Speaking Volumes: Essays on the 'Welfare State'

June 23, 1995

Hilary Rose on Richard Titmuss's Essays on the 'Welfare State' .

I suspect, like a number of women of my generation and class background, having a "career", let alone becoming an academic, was more accidental than planned. In consequence intellectual biography is inextricably muddled up with the personal, thus for me, the CND movement, polio, and Richard Titmuss's Essays on the 'Welfare State' were the crucial triple precipitates that led me to go to university. For in 1958, the polio epidemic took my young husband's life, and I found myself widowed at 23 with a small son of three with no very visible means of support.

My CND friends included a number of young intellectuals, university graduates, then a rarer species, who encouraged me to take a degree. But it was Titmuss's book that offered both an intellectual and personal key, for I was learning first hand as a new welfare dependent why that postwar "welfare state" was both a historical achievement and why it was not a trivial matter to use those distancing quotation marks. His brilliant essays on the social division of welfare; the NHS as the jewel in the crown which might justifying removing those quotes, framed an agenda for social policy for more than two decades.

There was also an important essay on the position of women - for me a first hint of a feminist project which was to come into dramatic existence with the women's movement.

Freely interpreting the book provided me with a clue to why the male National Assistance officer, who, commenting that I was pretty and would therefore soon remarry, dismissed my request for help with the interest on the mortgage. I could not speak for many years of the nausea and humiliation that I felt at his words, curiously they hurt even more than the prospect of homelessness. Yet they also gave me a kind of steel, so that when I learned from Titmuss that because a widowed mother's pension was "unearned income" that I could also receive a student's grant, it was as if a door opened.

I was admitted into the Titmuss department the following year and soon after graduating become a junior lecturer at the LSE. That experience of the "welfare state" from below, sowed the seeds of an intellectual and political conflict between the conception of welfare as something to be planned by experts for Others - quintessentially the hallmark of the Titmuss approach and that of the Labour Party - and democratically managed welfare services. The year 1968 and the "student troubles" as LSE named the events, with their demands for democratic accountability in education, welfare and the research system, inexorably, and painfully, revealed the elitism of Titmuss's approach and its impatience with democracy.

That postwar "welfare state" with all its limitations not least the overvaluing of professionals, is worlds apart from today's run-down welfare programmes, with their Victorian dependency ideology, and government-inspired contempt of all that is good about public service professionals. After the institutionalised greed of Thatcherism and the affectations of designer socialism, a passion for social justice and a vision of a caring society is stirring again. The difference is that experience of both inflexible bureaucracy in the old welfare system and indifference and corruption in quangoland, has emphasised the need for democratic accountability. The best of today's social policy thinking seeks to rebuild a welfare society that is "ours", in which voices, once silenced by relations of gender, race and class, and excluded by intellectual elitism actively shape new welfare theories and practices.

Hilary Rose is professor of social policy, University of Bradford.

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