider family of the past had shrunk since the Industrial Revolution “to a smaller body”. Young and Willmott found however that the wider family was still there in a kinship network.

To return to the theme of the Welfare State, Saville, writing in 1957, considers it as a part-way house on the road to socialism. It owes its setting up to the working-class struggle, the requirements of industrial capitalism for a more efficient environment in which to operate and recognition by the employers that it is the price to pay for political security.

The measures implemented in the 1945-1951 Labour Governments were, therefore, the result of a historical process, beginning in the second half of the 19th century.

Since the inception of the Welfare State, it has become common to talk of the improvement in the share of the national income accruing to the working-class. Saville reminds us that part of this additional share has been taken away in higher indirect taxes to pay for the increased Social Services.

Also, he claims that the major trend towards redistribution occurred during the War, not after it. According to him, since the War, there has been a move to greater inequality, typical of capitalism.

Poverty rediscovered

It was Abel-Smith and Townsend who are credited with the “rediscovery of poverty” in the 1960’s: these and other social scientists noticed that certain categories – notably families with children on low incomes and retired couples – often lived in difficult circumstances.

Titmuss points out that welfare “services” have been provided in the post-war period to counterbalance “disservices” from which many poor and underprivileged people suffer. These “disservices” have been as a result of the way society has evolved over the last century and especially since the War.

He argues for the maintaining of a “universalist” approach with selective positive discrimination in certain key areas to palliate the needs of particular groups. Among the “universalist” measures, he mentions acts in the field of the NHS, education, national insurance and family allowances.

One aim for introducing such laws was to remove the social stigma among claimants. Another was the development of the notion of “social rights”, which developed at the end of the 19th century.

Yet another was the idea of “prevention” rather than “cure”: preventing as many people as possible from falling into the traps laid out by the Five Giants. However, universalism is more complex than first appears: a number of difficult questions have to be answered, concerning the nature of the entitlement, the conditions and rules of entitlement, the methods of payment, the nature of the service or benefit and the extent to which the benefit compensates a “disservice” caused directly by society (like unemployment) or indirectly (like pollution) or inevitable (like language classes for immigrants), or as part of a deliberate social policy (like integration).

Titmuss goes on to point out that as well as”universalist” benefits, the 1960s are still characterised by a large number of means-tested benefits. He mentions a figure of between 1,500 and 3,000 of such means tests, administered by local authorities, in the field of education, child care, health, housing and welfare. “It follows that in these fields alone there exist some 1,500 different definitions of poverty or financial hardship, ability to pay and rules for charges, which affect the individual and the family”.

Titmuss wonders how potential claimants know how to fill out their forms. He considers it would be interesting (but virtually impossible) to try and discover (and if necessary punish !) those responsible for the “disservices” suffered by so many.

“Universalist” benefits should be maintained, they are in part “the consequence of unidentifiable causality”. But a more serious question concerns benefits which may be provided for claimants who are themselves “at fault”. Should everyone be able to claim benefits, either universal or means-tested, without regard to their own responsibility?

Universalism is not, by itself, enough. Since the War, the Welfare State has been unable to eliminate poverty, great differentials in income and different educational opportunities.

The only way forward is thus positive, selective discrimination in income maintenance, education, housing, medical care and mental health, child welfare, integration of immigrants …

T. F. Marshall (“The Role of the Social Services” in Political Quarterly, vol. 40, N°1, Jan-March 1969) posits that the introduction of the Welfare State led to a certain euphoria about the end of poverty which events since the War have shown to be premature.

He refers to the notion of “diswelfare”: instead by merely redistributing money, from the rich to the poor, services and the environment have to be improved to benefits all.

In any discussion of social welfare, it is necessary to come back to the fundamental question of what do we mean by need.

On one level, we can all recognise the need to survive physically, to have enough to eat and drink, without running the risk of falling ill and dying.

On another level, need is about adequate housing (what do we mean by “adequate” ?), income, education, health so as to reach the normal minimum level. This second level shows need to be both social (i.e. it is concerned with standards in communal life) and relative (in that varies from time to time and place to place).

There are different ways in which need is defined and accepted :

  • Normative Need – fixed by experts, to define the minimal level. An example is the Housing Act (1957) which proposed a formula to work out if people were living in overcrowded conditions.
  • Felt Need – what people say they want when asked
  • Expressed Need – when a felt need is translated into a demand, often through a pressure group.
  • Comparative Need – when certain groups, in certain areas, are perceived as falling behind others, by comparison.

Such categorisation enables Governments and Local Authorities to work out which are those most in need within society. Identifying what is therefore meant by “poor” is a way of showing people where the line is (and in a sense warning them not to cross it, if at all possible, because, in so doing, they would be changing category and so changing status in society).

Pointing out who exactly is in need also implicitly shows who is not, and so defines those in society who are deemed comfortable and self-reliant. Those who are identified as being “needy” are thus marked out and set apart. Yet this is the only way social policy can be directed. State aid is not unlimited. Everybody cannot be given unlimited amounts of money, help or time…

The term “needy”, or “those in need” is often perceived as being derogatory in that it implies that only these people are to be studied, apart from the rest of society.

The term “socially deprived” is seen as being more inclusive since those so deprived are deprived by other members of society who themselves may be able to do something about the situation or who may require the Government to act on their behalf.  The socially-deprived are thus seen as victims of society.

The period 1964-1970 saw a number of changes implemented in the field of social welfare. It was apparent that despite the improvements in living standards brought about for many by the Welfare State and by greater economic prosperity, there were still many who lived in need.

The Milner Holland Report (1965) looked into housing conditions in Greater London. This Report was to have a great impact on the debate about overcrowding and homelessness, not to mention the race issue.

Enoch Powell (a Conservative Minister who was expelled from the Party for his outspoken views on immigration in the late 1960s) began a campaign in the late 1960s to show that the country was gravely threatened by the influx of “coloured” immigrants.

He claimed the Report supported his view that “coloured” people were taking over white streets. In fact, the Report pointed out that bad behaviour was not a racial matter, it was a matter that affected all races.

In 1967, there was the Plowden Report, entitled Children and their Primary Schools, under the chairwomanship of Lady Plowden. The Report made a stand against rote learning in schools. It gave a place to parents, denounced corporal punishment and favoured systematic nursery education. There should be an effort in favour of schools in socially deprived areas, with extra staff and funds.

In this, the Report was influenced by recent models imported from the United States. As Lady Plowden said in 1972: “Much of the misunderstanding and violence in society … comes from a deep feeling of isolation and injustice ingrained in our city failures and within our education system”.

The Report also suggested the designation of “educational priority areas” where social and educational conditions were worst, a kind of positive discrimination, through the setting up of “community schools”, “a school open beyond ordinary school hours for the use of children, their parents and, exceptionally, for other members of the community”.

The Report correlated certain social symptoms with certain geographical areas. It listed zones where there were high clusters of deprivation, especially inner cities… In the Report, there was a study of the social studies available to primary school children in the Midlands.

Not unsurprisingly, in the “inner ring area” a much higher percentage of children had to be visited at home by the Social Services when the children’s “health, social adjustment or educational performance appeared to be suffering because of adverse home or other social factors”.

In small towns and rural areas studied, the figures were significantly lower. In the “outer ring”, composed of council estates and re-housed families, children showed fewer problems than in the “inner ring”, so showing the benefits of council housing and re-housing.

