How Far Did the Post 1945 Welfare State Eliminate Beveridge’s ‘Five Giants’?

1 January 2017

The coalition continued until the end of World War Two (1939-1945). After the war had ended the British electorate had a shift in attitude and in an effort to secure a better and brighter future the people voted for a Labour government in the 1945 elections in a spirit of optimism and hope for change . The post-war Labour government subsequently created a welfare state, which, although it had existed in the 1930’s, was still a welcome innovation.

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Asa Briggs, the late Professor of History at the University of Sussex, defined the welfare state as; ‘a state in which organised power is deliberately used in an effort to modify the play of market forces in at least three directions – first, by guaranteeing individuals and families a minimum income irrespective of the market value of their work or property; second, by narrowing the extent of insecurity by enabling individuals and families to meet certain social contingencies which lead otherwise to individual and family crises; 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. ’ The welfare state was a response to citizens’ needs and a desire for a radical break from the past and it became institutionalised as a primary concern of the government, post 1945. The government introduced and developed major social policies formed on the basis of the Beveridge Report (December 1942) which was created by the economist, Sir William Beveridge (1869-1963).

The report – initially named the Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee on Social Insurance and Allied Services – recommended a social insurance scheme based on contributory principles. There was also plans to eliminate what he called the “five giant evils” in Britain; ignorance, want, disease, squalor and idleness . This essay will examine how the measures adopted by the Labour governments of 1945 to 1951 dealt with these five social problems and to what extent they eliminated them. The first of Beveridge’s ‘five giants’ is ‘want’; this refers to the poverty in Britain at the end of the war. Many families were cast into abject poverty before the end of the war due to high levels of unemployment and as a result of this, the economist John Maynard Keynes said employment should be a high priority of the government .

In 1946, influenced by Beveridge’s ideas, the Labour government introduced the Social Insurance Act (later changed to the National Insurance Act). It meant that people would receive benefits during times of earnings interruption after having made contributions from their salaries before they became sick or unemployed. This was therefore an incentive for people to secure employment so that they could pay a weekly flat rate contribution which would allow them to receive insurance if they were out of work. Labour had a commitment to the principle of universalism in service provision and they wanted a future substantially free of the selectivism of the Conservatives.

Their principle of universality was the only way to ensure that the best quality services could be made available to all who needed them. Keynes stated that this was a new approach to economic policy and that the more people that were employed, the more National Insurance contributions would be received providing more money to pay for other things. As the system was based on contribution it could not be presented as an unearned handout. The government also wanted to safeguard the interests of citizens who were not covered by National Insurance and in 1948 the National Assistance Act was passed to help people whose resources were insufficient to meet their needs.

A retirement pension was also set up with Beveridge’s intention of it being introduced at a gradual rate over a period of twenty years; yet the Labour government introduced pensions at the full rate which took up to two thirds of social security expenditures. The welfare state did, therefore, eliminate poverty to a certain extent as the creation of an insurance scheme for workers provided them with a financial safety net. However, one problem with the welfare state’s aim to tackle ‘want’ was that the Assistance Act did not provide enough benefits for people who were unable to work, meaning some people were still living below the subsistence level, contradicting the government’s declarations of universality.

Elizabeth Wilson, a feminist writer, also stated that ‘women, housewives, mothers and workers were subject to the welfare state’s sexist ideology’ and accused Beveridge of only making his report beneficial to the typical role of the man as breadwinner. For these reasons, Rodney Lowe deemed the Beveridge report was ‘conservative, illogical and ultimately impractical’. Another of Beveridge’s giants, ‘idleness’, refers to the high level of unemployment in Britain before the end of the war. The Labour government was successful in its elimination of ‘idleness’ and its commitment to maintain high levels of employment after the war, having reduced unemployment to 2. 5% by 1946 despite huge post-war problems such as shortages of materials and massive war debts.

Following the ideas of Keynes, the government took over industries such as iron and steel manufacture so that they could keep the industry afloat using money derived from National Insurance in times of economic crisis. ‘Ignorance’, the third giant, refers to the education system in post 1945 Britain. In 1944 the Education Act (Butler Act) was passed by the war-time coalition government although it was actually put into practice in 1945 by the Labour government. The changes enforced by the Butler Act included raising the school leaving age from 14 to 15, introducing a tripartite system, the abolition of fees for secondary education and the provision of free milk which improved the health of school children..

Ellen Wilkinson, the Labour Minister for Education from 1945-47, was responsible for introducing these policies in an aim ‘to remove from education those class divisions of democracy’. Again, the government followed their principle of universality, insisting that every child was equal by introducing three types of secondary schools: grammar, secondary moderns and technical schools. The idea was that the grammar schools were for academic pupils, whereas secondary moderns were designed for non-academic pupils and technical schools for pupils with manual skills. Each child would be able to excel at what they did best, whilst the government gave them equal opportunities.

