Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Welfare State in Historical Perspective

  • Asa Briggs


The phrase “welfare state” is of recent origin. It was first used to describe Labour Britain after 1945. From Britain the phrase made its way round the world. It was freely employed, usually but not exclusively by politicians and journalists, in relation to diverse societies at diverse stages of development. Historians also took over the phrase. Attempts were made to re-write nineteenth and twentieth century history, particularly British history, in terms of the “origins” and “development” of a “welfare state”.



Hide All

(1) I.L.O., International Labour Conference, 34th Session, Objectives and Minimum Standards of Social Security (1950), pp. 34. See also “Survey of Post-War Trends in Social Security” in International Labour Review, June, July, August, 09, 1949.

(2) I.L.O., Approaches to Social Security (1942), p. i.; Objectives and Advanced Standards of Social Security (1952); Thomson, D., Briggs, A., Meyer, E., Patterns of Peacemaking (1945), p. 340, ch. VII, appendix II.

(3) Titmuss, R. M., Problems of Social Policy (1950), p. 506.

(4) Mowat, C. L., The Charity Organization Society, 1869–1913 (1961), p. 75.

(5) Dicey, A. V., Law and Public Opinion in England during the Nineteenth Century (1914 edn.), p. 1.

(6) Titmoss, , op. cit. pp. 509–10.

(7) Cd. 6550 (1944) § 8, § 33. See also Cd. 6404 (1942) and Briggs, A., “The Social Services” in The British Economy, 1945–50, (ed. G. D. N. Worswick and P. Ady, 1952), pp. 365–80.

(8) Marshall, T. H., Citizenship and Social Class (1949), pp. 47 and 48.

(9) Bentham, J., Works (ed. J. Bowring, 1843), vol. III, p. 35. Cf. Keynes, J. M.'s view of the “agenda” of the state in The End of Laissez Faire (1926).

(10) Webb, S., in Fabian Essays ([1889] 1948 edn.). p. 43, p. 46.

(11) H. Bland, ibid. p. 198.

(12) McCulloch, J. R., Treatise on the Succession to Property vacant by Death (1848), p. 156.

(13) The passage comes from his Oxford lectures of 1847–8. It is quoted in Robbins, L., The Theory of Economic Policy (1953), p. 45. See also for a modern comment on the history of the term laissez faire, McGregor, D. H., Economic Thought and Policy (1949), ch. III.

(14) Wallas, G., Human Nature in Politics ([1908] 1929 edn.), p. 13. There is a fascinating, if controversial, account of poor law and market in Polanyi, K., Origins of Our Time (1946).

(15) The Fleet Papers (1842), p. 58; (1841), p. 39; Leeds Intelligencer, 10 08 1833.

(16) Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, 6 05 1843; Driver, C., Tory Radical (1946).

(17) The phrase is taken from his Stones of Venice (1851). (Works, ed. Cook, and Wedderburn, , vol. XI, p. 263). The term “living wage” was first used by the English Cooperator, James, Lloyd, in the Beehive, 07 1874. The term “fair day's wages for a fair day's work” was older.

(18) Foxwell, H. S., The Claims of Labour (1886), p. 249.

(19) Quoted in Finer, S. E., The Life and Times of Sir Edwin Chadwick (1952), p. 477.

(20) Senior, N., Journals Kept in France and Italy (1843), pp. 150–2. In this journal Senior compared England with Switzerland. The “pure democracies” of small Swiss cantons, he claimed, resisted the spell of “the political economy of the poor” because all their adult males “venerated their clergy, their men of birth and of wealth and their institutions”. He did not see that “deference” was as much a feature of nineteenth-century England. Estimates of the likely effect of the extension of suffrage on popular demands for a new political economy were influenced by estimates of the power of “deference”. See Bagehot, W., The English Constitution (1872 edn.); Briggs, A., The Age of Improvement (1959), ch. x.

(21) “Much of that tact which dreads the ballot is a dread of the loss of aristo-cratical influence which prevails by gold, and of the gain of the influence which prevails by popularity” (Letter of 14 October 1852, quoted in Finer, , op. cit. p. 478).

(22) For details, see Roberts, D., Victorian Origins of the British Welfare State (1960), esp. pp. 152244.

(23) McGregor, , op. cit. p. 54.

(24) Brebner, J. B., “Laissez faire and State Intervention in Nineteenth-century Britain” in Tasks of Economic History, Supplement VIII (1948) to the Journal of Economic History. For the dangers of explaining in terms of D'cey's “abstrartions”, see also MacDonagh, , “The Nineteenth-century Revolution in Government: a Re-appraisal” in the Historical Journal (1958).

