Martin Pugh on the popularity of the welfare state

  • British Social Attitudes: The 1987 Report edited by Roger Jowell, Sharon Witherspoon and Lindsay Brock
    Gower, 260 pp, £28.50, October 1987, ISBN 0 556 00740 9
  • Educational Opportunity and Social Change in England by Michael Sanderson
    Faber, 164 pp, £3.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 571 14876 X
  • Wealth and Inequality in Britain by W.D. Rubinstein
    Faber, 167 pp, £3.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 571 13924 8
  • A Property-Owning Democracy?: Housing in Britain by M.J. Daunton
    Faber, 148 pp, £3.95, September 1987, ISBN 0 571 14615 5
  • The Government of Space: Town Planning in Modern Society by Alison Ravetz
    Faber, 154 pp, £3.95, August 1986, ISBN 0 571 14568 X

One of the few growth areas in Britain today is the Thatcher industry. Battalions of journalists, political scientists and ‘contemporary historians’ are busily exploiting the phenomenon of ‘Thatcherism’ by analysing its origins, meaning and impact. No doubt, from the perspective of the British political élite, cocooned in the hothouse atmosphere of Whitehall-Westminster, it appears a very real thing. But peer below the froth into the minds of ordinary people, and the Thatcher revolution – even after eight and a half years of upheaval – is remarkably difficult to detect. This is the most striking message which emerges from the 1987 Report on British Social Attitudes, issued by Social and Community Planning, an independent institute founded in 1969. One of the great merits of the SCPR survey is that it poses many of the same questions to its sample from one year to the next: as a result, it is able to identify real, if gradual, shifts in popular attitudes, as opposed to the short-term vacillations which are the stuff of most opinion polling and social science.

As their title suggests, SCPR surveys are by no means confined to politics. Food, health and diet, for example, come within the range of the present study. Though registering a continuing change in attitudes in favour of what the experts now consider to be healthy food items, the 1987 survey also identifies those sections of the community whose views are most resistant in terms of class (working), sex (male) and age (over 55). But it shows that there is not always a correlation between attitudes and behaviour: while healthy eating habits seem to be associated with women at all levels, they also increase generally with age. To put it differently, young men are the least healthy eaters. Why is this? Do they have more cash to spend on junk food? Or is the macho British male still gripped by the traditional belief that quiche-eaters are wimps? As more and more schools attempt to wean their pupils onto healthy diets, it will be interesting to see whether the actual behaviour recorded in these surveys catches up with shifts in attitudes.

On the political front, the 1987 survey underlines the endurance of a high – and rising – level of public support for the welfare state in Britain. Nearly half of those questioned supported additional taxation in order to facilitate more spending on health, education and social benefits. Incidentally, the questions were posed in 1986, and one wonders how much stronger this sentiment is likely to be in the subsequent survey. Indeed, for the overwhelming majority, the only perceived choice is between higher taxes, on the one hand, and keeping taxes and expenditure level, on the other. Supporters of tax cuts comprise a derisory 5 per cent. It is important to note that, in terms of such criteria, popular sympathies have moved against Mrs Thatcher during the Eighties. Three elections and relentless propaganda on the part of politicians and the media have apparently failed to alter the centrality of welfare citizenship for most British people.

One can nevertheless detect in the survey a twofold weakness in the opposition parties’ position in this area. First, despite their rhetorical emphasis on unemployment, they have failed to make it a matter of major concern for the electorate: they seem unable to shake the prevailing fatalism towards unemployment and hardship generally which can be attributed, in part, to a prolonged period of perceived economic decline and depression. Second, there exists considerable support for the continuation of private health, education and higher pensions for those able and willing to pay extra for them: even among Labour supporters few show enthusiasm for the abolition of private provision for the wealthy, or for drastic redistributive policies.

The survey found a good deal of sympathy for business and industry, rather than the hostility which is sometimes claimed: but, crucially, it suggests that expectations are both low and still diminishing. When asked about the most important considerations to keep in mind when selecting one’s first employment, the respondents saw job security as by far the most important; and this preference has grown during the Eighties. By contrast, those who gave priority to opportunities for promotion and development have dwindled from a third to under a tenth. The relentless pressure of economic decline during the Eighties has served to make the safe-and-secure Civil Service more highly regarded than ever, and the risks and challenges of industry still more dubious. In short, the 1987 survey finds little or no evidence for the growth of an enterprise culture in Britain.

Indeed, it has been a consistent finding of the investigations conducted in 1984, 1985 and 1986 that Mrs Thatcher’s regime has failed to change attitudes by undermining the post-1945 consensus: on the contrary, opinion appears to have moved away from her position in this period. Three general elections have been won in spite of Conservative policies not because of them. This is by no means as unlikely as it might seem. Each victory has been won on the basis of what, historically, is a modest 43 per cent share of the vote – and it has actually declined, albeit slightly, at each election. Thus there has in no sense been a popular endorsement of Thatcherism as its policies have unfolded. Moreover, the 1987 report throws important light on the Conservatives’ success in recovering sufficiently from their mid-term doldrums in 1985 to achieve victory in 1987. It was not based upon growing support for the policies of Thatcherism, but reflected individuals’ perception of an improvement in their economic position, in terms of disposable income, inflation or unemployment. The optimism engendered by the credit boom of 1986 just sufficed to push the Party’s support back to 43 per cent. This, of course, is a familiar pattern to students of the 1955 and 1959 Elections. This study therefore confirms the view that switches in votes at elections are often quite independent of voters’ attitudes and opinions; in conditions of perceived economic improvement, a government can win the backing of many who do not share its views. The authors conclude, with some reason, that while the Eighties may be the decade of Mrs Thatcher, they have not been a decade of popular Thatcherism.

