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The Modern Welfare State: Temple’s Challenge for the Church

19 Aug 2014

This guest post is written by Dr Simon Duffy, Director of The Centre for Welfare Reform and policy advisor to the Campaign for a Fair Society.


William Temple helped to found the modern welfare state, but what would he make of it today? If we re-examine his seminal Christianity and Social Order in the light of the development of the modern welfare state, it seems clear that Temple would be deeply disturbed and disappointed. Not disappointed with the idea of the welfare state, but disappointed with what we’ve done to that idea.

Temple took his readers back to the very heart of the Christian tradition, and explored the kind of society that Christians should help build. His vision for the welfare state is a Christian vision, but it is also a vision that welcomes others; he claims no special place for the Church or for Christians. Instead, at its heart is love – love in the form of justice. Temple recognised that justice gives us rights and duties, but that we must also work to fulfil them in a spirit of equal citizenship. Our deeper purpose must be to ensure that we each have the freedom to develop to our full potential and this means creating communities with the necessary securities and opportunities to enable that development.

But, while Temple’s vision certainly helped inspire the creation of the welfare state, it is often difficult to see the relationship between that vision and the reality of today’s system. The early achievements of the welfare state are too often taken for granted, and we have moved into an era of ‘welfare reform’ when the word ‘reform’ has become code for ‘attack’. Politicians, journalists and the general public now accept without question a whole series of falsehoods or distortions:

“Welfare spending is unsustainable”

“Too many people are on benefits”

“Welfare fraud is a major problem”

“Public services need to be more efficient”

The welfare state has become an object of scorn and there are few prepared to provide it with a robust defence. How has this happened? How has such an important achievement become so problematic?

One culprit may be the resurgence of liberalism: the philosophy of individualism, consumerism and the growing power of business or ‘the market’. Yet, while there is some truth in this, there is a danger that blaming liberalism is too simplistic. If we are not careful we simply rehearse the hollow debates, from both the left-wing and right-wing, which have left us in this situation. We need to think more deeply about the kind of welfare state which is needed.

This is a problem that goes right back to the birth of the welfare state. For, while Temple’s vision certainly inspired its formation, the welfare state was rarely informed by that vision. The systems that were put in place in the 1940s, and in the following years were well intentioned, but they were also deeply paternalistic, meritocratic and bureaucratic. The design of the welfare state was somewhat blind to citizenship, to rights, to the value of diversity in our communities or to the full potential of every human being.

Keynesian economics helped to assure people work; but this was work as defined by the state and big business. The benefits system provided people with a minimum income, but it stigmatised those who needed it. The value of out-of-work benefits is now so low that the UK has become the third most unequal developed country in the world. Even those institutions, like schools and the NHS, which were designed to promote equality, are organised to put Whitehall in power. The UK has the world’s most centralised welfare state. One symptom of this extreme centralisation is the constant reorganisation of public services, each according to the latest political fad, yet each without any demonstrable benefits.

At a deeper level many of these problems may be constitutional. Today, as the country wrestles with ‘austerity’ we find that cuts in spending are actually targeted at the poor and disabled people. For instance, there are now 25% fewer people receiving social care (support for disabled and older people) than there were five years ago. Mortgage rates (which affect the wealthiest) have been slashed, but the poor are forced to rely on the likes of Wonga. The most likely explanation for this is not the wickedness of politicians, but the fact that the votes of the poor are much less important than the votes of those on middle incomes. The political rhetoric of the ‘squeezed middle’ is an inversion of the truth – politicians pander to the middle, because this is where elections are won or lost. We live in a “medianocracy” – a land where the median earner is king.

We are in grave danger of seeing much of what Temple and the Church worked to achieve being undermined and lost. There is very little sign that modern politicians or voters understand the need for equal citizenship; instead it is increasingly acceptable to buy your way to the front of the queue. We have forgotten that human beings are wonderfully diverse, and that all of us have a God-given potential to develop; instead we meekly accept the Government’s presumption that it can dictate the purpose and methodology of our children’s education. Instead of building welcoming and diverse communities together, we have subsidised the development of institutional services, like residential care.

But this is why there has never been a better time for the Church to act. When party political structures have evolved so that they can no longer protect minorities or the vulnerable, then the Church must speak out. When thinking is dominated by out-of-date and bankrupt concepts, then the Church must speak afresh the language of love and truth. When communities have lost heart and have begun to accept the fate handed down to them by the powerful, then the Church must help people to find renewed strength.

If William Temple came back today to examine the welfare state I am sure he would challenge the Church to remind people why we need the welfare state, and he would encourage us once again to imagine what kind of welfare state would really be true to the Christian vision of love, truth and justice.

This article is based on a more detailed analysis of Temple’s vision for the welfare state published in the most recent edition of Crucible: The Christian Journal of Social Ethics.


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