My friend Virginia Moffatt recently edited a collection of essays called Reclaiming the Common Good which explores the way that society, in so many ways, seems to have lost its way. My essay explores some of the original thinking behind the welfare state and what we might do to return to the ideas that originally inspired it. The book launch was in Bloomsbury on 20th September 2017. Virginia asked several of the authors some questions, and here are my answers.

How would you define ‘welfare’? Why is it that we are currently living in a country where those in greatest need are being denied help?

A Finnish friend of mine, Katja Valkama, who was doing research on social policy in the UK asked me: “Why do people say all these negative things about ‘welfare’? In Finland welfare just means well-being.”

Exactly.

The term ‘welfare state’, was coined by Archbishop William Temple, and it was certainly meant to capture the idea that we needed to ensure that our social arrangements – underpinned by law, democracy and the power of the state – worked to guarantee everybody’s welfare – everybody’s well-being.

And the five main pillars of the welfare state still do so today:

  1. Health – The NHS provides us with universal healthcare
  2. Education – Public schools provide us with free education up to 18
  3. Income Security – Pensions and benefits provide some income security
  4. Housing – Housing benefits and social housing provide some protection from homelessness
  5. Disability Support – Local government provides some rather limited social care to people with disabilities and older people who are frail and need assistance

As my ordering suggest – some systems work much better than others and interestingly the ones we value most are:

  • The most universal ones, with no means-testing
  • The ones we forget are part of the welfare state

The word welfare – and its associated stigma – seems to attach itself most closely to social security and to any systems that seem to be just for the poor. This is despite the fact that the biggest benefit – accounting for about 50% of all benefits – is the state pension – a universal benefit. We have somehow allowed welfare and the welfare state to become stigmatised; this is despite the fact that the largest parts of the welfare state remain popular and so have been relatively protected from recent cuts.

On the other hand, the reason why the cuts of austerity have fallen so heavily on disabled people is that they are a group that is particularly dependent on the less universal elements of the welfare state: housing, care and benefits. These are politically easy things to cut because most people think they have no stake in them.

It is particularly important to recognise that our current problems are not so new. Things have been moving in this direction for several decades. For instance if we compare our situation today to the 1970s three things stand out:

  1. The poor have been made poorer, by a mixture of economic change and the lower value of benefits
  2. The rich have become a lot richer, but they do pay a little more in taxes
  3. Most people are in the middle and they are about the same – their wages have dropped, but the difference has been made up by benefits (disguised as tax credits, pensions, housing benefit etc.)

Austerity has recently made things much worse the poorest. But the system has been getting worse and worse for over 40 years. Over time its main function has shifted so as to subsidise the incomes of the middle-classes. But this has been managed in a way that enables them to psychologically distance themselves from those stigmatised groups that they see as beneath them. This is today’s double injustice: we steal from the poor, but heap blame and stigma on their shoulders at the same time.

What would you say to those who argue that the welfare state is no longer necessary in modern Britain?

It’s really important to realise that the development of the welfare state is correlated – above everything else – with the growing insecurity of the modern world. Our productivity or average wealth is irrelevant: people can starve or be forced into prostitution, homelessness or suicide even if society as a whole gets wealthier.

Average wealth is irrelevant, it is equality and income security – not economic growth that is most important.

In fact our amazing productivity has only been achieved by sacrificing (often not willingly) basic economic securities:

  1. First we lost the security of the land and millions were forced to come to the towns for work, and they then became dependent on ’employment’ and those who did not fit into this system were forced into the workhouse.
  2. Second craftsmen and labourers lost the security of their roles as machines produced more for less.
  3. Third we discovered, through the Great Depression, and many other bubbles, slumps and downturns, that even a job was no security. We can now manufacture droughts and famines through bad planning, economic anxiety and panic.

We discovered that the modern industrial world is no protection from growing inequality and radical insecurity – what Simone Weil calls rootlessness. These injustices then inspired revolutionary hopes and fascist reactions. This unleashed war, revolution, terror, eugenics and the Holocaust.

