How did the welfare state damage the character of the British people?

This is an article of mine which appeared in the Yorkshire Post.
MY FATHER used to tell my brother and I about his time serving in India during the Second World War. The Japanese army was advancing and looked likely to invade.
My father said that his greatest fear was that, if captured by the Japanese, he would be unable to hold out in the face of torture and might let down his comrades by revealing military secrets.
The way he thought about this reveals something about his generation’s mindset. For millions of people such as my father, duty towards others was one of their major concerns. The concept of duty – and honour – were strong.
But the British now tend to think in a different way. How many now are worried, above all, about their responsibilities to others? Some are, of course, and they can be heroic in caring, for example, for disabled members of their family. But more generally, there is now almost a national ethic of selfishness. The whole character of the British people has been revolutionised.
Why have we changed from being a society so law abiding that George Orwell wrote in 1944: “An imaginary foreign observer would certainly be struck by our gentleness; by the orderly behaviour of English crowds, the lack of pushing and quarrelling… there is very little crime or violence.”
He would be astonished if he returned today. In a recent survey by the Jill Dando Institute, fewer people in Britain than in any other major European country said they would confront a group of 14-year-olds vandalising a bus shelter.
I suspect this is largely because we are aware these days that there are some very dangerous 14-year-olds around.
There is an enormous contrast here: in 1931, during Orwell’s lifetime, there were three crimes a year for every police officer. By 2001, that figure had rocketed to 44.
Why has family life, too, changed beyond recognition? The big, extended family was very important in the 1950s.
Michael Young – who, incidentally, was the author of the Labour Party’s 1945 election manifesto – studied the way the working class lived in the East End of London. He was impressed by the many thriving, supportive, extended families. A woman shopped for her elderly uncle. The young were baby-sat by the old. Contacts between members of aunts, grandparents and cousins were frequent.
Now, in place of these vibrant, extended families, there has been an explosion of unmarried parenting. Often children go entirely without contact or support from the father’s side. And the mother herself may
also lack contact with her own father.
What has caused these massive changes in British society? The research I did for my book, The Welfare State We’re In, led me to think that, strange though it may seem, this transformation has been brought about largely by the development of the welfare state.
The welfare state was created, of course, with good intentions. It was meant to provide a safety net for the unfortunate. But, as an unintended by-product, it changed the way we live and the pressures which each of us feel in our daily lives.
Previously, we had powerful reasons to be good people.
Imagine yourself, for a moment, to be a working man living a century ago. You are almost certainly a member of a friendly society, like the vast majority of industrial workers. Being a member of a friendly society (there were hundreds of them) means that you have insurance against being unemployed or of becoming incapable of work.
Let’s imagine that you get sick. You are seen by a doctor employed by the friendly society, and then visited by other members.
These are people you see at meetings of the local branch of the society. They live nearby. If you need some help, they will willingly offer it.
But if they see you out in the garden, perfectly fit and well, they will know that you are cheating your fellow society members. You would be shamed in your own community. This represents a strong pressure on you to behave well and to be honest. It encourages a sense of responsibility and honour.
You are married. But note how you persuaded the young woman to marry you. She chose you with care because she knew that the state would not give her support if you turned out to be work-shy or irresponsible.
So she wanted a man who would be reliable and provide for any children you might have. To get this wife and have a family with her, you had an incentive to prove yourself a good, trustworthy man.
Over and over again, the absence of a welfare state left in place natural pressures on people to be decent. But the modern welfare state has taken many of these away. It has said to poorer women: “Don’t worry if the father of your children can’t provide; other taxpayers will.” It has said to men: “Don’t worry if you don’t feel too good, you can stay on incapacity benefit for years on end and we probably won’t know if you are working on the side.”
If claimants have lied, there is often no punishment and no public shame. People don’t really care if you cheat a whole nation’s taxpayers – not like they would care if you were cheating them and their friends personally.
The impact of the welfare state on the character of Britain is pervasive. There is not the room here to look at the effects of other parts of the welfare state: the keeping of alienated children at state schools; the discouragement to saving provided by means-tested benefits, now being enhanced by Gordon Brown’s convoluted and inefficient system of tax credits; and the impact of permanent mass unemployment – which has only existed since the introduction of the welfare state – on people’s morale and attitudes.
Yet these add up to powerful forces shaping our lives and changing our culture.
There are, of course, still some people who are marvellously kind and decent. But how many children being brought up today understand the culture and the way of thinking that led Admiral Nelson, on his deathbed, to say “Thank God, I have done my duty”?
To buy a copy of The Welfare State We’re In from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop for £12.99, call free on 0800 0153232. Postage and packing costs £1.95. Order on-line at

  1. Which influenced behaviour, the culture or the welfare state?
  2. The welfare state is not a uniquely British creation
  3. State schools damage the poor
  4. Throwing bricks at British firemen – an echo of the French riots
  5. The astonishing growth of Islamic, Evangelical and other faith-based, fee-paying schools for people who are not rich at all.
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3 Responses to How did the welfare state damage the character of the British people?

  1. PhilB says:

    You might be interested in this link which discusses the way that the planners of the 1960′s destroyed communities from someone who was on the inside …

  2. ben dean says:

    I think the erosion of certain values is more to blame on the dangers of undemocratic unfettered capitalism which arises from deregulation, privatisation and reducing taxation of the top earners. The resulting poverty and inequality seems to be quite irreversible as power has been shifted into private hands in a quite unaccountable and undemocratic manner. This results in excessive state legislation to remedy the breakdown of communities, which is doomed as it will never address the root cause- democracy has been undermined.
    It’s been a recurrent theme in history, the fluctuating nature of democracy. It will get worse and worse, until a certain point where the majority stands up for itself and forces the rich minority to level the playing field again. Then it starts all over again!
    Blaming the breakdown of certain values on the welfare state ignores the context of this argument, and is naive in the extreme. But it does make a lot of wealthy people live happily in denial as they can blame all the problems on the poor- ie shift the responsibility to the individual! Despite the fact that metaphorically speaking the individual is enslaved in a vicous cycle that he’she cannot do much about.
    But if it make you feel better, blame it all on welfare and the individual. Very nice.

  3. Martina Frankova says:

    I would not stress the role of the state so much. In our country, 17 years ago the communist regime was replaced by democratic governing. People in our republic were full of hope in “happy tomorrows without pain”. Of course, they turned frustrated and disappointed because life is full of pain and badness under any political rule. I think that everybody who puts their hopes into a political system will be ever frustrated.
    I do not think it is the state system what causes selfishness; maybe it supplies certain conditions but finally it is the people themselves who do or do not choose to play part in its game. I do not think that an individual or a family is only a weak toy in hands of powerful politicians. You are a human, which means you have a choice: to let yourself be manipulated or not to let yourself be manipulated.
    Lastly, I think good and evil are not just a matter of a concept, of a politician stream, of a church, even of a man. I think that there were also some good qualities of the Hitler’s personality while some bad qualities of the character of St. Francis of Assisi. Following this principle, I do not think that the system of welfare state would be all bad and some other concept (to your taste) would be all “the good”. Therefore, I do not accord with your idea to get rid of the welfare state – it is rather my style to “repair defects” than to make a revolution. Do you think the people will better, happier and will find the sense of their life easier? I call this simplicity although I am surely younger and less experienced than you.
    But thank you anyway for offering a space for discussion! :)
    M. Fránková, Czech Republic, a student teacher

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