An encomium to the British (Welfare State)…

And who better to deliver it on the day that’s in it than Fintan O’Toole

If, in the period between 1945 and 1979, you wanted to understand the difference between ideology and human realities, the question to ask was: what’s the difference between England and Ireland? In the realm of rhetoric and abstraction, the answer was to be found in endless discourses about history, religion, victimhood and oppression, the Empire and the Four Green Fields.

But for those who grew up on small farms or in the working class ghettoes of Irish towns and cities, the answers were entirely different. You could get a job in England. Your kids could go to secondary school and, if they were smart, they had a good chance of getting to university. You could get your eyes tested and your teeth fixed. You could get some kind of a house. And in Ireland, you couldn’t.

And he concludes with a slightly maudlin finish:

…it also suits the British side not to celebrate this Irish attachment to their social democracy either. The post-war welfare state, imperfect and incomplete as it was, is the greatest positive achievement in British history. It was built on the greatest negative achievement (endurance in the face of the Nazi onslaught) and deployed the same qualities of hope and energy and collective will. But it’s being dismantled now, so it’s best not mention it.

Still, I’ll think this week of my English cousins with their decent jobs and pleasant houses and good education. And I’ll raise a glass in memory of the almost-dead – to English social democracy.

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  • abucs


    a country needs to both generate wealth and to distribute it in a just way. If they are no longer distributing wealth it is because they are no longer generating it in sufficient quantities.

    If it had been such a great system then it should have been self-sustaining and going from strength to strength in a progressive manner.

    Anyone can hand out money to its citizens, look at the Gulf States. The skill is doing it in a responsible and sustainable manner while governing a populace who are self giving, enthusiastic and confident in that system.

    Otherwise it is a fools paradise, here today and gone tomorrow. (aka Eastern Europe under the Marxists).

  • abucs

    If we look at many other nations that were obliterated after war (Germany, South Korea and Japan for example) we can see that the economic boom in those countries was something that was unheard of in their histories.

    Probably a large part of that boom was the pulling together and rolling up of the sleeves to rebuild their nations as well as greater mobility for people from different levels to start successful businesses or get high paid employment. Likewise the workers had more power as a lot of the previous structure became disfunctional and was obliterated.

    If you look at the difference between the economic boom of colonial Australia and North American compared to South America, one important factor is that in Australia and North America the native populations were (almost) obliterated which opened the way up for settlers to build their nations from scratch with the advantages outlined above.

    In South America, the local populations were not wiped out and still held land and resources with powerful tribal structural politics which limited the economic advancement for any new settlers to get ahead to the extent that it was possible in Australia and North America.

    Look at the initial economic boom in some Communist countries after savage destructive overthrows and the placing of wealth in new hands and the enthusiastic self giving of many who were previously shut out of opportunities.

    A nationwide devastation that blows away the old structure opens up the possibility of an economic boom. With increased power and affluence society is then in a position to demand better social conditions.

    But that only lasts while the motivation to get ahead lasts.
    If people become comfortable where they are then the boom ends. If people get control of the resources and want to protect their own interests the boom ends. If people lose faith in the structure of their government and with eachother then the boom ends. If people want to spend more than they contribute then the boom ends.

    The Black Death in Europe may have created similar circumstances.

    After living in Asia i can see that what holds (some) regions back is an entrenched power structure, a lack of mobility for different levels of society and all of the productive resources being held in few hands who are expert in keeping them and being comfortable just the way they are.

    The challenge is to keep the boom going so that it can pay for social spending.

  • New Yorker

    I think this will be one of the best articles during the Queen’s visit. Fintan is on to something with the way regular, and maybe non-political, people saw England and Ireland in postwar period. It is a view of the Irish-British relationship one rarely hears about, but which in a subtle way probably had a great impact on the relationship. And, as he notes, the social democratic model is sadly fading, but is probably the best model we have developed. It is a thought provoking article written in fine prose. It deserves a wide readership

  • joeCanuck

    Huge numbers of Irish people, my self included, have English or Scottish relatives, Welsh to a lesser extent. It has been an enormously complex relationship, especially since the Industrial Revolution. We should recognize those relationships and build on them.

  • Old Mortality

    While his relatives may have prospered in England, O’Toole obviously forgot about the numbers of Irish who ended up in the dosshouses of Camden Town.
    He has also overlooked the impact of the excessive natural population growth which the Irish economy simply could not sustain. This might of course be blamed on the church but the Irish were not the only Roman Catholics in Europe although perhaps the most peculiar ones.