This was a radical and progressive idea at the time, but there was no clear elimination of the giant ‘ignorance’, because it was still apparent that a hierarchy continued to exist in the educational system. The Times Education supplement praised grammar school children as an ‘indispensable kind of citizen’ which echoed society’s opinions that grammar schools were superior. More money was spent on them than the secondary moderns, which were very few and insufficiently funded. After the 1944 Butler Act only 10% of secondary moderns were purpose built by 1960. Technical schools were also said to be ‘education for life in a wider sense’ but they too were unpopular and rarely seen.

The aims of the act were unsuccessful in that there was no increase in places at grammar schools to accommodate working class children who may have been sufficiently academic to attend them. In addition, private schools still remained; contradicting the Butler Act – R. H Tawney damned them calling them a ‘massive pillar of indefensible disparities of income and opportunity’. It was clear by 1950 that the elimination of ‘ignorance’ had not been wholly successful with statistics showing that 60% of professionals’ children went to grammar schools compared to the 10% of working class children. The fourth of Beveridge’s giants is ‘disease’, which is a reference to the health system post 1945. The National Health System, created by the Labour government in 1948, was a free health scheme funded by taxation.

Aneurin Bevan, Health and Housing Minister, set up and shaped the NHS marking a radical change from the medical services available before the war, which saw the poor receiving second class medical care from panel doctors and the rich benefitting from superior private services. Bevan wanted central control of the NHS hospitals with 14 regional health boards; he said that the only way to run a national service with universal standards was to run it from the centre of the country. However, Herbert Morrison a fellow Labour party member argued that the health services should be locally administered as it would provide local authorities with schools of political education.

Bevan disagreed as he feared that rich areas would develop better services leaving poorer areas to receive inferior ones. In December 1948, it was clear that the government had over budgeted and overestimated the supply and demand resulting in cuts from ? 176 million to just ? 50 million. Employees’ salaries had proved expensive, but the Guillebaud report which had been nominated an ‘impressive document’ , dispelled the myth that health spending had been extravagant. However there were problems with the NHS system. One of these being that private practices still flourished which meant a hierarchy in healthcare for British citizens remained in place.

The NHS also proved very expensive and consumed the majority of taxpayer’s money and it was clear that old and out of date hospitals were expensive to run or rebuild. Another problem was that the free treatment policy was undermined when eye and dental treatment charges were introduced in 1952, contradicting the whole concept of the NHS. However, the NHS did pay a huge part in the evolution of the welfare state. Although it had its problems it did eliminate disease in Britain on a huge scale, and is considered today to be one of the greatest historic achievements of any Labour government. The last of the giants is ‘squalor’. Lack of housing was a major problem faced by the Labour government at the end of the war as much housing had been destroyed or damaged during the German bombing campaign.

Beveridge considered poor housing to be one of the major factors in explaining poverty and lack of hope and opportunity in Britain. He repeated his call in 1944 when he said: “The greatest opportunity open in this country for raising the general standard of living lies in housing. ” One of the solutions to the housing shortage was for the government to build pre-fabricated homes. These were mass-produced, fully fitted houses that could be sent anywhere in the country. By 1948, under the guidance of Aneurin Bevan, 125,000 had been assembled and distributed as demand for these homes was great due to the ‘baby boom’. In 1946, the New Towns Act played an important part in the planned rebuilding of Britain. The act tried to address the problem of overcrowding in cities.

The logic of new towns was to build entirely new towns closer to an existing city so that the over-spill population from that city could relocate to the new town. To start with eight new towns were built around London and “green belts” were also created around the cities and new towns to protect rural settings and to restrict any unplanned growth of the new towns . The problem with the housing situation post 1945 was that Bevan focused more on the quality of the houses he was having built instead of the quantity which was more important, so there was still an evident shortage. It is clear to see that the Beveridge Report was very influential in the shaping of the Labour Government from 1945-51 and it was very popular with the people.

It proved to be very successful in many ways by eliminating want, idleness, ignorance, disease and squalor up to a point. However, there were also problems with the solutions the Labour government put into practice. The principle of universality which is the key factor of the Beveridge Report was not followed, as the government still allowed a privileged hierarchy to exist in schools and healthcare, (allowing private sectors to continue practicing) contradicting what they had been striving for – a country where everyone has equal opportunities. The housing situation, although slightly improved, was also unsuccessful in that the government failed to provide it in sufficient quantity to eliminate the need causing the problem to remain partially unresolved.

Overall the welfare state was proved to be the greatest achievement of the Labour government with many of the social laws they introduced continuing to operate to this day. Even allowing for the flaws these new laws gave hope to the British citizens after the war and went a long way in eliminating Beveridge’s ‘giants’. Bibliography Briggs, Asa, The Welfare State in Historical Perspective (Bobbs Merrill 1961) Braman, Chuck, Theories of John Maynard Keynes, http://www. chuckbraman. com/Writing/WritingFilesPhilosophy/keynes. htm [cited 10th November 2010] Cooper, Steven, The Health Benefits: Vol 636-639 (Policy Studies Institute, 1985) Deakin, Nicholas, Britain’s way to social security, Vol 5.

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