The British welfare state has an impact on our lives on a daily basis and has been transformed since its initial developments in the early 19th century. I will be exploring the social, economic and political factors that led to the development of the British welfare state up to 1945, and I will assess the most dominate features at the time and those that are still prevalent within the current welfare system today. The historical origins of the British welfare state can be dated to Elizabethan times with the introduction of the Poor Law (1601) which dealt with welfare at a local level. This was the first instance where the government attempted to ensure that the poor had the means to live.
This continued until the impacts of the Industrial Revolution called for changes in the provision for the poor. From the late 18th century British society was being transformed through economic and industrial growth. There was a revolution in the use of land in the production of raw goods, and technological advances in the use of machinery and the manufacture of goods. The state allowed markets to operate freely without regulation. There was also a mass migration of people moving from towns to the cities seeking employment. Many of these people were dependent on employment within the factories and on the assembly lines.
Although there were many benefits from industrialisation on the economic front, urbanisation created a large concentration of people in many areas, his lead to major problems with health and housing. In addition, when jobs were no longer available, men were unable to support their families. The family unit was often broken with most fathers travelling many miles to their place of work. Many women and children were also forced to find employment as a result of being widowed and orphaned.
Poverty, unemployment along with many other social issues became a recognised problem within the new urban communities. In line with these economical and social changes there were also changes taking place within the political sphere. The growth of political democracy and ‘the centralisation of governmental powers’ (Pierson.C 2006, p16) led to more competition between the British liberal and conservative political parties in of the time. It could therefore be suggested that political forces helped to shape the welfare state.
It can be argued that developments in state welfare were a direct response to some of the problems generated by the changing nature for society through industrialisation and the social risks related to this. The Poor Law amendments (1834) meant that only those who were really in need, for example the poorest paid workers would receive support.
These reforms differentiated between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor. Individuals were expected to ‘submit to degrading and shameful procedures to receive any benefit..thus only the completely destitute, would be prepared to come forward for help’(Blakemore.K 2003, p42). The workhouse was introduced to force people to work in order to receive their benefits. This transformed public attitudes to towards poverty, whereby being poor and dependant of benefits became shameful and those receiving support were increasingly stigmatized.
Other laws were also passed such as the Factory Act (1883) which aimed to reform the working conditions of factory workers by ‘legally enforcing a ten-hour day and rules governing the employment of children’(Alcock.C 2006,p19). This Act especially focused on women and children, and also enforced health and safety regulations, in addition, employers had to comply with educational classes for employees during the working day. At this point, it is evident that although state involvement was limited because of the dominant liberal principals of the time. Yet, there were the beginnings of a new beauracratic approach in state intervention.
The Boer Wars (1880-1881,1899-1902) were fought between Britain and Holland as part of Britain’s empire building mission. The economic and human cost was evident following the two wars. Britain was faced with a country that needed rebuilding and a population that needed comfort and confidence from their leaders.
The wars also highlighted the extent of poverty and poor health within the unskilled labour classes which showed that there was a strong need for welfare reform. Following these wars, David Lloyd George and his Liberal Party enacted the National Insurance Act 1911 setting up a national insurance contribution for unemployment and health benefits such as sick pay and maternity pay.
The government introduced limited unemployment benefits, with old age pensions, and job centres available to help people find jobs, paid for by national insurance contributions and income taxes. Although this scheme was limited, it offered greater social welfare provision than the previous Poor Laws. However, benefits were subject to a contribution basis, and those benefits would run out once the contributions were used. ‘The scheme was not designed to provide widespread
relief in a period of mass unemployment’ (Hill.M 2006,p24). Although this act appeared to have some benefits, there were also many issues, and the majority of people were not able to could not cope financially without being able to work. Most of these policies remained in place throughout the first world war (1913-1918) and the Great Depression.
However, during World War I, Britain experienced conscription for the first time and this lead to changes within the workforce as many women took up employment in a range of roles to support the war effort ‘the beneficial effects of regular employment, longer hours and rising wages was offset by rapidly rising prices of essential goods’ (Thane.P 1996,p120). It can be suggested here that the effects of the wars called for immediate changes in the welfare state especially in relation to unemployment, health, housing and disability benefits.
The Labour Government of 1945, were determined to eliminate poverty, ill health, and social deprivation. Their social and economic policies were driven by the party’s own ideals and long-term objectives. William Beveridge was a government adviser to Winston Churchill. He filled his report and made recommendations about reforms to the provision of welfare. Beverigde based the principles of his report by seeking to ‘establish a unified universal social insurance social system’ (Thane.P 1996, p 232).
This led to the introduction of many social security schemes including the National Insurance Act 1946 and the National Assistance Act 1948, which dealt with sickness and unemployment benefits and retirement pensions. These acts and reforms formed the basis for the welfare state that has been accomplished over time. From the early 18th century, there was a mixture of factors that lead to the development of the welfare state in Britain. These reforms and developments in welfare provision were a direct response to economic, political and social changes taking place at the time. Welfare reform persists to change today within its current framework, and continues to respond to these factors which are often interlinked and constantly shifting.
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Goodin, R.E., & Mitchell, D. (2000). The Foundations of the Welfare State, Part I, London: Edward Elgar Publishers
Pierson,C. (1998) Beyond the Welfare State: The New Political Economy of Welfare (Polity Press)
Pierson,P. (2001). The New Politics of the Welfare State, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Thane, (1982) The Foundations of the Welfare State in Britain 1945-1960 (Longman)