According to Holman, following on from Plowden, “there appears a strong case for saying that socially deprived families are frequently found in confined geographical areas identifiable by certain physical and social characteristics”.

He mentions examples of these characteristics: geographical location, “twilight zones” near a city’s business area; areas populated by immigrants; overcrowded and poor amenities, Victorian housing stock; areas with a high percentage of unskilled and semi-skilled workers; higher than average proportions of families on State supplements; higher than normal percentage of large families; a large number of fatherless families; areas with little play space and recreational facilities; areas with poorer health; a high percentage of child deprivation and delinquency, accompanied, according to Plowden, by high rates of truancy. Often these confined geographical areas have worse Social Services than the more attractive areas.

In 1965, the government set up the committee of Local Authority and Allied Personal Social Services, under Sir Frederick Seebohm, to “review the organisation and responsibilities of the local authority personal Social Services in England and Wales, and to consider what changes are desirable to secure an effective family service”. Its remit was therefore large.

Before 1968, personal Social Services were organised within the Local Authorities in separate Children’s, Welfare and Mental health departments. Other departments, such as health, housing and Education were sometimes involved with questions to do with social welfare.

The committee reported three years later and 1970 saw the passing of the Local Authority Social Service Act which implemented parts of the Report (incorporation of the Children’s, Mental Welfare and Welfare Departments, with certain functions of the health and Education Departments, into one Social Services Department.

In 1972 the Government introduced a White Paper entitled National Health Service Reorganisation, England: what was wanted was a service which ensured that the people’s “needs for health and Social Services are not divided into separate compartments”.

Before Seebohm, social workers had developed specialist skills in certain areas. After reorganisation, although social workers could work with one family without having to keep changing department, the skills required were more varied.

During the 1960s, it became obvious that a number of factors were causing problems in the field of social welfare: concentrations of social deprivation in definable geographical areas (following on from Plowden), the realisation that Local Authorities with their separate departments were unable to cope with the rising tide of problems and finally, the knowledge that in the USA, an agency had been set up to wage war on poverty. It became apparent also that in the 1960s many black immigrants to Britain were settling in “inner ring” zones.

In 1968, the Labour Government announced the creation of a programme which would direct resources to those areas of greatest need. The programme was in two parts: the first, called the Urban Programme (UP) or sometimes Urban Aid (UA), gave extra cash for the neediest areas; the second instituted the Community Development Project (CDP), allowing the setting up of teams of workers in selected Local Authorities.

Among the achievements of the UP/UA was the setting up of new services for children and the winning of the interest of voluntary organisations, who could apply for extra cash from the Local Authorities. It can be said that it constituted a new means of allocating resources and of stimulating activity within deprived areas.

Among the criticisms of the programme can be mentioned the fact that the Home Office asked the Local Authorities to make bids before deciding how to spend its money.

Some councils did not make bids or else they did not work them out properly, due to their lack of specialist knowledge of such matters or because they did not want to be stigmatised with the label “deprived area”. Allocations did not always flow to the really deprived areas.

There are different interpretations of the UP and its function. For the Home Office, its purpose is to “strengthen existing service: as a supplement and not an alternative to what Local Authorities may be expected to do”.

Another problem is the lack of resources for the UP. The CDP was also financed from the same source but it was otherwise distinct. It consisted of 12 deprived areas where the Home Office and Local Authorities set up small teams of workers and researchers.

It was based on the assumption that residents in deprived areas possessed untapped capacities which could be used to free them from the dependency on Social Services.

Criticisms of the CDP centred on firstly, the fact that only cooperative Local Authorities were included in the project; secondly, the fact that the projects were run through the Local Authorities excluded deprived residents from having any real control over the initiatives. Thirdly, small projects were rarely followed through to become large-scale projects, capable of helping the many.

Frank Field, the then Director of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) challenged the CDP’s assumptions by arguing that poverty was not contained within small geographical areas and by claiming that the level of welfare benefits was so inadequate that a mere improvement in the communication between social agencies and those in need would not abolish deprivation. Others agreed that deprivation was not confined to geographical areas but was inherent in the social structure of society.

The Family Income Supplement (FIS) was instituted by the Conservative Government to direct money to those in direst need. A problem with Supplementary Benefit had been its inability to reach the working poor.

The Family Incomes Supplement Act (1970) created a source of benefit for families with a full-time worker. FIS set out certain minimum financial levels related to family size, allowing families to receive half the difference between their income and the prescribed level.

The Government claimed it was better to introduce this scheme rather than to increase Family Allowances since the latter would not have helped one-child families. The new benefit helped those on low wages.

Claimants had not to have made a minimum number of contributions. One-parent families were included. Its receipt opened up the right to other benefits (free school meals, free NHS prescriptions …).

Critics claim it subsidised employers who paid low wages. Workers who obtained wage increases did not benefit in cash terms (since they lost a proportionate amount of benefit). Also, the amounts paid in FIS did not take claimants out of poverty. Some pointed out that employment entails expenditure.

Therefore some people would be better off not working and continuing to draw Supplementary Benefit. Also, the take-up rate was only 52% of those who qualified. People did not appreciate the means-tested aspect of this benefit.

Eventually, even the Government felt that FIS had produced perverse effects and it became obvious its days were numbered.

A number of social workers became involved with the issue of “welfare rights”, the entitlement of low-income people to statutory financial or material provisions. ‘Those in need should take up their due. Social workers should make sure that all the needy should be informed of their rights.

Critics pointed out that too much preoccupation with “welfare rights” meant less time dealing with casebook work. Another development in the late1960’s and early 1970s was the growth of community action: this involved local groups organised in definable geographical areas or according to functional interests, interested in social problems often presented in political terms.

Tenants associations, claimants unions, local organisations protesting about planning decisions, housing action groups, neighbourhood associations all proliferated as Social Services were unable to eliminate poverty.

The poor felt less and less represented by the traditional political parties. Turnout in deprived wards reached record low levels. But has community action led to a lowering of confidence in the official channels? Its local anchorage can scarcely lead to national action.

We have seen that in the 1960’s the problem of poverty in certain areas, especially the inner cities came to the fore. The undoubted benefits of the Welfare State were obviously not reaching everyone in British society.

The Reports mentioned in the previous chapter brought to the attention of the authorities the inter-linked nature of urban poverty.

As a result of these Reports, Governments introduced such programmes as Urban Aid and Community Development Projects. These were targeted responses to perceived localised need. Inner cities contained some of the following problems :

  • Factors associated with people : poverty and income support dependency, unemployment, chronic unemployment, the unskilled and under-skilled, one-parent families, large families, the elderly, single elderly people, the sick, the chronic sick, families in need of Social Services
  • Environmental factors : poor physical environment and physical dilapidation, environmental pollution, crime and fear of crime, social tension
  • Educational factors : physically run-down schools, poor teaching, low levels of educational attainment
  • Service Provision : poor or inadequate health services, poor environmental services, poor financial services (loans …)
  • Economic factors : decayed economic infrastructure, poor and inadequate tax base, a high dependency ratio.

Policy strategy therefore had to take into account the full range of problems in trying to solve the problem of the inner cities. At the end of the 1960s and during the 1970s “inner-city policy… was based on an assumption that urban deprivation represented small residual pockets of poverty and dependency on which the otherwise successful Beveridgean Welfare State … had failed to impact” (Edwards J.)

