The whip of starvation was necessary, Sir William Beveridge occasionally believed, with the best of intentions, of course. The task assigned to Beveridge was not the glorious reimagining of the social contract he is credited with. If a mythology over the creation of the Beveridge report has sprung up, it has been used to heavily gloss over its legacy. Extraordinary in what was achieved, the flaws at the heart of his reports conception, defined the problems which undermined the welfare state throughout its lifetime. Those flaws laid the groundwork for the cruel excesses of the final two or three years of the neo liberal development of that settlement. The terms of the debate he defined shape the bulk of mainstream political discussion about welfare benefits and who they are paid through today.
The task that brought tears of disappointment to Beveridges eyes..
The task he was given was to chair an interdepartmental committee on the co-ordination of existing national insurance schemes. He did not conjure out of thin air the first benevolent strands of a welfare state. The idea that we could have 100% employment, the contributory principle underpinning the welfare state, and the belief ‘the safety net’ for the poverty he had anticipated would be a small addition to the system mythologised; all nonsense within years of the welfare state’s inception. Failure to question a rigid belief in standardisation, and rigid refusal to examine how how little poverty related to employment or moral failure, the source of many of today’s problem. The continued classification of those who fall out of the ‘deserving’ net, long after Beveridges system showed the poverty they experience is precisely because of exclusion from the part of economy that benefits from their welfare dependence and ignored it.
The Beveridge report was limited by what was politically possible, in the context of a scarred political, social and economic landscape transformed by the war, a settlement of some kind was demanded. Beveridge had an interest in poverty rooted in unemployment, and a belief that exhaustive research and detailed analysis was the key to planning. He told Beatrice Webb, he saw welfare as an economic tool to keep wages low enough for Britain to remain attractive to employers. Once this part of the economy existed, it could be used as a tool with which to manipulate the economy directly, partly allowing the Keynesian settlement, and propelling what came after.
The political usefulness of a tool marking out long term patterns of economic failure is limited, neo liberalism found other uses for welfare. Which the Tories expanded, and so did the Labour who came after. Both simultaneously undermined the collective political power of those opposing likely to be caught up in it or with the knowledge to oppose, demonised them, keeping the debate at the dance designed for a left living on nostalgia and organisations not wanting to jeopardise funding or political relationships.
The narrative of only the feckless few requiring a safety net outside the respectability of his contribution based system was never lost.
Ensuring those caught in the reality of what became the bulk of the benefits system he created, could be demonised or ignored at will long after ideas about 100% employment seem fanciful. The debate he set ensured no need for reality to contextualise political discussion, the culture around politics maintained it, long after married women were actually allowed to work in Whitehall.
The birth of the Beveridge myth
Whitehall swelled with the brain boost the war provided, and Beveridge’s use of the media to protect his report would have impressed the layer of spads and wonks ‘’managing the message politics’’ left to cushion Ministers and Mandarins in their stead. Women did not continue working in Whitehall after marriage, why would they? The Keynesian economic settlement was supposed to provide economic conditions which would produce planned for results. Results which wouldn’t materialise because of blind flawed assumptions and enthusiasms underpinning Beveridges report. The UK Keynesian economic settlement, was to turn out to be inadequate long term if we were to function in a global economy increasingly dominated by a US who thought we were special.
He created an economic and political tool so rigidly designed on flawed assumptions, it required labrynthine additions to inadequately reflect the society he compelled it to serve. Every child, every disability, every change in circumstances calculated to the penny. The children and disabilities always based on fantasy ‘averages’, the relationship to other parts or our economy recorded, understood, calculated meticulously. So it could be used properly.
He was rigorous about the need to treat the welfare state as an economic, and only as a by-product, a social tool. Blind to the understanding of how poverty corresponded with economic inequality, and was magnified on gender, and race, and age lines, or by geography in patterns tracking the consequences of our economic failure and the normal human lifetime. Both revealed for the first time by the welfare state. By the time welfare spending had transferred to the working population properly, wages could get low, and property prices high enough, that a life without it would to need to be insured by sharing it with someone who can afford to subsidise the exclusion gender, race, disability dependents and disabilities or recessions bring. Best left until you have saved enough for the deposit in the conditions that won’t allow you to get by. That this system would clearly illustrate economic patterns like never before has never been adequately credited. That the debate he defined would exploit those patterns and evermore demonise those bearing the brunt to do so, should be.
