Why Britain's Fallen out of Love with the Welfare State; This Family Receives [Pounds Sterling]30,000 in Benefits but Wants a Bigger House. Seventy Years after Beveridge, DOMINIC SANDBROOK Argues That, If We Are to Protect the Truly Needy, the Welfare State Needs Massive Reform
Byline: SATURDAY ESSAY by Dominic Sandbrook
SEVENTY years ago, with Britain locked in battle against the armies of Nazi Germany, one of the most brilliant public servants of his generation was hard at work on a report that would change our national life for ever.
Invited by Churchill's government to consider the issue of welfare once victory was won, Sir William Beveridge set out to slay the 'five giants' of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.
When his report was published at the end of 1942, it became the cornerstone of a welfare state that supported its citizens from cradle to grave, banishing the poverty and starvation of the Depression, and laying the foundations for the great post-war boom.
For years the welfare state was one of the glories of Britain's democratic landscape, a monument to the generosity and decency of human nature, offering a hand up to those unlucky enough to be born at the bottom.
Seven decades on, however, the British people seem to be falling out of love with Beveridge's brainchild.
According to a YouGov poll for Prospect magazine, a staggering 74 per cent of us think that the Government should slash benefits. Young and old, Labour and Tory, rich and poor: every single social group believes it is time to cut back.
As the pollster Peter Kellner points out, such public unanimity is almost unprecedented. And what's more, 69 per cent believe our welfare system has 'created a culture of dependency', and that 'people should take more responsibility for their lives and families'.
On the face of it, such findings are not surprising. At a time when ordinary families are struggling to make ends meet, people are bound to resent those who seem to be getting something for nothing.
Only two days ago, the Mail carried the story of Dr Barbara Longley, a welfare cheat who fraudulently claimed more than [pounds sterling]100,000 in benefits while secretly holding an NHS pension and owning a Spanish holiday home. And with similar stories appearing almost every week, it is little wonder so many people shake their heads in angry disbelief.
Even so, the turn against welfare is unprecedented. In previous times of austerity, public attitudes have always remained remarkably generous. Even in the straitened late Seventies, for example, seven out of ten people told pollsters they would like to see higher taxes to pay for higher social spending.
THE truth is that we have reached a watershed. Seventy years after Beveridge's landmark report, the British people appear to have lost confidence in the welfare state.
The current system has become bureaucratic, sclerotic and ineffective, trapping thousands of people in a cycle of dependency. New ideas and a new approach are long overdue.
The irony is that Beveridge himself could never have foreseen how welfare would look in the 21st century. For even when he wrote his famous blueprint, he was looking backwards.
His mission was to eradicate the grinding poverty of the Hungry Thirties, when three out of four people in some industrial towns were out of work, when thousands of children suffered from disease and malnutrition, and when rickets, dental decay and anaemia were widespread in inner cities.
And to his credit, Beveridge's system was an overwhelming success. Thanks to Clement Attlee's post-war Labour government, institutions like the National Health Service, as well as innovations such as national insurance, transformed the lives of millions.
Yet like so many top-down initiatives, the welfare state gradually became a gigantic exercise in Whitehall empire-building. The figures tell the story.
When Attlee left office in 1951, we spent just [pounds sterling]700 million a year on welfare (not including health and pensions), which amounted to 4.7 per cent of Britain's GDP. Yet in 2011 we spent a whopping [pounds sterling]110 billion a year, which works out at 7. …