Hilary Cottam > Blog > Welfare State > We don’t talk (about the welfare state) anymore …

We don’t talk (about the welfare state) anymore …

Since the 1980s the term ‘welfare state’ has fallen out of use and out of favour. No recent government papers have used these words in their title.   That was the claim made last week by the journalist and biographer of the Welfare State Nicholas Timmins. Timmins searched government records for use of the term ‘welfare state’ and found that between 1980 and 2010 the use of the term had fallen by over 70 percent. (Use of the term social security had fallen by over 80 percent in the same period).

What happened? Timmins suggests that the Blair government split the welfare state apart. ‘Welfare’ was the term they and we increasingly use for the derided means tested benefits for the unemployed. ‘Public services’ – which would be shiny, modern and for all of us – was the term used to describe health and education, the good parts. In the process the meaning of the term welfare – to fare well – was turned on its head. Welfare became a term of abuse – something for the scroungers and those living on benefits.

I know about this distrust of ‘the welfare state’. I’ve been writing a book about the subject. My ideas were greeted with enthusiasm and various publishers bid for the book – but none of them wanted welfare state in the title. ‘No-one will read a book about the welfare state’ I was told.


Timmins was speaking at an RSA event held to mark 75 years since the publication of the Beveridge Report, the post war blueprint for the welfare state. His fellow panellists Stephen Armstrong and Anna Minton have recently written their own excellent books on related subjects. Armstrong’s book powerfully dissects the New Poverty of this century and Minton’s book tells a story about the housing crisis in the Big Capital.

What strikes me about both these books and their arguments is this common theme: we are no longer talking about what really matters. Unemployment benefits account for one percent of our welfare budget but we talk about them incessantly. In contrast, sixty percent of British families in work receive benefits – they are paid wages that are too low to live on – but we rarely ask why the state is forced to subsidise low private sector wages. In the world of housing opaque language is used to create a reality few of us can understand. In the housing world ‘affordable’ housing means the very opposite and the official policy of Westminster – one of the richest parts of one of the richest cities in the world – is, according to Minton, to find homes for their poorer residents in Coventry or other more Northerly cities. Who knew? Apparently very few of us because it is not just politicians who don’t talk about the welfare state any more.

Seventy five years ago when Beveridge published his report it was very different. There was a hunger to know about and be part of radical social change. People queued up to get hold of a copy of the Beveridge Report which had to be re-printed again and again to satisfy public demand.

In his report and through countless interviews and seminars Beveridge told a story – about the welfare state and about the country we could be.   Like all the best stories from African fables to Victorian novels, the story Beveridge told linked personal stories and struggles to a bigger narrative and ambition. People could inhabit the Beveridge vision and re-tell his lofty story in their own way, weaving themselves into a national picture and ultimately galvanising action. The result was one of the biggest social revolutions the world has ever seen and longer, healthier lives for most of us.

Today the Beveridge story lies largely forgotten. Like the welfare state itself, the original vision is tattered and threadbare.   75 years on we are lost in the jargon of technical adjustments and performance indicators, in words that cannot explain our reality. And so we cannot see what is going on and we forget that the welfare state is not a project for other people. Most of us will use the welfare state: we will be educated, rely on its health services, on pensions and, at the end, on good care.

I think that in this century we need a new welfare project: one that can confront the new poverty, one that can address our housing crisis and many more new challenges. And so we need to talk about the welfare state. Not unemployment benefits or the public services that we feel are letting us down – workers and citizens alike – but the bigger picture of what might be, of how we could live in this century, of the new forms of support and flourishing that are possible. I wrote my book – Radical Help – because I wanted to start this new story. It will be just the start because we all need to talk about the welfare state.

Radical Help: How we can remake the relationships between us and revolutionise the welfare state will be published by Little Brown in June 2018