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’.

His final disillusion runs deep, and is in marked contrast to the whole tone of the book, which is written in a racy style much like that of the Sunday Supplement memoirs of Barbara Castle, who gave him his job at the Supplementary Benefits Commission and whom he much admires. Donnison clearly found the world of ameliorist intellectual politics enormous fun. He is the archetype of the interventionist academic. He has sat on a host of advisory committees and commissions, notably the Milner Holland Committee on London’s housing, the Plowden Committee on primary schools and the Public Schools Commission. Before becoming Chairman of the SBC, he was the Director of the Centre for Environmental Studies: both of these have been closed down by the present government. For 15 years he was a quango-man par excellence, a man of engaging charm and immense energy. He revelled in the opportunity to visit schools, factories and Supplementary Benefit offices all over the country, and to make trips to other countries to get wider understanding. A natural democrat, he listens to people’s problems with sympathy and respect, and is swift to make the connections between private troubles and public issues. He is evidently anxious not to be taken for any kind of pompous professor. He enjoys being where the action is and he obviously hoped that his engaging honesty would expose the forces of darkness that help to keep the poor poor. He evidently relishes being able to describe how he was refused admittance to the restaurant at the Oxford and Cambridge Club for not wearing a tie, and how he then had lunch in the canteen at the back with Sir Patrick Nairne, who becomes ‘Pat’ thereafter.

Clearly, Donnison was successful in getting many of the reforms he wanted: for example, the relative value of benefits was published in the SBC Notes and News, and in the annual Supplementary Benefits review, in critical and outspoken style. He was ready to refute ill-informed accusations about scroungers and to say blunt things about poverty to any audience, from the CBI to shop steward committees, which ensured regular publicity in the ‘posh papers’, as he calls them. Unfortunately, what might have been his greatest success on behalf of the poor – the formalising and regularising of discretionary payments – may have the unintended consequence of making them poorer. If basic payments are index-linked, then, indeed, the discretionary element is better turned into a formal right. However, where basic payments decline in real terms, the capacity for more compensatory discretion is urgently needed, as has now become the case. Unhappily, Donnison did not foresee that the years of liberal economic expansion would end, and that the effects on social policy would be drastic. If we look at British society in the early 1980s, it is understandable that David Donnison should be forced to wonder whether his efforts over the last fifteen years have been misplaced. Perhaps it is he, not the intellectuals in the libraries, who made the error of judgment. It was fun, but was it worth it? Unhappily, the answer lies in the condition of our cities, the nature and range of our poverty, and the effectiveness of the health and social services.

Perhaps other social scientists saw more clearly what was going on, and gave more salient warnings, but were disregarded both by their activist colleagues and by policy-makers. Perhaps nearness to government clouds the vision. On the troubles of the inner city, it is clear that since the publication of Race, Community and Conflict in 1967, Professor John Rex has been better informed and more perceptive than anyone else: and yet he has not become involved in political or advisory work, narrowly defined. He has spent most of the period building up important departments of sociology at Durham and Warwick and getting on with his research. His own somewhat rumbustious and maverick personal style would certainly not fit in with that of the mandarins of Whitehall, but his firm adherence to the view that sound analysis must be based on sound theory – in his own case, largely derived from the work of Max Weber – has ensured that his contribution will remain important. He argued in the late 1970s that the Trade Unions, the Labour Party and leftist groups generally were received with suspicion, if not resentment, by black people, who feel rejected by the very institutions which might be expected to fight most vigorously on their behalf. Rex now directs the SSRC Ethnic Relations Unit at the University of Aston and he and his colleagues there have not been afraid to confront the problem of white working-class racism. In one of the essays edited by Michael Harloe, Miles and Phizacklea report on their research at Willesden. Although not strictly part of London’s ‘inner city’ as geographers would define it, it is nevertheless an urban area, suffering from the wider economic processes of capitalist decline. This diagnosis of the fundamental cause of the inner-city problem is no different from that of the Department of Environment’s own Inner-Area Studies, published in 1977. As the summary report of those studies remarked about inner Liverpool, ‘the poverty stems from the persistence of divisions of status and income in society at large. The continued existence of inner-area problems reflects structural changes in the economy of Merseyside exacerbated by fluctuations in the national economy.’ The same could be said of Willesden, but, in addition, the researchers describe a largely inchoate racism, which, together with the material forces creating social and economic decline, is seen as the source of its problems. ‘A continuous failure to challenge the racist explanations for material decline must leave the door open for those who gain by a working class divided by, amongst other things, racism.’