Instead of a re-evaluation, each ‘new’ need exposed by our statutory responsibilities was another rule, another benefit, another form. Every new department, an addition to a rabbit warren and a chance to fall outside the net of deserving. Endless bureaucracy without consideration for the level of control each set of rules brought about, paving the way for the commodification that marketization would require. Providing much of the basis for the reaction against the ‘statism’ of the welfare state Thatcher required. Blind bureaucratic inconsistency fuelled gross consistent error. The rate of which exploded when the entire welfare system started running to prevent a 1 or 2% rate of fraud.
That the economic system we chose would require structural unemployment, and be unable to accommodate those already pushed out of a labour market governed by the same blindness that afflicted Beveridge, was never incorporated into discussion. This had a toxic effect on the foundations of the welfare state and the political debate which would surround it for its lifetime. The wages did, as Beveridge knew they would, stay low, and became a smaller and smaller portion of the economy, trapping more and more people as the benefits system expanded.
Why Beveridge is at the heart of why women were always going to be disproportionately affected by the cuts..
Women didn’t work in Whitehall after they were married, so it is understandable that Beveridge was blasé about the sacrifice of ‘the married women. Knowing full well he could channel universal benefits and services through children and circumstances into these households anyway.
A partner to provide enough money not to need work, the dividing line marked out only when you needs supporting financially in the economic system the welfare system is part of, for yourself.
Lines of inequality intersect with traditional gender roles, community, race, disability, location, the needs of family… The compromise Beveridge made, when he sacrificed allowances for married women, was that we wouldn’t call wives ‘dependents’ in a system still under the misapprehension it was about working men, and occasional lapses in employment. Successive generations of working class women, have found that the economic conditions their gender leads to, result in the same thing that surprised Beveridge. Trapping them in the corrosive poverty the settlement was touted as the guardian angel from. At the root of why a housing benefit form still means your boyfriend better be able to produce his own council tax bill if he stays over visibly too often. And why the front benches on both sides, think equality and our sex lives are fair game.
Communities whose lives are caught in these bureaucratic webs after skilled ‘male’ work was outsourced by Thatcher, are often headed by women who ‘need to be taught to be better’ while government consistently exploit their reliability in providing the cheap and unpaid, unrecognised labour, society needs to function. The long understood assumption they will absorb the effects of poverty so others don’t have to. And will fulfil this function in the wider economy and community they live in.
Socially conservative rhetoric, invoking traditional gender roles when discussing who will pick up the tab in the Big Blue Society as the state abdicates responsibility for everything. Political recognition that never really crosses into debate about benefits. Women are expected to meet measurable economic inequality and accept it in return for growth, with bootstraps ready. Accept the evidence they are experiencing that inequality to be used to illustrate successive government narratives that demonise them. While our reproductive rights are tossed in the air to keep an increasingly rabid mainstream right and left busy doing not much. Middle class women can be bribed by politicians to believe it is not happening to poorer women for the same reasons it is happening to them. Keeping succesive generations of women, who need state support when their ability to work is compromised, under a bureaucratic cosh designed for malleability, under the pretext of upholding something which never existed.
Universality rather than that particular pragmatic sacrifice, could have saved a lot of time, money, and avoided many of the problems that beset his welfare system, and those caught up in it since. It could have solved Beveridges puzzlement over the ‘safety net’ bit of his welfare state unpredictably mushrooming, rendering ridiculous the core system he devised. Allowed his system to function as the extraordinary indicator of the health of other parts of the economy it should have been.
The departments Beveridge left behind lose about £5billion a year in error, dwarfing what is lost by fraud. That unpredictability is played out as recurring crisis in the lives of real people, in real families maintaining real lives, with real children, in real communities, who by definition have no other safety net. Those crisis, aggravated repeatedly in the name of austerity, and in the name of undermining a principle this system never actually represented. Welfare dependence has been a desirable side effect of our economic system and been expanded since the end of World War 2 and is a key part of our current deleveraging plans. It has been demonised for as long. All involved understand precisely how this is supposed to progress.
As the welfare state expanded to encapsulate the entire working class, it has come into its own in keeping wages low, in its relationship with credit markets and as a tool of social and labour market control. ‘Beveridge’ is all the left of the political spectrum have to shout, to show how mean Osborne is. ATOS and workfare are not new concepts. The services that are Beveridges legacy, now demonstrate the worst extremes of neo liberal social policy. With political debate oblivious for the most part, busy maximising the noise of the social conservatism and media friendly debate, which cynically capitalised on Beveridge’s indifference.
This system is now openly viewed by charities protecting their message as a source of questionable labour. Social work departments have developed at the cracks of inconsistent social policy using this blueprint, now being rendered unfit for purpose by the excesses that marketisation brought. Being flogged off in a fire sale, after the self- interested fragments of the market that part of our public sector has long been, defended themselves and forgot who else they spoke for.
