Posted tagged ‘universal benefits’

Mr Attlee’s children in the academy

January 29, 2013

In the course of a recent conversation on the margins of a public function, a prominent UK businessman suggested to me that British academics are ‘mostly the intellectual disciples of Clement Attlee’. I thought this an interesting comment, made more interesting to me because, in my family, we have recently had lively discussions about the impact of the Attlee government of 1945-51. I suspect that few would disagree that this government represented a watershed in British political history, but was its influence as great in the academy as my friend had suggested? And even if so, does any such influence still persist?

Perhaps the basis for such an assertion lies in the fact that, in the light of the economic convulsions of recent years and in particular of the reckless behaviour by banks that helped unleash the storm, some commentators (including academics) have been calling for policy responses that would not have looked out of place on the agenda of this post-War British government. Or would they?

As many readers will know, Clement Attlee’s Labour Party was elected and secured a large majority in Parliament in 1945, much to the surprise of many political observers who had expected an easy win by Winston Churchill. However this election outcome was heavily trailed by the interest shown in the Beveridge report of 1942 (Social Insurance and Allied Services). That report identified what it called the ‘Five Giants’ that stood in the way of social progress – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness – and recommended a system of universal social insurance that would produce universal entitlements to benefits and service, without means testing. The report had been an instant bestseller (most unusual for a paper published by government), and this suggested that there was an appetite in Britain for more radical economic and social reform than was likely to be offered by the Conservatives.

In the event the Attlee government did a number of significant things, the most important of which in domestic policy were probably the large-scale nationalisation of utilities, public transport companies and key industries, and the fundamental reform of health and welfare (including the creation of the National Health Service, and the commitment to universal benefits). Its actions in foreign and defence policy were also significant, though they might look counter-intuitive to a present day audience: the strengthening of Britain’s defence structures, including the development of nuclear weapons, and some contradictory moves affecting the ‘Empire’ – independence for the Indian sub-continent, but the reinforcement of the African colonies. The Attlee government also initiated the programme leading to the development of nuclear power in energy generation.

How much of this is influential today? Wondering about the extent to which today’s academics (and others) are aware in any detail of Attlee’s policies, I conducted some totally unscientific surveys on Twitter and amongst those I have recently met in university life. A good few know nothing at all of Attlee or his government, except perhaps his name. Others express strong support for him, but seem to link him (or his government) solely with the NHS. Others indicate admiration of a wider range of his policies, while stating they were right for their time but perhaps would be less so today. Others are clearly committed followers, and some committed opponents.

It could be argued that today’s Britain is what it is as the complex legacy of both Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher, with maybe a little Tony Blair. Indeed Margaret Thatcher herself was known, at a personal level, to be an admirer of Attlee (which she confirmed in her autobiography). It is indeed hard to deny that the actions of the post-War Labour government changed many things, not least in that the number of those living in poverty declined dramatically between the early 1930s and the early 1950s. The government undertook the kind of major structural changes needed in post-War Britain to ensure that it had an emancipated, educated, healthy population.

Ironically, perhaps the least successful Attlee project, but the one that still has the greatest resonance in Britain, was the NHS – which perhaps produced better levels of public health, but over time left Britain with an over-bureaucratised health service offering visibly lower quality of care than in almost any comparable country; but that would be strongly denied by a large proportion of the population, making health reform very difficult, no matter what ideological direction it comes from.

The other major project – nationalisation – has not had such a lasting impact, and was fairly successfully reversed by Margaret Thatcher. The idea expressed in 1945 in a phrase borrowed from Lenin, that the state should own ‘the commanding heights of the economy’, would not now be endorsed by any major political party. But something of the spirit may have survived in the view that still finds significant resonance, that the state and its agencies should regulate a good deal of economic activity; the suggestion being that much more regulation would have avoided the recent recession, an assertion that may have a good bit of popular support but actually not a whole lot of real evidence to back it.

But back to the academy: is it full of Attlee’s disciples? It’s not perhaps a question that can be answered in any useful way. There is no shortage of articles by key academics suggesting there was something heroic about the Attlee government. But that doesn’t make the universities ideological reservations for 1945-style socialists. What might be more interesting would be to ask whether analysts of British society today believe that the issues facing the United Kingdom are structurally similar to those that obtained in 1945. Clearly they are not. The UK, and its constituent parts, has problems it needs to address, but they are not the same as those that prompted the Beveridge report. Attlee, and his ministers, remain important figures in the history of change after the Second World War, and they undoubtedly still attract academic interest, as indeed they should. But are we all Attlee’s children? No, not really – the academy is more diverse than that, and in the end also more modern. I doubt we are together and in uniformity the disciples of any particular person or movement; and that is how it should be.