In the light of this, it is instructive to turn to The Inner City in Context, edited by the geographer Peter Hall, which reports the findings of an SSRC working party. Unlike Rex, Hall has been active in political and advisory capacities, has publicised his views and worked with planners and civil servants. He belongs to the stratum of Butskellite super-managers of pragmatic ameliorism. He has demonstrated a flair for spotting the issues of the day before most people and has shown himself as ready to put forward highly-centralised master-plans for cities and regions as to support islands of free enterprise and freedom from controls as a way of regenerating bits of cities. Hall claims in this report, largely without discussion, that the inner city is best seen in a spatial perspective and ‘that the inner-city problem – however delineated – can only be understood in relation to the wider metropolitan area within which its inner city lies, and to other metropolitan areas’ (my italics). There is no reference to the Police anywhere and no discussion of racism or racial conflict. In the light of the Scarman Report and of the admirable research done by John Rex and others, this is very odd. However, the report is a valuable exercise in economic geography, and, as such, has to tread a narrow path between showing that the industrial revival of the inner areas is exremely unlikely and arguing for more money for research on the forces of capitalist decline. Rightly, Peter Hall and Derek Diamond conclude: ‘An exclusive inner-city focus is misconceived and misleading,’ and ‘may divert social research from the important task of examining the macro-changes and their structural causes’.

This was broadly the conclusion of the DoE’s Inner-Area Studies in 1977. More research funds have been granted by the SSRC and another ‘summary of the state of the art is promised in the mid-1980s’. Perhaps I should acknowledge that I was originally appointed to this working party, but, together with Dr Sandra Wallman of the SSRC Research Unit on Ethnic Relations, I resigned in January 1979. This was not because of any personal disagreement, but simply because we felt that to do anything positive required more time and a different method of working. We felt that in the time available genuine multidisciplinary work could not develop, and I agreed with Sandra Wallman that ‘race’ is a phenomenon analytically and socially distinct from deprivation, blight or violence.

Like those who had worked on Community Development Projects, the urban research industry eventually came round to the view that the central problem was poverty and the decline of British industrialism. Place-based policies and pragmatic tinkering could not provide any lasting solutions. Ameliorism died in the 1970s, and with it went the world of the Fabian professors so vividly evoked by David Donnison. But islands of the old ways of thinking remain – such as the report by Madge and Willmott about Stockwell and Folie-Méricourt. Worthily crammed with statistics, which the authors show are not easily comparable, the report concludes, inevitably, with the authors’ view of what it implies for policy, and with a self-indictment: ‘the issues are large, our data modest and our capacities limited, but unless we take this further step the exercise will have been a hollow one.’ We learn that the poor are better housed in Britain than in France, but we are less generous to larger families. Therefore in Britain the family allowance should be increased and in France they should do something about housing. There would then, presumably, be greater equality of poverty between the two countries – insofar as conclusions of that order of magnitude can be drawn from such limited samples. Both authors have produced much more distinguished work, and both have done much to reveal the way ordinary people live – a crucial task if a society is to be self-critical and conscious of itself. Both direct a degree of healthy scepticism at the capacities of policy-makers. Now that Willmott has moved from the Centre for Environmental Studies to the Central Policy Unit at the Greater London Council, we may, perhaps, be able to see what kind of gamekeeper this particular poacher becomes. With the experience behind him of the reports from the Institute of Community Studies which he wrote or co-authored (the best-known being Family and Kinship in East London), one feels he will be more sensitive than some to the unintended consequences of political action. That would be no small triumph.

Susanne MacGregor has written an admirable book which should be compulsory reading for Hall, Willmott, Donnison and Harloe. She provides a rigorous account of the development of the British welfare state, focusing on attempts to number the poor and on measures designed to alleviate poverty. She documents and describes the various political factions and pressure groups concerned with poverty, and the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) gets the prize for the most effective agent of ameliorism. Academics don’t come off too well. Those doing research funded by government departments are not thought to have been very effective. Very often the Government uses the sponsorship of research as a device to demonstrate that it is aware of an issue and doing something about it. This preserves the Government from attack and can serve as an admirable delaying tactic. Researchers are typically slow in finishing their final reports, and publication takes even longer. By the time the results are available, the actual sponsors will probably have left for another department and a new issue of the day will be raising Parliamentary Questions. Much more effective is the CPAG memorandum to the Chancellor as he prepares his Budget speech and the immediate and informed dissection of its consequences for the poor after it is presented to the House. Few academics could function in so highly charged a political atmosphere and maintain a reputation for dispassionate analysis. Like all those who write on poverty, Susanne MacGregor has her final ‘So what?’ chapter. Even the best of the poverty lobby, she recognises, has only limited success. Indeed, she argues that reformism is in many ways antithetical to the Socialist movement. Nor does she see much hope in the Trade Union movement. Further, she detects a widespread disenchantment with political parties as vehicles for social reform, and repeats: ‘Private troubles are not translated into public issues.’ She sees some hope in community-based organisations and in unions of the low-paid: but it might be said that this is simply to move the ‘more thought will make the world a better place’ outlook to a different social stratum. ‘The lower-paid must work with those just above them in the pay hierarchy, like the lower professionals, nurses, teachers, and social workers or clerical and administrative workers. They must develop thoughtful and rational criticisms of the distribution of resources and propose cogent alternatives.’ But why them? What are the arguments for seeing solutions more clearly at that particular social level? More realistically, she recognises in her final paragraph that the traditional champions of the poor have had their day and that the forces acting against them are too strong. Resistance to increased taxation and the redistribution of resources is too strong. Those in the middle join more readily with those at the top than with those at the bottom. ‘Reallocation would have to be in the face of not only unwillingness but also determined opposition.’

