Saint or Snake

Stefan Collini

  • Father and Daughter: Patriarchy, Gender and Social Science by Ann Oakley
    Policy, 290 pp, £13.99, November 2014, ISBN 978 1 4473 1810 1

Descriptions of Richard Titmuss often drew on the language of otherworldliness. He was ‘the high priest of the welfare state’ according to an assessment quoted in the ODNB. His entry there considers, though judiciously rejects, his frequent characterisation as a ‘saint’; understandably, it doesn’t cite his LSE colleague Michael Oakeshott’s description of him as ‘a snake in saint’s clothing’. But his reputation has remained tinged with an almost religious aura. Even his daughter recognises why he might have been described as ‘an ascetic divine’, who ‘with his lean face and compelling eyes, might well have been painted by El Greco’.

Saintliness can be an extremely irritating quality, especially when it seems too easily compatible with getting one’s own way. Titmuss appears, especially in the second half of his life, to have got his own way a good deal – in his role as professor of social administration at the LSE, in his public career as perhaps the most influential analyst of social policy in the three decades after 1945, and in his home life as the traditionally cosseted and deferred-to male breadwinner. After his death in 1973, such irritation may have contributed to some of the more critical reappraisals of his legacy, encouraged by the larger turn in political thinking away from the collectivist and redistributive ideals of social policy he had championed so eloquently. Yet early in the 21st century a more sympathetic assessment could still describe him as ‘the single most important intellectual influence on the study and practice of social policy in the United Kingdom’.

For a figure so widely regarded as pre-eminent in a field with more tangible and measurable social consequences than most, Titmuss had a relatively low public profile during his lifetime, and since his death he has not had anything like the name-recognition enjoyed by other leading intellectuals and academics of his generation. In 1989 a trio of younger colleagues suggested that he had been ‘a dominant figure whose influence may perhaps be compared to that of Keynes in economics or Popper in social philosophy’, but that judgment has not so far been reflected in early attempts to write the intellectual history of Britain in the second half of the 20th century. Although we have full-length biographies of a substantial number of historians, philosophers and social theorists, Titmuss remains a somewhat under-explored and shadowy figure. Two things that may have contributed to this comparative neglect are, first, the opacity, or at least largely practical character, of ‘social policy’ as an intellectual field, and, second, the fact that Titmuss for the most part pursued his goals away from the glare of wider public attention through teaching and committees and above all in his formidable, often technical writings.

Social policy necessarily involves the union of large principles and small facts, and Titmuss certainly didn’t scant or disdain the necessary empirical detail: his writings are full of graphs, charts and statistics. The book that made his name was the unexcitingly entitled Problems of Social Policy, published in 1950. We have numerous testimonies to the galvanising power of what the sociologist T.H. Marshall termed ‘a flawless masterpiece’: ‘Everyone who read the book shared my excitement,’ the American social analyst Eveline Burns recalled. Yet revisiting it today one is immediately struck by the density of information and the lack of any eye-catching interpretative or polemical claims. It is more than five hundred pages long, published by HMSO as part of the official history of the home front during the Second World War, and it addresses, with unyielding attention to detail, such topics as the exact division of administrative responsibilities for the provision of ambulance and other first-aid services during the war. Much of his later work stayed similarly close to the bureaucratic ground. So how did he come to be so influential and even revered?

The work that best illustrates the power and appeal of his thinking, and that brought him nearest to achieving wider public attention, was his last book, The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy, published in 1970. This was a characteristically detailed and rigorous examination of the provisions made by several different countries (principally the UK and the US) to ensure the availability of enough human blood to meet modern medical and scientific needs. It was the perfect topic for him, not just an opportunity to display his command of social statistics, comparative analysis and underlying principles, but also a subject that went to the heart, almost literally, of the nature of the social bond. After all, blood has been widely seen not just as the essential medium of life itself, but as the most elemental proof of a common humanity: ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed?’ Since blood cannot be manufactured, complex arrangements have to be put in place to allow for the transfer of large quantities of this precious fluid from healthy people, whose bodies will naturally replenish their supply, to those in need of more or less urgent transfusions.

