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British Conservatism and the misreading of the Welfare State

8th July 2023

It is easy to read modern conservatives in the UK as fundamentally ill-intentioned and that this is the fatal flaw in our current governance – just look at contracts for mates, peerages for political donors and the rampage of blind, vaulting ambition that sits at the root of the modern Conservative party. But in this article, I present the case that even if we take British Conservatives to be well-intentioned, that they fundamentally misread the Welfare State and punish the weakest in our society as a result.

The Welfare State is one of the central cornerstones of modern Britain. It is well established that each of us partakes in a social contract with the state – that it provides us with security by way of defence and force, but also by way of social security; our National Health Service and benefits system being the first that come to mind. In return, this principle means that we have a side to this bargain with the state, we pay taxes and must abide by the law of the land. When either side of this bargain falters, the whole system can come tumbling down.

The modern British Welfare State draws its roots to the Beveridge Report, drawn up by the namesake Liberal icon in the midst of the Second World War. It advocates for a society in which each individual enjoys a ‘national minimum’, where no one should suffer from the vices of poverty, squalor and ill-health. This report was accepted by all the main parties as part of the post-war consensus, leading to the creation of our National Health Service and the expansion of the welfare system.

Yet modern British conservatism fundamentally misreads Beveridge’s fine ideas – to Conservatives a ‘national minimum’ is implemented on the basis of 3 main principles:

  1. That welfare be provided to those of the greatest need (where those of other mainstream political traditions all agree).
  2. That those that rely on the state’s systems of welfare should be those that bare the largest burden in providing for it.
  3. That those that are wealthy (those that, as they see it, have contributed the most to society) should provide for their own provision.

This has a number of effects – notably that welfare systems are systematically defunded, and that barriers are placed between all that should seek access to the services as to assess their suitability. The latter inevitably results in millions of those in need failing to be caught by our safety net, suffering as a result of obsessive bureaucracy and the withdrawal of universality.

It is clearly an analysis that is outdated and has caused decades of needless suffering that continues to this day, for universality is the forgotten principle of our welfare state.