Clement Attlee and the State

The post-1980s reduction of the welfare state aims to return provision for the poor to charitable institutions and community groups. This is one of the broader intents of David Cameron’s “Big Society”. While this soundbite/slogan has been lost in the grind of government, I believe he is sincere in his belief that greater community and charitable involvement is preferable to the state handling such matters. To the wealthy, community involvement is a fine thing, demonstrating leadership and compassion, while the state is cold, impersonal and prone to bureaucratic bloat. Cameron (though he’s never articulated this) is I imagine a Burkean conservative, a right-wing communitarian who sees inherited rights (of property, etc) a better basis for society and government than abstract rights or progressive ideals. (He has often said that conservatives work with “the grain of human nature”). However, as is typical for the wealthy, he’s looking at it from the perspective of those giving. To those on the receiving end, it looks rather different.

Clement Attlee however knew better. He served as a MP for Limehouse in the East End of London, an area of serious poverty and associated social problems. He knew what it was about. His famous quote about charity goes:

Charity is a cold grey loveless thing. If a rich man wants to help the poor, he should pay his taxes gladly, not dole out money at a whim.

The full quote, with qualifications, is:

In a civilised community, although it may be composed of self-reliant individuals, there will be some persons who will be unable at some period of their lives to look after themselves, and the question of what is to happen to them may be solved in three ways – they may be neglected, they may be cared for by the organised community as of right, or they may be left to the goodwill of individuals in the community. The first way is intolerable, and as for the third: Charity is only possible without loss of dignity between equals. A right established by law, such as that to an old age pension, is less galling than an allowance made by a rich man to a poor one, dependent on his view of the recipient’s character, and terminable at his caprice.

One should not have to feel gratitude or subservience for sustenance in a wealthy society. George Orwell has a memorable section in Down And Out In London And Paris, where he describes the aggressive behaviour of the tramps towards a church which distributed food to the homeless.

Outside the church quite a hundred men were waiting, dirty types who had gathered from far and wide at the news of a free tea, like kites round a dead buffalo. Presently the doors opened and a clergyman and some girls shepherded us into a gallery at the top of the church. It was an evangelical church, gaunt and wilfully ugly, with texts about blood and fire blazoned on the walls, and a hymn-book containing twelve hundred and fifty-one hymns; reading some of the hymns, I concluded that the book would do as it stood for an anthology of bad verse. There was to be a service after the tea, and the regular congregation were sitting in the well of the church below. It was a week-day, and there were only a few dozen of them, mostly stringy old women who reminded one of boiling-fowls. We ranged ourselves in the gallery pews and were given our tea; it was a one-pound jam-jar of tea each, with six slices of bread and margarine. As soon as tea was over, a dozen tramps who had stationed themselves near the door bolted to avoid the service; the rest stayed, less from gratitude than lacking the cheek to go.

The organ let out a few preliminary hoots and the service began. And instantly, as though at a signal, the tramps began to misbehave in the most outrageous way. One would not have thought such scenes possible in a church. All round the gallery men lolled in their pews, laughed, chattered, leaned over and flicked pellets of bread among the congregation; I had to restrain the man next to me, more or less by force, from lighting a cigarette. The tramps treated the service as a purely comic spectacle. It was, indeed, a sufficiently ludicrous service–the kind where there are sudden yells of ‘Hallelujah!’ and endless extempore prayers–but their behaviour passed all bounds. There was one old fellow in the congregation –Brother Bootle or some such name–who was often called on to lead us in prayer, and whenever he stood up the tramps would begin stamping as though in a theatre; they said that on a previous occasion he had kept up an extempore prayer for twenty-five minutes, until the minister had interrupted him. Once when Brother Bootle stood up a tramp called out, ‘Two to one ‘e don’t beat seven minutes!’ so loud that the whole church must hear. It was not long before we were making far more noise than the minister. Sometimes somebody below would send up an indignant ‘Hush!’ but it made no impression. We had set ourselves to guy the service, and there was no stopping us.

It was a queer, rather disgusting scene. Below were the handful of simple, well-meaning people, trying hard to worship; and above were the hundred men whom they had fed, deliberately making worship impossible. A ring of dirty, hairy faces grinned down from the gallery, openly jeering. What could a few women and old men do against a hundred hostile tramps? They were afraid of us, and we were frankly bullying them. It was our revenge upon them for having humiliated us by feeding us […]

The scene had interested me. It was so different from the ordinary demeanour of tramps–from the abject worm-like gratitude with which they normally accept charity. The explanation, of course, was that we outnumbered the congregation and so were not afraid of them. A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor–it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or a hundred others to back him, he will show it.