Poverty, then, is not only still with us but is by all accounts growing. The inner city remains a time-bomb. There are few signs that economic regeneration will be possible in many of the cities in question, or that working-class racism will abate. The ameliorist tradition, with its supporting welfare state intelligentsia, is in disarray, or discredited as ineffectual. There is no political party, except, perhaps, sporadically, certain elements on the left of the Labour Party, firmly committed to solving the problems of the poor and the ethnic minorities. Academics are oppressed with the problem of saving their own skins, with writing to the Times about their own jobs rather than those of others. There is little sign of a new intelligentsia rising from the ashes of the old to create a new agenda.

Part of the problem is that a number of different activities have to go on at the same time outside the day-to-day political process. First there is need for a broad understanding of the structural forces at work which create the symptoms that are described as social problems. Rather than mop up the leak with a worn cloth, or even replace the washer on the tap, there may be a need for substantial re-plumbing. Enzo Mingione, in his recent book on Social Conflict and the City (1980), provides a remarkable analysis of ‘uneven territorial developments and the crisis of advanced capitalism’ which chiefly refers to his native Italy. There is little doubt that many who were not in the slightest bit attracted to his early Marxist theorising would accept completely this empirical account of Italy, and of the tensions and inequalities between north and south. The application of a similar kind of dialectical analysis to Britain, however, is still considered, in traditional university circles, to be a matter more of beards and leather jackets than of serious academic discourse.

In order to deal with the immediate practical questions, there is a need for pressure groups like CPAG to respond vigorously and quickly to political events. This second approach in no way rivals the more systematic approach and will presumably be as necessary ‘after the Revolution’, as they say, as now.

Much of the work of academics concerned with social policy in the Sixties and Seventies has attempted to make the connection between these two levels. However, an important burden of the books reviewed here is that, one or two successes notwithstanding, the final account on the two post-Robbins decades is small or overdrawn. I have put forward one explanation for the ineffectiveness of the co-opted briefcase brigade in my chapter on ‘Playing the Rationality Game’ in Doing Sociological Research (1977). This expressed my own disillusion after five years of secondments from 1968-1972. The field was that of urban and regional planning, and it seemed to me that there was too much argument about goals which could not be implemented and too little awareness of political realities. I was too often put in the position of being asked to legitimate what was going to be done anyway, or to put up the counter-case to show that ‘all views had been considered’.

If there is any distinctive role for intellectuals concerned with the problems of the day, it must reside in putting these problems into the wider context of structural change and conflict. Books which reflect the intellectual style of the 1980s would include Leslie Doyal’s The Political Economy of Health, N. Ginsburg’s Class, Capital and Social Policy, P. Taylor-Goobey and John Dale’s Social Theory and Social Welfare, Ian Gough’s The Political Economy of the Welfare State and Michael Harloe and Elizabeth Lebas’s City, Class and Capital. These books, and others in the same genre, reject the ameliorist tradition, and this is a healthy new development. University teachers should do what they are best at doing. They should use their independence, impartiality and intellectual freedom to expose the mystifications and half-truths of politics and the media, though they are unlikely to be much appreciated by government departments for adopting such a stance. During the period 1982-1985, when the financial squeeze on the universities will be severe, the need for critical analysis will be at its greatest. But the nettle must be grasped. In a recent Telegraph editorial (18 December 1981), the idea that ‘the problems of modern society could be solved by the combined brainpower of academia’ is quite rightly scorned. Instead, the Telegraph urges that the universities cultivate their ‘separate and inimitable traditions’, and ‘that the Government should not impatiently reduce them to servants of what it believes to be their needs’. The best way in which social scientists can contribute in the 1980s to the national welfare will be by the rigour and quality of their scholarship. That this may prove more radical and less compromising than in the past may not please the readers of the Telegraph: nonetheless, this is the proper role of an engaged intelligentsia.