Magazine article Soundings

Poor Law Britain

Magazine article Soundings

Poor Law Britain

Article excerpt

After the second world war and for many years afterwards it was widely agreed that the best way for society to care for its elderly, children, sick and poor was through the welfare state. But since the 1970s this idea has come under attack from all sides: we can't afford it, we don't like the nanny state, welfare creates dependency, we want more choice, we are in thrall to producer interests. These sentiments have allowed the right to tap into working-class anti-authoritarianism, to set the respectable against the feckless, and generally to undermine the principles of collective or mutual provision for security - or for collectivism of any kind. New Labour, while restoring funding to many of the services that had been completely run down by Thatcher and her successors, largely went along with this litany of complaints. And in the mean time its authoritarianism lent further disenchantment to the state, while in the public sector it mistook accountancy and audit for accountability, thereby exacerbating people's sense that services were unresponsive. Far from contributing to a renewal of public confidence in the public sector, it helped pave the way for the current assault.

The attacks on the welfare state do have some basis in reality, but the solutions that have been offered have ignored the problems it sought to address - namely that, historically, neither genteel philanthropy nor market magic have ever been able to meet the basic needs of large numbers of people. While it is undoubtedly true that the state will rarely compete with the loving care offered by friends and family, it is also the case that it is the best means we have of combining our resources together to provide a network of security for the times when we need help. The big society will never step up to take the place of state provision, and the market will never offer security to all. David Donnison's article in this issue points to the problems that remained when a new professional class took over the prewar gentry's roles of supervising local schools and hospitals and providing poor relief. But his answer is not that we should go back cap in hand to the gentry, but that we should find ways of making services more democratically accountable. What is needed is new thinking on mutuality, and ways in which the state can develop more responsive forms of care - with the state understood as a kind of reciprocal/democratic embodiment of our human responsibility for each other's welfare.

Historically, whenever the economy has failed to produce enough employment for those who want to work, there has arisen a general bemoaning of the fecklessness of the workshy while benefit dependency has been wheeled out as the main cause of worklessness. New Labours major contribution to this theme was the myth of the million who unjustifiably live on incapacity benefit. Steve Griffiths demolishes this myth - first by tearing apart the tendentious single piece of 'research' on which all adherents of this view base themselves, and secondly by comparing benefit statistics with health statistics, which show that one part of the state is denying the evidence of sickness clearly supported by another. The notion of a dependency culture - that need is caused by a flaw in the nature of the individual, rather than resulting from sickness, age or external economic circumstances - is perhaps the most pernicious aspect of current thinking on welfare. …

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