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How Charles Darwin's theories influenced the growth of the welfare state

At the turn of the 20th century, discussions about degeneration became entangled with fears of national decline.

In the last two decades of the 19th century, a new word began to appear in the writings of biologists and zoologists across Europe, inspired by the work of Charles Darwin. “Degeneration” referred to a subset of the evolutionary story by which a species or subspecies began to lose ground in the evolutionary game. In his 1880 work Degeneration: A Chapter in Darwinism, the zoologist E Ray Lankester described the phenomenon as “a loss of organisation making the descendant far simpler or lower in structure than its ancestor”.

For social scientists and political commentators, the implications for societies and nations of such findings were arresting. In Britain, discussions about degeneration quickly became entangled with fears of national decline. The world’s greatest empire was losing ground in the race with its rivals but was also suffering the effects of chronic complaints in its collective health: the consequence of more than a century of explosive industrialisation and chaotic urbanisation. In 1888, the Lancet, the foremost journal of British medicine, announced that degeneration was “undoubtedly at work among town-bred populations”, due to “unwholesome occupations, improper [diet] and juvenile vice”. While the process could be reversible, it was no longer possible “to ignore the existence of widespread evils and serious dangers to the public health”.

The story of the British state’s approach to poverty and welfare is not one of simple progress towards more benevolence and enlightened policy, but it does have some crowning glories. The watershed moment remains the publication in 1942 of William Beveridge’s white paper Social Insurance and Allied Services, which declared war on the five “giant evils”: “want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness”. Surprisingly for a government publication, it sold half a million copies, and abbreviated versions were dropped behind enemy lines as a declaration of intent – a domestic version of the Atlantic Charter – indicating the type of nation that Britain aspired to be at the end of the war.

From 1945 to 1951, Beveridge’s proposals became the basis of the legislation by which the Attlee government created a welfare system designed to be the envy of the civilised world, with citizens guaranteed a safety net from “the cradle to the grave”. The most totemic achievement was the creation of the National Health Service in 1948. Yet this was just one pillar of a comprehensive and universal system of insurance, health care, welfare and family allowances to be granted to all citizens, regardless of their means.

For many in the Attlee government, including the prime minister, more significance was attached to the National Insurance Act of 1946, which finally abolished the hated means test associated with past legislation. In the speech in which he announced its provisions before the House of Commons, the prime minister paid tribute to all of the pioneers of the cause of social justice – Keir Hardie, Will Crooks, David Lloyd George, Sidney and Beatrice Webb and Beveridge – but also the many Conservatives who had taken on the challenge of poverty in eras past.

The title of Chris Renwick’s excellent book is taken from Beveridge’s spirited war cry – that it was the duty of the state to ensure “bread for all, before cake for some”. His intention is not to deny the heroism of these welfare pioneers but to place these achievements in a wider context, taking into account contemporaneous developments in political economy, science and sociology. With a combination of scholarship and panache, he traces the origins of sustained thinking about the state’s role in the alleviation of poverty back to the creation of the royal commission on the Poor Laws in 1832.

From the outset, rather than simple charity or concern for the plight of the poor, a desire to eradicate inefficiency, waste and disease made the issue of welfare always inseparable from broader concerns about the “condition of England” or the “state of the nation”. As such, state provision for the poor was “not simply a moral enterprise” but also about refitting and restructuring Britain’s social and political system for the challenges of the modern world.

The early political economists agreed that some relief was a necessary safety valve in the prevention of revolution and disorder; they saw the connection between bread prices, population levels and bouts of political instability. Yet the harshness of the 19th-century welfare regime – with the workhouse and its distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving poor” – mainly reflected the prevailing economic orthodoxies of the era.

As that system began to unravel in the last quarter of the century, it was under the force of new ideas from evolutionary biology and sociology. These fed into growing anxieties about the health of the body politic and “national efficiency”.

If the fate of nations depended on the “survival of the fittest”, Britain was not faring well. The Second Boer War, from 1899 to 1902, was a turning point in terms of placing the issue at the top of political priorities. Such was the condition of the poor that Britain was simply not fit enough to fight. In Manchester, according to a study by the industrialist and liberal imperialist Arnold White, 11,000 volunteers offered themselves for war service – most of them desperate for any employment – but 8,000 of them were deemed to be “physically unfit to carry a rifle”, or spend long enough on their feet to drill. Of the 3,000 who were accepted, less than half “attained the moderate standard of muscular power and chest measurement” required by the military authorities.

The political response began in earnest with the formation of the Committee on Physical Deterioration in 1903. As Renwick shows, the government avoided the term “degeneration”, but many of the most influential proponents of welfare reform, such as Francis Galton, were also enthusiastic eugenicists – advocates of better breeding and birth control.

The “New Liberal” reforms of the Edwardian era – embodied in the provision of school meals, the 1911 National Insurance Act, the Old-Age Pensions Act and the “People’s Budget” of 1909-10 – took ideas from science, but they also represented an evolutionary leap in the understanding of citizenship and the role of the state (through tools such as graduated income tax and greater levies on “unearned” wealth) in securing the health of the populace as a whole.

By taking the long view on these developments, Renwick makes the case that the creation of the welfare state after 1945 was the “culmination of an intergenerational project”. His book is mainly about the changing trends of opinion within the nation’s intellectual elites, from across the political spectrum.

