The Five Giants: A Biography of the Welfare State, By Nicholas Timmins, Harper Collins Pounds 25 0 00 255388 0
Jad Adams welcomes a history of the welfare state which dispels some popular myths. Biography is an odd name for a history of anything but an individual, and even in the introduction to this book Timmins does not explain it.
Quite the opposite, he tells us that as a journalist working in this field for The Independent he was urged to write, "a good modern history of the welfare state" which would be called The Five Giants, echoing William Beveridge's immortal incantation against "five giants on the road to reconstruction" of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. This is what he has done.
Timmins's "instinctive sympathy" for the welfare state wins him Brownie points in my estimation; as does his declaration that one motivation to write the book was anger at the sight of the homeless in London. But neither feeling qualifies him as an even half-way objective historian.
It is refreshing, therefore, to find that this book slays two mythical giants of its own: the belief that the welfare state was the creation of the Labour Party, which thereafter nurtured it lovingly while the Tories attacked it; and the notion that the welfare state is currently celebrating its fiftieth birthday.
The welfare state was not founded by the post-war Labour government, nor even the Liberal William Beveridge, but by Lloyd George and Winston Churchill in the l905-1915 Liberal governments. Nor is it true that the Beveridge Report was supported by Labour but excoriated by the Tories. Some Labour leaders, Bevin included, were against it, while Tories like Quintin Hogg welcomed the reforms. The phrase "from the cradle to the grave" was Churchill's own. Attlee did not start to use the term "welfare state" until the 1950 election.
The wartime coalition government, in the person of the (Labour) Home Secretary Herbert Morrison, accepted half the recommendations of the Beveridge Report, but fell victim to a successful Labour revolt calling for full implementation.
After his report, Beveridge was ostracised from Whitehall for the way in which he had courted publicity, while the civil service got on with the job. Government white papers on housing, health, employment and education came out under Churchill's coalition. There was actually a "white paper race" with the government dashing to get its Employment Policy paper out before Beveridge's personal effort, Full Employment in a Free Society.
Education reforms and family allowances were drawn up by the Conservatives and implemented by Labour. Housing and health reforms were drawn up by Labour and implemented by the Conservatives. There was no Conservative opposition to Jim Griffiths' national insurance legislation.
If the health service was Aneurin Bevan's, the Education Act was no less Rab Butler's, and in both cases the spending monolith of national government smashed down the vested interests opposed to reform. The hospitals, which had long been pleading for state funds as they failed to balance their books, could not hold out against effective nationalisation, and the consultants were bought off with "merit payments" still called Bevan's gold. The church schools, likewise an impediment to a national education system, were similarly bought off by Butler's contributions to the restoration of their dilapidated buildings.
The misgivings which did exist in the mid 1940s were about whether Britain could afford the sort of spending the welfare state entailed; its desirability was not questioned.
Financial hedging started immediately, with the government defeating a move for equal pay for women teachers in the Education Act. Nursery and technical education was provided for in the Act, but was not compulsory. Down the same hole of desirable but not affordable went insurance for "housewives" and benefits for carers.
What was new about the post-1945 welfare state was its comprehensiveness. The old welfare system devised in the first decades of the century was designed to help the working class in periods of sickness and unemployment. Beveridge aimed at covering the entire nation with health and unemployment insurance.
What the new reforms did most importantly was not to help the poor but to help the relatively well-off: to liberate the middle class from their curse of payments for health, education and comprehensive insurance, and thus free up their creative and entrepreneurial potential.
In the Thatcher period it was in the interests of the government to play down the Tory contribution to the welfare state: an attack on its institutions was easier if it had never entirely been trusted. The opposition liked to give the impression it alone had valiantly supported social spending in all its manifestations, so Labour went along with this deception. In fact the principles of all the parties found expression in the welfare state: it was Thatcherism which was the bizarre aberration.
The book benefits from being written by someone who saw recent developments at first hand, though unnecessary contemporary references throughout betray Timmins's calling as a journalist, as do a plethora of unsupported quotes, and an unfortunate addiction to feeble word-play with people's names. Thus: "the two Olivers, Lyttelton and Stanley"; "the two Kenneths, Clarke and Baker . . . the Kens"; "Dick Crossman and Anthony Crosland. In practice . . . as contrasting a pair as Bevan and Bevin". Do these remarks add to our understanding, or even our entertainment?
Still, this is a well-researched book, and it is useful to have all basic information on the subject (both the dry and the juicy) in one place. This is not the only recent work to cover the field - Rodney Lowe and Michael Hill have both written on the same period - but if anyone is able to read only one book on the subject, this should be it.