The history that is taught in our schools is misleading. As usual, the victors write history to suit themselves. Caesar wrote his own history to make sure that people got the ‘right’ view of him. The Communists wrote their own history in Russia and China. In western countries, the statists have won, to greater or lesser extents and they statists have written the history books.
The idea that something is utterly left out of our history is strange to us. We are brought up to believe what our parents and teachers tell us. But omissions from history verging on downright lies are not unknown even in advanced, democratic countries in modern times. When I lived in Japan in 1980- 81, there was a major diplomatic issue that divided Japan and China. It was nothing to do with borders, trade or ideology. It was an argument over history.
The Chinese were outraged at the way that history was taught in Japanese schools. The history of the second world war omitted to mention the Nanking massacre – an appalling episode. But if you were a Japanese student – even a well-educated and intelligent Japanese student – you would know absolutely nothing about it. It was simply not in the Japanese textbooks.
Something similar has happened in history as now taught in Britain. The story of non-state welfare has been left out
I have done a search of three books – two text books and one popular history – looking for this true story without success. Even a well-educated and intelligent student today would know nothing about it. A whole generation and more have been educated without this knowledge. I myself did ‘A’ level history. I then read history at Oxford. After those years studying history, I knew nothing about it.
The whole population now looks at the issue of the welfare state with the idea that however bad it might be, it must be much better that whatever preceded it. They have the impression that actually practically nothing did precede it except brutality and starvation. The misleading history has a serious result. It means that decent well-educated people mostly assume that there is no alternative to state welfare and never has been. They mostly think that anything else is harsh and cruel to the most unfortunate people.
Take education. Non-state provision was astonishingly impressive in Britain. There was an explosion of schooling in the first three quarter of the 19th century which took place with only a minimal amount of central government involvement. In 1818, the first comprehensive survey found that just under half a million children were at school. Only forty years later, the number had increased to two and a half million. In 1861, a government commission reported on what proportion of children were at school for an average of between five and seven years. The answer came back, 95.5% – and even that was probably an underestimate. In the first 60 years of the century, Britain went from being a country in which only a tiny proportion of children were formally educated to one in which almost all were. It was a sensational development and one which, if the story were told, would surely impress all who read it.
If this story were known, it could affect the way that people feel about private and charitably financed education. You can imagine the school essays about it, examining the fascinating fact that millions of parents were keen enough for the children to be educated as to pay or help pay for that education.
But what do British children know about this – even well-educated, intelligent ones? Let’s look at some of the text books on which they depend.
I bought this one, Britain 1783-1918 in a branch of Waterstone’s in central London. I was published by Collins, a well-known publisher. It is for students doing AS and A levels and boasts on the jacket that it is a revised and expanded version of an existing best-seller. This book is framing what young people know about the past.
What does it say about the fabulous flowering of schooling without the state?
Nothing. It is just not mentioned.
But, you may ask, is that because this textbook covering all the 19th century did not have room for education? Nope. It has room to mention the beginning of the major state take-over of education: the so-called Forster Act of 1870. And it has room to explain that the act was introduced because of ‘gaps’ in education. Unfortunately it does not have quite room enough to mention that the gaps were the mere 4.5% of children not going to school. It leaves the impression that the gaps must be major and appalling. It also did not have space to mention that non-state education was, in the words of E.G. West, the historian who has documented this story, advancing like a galloping horse.
Here is another textbook: An Introduction to 19th century history published by the distinguished old publishing house of Hodder and Stoughton.
What description does this one have of the sensational rise in numbers in education through the first three quarter of the 19th century?
None. Our intelligent, well-educated person can read this book from cover to cover. He or she still will know absolutely nothing about the story.
What about health? All around us in Britain there are reminders of pre-state healthcare. Go to Hyde Park corner in central London, just near to the garden of Buckingham Palace, and you will see very plainly on the wall of a grand white building the words, St George’s Hospital. Who created this hospital you might wonder? And why is it now a luxury hotel?
Well, it was created in a remarkable spurt of hospital building in the first half of the 18th century. It was one of five new general hospitals built in London in the course of thirty years. But that spurt of building was as nothing compared to what happened in the 19th century. In 1906 they took stock of what had happened. There were 550 or so hospitals for infectious diseases in the provinces. Out of these more than 400 had been founded since 1850. Non-state welfare created all the major teaching hospitals in London. In these voluntary hospitals, the leading doctors of the day would provide their service for free.
Many millions could afford to go to the voluntary hospitals because they subscribed to Friendly Societies. These provided health insurance. Friendly societies also enabled people to get to see doctors. But actually, regular doctors also saw one out of five patients for free. Medicine then was clearly and visibly a vocation.
Is this not a grand story of charity, mutual assistance in Friendly Societies and enterprise? Can you not imagine the trips to St Bartholomew’s, founded in 12th century, to show the painting that Hogarth contributed to it for free? He was like many other celebrities who, over the centuries, contributed generously to hospitals.
Let’s have a look at Britain 1783-1918, the best-seller designed for A level students. What does it say about this phenomenal growth in non-state provision?
Nothing. We draw a complete blank here, too. But is healthcare left out altogether? No, it is mentioned. But only to say that the country had “relied on voluntary and local authority hospitals” and then referring to the Second World War, “it was totally inadequate for wartime conditions”. From this remark, that hospitals, unsurprisingly were not designed for wartime conditions, it presumably draws the conclusion that, naturally, it was right and necessary that once the war was over, all hospitals should be nationalised. The reader is left to suppose that pre-state provision was just not good enough. That is a) not telling the big story and b) it is not true.