In the words of the sociologist TH Marshall, the welfare state had “mixed parentage”. In keeping with this, Renwick suggests that Conservative thinking and legislation on welfare in the interwar era were more advanced than many give the party credit for. Ultimately, however, he concludes that the building of the New Jerusalem “owes most to liberalism”, or centre-left progressivism, which was “woven into the welfare state’s identity”.

In substance, this is hard to dispute. The Attlee government drew not only on the work of previous generations but also on that of the wartime coalition of which Attlee was a part. It relied heavily, too, on ideas from liberals such as William Beveridge, who articulated the principle of universality to skewer the hated means test, and John Maynard Keynes, who crucially made full employment the bedrock of a new economic system.

When considered in its entirety, however, the changes ushered in by the postwar government far outstripped those of any of its predecessors. What it achieved was nothing short of a new social contract and a redefinition of the raison d’être of the state. Beveridge was under no illusions: it represented a “revolution”.

As Attlee later reflected, no longer was the struggle about “getting for the underprivileged some crumbs from the rich man’s table”. It was about “providing for all the things which all should enjoy in a modern community”.

Bread for All: The Origins of the Welfare State
Chris Renwick
Allen Lane, 336pp, £20


John Bew is a professor of history and foreign policy at King’s College London and the author of “Citizen Clem: A Biography of Attlee” (Riverrun)

John Bew is Professor of History and Foreign Policy at King’s College London and is leading a project looking at Britain’s place in the world for Policy Exchange. He is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of Citizen Clem, an Orwell Prize-winning biography of Clement Attlee. 

This article first appeared in the 31 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The decline of the American empire

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People are not prepared to see innovation at any price - we need to take care of our digital health

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

As individuals, we have never been better connected. As a society, we are being driven further apart.

Doteveryone’s People Power and Technology report, released this week, found that half of the 2,500 British people we surveyed said the internet had made life a lot better for people like them - but only 12 per cent saw a very positive impact on society.

These findings won’t be news to most people living in Brexit Britain - or to anyone who’s been involved in a spat on Twitter. The fact that we’re constantly connected to our smartphones has not necessarily improved our communities or our understanding of one other, and the trails of data we’re leaving behind are not turning into closer social bonds.

Many of the positives we experience are for ourselves as individuals.

Lots of consumer tech puts simple self-sufficiency first - one-click to buy, swipe right to date - giving us a feeling of cosy isolation and making one little phone an everywhere. This powerful individualism is a feature of all of the big platforms - and even social networks like Facebook and Twitter, that are meant bring us together, do so in the context of personalised recommendations and algorithmically ordered timelines.

We are all the centre of our own digital worlds. So it is no surprise that when we do look up from our phones, we feel concerned about the impact on society. Our research findings articulate the dilemma we face: do we do the thing that is easiest for us, or the one that is better for society?

For instance, 78 per cent of people see the Internet as helping us to communicate better, but 68 per cent also feel it makes us less likely to speak to each other face-to-face. 69per cent think the internet helps businesses to sell their products and services, while 53 per cent think it forces local shops to compete against larger companies online.

It’s often hard to see the causality in these trade-offs. At what point does my online shopping tip my high street into decline? When do I notice that I’ve joined another WhatsApp group but haven’t said hello to my neighbour?

When given clear choices, the public was clear in its response.  

We asked how they would feel if an online retailer offered free one-day delivery for lower income families, but this resulted in local shops closing down - 69 per cent found this unacceptable. Or if their bank invested more in combating fraud and cyber crime, but closed their local branch - 61 per cent said it was unacceptable. Or if their council made savings by putting services online and cut council tax as a result, but some people would find it hard to access these services - 56 per cent found it unacceptable.

It seems people are not prepared to see innovation at any price - and not at the expense of their local communities. The poorest find these trade offs least acceptable.

Correcting the course of technology in Britain does not need to mean taking backwards steps and becoming an anti-innovation zone.

A clearer regulatory environment would support positive, responsible change that supports our society, not just the ambition of a few corporations.

Some clarity about our relationship with web services would be a good start. 60 per cent of people Doteveryone spoke to believed there should be an independent body they can turn to when things go wrong online; 89 per cent would like terms and conditions to be clearer, and 47% feel they have no choice but to sign up to services, even when they have concerns.

Technology regulation is complicated and fragmentary. Ofcom and the under-resourced Information Commissioner’s Office, provide some answers,but they are not sufficient to regulate the myriad effects of social media, let alone the changes that new technologies like self-driving cars will bring. There needs to be a revolution in government, but at present as consumers and citizens we can’t advocate for that. We need a body that represents us, listens to our concern and gives us a voice.

And the British public also needs to feel empowered, so we can all make better choices - adults and children alike need different kinds of understanding and capability to navigate the digital world. It is not about being able to code: it is about being able to cope.

Public Health England exists to protect and improve the nation’s health and well-being, and reduce health inequalities. Perhaps we need a digital equivalent, to protect and improve our digital health and well-being, and reduce digital inequalities.

As a society, we should not have to continually respond and adapt to the demands of the big corporations: we should also make demands of them - and we need confidence, a voice, and representation to begin to do that.

Rachel Coldicutt is chief executive of Doteveryone.