Was the welfare state essentially the victory of Victorian liberalism?

During the 2016 Brexit referendum Vote Leave courted controversy by declaring, on the side of a campaign bus, ‘We send the EU £350 million a week – let’s fund our NHS instead’. Even in a debate centred on trade and foreign policy the welfare state occupied a visible role, demonstrating its centrality to contemporary British political discourse. The welfare state undoubtedly demonstrates continuities not only with Victorian liberalism, but with all preceding welfare frameworks. However, suggesting that it represented the ‘victory’ of Victorian liberalism severely underplays the impact of the seismic events leading up to 1945 on British society and thus on welfare ideology. Shared experiences facilitated a collectivist, universalist, centralised and market-interventionist welfare state. Despite some continuities, the welfare state represented the abandonment of Victorian liberalism.

Victorian liberalism, the liberalism of Russell, Mill and Gladstone, was rooted in Enlightenment ideals and the classical works of Locke, Smith and Ricardo. Liberalism was and is by no means homogenous, with theoretical foundations ranging from social contract theory to Benthamite utilitarianism to a humanist vision of progress. Despite this, Butler (4) highlights some key commonalities. A belief in individual primacy and a desire to minimise coercion through limited government. A belief that markets with secure property rights create order in complex societies, something Hayek later dubbed ‘spontaneous order’. Finally, a belief in the primacy of what Berlin (7) calls ‘negative liberty’. Briggs (228) defines the welfare state as organised market intervention aimed at guaranteeing a minimum income and social contingencies of the highest available standard to all citizens. This widely endorsed definition highlights two characteristics that made the welfare state a ‘unique creation of the 1940s’ (Lowe, 13) — market interventionism and universalism. Attlee’s administration pioneered the modern welfare state, and as Lowe (12) argues, ‘there can be no wholly static definition of a welfare state’. It is therefore specifically with the welfare state of Attlee that this essay will evaluate Victorian liberalism’s claim to ‘victory’.

The Whigs, later the Liberals, won 7 of 15 elections in the Victorian era, with Gladstone alone serving as Prime Minister for 12 years. Victorian liberalism is not simply a set of theories, but includes an extensive legislative and political legacy. History does not take place in a vacuum, so this legacy inevitably influenced the welfare state. One key tenet of liberal welfare policy was voluntarism, and many of the organisations they promoted pioneered the kind of social investigation that would define the Beveridge Report. Finlayson (103) points to the ‘strikingly modern’ investigative methods of the Charity Organisation Society. Attlee’s welfare state regulated welfare activities, such as private education and dental care, that it did not directly supply, and Gladstone (2) argues that the idea of the state as a ‘regulator of welfare activities’ was rooted in ‘systems of inspection that were developed over the course of the last century’. Also in this vein of continuity, Clark (130) writes that ‘from 1830 onwards a formidable governmental machine was being created in Britain which…provided precedents for more extensive controls when the time of need came’. He points to the Ten Hour Act of 1847, passed under Lord Russel, which expanded state boundaries and necessitated the employment of inspectors who were ‘servants of the central government’ (138). However, bureaucratic expansion was a side effect of the legislation, and one that led many Whigs to reject that very bill. Civil servant Charles Greville (1) recounts in his diary the ‘zeal, asperity, and animosity’ of the Commons, claiming never to have seen ‘such intermingling of parties, such a confusion of opposition’, the opposition at the time of the debate being the Whigs. This bill, which may have inadvertently influenced the bureaucracy of the welfare state, was clearly shunned by many contemporary liberals, exposing the tenuousness of the link between the bureaucratic expansion that followed and the welfare state. Though institutional inertia and unintended bureaucratic innovations may connect Victorian liberalism and the welfare state, ‘victory’ implies the implementation of fundamental values, something these examples do not amount to. The ‘welfare state escalator’ (Finlayson, 3) argument explored here portrays a smooth and cumulative journey towards 1945. As Gladstone (4) argues, this view ‘tends to underplay conflict and compromise in the trajectory of the welfare state’. The impact of the shared experience of social change, war and depression on the trajectory of the welfare state cannot be underestimated, and this is precisely what the idea of a ‘long march’ towards the welfare state does.

