Did life improve in Britain after the introduction of the Welfare State?

Following the outbreak of the Second World War the national government played a more important role in people’s lives, with tasks such as organising rationing helping towards Britain’s war effort. This was welcomed by the public and in December 1942 William Beveridge, a senior civil servant, released a report highlighting the five main issues Britain had to overcome in order to achieve a better society, this was to become the foundations of the Welfare State. The five ‘giants’ were want, disease, idleness, ignorance and squalor. The first of Beveridge’s proposals came into effect before the end of the war, in 1944, and by 1950 many key policies were introduced such as the National Health Service, the Education Act of 1944 and the National Insurance Act. Britain had undergone vast change within the 5 years after World War Two, but by 1950 had life improved in Britain as a result of these new reforms?

The first ‘giant’ highlighted in the Beveridge Report was ‘want’ – poverty and the lack of basics to live a healthy life. The National Insurance Act was passed in 1946, which provided comprehensive insurance against most eventualities such as illness, unemployment and retirement. Most people paid roughly 4 shillings and it was said that social provision was made for citizens from the ‘cradle to the grave’, catering for their needs from their time of birth to their death. Criticism arose however as there were limitations to who would receive insurance, for example married women and a number of self-employed workers were not included under the scheme. To counter this, the National Assistance Act was passed in 1948 which aimed to cover those who didn’t qualify for the National Insurance Act. However, benefits were set too low, in 1948 benefits were only 19% of the average industrial wage, which resulted in many citizens remaining below the subsistence level. Though there were some criticisms over both acts, Britain had taken a step forward and therefore it must be concluded that, in terms of ‘want’, Britain had improved by 1950.

The 1946 National Health Service Act became the first step towards eradicating ‘disease’. This made healthcare free on the basis of citizenship and need rather than the payment of fees or insurance premiums. The National Health Service launched in 1948 which instituted, for the first time in Britain, a universal state health service. The NHS provided free diagnosis and treatment of illnesses at home or in hospital, including dental and ophthalmic treatment – something which had never been seen before. Problems arose however, as the costs of the NHS rose over the following years and by 1950 the idea of free treatment for all was undermined when charges were introduced for dental treatment. Also, out of date hospitals hindered the development of the NHS as a full service could only be provided by the more advanced hospitals.  Although there were worries that the NHS would bankrupt the country, costing £358 billion per year by 1950, health improved and this was highlighted when the overall life expectancy rose in Britain. By achieving this and other subsequent advances the NHS has been considered the greatest single achievement in the development of the welfare state.

High levels of unemployment pose a threat to any successful society thus Beveridge sought to combat the perceived cause of this, idleness, as one of his five ‘giants’. One way in which the government kept almost full employment was through nationalisation. Following the principles of economist John Maynard Keynes, the government took control of certain industries such as iron and steel manufacture. Under this managed economy the government could use tax money to keep an industry afloat even if it faced economic difficulties. In addition to this, unprofitable industries were subsidised in order to keep people in work. The nationalisation of key industries helped keep unemployment rates low and by 1946, unemployment was reduced to 2.5 % and this was in spite of huge post-war problems such as shortages of raw materials and massive debts. Roughly full employment was seen as a great success and although the cost of paying for the new social services, combined with the debts incurred from fighting WWII, meant that Britain’s post-war economy was in bad shape, idleness was virtually eradicated.

The lack of education for all was seen as a worry, especially during the war, and the Butler Act, released in 1944, led to the large scale reform of schooling. Education was made compulsory until the age of 15 and three types of secondary school were introduced. The ’11+’was put in place to assign children to one of three types of school according to their ability. Those who passed this exam were placed in ‘grammar schools’ these children were expected to continue their education and possibly go to university and get jobs in management. Those who didn’t pass were placed in ‘secondary modern’ or ‘secondary technical’ schools, now known as ‘comprehensives’. Children who failed the exam were not expected to stay at school after they turned 15 and were expected to pursue apprenticeships or other forms of employment. Although education was provided for all children, little had been done to enhance the opportunities for working class children, most of whom left school at 15 with few if any paper qualifications.

Squalor, or poverty, was common during and soon after the Second World War. Most of Britain still had slum areas and overcrowding was a serious problem, this was made worse by bomb damage during the war. To deal with the problem of squalor the government concentrated on the building of decent homes for the working class after the war. The government aimed at building 200,000 houses a year and many of these were prefabricated houses which were assembled quickly onsite. To succeed these aims the New Towns Act and the Town and Country Planning Act were passed in 1946 and 1947 respectively. The New Towns act allowed the government to designate areas as new towns, and the Town and Country Planning Act established that planning permission was required for land development; ownership alone no longer conferred the right to develop the land. This led to the planning of 14 new towns in Britain, including Glenrothes and East Kilbride in Scotland. However, the 1951 census revealed that there were 750,000 fewer houses than households in Britain and this was approximately the same level of homelessness seen in 1931. Although the government faced serious economic and social problems following World War Two, ultimately the severe housing shortage meant that ‘squalor’ was not eradicated in Britain following the introduction of the Welfare State.

Overall, it must be concluded that life in Britain had improved after the introduction of the Welfare State. Although there was still much to do, such as handling the cost of the NHS and sorting out the housing shortages, four out of William Beveridge’s five ‘giants’ were mainly eradicated. Though it could be said that examples such as life expectancy rising since the war were inevitable, the NHS still proved to be a success. Thanks to the National Insurance and Assistance Acts, previously virtually unseen insurance was now provided on a large scale and education was now made available for all children, regardless of their background.  Unemployment was tackled and the nationalisation of industry meant that the return of the soldiers was not the sole factor for this increase. Improvements were inevitably needed but the Welfare State was young and by 1950 despite these minor setbacks life in Britain had improved significantly.

Contributed by Freddie Carty

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