Having said that it would be wrong to jump to the conclusion that everyone in the inner cities was deprived. Neither would it have been true to claim that poverty was only to be found in the inner cities.

‘Areas of special social need’ means local areas where living conditions are particularly poor… and pressure on Social Services is severe. Evidence of social need may take many forms – poverty ; high levels of unemployment, delinquency, mental disorder or children in care ; overcrowding, old and dilapidated housing ; inadequate community services ; a poor quality of environment. Many areas have large concentrations of Commonwealth immigrants.

Home Office Report, 1974

As we have seen, the Urban Programme (UP), which finally disappeared in 1993, focused aid on the inner city. However, it could not be seen as giving preferential treatment too overtly to immigrants to the detriment of the other members of British society, bearing in mind the racial tensions whipped up by Enoch Powell and others. This was a difficult balance to achieve.

The Government put in quite small sums of money, augmented by Local Authorities’ contributions, in the field of pre-school education, language training for those who did not have English as a first language, housing and health centres… It was a question of extra resources for special targeted needs.

In addition, those running the Community Development Projects (CDP) gradually came to the conclusion in the 1970s that the problems in their areas would only be solved by job creation and an improvement in the local economy. Finally, the Education Priority Areas (EPA), created as a result of the Plowden Report, were looked at by Halsey in 1972: each area looked at was different from the next.

Turnover in teachers in the EPA remained high; blanket salary increases for all teachers had not brought about significant results; many of Halsey’s remarks went back to the Plowden Report. Too little nursery schooling was provided.

By the early 70’s it had been realised that poverty was not confined to some particular geographical zones which could be improved by targeting resources. Despite (or because of, according to some) the Welfare State, poverty remained a persistent problem. It became apparent that poverty was linked with persistent economic and social inequality in British society. In 1975 there was published the first of a series of Reports on Distribution of Income and Wealth.

In 1938-1939 the top 10% of income-earners received 40.5% of pre-tax earnings; in 1972-1973, this percentage had fallen to 26.9%. After tax, the same top 10% in 1938-1939 received 34.6% of total incomes; in 1972-1973, the figure was 23.6%.

Therefore, one could say that since 1938, the top 10% have had their share of total earnings gradually reduced and that the figure after tax has also declined though less significantly. Concerning wealth, in 1972-1973, the top 10% owned 72% of the personal wealth in the country.

Tax rates in the early 70s have also to be considered in this context: the top rate of tax on earned income was 83% and the top rate on investment income was 98%. High tax rates were seen as a means of redistributing wealth to a certain extent and reducing inequality.

Halsey refers to changes which took place in the 20th century in the class structure of Britain and inequality: at the beginning of the 20th century, 3/4of the employed and self-employed were engaged in manual labour; by 1971, the occupational structure was more differentiated and more balanced, with manual workers only representing about a third.

From 1918 to the 1970s, there was a gradual movement towards a more equal distribution of personal income. Halsey goes on to say that these equalising tendencies stopped in the mid-1970s when a movement towards greater inequality re-emerged. Halsey goes on to point out that the top one-fifth of households increased their share of total incomes from 44% to 47% between 1976 and 1982.

Titmuss suggests that the impact of taxes and transfers operates through three loosely related systems of state intervention: fiscal policy, the Social Services and occupational welfare.

According to Halsey, “these political interventions can only be understood as collective action to chase the unacceptable outcome of market exchanges: and that means the outcome of class”.

The division of labour is increasingly complex. And the fiscal system is not just one of progressive taxation. It aims to reduce the amount of money the richest members of society keep and increase the amount of money those at the bottom of the scale receive.

It is therefore slightly redistributive but the rates applied do not fundamentally change the fact that the rich remain rich and the poor remain poor. The Social Services were not set up to reduce significantly social divisions but to open up (in the field of education for example) greater opportunities (“the meritocratic society”) and to alleviate the worst forms of suffering from the Five Giants.

Indeed, it could be said that the Welfare State in fact has helped the middle-class as much if not more than the working-class. To take the case of education, the increased investment in further / higher education has in fact helped the middle-class far more than the working-class. And also, the middle-class is usually better informed of its rights than the working-class.

This is also the danger of “universal” services which go to all irrespective of need. It could be argued that the way to help the working-class would be to target it and create more selective Social Services (make the middle-class pay for example for going to university ?).

What has happened since the 1960s is that the Government has tried to “claw back” in higher taxation from the middle-class what it has given them in “undeserved” Social Services.

The Welfare State : an end to poverty and inequality ? photo

The Welfare State: an end to poverty and inequality ?

According to Beveridge, two points of view are presented concerning the introduction of the Welfare State. The established view is that it was introduced in a climate of consensus: wartime hardships, the Evacuation, national solidarity and the acceptance of an increased role for the State in central planning led to a bipartisan approach to the need for durable change in social and health policies in Britain, as in other Western countries.

More recently, it has been pointed out that the War did not eliminate social differences or resentment, Evacuation did not lead to an ending of social prejudice, and the Conservatives and Labour Party did not agree on the way forward.

Nevertheless, Beveridge concludes that the War “was a major watershed in the history of school medical provision… It undoubtedly led to a determination to do something about the burden of poverty and ill-health which had been revealed.

The Butler Education Act (1944)

Even before the Labour victory of 1945, the Conservative Minister R. A. Butler introduced the 1944 English Education Act: since education had, like social security and health care, developed haphazardly, it was felt the situation before 1944 was complex, wasteful of ability and inequitable.

The 1944 Act laid the responsibility for education in England on the State and LEAs (Local Education Authorities), a national system, locally administered Education became a free and universal social service. A Minister of Education was created.

Public education was to be organised in 3 stages: primary, secondary and further. In every area of the country schools should be sufficient in number, character and equipment “to afford all pupils opportunities for education offering such variety of instruction and training as may be desirable in view of their different ages, abilities and aptitudes”.

The private fee-paying sector was left intact. Education for all became compulsory from 5 to 15. Every parent had to ensure his child received a “suitable education” and every LEA had to make suitable provisions for this.

At age 11, children would take a test in English, Arithmetic and General Knowledge (11 plus): in function of the results obtained at this examination, children would be sent either to Grammar School (for those with the highest marks) or Secondary Modern/Technical School for the rest.

This was known as the tripartite system but in reality, it was bipartite since very few LEAs set up Secondary Technical Schools. Comprehensive Schools were not proscribed, neither were they encouraged.

At age 16, the “brighter” pupils would take GCE O-Levels (General Certificate of Education Ordinary-Level) in a number of subjects, the others CSE examinations (Certificate of Secondary Education), introduced in 1963. At age 18, the “brightest” pupils would take GCE A-Levels (Advanced), which enabled pupils to apply for university.

The Labour victory of 1945 was followed by a heavy legislative programme. There were bills concerning Coal Nationalisation, Industrial Injuries, National Insurance, New Towns, Housing, Trade Union Law, the National Health Service… Much of the social planning for this legislation had been carried out during the war.

A common name for this battery of legislation concerning public health, social security, pensions and children’s allowances, better educational opportunities, and even a greater role for the State in the economy of the country (through nationalisations) is the Welfare State.

