Celebrating the British Welfare State?

The UK has recently looked back over the last sixty years in the context of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations. At The Policy Press we have been thinking about what the last sixty years have really meant for Britain, and would love to know your thoughts – by leaving a comment on this blog, emailing tpp-marketing@bristol.ac.uk or on Twitter @policypress.

Here, author Paul Spicker (How Social Security Works, Social Policy) takes a look at what has happened to the British Welfare State over this time:

The British Welfare State was intended to be an ideal. Asa Briggs identified three key elements by which it would act:

“First by guaranteeing individuals and families a minimum income irrespective of the market value of their work, or their property. Second by narrowing the extent of insecurity by enabling individuals and families to meet certain “social contingencies” (for example sickness, old age and unemployment) which lead otherwise to individual or family crisis, and third, by ensuring that all citizens without distinction of status or class are offered the best standards available in relation to a certain agreed range of social services.”  (Briggs A., ‘The welfare state in historical perspective’, European Journal of Sociology, 1961, 2, pp.221-258)

Although he refers three times to “individuals” and “families”, the Welfare State was conceived in collectivist terms. It depended on the idea that some things are done better through collective action, that government needed to serve the public, that it should try to ensure basic universal standards, and that it should do things as best it could.

The assault on the Welfare State by the New Right, and the shift in politics that has taken place since, challenged the conceptual foundation of the Welfare State, not just its practice. The market economy is now taken as the norm. The Treasury’s Green Book advises:

“Before any possible action by government is contemplated, it is important to identify a clear need which it is in the national interest for government to address. Accordingly, a statement of the rationale for intervention should be developed. This underlying rationale is usually founded either in market failure or where there are clear government distributional objectives that need to be met. Market failure refers to where the market has not and cannot of itself be expected to deliver an efficient outcome; the intervention that is contemplated will seek to redress this. Distributional objectives are self-explanatory and are based on equity considerations.”  (HM Treasury, n.d., Green Book, at http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/d/green_book_complete.pdf)

It appears, then, that it is not good enough for government to justify their actions because they would benefit people, because they protect people’s rights, because the government has a moral commitment – or even because it has been elected to address an issue. We have lost sight of the fundamental principle that government is there to do things for people.

Paul Spicker.

Paul Spicker’s book How Social Security Works is available for only £15 until the end of June only. Order your copy here.

3 Responses to “Celebrating the British Welfare State?”


  1. 1 decisivedave June 13, 2012 at 9:09 pm

    The idea of a ‘social contract’ seems to have almost disappeared, not just in public policy, but in the minds of many people in UK society. The lack of real public reaction against the Health and Social Care Bill, which fundamentally undoes almost everything the original NHS Act put in place in the 1940’s, I think shows that as a society we no longer understand where the drive for collectivism through the state came from. But we also don’t really understand as a nation how an alternative might work – volunteering, social enterprise and market driven service provision may well be able to replace the welfare state, but the ability to perceive how that might work, or what it would look like, seems to evade professionals and public alike at the moment. In the meantime we are in real danger of entering a 1920’s depression style era where poverty and wealth define much wider outcomes in health, income etc, and too soon maybe we’ll be asking for the State to intervene again?

  2. 2 Thoby Miller June 25, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    Paul Spicker neatly identifies one of the flaws at the heart of New Right thinking, particularly that their arguments about welfare de-legitimise their role as a government. So, if they are not there to benefit people, or to protect their rights, or to address issues that they themselves have said in their manifesto to be important, they what are they there for? And furthermore, why were so many people persuaded to vote them into power, if there is not an explicit undertaking to legislate on behalf of the collective interests of citizens of the UK. And if this does reduce significantly the legitimate role of government, what implications does this have for the whole notion of citizenship and vapid idea of the Big Society?

  3. 3 piersmorganthe February 3, 2015 at 9:09 pm

    Your observation of the concept of welfare state is refreshing. Thank you for sharing your opinion!


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