Despite the lack of continuity in terms of fundamental values regarding state, economy and individual, there was inevitably some ideological common ground between Victorian liberalism and the welfare state. In education, a failure to dismantle the tripartite system meant all Labour achieved was ‘a rationalisation and expansion of existing patterns of educational provision’ (Hennessy, 155). Gladstone (43) puts this failure down to ‘other demands faced by the ministry of education’ to replace school buildings, hire more teachers and contend with an increased birthrate. Selection at age 11+ failed to live up to Labour’s universalist ambitions, but Labour’s failure to implement their intended vision does not constitute a victory for Victorian liberalism. Thane (93) argues welfare policies are shaped by ‘normative assumptions about gender roles’ regarding ‘the sexual division of labour and social responsibility’. The assumption of ‘female dependency on male earning power’ is key, and both Victorian liberalism and the welfare state were guilty. Victorian liberals, like many of their contemporaries, believed that care for children or the elderly was the responsibility of women. In the semi-fictional 1841 novel ‘Helen Fleetwood’, Tonna (8) describes the ‘Widow Green’, a grandmother caring for a family of 5, including the orphaned Helen, with no help from the state. The welfare state has similarly been criticised for leaning on the unpaid work of domestic carers, almost always female. Beveridge’s (53) report perpetuated a problematic framework of motherhood and nation by claiming that ‘housewives as Mothers have vital work to do in ensuring the adequate continuance of the British Race and of British ideals in the world’. Campaign groups like the Women’s Freedom League published pamphlets condemning the dependent status of women in the welfare state (Sloman, 207). Though there is clear continuity here, such attitudes were not limited to Victorian liberalism, nor were they a key tenet of their ideological programme, so again to portray this continuity as a victory would be misleading. Ideological overlap is inevitable when both Victorian liberalism and Attleeist social democracy operated within similar cultural and institutional contexts, and when the welfare state of 1951 was incomplete in the eyes of many social democrats. ‘Victory’ implies the foundations of the Labour vision for the welfare state was aligned with core Victorian liberal values, something these examples fail to demonstrate.

The collective experience of true total warfare in the 1940s led to what Digby (54) calls ‘democratised hardship’. The shared experience of suffering and victory created the conditions for an enlarged state overseeing a more collectivist and centralised welfare system anathema to liberal values. The Local Government Acts of 1871 and 1894, both passed under Gladstone, represented the Liberal preference for decentralised governance as a means of limiting state coercion. Lowe (12) argues that shared experiences ‘paved the way for a degree of state intervention and a centralisation…strikingly at variance with the national tradition of individual freedom and decentralisation’. Labour’s 1945 manifesto made the party’s desire for state control of the commanding heights of the economy clear, claiming that ‘planned investment in essential industries and on houses, schools, hospitals and civic centres will occupy a large field of capital expenditure’. Dalton imposed graduated death duties and Cripps’ tax on investment incomes over £2000 per annum was effectively a capital levy, demonstrating how both state expenditure and income were expanded. Victorian ‘self-help’ ideals were abandoned, and Gladstone (4) refers to a ‘crowding out’ of non-state welfare institutions. Though charities persisted and women continued to play an unrecognised role in welfare, Finlayson (263) makes it clear that ‘the frontier of the state’ moved to engulf responsibilities previously left to voluntary organisations and local government. To justify state expansion, conceptions of citizenship departed radically from liberal tradition. Liberalism posits that individual becomes citizen ‘through the granting of universal rights which secure for the individual the freedom to life, liberty and property’ (Lister, 10), a negative conception of liberty. The welfare state was built on a theory of ‘social citizenship’. As articulated by Marshall (43), citizenship now consisted of civil, political and social rights, with the welfare state providing care on the basis of citizenship rather than need. Universality and positive liberty were fundamental to the welfare state. The extent of these fundamental changes in welfare ideology is unsurprising. The shared experience of war created a ‘swing to the left’ (Gladstone, 34) which promoted collectivist and statist ideals. Mannheim (389) argues that the social consciousness of those reaching maturity in a particular ‘generational location’ is significantly influenced by the major historical events of that era, and clearly an era of democratised suffering dragged the welfare state far from Victorian liberal ideals.