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Fees, universal benefits, and facing up to the middle classes

October 11, 2010

Over the past week there has been an interesting development in Britain. The announcement by the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, that child benefits would be withdrawn from taxpayers on the higher tax rate drew howls of anger from all sorts of quarters. Many of them won’t have mattered much to the Conservatives, but the negative reaction from some of their own members was a different matter – and we shall have to wait and see whether the whole thing materialises. What makes it interesting, however, is that if this particular plan fails, it will be because the middle classes object to losing this little gift from the government. For once there is none of this guff about universal benefits being needed to protect the poor: here it is quite clear that it is a hot potato because the rich don’t want to lose their candy.

If political backbone is needed here, it will be even more in demand when Lord Browne issues his recommendations about higher education funding and tuition fees this week. Already opponents of fees are gearing up for a fight, and some of them may be intending to target their anger at the Liberal Democrats in particular, who not that long ago promised to abolish tuition fees. But it should be clear that no quality system of higher education, and no equitable system to secure participation by the disadvantaged, can be created and maintained without tuition fees for those who can afford them.

I was interested last week to hear from a number of liberal and leftwing commentators about universal benefits in the light of the Tory party conference. Some of them still claim that universal benefits are needed to secure an equal society. I would strongly argue that the conditions that rightly produced the British welfare state in the 1940s have long gone, and that universality has long ceased to be a tool for re-engineering society, but has become a method of subsidising wealth. It no longer makes sense. And it is weird that it is the Tories that may, just may, grasp this nettle.

Tuition fees and universal benefits

May 28, 2010

Kevin Denny’s study on the impact of the ‘free fees’ scheme has sparked a lively discussion on the ‘Irish Economy’ website. One of the participants in the discussion is Labour Party TD Joanna Tuffy, and one of the points she makes there is the following:

‘My purpose in taking part in this discussion is not to stifle debate, nor political expediency. Labour passionately believes in the right to universal education at primary, second and third level and it is something that Labour has stood for right back to when its founder James Connolly called for free education up to the highest university grades back in 1896.’

At the heart of the Labour Party argument (when it’s not about shy taxi drivers) is the view that third level education should be treated as a universal benefit – i.e. a benefit that should be made available to the entire population. It is worth asking whether higher education is best provided as a universal benefit, but actually we could usefully ask how effective universal benefits are nowadays in a wider setting (a topic I have covered before).

The idea of universal benefits is a product of the development of the welfare state in the period after the Second World War. It was set out in Britain in the Beveridge Report, commissioned during the War by the British government and published in 1942 (Social Insurance and Allied Services). The report identified what it called the ‘Five Giants’ that stood in the way of social progress – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness – and recommended a system of universal social insurance that would produce universal entitlements to benefits and service, without means testing. To a greater or lesser extent, the welfare state that emerged after the War in several countries was based on the Beveridge formula.

Beveridge’s ‘Five Giants’ give a clear indication as to the particular context in which universal benefits arose: a society that had developed the knowledge and the means to achieve health and prosperity but had not yet developed the social structures to do so. The Victorian society set out in Dickens’ novels was still there and was not being pushed aside by the political, scientific and social insights that had been acquired. The universal benefits principle of the welfare state would achieve this in one sweep. In fact, it would be impossible to deny that the welfare state did exactly that, at least to a very significant extent, and it is doubtful whether our modern more egalitarian society could have been created without it.

The major advantage of universal benefits is that they are easy to administer and can be efficiently delivered. The major disadvantage is that they are very expensive, because they are delivered to those who do not need them as much as to those who do.

As society becomes more prosperous and fairer, universal benefits become much more questionable. The major priorities of social policy then change: they should no longer be directed towards transforming society as a whole, but rather to target those pockets in society which have still not caught up. If universal benefits are used to do this, it means providing very substantial resources to the 80 per cent who do not need them in order to assist the 20 per cent who do. The result of that in turn is that the taxpayer has to find very large sums of money in order to achieve, in material terms, quite modest objectives. Therefore, for reasons of affordability, the resources that reach the needy are often totally inadequate.

