Monday 16 February 2009

From the workhouse to welfare...

In 1909, Beatrice Webb put a radical new idea into the political mainstream: that the poor were not primarily to be blamed for their own poverty and that citizenship was meaningless if we did not accept a collective role to ensure a basic minimum for all. Her 1909 Poor Law Minority Report stands as a landmark, not merely for its argument for abolishing the hated and feared workhouse but for its advocacy of the universal health and education which we now take for granted.

This argument was made a great popular cause by William Beveridge, a young researcher for Webb in 1909, in his famous report of 1942 and they can claim equal credit for laying the foundations of the welfare state.

1909 was also an important moment in the participation of women in British politics: Beatrice Webb should be seen as one of the early heroic Labour women. Her achievement is all the more astonishing given that in 1909 the all-male parliament was yet to make up its mind about whether women could be trusted with the vote.

It is striking that the rival Majority Report was also led by a woman, Helen Bosanquet, who was a leader of the Charity Organisation Society and Beatrice Webb’s chief antagonist. Bosanquet fought Webb on every question, insisting that any state responsibility would undermine the role of charity and fearing that abolishing the workhouse would reward the feckless poor.

Unfortunately we still hear echoes of the arguments of 1909 in our media and political debates today. Of course it is a positive development that Labour’s opponents now admit that poverty exists and have moved on from the 1980s when the Conservative Government claimed that poverty had been abolished, even as child poverty tripled. But not far beneath the surface, the traditional right wing idea that the welfare state was a mistake that crowded out the charitable impulse still surfaces. And if the politicians prefer to present this as a shiny new ‘compassionate conservatism’, supportive media commentators will more often openly champion this pre-welfare state idea of self help and reliance on charity. The reasons that argument failed and made the welfare state necessary in the first place seem to have been forgotten. There’s too much of a whiff of nostalgia for the workhouse in some of the thinking on the right today.

We are launching a new pamphlet this week: a collection of essays commemorating 1909 and drawing out its lessons for today. It reminds us that we can be inspired by the ideas of the past; but also that we have to come up with our own ideas for our own times.

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