Our Wonderful Welfare State

We have the best Welfare State in the world; so how can what follows be us?

Education performance has dropped to 23rd out of the 26 most developed countries, our health service is failing to meet the most basic targets of patient safety and care, our social security system has become an unwanted way of life for too many, house-building in the public sector falls in each successive year and homeless rises, 30% of children are over-weight or obese, we have or had the highest level of births to girls under 16 in Europe, sexual abuse and neglect of children is at record levels, our prisons are bursting with record levels of violence and drug taking and we are, not surprisingly, stressed and turning to over- stretched GPs and even legal highs, for relief. 

It wasn’t supposed to be like this…..was it? So what’s gone wrong and how did it turnout like this? You may be surprised to learn that these problems  stem from the very early days of thinking about these changes, when paternalism was a real force in the land……

So it’s not something recent? Well, taking the NHS (which I know something about, having worked in it and Department of Health) as an example, most people would say it’s lack of money or privatisation, but I don’t think that’s right or that simple. As they say “to every problem there’s a simple solution and it’s wrong”.

So to get some more context I went back to the birth of this great notion, not to the post-war Labour administration that laid the legislation but to the two towering dynamos who dreamed the dream in the first place; one was William Beveridge who identified the 5 Giants of squalor, idleness, ignorance, want and disease that he wished to see slain, the other was William Temple who, not only as a Labour Party member and Christian developed the  moral and intellectual basis for the work, but also found time to be Archbishop of Canterbury!

Temple’s contribution was founded in his profound determination to bring the love of God to all people. He recognised that in the dark days of WWII when he worked on this, that there needed to be a radical and prescriptive manifesto for a peacetime government to work from.

So in the winter of 1940 (and the conference hall he had earmarked for this important gathering having been lost in the blitz), arrived with his 200 delegates cold and weakened by war at the Great Hall of Malvern College.

And the history created was his 7-point manifesto (he called them middle-axioms) for the good society:


1The nurturing of children in the material – immaterial experiences of life, including support for strong, loving and secure family life, with a high priority on marriage – including if necessary, high quality child care provision, adequate income, and addressing the work­life balance of parents. Particular priority should be given to the first 3 years of a child’s life.

2The commitment to education as life-long learning in the knowledge of the world ethics and religion, as of value in itself, linked to strong, rich cultural contexts, with skill acquisition only part of such processes

3Developing health as personal and communal wholeness, including as holistic life styles, traditional and complementary medicines, and including affirming the spiritual dimensions of lif

4Recognising the importance of income and work for wellbeing, including affirming the principles of justice in the formation of prices and wages within and between nations

5Fostering care for and delight in the good stewardship of the created order, especially as environment, and paying unequivocal regard to its sustainability.

6Promoting an ethical finance, including by subordinating financial systems to the personal and common good of all, and by encouraging modest lifestyles including thrift and addressing excessive debt ­ all to be located in and sustained by a movement from material to immaterial concerns in the development of wellbeing

7Promoting more egalitarian societies and way of living, including the distribution of income, wealth and culture.

© John Atherton

What’s obvious from reading this manifesto is its modernity. References to ethical finance, holistic life styles, life-long learning, the importance of the first 3 years of life, and the importance of the egalitarian society’ all indicate just how comprehensive was Temple’s commitment and ambition.

We know now the battles that the Labour government had to fight with the medical profession to get the NHS onto the statute book and the vain hope that the giant of disease would be slain sometime during the fifties and the warmongering over the ideological direction of the state education system remains a writhing giant, ignorance, neither slain nor replaced by life-long learning and so it goes….

So a fault of implementation? Politics after all is the art of the possible. Well it certainly didn’t help that there was so much resistance from people who should have known better and looked less to their wallets and more to the good of society. But still there remains a problem, and interestingly the parts of this manifesto that shout out for implementation in our stressed and divided society are the adjectives! Holistic, complementary, ethical, egalitarian, sustainable, and yes, the spiritual dimensions of life.

This is not a failure of funding or implementation; it’s certainly not a fault of Temple’s conceit but it is a problem of design and attitude. This was a manifesto that was done-to or done-for rather than done-with. This was a paternalistic plan at a time when paternalism was very much in vogue. And this in hindsight is an over-sight but one that Temple might have seen. The point is simply that if your aim is to achieve a good society and particularly if members of that society are to reap the benefits of holistic and equalitarianism approaches then they themselves have a big part in delivering it. They are the ones left to do the really heavy lifting, losing weight, getting fit, choosing good food options, getting involved in civic work, engaging in education, participating in workforce politics, and staying away from the fags and booze!

So it comes down to inclusion and engagement. If we want a good society we are all in it together! We are not black boxes to be fixed by doctors, educated by teachers, or supported by social security. We have to believe we are valued, that our contribution is important and when we make it, we will be heard. None of this followed from Temple’s work although it could have done and wouldn’t he have seen it as Christian teaching if he’d recognised it? I think he should have!

So he missed this, or maybe Beveridge did or maybe Attlee did or maybe we all did (and do) in the rush to get great ideas implemented; those who are the beneficiaries of these great enterprises have a part to play.

After 75 years should we re-examine and re-vision this important work? If I’m right it would be worthwhile not just to find where this went wrong but to create a new manifesto for inclusion and engagement in our democracy. We would be stronger (and healthier) for it!

So a new opportunity for Malvern College to spring to the fore again?

I think so; we just need a William Temple!


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