A central question, clearly, concerns the terms on which these supplies are to be obtained. Economists are professionally disposed to argue that if there is enough demand for a commodity, a market will arise to supply it, and that in the long run the price mechanism will always be the most efficient way of ensuring that demand and supply coincide. Following this reasoning, the most effective system would involve offering healthy individuals a financial incentive to sell their blood, and on this principle some countries, such as the US, developed an extensive commercial trading system in blood. But other countries, notably the UK, relied almost entirely on voluntary donors, who gave blood as an expression of human solidarity and in recognition of the fact that since we are all equally liable to illnesses and accidents, so we all have a common interest in making the necessary remedies universally available.

Part of what was so powerful about Titmuss’s careful, thoroughly documented analysis was its demonstration, pace the economists, of the greater efficiency of the latter system as measured by all the relevant criteria: purity of blood, availability and reliability of supply, cost and administration. Though his treatment is restrained and technical, his conviction of the ethical as well as administrative superiority of the donor model is palpable. This is the ‘gift relationship’, a way of relating to ‘the needs of the universal stranger’ that was governed by recognition of our common humanity, not by the prospect of financial gain. And in this respect the book was restating what, stirred by R.H. Tawney’s ethically driven analyses, had been a governing preoccupation of Titmuss’s work for the previous thirty years or more: the need for societies to give effective institutional expression to non-economic values in the face of the tirelessly corrosive power of the profit motive. Employing a dichotomy that had enjoyed such shaping power in British social thinking since the mid-19th century, Titmuss saw the system of blood donors as an important instance of where ‘altruism’ set bounds to the operation of ‘egoism’.

All this might seem to suggest that Titmuss belonged to that long line of upper-middle-class, Oxbridge-educated public moralists who featured so prominently in English intellectual and political life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But in reality his was a more remarkable story. He came from a much lower social stratum altogether, and when he was appointed to the newly established chair of social administration at the LSE in 1950, not only did he not have a PhD (not at all unusual at that date) or a BA (unusual, even in those more freebooting days), he didn’t even possess the equivalent of A or O-levels. His only formal qualification was a certificate in bookkeeping.

Titmuss came from a lower-middle-class family that had fallen on hard and then harder times. His father had been a more than usually unsuccessful small farmer in Bedfordshire before moving to the outskirts of North London, where he managed to be equally unsuccessful in running a small haulage business. Richard was 14 in 1922 when the family moved to London and, his schooling completed or at least indefinitely interrupted, he was sent to learn basic bookkeeping skills. Low-level clerical employment followed. When his father died in 1926, his mother managed to wangle better career prospects for her son as a probationary clerk with the County Fire Office insurance company in Central London. For the next 11 years, Titmuss was one of the black-coated army of office workers commuting from (and helping to sustain) the family home, which he left only when he got married at the age of thirty. This early employment gave him a hands-on familiarity with the kinds of social statistics on which insurance companies depend, including the shockingly class-determined incidence of illness and early death. In keeping with long-established (but soon to be much reduced) traditions of self-improvement, he educated himself in some of the larger questions of demography and policy that underlay the figures which were his daily business, and in his early thirties began to publish articles and books on these topics.

The Second World War opened up new possibilities for Titmuss as for so many others whose opportunities had been tightly constrained in the interwar years. On the basis of his publications and his activities in the Eugenic Society, then a forum for the serious discussion of a range of population-related issues, he was recruited by the historian Keith Hancock to the imaginative project of writing the civil history of the war while it was still in progress, and so at the beginning of 1942 Titmuss left his insurance job to undertake research, under the supervision of the Cabinet Office, on the role of the Ministry of Health and related agencies. Problems of Social Policy was the delayed outcome of these researches, though by the time of its publication his temporary attachment to the Civil Service had come to an end and he was working as a social researcher for the Medical Research Council.

At this point his personal story intersected with what has become one of the neglected byways of 20th-century university history. In its early years (it was founded in 1895), the LSE had not been a conventional academic institution, partly because it had largely been founded by socialists to help promote socialism, partly because it had retained a variety of informal or unorthodox procedures from its early experimental years, and partly because its concern for social and political practice meant that it offered a variety of shorter or part-time courses leading to diplomas and certificates rather than degrees (as late as 1947 only 37 per cent of its students were studying for a degree). For example, it ran special courses for ‘colonial cadets and officers’ and for ‘officials of the Exchequer and Audit Office’, as well as a particularly remunerative course in ‘railway economics’. In this setting, practical courses for training social workers were hardly out of place in the school’s first half-century: since 1912, following an earmarked donation, it had catered for a variety of case workers and empirical social investigators within its Department of Social Science and Administration, later called the Department of Social Administration. Such work had roots stretching back to the Charity Organisation Society of the late 19th century and even to the settlement movement in which young, earnest middle-class men and women were implanted into some of the most deprived urban areas. At its heart was ‘the case-work method’, involving close engagement with the individual or family in distress. By the 1940s this was becoming psychologised, with the social worker’s intervention now seen as involving a form of therapy, a turn that has been regarded by later critics as yet another way of sidestepping the structural determinants of individual need. But alongside the practice of social work there was, as there had been from the start, a commitment to undertaking, and training others to undertake, small-scale empirical social investigation. Over time, the Edwardian usage of ‘social science’ for this mixture of social work, social investigation and practical do-goodery yielded to the more familiar academic usage, but in the mid-1940s the traditional amalgam was still more or less functioning at the LSE, and it was to be the setting of Titmuss’s first (and only) academic appointment.

