Saint or Snake

Stefan Collini

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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.

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