First published in Huffington Post
Over the festive season, as I fattened myself on its culinary indulgences, I also tucked into two fascinating and agreeably slim publications. While I would differ with the authors of each, they were good pointers, respectively, to understanding the welfare state past and present, and to how we might rethink the politics of community. Michael Ward’s Beatrice Webb: her quest for a fairer society and Kevin Harris’s Picnic: order, ambiguity and community had much to offer those of us interested in escaping the ghosts of the past, and to begin to argue for a new relationship between state and society in 2012.
Ward is not just interested in telling us about the author of the Minority Report to the Poor Law Commission – the document widely regarded as the blueprint for today’s welfare state. He also, by reviewing what she and its architects set out to do, helpfully outlines its defining features and points to some of its related ongoing problems, too. While he is clearly an admirer of Webb’s and a defender of the welfare state, his contribution to the debate suggests that welfare reform might not be nearly enough. He begins with what he describes as the seven core elements of the welfare state: the contributory or insurance-based benefits such as pensions, sickness and unemployment benefit; and a commitment to full employment, a commitment which was ‘at the heart’ of the welfare state, and upon which the system of benefits would depend. But it wasn’t long before money was being ‘doled’ out rather than being earned through insurance-based contributions.
Indeed, it was the removal of this commitment, the continuation of universal, non-contributory benefits such as child benefit, and the ever-increasing burden of non-contributory, discretionary means-tested benefits in the depressed inter-war years, and today, that put an end to the welfare model as originally conceived. The ‘top ups’ to pensions, family allowances, etc have become its mainstay, and continue to bring into question the future of the welfare state not just as it is currently constituted, but in its very foundations. The provision of comprehensive education and health services free at the point of access, and of social care for children, older people, and people with disabilities or mental health needs, seem continually beset by scandals over standards. With the possible exception of Ward’s final element, the free provision of a number of goods and services according to need e.g. school meals for children, and free prescriptions, public travel and winter fuel payments for the over 60s, the only point of agreement today is that things need to change.
But until about a quarter of a century ago there was a broad welfare consensus, that would perhaps surprise us today. Welfare’s champions included Winston Churchill. He was responsible for the establishment of labour exchanges, forerunners of today’s Job Centre Plus. This Tory hero (though a Liberal minister at the time) declared, sounding more like a state socialist, that ‘the State should increasingly assume the position of the reserve employer of labour’. Indeed, he and fellow-minister Lloyd George, competed to claim responsibility for the national insurance model. To add to the confusion, Webb was a social conservative, supportive of child benefits so long as the mother ‘devote herself to the care of her children, without seeking industrial employment’. But there were differences too. Webb was opposed to the shift from trades union-based insurance, while, ironically, the labour movement were supportive. Says Ward, Webb ‘did not want to see the state in competition with unions for the money of the workers’. But it wasn’t just this. The ‘moralist in Beatrice’ also baulked at the unconditionality, the lack of an incentive to work, that she felt this would imply. Nevertheless, the principle of ‘less eligibility’ lived on.
Originally aimed at those who might think the workhouses an attractive proposition, it continues to deter the work-shy and the migrant from those allegedly generous benefits. Webb and her fellow founding Fabians were not radicals of course, ‘their links were with the Liberal imperialists, or Limps’, says Ward. They ‘had no prejudice against our views of social reform’ remarked Webb in her diary. Moral imperialism knows no bounds, after all, as today’s Limps amply demonstrate. Indeed, for Kevin Harris, even the humble picnic was once a pastime with imperial overtones.
Community is presented as the ‘endangered panda of our social impulse’, he argues. Not only by those who take fright at its prospects, but also in the ‘living-memory images peddled by the nostalgia industry’. ‘Our politicians and journalists invite us to do penance’ says Harris, ‘before the curling monochrome prints of streets where doors were always left open and everyone knew everyone else’. In reality, there was somewhat less of a social consensus when compared with the welfare one reached by the political class.
Harris’s rather unseasonal interest in the picnic is as metaphor for community. He is not interested though, in the uses and abuses to which picnic as vehicle is put. Indeed the tourism-led contrivances and politically prescribed spectacles of community, rightly come in for some criticism too. ‘Picnic is an exercise in portable sociability’ he says. Here, community is ‘in the gathering, it is not apparent until people mingle and spread the rug’. His is more than another contribution to the crowded literature on community development, it is too critical for that. Indeed, in its few short pages this delightful little object of a book, featuring illustrations by Gemma Orton, ventures into a history of the picnic, taking in Wordsworth and street parties along the way. While this makes his account all the richer, it is also where I begin to differ with Harris.
For one, he doesn’t seem to much like the Victorians, not least for not mucking in (that was for the servants) or entering into the spirit of things. I can’t help but like the Victorian appetite for ‘order’ and their sense of occasion, even if they were a little uptight for contemporary sensibilities. Harris is rather fonder of ambiguity. Also, despite his description of the increasing numbers of people newly able to transport themselves (by train, then by car) to the countryside, in the pursuit of picnicking pleasures, he isn’t entirely taken with what it meant to picnic when the nation was living off the spoils of Empire. The humble picnic became ‘a way of partaking in and asserting this extraordinary sense of dominance over the planet’ , he argues. In this sentence Harris collapses a distaste not only for colonial conquest, but of mastery of nature too.
His enjoyable musings on picknicking nevertheless leave the reader with some questions to answer. Is community as ‘contributory picnic’ really enough? While, like a picnic, it does ‘entail a little trouble and enterprise’, that we ‘invest something of ourselves and allow others to have a claim on the common result’ implies something more substantial and longstanding is at stake. The grass is already beginning to spring back’, says Harris, of the fleeting sense of community that picnicking necessarily entails when everybody goes there separate ways. But why celebrate the ephemerality of picnicking? Community, surely, needs to have more staying power?
While I share Harris’s optimism for the future of community, and am struck in Ward’s account by the comparative confidence and ambition of yesteryears political classes; I hope in 2012 that the grass doesn’t spring back, and that communities are able to break free of their dependency on the welfare state, and to start building themselves anew.