In July of 1956, my new young husband and I, with two Scottish folksinger friends, were driving south after a year at a New England university. We stopped for gas in Alabama and asked the attendant, foolishly no doubt, where we'd find the singers we most admired in New Orleans: Leadbelly and others. "Oh, we got welfare for that," he grunted. Bemused, we went on our way. As recent beneficiaries of the new British "welfare state," we were in favor of "welfare." All four of us, if differently, had received free university education. Three of us had done two years of National Service, and I would have my first baby a year later on the National Health. Ten years after the end of World War II, we were sure some progress was being made toward greater equality, even some leveling of class difference and division. As it happens, we all came from backgrounds that represented pretty well the whole spectrum of class differences in the United Kingdom of the day.
I tell this story to illustrate a divergence in the histories of the United States and the UK when it comes to thoughts about equality and the different meanings of "welfare." The word still holds both of its historical meanings: well-being and charity. I have lived most of my adult life believing that it was the state's business to look after the basic well-being- health, education, pensions and so on - of all its citizens; and that charitable activity and giving should be directed primarily toward the poor in the rest of the world.
But the welfare state has been unravelling for years in the UK, and the unravelling is speeding up alarmingly at the moment. At last the Right has a justification for reducing the welfare state to the point of destruction. Cutting public services, we are told, is now essential and virtuous, in order to reduce the "deficit" caused by the extravagance and laissezfaire of the last government. In then-place, we are offered something called the "Big Society'' No one I know or have read has been able to tell me what this means. When Margaret Thatcher famously declared that there was no such thing as "society" in the 1980s, there were some Conservatives who winced. So perhaps this is an attempt by her descendants to retrieve the word for themselves, while inflating it. …