Still entangled in Welfare’s Webb

Beatrice Webb: her quest for a fairer society was about the founder of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), at the LSE, featuring speakers from the LSE and the Webb-founded New Statesman.

While this was clearly going to be a rather cosy set-up, Michael Ward, Smith Institute Research Fellow and chairman of the Centre for Local Economic Strategies, at least started well. Webb’s Minority Report to the Poor Law Commission – the unofficial founding document of the welfare state – was ‘not a sacred text’, he said. Indeed, whatever can be said about Webb herself, any discussion of the welfare state should provoke some searching questions about its legacy. I remember learning, as a student of social policy how the welfare consensus ended somewhere towards the end of the 1970s, and yet still few ‘progressives’ really question it even today.

So David Piachaud, Professor of Social Policy at LSE – accusing the Webbs of racism against imperial subjects and naivety in the face of Soviet propaganda – seemed content to bad-mouth Beatrice rather than tackle the thorny issue of the welfare state itself. Ward put Piachaud right. Webb and her welfarist friends were very much of their pre-war, pro-eugenics time. As Ward explained, Webb was ‘no liberal on the issue of conditionality’ either. Those who rage against welfare reform in the noughties, and defend the welfare state as if it were indeed sacred, might be surprised to learn that Webb herself feared the consequences of just ‘doling out’ benefits without expecting anything in turn.

But, even as a critic of welfare myself, I have more time for those Fabian reformers than I do for their defenders today. While Piachaud described them, quite rightly, as ‘managerial and technocratic’, they at least had a faith in the pursuit of the good society. There was at least an ideal toward which they were advancing, which is more than can be said for the officious bean-counters of today. All that remains, for Stephen Timms, MP for East Ham and shadow minister for employment, is a ‘central role for the state’. To what end, other than to outsource the problem to the charity sector, he didn’t say. There is, said Jonathan Derbyshire, culture editor of the New Statesman, a ‘crisis of faith in the welfare state’. A point never really addressed by his co-panellists, but none the less pressing for that.

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