The Welfare State: Have Things Changed?
We are always being told how different the world is from the world our fathers and grandfathers knew at the beginning of the century. That takes us back to the time when the Socialist Party of Great Britain began its activities. Nobody can deny that lots of things have changed, but just how much has the social system altered in those years? That is what the founders of this Party were concerned with. They looked on a social system in which the accumulated wealth was concentrated in the hands of a small minority, the propertied class; a world in which the workers’ life was harassed with poverty, unemployment, bad housing, pauperism and the threat of war.
The S.P.G.B, has always maintained that you can’t do anything useful with this social system: if you want something better it has to be a new social organisation, Socialism. Our opponents would not have this. They believed that, through social reforms, they could make things essentially different. These opponents, Liberal, Tory, Labour, have all had their chance to show, as the government, what they could do.
During the first years after the end of the second world war they found themselves largely in agreement in claiming the great change had already taken place, in the founding of what they called the Welfare State. This was to be the foundation on which would be built the progressively different and better state of affairs. Of course, they differed among themselves on some things, as the Opposition thought they could do better than the Government but they were all at first of one mind that poverty, unemployment and slumps had been abolished and deep foundations laid for something very fine to be built on afterwards. They were all agreed that slums were on their way out.
The Labour Party, being in office from 1945 to 1951, claimed that these six years were the crowning achievement of their political lifetime, the ripe harvest of all their strivings, the proof of how right they were and how wrong was the S.P.G.B.
But in the argument, Socialists always had and have one thing on their side: it is that nobody can prevent Capitalism from breaking through and showing itself for what it is. Let us look at some of the problems that were occupying the social reformers half a century ago, unemployment, slums, poverty, crime, war. They were all going to be abolished.
In the early years of the century there had been the British war with the Boers in South Africa, the war between Russia and Japan, trouble between the Powers and China, wars in the Balkans, and between Turkey and Italy; and a few years earlier, war in the Sudan, war between America and Spain and war between Turkey and Greece. Trouble was building up over Morocco and the Middle East. This belligerent chaos was accompanied by negotiations to settle the particular disputes; and to settle all disputes by international organisation through the Hague Court.
It all has a familiar ring. Nothing whatever has been solved. There have been two world wars and lots of smaller ones, means of destruction are vastly greater, and world tension is just the same as it always was. Everlasting peace talk, but no peace.
But how are things at home ?
Forced to admit this, the reformist will ask us to look at internal affairs, “the condition of the people” Well, let us do just that. There are now half a million unemployed, and the figure is officially expected to rise to 600,000 in the New Year. This is worse than it was fifty years ago, and the worst since 1945, though not nearly as bad as it became between the wars. True, we are assured by the Government (though how do they know) that things will later get better. But what has happened to the almost universal claim of ten years ago that the Keynesian-trained economists and politicians now knew how to manage things without those ups and downs of boom and slump?
Adding the dependents, there will now be a million people affected by unemployment, and this is not anything like the whole story.
The Annual Report of the National Assistance Board for 1957 shows that at the end of the year 1¾ million National Assistance payments were being made, and that, including dependents, there were nearly 2,400,000 people wholly or partly dependent on National Assistance.
This isn’t what the social reformers promised to do for us.
Most of the recipients of National Assistance are people too old to work. But they were all supposed to have been looked after by the Beveridge plan, the National Insurance Scheme enacted by the Labour Government. Yet in the House of Commons on November 11th, when the Labour M.P., Mr. Crossman, was showing why his own Party’s new scheme for additional pensions (and additional contributions) is better than the Government’s scheme, he declared that his Party’s objective “was to deal with the greatest social challenge to the welfare state, the existence of grinding poverty among old, retired people.” (Times, 12th November, 1958.) Has it a familiar ring? Of course it has. The phrase about the “grinding poverty” of the worker too old to work was being hawked round half a century ago by the late Lloyd George, the father of the first old age pension scheme in this country.
Surely not the children too ?
If the old are half-starving, at any rate the children are all bonny and well fed! But no, as the editor of the Manchester Guardian (21st April, 1958) was “alarmed” to discover. The evidence was provided by a report just published, carried out by the Population Investigation Committee.
“A quarter of all families with children under five in 1950 may have been unable to provide a diet fully adequate for the children’s growth. This is the alarming conclusion . . . ” (Manchester Guardian, 21st April, 1958.)
The Report, which was compiled with the help of local health departments, confirmed the conclusion of other investigations that “the poorest children were the shortest,” their growth stunted by under-nourishment. The Guardian could find no reason to believe that any changes since 1950 would have nullified the Reports’ conclusion. The reason for this inability to buy enough food was stated to be insufficient income just as it was 50 or 100 years ago.
Another benefit supposed to follow the reform of Capitalism was the progressive reduction and eventual elimination of crime. It has all gone according to plan, except that the progress has been upwards. The present Government is “going to do something about it,” and has been assured that the Labour and Liberal parties heartily approve of something being done. In the House of Commons on 31st October, the Home Secretary, Mr. R. A. Butler, had this to say:—
“Crime was increasing during the 1930’s, but during the war the figures took a sudden upward leap and in 1945 they were more than half as much again as in 1939. There were 478,000 indictable offences known to the police, or 11 per 1,000 of the population in 1945, against a figure of 304,000, or 7 per 1,000 of the population in 1939. . (Col. 496.)
Mr. Butler went on to say that “crimes of violence and sexual offences” have increased, as also the rate of crime among young men. He said, too, that the total number of offences in 1957 was about 13 per cent. higher than in 1956 and that in the London area figures were available for 1958, showing that in the first seven months there was “a continuing steep rise.”
And all of this has to be taken in conjunction with the comparison with the beginning of the century. Sir Sydney Smith, formerly of the Department of Forensic Medicine at Edinburgh University, pointed out three years ago that crimes in 1953, at 500,000; were ten times as numerous as in 1900 (50,000), and that crimes of violence had increased from 3,500 to 23,000. (Manchester Guardian, 18th February, 1955.)
And what of the slums? This problem has been solved on paper many times, but there are now about a million unfit houses and the number falling into decay each year has been recently estimated at over 100,000. The total is far greater than it was between the wars.
The list of unsolved social problems that were going to be solved by the reformers could be greatly extended— the cost of living about four times what it was at the beginning of the century, in face of the pledge of every government to keep it from rising; the increasing drunkenness and drug-taking; the industrial disputes that were going to be smoothed away by arbitration, yet the strikes go on and the number has been increasing in recent years.
And, to go back to the basic question, the accumulated wealth of the country is still concentrated in H.
(Socialist Standard, December 1958)