According to Marwick :

A ‘welfare state’ is one which accepts a responsibility to ensure the social well-being of all its citizen : the commanding heights, so to speak, of social well-being are income security (which ideally, as well as insurance or assistance to cover interruptions of earnings, includes an economic policy directed towards the maintenance of a high level of employment), health, housing and environment, and education. Beyond the commanding heights a sophisticated Welfare State may try to extend its domain to the romantic mist-capped peaks of culture, entertainment, morals and the manifold lesser problems of social relations and social welfare. The phrase was first coined to point a punning contrast to Germany’s ‘warfare state’.

Apart from the influence of Beveridge, which has already been pointed out, it is important to mention here that of John Maynard Keynes, who believed in an increased role for the State in managing the economy.

The National Health Service (NHS)

Before 1939, hospitals were organised piecemeal. In 1938 there were 1334 voluntary hospitals and 1771 municipal hospitals.

During the period of Victorian philanthropy and the consequent growth of hospitals, most of the income of voluntary hospitals came from donations and investments.

In 1891 this amounted to 88%. However, with the increase in medical knowledge and treatment, and greater access to the public, this percentage declined to only 33% in 1938. Manifestly, voluntary hospitals were in a serious predicament and thus they pleaded with the Government for state grants.

As far as doctors were concerned, family doctors (GPs: General Practitioners) were still being paid on the principles of the 1911 scheme, called “Ninepence for Fourpence”: this was the first state-supported health scheme and concerned all male workers earning less than £160 per annum.

The worker had to pay 4d (4 pence); the employer 3d; the state 2d. The scheme was administered by “approved societies” and workers could call on the services of a “panel” doctor.

Yet they had no right to hospital care or medicine. 43% of the population was covered by a “panel” doctor but working-class wives, children and the self-employed were not covered. Spectacles (glasses) could be bought at Woolworths for 6d. Children and the poor could get free treatment only under the means test.

The actual NHS was the first health system in any Western country to offer entirely free medical to the entire population.

It was not based on the insurance principle, with entitlements based on contributions, but on universal services, financed out of general taxation, able to organise preventive medicine, research and paramedical aid on a national basis.

If people choose not to consult a GP under the NHS, they can still consult one as a private patient. It was introduced by Aneurin Bevan, the controversial Labour left-winger.

Bevan believed the war had provided the instruments and the mood to bring about sweeping social change and a decisive shift in economic power, but only through solidarity, through the purposeful use of centralised power.

The NHS bore his personal stamp. Labour’s plans for education and social insurance were already outlined in Butler and Beveridge, so in health, there was room for someone like Bevan to leave their mark.

What was proposed went far beyond anything so far suggested. If there had been a consensus that some kind of NHS was necessary, there was still great suspicion from middle-class doctors. Bevan used great diplomacy to disarm his critics. He drew up proposals in 1946 which were to form the NHS Bill.

New group partnerships and health centres were encouraged in “under-doctored areas”. GPs were to have a salaried amount within their income. The sale of medical practices was abolished and hospitals were nationalised. The launch of the NHS led to a 2-year battle with the BMA.

The doctors, especially those who were rather elderly, well-off and from the South-East were trying to protect their interests. In the end, the impasse was broken, there was no whole-time salaried service and so the vast majority of doctors joined the NHS.

The NHS was officially launched in July 1948: it received a lot of support in the country. Nevertheless, the Conservatives voted against the Bill on Second and Third Readings: they claimed to want an NHS too but were against Labour’s proposals. They felt the Bill would destroy the ownership of hospitals. This gave them the reputation of having been hostile to its introduction.

The private practice remained, so did pay-beds in hospitals. There were no limits to specialists’ fees. Doctors were compensated for losing the right to sell their practices. Medical treatment was linked to needs and not means.

The Act stated that the Government wanted to ensure that in the future every man, woman, and child could rely on getting all the advice and care they might need, irrespective of their ability to pay.

Regional inequalities were supposed to disappear. The organisational structure was based on regional boards and executive councils, which were heavy and bureaucratic, with little popular participation. They replaced the old voluntary or local authorities. Critics have said this made the new boards less accountable.

Nevertheless, the keywords were nationalisation and regionalisation. Yet, Local Health Authorities were responsible for providing maternity and child welfare services, home nursing and home helps vaccination and immunisation provision with medical practitioners, and ambulance services.

Hospitals and specialist facilities for the physically disabled were also free. Training and work placement for the handicapped was covered by the Disabled Persons (Employment) Act of 1944.

The cost had been seriously underestimated. Already in 1949, Bevan had to concede that the estimated costs were inadequate. A further £53m had to be found. There were at this time already threats to introduce prescription charges and charges on false teeth and spectacles.

If there had not been a £3.5 billion loan from the USA, the Government would have had great difficulty in continuing to finance the NHS: in the first year, 187m prescriptions were issued, 8.5m dental patients treated, 5.25m pairs of spectacles prescribed. Churchill suggested Bevan should be one of the first to seek (free) psychiatric advice.

Criticisms of the NHS come from different directions: according to David Stark-Murray of the Socialist Medical Association, Bevan – given the atmosphere and general feeling in 1946 – should have broken with the past: his reform was rather conservative and did not go far enough.

According to Whitney, a Conservative Minister of Health in the Thatcher Government, the creation of the NHS was part of a myth that before it, there was chaos and despair and that July 5th 1948 was a magical date thanks to Aneurin Bevan, the road to a new Jerusalem.

Whitney stresses the long road to the NHS, that began with Lloyd George’s 1911 Act. Whitney claims that the NHS, like Beveridge and Butler, were Conservative ideas introduced by Labour.

According to Timmins, the Bevan Act had the effect of divorcing GPs from the hospitals they had worked with. They became supplicants to the salaried specialists for their patients’ hospital treatment. As a result, their status declined within the NHS.

Social Security

As we have seen, Rowntree suggested that there were 2 main causes of poverty: large families and interruptions in earning power. The National Insurance Act (1946) and the National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act (1946) aimed to guard against as many interruptions to earning power as possible.

Previously, social insurance had been limited in its scope; also, it had not protected the individuals covered by it against a number of possible interruptions to normal work and pay; finally, benefit rates were too low. Both Acts managed to solve the first 2 problems by including all workers and all situations. This was one of the main characteristics of the Welfare State: universality.

The National Insurance Act (1946) provided for social insurance payments, except those relating to industrial injuries. It was the beginning of the establishment of a national minimum standard.

The aim of the Act was to attack the “want”, identified by Beveridge in his Report, which could arise when people temporarily lose their earning power, through illness, unemployment, retirement…

Benefits were provided from a fund built on the insurance principle, with contributions from all insured people, from employers and the Government (i.e. from general taxation also). Flat-rate benefits in exchange for flat-rate contributions.

Everyone above school-leaving age (15 in 1947), rich or poor, had to contribute to the National Insurance Fund. The only exceptions were those on very low incomes or married women who could choose to enter the scheme or to stay outside. If they chose the latter, then they could benefit from their husbands’ insurance rights. If not, they could benefit from the full range of benefits in their own right. There were varied contributory rates for different categories, with different entitlements.

Unemployment benefits were only payable to employed contributors, sickness benefits and maternity allowance to employed or self-employed contributors. To qualify for benefits, a minimum number of contributions was necessary. Since unemployment in the post-war decade was less than the 3% expected, unemployment benefits cost less than expected too. Claimants had to make themselves “available for work”.

