The Beveridge vision
The Beveridge vision

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The Beveridge vision

4.3 Beveridge’s insurance model and immigration

What has this to do with Beveridge? His insurance model assumed that a man would start to contribute at the beginning of his working life and emphasised that he had paid for and was entitled to the benefits he and his family later received. This required a stable population and failed to anticipate the need to recruit men and women of all ages from outside Great Britain. Although they came initially on their own, it was hardly surprising that newcomers would want to bring families and other dependants.

The insurance model also ignored established patterns whereby men and women had long been coming to Britain as a result of poverty and lack of opportunity at home. They were people who sent wages home, returned for holidays and dreamt of being able to return permanently.

Victoria Station: labour shortages meant encouragement of immigration in the 1950s

This was true, for example, of many Irish people. Furthermore, national insurance did not offer anything to the traveller community. Nor did it pay attention to the needs of refugees. Beveridge's wide appeal was in practice an appeal to a nation that was settled, integrated and in work. And by presenting this majority as the norm, it inevitably constructed anyone else as different and a problem. Mason comments:

Difference, particularly ethnic difference, has typically been seen as a problem in Britain. This is in part because of the tendency to assume that there was some primordial norm of Britishness from which newcomers, such as migrants, initially diverged but towards which they could ultimately be expected to change.

(Mason, 1995, p. 2)

Notions of inferiority of the black population have long historical roots – for example, in slavery, in colonialism and in nineteenth-century science. Beveridge did not draw on all this in a direct way – but his references to the ‘nation’ and ‘race’, together with the details of how the insurance scheme worked, served to reinforce ideas of the inferiority of the newcomers and to heighten resentments between the black and white population more generally. Starting in the 1950s, Immigration Acts and Nationality Acts setting rules for who could come to Britain, and on what grounds, exacerbated racial tensions.

Concern about unequal employment opportunities for ethnic minority groups in the NHS continued through the 1990s
Concern about unequal employment opportunities for ethnic minority groups in the NHS continued through the 1990s

Elsewhere in the work from which the extract you have just read was drawn, Fiona Williams cites evidence of the racism experienced by black people in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s in access to housing and care services, for example (Williams, 1989, p. 164). The injustices faced by some of those who came to work in the NHS in the 1950s are also beginning to emerge. One source of testimony to this comes from today's nurses who tell of gaining the necessary educational qualifications for a three-year training as registered nurses but being recruited into the two-year training as enrolled nurses from which there was no opportunity of promotion. Legislation to outlaw discrimination was introduced in the mid-1970s and amended to give more powers in the public sector recently. The Commission for Race Equality has taken a number of cases against health and social services employers. In the past, people from minority ethnic groups felt that they were discriminated against for promotion and faced racist taunts and harassment when carrying out their work. Yet they were an essential part of the labour force that allowed the health service to develop. Such attitudes persist even today (Beishon et al., 1995).

Should Beveridge be called racist? Once again, we can say that he was reflecting the views of his time and that institutional racism, like institutional sexism, is deep-seated. I have been discussing not a particular agency but the policies of the welfare state as a whole. The overall idea is the same, however. It draws attention to the way discrimination can unwittingly be written into arrangements and procedures. It also shows that an idea that from one perspective has enormous benefits, from another can have deep flaws.

Key points

  • The Beveridge vision of the welfare state appealed to a sense of national unity and pride in ‘the British Race'; in doing so, it ignored the diversity of the existing population.

  • Its insurance ideal did not easily apply to immigrants from Commonwealth countries who were encouraged to come to Britain to fill labour shortages. Nor did it relate to the needs of other migrant workers or refugees or travellers.

  • The care system required them as workers but it did not pay attention to their needs for care.

  • To this extent, institutional racism, like institutional sexism, was built into the welfare state.

It has become increasingly clear that Beveridge's notion of the citizen – the white, able-bodied working man, with a wife and family he can support through his labour and with care needs that can be met through the family unit – is narrow and much less workable than he supposed. Policy has supplemented Beveridge's model in a number of ways – but his thinking is still present in the overall concept of the welfare state today. Summarising this course as a whole, we can state that Beveridge's vision, highly influential as a basis for welfare in its time, emphasised financial support rather than public provision for caring and caring work. It left those who for one reason or another could not earn a wage themselves in a vulnerable and dependent position. Its assumptions about who was caring and how, and about women, family and nation, had the effect of consolidating inequalities of gender and race rather than challenging them. These assumptions have increasingly been brought into the open and questioned.

Study skills: The importance of context

You have seen questions of sexism and racism raised in connection with Beveridge's work. Yet at the time he was seen by most as a very progressive thinker. So was he or wasn't he?

In fact, it is not an appropriate question. We are all to some extent prisoners of our times and of our own personal experiences. Nobody's ideas hold up against the judgements of all people in all times. Our capacity to think arises out of our participation in the discourses of our own times. And certainly we cannot be ‘heard’ by others and understood unless we speak the way they think. So influential new concepts and arguments are always framed within the perspectives of the time. But then later writers (in this case, Williams) revisit them and, in the process, uncover and question assumptions which had previously been unnoticed.

People have always relied on the ideas of those who have gone before, but at the same time they change and develop them. That is how knowledge advances. However, we cannot draw effectively on the ideas of past thinkers unless we are able to understand them in the context of their times. As a student you are not simply learning ‘the truth’. You are gaining access to ideas, along with a sufficient understanding of their context to be able to make sense of them.


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