The welfare state is Britain’s major contribution to modern civilisation. An untidy partnership of officialdom and individuals, a blend of central and local institutions, with inputs from business, trade unions, charities and (in education at least) religious bodies, it has survived party contention, economic upheaval and two world wars (the last in fact proving a stimulating force). It defines our country and its sense of citizenship. Whereas in 1945 British identity would express itself through crown, flag, war and empire, now it finds a more sympathetic symbol in the National Health Service. The welfare state has been an essential part of our national story for the past two hundred years. Its history is excellently recounted in this comprehensive, scholarly survey by Chris Renwick. It analyses acutely both the changing concept of welfare and ideas of the state in that period. It is a thoroughly worthwhile work, and, since it ends, somewhat abruptly, with the founding of the NHS by Aneurin Bevan in 1948, it cries out for a second volume covering the welfare state and the many challenges it has faced since then.
The concern with social welfare, and the need for quantifying and defining it, emerged in the late 18th century with the debate over the old Poor Law and the inadequacies of a system dating from Elizabeth I’s later years. The advent of the industrial age aroused even greater anxiety, as