Sickness benefit was paid in respect of any day in an incapacity for work. It was up to the claimant to prove incapacity, normally done by sending a doctor’s certificate to the local office of the Ministry of National Insurance (later referred to as the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance).

Widows’ benefits were complicated and had strings attached. Retirement pensions (for women over 60 and men over 65) were paid upon the claimant stopping work. Pensions were paid in full immediately, at the rate of 26 shillings for single people and 42 shillings for married couples, without a minimum amount of years in contributions.

This was contrary to what Beveridge had proposed. If people continued to work beyond that age (65-70 for men and 60-65 for women), the pension would not normally be paid. Most workers did not stay on in work after the retirement age.

Women who were insured in their own right could receive a maternity grant, a weekly allowance for at least 13 weeks. For mothers not insured in their own right, a small lump sum was available.

The National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act (1946) was administered by the same ministry as the previous act, both were financed from an insurance fund, with the same contributors.

As industrial injuries were rather rare, for relatively small contributions, relatively high benefits could be offered. There was no provision for the self-employed or for those who were not unemployed. All employed people, including working married women, had to contribute.

The benefit was provided chiefly for “personal injury by accident arising out of and in the course of employment”, usually from the time of entering to the time of leaving employers’ premises. The Act took compensation out of the hands of employers and tribunals and gave workers clearly defined universal rights.

The National Assistance Act (1948), which legally abolished the Poor Law, took the payment of relief away from the local authorities (PACs or Public Assistance Committees), whose duties had been to maintain certain institutions (for the elderly, the infirm, orphans..) and to provide for those in need, based on the means test.

The 1948 Act was a way of standardising the same system throughout the country. Also, potential recipients would not have to go and ask for the benefit. Instead, it became a right, after a short interview with an official of the newly-founded NAB (National Assistance Board). Local authorities however retained responsibility for residential accommodation for the elderly, orphans.

The NAB, not part of a ministry but rather a semi-autonomous public body, had a duty to “assist persons in Great Britain who are without resources to meet their requirements, or whose resources… must be supplemented in order to meet their requirements”. Anyone over 16 could apply. Anyone in full-time work was excluded but claimants fit for work had to register for work in order to receive payment.

The amount which the claimant might receive was assessed according to his resources and the shortfall between his resources and his needs. The total amount must not exceed the amount he would earn if in full-time employment.

The NAB was also responsible for distributing non-contributory old-age pensions (based on the Old Age Pensions Act of 1936), based on a means test, paid to those who did not qualify for a pension based on the 1946 National Insurance Act. Many of those entitled to such pensions also qualified for an assistance grant.

Family Allowance Act (1945)

Family allowances, as suggested by Beveridge, were financed out of general taxation. They were therefore seen as a way everyone could help a particular category of the population in the redistribution of income.

The allowance was not paid for the first child but for every subsequent one, the original amount being 5 shillings a week. There was no means test. Children had only to be below school-leaving age (15) and to be maintained by the claimant (the mother). The allowances were of great benefit to large families on relatively low incomes.

By 1948, 3m families were in receipt of them.

The Beveridge Report : a revolution ? photo

The Beveridge Report : a revolution ?

William Beveridge

William Beveridge was born in 1879 and he became a social worker in the East End of London in 1903. Later, he visited Germany to see for himself the system of social insurance introduced by Bismarck.

Beveridge became a journalist, writing mainly on social policy. He was noticed by Churchill (still a Liberal at that time) and in 1908, Beveridge became a civil servant at the Board of Trade.

Over the next three years, he worked on a national system of labour exchanges, which were introduced by the Liberal Government of Lloyd George. This measure only covered 2.75m men, one in six of the workforce.

Beveridge remained a civil servant for the duration of World War I and after the war, he became the Director of the London School of Economics (LSE). He continued academic work at the Universities of London and Oxford.

In June 1941, he was asked to chair an interdepartmental committee on reconstruction problems and on the coordination of existing schemes of social insurance.

At this time, the social security “system” was in a confused state: 7 Government departments were involved in providing various cash benefits to some people.

The terms of reference were:

To undertake, with special reference to the inter-relation of the schemes, a survey of the existing national schemes of social insurance and allied services, including workmen’s compensation, and to make recommendations. (Beveridge, Beveridge Report : Social Insurance and Allied Services, 1942)

The Beveridge Report

It had been thought Beveridge would just tidy up the existing schemes but in fact, he came up with a brand-new scheme.

In December 1941, he produced a preliminary paper entitled Heads of a Scheme, setting out ideas and assumptions, which were repeated in a slightly amended form in the Report itself:

Three Assumptions : no satisfactory scheme of social security can be devised except on the following assumptions :

1. Children’s allowances for children up to the age of 15 or if in the full-time education up to the age of 16;

2. Comprehensive health and rehabilitation services for prevention and cure of disease and restoration of capacity for work, available to all members of the community;

3. Maintenance of employment, that is to say avoidance of mass unemployment


These words take us a long way from the Means Test of the 1930’s and from private insurance. In Beveridge’s view, benefits should become rights.

What was revolutionary was not that the system was based on “insurance”, backed by the state, but that it would be universal, signifying an end to all means tests.

However, if insurance was to provide the basis for benefits, then children’s allowances would be paid whether the parents were in work or not. If children’s allowances were means tested, then the low-paid with large families would be better off out of work than working unless benefits were very low. This is the problem of the so-called “wage benefit overlap“.

It is interesting here to go back to Rowntree’s investigations in 1899 to see how families with many children were often penalised if the wages coming in were relatively low.

Since Beveridge and others believed the birth rate was falling and thus the country would, in the long term, suffer from this decline, his ideas were also coloured by a desire to encourage women to have children and not to penalise them for so doing.

Beveridge was not the first to raise the questions of children’s allowances : Rowntree himself and others had advocated their introduction before the War and even in the period 1940-1941, an inter-Party group was formed to accelerate their introduction.

When the Report was published on December 1st 1942, it received massive approval. On the night before publication there was even queues outside HMSO (His Majesty’s Stationery Office) branches to buy it. Sales reached 6 figures before the end of the year.

The Home Intelligence Unit of the Ministry of Information said the Report was welcomed with almost universal approval as the first real attempt to put into practice talk about the “new post-war world”.

Beveridge wages War in his Report on five giants : Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, Idleness and Want i.e. poor health, poor education, poor living conditions, unemployment and poverty.

In the beginning, Beveridge briefly explains the reasons why he had come to the conclusions he presents in his Report. He points out that the various schemes in existence have grown piecemeal over the years.

Each problem had been dealt with separately: “the first task of the Committee has been to attempt for the first time a comprehensive survey of the whole field of social insurance and allied services, to show just what provision is now made and how it is made for many different forms of need”.

Beveridge does not begin with open criticism of the status quo. The situation in Britain, he says, is “hardly rivaled in other countries of the world”. However, Britain does fall short in the field of medical services “both in the range of treatment which is provided as of right and in respect of the classes of persons for whom it is provided” and in the field of cash benefits “for maternity and funerals and through the defects of its system for workmen’s compensation”.

Beveridge adds that the “limitation of compulsory insurance to persons under a contract of service and below a certain remuneration if engaged on non-manual work is a serious gap”. He advocates therefore closer coordination which would help beneficiaries and indeed cost less in administrative costs.