Incidentally, why is St George’s Hospital now a hotel? Because the National Health Service closed it. Or, to give the official version, the government “merged” it with some other hospitals. How many hospitals? At least ten. Yes, a lot of pre-state hospitals are needed to make one NHS hospital. There are hundreds fewer hospitals in Britain since the NHS was created.
What about An Introduction to 19th century history? What description does this give of the growth of healthcare provision prior to the state take-over?
Again, none at all. Instead the author talks a great deal about poverty. He makes great play of it and links it directly to industrialisation. He says that industrialisation increased poverty. No mention of how this was a century of vastly increased prosperity due to the industrial revolution. No mention of how this was the century in which common people started by wearing clogs and finished by wearing leather shoes. No. Grinding, demeaning poverty is the theme and it is linked to industrialisation. The sub-text is pretty obvious. Capitalism made people suffer. This is nothing better than anti-capitalist propaganda – whether self-aware or not. The truth is the very opposite. That capitalism in the 19th century transformed the wealth of the poor for the better.
What about welfare benefits or ‘social security’?
This was provided in four non-state ways before the state took over. First, there was self-help. Second there was the huge growth in friendly societies which provided insurance against unemployment and illness. Many also provided doctors or hospital facilities if you were ill. In 1892, six out of seven million industrial workers were members of friendly societies. And that is not counting members of trade unions some of which also, in those days, offered social and medical insurance.
Next there were family and friends who could provide support if savings and insurance or mutual help were not enough. This is ignored by most writers but it should not be. You only have to read the literature of the past to see how big a factor this was – even comedies like School for Scandal and dramas like Tess of the d’Urbervilles refer to family help.
Fourth, there was charity. This was enormous in the 19th century, to the point that charities found that they were falling over each other and had to organise themselves so as to avoid giving to the same needy person twice, three times or more.
None of this to say that welfare provision was perfect. But clearly non-state welfare provision was substantial and well-supported. In fact Beveridge, often (incorrectly) thought of as the founder of the welfare state, was a great admirer of it.
So what account of the friendly societies and charities is there in Britain 1783-1918? Friendly Societies are, indeed, mentioned. Their purpose is described, too. But no account is given of how big and important they were, let alone of the ‘social capital’ benefits.
How about in An Introduction of 19th century History? There is no account of the growth of the Friendly Societies. There is, however, a passage about the introduction of state social insurance in 1911. Two sentences here should get a prize for the most state-sceptic words in either of these textbooks: “The fact was that many working-class people had a well-founded distrust of State intervention which they saw as patronising and disruptive. Their practical experience of officialdom in such developments as the workhouse, compulsory education, slum clearance and vaccination had seldom been a happy one.”
Unfortunately, after this sudden outburst of home truths, the author then lapses back into “the state must be good for you” mode and patronisingly refers to how the working classes ‘initially’ opposed the Liberal Party reforms and how, in fact, these reforms created a “centrally organised administration capable of improving the living and working conditions of large portions of the British population”.
One last area: housing. The house-building in the 19th century was astonishing. From a specialist book on housing I discovered that despite the boom in population in Victorian times, the density of housing – the space per person – improved. There was also a great deal of low-cost housing promoted by philanthropists such as Octavia Hill.
What mention of this is there in these two books? On the massive house-building and the reduction in the density of housing, there is absolutely nothing. Octavia Hill is mentioned, in Britain 1783-1918 but no more. The same book goes on to suggest a failure by non-state provision that is totally misleading and outrageous: “Not for the first time, proper solutions seemed to be beyond the Victorians. It would not be until 1919 that the Government actually gave out money to build houses.”
The prejudice is clear. The author implicitly asserts that only the government could build houses in sufficient numbers. Actually, the story of house-building in Britain has shown the exact opposite to the point where even Labour governments have given up on state housing. The attempt by the government to monopolise house-building after the second world war was a disaster resulting in fewer houses being built. But again, the point is that the true story of tremendous house-building in the 19th century without the state is simply not told.
Similar stories of omission could doubtless be told in other areas of welfare including pensions and care for the elderly. But the history text books do not only ‘omit’ the true and remarkable stories of non-state welfare. They also reveal, openly or more subtly, their view – usually without any attempt to justify it – that non-state provision was bad and state provision good. Sometimes it is subtle, sometimes not.
This is from the Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750-1950,
“Half a century after the rest of Western Europe, England at last took to system-building in education.” (My italics).
And later, “efforts to bring government resource to bear had so far been hampered by the ‘religious problem’”. It is implicit that government control was desirable.
And later, the Education Act of 1870 is said, “At last”, to embody “a commitment to nationwide provision”.
So, serious academics can be quite subtle. But once it gets down to popular history – the sort that most will read – the misinformation, the statist prejudice and one might even say the lies get to be outrageous. This is from British History for Dummies. It is about the big increase in the scope of the welfare state introduced by the Labour Government, “Attlee said there’d be no return to the bad old days when, if you were too poor, you just starved”!
Now if you mislead people like that – I would be astonished if anything ever said by Attlee amounts to such an assertion – and it becomes part of the core belief of modern society, it is no surprise that educated people are resistant to cutting back the welfare state.
History books in Britain consistently leave out the huge amount of welfare provided before the state. This is done, I suggest, largely because the statists have won and they are writing the history. It matters a lot. If we are to have a good chance of sensible discussion about welfare, health and education people need to be educated about the truth of non-state provision.
I hope that perhaps someone reading these words may be – or become – a historian. If so, please write textbooks. Please get into setting and marking exams or writing the history curriculum. Try to bring an end to the censorship by statists of the story of non-state provision.
(The above is adapted from a talk given in 2007. The books cited may now be out of print or have been replaced by revised editions.)