The 1987 survey also throws light on another aspect of politics which has returned to centre-stage in early 1988 – the Liberal-SDP Alliance. It suggests that the attitudes of Alliance supporters on social questions have moved much closer to Labour than to the Conservatives. Indeed, there are signs that in the Eighties Alliance voters began to diverge sharply from Owenite positions – a trend which underlines the damaging effect of David Owen’s manifest preference for the Conservatives over Labour during the 1987 Election. Most interesting of all is the attempt to measure the strength of commitment to their party by each party’s followers. This confirms, what some political scientists have already discovered, that Alliance support, traditionally believed to be very flaky, has become firmer. But when separated into its Liberal and SDP elements, it seems that the support for the Social Democrats is the weakest of any of the four party groups, while Liberals show a stronger partisan attachment to their party than any group, including Labour and Conservatives. Since these findings were published they appear to have been corroborated by the rebuffs David Steel has suffered in recent weeks at the hands of his party – which demonstrates once again that parties are much more durable than their leaders.

If it has proved difficult, in the Eighties, to shake the British out of their entrenched position then the first four volumes in the Faber Historical Handbooks series go some way to providing an explanation; they remind us how improvement has so often been conditional upon constructive interventionism on the part of the state, not upon disengagement from social questions. The series has been conceived with the distinct aim of examining a number of topics of current interest and controversy from the perspective of their historical roots, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries. There is no doubt that the books will fill a major gap, in that one is frequently forced to choose between historical studies which stop at the Second World War and surveys of contemporary problems which invariably provide no more than a cursory glance at the ‘background’ by way of an introduction to the subject. No reader of these volumes will remain in doubt about the importance of historical study to an understanding of present day social and political issues. Each is written by an established specialist in the field, and offers an admirably brief analysis but with plenty of depth and detailed evidence. Nor does the word ‘handbook’ imply a routine or anodyne treatment: the volumes are original, authoritative contributions. They will be of wide interest to students in various disciplines, to the lay public, to professionals, and perhaps even to policy-makers.

Indeed, in his contribution on education, Michael Sanderson provides bricks and mortar from which a dozen useful Bills might be constructed. In taking as his theme the widening of access to education in Britain, especially since 1900, he highlights a multitude of crucial and often neglected facts. For example, he identifies a vital flaw in the British educational system in its failure to provide for the education and training of non-academic teenagers: we have never had anything equivalent to the Trade Continuation Schools of Germany which received children from 12 or 14 years until 18 and furnished them with a mixture of education and paid employment. As a result 20th-century Germany equipped herself with a large labour force that was both literate and numerate. While few would dispute that the absence of this dimension in British education is a fundamental cause of our economic weakness, there is little sign of a remedy.

On the other hand, it is clear that since the early 1900s Britain has succeeded in widening access to secondary and higher education for working-class children. But Sanderson shows how this process was severely retarded by the financial penalties which deterred working-class families from taking advantage of the system. The abolition of fees for grammar schools in 1944 resulted in working-class pupils occupying roughly half the places – which underlines the enormous wastage of talent before that time. Moreover, at the university level, the high degree of wastage continued until 1962, when LEAs were obliged to finance any qualified student who gained a university place. Those who nowadays talk glibly about the inevitability of loans for students – including, sadly, those like the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals who ought to know better – have failed to consider the actual experience of this country in these matters. Before 1944, some 85 per cent of pupils at grammar school left before they were 16, despite the fact that the education provided at such schools was directed towards securing entrance to universities. If either the Government or the Vice-Chancellors cared to examine the experience of that generation of men and women, still alive today, who were in a position to qualify for university before the Sixties but did not in fact go, they would find that their families were frequently reluctant to borrow the money to support them. And these, of course, were middle-class families who did not, on the whole, have to be persuaded of the desirability of university education. Only a supreme optimist could feel confident that the replacement of grants by loans will not drive Britain back into the 19th century so far as working-class access to universities is concerned.

It is salutary to be reminded that during some twenty years of comprehensive schooling between the Sixties and the Eighties the attainments of British children – in terms of examinations successfully taken at CSE, O and A level – have improved steadily and substantially, contrary to all the damning rhetoric of right-wing politicians. In 1964-65, no less than 64 per cent of all pupils left school without any graded examination passes – but only 9 per cent did so in 1984-85. However, Sanderson also reminds us that in schools a high proportion of mathematics and science teaching has to be handled by those who are not qualified, because of the low level of salaries. In these circumstances what can be the purpose of insisting upon a national curriculum in which mathematics and science must be taught to a certain (presumably higher?) level than at present? Though an attractive piece of political packaging, such a curriculum seems bound to be a dead letter in many schools.

