During my appearance on BBC Radio 5 Live this evening, one of the panelists argued that we should be “incredibly proud” of the welfare state and referred to its creation after the war.
One misconception about the welfare state which I hope is corrected in The Welfare State We’re In (as it is in any book that touches on the history of the welfare state), is it was created in one big revolution by the 1945-50 Labour Government. There was council housing, national unemployment insurance, free state education and national health insurance all before 1945. What is true is that the Labour government took it a big step further.
But what struck me more was the panellist saying we should be ‘incredibly proud’ of creating it. He was reflecting another misconception which appears less important but actually is more so: the idea that the welfare state is a uniquely British ‘achievement’.
It is extraordinary that many British people believe this.
I suppose the idea has been repeated here and there and no one has thought to challenge it. But a moment’s reflection tells us that it is absurd. Name the advanced economy with a democratic system which does not have a welfare state. Every country in western Europe has a welfare state. Even the USA, whom many in the media in Britain assume is capitalist in tooth and claw, provides government education and has welfare benefits for the unemployed and the ill. Some forty per cent of healthcare in the USA is paid for by government, too. Yes, all the welfare state from Sweden to Australia vary, but virtually all comparable countries have them. The welfare state is not a special British achievement.
Why is the idea that it is especially British dangerous? Because it calls in patriotism as a reason for believing that the welfare state is a ‘good thing’. The linking of patriotism and the welfare state is inappropriate and misleading.
One other historical note: our national unemployment insurance was created explicitly in imitation of the system in Germany. Lloyd George visited Germany to find out about the system there. Some of the details of his strange trip are in the book.