However, in the decade following the end of the war, the school was beginning to move closer to what was becoming the dominant academic pattern: a higher proportion of students were enrolled for degrees, with a notably large increase in graduate students, and universities were increasingly expected to be centres of approved forms of scholarly and scientific research. Perhaps as a way of nudging the rag-bag Department of Social Administration in this direction, T.H. Marshall was briefly made its head after the war (he liked to refer to its purpose as ‘pouring oil on troubled daughters’, a patronising reference to the large numbers of well brought-up young women seeking an outlet for their active social consciences). Finding the role an uncongenial burden, and having, like other informed readers, been impressed by Titmuss’s volume of official history, Marshall engineered the appointment of a man with no previous experience of higher education institutions in any capacity to a newly created chair of Social Administration and ex officio headship of the department.

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Social Administration has not cut a striking figure in the history of modern academic disciplines: its opaque, faintly bureaucratic title may not have helped, and the temptation has been to see its history in terms of a transition from lame duck to lost tribe. But no small part of the vitality of social science in Britain in the first half of the 20th century and beyond was due to the mixture of impulses that gathered under this uninformative label, especially in terms of engagement with contemporary social problems as encountered in the local community. The processes of academic specialisation and professionalisation were not kind to this ad hoc coalition of practices, and it encountered increasing disdain from more heavily theorised adjacent fields. By the late 1940s the somewhat anomalous status of Social Administration at the LSE was compounded by the fact that a large majority of its staff were women, many of them with more practical experience than orthodox qualifications, and that its activities depended heavily on funding from external charitable foundations.

When appointed to head this somewhat fragile enterprise, Titmuss was an outsider in several senses: to the LSE (many of the staff were former students), to academia, to social work. And he was a man. Not surprisingly, the departmental teacup was wracked by storms through much of the 1950s; ideals, identity and amour propre interacted with the usual combustible consequences. Titmuss may have treated some of his inherited staff unsympathetically: the training of social workers wasn’t his priority. With hindsight, one can see that he was attempting to reshape his department as a centre of systematic (and academically respectable) policy-focused social investigation – in which guise, renamed the Department of Social Policy, it flourishes to this day. Although hard to pigeon-hole in disciplinary terms (‘social economist’ was the slightly old-fashioned self-description he had used in his application for the LSE chair), he had a clear view of the focus of his and his department’s work. His subject was the study of social policy, the elaborate network of governmental and non-governmental agencies and measures that determined the ‘welfare’ of a country’s inhabitants (a country seemed a more obvious analytical unit then than it might now). He never produced a general theory; his hallmark was the strong ethical purpose informing his close and formidably well-informed analyses of how particular policies worked (and how, above all, they tended to benefit the comfortably-off middle class rather than their intended beneficiaries on lower rungs of the social ladder). Through his writing and teaching and his institutional role he shaped a whole generation of analysts of social policy who worked in this vein – the ‘Titmice’, as they were known, affectionately or derisively.

It may now be difficult to recapture the excitement generated in the 1950s and 1960s by the encounter between social science, then enjoying its heyday, and the fast expanding network of services that was known as ‘the welfare state’. Titmuss was the master of rigorous statistical analysis of the practical effects of particular policies, while at the same time reiterating the fundamental ethical principles which he believed should govern a properly functioning machinery of wellbeing. In particular, he insisted on the centrality of the basic conception of universal citizenly entitlement, as opposed to models that justified benefits either as a bandage to staunch the wounds of a social residuum or as something that had been ‘earned’ through a contributions-based insurance scheme (he was too familiar with the insurance industry ever to have much faith either in its efficiency or in its beneficence). The avoidance of stigma was crucial, he argued: we can never disentangle the skein of causality with enough clarity to be confident in our attempts to discriminate between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ beneficiaries, yet we can’t simply allow the costs of economic life ‘to lie where they fall’.

