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The Winding Road to the Welfare State: Economic Insecurity and Social Welfare Policy in Britain

Author(s):Boyer, George R.
Reviewer(s):Huberman, Michael

Published by EH.Net (June 2019)

George R. Boyer, The Winding Road to the Welfare State: Economic Insecurity and Social Welfare Policy in Britain. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018. xiii + 360 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-0-691-17873-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Michael Huberman, Department of History, Université de Montréal.

The specter haunting this timely book on the making of the British welfare state is the presence of inevitability. In a typical history of the modern state, the establishment of welfare policy is treated in a separate chapter in which the forces of reform slowly but assuredly overcome obstacles and interests hostile to the introduction of welfare spending. George Boyer in this exhaustive study of the classic British case shows this was not the case.

Drawing on contemporary accounts, the book begins with different measures of economic insecurity and poverty lines that serve as baselines in the pivotal periods Boyer studies. The book returns to these indicators as the author proceeds in chronological fashion, each of the eight chapters dealing with a distinct historical episode. The Old Poor Law casts a long shadow in this narrative. Although transformed in 1834, spending on outdoor relief remained important into the 1860s. Resurrecting the Victorian ideal that pauperism represented individual deficiencies, and with the support of skilled workers who desired to rid themselves of the stigma of the workhouse, the Crusade Against Our Relief succeeded in reducing benefits. This proved temporary. By the mid 1880s there was renewed interest in the question of poverty based on the recognition that, while real wages may have been rising, the nature of unemployment, increasingly cyclical, had shifted from a voluntary to an involuntary basis. Throughout these chapters, as in the rest of book, Boyer carefully breaks down the incidence of poverty and the take up of relief by gender, age, region, skill level, and sector of activity, showing a masterful grasp of contemporary and recent literatures.

To Boyer, the adoption of Liberal reforms between 1906 and 1911 was an inflection point because old age pensions were funded entirely by London and national insurance by contributions from employers, workers, and the state. The domestic and international shocks of the interwar put these policies to test. Eligibility was not universal and many non-union families turned to the Poor Law, which remained a parallel system for supplementary benefits. Following the adoption of the recommendations of the Beveridge Report, the Poor Law, 350 years old, was terminated in 1948. The debate over the costs of universal coverage echoed earlier guiding principles, Beveridge himself recognizing that social insurance was to guarantee the minimum income needed for subsistence. What were the drivers of changes in social policy? Boyer’s scorecard is mixed: ideology, efficiency, the extension of the vote, the rise of trade unions and the Labor Party, and affinity with those in need all have had a part to play. In this historically rich account, replete with feedback mechanisms, Boyer decidedly avoids causal inference.

While avoiding the trap of a Whig-like interpretation, Boyer’s account is nonetheless national in scope. With exception, international competition rarely figures in discussion on the timing of adoption or the generosity of benefits. Lloyd George did pay a celebrated visit to Germany to study Bismarck’s reforms, but the impression is that this was mainly showmanship to garner support and stave off opposition. Boyer also eschews labor regulation as an alternative form of insurance. Laws that limited working hours of women and children contracted the labor supply, thereby narrowing wage distributions. To be sure, such measures benefited those at work, but they would have improved the position of low skilled workers relative to poverty lines and at reduced cost to the state.

Among its many merits, this book reminds us that the British welfare state was not designed on the blackboard. The winding path to the New Jerusalem was replete with potholes as it was unpredictable and uncertain. The inference is sobering: the danger today is that after successive rounds of austerity cutbacks it may prove difficult to retrace our steps.

Michael Huberman is Professor of History at the Université de Montréal where he holds the Chaire McConnell en études américaines. He has several ongoing research projects in international economic history.

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Subject(s):Economic Planning and Policy
Government, Law and Regulation, Public Finance
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century
20th Century: Pre WWII
20th Century: WWII and post-WWII