He then goes on the point out three guiding principles of recommendations and signals the way to freedom from want. Later, he indicates what he means by the notion of “social insurance” which underpins the Report: “it implies both that it is compulsory and that men stand together with their fellows.

The term implies a pooling of risks…”. The concept behind it is innovative: universality and national solidarity – instead of each person, each category of workers having a separate system or even no system of cover, all workers are treated in the same way, in exchange for their contributions.

The Report then goes into great detail about the proposed level of contributions and is rather technical. The conclusion to the Report presented immediately before a large section of appendices is entitled “planning for peace in war”.

Beveridge points out the likely arguments supporters or detractors, on one side or another, of his Report will make. He answers them by situating the Report in its historical (and historic) context and as a fine war aim to set out, through courage and faith, in a spirit of national unity, as a victory for justice.

The impact of the Beveridge Report

Many people misunderstood the Beveridge Report, thinking it proposed free welfare benefits when it fact it promised insurance benefits, based on insurance contributions and children’s allowances based on taxation since plainly “you don’t get something for nothing”.

An illusion was created that in some way, this was going to be a generous gift from the state to all individuals. This misunderstanding was in part cultivated by Beveridge himself. Yet if one looks closely at the text, he refers to providing people with a “subsistence level”, with the onus on them to work to improve their lot.

To understand the impact of the Beveridge Report, one must look back to the inter-war years. Then, the question of the myth of national solidarity during the hard months marked by the threat of invasion and the Blitz needs to be considered.

Divisions in the country may have been forgotten at a time of national crisis, but the basic problems still existed: injustice, inequality, indifference were still prevalent, especially in many industrial cities of the North, Glasgow, South Wales, and the East End of London. And even in the superficially or affluent rural areas, agricultural workers were hardly well-off.

Beveridge’s ideas were in tune with current thinking and that’s the reason for its success. Many thought the Report was going to lead to radical “utopian” social change. Those witnesses called by the Committee also broadly supported the radical change. Also, the need to modernise, coordinate, ration, and centralise during the War sapped traditional ideas of individuality and a small role for the State.

Beveridge had leaked much of what was in the Report, so there was a great expectation. Sometimes his leaks were unfortunate: “[the report] would take the country halfway to Moscow”. This guaranteed him and his Report a cool reception from the Government.

Nevertheless, Montgomery’s success at the battle of El Alamein had just taken place and this victory, for the first time, over the so-called “invincible Germans”, caused church bells to ring out on November 15th, 1942, just before the publication of the Report, so it could be said to have arrived at a propitious moment for the country.

The public reaction was enthusiastic but other reactions were mixed. There were some who did not believe in all this talk of a “new Jerusalem”, such as Sir John Forbes Watson, Director of the Confederation of British Employers (CBE) and J. S. Boyd, Vice-President of the Shipbuilders Employers’ Federation, who thought the measures could not be afforded.

Churchill’s position was perhaps surprising: he was against the Report, preoccupied as he was with winning the War, and thus with the foreign policy before home policy. Churchill had defined the terms for the Coalition in the following terms: “everything for the war, whether controversial or not, and nothing controversial that is not bona fide needed for the war”.

Also, Churchill wondered, with others, if it could be afforded. In his opinion, it was impossible, financially speaking, immediately.

Conservatives were unsuccessful at by-elections, as they gave the impression they were against it. He was obliged eventually to make a speech in 1943 modulating his position and claiming the credit for inaugurating a reflection on the question of National Insurance.

A Whitehall Committee was set up to look into the implementation of the Report. Then, White Papers were produced on the subject of a National Health Service, Employment policy, and Education, the latter leading to the 1944 Education Act.

Therefore, even though it was the Labour Government of 1945 that introduced the Welfare State, preparatory work had been done by Churchill’s Coalition Government, which of course included many Conservatives.

Ante Bellum, Inter Bella : Legislation and the Depression photo

Ante Bellum, Inter Bella : Legislation and the Depression

The work of Charles Booth and Rowntree (see Chapter 2: Victorian Philanthropy) influenced a new current within the Liberal Party: new Liberalism.

When the Liberal Party was returned to office in 1906, supported by the nascent Labour Party, it introduced several important pieces of legislation: Education (Provisions of Meals) Act (1906), Education (Administrative Provisions) Act (1907), Children Act (1908), Old Age Pensions Act (1908), Trade Boards Act (1909), Labour Exchanges Act (1909) and Health and Unemployment Act (1911).

Even if we take all these laws together, we only have a piecemeal attempt to deal with social protection. Lloyd George and Churchill (at the time a Liberal) were responsible for the 1911 legislation on unemployment insurance and believed that something should be done to improve a situation that had scarcely evolved since 1834.

The liberals were not overtly committed to social reform during the 1906 election campaign but espousing such a cause was a way of possibly stymying the nascent Labour Party and also preventing any more revolutionary attempts at changing the social system.

In point of fact, not all workers were covered by this legislation. Only wage-earners were eligible and sexually transmitted and alcohol-related diseases were excluded.

Of course, the wives and children of the poor and the unemployed were also excluded. And the Act was administered essentially by the former (private) insurance companies, which became richer, as did the “panel doctors”, guaranteed a per capita sum per “panel patient”.

Even the extension of the Act in 1920 only brought under its umbrella 75% of the workforce. Another strand connected to a desire for improvement in social conditions was the wish to improve the health of many of the urban poor.

After all, Britain depended on its military strength, which in turn depended on the fitness of its men. A weakened working class would be unable to defend Britain’s interests in times of international conflict.

The inter-war years (1918-1939) were characterised by a great paradox: economic instability and recession in much of the country and also a rise in the standard of living for the majority of the population.

In 1918, Britain was still a strong economic and industrial power (especially in the fields of cotton, coal, shipping and international trade in general). The First World War had forced the Government to switch the emphasis to armaments, which when peace came had a distorting effect on economic activity.

The cost of the war was high : Britain changed from being a creditor nation to a debtor nation. As an island trading nation, Britain was particularly affected by the changes in the international trading system.

The inter-war years were characterised by wild swings, oscillations from free trade to protectionism, great uncertainties, all of which affected Britain.

After World War I, Britain’s entrepreneurial class showed great reluctance to move into the new industries, such as electricity, artificial fibres, cars, luxury items, new foods…

In 1907, the new industries accounted for 6.5% of Britain’s total industrial output; in 1928, the figure had only reached 16.3%. The rise in the importance of the new industries was modest but still there for all that.

In the old industries, the example of the Lancashire textile industry is exemplary: a desire to go back to the old 19th-century ways, even though the machinery was now written off and a reluctance to amalgamate and thus, for mill-owners, the fear of losing their independence.

Governments in the 1920’s followed orthodox policies. In 1920, the Bank Rate was raised to 7%, hence encouraging saving and discouraging spending. In 1921, the Geddes’ Economy Committee was set up and reduced public expenditure.

In 1925, Churchill, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, reintroduced the Gold Standard, which re-established pre-World War I parity of the Pound and the Dollar. In so doing he did not take into account the fall in the Pound that had taken place in the intervening years. This produced a handicap for the British industry, overvaluing the British currency (£1 = $4.25).

According to orthodox economic principles, costs had to be cut and often wages suffered. It remained at 2% until 1939. Britain, France and the USA signed a tripartite agreement to stabilise currencies but throughout the 1930s, the level of the Pound remained too high to really kick-start the economy. The great battle was between free trade and protectionism.