To receive charity is to place someone into a subservient position, and any healthy person will resent this. The only healthy way to provide welfare is through the state, as Attlee knew. His 1945-1951 PMship is still venerated on the left (and even praised by the Daily Mail) for its progressive reforms: the National Health Service, sustaining the full employment sustained by the war, nationalising the dangerous and inefficient mining industry, nationalising steel and rail, decolonisation of India, nationalising the Bank of England.

However, Attlee, perhaps through naivety, perhaps through decency, seemingly did not appreciate that merely handing functions to the state would not be enough. Curiously, there seems to have been little thinking about the state, or more precisely the governance, needed to run the new functions taken up by Attlee. There seemed to have been an assumption that simply to have welfare run by the state would be enough to make it both dignified and efficient. Subsequent experience over the “welfare state years” (1945-1979) disproved this. (There was a similar failure to consider whether the state had the tools to run the nationalised industries effectively, but that’s a different story for another day). As any common or garden economist will tell you, it’s all down to incentives. With government running welfare, health, pensions etc, there was far fewer alternatives from churches and local charities, so the state became a monopoly provider. While the left was happy with this, as provision through the state would be “democratic”, “for the people”, and other undigested ideological bulletpoints, the right-wing criticism of monopoly provision seems to me to be spot on. Lacking incentives to be anything other than basic, and working with the least empowered sections of society, the British welfare system might have been equitable but it lacked dignity. This can be most acutely seen in situations where state provision was to the politically weakest members of society – in prisons, the mentally ill, and the truly destitute. (On the other hand education, which had to provide for the middle-classes, attained a good quality of service – at least in middle-class residential areas, a post-code segregation which blights the UK to this day).

There are fascinating documents capturing the ignobility, inhumanity and oppression of state services to these weakest sections of British society. The 1977 TV drama (and subsequent 1979 cinematic remake) Scum dramatises the failings of the “Borstal” system of corrective discipline for youth offenders (and, more broadly, the entire public sector). It is a shocking indictment of cruelty and hopelessness. The photos of Dave Sinclair show a sclerotic Liverpool in the 1980s. Council housing was as variable as education: some areas held a mix of working- and middle-class residents in decent quality buildings, while some sink estates became notorious. (Not so much because the tenants were inherently bad people, but because some areas were used to house various strands of the disenfranchised, from immigrants to unemployed youth, leading to a vicious downward spiral). Even Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982), with its evocation of the bullying teacher, indicts the education system.

It is perhaps unfair to attribute all the failings of the UK welfare state to to Attlee, who set it up in expectation of full employment, and who would not have foreseen the economic strife of the 1970s. The welfare state of the 1980s was clearly not up to the job, but it had an 1940s design which had not been retooled or rethought. But the question of state provision remains: if the state is the sole actor/distributor, how can you ensure it does not ossify, as monopolies do, into arrogance and contempt for its “customers”? The classic economic answer is competition: companies, institutions and people stay on their toes when there’s a rival. The state, public sector, answer has tended to be checklists and targets.

While John Major was best known for introducing competition into areas such as education and health, under his premiership the state was encouraged to identify performance targets every year and to report on their achievements. The opening-up of the black-box of the state really came to fruition under him, an under-appreciated achievement. Also notable is the way that the public sector had to make year-on-year improvements without additional funds. One saw this in areas from the Post Office to the railways to school league tables. The targets incentivised areas to compete against neighbouring colleagues and sections, of course, but the key was the provision of information to the public and the year-on-year identification of improvements. One can imagine only too well the complaints from the unions, wanting a tit-for-tat, and their shock to discover none forthcoming. Yet Major’s reform was a significant success, with improvements in welfare and public services significant and sustained.

Blair’s first term saw a maniacal use of targets on the public sector, as Major’s reforms went into overdrive. But being bidden from the centre, they failed to get accepted by those at the sharp end, ending up distorting the outputs. NHS waiting lists might go down, but there would then be waiting lists to get on waiting lists, and so on. In time, Blair would come to realise that Major had the right idea and made “choice” his mantra for public sector reform. (See, for example, A Journey). Brown came to the premiership with a far more statist concept of public services, but by the latter phase of his time of in Downing Street, he too was advocating choice as the guiding principle. (See the excellent Brown At Ten for this about-turn).

What is interesting about all this is that Labour, as the left wing party, and therefore most closely associated with the state and with the public sector, rarely even had a theory of state provision. It seems that they expected ministers to instruct the civil service to provide, and that was enough; government provision was democratic provision, and therefore ideologically and politically sufficient. Not so. A monopoly is a monopoly, wherever it occurs, and unless it is fiercely minded, it will decline into the shambolic DHSS centres of grim 1980s memory. Now perhaps we have a better understanding. How we provide high quality state provision in education is the current foremost battlefield. If we can solve this, we will stop wasting the potential of half the children in our society.


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