It is, therefore, perhaps now time to discuss whether universal benefits are an efficient way of achieving further progress. Indeed, it could be asked whether they are even a fair way of doing it, since people who are less well off also contribute to the cost of making contributions to those who are wealthy. So as we discuss higher education fees, we may also want to raise the broader issues and principles of social policy.

Higher education is an extremely expensive service to provide, and in a developed knowledge economy it is probably beyond the taxpayer to fund it without a very significant targeted increase in taxation. Attempting to provide it free at the point of use without significant additional resources will result in a lower quality education system; but more than that, the very significant resources being provided to those who have the personal means to pay for it themselves compromise the state’s capacity to target the disadvantaged more effectively, as the money simply isn’t there (the wealthy have it). And it is this that has resulted in the lowest socio-economic groups still remaining largely excluded from higher education. Furthermore, it is also possible to address the needs of middle income groups without throwing money at the rich.

Joanna Tuffy, in her contribution to the debate on the ‘Irish Economy’ website quoted above, suggested that James Connolly’s call for free universal education ‘up to the highest university grades’ in 1896 is still relevant today. It isn’t. Back then fewer than 2 per cent of the Irish population participated in higher education, while today it is over 60 per cent. Back then it needed a revolution in educational practice across all of society, while today we need a targeted approach to secure inclusion for the most disadvantaged. You cannot look to 1896 to find an appropriate education policy for today, any more than you could find the right approach to broadband delivery in policies developed back then. These are wholly different times with quite different needs.

It needs to be understood by politicians pressing the ‘free fees’ case that this case is no longer a politically progressive one. One would like to think that those arguing against tuition fees are not influenced by the undoubted fact that reintroducing them will annoy middle class voters, but that they are doing it out of genuine if misguided motives. If that is so, they should now reconsider.

Social benefits: universal or targeted?

August 15, 2008

As anyone reading this blog – or indeed anyone living in Ireland – knows, there is now a major national debate here on whether tuition fees for higher education should be reintroduced. Leaving aside the specific issue of university fees for a moment, there is a wider issue that this debate touches upon, and which perhaps can do with a little analysis: should social benefits be ‘universal’ (i.e. made available to everyone) or should they be ‘targeted’ (with the resources directed specifically at those most in need of them)?

The idea of universal benefits is a product of the development of the welfare state in the period after the Second World War. It was set out in Britain in the Beveridge Report, commissioned during the War by the British government and published in 1942 (Social Insurance and Allied Services). The report identified what it called the ‘Five Giants’ that stood in the way of social progress – Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness – and recommended a system of universal social insurance that would produce universal entitlements to benefits and service, without means testing. To a greater or lesser extent, the welfare state that emerged after the War in several countries was based on the Beveridge formula.

Beveridge’s ‘Five Giants’ give a clear indication as to the particular context in which universal benefits arose: a society that had developed the knowledge and the means to achieve health and prosperity but had not yet developed the social structures to do so. The Victorian society set out in Dickens’ novels was still there and was not being pushed aside by the political, scientific and social insights that had been acquired. The universal benefits principle of the welfare state would achieve this in one sweep. In fact, it would be impossible to deny that the welfare state did exactly that, at least to a very significant extent, and it is doubtful whether our modern more egalitarian society could have been created without it.

The major advantage of universal benefits is that they are easy to administer and can be efficiently delivered. The major disadvantage is that they are very expensive, because they are delivered to those who do not need them as much as to those who do.

As society becomes more prosperous and fairer, universal benefits become much more questionable. The major priorities of social policy then change: they should no longer be directed towards transforming society as a whole, but rather to target those pockets in society which have still not caught up. If universal benefits are used to do this, it means providing very substantial resources to the 80 per cent who do not need them in order to assist the 20 per cent who do. The result of that in turn is that the taxpayer has to find very large sums of money in order to achieve, in material terms, quite modest objectives. Therefore, for reasons of affordability, the resources that reach the needy are often totally inadequate.

It is, therefore, perhaps now time to discuss whether universal benefits are an efficient way of achieving further progress. Indeed, it could be asked whether they are even a fair way of doing it, since people who are less well off also contribute to the cost of making contributions to those who are wealthy. So as we discuss higher education fees, we may also want to raise the broader issues and principles of social policy.

For all that, I might add that I do believe that universal benefits in some contexts are still right. I would strongly favour free secondary education, for example. But there are other areas where they have become of doubtful value and merit.