Social Welfare Regime Series: 2 – Social Policy Reform in the UK

Isaac Chng Yong Lun | Public Policy and Global Affairs Year 3 | 12th October 2017

From Poor Laws System to Liberal Welfare Reforms: A brief history and Drivers of Social Policy Reform in the United Kingdom

~ Social changes do not happen out of thin air. It arises out of a confluence of an idea with permissive material realities.~ Isaac Chng, Nicholas Yeo (2017)

Blau and Abramovitz (2003), in their book of ‘Dynamics of Social Welfare Policy’, proposes that social policies are grounded in the following factors: the economy, politics and structure of government, ideology, social movements, and history. This essay borrows the first three factors from this framework to identify drivers of social policy reforms in the United Kingdom (UK) between the Poor Laws system and the modern Welfare-state.

The Poor Laws System

The Poor Laws System were draconian by today’s standards. It directed the state to house the impotent poor in an alms-house–dependent on the good-will of churches and secular charities; and the able-bodied poor to a workhouse–where life was deliberately harsh to deter frivolous dependence on the state. Debtors were imprisoned until they pay off the sum of debt, accrued interests, and costs of incarceration with whatever little income they earn through prison labor.

On the ideological aspect, England’s minimalistic and punitive social policies manifested from conservatism. Considering that Protestantism is the state-religion of England, this conservatism ideology could be motivated by the protestant work ethic–which espouses hard work, discipline, and frugality.

On the economic aspect, the economy was rooted in the household, where family members had highly differentiated roles based on gender and seniority, and are obligated to support each other without monetary exchange. This cooperation and risk-pooling helped most families to survive. Furthermore, the focus of the state was the economy. The early Poor Laws System legislation in the 14th century was concerned with making able-bodied people work to mitigate labor shortage after the Black Death – which policy objective is arguably reasonable given poor labor productivity at that time.

On the political aspect, despite parliamentary supremacy after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, representation was undemocratic until the Reform Act of 1832 (officially known as the Representation of the People Act 1832) and Parliamentary Act 1911. Formerly, the House of Lords -consisting of nobles and landowners- was superior both in theory and practice. The unchanging electoral boundaries over the centuries have led to pocket boroughs with small electorate susceptible to bribery by wealthy land-owners and nobles to elect a preferred candidate into the Commons. From a materialist-rational perspective, these entrenched elites would be primarily self-interested and pay little regard to inequalities and welfare of commoners.

Transition from Poor Laws into Welfare State Regime

After the 1906 general elections, the Liberal Party embarked on Liberal Welfare Reforms that marked the emergence of the modern welfare state that is far more generous than the preceding Poor Laws System. Like the Bismarck’s legislation of the 1880s in Germany, the reform guaranteed national healthcare insurance for poor workers and pension for elderlies above age 70. This paradigm shift can be explained by a series of ideological, economic, and political changes that underlies social policies.

On ideological changes, there was a shift from conservatism towards liberalism. Weber argued that the original ascetic nature of the Protestant Work Ethics gave way to the ‘Spirit of Capitalism’-which espouses the rational pursuit of economic gain. The shift towards Liberalism was sparked by the shift of economic activity from the household to the industry during the industrial revolution of the 19th century. Liberalism recognizes that working in the market economy exposes individuals and families to extraneous risks of dislocation – such as economic recession, company bankruptcies and retrenchment. Thus, Liberalism argues for state assistance to dislocated families.

On the economic aspect, the shift from the agrarian economy to the industrial economy caused unprecedented labor productivity. This alleviates the economic constraints of running generous welfare systems, thus absolving the original justification for the draconian Poor Laws System of solving labor shortages. Moreover, improvements in labor productivity resulting from industrialization created the economic resources needed to enable the welfare state.

On the political aspect. Amid the industrial revolution, the 1832 Reform Act abolished pocket boroughs that were exploited by powerful patrons to install candidates into the House of Commons. This distributed political power to the middle class, and created the need for political parties to gain wider appeal among the citizenry, setting the stage towards liberal policies. The Liberal Welfare Reforms was a political response to protect votes from the threat from the emerging Labor Party -that promotes Socialism-, and capitalize on the rising unpopularity of the conservative government.

In summary, the analysis identified the following changes that caused generous welfare provision in the UK: the ideological shift towards liberalism, shifting economic unit from the household to the industry, the enabling effects of improving labor productivity stemming from industrialization, and the democratization of political representation leading to political demand for more generous welfare provision.