1: The Beveridge vision
It was not until after the Second World War that the British welfare state took its mature form. In a climate of relief after the war, a climate diffused with an idealism for a new, more just society, welfare legislation had bipartisan support. There was a clear sense of rebuilding a better Britain.
(Bryson, 1992, p. 82)
These words, drawn from an Australian commentator, sum up some of the key themes of the period. There is certainly some truth in the argument that the welfare measures that were introduced in the years from 1945 to 1950 had a rather longer history. The period before the war had seen long-running debates about the lack of co-ordination of hospital services. There was concern to learn from and develop the existing experience of a health insurance scheme for medical treatment for some of the population. And there were criticisms of the legacies of the Poor Law – the indignities of means-tested payments for those in poverty and the fear among the old and impoverished of ending life in the workhouse. But the Labour government's landslide victory in 1945 (not quite as big as that in the 1997 election) was still very much about creating a new deal for ‘the boys back from the front’, giving them a sense that their country had been worth fighting for and would support and care for them in peacetime by offering them and their families the opportunity for jobs, homes, education, health and a standard of living of which they could be proud.
The 1944 Education Act was already on the statute book when the Labour government came to power. By raising the school-leaving age to 15 and later to 16, it was going to give children chances that their parents had never had – to carry their education on (if they passed the examination) into grammar school and even to university. It would open up opportunities for jobs, homes and lifestyles that the working-class parents of these children had only dreamed of. Another nine major pieces of legislation were passed with strong support across the political parties before the decade was out. The list of legislation in the box shows that along with opportunities for access to education came a house building programme, free health services and, above all, a comprehensive programme of benefits to deal with unemployment, old age and much more besides. It was a ‘brave new world’ indeed.
Main legislative measures of the post-war Labour government
1945 Family Allowances Act
1946 National Insurance Act
1946 National Insurance (Industrial Injuries) Act
1946 National Health Service Act (implemented July 1948)
1947 Town and Country Planning Act
1947 New Towns Act
1948 National Assistance Act
1948 Children Act
1949 Housing Act