Another prevalent myth which is decisively scotched in this book is the notion that university education is unduly biased towards arts and social sciences. It comes as something of a surprise to find that these subjects cater to a much smaller proportion of students in Britain than in other industrial countries. It has long been clear that government attempts to shift the university population away from these areas towards science and engineering fly in the face of certain fundamental obstacles. Substantial numbers of science and engineering places at polytechnics remain unfilled for lack of qualified candidates, and since these subjects are extremely expensive, institutions cannot realistically expand them in a period of continued reductions in funding. Moreover, the whole attempt shows a disregard for market forces. For not only is the student demand stronger in arts and social sciences, but employers increasingly want to employ them: the proportion of jobs in industry offered to graduates in any discipline continues to rise steadily. Elevating as it is to read Sanderson’s account of the weaknesses and the achievements of British education, it is depressing to realise that Mr Baker’s current Bill makes little or no contact with any of them.

It is certainly difficult to see how the improvement in access to education which Sanderson examines could have been attained without some redeployment of the wealth of the country via state taxation. This is one of the themes of Dr Rubinstein’s fascinating discussion of wealth and income in modern Britain. As a careful historian he dwells a good deal on the various sources of information which bear upon this subject, and the difficulties involved in interpreting them. One can generalise by saying that the distribution of income has become markedly less unequal during the 20th century, with the inter-war period standing out as a time in which the working-class share improved. This was partly because of the high marginal rates of income tax and the super-tax introduced under the pre-1914 Liberal governments, and partly because wages rose five times as fast as salaries between 1911 and 1938. Rubinstein portrays this rather strikingly by taking the example of a bachelor earning £10,000. Before the First World War, he would have retained £9,242 of this, but by 1922 only £5,672; and even the tax relief provided between the wars would have left him only £6,968. As Rubinstein rightly says, the willingness of the wealthy to bear very much higher rates of taxation than in, say, 1900 is a remarkable feature of 20th-century society: perhaps historians should investigate it more. Alter 1945, the trend towards greater equality was sustained by the welfare state, record levels of taxation, inflation and powerful trade unions. Conservative governments, after 1951, did not check the trend – at most, they slowed the process down slightly. Only since 1976 is there evidence that the historic shift away from inequality has ceased, in that the richest fifth of the population has increased its share of income at the expense of all the rest. Wealth, however, remains more unequally distributed than income, basically because it reflects income accumulated in the distant past. Yet here, too, there has been some reduction of gross inequality since the Twenties. Not that the bottom 80 per cent of the population has increased its share so much. The chief shift of wealth has been from the extremely rich to the merely well-off.

In recent decades one of the major reasons for an increase in the income of ordinary families is, of course, the tendency for more wives to go out to work, while the wider distribution of accumulated wealth reflects, largely, the rise in property values and home ownership. Not surprisingly, the expansion of home ownership and the growing share of British in come devoted to housing forms one of the themes of Martin Daunton’s incisive and cogent analysis of housing since the late 19th century. As always, the state has played the key part. For instead of subsidising people the state in Britain has chosen to subsidise types of property. In particular, it has chosen, by means of extremely generous tax rebates to mortgage-payers, to encourage families to channel excessive portions of their income into housing – a fashion which the 21st century will no doubt come to regard as economic folly. There can be no doubt that in terms of housing tenure the 20th century has seen a revolutionary change. Up to the First World War it was a common experience to rent one’s house, even for relatively wealthy people. But since that time the private rented sector in British housing has steadily diminished. In 1914 nearly 90 per cent of housing was provided by private landlords, but between the wars a major expansion of owner-occupation occurred simultaneously with the development of large-scale council housing. As a result, by 1980 57 per cent of homes were owner-occupied, 29 per cent council-owned, and only 13 per cent provided by private landlords. Dr Daunton argues convincingly that there was nothing inevitable about this; and he analyses the origins of the decline of the private landlord from the Late Victorian and Edwardian periods by drawing attention to the lower-middle-class character of many owners, the pressure of rates upon them, the dubious economics of small builders, and the Rent Restriction Act of 1915, which initiated controls never entirely lifted after the war.

Daunton goes so far in challenging the inevitability of council housing that it becomes difficult to see why the policy emerged at all. In this respect, Alison Ravetz offers a different view, in that she stresses the tradition of public housing, especially in connection with bodies like the London County Council, as a series of steps from the late 19th century onwards. Her emphasis diverges also in placing council housing in the context of the idealistic garden-city approach. For better or for worse, the hand of a benevolent state seems to be behind each and every development. For all its faults, our system of town and country planning is the outcome the 19th-century concern over the disorderly growth of industrial towns and the subsequent chaos of suburbanisation. Ravetz invites us to contemplate the likely appearance of Britain in the absence of intervention to restrain private enterprise. Planning, it seems, is another great Victorian value.