The welfare state – which had its seeds in Bismarck’s Germany – was always a way of replacing the basic securities that people desperately need in a world that had lost the older securities of land, church and community.

Nothing about the current state of the economy makes the welfare state less necessary. Income insecurity is even more extreme today than before the War. Our incomes are far more dependent on Government-run systems and subsidies. We simply take for granted the enormous benefits that come from the welfare state and the security – even its current inadequate form – that it provides for all of us.

We’ve gone to sleep and we’ve forgotten all that we’ve come to rely on.

The organisation you run is called the Centre for Welfare Reform. Can you give us some of your thoughts how the welfare state could be reformed for the good of all?

I do wonder whether it was a good idea to name the Centre as the Centre for Welfare Reform. The term ‘welfare reform’ is now so toxic and so closely associated with the changes introduced by the Coalition Government that it is quite confusing. However, I think that a civilised society will always want to ensure that it is organised in the best way it can be to ensure the welfare of all its members; so I think welfare reform – true welfare reform – actually improving how we take care of each other – will remain an important project – even if we’re not sure what to call it any more.

For me the central challenge of improving the welfare state was set out by the philosopher Jeremy Waldron:

Above all, I think the idea of citizenship should remain at the centre of modern political debates about social and economic arrangements. The concept of a citizen is that of a person who can hold their head high and participate fully and with dignity in the life of their society. (Liberal Rights, p. 308)

What this requires is up for debate, but I think we can mark out the two extremes that we must avoid – the Scylla (rocks) and Charybdis (whirlpool) of welfare reform between which we must steer:

  1. We must avoid the assumption that the state is some rational and benign entity who can be trusted to simply meet our needs and solve social problems on it own. This way of thinking is fundamentally undemocratic and it treats citizen as non-citizens – as passive, dependent and lacking in responsibility. The last 40 years, and particularly the last 7 years, have clearly demonstrated that the state cannot be left alone with this task of taking care of us.
  2. We must also avoid the assumption that we have no need for the welfare state, that we can all manage alone, or in our families. Citizens are not lone wolves, consumers or producers; they are people who need to live together and need to work together to build a meaningful and mutually rewarding world.

What this means is that we must look for welfare reforms that are going to encourage us to be the best that we can be both singly and together. We need to create a world where everyone is included, everyone is an equal, everyone is treated as a full and valued citizen.

So, what might some positive reforms look like?

Briefly I would suggest the following:

  1. The basic idea of the NHS remains sound – what we will want to do is bring it closer to our communities. Professionals sometimes forgot their core purpose – to teach, assist and enable.
  2. Schools needs to be freed from the tyranny of regulation and the phoney idea that they can prepare people for work. Education should be more inclusive and focus on building our capacity to be citizens.
  3. Income security needs to be radically reformed, and at its centre needs to be the idea of a basic income – a secure income that is enough for each of us to live a life of dignity.
  4. Housing needs to become a right and a fundamental responsibility of local communities must be to ensure everyone can live in their own community and not be forced out by increased housing costs. Citizens should belong where they live – and they should not be forced out of their communities by ‘market forces’. I believe a Land Value Tax, which ensure property owners support non-property owners will be the core reform required.
  5. Social care – or disability support – needs to be established as a universal, non-meanest-tested right for all of us. This is entirely possible and affordable.

Underpinning all of this – I believe – will have to be a resurgence of genuine democratic behaviour and of constitutional reform. People need to be free in order to be citizens, so that they can challenge, engage and collaborate in order to build the society we need. We will need new constitutional arrangements to establish, monitor and protect our human rights, and we will need a renewed civil society – with social organisations that are willing to speak out and stand up for justice.

I suspect that, along with secure social rights, established at a national level, we will need to pay much more attention to the local. Meaningful citizen action and community life can only becomes possible if some powers are decentralised and so people can focus on change at a personal, family and community level.

Of course much of this will seem a dream. But the post-war welfare state also seemed like a dream. I suspect it is only dreaming that will save us from years of further moral and social decline.