The Welfare State Intelligentsia

R.E. Pahl

  • Inner-City Poverty in Paris and London by Peter Willmott and Charles Madge
    Routledge, 146 pp, £8.50, August 1981, ISBN 0 7100 0819 8
  • The Inner City in Context edited by Peter Hall
    Heinemann, 175 pp, £12.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 435 35718 2
  • New Perspectives in Urban Change and Conflict edited by Michael Harloe
    Heinemann, 265 pp, £15.00, December 1981, ISBN 0 435 82404 X
  • The Politics of Poverty by David Donnison
    Martin Robertson, 239 pp, £9.95, December 1981, ISBN 0 85520 481 8
  • The Politics of Poverty by Susanne MacGregor
    Longman, 193 pp, £2.95, November 1981, ISBN 0 582 29524 6

It is a common post-Enlightenment assumption that taking thought will help to make the world a better place. Gathering information, presenting it clearly, and then showing the relevance for policy, has a firm place in British intellectual life, stretching well back into the 19th century, as Philip Abrams showed in his masterly book The Origins of British Sociology. Equally, a concern to reduce or to ameliorate poverty is a strong tradition running from Booth, Rowntree and the Webbs to Titmuss and Townsend. Classically, information is gathered with such thoroughness that ‘the facts’ are said to speak for themselves, and ameliorative policies become an obligation which no humane society can avoid and still hope to hold its head high in the civilised world.

One might naturally take the heyday of this style of thinking to be the period between 1960 and 1980. Levels of economic growth in the early part of the period helped to build up a commitment to the welfare state and the social wage. Parallel with this was the expansion of Higher Education following the Robbins Report, and the specific expansion of the social sciences – a development to be firmly assigned to the British positivistic empiricist tradition. Skilled and highly-trained minds, combined with personal commitment, in an environment as sympathetic as any since the emergence of social science in the late 18th century, should surely achieve something. During this period a ‘new class’ emerged – or, as some would prefer, a new stratum of professionals, administrators, educators and technologists. The welfare state intelligentsia which spoke for this stratum was broadly committed to Butskellite ameliorism, and energetically took part in various official commissions, committees and panels. So much of life became defined as a ‘social problem’ of one sort or another that publishers enjoyed a spell of prosperity, producing a seemingly endless flow of books about the ‘troubles’ of education, housing, the city, and so forth. The issue of the day shifted in an almost random way from isolated old people to football hooliganism, from battered women to inner-city policing.

Who wants to read about poverty or the inner city any more? Perhaps it’s just as well that nowadays the only people who get into the first-class carriages of Inter City trains, heading for Important Meetings, are mechanical engineers and experts on computer technology. At last, some will think, the hard-nosed wealth creators are being given their proper recognition, and the woolly worthies put out to grass. However, the awkward fact is that no one can argue that the troubles have gone away. Indeed, it could be said that the troubles are so large and so evident that there is no need for professional polemics or expensive research projects.

It is with this in mind that one comes to a cluster of books published at the beginning of the 1980s which, in their various ways, throw light on the issue of whether ameliorism worked. Did the experts do any good? Charles Madge and Peter Willmott compare Inner-City Poverty in Paris and London, Peter Hall edits an SSRC Working Party’s Reports on The Inner City in Context, Michael Harloe, in New Perspectives in Urban Change and Conflict, edits papers given at the third Centre for Environmental Studies Conference in 1979, David Donnison reflects on his time as Chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission in The Politics of Poverty, and Susanne MacGregor provides the best of the bunch with her brilliantly incisive analysis of The Politics of Poverty in the welfare state. It is sad that she could not have read the preceding works, which bear directly on her theme.

With these and other books to help us, it is now easier to judge whether the Butskellites will ever return. Most of them are now sitting on committees attempting to make university cuts more humane, caught between their colleagues and the cleaners. Others have retreated to their families, are collecting old books, or have joined the SDP in the hope that the committees, commissions, quangos and productive lobbying can start up again and the fight to do good continue. But many, doubtless, share David Donnison’s ambivalence. Half-way through his book he enthuses over the role of the committed academic. He argues that such people should contribute to policy analysis ‘as witnesses giving evidence to public inquiries, as political activists and journalists, as administrators, committee members and expert advisers and, more generally, as members of a concerned and responsible intelligentsia sharing common interests in important problems’. He contrasts these academics with those who stick to libraries and theories and retain their intellectual independence: ‘too often, without personal, immediate experience of the practical problems they are dealing with, or of the political realities of the day, their social criticism degenerates into an art form.’ His own book is a demonstration that he is wrong. By the end, he has acknowledged that piecemeal social engineering did not work in the way it was expected to, and now probably never will: ‘Time is not on the side of the humane forces in this country. They will have to learn and think and organise if the drift towards increasingly brutal social division and disorder is to be arrested.’ He fiercely castigates the Labour government of the 1970s for adopting ‘the self-interested politics of the marketplace’.

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