Titmuss was influential too in maintaining that ‘fiscal welfare’ and ‘occupational welfare’ needed to be taken into account alongside the conventional understanding of the services that made up the welfare state. For example, on the question of old age he worked, unsuccessfully in the end, to achieve something better than the shocking divide that still exists between those with private or occupational pensions who have benefited from extremely generous fiscal treatment and those condemned to struggle through their increasingly long old age on the unlivable pittance that is the state pension. Titmuss consistently looked to social policy to counter the savage injustices of economic life and to express something of that sense of solidarity which he saw as crucial to many of the measures introduced for the first time in the 1940s, in contrast to arrangements such as the old Poor Law and its modern descendants which merely pick up the worst casualties of the market, having first stripped them of their dignity. Titmuss’s ideas have subsequently been criticised on various counts, but it is hard not to feel and respond to the power of such convictions, even at this distance and in our dismally unpropitious political climate.

Part of what has made Titmuss seem, in retrospect, both influential yet very much of his time is the extent to which his work resonated with sympathetic policymakers. He and his associates, such as Brian Abel-Smith and Peter Townsend, had particularly intimate connections with the Wilson governments of the 1960s, but their reach was not confined to Britain. They were consulted by more than one broadly progressive foreign government. Much of the social policy of Mauritius and Tanzania in the 1960s and 1970s, for example, appears to have been drafted or strongly influenced by this English ex-insurance inspector with little or no direct experience either of government or of Africa.

*

For all the probing, revisionist character of so much of his work on welfare policy, Titmuss, like most of his contemporaries, took the nuclear family to be the foundational unit of society both analytically and normatively. This, as many later critics pointed out, not only involved over-generalising a model that was far from universal, thereby marginalising those who did not fit it in one way or another; it also exhibited the gender-blindness of the time, the failure to identify the multiple forms of subordination and exploitation that sustained the role of the male ‘head of the family’.

In many respects, Titmuss’s own family life corresponded to that traditional model. When he and Kay Miller married in 1937, she, five years his senior, was a social worker. At first she helped him with his writing: the title-page of Parents Revolt, published in 1942, declares it to be ‘by Richard Titmuss and Kathleen Titmuss’, though a later edition substitutes ‘with’ for ‘and’. But after the birth of Ann, their only child, in 1944, and still more after Richard’s appointment at the LSE, they fell into a wholly conventional pattern: he went out into the world, did important things and earned the money; his wife stayed at home, did all the domestic chores and lived much of her public life vicariously through him. Ann Titmuss proved a clever child, rebellious in her later teens, who had the experience reported by other only children of being the focus of her parents’ vigilance while feeling peripheral to their mutual self-absorption. She went on to study sociology and, in a deliberately subversive act, got married while still an undergraduate, subsequently publishing, as Ann Oakley, polemical books on sex and gender and on the sociology of housework.

Maybe having a famous parent encourages constant scrutiny of the success or otherwise of one’s own career; certainly, Oakley has been an inveterate autobiographer, publishing her first full-length summation of her life to date, Taking It like a Woman, when she was forty. She has also written fairly extensively, and sometimes critically, about her father’s work as well as his life, especially in Man and Wife: Richard and Kay Titmuss, My Parents’ Early Years (1996). Oakley turned 70 last year and, prompted in part by having attended the ceremony in which a blue plaque was affixed to her parents’ home, she decided to revisit what she calls ‘the Titmuss legend’ in order to reflect again on the relations between her own career and that of her famous father. But this description makes the book sound more conventional than it is: this is not an autobiography, though it has many autobiographical elements; nor is it a portrait of her father, though he figures largely in it and, in more elusive ways, dominates the whole project.

