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11 April 2022

From the NS archive: Property of the professionals

30 September 1983: Much was wrong with welfare socialism from the beginning.

By Hilary Rose

In this 1983 article, part of an NS series debating “the future of socialism”, the sociologist Hilary Rose argued that while some on the left upheld the foundation of Bevan’s welfare state as a “golden age” for the labour movement, much was wrong with welfare socialism from the very beginning. Sharing the myth of the golden age was tempting, she understood, particularly during the “unbridled individualism of Thatcherism”. Yet the social reforms achieved by the Labour government following the Second World War were guaranteed in exchange for the “continuation of a fundamentally capitalist economy”. What’s more, the emergence of the welfare state relied upon stereotypical gender roles, Rose argued: men who worked in heavy industry shouldered the burden, while the rest of society – women, children and the elderly, sick and disabled – were their social and economic dependants. Now, this set-up was in crisis. The welfare state had itself produced the conditions in which these archetypes no longer existed; the caring professions had become the great employer of women.


A dominant theme within Labour’s election campaign, echoed from Foot to Hattersley and Benn, was the call for a return to 1945, to Attleeism, with the implicit message that this was the golden age of socialism in power. Because the central achievement of the Attlee government was the consolidation of the Welfare State – whose very existence the Right seeks, with some success, to call into question – it is tempting to share the golden age myth, to draw on its sense of past collective achievement to defend the welfare services from the present unbridled individualism of Thatcherism.

Yet that isn’t really good enough, for both the conditions and the politics which brought the old Welfare State into existence (and governed its agenda for too long) have changed. There can be no going back. Socialist politics can only go forward – or nowhere.

Paradoxically, the Welfare State was claimed both as an achievement of Labour and as above class politics. To be sure, the Conservatives’ Welfare State was rather more stingy than Labour’s. But, until the closet monetarism of the Callaghan/Healey era and the open monetarism of Thatcher and Joseph, the ideological commitment to the Welfare State was integral to the consensus politics of the boom years. Projected as a uniquely British success, it served a twofold purpose in the period of post-war reconstruction. First, it stood as a symbol of a new sense of nationhood capable of transcending the old divisions of class; second, it offered to ease the national psychic trauma of the loss of Empire. Imperial Britain was dead; long live the British Welfare State!

But in fact, far from being above class – or any other politics – the establishment of the Welfare State represented a specific compromise between the interests of organised labour and those of capital, in which a far-reaching set of social reforms was won which guaranteed a particular version of everyday life in return for the continuation of a fundamentally capitalist economy. It is precisely in this compromise that the roots of today’s political crisis of the Welfare State are to be found.

Labour’s big battalions were primarily men working in heavy industry. Thus those far-reaching reforms which sought to guarantee everyday life did so round a conception of the working man as the new political subject of 1945, with the rest of society, the women, the child, the retired, the sick and disabled as his social and economic dependants. Income maintenance systems, education, housing, care of the sick, were all arranged around a conception of the ideal family, in which he worked for the family wage and she stayed at home. This is not to say that nobody in 1945 – or now – might have wanted this kind of family, but rather that the 1945 Welfare State “froze” family relations at a particular moment of historical development.

Despite the vote, women in 1945 lacked a significant and conscious presence within the labour movement. Instead, they were defined primarily as wives and mothers; that is, by their relationship to men. Thus their interests were subjugated to those of men. As political objects with no separate interests, they could be interpreted and represented by men. Of course, this doesn’t do justice to the history of women’s struggles to be defined as subjects in their own lives, but it does do justice to how the labour movement constructed women, and it does explain why labour and capital’s compromise – the Welfare State – should have turned on the subordination of women.

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It is possible to argue that the sexist character of the Welfare State would not have mattered so much if the organisational structures of welfare were themselves open to democratic change. But the outstanding feature of the British Welfare State from its inception to its present crisis has been its over-reliance on representative rather than participative democracy and the inexorable slippage of its governance into the hands of the professional and managerial strata.

Look at the history of the National Health Service, rightly seen as the jewel in Labour’s crown. On the “Appointed Day” in 1948, health care was taken from the grip of the cash nexus. Patients no longer had to be rich, nor be male, nor to demonstrate the colour of their citizenship. All they had to be was sick, and they would be cared for. True, in practice it appeared as if doctors could see the needs of middle-class people more easily than they could see those of working-class people and had a disconcerting tendency to see women’s needs as psychologically defined. But, nonetheless, the NHS did seem like part of that socialist common sense which had only been dreamed of in the hard inter-war years and during the suffering of the war itself.

Yet even while the socialist intelligentsia, above all those within the medical profession, were massively behind Bevan in his struggle with the BMA, it is not clear that the NHS was actually what the people were demanding as their first priority. This is not to deny that the NHS was a solid achievement and of immense benefit to working and middle-class women, men and children. I remember my mother telling me of the death from diphtheria of a child from the Elephant and Castle elementary school where she taught in the Thirties. The child’s mother could not pay the doctor’s bill and was afraid to call him out. The doctor wept as he told my mother, “I would have come.”

Nonetheless, in 1946, while Bevan was bargaining with the doctors, what the working people wanted was housing, not on some “Appointed Day” but at once. With a self-confidence born from the war years, those without homes – not least the demobbed troops wanting to pick up the threads of their personal lives – began to take their housing problems into their own hands. They occupied the emptying military and PoW camps, the hotels and the empty housing of the rich and, with immense ingenuity, made homes out of this unpromising shelter. The squatters enjoyed widespread popular support; Labour councillors, for example, were directly engaged in the movement. Even the police and the military initially turned a blind eye. Popular justice demanded homes for all now.

