After fifty-five years of the welfare state in Britain, what assessments can be offered on its success or its failure

Upon answering this question, I decided that the most effective way to find out whether the welfare state has been a success or a failure was to look at what its basic aims, were when the reforms were implemented, and whether these aims have been carried out successfully or not. However, in addition to this, there are other factors to be taken into consideration when trying to gain the true answer. Like most initiatives, the welfare state has had its high points and low points since its birth, times when it has been successful and others when it has not.

This has a lot to do with different governments being in power, with the ideologies of both the Conservatives and Labour being a prime example of the different views regarding the welfare state and what sort of role it should play. I will attempt to highlight these differences whilst also looking at aspects of British society like housing, employment and health. Hopefully this will allow me to adequately gauge whether the welfare state has been a success or not. The basic aim of the welfare state was that poverty, like the kind people suffered in the inter-war period, should never return to haunt Britain again.

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The Beveridge Report was the catalyst for the welfare state and it dominates the literature chronicling this era. 1 In the report he promised that the ‘five giants’ – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness would receive a lot of attention2 in a bid to make Britain a thriving and healthy society. The people of Britain were also told that they would receive ‘security from the cradle to the grave’ with3 Briton’s being guaranteed a basic income, housing needs and also a good standard of health, even in times of unemployment. This security was to be provided in the form of many new initiatives, initiatives that following generations have taken for granted, like the National Health Service and National Insurance. 5 The Labour party were in control for the start of the welfare state, with most of the reforms being implemented in the aftermath of their convincing 1945 General Election win. 6 This was the start of the period that could be seen as the classic phase of the welfare state, a phase that lasted into the 1970’s.

The echoes of mass poverty from the 1930’s were still fresh in the memories of the people of Britain and it seemed to most that in order to gain the best possible standard of living, ie. Good health, education and employment opportunities, state control was the best way forward. 7 The implementation of the National Health Service Act came about in 1948 and was the brainchild of the Minister of Health at that time, Aneurin Bevan. 8 This was the beginning of the National Health Service, a service that today we are still enjoying the benefits of.

However, the way in which the NHS has progressed and the problems it has faced is a good example of the way in which the welfare state, on the whole, has evolved through time and how it has faced the challenges put to it. There are good points and bad points to be found when looking at the National Health Service with some era’s contributing more than others, with regards to the amount of success achieved. There can be no argument that it has been advantageous to Britain on the whole, with the basic facts showing this.

It offers everyone the right to be cared for9 and differs from e. g. social security, as this is only available to people regularly making contributions through schemes designed to make sure that they don’t suffer poverty in times of ill health or sickness. 10 In addition to this, we can show the levels of infant mortality, a popular example of the progress of welfare in Britain11, when trying to ascertain success or failure. The facts are very positive with the rates falling from fifty-six to nine deaths per thousand through the years 1940 – 1985. 2 Life expectancy and death rates rose and dropped respectively with the level of life expectancy showing the biggest change, increasing for both men and women, especially between the 1970’s and 1980’s. The figures for women show this, life expectancy rising from 73. 8 years in 1971 to 78 years in 1988. 13 The NHS, however, didn’t work miracles and the elderly have still suffered a great deal from cancer, strokes and heart attacks14 while for the younger generations a new threat has appeared – AIDS.

The government acted swiftly when this disease became known in the 1980’s15 and there are still many poster campaigns today warning people of the consequences of the disease and the best precautions to take in order to guard against contracting it. Has the NHS, though, been totally successful since its birth? The basic health of the nation is better, but there are other factors to be considered when studying this.

There has in the past been three reorganisations in 1974, 1982 and 1988 respectively while some sceptics will say that the only reason for the health of the nation getting better was due to the fact that pre-war trends were continued. 16 In addition to this the length of waiting lists was also a cause for concern for many governments. Indeed, one of Tony Blair’s early pledges after gaining power in May 1997 was to cut the NHS waiting lists by 100,000 patients.

However, increasing demand has led to a re-think with the Labour party now committed to making sure that there are no more increases before the next general election. 17 With technology growing at a fast rate and the medical equipment used, changing all the time, there has been an increase in expenditure needed for the NHS, in order for it to offer the best possible service to the people of Britain. 18 This factor hit the Conservative governments of the 1980’s and 90’s hard, as they were forced to introduce cuts in a bid to stabilise the increasing level of expenditure.

This included cuts in the number of beds available, longer waiting lists and an increase in both dental and prescription charges. 19 Overall the NHS has been successful to a point but it seems that at this moment in time, it isn’t the working class that are gaining most from it, it is the middle and upper classes. 20 There are only a small number of working class people that could afford to receive private treatment while the middle classes can generally afford to utilise both depending on what suits better. 1 The NHS was set-up in a bid to gain equality and is the so-called, ‘cornerstone of the Welfare State’22, and the problems it has faced show, to some extent, those faced by Britain in trying to make the Welfare State a success. Housing and education are two other very important areas of society with regards to British welfare, a fact obviously not lost on Beveridge and the governments of the last fifty-five years, when you look at the role that both housing and education have played in the evolution of the welfare state.

But what evidence should be looked at with regards to the welfare state and how successful it has been? The plan, in the case of housing, was that there should be a good allocation of basic houses at viable prices. 23 However, housing was probably the trickiest of policies to introduce when you take into consideration the fact that private property was involved. 24 In the post-war era, both public and private houses were built and this trend continued into the 1970’s and 1980’s although by this time the number of private houses to council houses five to one.

In addition to this, the tenants of the council houses were given the opportunity to buy the houses, at a discount price, after a certain period of time. This was made possible through the introduction of the Housing act of 1980 and the Housing and Building Control Act of 1984. 26 However, although there has been obvious improvements with regards to the housing situation in Britain, there are still some downsides that have to be taken into account. Homelessness has been a major problem with the figures showing this.

It was calculated, in 1989, that there were approximately 40,000 families without a home,27 and anyone walking the streets of cities like Glasgow and London at night will see that homelessness is still a big problem in today’s society. It has been said that education reforms during the period of the welfare state have been of more benefit to the working classes than any other class due to the introduction of comprehensive education for all. 28 This could be seen to be true especially in the times of labour power as they continued to commit themselves to this comprehensive education while not undermining the role of private schooling. 29