(25) Bland, , loc. cit. p. 195, p. 200.

(26) Ibid. p. 200.

(27) Quoted by Thompson, D. in “A Note on the Welfare State” in the New Reasoner, No. 4, 1948.

(28) See Tsuzuki, C., H. M. Hyndman and British Socialism (1961), p. 56, p. 148.

(29) The Fleet Papers (1842), p. 190.

(30) Yet Beatrice Webb herself said of her poor law scheme in 1907: “The whole theory of the mutual obligation between the individual and the State […] is taken straight out of the nobler aspect of the medieval manor”; Our Partnership (1948), p. 385.

(29) Beales, H. L., “The Making of Social Policy”, (L. T. Hobhouse Memorial Trust Lecture (1946), p. 5. The mercantilist parallel usually refers not only to welfare policy but to population policy (which, through such devices as family allowances, has “welfare” implications) and to protection (which also has “labour” implications).

(30) Métin, A., Le socialisme sans doctrines (1901). See also Siegfried, A., Democracy in New Zealand (1906).

(31) Metin, , op. cit. p. 229; Condliffe, J. B., New Zealand in the Making (1930), pp. 164–5.

(32) Hancock, W. K., Australia (1930), p. 61. For general reflections on the role of the state in Australia, see Encel, S., “The Concept of the State in Australian Politics” in the Australian Journal of Politics and History, 05 1960.

(35) See Wilson, A. and Mackay, G. S., Old Age Pensions, An Historical and Critical Study (1941), ch. II, III, IV. See also Titmuss, R. M., Essays onThe Welfare State” (1958), pp. 1819.

(36) Mowat, C. L., “The Approach to the Welfare State in Great Britain” in the American Historical Review, 10 1952. It has also been called “an extended form of outdoor relief”. See Abel-Smith, B., “Social Security” in Ginsberg, (ed.), Law and Opinion in England in the Twentieth Century (1959), pp. 352 ff.

(37) Reeves, W. Pember, State Experiments in Australia and New Zealand (1902), vol. II, p. 244. For more recent appraisals, see Sutch, W. B., The Quest for Security in New Zealand (1942); Mendelsohn, R., Social Security in the British Commonwealth (1954).

(38) Hobson, J. A., The Evolution of Modern Capitalism (1902), p. 321.

(39) Milner, A., Introduction to A. Toynbee, Lectures on the Industrial Revolution (1923 edn.), p. xxv. Toynbee anticipated the Fabians in these lectures, delivered to working-men in the early 1880s, by contrasting the age of capitalist anarchy with the age of regulation which had preceded it. For movements in liberal political economy at this time, see Hutchison, T. W., A Review of Economic Doctrines, 1870–1929 (1953), ch. 1.

(40) Green, T. H., Lectures on the Principles of Political Obligation (1895 edn.) pp. 206209.

(41) Haldane, R. B., Autobiography (1929), pp. 212214.

(42) See, in particular, Hobhouse, L. T., Elements of Social Justice (1922); The Labour Movement (1893); Democracy and Reaction (1904); Liberalism (1911); “The Philosophical Theory of Property”, in Property, its Duties and Rights (ed. C. Gore, 1915). For the significance of his work, see Hobson, J. A. and Ginsberg, M., The Life and Work of L. T. Hobhouse (1931).

(43) Hobson, J. A., The Crisis of Liberalism (1909), p. 3. For Hobson, see Brailsford, H. N., “The Life and Work of J. A. Hobson” (L. T. Hobhouse Memorial Trust Lecture, 1948).

(44) McCallum, R. B., “The Liberal Outlook”, in M. Ginsberg (ed.), Law and Opinion in England in the Twentieth Century, p. 75.

(45) Dawson, W. H., Bismarck and State Socialism (1890), p. ix.

(46) Fay, S. B., “Bismarck's Welfare State” in Current History, vol. XVIII (1950).

(47) “A British Bismarck”, Professor Driver has written, “would have commanded all his uncritical devotion, but Wellington was no Bismarck” (Driver, , op. cit. p. 189).

(48) Schumpeter, J. A., History of Economic Analysis (1954), p. 765.

(49) The pre-history of this approach leads back to Sismondi who has important links with Mill and the English utilitarians. He is a seminal figure in the critique of industrialism and the demand for welfare legislation.

