Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Before welfare: lessons from history

Today is the centenary of the 1909 Minority Report on the Poor Law: a moment when many of the arguments of 20th century British politics began, with its call to replace poor law relief with universal public services as part of our common citizenship.

As Ed Wallis posted yesterday, we are marking the occasion with a new collection of essays from historians and political writers, and a centenary conference at the LSE on Saturday.

A letter in today's Guardian draws contemporary lessons.


Poverty debates today contain too many punitive echoes of the fierce arguments put by defenders of the poor law a century ago. We call on politicians of all parties to remember the key insights set out in the minority report, and the debate it stimulated, in efforts to tackle poverty today: that we have a collective duty to ensure a basic minimum for all; that charity, while important, can never guarantee this on its own; and that tackling poverty must both support individual efforts and address the wider social and economic causes, not retreat to simply blaming the poor for their own poverty.


This morning's Woman's Hour discussion on the legacy of the workhouse, with Sarah Wise, who has written extensively on 19th century poverty and the workhouse, and Pat Thane, professor of contemporary history at the LSE, can be heard on the BBC website.

If you want to know more about this, Tim Horton's guide to the minority report offers a good starting point as to its argument and influence on political ideas and welfate history. My introduction to the new Fabian collection, which addresses the contested reputation of the Webbs, can also be read on the Fabian website.

There are campaigning lessons from 1909 too. In a piece on movement politics: a century ago for Liberal Conspiracy and a centenary commentary on LabourList, I argue that the left which got us the Beveridge settlement was different from the left which lived off it.

Indeed, Beatrice Webb provided perhaps the best argument as to what the new 'movement politics' of the internet age matters, in her diary in 1909:


October 3rd 1909 - Winston and his wife dined here the other night to meet a party of young Fabians. He is taking on the look of the mature statesman – bon vivant and orator, somewhat in love with his own phrases. He did not altogether like the news of our successful agitation. ‘You should leave the work of converting the country to us, Mrs Webb, you ought to convert the Cabinet’. ‘That would be all right if we wanted merely a change in the law, but we want’, I added, ‘to really change the minds of the people with regard to the facts of destitution, to make the feel the infamy of it and the possibility of avoiding it. That won’t be done by converting the Cabinet, even if we could convert the Cabinet – which I doubt. We will leave that task to a converted country’

1 comment:

Lumpencommentariat said...

Our modern welfare institutions are still too often divide rather than unite the poor and the middle.