You may want to question whether the term ‘sexism’ is a useful one to help understand the Beveridge vision, but you can probably agree that there is an idea about the family and about the ‘natural’ responsibility of women to do caring work that kept caring off the public agenda. But this still leaves the theme of ‘racism’ and the idea of the ‘nation’. You caught a glimpse of the importance of this a little earlier in Beveridge's confident remark about women having duties to ensure the continuance of ‘the British Race’ and of ‘British Ideals’ in the world. No public document today would contain terms such as these. The key factor that made it an important part of Beveridge's thinking, Williams argues, was the sense of national identity and pride prompted by being on the winning side in the war, and the confirmation this seemed to give that the British really were a superior nation which should be showing the way in the world and demonstrating its special sense of justice and fair play by rewarding its working classes and promoting greater solidarity.
There had been a Royal Commission on population decline, and encouraging women into motherhood was part of this national pride. So too was creating a strong sense of national boundaries and hence excluding the outsider.
This model of the men of Britain at work rather than at war, and the women of Britain at home producing children and caring for them had at least one practical flaw. There were serious shortages of labour. Part-time work for women increased dramatically in the 1950s. So did a demand for immigrant labour. A brief extract from Fiona Williams's writing will give an idea of what happened and will start to show why she says that racism and the ‘statues to the nation’ were built into the Beveridge proposals.
Activity 4: Racism, ‘the nation’ and the welfare state
Read the attached pdf of ‘Race’ and ‘nation’ in the welfare state by Fiona Williams and jot down your answers to the following questions.
What kinds of immigrant worker came to Britain in the 1950s and why were they encouraged?
Why were immigrant workers especially relevant in supplying jobs in the welfare state?
What examples does Williams give of the ‘social costs’ of immigrant labour that were often borne by the immigrants’ country of origin? What do you think the term ‘social costs’ means?
Williams argues that new workers were needed because of economic growth. She says that Commonwealth citizens were encouraged in part because they were British citizens already, and the assumption was that no special welfare arrangements would be needed. (‘Laissez-faire’ is a French expression meaning to let things happen – in other words, do not intervene.) Williams points out that very little attention was paid to whether or not existing welfare services were suitable for newcomers – the assumption was that they would have to ‘fit in’ and assimilate or go back home.
Immigrant workers were crucial in staffing the NHS at all levels but particularly in low-paid manual jobs. This helped to keep the costs of services down.
Williams's two examples of the way the social costs of immigrant workers could be borne by their countries of origin were: doctors and nurses who trained before coming to Britain, and low-paid workers whose children were being cared for and educated outside Britain. The social cost of employing someone can be thought of as the full cost of enabling them to work. It is more than the wage an employer has to pay to the individual. There is the cost of educating and training the person, and there is paying them – through wages or benefits – enough to care for their dependants. There is also the matter of keeping them well, of providing for them in their old age, and other benefits that the state offers. The Beveridge scheme increased the responsibility of the state to meet these social costs for its citizens. The argument running through the offprint, however, is that the politicians wanted extra labour without taking responsibility for all the social costs (including the costs of care for dependants) and without giving full citizen rights. The politicians were also worried that popular reaction might be to see newcomers as ‘scroungers’ on the welfare state.