In the era of popular conservatism, the Labour movement has abandoned the revolutionary priorities of welfare and community provision, and neglected the growth of “double standards” in the “irresponsible society”.
when the tide rises, the whole ship goes up with it. There is no doubt that—throughout Western Europe at any rate—the combined forces of economic stability, the high level of employment, the consolidation in certain important sectors of working-class power and influence, have, in the last fifteen years, raised the overall living standards of all sections of the people. Fifteen years is a short time, and it is hardly surprising that many people have been overwhelmed by the speed of the change. The most striking thing, for the older generations, has been the apparent abolition of poverty. They can still remember times when a skilled man in full employment could barely manage to raise a family decently, when no job was secure, when working-class children had to turn down grammar school scholarships because their parents could not afford the clothes to send them to school. These things were the rule, not the exception, and the comparison with the position of the skilled worker and his family today needs no labouring.
On the face of it, many of the ideas for which the Labour movement has been fighting for generations, have come to reality in modern Britain. It would be quite wrong to underestimate the effect of the Health Service, or of the work of some of the Labour Municipalities in providing social services of the very highest level. But the impetus has died down. In the Labour Movement itself there is a feeling that we are coming to the end of the demands which we can make of public funds—perhaps some slight improvements, say ten bob on the Old Age Pension, a tightening of controls on privately rented property, would be acceptable. But the overall policy of the Labour Party on social questions has not advanced since 1945—in fact, it has in many ways receded. Yet the 1945 programme was based on the Beveridge Report, issued during the most expensive war in history, and based on the experience of one of the most economically disastrous decades in modern times.
The ship has risen, certainly, but it has taken up with it first, second and third-class passenger decks, and some pretty squalid bilges down below. It is time that the Labour Movement prepared itself for another attack on the unjust, unequal, and decadent social values which still govern our society.
Two of the new Fabian series of tracts, issued under the general title of Socialism in the Sixties, provide the most useful material for the necessary re-examination of our social services, since the essays of Peter Townsend and Brian Abel-Smith in Conviction, and Professor Titmuss’ Essays on the Welfare State. These are Audrey Harvey’s Casualties of the Welfare State and Professor Titmuss’ The Irresponsible Society.
Professor Titmuss speaks of “the myth of the Welfare State”, and it is perhaps a good starting point for a new social policy to throw overboard this “simple, but crushingly cold and complacent phrase”. Both Townsend and Titmuss have made the point that the phrase is used to imply an achievement, and not an aim:
“The last decade has . . . witnessed a demonstration of the effectiveness of the myth as a motive force in British political beliefs and behaviour. Chief among these has been the myth of the ‘Welfare State for the Working Classes’. This has had a number of consequences. Reinforced by the ideologies of enterprise and opportunity it has led to the assumption that most—if not all—of our social problems have been—or soon will be—solved. Those few that remain will, it is thought, be automatically remedied by rising incomes and minor adjustments of one kind or another. In short, it is coming to be assumed that there is little to divide the nation on home affairs except the dreary minutiae of social reform, the patronage of the arts, the parking of cars and the effectiveness of corporal punishment. . . .”