on 21 November 2003
This is really well written - it sums up the welfare state and social policy issues really well, it covers the history of welfare and sounds really boring!! It's not - it's actually one of few social policy/welfare books that is quite easy going! It isn't 'textbook' style, more like 'story' style really! Many social policy courses will refer to Timmins and I would highly recommend having this book on your shelf :-)
"How did we get where we are today?" is one of the fundamental questions that history exists to answer. If you were to ask that question about modern Britain, you might think about Blairism, Thatcherism, the European Union, immigration and a host of other factors: and you'd be right. However, to really understand Britain and the way that people understand their relationship with the state, you need to start with the welfare state.
The story of how the modern welfare state was conceived and created at the end of the Second World War is extraordinary in itself. Bevan's battle with the BMA is legendary; less well known is the race against time to find enough steel to make all the safes for the new National Assistance offices or the belief that, as the nation's health improved, the bill for the NHS would gradually decline.
In this book, Nicholas Timmins looks at the background and creation of the welfare state in the context of the post-war world and follows it through its first half century into the early years of New Labour. Whilst "The Five Giants" is essentially a history of social policy since 1944, it is well illustrated with anecdotes about the impact of policy on the lives of ordinary people.
"The Five Giants" is history writing at its very best: well researched, balanced, readable and relevant.
Journalists are rarely good historians but Nicholas Timmins proves to be the exception with a comprehensive and reasonably objective account of the origins and development of the welfare state. He points out that despite claims that the whole system is about to collapse the challenge has always been how to improve the workings of the welfare state rather than dismantle it. Starting with the NHS he states, 'it is important to know that virtually every day since 1948 the NHS has been said to be in crisis, and that for the last forty-five years morale within it has invariably never been lower'. Similarly when unemployment rises the unemployed are characterised as work-shy, benefit claimants are inevitably identified as cheats (which some of them are). Educational standards are failing although record numbers are at universities while universities themselves are more numerous than ever before. He notes the first Secretary of State for Health to be sued by a patient for failing to provide an operation was a Labour minister not a Conservative.
Timmins attacks the myths of the Thatcherite attack on the welfare state. There was no golden age of sweetness and light before Thatcher and the claim that there have been no advances to go alongside reverses since 1979. When Thatcher addressed the NHS in 1987 she realised (based on her experience at the Ministry of Education) she would never receive any credit if she decided to dismantle it. The idea that the Conservatives have always had a blueprint for breaking up the welfare state is nonsense created by the left who 'want to believe in a conspiracy theory and by some who want to blame themselves for not seeing it coming'. He argues there is no conspiracy for rolling back the welfare state and no plan by Labour to nationalise the top 200 companies. In today's terms the latter is as realistic as imagining Jeremy Corbyn would attempt to implement the policies which provided the substance of the longest suicide note in history endorsed by Michael Foot in 1983.
Realistically when the Treasury produces proposals for new NHS charges, introducing student loans at university level these are not Conservative party proposals but proposals which would have been forwarded by Labour had they been in office because 'part of the Treasury's job is to stop governments spending money'. As Harcourt said over a century ago, 'The Minister exists to tell the civil service what the public won't stand'. 'The proposals Gaitskell backed in 1951 to scrap the NHS dental service and introduce 'hotel' charges for NHS beds were almost as draconian as anything proposed by his Conservative successors'. The Treasury proposed student loans in place and benefit cuts to Labour as well as Conservative governments'. Conservatives expanded the welfare state to make it more universal while Labour joined the Conservatives in extending means-testing to which they had been totally opposed in the 1930s.
The welfare state takes almost two-thirds of annual government expenditure so to describe it as dying is completely wrong. What has been evident is the law of unintended consequences where policies have been introduced with the best of intentions but have proved to be disastrous in practice. In other countries welfare provision has been organised with greater success while in Britain, post 1945, expenditure was wasted on paying for nationalisation, the defence budget was significantly higher than it had been before 1939. It was a matter of priorities over which politicians could not agree, too often for ideological rather than practical reasons. Set in context Britain's post-Imperialism as the world's third largest military power and international policeman was unsustainable by a State which was virtually bankrupt. Yet it was another twenty years before this was reluctantly accepted. Rather than invest in the welfare state after the war the Labour Party should have invested in its industrial base. However, as Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, 'In every country it is unfortunate not to be rich; in England it is a horrible misfortune to be poor'.
The term 'the welfare state' was popularised in Britain in 1941 by the Archbishop of York and only adopted by Clement Attlee in time for the 1950 election. It finally reached the Oxford English Dictionary in its current form in 1964. Traditionally the subject had been addressed by neo-classical economists such as Pigou and it has often been used in a wider context to discus economic and social history as a whole. Sir William Beveridge hated the phrase and refused to use it yet it was his 1942 report which identified the need for policies and services required to combat the five giants of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. There is inevitably some overlapping which Timmins acknowledges in covering the mainstream services of health, education, social security, housing, social services and, in lesser detail, employment.
Timmins introduces readers to the giants of change starting with Beveridge, the egotistical, self-promoting old Etonian, who inadvertently promoted a socialist solution to a social problem. Butler, whose Education Act (1944) was vital in linking schooling with employment, He saw his Act as welding society into one nation with a free, compulsory and universal educational system. The third giant was Aneurin Bevan who excelled at the art of compromise and the exercise of political power. His scheme meant the end of voluntary hospitals and the introduction of National hospital provision paid for out of public funds. For some doctors it removed the embarrassment of asking for money only to incur bad debts.
The remainder of Timmins's book is a record of repetition with the Left claiming the NHS is in danger, the Right saying State support has created a welfare-dependent society beyond the capacity of the State to support. Beveridge failed to produce an ideal system and while society changed the political class failed to change with it. The Five Giants, albeit in modified form, remain with us. An excellent read. Five stars.
on 20 July 2013
The book is absolutely brilliant - comprehensive, readable, and entertaining. But Have only managed to read part of it because 25 pages are missing! I had saved the book to read on holiday in Poland and you can imagine my disappointment when I found that pages 355 to 378 are not there; they cover the years 1974 to 1979 and are therefore crucial to the narrative!