The first few hesitant steps were taken in 1932 with the Import Duties Bill which introduced 10% tariffs on all imported goods from non-Empire countries, pending a world agreement on international trade. Prime Minister Baldwin talked of “safeguarding”.

There were a number of changes in the population during the inter-war years. There was a rise in the proportion in the population of working-age leading to a rise in the number of producers as compared with consumers. This led to a rise in national output, despite the high unemployment of the early 1930s.

There was a shift in the population from the industrial North and South Wales to the South, the Midlands, and the South-East. The population of Greater London increased from 7.5m in 1921 to 8.5m in 1939, whereas the population of South Wales fell by 100 000 between 1931 and 1938.

There was an increase in the population of new towns (Coventry, Luton, Slough…). In the 1930s, there were also net inflows into the country. Some former emigrants returned to Britain and there were inflows from Ireland and refugees from Europe.

Between 1931 and 1941, there was an increase in the population of 650 000. Nevertheless, there was a slowdown in indigenous population growth due to the deaths of so many males during the War, the phenomenon of increased wealth and more birth control.

There were also changes in the economic and social status of women: in 1911, 5.75m women were in employment; in 1936, the figure had risen to 6.5m. Changes in patterns of female behaviour (including going out to the pub !) were linked in part to a certain emancipation after female suffrage had been obtained in 1918 and 1928 (see Chapter 5 : More electoral inequalities : the Road to Female Suffrage)

As far as social class was concerned, Britain was still a class-conscious society but changes were taking place: there was a move away from the landed aristocracy towards a prosperous business class. The middle class developed with the increase of salaried office workers.

There was an increase in the professions, civil servants and a gradual rise in the number of female members of the working middle class. At the same time, there was a decrease in servant employment. In 1936, the Government defined “working class” as follows:

The expression “working class” includes mechanics, artisans, labourers and others working for wages, hawkers, costermongers, persons not working for wages but working at some trade of handicraft without employing others, except members of their own family, and persons other than domestic servants whose income in any case does not exceed an average of £3 a week, and the families of such persons who may be residing with them.

Schedule II, The Housing Act, 1936

A divided country

The country was very much divided during the inter-war years between the old 19th century “half”, where wages fell during the Depression, and the new “half” (in the Home Counties for instance) where wages actually increased during that period.

The Hunger Marches were an attempt to show the other half of the country what the North-East was going through. National unemployment reached a peak of 3m in January 1933 and then fell back to 1.6% (i.e. 12% of the insured population) where it remained until 1939.

Many observers point to an absence of real resentment against class inequality. Trying to explain this, Runciman (in Relative Deprivation and Social Justice, 1966) advances the theory of relative deprivation: satisfaction or resentment are not functions of inequality as measured by economists but by man’s assessment of his own position compared to others with whom he compares himself.

Between World War I and the 1960’s, working men compared their lot with that of others in the working class and not with non-manual groups. Also, it has been pointed out that unemployment did not lead to the break-up of the family, despite the great pressures on the role of the male as”bread-winner”, and the difficulties often felt by women in trying to eke out a living.

There was rarely a correlation between class inequality and resentment of it. There was often solidarity in adversity with the working-class making the best of a bad job and getting on with their lives, however difficult things might have become.

Yet it would be wrong to say there was never any bitterness: tempers occasionally boiled over (in Rochdale and Belfast in 1932 for example).

A persistent poverty

In the poor parts of the country and even in pockets in the prosperous parts, despite the progress made since the beginning of the century, numerous surveys pointed out terrible poverty which persisted.

Rowntree carried out another survey in York in 1935-1936 and discovered, using the same criteria as in 1899, 6.8% in primary poverty (compared with 10% in 1899).

The reasons evoked were the same as those mentioned in late Victorian and Edwardian times: old age, sickness, low pay, and large families.

In York, Rowntree discovered that old age, sickness, and unemployment were more important causes of poverty than in his survey of 1899.

Many surveys showed that child poverty was a very serious problem. Rowntree found that half the 6.8% in primary poverty were children. And it must be remembered that as well as those in primary poverty, many more were living below the “bread line” : approximately half of all working class children would suffer from poverty at some time.

Another group to suffer disproportionately from poverty was old people. Despite the introduction of old-age pensions in 1908, their low-level left recipients below the poverty line. The Depression in the early 1930s exacerbated an already bad situation, bringing to the fore problems of chronic malnutrition among low-income groups.

As well as work carried out by social investigators, other writings saw the light of day in the first third of the 20th century (Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell…). Just as in the period 1835-1855, the social conditions of England provided a rich seam of material for indignant observers and writers.

Indignation was often the result of a feeling that nothing was really being done by the Government to alleviate the causes of poverty, and indeed, that during the Depression, the situation was being made worse by the Government. Opprobrium was often poured on the “Household Means Test“.

In 1931 MacDonald’s Labour Government, which was elected in 1929, was replaced by a National Government, dominated by the Conservatives, though initially led by MacDonald: it cut insurance benefits. Those whose benefits were at an end were transferred to the Public Assistance Committees (PAC) run by the Local Authorities.

The Committees implemented a harsh means test to determine whether potential beneficiaries really needed help. In a way not too dissimilar to the 1834 Act, the ethos was one of the inquisitorial tones, delving into the corners of the family budget in order to prove whether there was a genuine need or whether the candidates could manage on their own.

There were also discrepancies between local authorities and so a feeling of injustice (Birmingham disallowed 34.8% of all applications whereas Methyr, in Wales, disallowed only 0.5%).

There was also a discrepancy between men and women: a slight majority of men’s claims were paid in full compared to only a third of women’s claims.

The unions believed that instead of finding ways of reducing benefits and allowances, the Government would be better off trying to provide jobs for those willing to work.

The rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP) photo

The rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP)


The SNP was born in 1934. It was not very successful as a political party (poor results). In April 1945, the SNP sent for the first time an MP to Parliament (Motherwell by-election).

In July, the same year, it lost its unique seat during the general election.

1950s: poor results

Due to the lack of cohesion within the party: there were lots of divisions on a number of issues. And it had e negative image in public opinion: nationalism was considered as evil and often associated with Nazi Germany and World War II.

1960s: breakthrough

1967: Hamilton by-election won by the SNP. The candidate elected was a woman, Winnifred Ewing.

1968: local elections. Very good results for the SNP.

People felt Scotland was spared the benefits of the economic boom of the United Kingdom. Scotland was among the regions which benefited least. Feeling of discontent among the Scots. The SNP made progress.

After 1968, the SNP started to be taken seriously by both the Labour and the Conservative parties. Reactions :

  • Conservative Party (in opposition)

    In May 1968, Edward Heath (leader of the Conservative party) said he would give Scotland an Assembly: this is known as the “Declaration of Perth”. He created a constitutional committee presided by Sir Alec-Douglas-Home. The committee produced a report called “Scotland’s Government” in 1970.


       – creation of a Scottish Assembly,
       – 125 members elected directly,
       – powers to initiate and discuss Bills (to be approved by the British Parliament in Westminster).

  • Labour Party (in office)

    The Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, appointed the Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1968. The chairman was Lord Kilbrandon and it is referred to as the “Kilbrandon Commission”. It produced 2 reports in 1973.