How did the Labour government respond? How did Bevan react, as the minister with joint responsibility for health and housing – the man who for the Left was seen as the socialist within the Attlee government? Basically with a uniform authoritarian disdain. Instead of taking pride in working-class creativity in dealing with a desperate housing problem which the government hadn’t the resources to meet, the Labour government retreated to condemning the movement’s illegality, hunting for Reds under the bed and generally making it astonishingly easy for the Tories to derive political capital from the mess.

While this double pressure from below and from the Tories eventually compelled Bevan to adopt a more conciliatory line and to release accommodation for official squatting (to be administered for the homeless), he and the government came out poorly. Of course, all governments and ministers make mistakes, but given the resurrection of the myth of the golden age of the 1945 government by a new generation of Labour politicians it is important to examine “mistakes” to determine whether they were an isolated event or part of a general philosophy.

Bevan’s ineptitude over the housing issue is well recognised (see Michael Foot’s biography) and many would accept that this failure helped the Tories to power in the 1951 elections which they fought on the Macmillan pledge to deliver mass housing. But the important political point concerns not only Bevan’s and the Labour government’s failure to respond positively and democratically to a mass social movement, but also the minimal democracy in the form of the welfare services they established.

If we examine the NHS as a socialist “success”, the historical accounts of the negotiations with the doctors emphasise that Bevan was forced to make many political concessions to the profession as the price for getting the service off the ground. The governance of health was delivered largely to the doctors, located outside local democratic control, with the only significant lines of accountability being in the overall relationship between the NHS and the Minister.

These are harsh judgments; are they totally unjust? To answer this we must look at the other structures of welfare created within the new reformed social services. In each we see organisational forms which rely exclusively on representative democracy… and which look to a managerial or professional class to run them. Thus what was true for the health service was also true for social security, council housing and the educational system. The head teacher reigned like a benign or harsh tyrant over staff and children, where management committees had little effective day-to-day power except at the single moment of teacher selection. Parents were long excluded from management committees as “interested” parties. Despite the presence of local councillors, the management committees were effectively run by the professionals. Equally, tenants were excluded from the management of council housing.

Although over the subsequent years some changes in the direction of greater democracy were to come about, they did so in the context of the massive and bureaucratic growth of the entire range of health and welfare services. Of course, we can rejoice at a lively school management committee where teachers and parents are struggling to develop new forms of managing the school, or at the exceptional Community Health Council which makes an effective intervention into the politics of health – despite its origins as a democratic afterthought pinned onto a health service reorganised on the lines of Taylorian scientific management.

Nonetheless, the massive bureaucratic structures produced by successive Labour governments have only been modestly influenced by these democratic elements. The greatest influence for democracy within the whole edifice of the welfare services, the student movement of 1968, was essentially treated in the same way as the squatters of 1946. It was seen as a popular aberration, to be lived through until the serious business of running education in a non-political – that is, a conservative – way could be resumed.

It is not by accident that those academics who acted as political advisers to Labour governments were in the main either detached from or opposed to the student movement. Not every demand of that movement was right, but there was a profound hope, shared by socialist teachers and students alike, that education could be made accountable to its users and its content made relevant. If the Labour government had been midwife to the democratic reforms so urgently needed, would not the whole of education have been in better shape to defend itself from the smears of Gould and the Black Papers and the massive new attack by Joseph which denies even the economic justifications for the Robbins university reforms? (In retrospect, it seems obvious why Shirley Williams was such a conspicuously poor minister for education – doing nothing, above all, for the working-class school leaver – and only fitting that she is in the SDP, for the SDP has inherited the worst of Labour’s dirigistic mantle.)

Some might deny this interpretation of a political opportunity missed, on the grounds that the students were all middle-class anyway. Against this it is worth noting that Labour governments have been equally insensitive to the claims for democracy from the poorest in society. The Claimaints’ Unions were equally cast by Labour as political outsiders. The important issue was the appointment by political patronage of humane members of the Supplementary Benefits Commission. Indeed, there is some irony in the fact that it has taken a Thatcher government to acknowledge the existence of the 35 federated Claimant Unions by using them as one of the means of communicating with claimants improperly denied benefit.

The Labour Party in office has a long history of taking the politics out of welfare. What began in the golden age as a paternalistic exclusion of the workers and recipients of welfare was extended and made systematic during the years of massive expansion. The vast new bureaucracies facilitated a reliance on “scientific” management and fostered services which were not only experienced as coercive by those who used them or worked within them, but which also limited the chances of reform from the bottom upwards.

But this unresponsive Welfare State, which seemed to have frozen man as the full-time fully employed worker and woman as the full-time housewife, has itself partly produced the conditions in which these archetypes no longer exist. For welfare has become the great employer of women – not of course in the managerial strata, but as the full and part-time proletariat of the caring services. Nor, despite the Conservative government’s not-so-secret yearnings, can even they turn the clock back on women. Even within the Tory Party, women have become political activists, whose subservience cannot be taken for granted.

The new presence of women within the trade union movement – together with the weakening of the industrial base and its male-dominated unions – means that the politics of organised labour are – whether the old guard likes it or not – undergoing a fundamental change. The arena of community politics, that burgeoning of democratic participation, has singularly belonged to women. That these have, with the exception of valiant attempts by the socialist cities, failed to become connected with the malestream of Labour politics tells us too much about the inability of the Party to transform itself fast enough. Please, no more dead heroes; let us salute them in their time. Our time is now, and we need the politics for that time.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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