Death of a Dream: liberal values and the crisis of the British Welfare State, 1945-2014

Feb 2019 | 168

Authors: Harold Carter

Social intervention by governments in liberal democracies faces two major problems. The first is that it tends to reward the majority at the expense of the weak; there is no agreed way to trade-off the claims of different groups on a limited pool of resources, so it comes down to political muscle. The second is that support for intervention depends on a continuing flow of new resources, to fix each new problem while still preserving the interests of existing clients – and as a result, subsidies and controls multiply, despite the fact that they often pursue conflicting goals. In the early days of the British welfare state these dilemmas were resolved by shared assumptions that were fundamentally illiberal, excluding some groups altogether and enabling a clear pecking order amongst the rest. By the end of the century these narratives had largely been rejected. What happened was not a collapse in the fact of collective provision (which continued to grow) but a collapse in the narrative by which it was understood. Unable to resist popular pressure to spend more, governments were also unable to build the public confidence necessary to persuade taxpayers to pay for what they wanted. The easiest course of action was to give in to vested interests; to fund as much as possible by borrowing, on and off the balance sheet; and once the money started to run out, to give in to the most powerful groups, and to pay proportionately less attention to the less vocal.

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