Posted on 07 Apr 2014 Categories: Publications
A landmark in English social thought
Twentieth-century Britain saw two great periods of social reform, in the decades 1905- 14 and 1940-50, when intellectual and political leadership came together to achieve major change, shifting the agenda for social policy from the relief of poverty to the prevention of poverty.
Before the First World War the policy lead came from Beatrice and Sidney Webb; in the 1940s, from William Beveridge, backed up by the economics of Maynard Keynes. In the heyday of Edwardian Liberalism, the extraordinary combination of David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill drove forward one reform after another, including old age pensions, controls on sweated labour, labour exchanges, and the start of insurance against unemployment and sickness; in the 1940s, governments led first by Churchill and subsequently by Clement Attlee introduced family allowances, universal secondary education, social security and the National Health Service, and finally in 1948 abolished what remained of the Poor Law. Beatrice Webb died in 1943, Sidney in 1947. Their influence over the two phases of reform was lasting and decisive.
Even when the Labour government was defeated in 1951, the incoming Conservative prime minister was the 77-year-old Winston Churchill, the old social reformer. In the words of Peter Hennessy, “In the late 1940s and early 1950s, leading figures of both major political parties competed to be seen as the progenitors of the ‘classic welfare state’.”1 Not until the Thatcher governments of the 1980s was there a sustained attempt to undo the legacy of social reform; with hindsight, what is surprising is not how much was taken away, but how much remained.
The 1909 Minority Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws has long been seen as a key influence on the emergence of Britain’s welfare state. Beatrice Webb, a member of the commission, led the Minority faction; she and Sidney drafted the Minority Report; and three other members signed it. Before the Minority Report came Seebohm Rowntree’s work on poverty in York, which in turn was preceded by the late Victorian body of empirical research into poverty, epitomised by the work of Charles Booth (himself married to Beatrice Webb’s cousin, and a member of the 1905-09 Royal Commission).
A generation later, the successor to the Minority Report was Beveridge’s Report on Social Insurance and Allied Services in 1942.
Beveridge was close to the Webbs until their deaths, but was never a Fabian; unlike them, he saw insurance as central to reform, and always stressed voluntary action. Indeed, as well as their influence on the welfare state, the Webbs had influenced Beveridge’s career: in 1908, Beatrice told Winston Churchill: “If you are going to deal with unemployment, you must have the boy Beveridge.”
Beatrice hosted a meeting over lunch, and Beveridge was appointed to set up the network of labour exchanges. Beveridge’s 1942 plan for social security depended on the new understanding, derived above all from the work of Keynes, that governments, through their management of the economy, could minimise unemployment. GDH Cole wrote that the Minority Report “is indeed a landmark: it is the first full working out of the conception and policy of the welfare state, more comprehensive, because covering a wider ground, than the Beveridge Report of 1942, which in many ways reproduces its ideas”.
And Bob Holman, in his biography of George Lansbury, one of the other signatories of the Minority Report, argues that the Minority Report “became a corner stone of the future welfare state”.
Both Minority and Majority Reports were widely disseminated. The two volumes of the Majority Report run to over 900 pages; the Minority Report adds a further 716. The government printed 10,000 copies of the full document; the Fabian Society produced an additional 3,000 cut-price copies of the Minority Report on its own (though only after Sidney Webb had fought off a Treasury attempt to assert Crown copyright); and a commercial publisher produced another 1,500. The publication of the Minority Report also marked the transformation of the Webbs from salon politicians, breakfasting and dining with Liberal Cabinet ministers and leading Conservatives alike, to public campaigners. But, in the short and medium term at least, the campaign was unsuccessful. In the years before the First World War there was no legislation to implement the proposals of Majority or Minority. Plenty of other things were happening – the struggle between Lords and Commons over the Budget, a succession of major labour disputes, and the culmination of long campaigns over home rule for Ireland and women’s suffrage. After the second general election of 1910, the Liberal government was more dependent than previously on Labour votes for its parliamentary majority. While there was no Poor Law Bill, there was legislation – supported overwhelmingly by the Labour MPs and the TUC, but opposed by Beatrice Webb – to introduce compulsory national insurance, initially for limited groups within the workforce, against sickness and unemployment. Poor Law legislation had to wait until 1929 for the abolition of the Board of Guardians”, and until 1948 for the declaration in the great National Assistance Act that “the existing Poor Law shall cease to have effect”. As Royden Harrison has written: “The proposals 6 of the minority report of the commission, drafted by the Webbs, may have been a landmark in English social thought, but for the time being their recommendations were dismissed or ignored.”
Although the Minority Report continues to be acknowledged as a landmark, its details are not familiar to modern audiences. A hundred years later, some of the dilemmas and ambiguities that faced the Webbs and the Edwardian Liberal government remain very real.
Posted on 07 Apr 2014 Categories: Publications