Universal Credit now ensures ‘employed’ is insufficient protection from accusations of fecklessness and the unchallenged social control and demonization inherent in the welfare system’s structure. Workless now being the catch all term used to describe pensioners, carers, mothers, the unemployed, those who are ill, disabled… Labour declaring intentions to reach 100% employment using welfare …in the interests of ‘the poor’ of course. Welfare is not the only whip that is cracking as we reach the finale of the financial crisis.
These ‘issues’ have been given to politicos with absurdly free rein in empty tribal political discussion offensively blind to reality of compromises made and worked with for generations. We have certainly reached a point where the discussion about the relationship of social control, to ‘welfare’ and these questions, is necessary.
The neverending political usefulness of Beveridge
The neo liberal resettlement then gave us mantras about choice, and The Sun said those caught in the ‘safety net’ Beveridge knew would be his lasting contribution, were scroungers. We all got tits on page 3, terrorising of celebrities, gangster behaviour, reality TV stars, and a decent telly page while the pool of the demonized was expanded. Tony Blair gave us a third way, and as evidence built about the reality of inequality in this country, politics became subsumed by the nasty message and reality became unimportant. The safety net has been anything but safe for a long time.
The ‘choices’ up for discussion are things which are rarely about choice, and which are at the core of that existing inequality. Motherhood never ceased to means feckless and idle without a husband, and gender is repeatedly exploited to create capacity elsewhere in the economy. The consequences for young single working class men or women,black and white, mothers, carers, people with disabilities, easy to disguise in a political narrative structured this way. All that is needed are obscene and absurd assumptions, and earnest discussions about how to manage the morality of ‘the poor’ drown out any discussion of reality.
Beveridge’s welfare system has long been an administrative nightmare on shifting sands, catering to every last whim of The Daily Mail and Murdoch, while trying not to respond to the statutory obligation Beveridge created. The successful appeals rate always an indicator of the distance travelled between rhetoric and reality. Relationships and the patterns of inequality his system highlighted properly for the first time, are routinely used to justify demonization, patronisation, or control. Those patterns ignored to our peril for years before the financial crisis. Under mantras about community, family, and responsibility in the debate he framed. Slut shaming and lying about the sick are firmly at the heart of the now defunct centre position who still shout his name nostalgically, ignoring the repeated exploitation of inequality this system requires.
The funnelling of welfare state resources to the middle classes while demonising the poorest has been de-rigeur for decades. The contribution based system was stubbornly retained for little more than its political value for yonks. The middle class women and markets that benefitted from Beveridges largesse, were satisfied if they did not receive theirs without judgement, the poor would be more feckless and badly catered for than they already were. The whole system would collapse. Now Universal Credit claims put the middle class at risk of the harsh judgements that occur when you slip from politicians view in this system, their belief may be tested. Those markets forgot how dependent they were on that middle class welfare subsidy, and are unprepared for the results of policies they cheered on.
There was never an evaluation of how fast Beveridges contributory system had to change when the administration of our welfare state revealed how poverty in this country was really structured. His surprise at the ‘unpredictable’ expansion of the welfare system, would have been cured had he questioned his own assumptions and allowed them to be reevaluated as his system revealed why. His solution was to keep reality separate from the political discussion around welfare, for the survival of the settlement.
How it continues…
Tribalism ensuring increasingly absurd and dangerous cartoons form the basis of arguments in all political discussion, in one way or the other. The welfare system Beveridge bequeathed an invaluable neo liberal tool, especially with the remaining collective political power of those caught up, jammed into jigging the nostalgic dance of the neo liberalism orbiting left. These consequences are still being played out on the lives of real people, the welfare state’s reliable role as an early and unnervingly-accurate economic map and warning system has been quite lost in the din. While the communities underpinning this, are lost as the new left claims their children as long demonised emblems of their political party’s version of class struggle..
Beveridges early recognition of the welfare state as an economic tool, with only views on morality required to maintain plausible political debate, has been more than perfected by successive governments. Beveridge inadvertently devised a system which had the potential to not only alleviate poverty, but become a dynamic marker of economic inequality and its results, and a tool which could be used to directly manage the economy and/or warn of crisis. So he can be excused for his part in creating our current problems. But after this many years of the welfare debate following the political and economic blueprint Beveridge devised, and with todays’ understanding of our political system being played out as farce with pasties, I am not sure our current politicians and the media can justify this for much longer