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One definition of social policy is the legal framework from within which society, or in our sphere, medical professionals operate. In the UK social policy mainly consists of Acts of Parliament, although there is also an element of Common Law (laws that are made by the courts) and Ministerial Instruments (Instructions from Ministers that instruct). It is worth noting that all social policy that is passed is within the context of the UK being a ‘western democracy’ and as part of the EU.
The notion of western democracy is important. Parliament does not just pass legislation, it attempts to pass legislation that is either in the short term or long term interests of the electorate, us! We elect and lobby MPs, governments are formed and Bills are introduced and discussed in both Houses. In addition we join pressure groups and professional associations that attempt to exert influence on the legislative process.
One of consequences of legislation is that ‘society’ begins to work on behalf of individuals. John Locke introduced the idea of a Social Contract – the relationship between the state and the individual; the idea that the state should provide a minimum standard of living for the individual. Poor Laws were introduced as far Back as 1536 – an attempt by the state to provide work for the individual. Laissez Faire – the idea that market forces should prevail was being questioned, Charities, the church and philanthropists began to provide for people. Samuel Greg, for example, founded Styal Mill in Cheshire, an industrial work place, but he also took in children and trained them to work in the mill as well as providing quality housing and health care provision for his workers. This approach took a while to bed in bed other captains of industry began to see the advantages of treating their employees with compassion and soon began to lobby government to organise this new interventionist approach to society. In 1870 the Forster Act was passed, this was the turning point – the state took responsibility for education for children between the ages of 5 and 12. Further changes to the education, pensions and benefits systems were introduced over the next 80 years but the main raft of social policies were introduced after WWII.
During WWII William Beveridge conducted an audit into the state of the nation. He toured the country and was astonished with what he found. Britain was not a country fit for heroes. Change was needed. He identified 5 great evils: Want, Ignorance, Squalor, Disease and Idleness. Together these evils prevented Britain realising its potential, they were a cancer evident in the fabric of society. Together they negated any notions of meritocracy.
With the end of WWII came great optimism, a new post modern society was the vision. Politicians saw their roles as architects of such a society. In July 1947 The Welfare State was officially launched. It aimed to provide a safety net for the population, to intervene in people’s lives and to provide where and when needed. The days of Laissez Faire were over – the state would provide. The Welfare State also aimed to eradicate the 5 great evils in the following ways…
Want: A universal benefits system was introduced. No longer were those in poverty forced to go cap in hand to the church, family members or charities. Many benefits were not means tested – they were universal, e.g. Child benefit is paid to all mothers irrespective of income.
Ignorance: The Tri-partite system was introduced as a result of the Bulter Education Act 1944. All students sat the 11+ and the result of this exam determined what school they then attended; Grammar School, Secondary Modern Schools, or Secondary Technical Schools. All students attended school until the age of 15 and it was free.
Squalor: Squalor means absolute and systemic poverty that is exacerbated by appalling living conditions, e.g. the Gorbals Tenements in Glasgow or the Victorian slums in many industrial cities e.g. Burnley, which were described as, ‘crowded, one of the most filthy and one of the most unhealthy villages…’ P144 Briggs.
In addition there was the opportunity that was created by the bombings of the major cities during WWII. People needed housing and needed it fast.
The result was The New Towns Act that were passed by Parliament in 1946. It enabled local authorities to build completely new towns in the following areas: England; Basildon, Bracknell, Corby, Harlow, Hatfield, Hemel Hempstead, Milton Keyes, Newton Aycliffe, Peterlee, Redditch, Runcorn, Skelmersdale, Stevenage, Telford, Washington, and Welwyn Garden City.
Idleness: People faced crippling unemployment. The Great Depression started in 1929 in the US but continued well into the 1930s and 1940, real economic activity only came as a result of WWII. People needed jobs and the government proposed a policy called ‘Jobs For All.’ Everyone who needed / wanted a job would be given a job by the government. This was relatively easy to achieve as the welfare state saw a massive building programme and subsequent job in health, education, benefits, etc.
The following graph show unemployment rates since WWII:
Disease: The government introduced the national Health System in 1947, for the 1st time ever all people had access to free GPs, Hospital care, midwives, Dentists, Opticians etc. Prescriptions were free, inoculations were given, the old killers; TB, Polio, etc were virtually eradicated. Infant mortality rates dropped, life expectance rose and it appeared that the initial spending by the state could be reduced as people were becoming dramatically healthier.
All of the above was free at the point of access. The Welfare State was paid for initially by government borrowing and National Insurance contributions.
