Solidarity and the Welfare State

Bernard Harris -- The relationship between solidarity and welfare provision has often been the subject of debate. A number of commentators, on both left and right, have accused the welfare state of undermining the voluntary solidarities which were associated with the growth of self-help and mutual-aid associations, such as trade unions and, especially, friendly societies.


Bernard Harris, School of Social Work and Social Policy, University of Strathclyde, Lord Hope Building, 141 St James’ Road, Glasgow G4 0LT.  Email:


In April 2013, the London Centre for Social Studies hosted an important discussion on the evolution of the British welfare state from Beveridge to current times.[1]  The three main speakers summarised the history of the welfare state and identified many of the leading challenges it now faces.  They also highlighted the central importance of the concept of solidarity to the welfare state’s future.

The relationship between solidarity and welfare provision has often been the subject of debate.  A number of commentators, on both left and right, have accused the welfare state of undermining the voluntary solidarities which were associated with the growth of self-help and mutual-aid associations, such as trade unions and, especially, friendly societies.  The leading proponent of ‘Red Toryism’, Philip Blond (2010: 82), argued that the welfare state had ‘nationalis[ed] a previously-mutual society and reform[ed] it according to an individualised culture of universal entitlement’, and the current Prime Minister, David Cameron (2009), claimed that ‘the once natural bonds that existed between people – of duty and responsibility – have been replaced with the synthetic bonds of the state – regulation and bureaucracy’.  The Labour Peer and supporter of ‘Blue Labour’, Maurice Glasman (2011: 29), suggested that ‘the victory of 1945’ led to the long-term decline of the Labour Party because ‘universal benefit replaced mutual responsibility as the basic principle of welfare’.

The concept of solidarity has also been invoked by supporters of private philanthropy.  The historian, Frank Prochaska, has often lamented the decline of philanthropic principles and their (partial) supersession by the ‘compulsory charity’ of the welfare state.  In his study of Christianity and social service in modern Britain, he argued that ‘there was more social connectedness in the age of Queen Victoria, with all its class distinctions and fear of representative democracy, than in postwar Britain, with its New Jerusalem egalitarianism’.  He also claimed that the ‘comprehensive reconstruction’ of Britain after 1945 ‘ravaged much of the historic fabric of the voluntary social services’ and that ‘few dissent from the view that … the bonds that hold the nation together have loosened’ (Prochaska 2005: 149-50, 174).

Although many writers have argued that the growth of the welfare state weakened the bonds of social solidarity, others have seen it as a natural extension of them.  One of the pioneering figures in the development of social policy as an academic discipline, Richard Titmuss, argued that the emergence of the modern welfare state was directly related to the feelings of solidarity engendered by the Second World War.  He identified three seminal events – the evacuation of mothers and children from densely-populated urban areas in the autumn of 1939, the evacuation of soldiers from Dunkirk and the Blitz – which stimulated the development of ‘a war-warmed impulse … for a more generous society’ (Titmuss 1950: 507-8).  However, other commentators believed that Titmuss had exaggerated the extent of this shift.  John Macnicol (1986: 27-8), argued that ‘the social debate on evacuation probably served to reinforce existing analyses of working-class poverty rather than to change them’ and that ‘the ideological consensus of wartime, so stressed by Titmuss and some historians, was something of a myth’.  His fellow historian, José Harris (1986: 256), believed that the war did create a heightened sense of social solidarity but she also claimed that this was largely artificial, and that ‘the hope of reformist intellectuals that the war would generate a new and lasting paradigm in political thought … proved largely unfounded’.

The economic historian, Paul Johnson, has also questioned the extent to which the specific changes associated with the war were associated with a more solidaristic approach.  He drew an important distinction between contractual and solidaristic welfare systems.  Although it was hedged around with a series of often Draconian restrictions, the Poor Law represented a form of solidaristic welfare system because benefits were related to desert rather than contribution.  By contrast, the introduction of the old age, widows’ and orphans’ contributory pension scheme in 1925 was much more contractual, because benefits were related to contributions rather than need (Johnson 1992; 1996).  From this point of view, the Government’s attempts to introduce a more wholly insurance-based welfare system after 1945 represented a further move towards contractual welfare, even if that was not necessarily what resulted in practice (see also Harris 1986: 249).

There is also an emerging debate over the nature of public attitudes to welfare reform in the immediate postwar period.  Although some commentators have argued that this period was characterised by a widespread sense of shared commitment based on shared interests, this interpretation may be open to question.  In 1949, the public-opinion organisation, Mass-Observation, commissioned a survey of people’s attitudes to the new National Health Service.  It reported that ‘unqualified approval was nearly twice as common as approval hedged with reservations’, but not all the responses were positive.  The historian David Kynaston reproduced extracts from the responses submitted by ten ‘Mass-Observers’.  A village postmaster from Danbury, in Essex, thought it was ‘a very good idea’ and ‘necessary to international interests’, whilst a 49-year old carpenter and joiner from Selsdon thought it was ‘pretty good’ and ‘what is needed’.  However, a 58-year old tobacconist from Croydon said that ‘you can’t expect to get the same service’, and several respondents complained about ‘extravagance’ and ‘abuse’ (Kynaston 2008: 329).

As this brief survey has shown, the relationship between solidarity and the welfare state is more complex than it sometimes appears, and it would probably be unwise to assume that the provision of state welfare is simply an expression of solidaristic principles.  However, as the speakers at the LCSS seminar suggested, it is also difficult to believe that the welfare state can survive in its current form without some conception of social solidarity.  The importance of such ideas can easily be drowned out by current attempts to draw a line between the development of public services and the provision of welfare benefits, and by the persistent demonization of benefit recipients.[2]



Blond, P. (2010), Red Tory: how left and right have broken Britain and how we can fix it, London: Faber.

Cameron, D. (2009), ‘The big society’.  URL:

Glasman, M. (2011), ‘Labour as a radical tradition’, in M. Glasman, J. Rutherford, M. Stears and S. White, eds., The Labour tradition and the politics of paradox: the Oxford London seminars 2010-11.  URL:, pp. 14-34.

Harris, J. (1986), ‘The debate on state welfare’, in H.L. Smith, ed., War and social change: British society in the Second World War, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 233-63 .

Johnson, P. (1992), ‘Social risk and social welfare in Britain, 1870-1939’, LSE Working Papers in Economic History, 3/92.  URL:

Johnson, P. (1996), ‘Risk, redistribution and social welfare in Britain from the Poor Law to Beveridge’, in M. Daunton, ed., Charity, self-interest and welfare in the English past, London: UCL Press, 225-48.

Kynaston, D. (2008), Austerity Britain, 1945-51, London: Bloomsbury.

Macnicol, J. (1986), ‘The effect of the evacuation of schoolchildren on official attitudes to state intervention’, in H.L. Smith, ed., War and social change: British society in the Second World War, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 3-31.

Prochaska, F. (2005), Christianity and social service in modern Britain: the disinherited spirit, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Titmuss, R. (1950), Problems of social policy, London: HMSO.



[2]     In April 2013, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, played a leading role in efforts to link the murder of six children to the operation of the benefit system (see  He subsequently told the House of Commons Treasury Committee that ‘if it comes to a choice, we should be making our investments in schools and in science, because that is securing the long-term economic health of this country and we should not be cutting those things because we are not prepared to deal with the welfare budget’ (


Prof Bernard Harris

Professor of Social Policy, University of Strathclyde

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