Unemployment in Britain never fell below 9.5% between 1921 and 1939. The collective memory of the Great Depression left much of the public disenchanted with market economics, sowing the seeds for a welfare state built around planning and market intervention. The 1944 white paper on unemployment policy (1) starts by declaring that ‘the maintenance of a high and stable level of unemployment’ was a primary governmental responsibility, marking a decisive shift away from the lassiez-faire Victorian liberal belief that, without government interference, markets equilibrate at full employment. Keynes’ General Theory provided the foundation for the system of demand management that would help achieve this objective. The Attlee administration implemented this both indirectly, with redistributive taxation and low interest rates, and directly, through fiscal expenditure on capital projects and public welfare. Glennerster (5) claims this ‘did more than any other element in the ‘post-war contract’ to change the lives of ordinary people’, and it did so in spite of classical economics. Planning, as an alternative to ‘spontaneous order’, was an idea that had ‘entered the mainstream of middle opinion’ (Finlayson, 254) and underpinned Beveridge’s recommendations. The nationalisation of healthcare and key public services embodied this zeitgeist. The nationalisation of healthcare also violated another key liberal tenet. Guaranteeing property rights was the primary function of the state for Victorian liberals, and the appropriation of some 2,688 voluntary and municipal hospitals in 1948 was anathema to these values. Finally, the Liberal party was an amalgamation of Whigs, Radicals and Peelites brought together by their opposition to the Corn Laws. In this vein, the capital controls and Bretton-Woods currency peg Attlee implemented to guarantee the monetary stability needed to maintain full employment were antithetical to Victorian liberal values. Clearly, the managed, Keynesian economic ideology embodied by the welfare state and its commitment to full employment were far removed from Victorian liberalism, but this is again unsurprising. The generational impact of the Great Depression meant the market could no longer be relied on to deliver high employment, and wartime victory meant many trusted the state over the market to manage essential services. Not only was this not a ‘victory’ for Victorian liberalism, it represented a complete abandonment of their fundamental values.

Despite some institutional continuities and vague ideological overlap, Attlee’s welfare state represented the abandonment, rather than the victory, of Victorian liberalism. The tumult of the Great Depression and Second World War, and the democratised suffering they entailed, triggered a popular swing to the left. This meant collectivism, universalism, centralisation and market intervention became the core tenets of the modern welfare state. Titmuss argued in 1987 that ‘when we study welfare systems we see that they reflect the dominant cultural and political characteristics of their societies’. It is therefore unsurprising, given the pace of socioeconomic change in Britain, that Victorian liberal ideas on welfare offered few solutions to the problems of 1945.


  • 1944 White Paper on Employment Policy, https://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/110368 (21 Jun 2019)
  • 1945 Labour Party Manifesto, http://www.labour-party.org.uk/manifestos/1945/1945-labour-manifesto.shtml (21 Jun 2019)
  • Berlin, I., Two Concepts of Liberty (Oxford, 1958)
  • Briggs, A., ‘The Welfare State in Historical Perspective’, European Journal of Sociology, 2/2 (1961), pp. 221-258
  • Butler, E., Classical Liberalism: A Primer (London, 2015)
  • Clark, G. K., An Expanding Society: Britain 1830-1900 (Cambridge, 1967)
  • Digby, A. British Welfare Policy: From Workhouse to Workfare (London, 1989)
  • Finlayson, G., Citizen, State, and Social Welfare in Britain 1830–1990 (Oxford, 1994)
  • Gladstone, D., The Twentieth-Century Welfare State (Basingstoke, 1999)
  • Glennerster, A., British Social Policy since 1945 (Oxford, 1995)
  • Greville, C., The Greville Memoirs, 31 March 1844, ed. H. Reeve (London, 1899), https://archive.org/details/grevillememoirsj01grevuoft (20 Jun 2019)
  • Hennessy, P., Never Again: Britain 1945-51 (London, 1993)]
  • Lister, M., ‘Theories of Citizenship’ in Lister, M. and Pia, E. (eds), Citizenship in Contemporary Europe (Edinburgh, 2008)
  • Mannheim, K., ‘The Problem of Generations’, Psychoanalytic Review, 57/3 (1970), pp. 378-404
  • Marshall, T. H., Citizenship and Social Rights (Cambridge, 1950)
  • Mill, J. S., On Liberty (London, 2001)
  • Sloman, P., ‘Beveridge’s rival: Juliet Rhys-Williams and the campaign for basic income, 1942-55’, Contemporary British History, 30/2 (2016), pp. 203-223
  • Thane, P., ‘Visions of Gender in the Making of the British Welfare State’, in Bock, G. And Thane, P. (eds), Maternity & Gender Policies (London, 1991)
  • Tonna, C. E., Helen Fleetwood (London, 1841)

One comment

  1. This is such an excellent + in-depth article!

    You very clearly point out how the achievements of Attlee + his use of Keynesian economics, were built upon many factors such as the high unemployment Britain endured during the 20’s + 30’s. In addition, you clearly show that though slight, there was some overlap between Victorian Liberalism + the welfare state of Attlee.


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