Father and Daughter is an avowedly hybrid piece of writing, perhaps even more than its author allows. Some chapters are very short and focus on Oakley as she is now, remembering the girl she was fifty or sixty years ago, or else they uncover bits of family history from local record offices. A chapter based on reading her mother’s diaries, streaked with such declarations as ‘the emotional wasteland of my and my mother’s relationship has always left me floored,’ is particularly powerful. But in other chapters the register shifts sharply to include fierce indictments of the continuing inequalities between men and women or exposés of the patriarchy that is, in her view, constitutive of academia. More discrepant still, some chapters investigate contested episodes in the life of her father’s department at the LSE or the neglected careers of female social investigators; these are based on archival research and are heavily footnoted – they would not be out of place in a learned journal or volume of scholarly essays. Across the book, the writing moves between scholarly exactness and pungent polemic, dreamy reverie and pained resentment. Oakley’s desire to experiment is attractive, at times offering unusual insights into the dynamics of career-making in British social science and into fashionable understandings of ‘life-writing’. But it isn’t easy to pull off such shifts of register while retaining the reader’s confidence, and Oakley may, in addition, be hampered by a certain unsteadiness in her motives for attempting this unusual task.

There can be no simple or transparent stories by children about their parents. Oakley sometimes has a rather brisk way with styles of thinking that try to explore some of the theoretical or epistemological issues inherent in the telling of such stories. She says she has never wavered in her view ‘that what I would later encounter as “the crisis in epistemology” of Western culture – the suspension of belief in any kind of stable objective reality – is simply a trick of the mind invented by theorists who’ve got nothing better to do. Reality does exist, and so does the real stress and pain that derive from a completely non-random (unfair) distribution of life-chances.’ Much of what Oakley asserts in that last sentence is surely true, but perhaps some of those ‘theorists’ are probing what is involved in trying to describe ‘reality’ in language in the first place. Far from having ‘nothing better to do’ – an oddly Daily Mailish charge – they may be exploring some fundamental puzzles inherent in human attempts to communicate their experience of life, which may have particular pertinence for a reflective autobiographer who is attempting to understand the part played in her life by her necessarily fractured and unsatisfactory relations with her professionally very successful father.

Father and Daughter is shot through with a competitive impulse, a desire simultaneously to please and match her father while also showing some inclination to topple him from his pedestal. Most notable is the presence of a strong desire to have the world recognise her as a figure on a par with him. We are told more than once about the sheer quantity of the achievements listed on her CV. She refers to herself as ‘the discoverer of gender’, and ascribes ‘the introduction of gender, its differentiation from sex’ as the consequence of the publication of ‘my first book, Sex, Gender and Society in 1972’. Perhaps these claims are justified – Oakley’s early work was widely noticed and she has long been regarded as an important voice in what is often called second-wave feminism – but her insistent assertion of them causes the reader to recoil somewhat. Then there is the constant pairing of her achievements with her father’s in what she terms ‘the Titmuss-Oakley case-study’. ‘Thus, father and daughter both accomplished much of what they are most known for within the institutional structures and strictures of academia,’ she writes, or again: ‘The story of Father and Daughter has settled on two small moments in this convoluted history [of the social sciences]: the separation during the 1950s and 1960s in Britain of social policy from the older linked traditions of social administration and social work; and the emergence, since the late 1960s, of gender analysis. The first moment is associated with the legend of Richard Titmuss, the second with the legend of the “feminist pioneer”, his daughter, Ann Oakley.’ Even the arrangement of the bibliography seems expressive: its first heading is ‘Richard Titmuss and Ann Oakley: Main Publications’ and two comparable lists of titles are provided.

In a poignant passage she records some of the things she did as a child to get her parents’ attention and reflects that ‘for most of my childhood I couldn’t work out how to get them to notice the person who was really me.’ It’s a cry that may find echo in other writers’ recollections, yet there’s a slight but interesting awkwardness in Oakley’s phrasing. In wanting her parents to ‘notice’ rather than, say, to understand or appreciate her, she seems to have been asking for a form of attention or recognition for her achieved distinctiveness, an implication strengthened by the faint syntactical oddity of writing ‘the person who was really me’ rather than something like ‘the person I really was’. Perhaps this book may be thought of as the latest of her disruptive strategies for getting herself noticed – by her parents metaphorically, by others more literally. In taking the blue plaque as both her starting point and one of her recurring conceits, she may say more than she intends about her preoccupation with how certain individuals obtain due recognition for their achievements and others do not. Richard Titmuss was obviously not any kind of saint, but he was a figure of importance; the ‘legend’ may have been built in part of others’ fantasies and needs, as legends tend to be, but his achievements and influence seem hard to dispute. Only time will tell whether Oakley’s wish to be seen as of comparable importance will be gratified, but sadly I can’t help feeling that this book does not entirely help her case.