One of the remarkable things about the Welfare State is that is saw the origins of ‘Consensus Politics.’ Consensus Politics can be defined as the ‘phrase used to describe the practice of government in Britain between 1945 and 1979. The phenomenon was observed by political scientists and media commentators; Britain’s two major political parties, the Conservative Party and Labour Party, were in agreement, or consensus, over certain basic government policies in the decades after World War II. The introduction of fundamental changes in government responsibility, such as the welfare state, the national health service (NHS), and widespread nationalization of industry, were effectively unchallenged by either party.’
Essentially this means that regardless of who was in power from 1945 to the mid 1970s both parties agreed to the broad principles of the Welfare State, Interventionism and State Control of Industry.’ Governments strived to be philanthropic in their nature, to support people, to enable people to realise their potential. Britain strived to become more meritocratic in nature. No longer would it be the case that people were given jobs due to their family, with a free education system according to, age, aptitude and ability’ theoretically anyone could rise from the lowest social class to the top jobs in society, John Prescott being a relatively good example of where this has been the case.
What led to the end of consensus politics is a matter of debate. James Callaghan’s Great Debate Speech at Ruskin College Oxford is cited as a turning point. Essentially he asked the questions: what has the Welfare state achieved thus far and, more importantly, what is the future? Here both main parties went their separate ways. Thatcher was elected in 1979 and with her came politics of the market and the New Right. During the 1980 Labour wet left on the political spectrum…
Thatcher sold off the Industrialised industries, she also introduced the broad principles of the market into the various parts of the Welfare State. This policy is know as markedization. Essentially the five major components of the Welfare State were re-orientated in way to create a more flexible workforce, and a way where the principles of the market were the most important. The important policies that were introduced during this time were:
Education: The Educational Reform Act 1988 – introduced OFSTED, League tables, GM schools, competition between schools. Passing exams became more important that gaining an education.
Health: ‘Ken Clarke’s mainly effective reforms. Health authorities were now purchasers buying broad block contracts from hospitals. Regional authorities took strategic decisions. Costs became more transparent; the one error was allowing competition on price. To ginger up the market, keen GPs held their own budgets to buy faster services for their patients, creating an unfair two-tier system. But this was a purely internal market with no private involvement and all cash staying in the NHS.’ The Guardian 7th October 2005
Housing: Council homes were sold off by Thatcher at greatly reduced rates, thus creating a need for more social housing and also a raft of new ‘middle class’ propertied people who now may well vote Conservative.
At its simplest, if the Welfare State were a safety net suspended beneath society to help people bounce back into work, affluence etc, the safety net was lowered, people would have to look after themselves again. The days of Big Interventionist Government were over as epitomised by Thatcher’s quote in 1987: “I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”
The New right dominated through to 1997. Blaire was elected on May 2nd 1997, at the celebration party they played d-ream ‘things can only get better.’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RHXA5GykEbw it appeared to be the start of a brave new era, underpinned by Giddens’ Third Way, neither left wing or right wing politics but a realistic and pragmatic combination of both and a smattering of blue skies thinking – the challenging of paradigms. Thirteen years later, subsequent elections, wars in Iraq, sleaze and MPs and it would appear that there was very little difference between Thatcher, Major, Blaire or Brown. All we have seen is the consensus politics after WWII replaced with neo-consensus politics that is to the right of the political spectrum. At the very least politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose, to be frank they are at least disingenuous, at worse they are mere puppets.
The Marxist model of power advocates that power resides in the hands of the bourgeoisie, Britain is not a meritocracy of a democracy, and such notions are illusions perpetuated by the bourgeoisie to perpetuate false class consciousness. All the welfare state actually achieves is a proletariat who are educated, housed and healthy enough to be exploited by the bourgeoisie in the capitalist means of production. Politicians merely manage the affairs of the bourgeoisie. All legislation that has ever been passes is initially in the interests of the bourgeoisie. The welfare state for example is not some altruistic gift from government – it is actually paid for by the proletariat. If one were to consider the works of Althusser, Illich, Bowles and Gintis etc, then one might actually conclude that the welfare state is actually against the interests of the Proletariat.
To conclude one could look at Britain PLC. Postmodernism would argue that NGOs and TNCs are far more influential that nations – particularly small nations like the UK. What politicians do needs to be as a consequence of global factors. Young people today are competing for jobs with people in their own town as well as those from India and China and the skills that they need must reflect this fact. Future social policy will be very similar to legislation passed in other countries. This can be seen with the Health care reforms advocated by Obahma, or the educational policies in operation in Australia, we are becoming similar, globalization is happening, IT is creating a homogenous mass.
- Sociology in Focus. Haralambos. 7th Edition. 2008
- Social Insurance and Allied Services. Sir William Beveridge. 1942.
- Victorian Cities by Asia Briggs 1993.
- Giddens: The Third Way. The Renewal of Social Democracy. 1998