       – creation of a Scottish Assembly,
       – members elected directly by Proportional Representation (major innovation compared to the first-past-the-post system).

1970s: ups and downs

The 1970’s General Election saw the Conservative victory. Edward Heath became Prime Minister. In 1968, he had said that he would give Scotland its Assembly… it was no longer on the agenda.

One of the priorities was the EEC membership (should Britain join the European Union: she did in 1972) and the industrial relations. SNP got bad results and was less of a threat to the other parties. And there was the argument that a commission had been appointed.

1971: discovery of oilfields in the North Sea. The SNP used it as an argument: Scotland could be independent because it had enough money. It gave a boost to the SNP, which launched a campaign entitled “It’s Scotland’s Oil”.

1974: general election. SNP results:
     February: 22.1%        7 MPs
     October:   30.4%     11 MPs

No party obtained the majority in Parliament: “hung Parliament”. Small majority with the 2nd election in October.

October 1976: the Scotland and Wales Bill was introduced in the House of Commons. The Labour Party in Scotland was not in favour of devolution. Strong opposition from Labour and Conservatives: hundreds of amendments were proposed. As there were too many divisions and amendments, the Labour Government chose to withdraw the Bill.

November 1977: the Scotland Bill and the Wales Bill were introduced in the House of Commons. Why a new try ? Because the Labour Government had lost its majority and relied on the Nationalists or the Liberals. So two different Bills: one for Scotland and one for Wales. 1977: Lib-Lab pact (Liberals and Labour governing together).

February 1978: the Scotland Act. It was never applied as 2 amendments killed the Act:

  • 1st amendment: a referendum should apply the Scotland Act (the Scots should vote for it),
  • 2nd amendment: minimum threshold of 40% of “Yes” votes, called “the 40% rule” or “the Cunningham Amendment”: 40% of the registered voters should vote “Yes”.

The referendum took place on March 1st 1979. The turnout was 63.8%.
   – 51.6% Yes    [32.5% of registered voters]
   – 48.4% No      [30.8% of registered voters]

A motion of no confidence is voted by the SNP and the Conservatives (kind of alliance). It was adopted by a majority of 1 vote and, as a result, the Prime Minister resigned. The Parliament was dissolved and a general election was set up.

May 1st, 1979: Conservative victory: Margaret Thatcher becomes Prime Minister. The Scotland Act was immediately repealed.

Sommaire de la série Scottish Politics: devolution

  1. Scotland: the State, the Nation, Home Rule, and Devolution
  2. Scottish Home Rule
  3. The Act of Union of 1707
  4. The rise of the Scottish National Party (SNP)
  5. The Scottish Parliament
Scottish Home Rule photo

Scottish Home Rule


After the Union of 1707, Scotland started to export goods massively: especially linen, cattle, and tobacco (Glasgow was nicknamed the “tobacco metropolis”).

Gradually the Union came to represent career opportunities for the upper class and middle-class scots: some joined the Army in India, some became merchants in London and some others migrated to North America as settlers.

1760’s: 1st Industrial Revolution in Scotland. Until then, Scotland was a rural country. It became rapidly urbanized.

1760-1830: Scottish economy based on the textile industry (cotton, linen and wool).

After 1830, new industries appeared: the steel industry and the shipbuilding industry.

During Victorian Scotland (1837-1901), all industries were owned by the Scots. They were prosperous and exported their goods all over the world. There was no feeling of discontent for they were pride to be contributing to the Empire, adding up their prosperity.

In the 1880’s, Scottish home rule (more autonomy) emerged as an issue in Scottish politics. It was the result of 3 factors:

1. A growing feeling in Scotland that the Government was not devoting enough time and attention to Scotland

In comparison with time devoted to Ireland, Scotland felt neglected by the Government. The Irish people was rewarded for their violence when non-violent Scotland did not get any attention.

In 1853 was created the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights. It was close to the Conservative Party and complained about the fact that Ireland received more support from the British Government than Scotland and that Westminster lacked of Scottish MPs.

2. The conversion of William Gladstone to Irish Home Rule

In 1886, William Gladstone (a Liberal MP) introduced a Bill before Parliament: the Irish Home Rule Bill. It was due to the pressure of the Home Rule Association created in 1870 in Dublin. The association wanted a Parliament responsible for domestic affairs.

In 1871, in Aberdeen, Gladstone (not converted yet) said that if home rule was granted to Ireland then the same should apply to Scotland. In 1885, the Post of Secretary for Scotland was re-established (it had been abolished after the battle of Culloden in 1745) to promote Scotland’s interests and voice its grievances to the British Parliament.

The Scottish Office was created the same year: it was purely administrative (the Post of Secretary for Scotland led it). When Scots compared what they had (a people in London) to what Ireland had (its own Parliament), anger progressively arose.

In 1886, the Scottish Home Rule Association was set up. It was not a political party but a nationalist organization close to the Liberal Party. They wanted a Parliament responsible for Scottish domestic affairs and did not want to end the Union.

3. A growing nationalist sentiment in Scotland

London was considered as the center of the Empire and this was resented in Scotland. As for Government subsidies, London was getting the lion’s share, especially for galleries and museums. As a consequence: renewed interest for everything Scottish in Scotland, reinforcement of their distinct national identity.

A number of societies were created in Scotland to compete with their rivals in London:

  • 1884: Scottish Geographical Society
  • 1886: Scottish Historical Society

1895-1905: Scottish Home Rule was not on the political agenda of the Conservative Government (they were against it).

1906: the Liberals got the power but the question of Scottish Home Rule did not come immediately.

1910-1914: British politics dominated by:

  • Irish Home Rule: legislation passed in 1912.
  • Scottish Home Rule: Bill debated in 1913 but process interrupted by World War I.

After the war, a 2nd Scottish Home Rule Association was created for the first one became inactive.

The objectives remained the same: more autonomy and not independence. Not a political party and no candidates. Will to remain non-partisan. Means used: putting pressure on the Government and on the MP representing Scotland in Parliament. In spite of this pressure, there was no progress for Scotland at the Parliamentary level.

1921: the Parliament voted the Government of Ireland, creating the Irish Free State.Even after 1921, no results.

1920-1934: Creation of organizations and political parties

1920: Scots National League: much more radical organization: they wanted independence, promoted the Gaelic culture and language. Yet, it did not have a strategy to achieve independence. They lacked unity and split. The result of the split was:

1926: the Scottish National Movement : focused on culture. No strategy to achieve independence.

1927: the Glasgow University Scottish Nationalist Organization : created by students and members of the Labour Party. John MacCormick was one of the leader and he is still considered today as the father of modern nationalism. He was a moderateand wanted Scotland to stay in the UK. He managed to convince the other nationalist organizations to create a nationalist party.

1928: the National Party of Scotland : left wing party. Objective: not independence but Scotland within the framework of UK. The NPS was a party but his electoral results were poor.

Divisions appeared for the NPS was the sum of different organizations with different opinions (moderates and radicals). The radicals said the poor results were due to the moderates.

1932: the Scottish Party: right-wing party in Glasgow. An embodiment of reasonable nationalism. The press was very favorable to them.

As there was not enough room for 2 nationalist parties a fusion had to be made between the Nationalist Party of Scotland and the Scottish Party. They merged in 1934.

1934: the Scottish National Party: born of a left-wing party and of a right-wing party. The SNP is still divided, not homogenous, and has various political affiliations.