(50) Wagner, A., Rede über die soziale Frage (1872), pp. 89. Von Schmoller, G., Über einige Grundfragen des Rechts und der Volkswirtschaft (1875), p. 92.

(51) For the background of these attempts, see Ginsberg, M., “The Growth of Social Responsibility” in Law and Opinion in England in the Twentieth Century, pp. 326.

(52) See Mayer, G., Bismarck und Lassalle (1927).

(53) Dawson, , op. cit. p. 35. This remark was made in 1884. Five years earlier the Emperor, referring to the antisocialist law of 1878, had said, “a remedy cannot alone be sought in the repression of socialistic excesses; there must be simultaneously the positive advancement of the welfare of the working classes”, (quoted ibid. p. 110).

(54) Clapham, J. H., An Economic History of Modern Britain, vol. III (1938), p. 445.

(55) Titmuss, R. M., “Health”, in Ginsberg, (ed.), Law and Opinion in England in the Twentieth Century, p. 308. Cf. p. 313: “The fundamental issue of 1911 was not […] between individualism and collectivism, between contract and status; but between different forms of collectivism, different degrees of freedom; open or concealed power.”

(56) Booth, C., Life and Labour of the People in London, 17 vols. (18921903); Rowntree, B. S., Poverty: A Study of Town Life (1901).

(57) Webb, B., My Apprenticeship (1926), p. 239.

(58) For Booth, see , T. S. and Simey, M. B.Charles Booth, Social Scientist (1960); for Rowntree, see Briggs, A., Seebohm Rowntree (1961). See also Rowntree, B. S. and Lavers, G. R., Poverty and the Welfare State (1951).

(59) “In intensity of feeling”, Booth wrote, “and not in statistics, lies the power to move the world. But by statistics must this power be guided if it would move the world aright” (Life and Labour, Final Volume, Notes on Social Influences and Conclusion (1903), p. 178).

(60) See inter alia Mowat, C. L., The Charity Organisation Society; de Schweinitz, K., England's Road to Social Security (1943); Pitkin, C. W., Social Politics and Modern Democracies, 2 vols. (1931), vol. II being concerned with France; Bremner, R. H., From the Depths; The Discovery of Poverty in the United States (1956).

(61) See Abrams, M., Social Surveys and Social Action (1951); Young, P. V., Scientific Social Surveys and Research (1950); Jones, D. C. Caradog, Social Surveys (1955).

(62) The British controversy is well described in Cormack, U., “The Welfare State”, Loch Memorial Lecture (1953). For Sweden, see The Royal Social Board, Social Work and Legislation in Sweden (1938).

(63) Mendelsohn, , op. cit. ch. III: Brown, J. C., Public Relief, 1929–39 (1940); Williams, E. A., Federal Aid for Relief (1939); Douglas, P. H., Social Security in the United States (1939 edn.).

(64) Quoted in Hancock, W. K., Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs, vol. II. (1940), p. 275.

(65) I.L.O., Social Security in New Zealand (1949), p. III.

(66) See Briggs, A., “The Social Background”, in H. Clegg and A. Flanders (eds.), Industrial Relations in Great Britain (1955); Urwick, L. and Brech, E. F. L., The Human Factor in Management, 1795–1943 (1944); Proud, E. D., Welfare Work, Employers' Experiments for Improving Working Conditions in Factories (1916); Kelly, E. T. (ed.), Welfare Work in Industry (1925); P. E. P., “The Human Factor in Industry” [Planning, 03, 1948).

(67) P. E. P., “Free Trade and Security” (Planning, 07 1957); “A Comparative Analysis of the Cost of Social Security” in International Labour Review (1953).

(68) Burns, E. M., Social Security and Public Policy (1956), p. 274.

(69) For the nature of the nineteenthcentury pattern, see Baernrbither, J. M., English Associations of Working Men (1893).

For industrial relations, see Clegg, and Flanders, , op. cit.

(70) Titmuss, R. M., Essays on the Welfare State, pp. 2122.

(71) Ibid. p. 19.

(72) See Peacock, A., “The Welfare Society”, Unservile State Papers (1960); Titmuss, R. M.. “The Irresponsible Society”, Fabian Tracts (1960); Saville, J., “The Welfare State” in The New Reasoner. No. 3, (1957).

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

European Journal of Sociology / Archives Européennes de Sociologie
  • ISSN: 0003-9756
  • EISSN: 1474-0583
  • URL: /core/journals/european-journal-of-sociology-archives-europeennes-de-sociologie
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed