One of the greatest challenges for social policy in Britain has been to encompass minority ethnic groups, and in many ways it has failed to achieve this. Bochel points out that for many years social policy has been reluctant to recognize ethnic diversity, intending to be universal in character, so the issue of race has long been overlooked. This has had a significant impact on minority ethnic groups as the discrimination that they most definitely suffer in the labour market and in the community has not been properly addressed.
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Research has shown that men and women from ethnic minority groups are twice as likely to be unemployed as white Britons, and other social indicators echo this pattern. Ethnic minorities are also more likely to undertake low-paid, low-skilled work, and the vicious circle that stems from this – inferior housing, poorer living standards, and substandard schools in deprived areas – is actually partly caused by the welfare state system, which institutionalises this discrimination. The unique problems faced by ethnic minorities must be addressed individually, and until recently social policy has failed to do this. Furthermore, the emphasis on tackling crime that has underpinned New Labour’s social policy and that of the previous Conservative governments has impacted on ethnic minorities due to the often discriminatory nature of initiatives to cut crime. The ‘stop and search’ programme is unfairly targeted toward black youths, to the extent that many believe being black is tantamount to a social problem (McGhee, 2005). Such flaws in British social policy have undoubtedly contributed to a growing sense of isolation amongst ethnic minority groups, and thus it could be argued that social policy is often more harmful than beneficial.
Given that welfare states are normally associated with left of centre governments, and the supposed hostility of conservative right wing parties toward high levels of state intervention, the term ‘conservative welfare states’ seems somewhat of an anomaly. Nonetheless, there are definite examples of conservative states that not only refrain from fighting the welfare state but actually encourage the dependence of citizens on the government. This can be traced back to the Bismarckian ‘corporatist’ system of 19th century Germany, in which it was seen as in the interests of the state to look after the welfare of its citizens. This type of welfare state (in its extreme form) is less about reducing inequality and improving citizens lives than it is maintaining the status quo – a hierarchical system based on a culture of dependence (Esping-Anderson, 1990). Conservative welfare states are often religious and/or nationalist in nature, with a strong emphasis on family values. Epitomising such characteristics is arguably George Bush’s current reign. Despite initial cuts in public expenditure, government spending has actually increased faster under Bush than it did under Bill Clinton, with an increase of almost 33%. The religious aspect of Bush’s conservative system is illustrated with reference to his 2001 pledge to give billions of dollars to faith-based charities. Accepting the inevitability of ‘big government’ (and thus the end of Conservative emphasis on cutting spending), the republican government under Bush has prioritised public spending partly according to religious preferences. Therefore, a ‘conservative’ welfare state is one which uses welfare as a control mechanism, to advance a particular way of thinking – for instance religion, nationalism – on its citizens.
The 1970s certainly marked a watershed in British history with regard to the welfare state; however, to claim that the past 30 years has witnessed a roll-back of the state and a decline in public spending is at best too simplistic and at worst incorrect. In fact, research has shown that from the late 1970s, public spending as a proportion of GDP has remained fairly stable. Thatcher certainly espoused the merits of small government and individualism and bemoaned the high levels of government spending associated with the economic crises of the 1970s, but the welfare state had become entrenched in British society, practically to the point of no return. There have, though, been significant changes in the use of public spending, as governments have been forced to re-prioritise spending (Alcock et al). For example, spending on education has increased in the past 30 years, whereas the Conservative and New Labour governments have attempted to tighten their budgets in the area of income support through an increase in means testing for benefits. NHS spending has also increased significantly under Labour following the 1999 Comprehensive Spending Review, by approximately 4.7% annually (Alcock et al). Ultimately, governments in the past 30 years have strived to improve the efficiency of public services, and this has accounted for the changes in the use of public social expenditure.
Although it is important not to overlook the pre-1940 foundations upon which the welfare state was built, one cannot deny that the concept of the welfare state was most fully realized in Britain between 1940 and 1970. Building on the strong sense of collectivism that characterized the war years, the public and the government alike reached the consensus that state intervention was necessary to ensure that Britain would meet its full economic potential. It is widely regarded that the subsequent policies stemmed from a combination of the economic philosophy of John Maynard Keynes and the social philosophy of William Beveridge. The fact that a basic framework of social policy emerged for the first time was distinctive because it complemented the political and economic rights afforded to citizens from the turn of the century. Moreover, it represented the beginning of a rights-based citizenship in Britain (Alcock et al). It was also effectively the first time since the development of political parties that the common good of the nation prevailed over partisan differences. Asa Briggs’ classic essay identified three principal elements of the welfare state which were distinctive from the pre-war period. The aim was to ensure the guarantee of minimum standards (including income), social protection by the state at times of need and the provision of services at a maximum level (Briggs, 1985). Another distinctive factor was that this protection was to be universal – unlike the poor laws of the Victorian times, access to welfare was to be ‘free at the point of delivery’ for all, without the stigma previously attached to welfare support. Of course, the ideal of the welfare state was never truly realized and disagreements regarding policy were common, but the consensus that emerged from the Second World War undoubtedly marked a major turning point in British history regarding the development of social policy.
Alcock, C. Introducing Social Policy, Harlow: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2004.
Bochel, H. Social Policy: Issues and Development, Oxford University Press, 2005
Briggs, A. The Collected Essays of Asa Briggs, Harvester Press, 1985
Esping-Anderson, G. The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, Cambridge, 1990
McGhee, D. Intolerant Britain, Open University Press, 2005
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