Tuesday Book: In the days before the dole

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The Independent Culture
THIS IS not just a book for history swots, although all but one of the contributors are academic historians. Each of the chapters tells a story which ends before the 1942 Beveridge Report, yet each is more than relevant to the present attempts at welfare reform. Indeed, there are a number of lessons here which even now it is not too late for the Government to learn.

Jose Harris's essay centres on the ideas underpinning reform and how their collapse, or absence, leaves welfare provision easy prey to attack. How come, asks Britain's most gifted social historian, that this country should end up with the most impersonal and bureaucratic form of welfare? After all, welfare was, for more decades than each of us is likely to live, delivered through face-to-face contact by what are now glibly called the organisations of civil society.

The answer is paradoxical. The 19th century Idealist beliefs of TH Green were not simply confined to an Oxford-educated elite. While some of the finer points may have been missing, the elite's foot-soldiers working in societies, statistical and social enquiry groups, as well as elected officers on school boards and Poor Law unions, were fully paid-up members of the believing brother- and sisterhood. The aim of their policy was to develop character, and this was the judgement to be made in offering welfare. The crucial consideration was whether the cause of independent citizenship was advanced or damaged.

What Harris does not do is explain completely why the views of "deliberative welfare" should have collapsed so easily, replaced by the growing principle of the ration-book economy. Perhaps there is no answer. But this essay, and that by AW Vincent, is vital to today's debate. The Government seems to believe, or at least half-believe, that welfare's end is a more independent citizenry - just as the Idealists did. But it has totally failed to will the means.

The Idealists knew that the organisation delivering welfare could be crucial. In hacking away at insurance benefits, leaving the expansion in pensions to the private market, and pushing an even greater number on to means tests, the Government does not stand a chance of achieving the stated objectives.

Vincent helps in rehabilitating the Charity Organisation Society, a body reviled in left-wing demonology. He accomplishes this with style. Here was a major body dispensing welfare - providing it reinforced character. And character was not used as a moral means test but, as Harris reminds us, as a stimulus to independence and political emancipation. The irony here is that the COS methods are now once again in vogue. The New Deal advisers may dress differently from their Victorian predecessors, but their job is remarkably similar.

In her essay, Pat Thane shows her quality as a historian by gently unpacking one of Henry Pelling's provocative studies of working-class attitudes to welfare.

Pelling argued that the working class disliked state-provided welfare because it meant prying officials enforcing middle-class values, because they preferred the independence which came from membership of mutual societies and because of the belief that the state was run largely for the rich. Many preferred regular work and decent pay as the best means of achieving the good life. I wonder how long the endless rant about globalisation will keep this demand from resurfacing?

Working-class ownership of their own welfare state is one of the major themes developed by Noel Whiteside. She, more than anyone, has attempted to show that collective provision was delivered outside the state. A listening government would have simply lifted this body of work as the basis for selling stakeholder pensions.

Lloyd George was determined to establish the beginnings of the NHS. But friendly and mutual-aid societies were already delivering in this field. How could these bodies be kept in existence? Easy for a politician of Lloyd George's ability. Just use them as the backbone of the new service.

Long before any of today's politicians startled themselves by calling for a division between purchaser and supplier, Britain's mass welfare provision did just this. That was until Aneuren Bevin beat Herbert Morrison and persuaded the Attlee government to nationalise and take health services away from local control.

David Gladstone keeps the essays duly focused, so that the history is seen to be relevant to today's debate. Some write of Lloyd George as Gordon Brown's role model. In one key respect, Brown has to learn that part of his hero's brilliance in welfare was to raise the money through national insurance, which no one saw as a tax. The Chancellor's slips of tongue about the national insurance "tax" and his aligning of tax and national insurance thresholds (so doubling the 10p starting-rate) are mistakes that the old wizard would not have made.

The reviewer is Labour MP for Birkenhead and the former minister for welfare reform