Safety pins for a safety net

July 7, 1995

Nicholas Timmins describes the ever-troubled history of the country's welfare state. "It is the same story . . . in every social service. there is greater demand. . . because the standards of the population are higher than ever they were before."

"If you translate these figures into graphs and extrapolate the curve the prospects before us are truly terrifying. The pressures are such that . . . there is no foreseeable limit on the social services which the nation can reasonably require except the limit that the Government imposes."

These words are not Peter Lilley's railing at his social security budget. They are not from Margaret Thatcher, Michael Portillo or indeed any other Conservative. The first two sentences are Aneurin Bevan to the Labour Party conference in 1949. The second two are Richard Crossman in his final days as secretary of state for social services at the very end of the 1960s.

The pressures, in other words, have always been there. Almost from the moment in 1942 that Beveridge declared in ringing capital letters that there were five giants to be slain on the road of reconstruction - Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness - the welfare state has had the feeling that it has been running against an impossibly rising tide.

Even a brief examination of its history destroys the most comfortable myth about it - that up to 1979, and before "that woman" got her hands on it, an all-embracing welfare state operated in a rosy glow of consensus, caring comprehensively for all its citizens. A similarly brief examination also does for the counter myth - that it provided such a featherbed that nobody had any case to be bothered to work.

Amid such pressures, the welfare state has always been controversial, even if the degree of controversy over its arms - housing, education, social security, the health service and employment policy - has varied.

Housing, initially, was the noisiest, despite Bevan's fearsome battle with the doctors over the founding of the NHS. In the face of the Tory promise to build 300,000 houses a year, housing, or rather the lack of it, helped cost Labour the 1951 election - one of those rare occasions when a welfare state issue can clearly be seen to have influenced a general election result.

The NHS was said by Iain Macleod in 1958 to be "out of party politics" with the exception of "recurring spasms about charges". But you would not have thought so if you had been in Whitehall in the mid-1950s when a whole range of schemes from new charges to a switch to an insurance base were considered; or in Parliament in the early 1960s when Enoch Powell was health minister; or in the Department of Health in the late 1960s, when even Crossman considered hospital boarding charges; or if you had been at Selsdon Park in early 1970 when Heath's shadow Cabinet briefly considered partially switching the NHS to an insurance-based system.

Education, after more or less a decade of progress and relative consensus around Butler's 1944 Education Act, was by the mid-to-late 1950s a subject of increasingly furious debate over the educational and social impact of grammar schools and selection - a piece of history from which those now wanting to push hard for a return to selective schooling might do well to learn. And by the late 1960s and the first of the "Black Papers", education was into a roller-coaster ride over standards, teaching methods and organisation from which it has yet to emerge.

Equally, if a day does not go past now without at least one gloomy reference in the broadsheets to the likelihood that the rising numbers and costs of the elderly will break the bank, the issue is scarcely new. The Phillips committee back in 1954 fretted about that and recommended that retirement age for women should be raised to 65 - something that Mr Lilley is now, 40 years on, implementing. And if there are furious arguments today over whether the poor are getting poorer - and the latest evidence is that they may not be, despite the fact that there are a lot more of them amid Britain's widening inequality - then the claim that "the poor are getting poorer" was first made not under the Tories but by Harold Wilson's Labour government in 1969.

If the welfare state's story is stormier - and a lot more entertaining - than is casually remembered, however, that should be cause for celebration rather than alarm. Anything worth having - or getting away from if you believe its influence has been all pernicious - is worth a fight. And many battles from the past contain lessons for today.

For while this month will be coloured by 50th anniversary celebrations of the biggest single achievement of the 1945 Labour government - the creation of the welfare state - it is already clear that with John Major still clearly in the sights of the more determined sections of the Tory right, the next election or soon afterwards will mark the biggest contest to date over its future.

With Tony Blair having consciously donned the mantle of "One Nation" Toryism, it is already evident that the real divide now is not between Labour and Conservative. It is the divide within the Tory party which matters - because there the fault line on welfare runs almost as deep as it does over Europe.

For a Conservative Party led by Kenneth Clarke, with his oft-repeated belief in well-run state education and health and a decent safety net for an agonised "middle England", would differ in detail rather than definition from Tony Blair's view of what the welfare state should be. Contrast that to John Redwood or Michael Portillo's vision of privatised welfare and a disengaged state and it is plain that under their future only the stringiest of safety nets would remain. A giant leap back towards the five giants, at least in his critics' eyes.

Nicholas Timmins is public policy editor of The Independent. His book The Five Giants: A Biography of the Welfare State is to be published by HarperCollins on July .

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