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Broken Britain and Big Society: Back to the 1930s?

The phrase ‘Broken Britain’ is well known to British newspaper readers; it’s a phrase commonly used across the media to describe society’s problems. In the blog post below historian John Welshman, author of Churchill’s Children, traces this identification of a broken society back to around the time of the Second World War, and argues that the real answer is – and was then – to address society’s inequalities rather than ‘Big Society’ and a retreat from state involvement.

You can read John Welshman’s previous posts here. A longer version of this post will appear on the History & Policy website at a later date.

The mantra of ‘Broken Britain’ has been a potent theme for the Conservative Party, its definition effortlessly broadening to encompass whatever appears to be the anxiety of the moment.  Iain Duncan Smith has produced an analysis of social breakdown that has five main strands: first, anxiety that a ‘problem’ exists; second, a focus on ‘pathways’ to poverty, covering family breakdown, economic dependency, educational failure, addiction, and personal indebtedness; third, an emphasis that this is ‘lifestyle’ poverty, and not just about money; fourth, a belief in the responsibilities of parents and on the family as the foundation of policy; and fifth, the claim that people themselves, and the voluntary sector, hold the solution.  Similarly, the Party’s manifesto argues that a new approach is needed to tackle the causes of poverty and inequality, focusing on social responsibility rather than state control, and on the ‘Big Society’ rather than big government.  Only in this way, it is claimed, can ‘shattered communities’ be rebuilt, and the ‘torn fabric’ of society be repaired.

But the identification of a broken society, and these solutions, while current, are nothing new.  For exactly the same themes were the subject of debate during the Second World War.  In September 1939, carefully-laid plans were put into action, and 1.5m adults and children were evacuated from Britain’s cities to the countryside.  If those mothers and children evacuated privately are added to the total numbers, some 3.5 to 3.75m people moved altogether.  Those evacuated from England in September 1939 comprised 764,900 unaccompanied schoolchildren; 426,500 mothers and accompanied children; 12,300 expectant mothers; and 5,270 blind people, people with disabilities and other ‘special classes’.  The largest Evacuation Areas for unaccompanied schoolchildren (apart from London) were Manchester (84,343); Liverpool (60,795); Newcastle (28,300); Birmingham (25,241); Salford (18,043); Leeds (18,935); Portsmouth (11,970); Southampton (11,175); Gateshead (10,598); Birkenhead (9,350); Sunderland (8,289); Bradford (7,484); and Sheffield (5,338).  In Scotland, the largest Evacuation Areas, in terms of accompanied children, were Glasgow (71,393); Edinburgh (18,451); Dundee (10,260); Clydebank (2,993); and Rosyth (540).  Given this emphasis upon place, unsurprisingly the evacuation was followed by an outpouring of debate about the state of urban Britain.

It is true that the revolution that took places in English fields and villages seventy years ago was a quiet one.  There were much continuity, for instance, in policy between the 1930s and 1940s.  Even after the evacuation, civil servants still clung to entrenched attitudes, and continued to put their faith in education, so that  Government circulars still tended to emphasise the responsibilities of parents, and to rely on the resources of voluntary organisations.  Moreover the pathologising of families remained part of the discourse on poverty, and the period saw the invention of the phrase ‘problem family’.  In all of this – in the anxiety that a ‘problem’ existed; the focus on family breakdown, economic dependency, educational failure, and personal indebtedness; the emphasis that this was not just about money; the belief in the responsibilities of parents and the family as the foundation of policy; and the claim that people along with the voluntary sector holds the solution – there are striking continuities with the ‘Breakdown Britain’ analysis.

But overall the evacuation should still be seen as an important turning point in the history of the welfare state.  For the first time, in some cases, the middle class became aware of the extent of child poverty in our cities.  As it came to be recognised that there were unacceptable variations in the provision of health and welfare services at the local level, issues about the balance between state and individual responsibility were debated as never before.  There was overall a forward movement in the discussion of such issues as head lice and skin disease, school meals and milk, child psychology, and footwear and clothing, and a gradual acceptance of the principle that the state should do more.  Although the ‘problem family’ theme was one strand in the discourse on inner-city poverty, it was not the dominant one, and it was structural interpretations that proved the more influential.  The result was a new determination that when peace came, the ramshackle welfare services of the interwar period would be radically transformed.  The lesson for 2010 is that the electorate must not be tempted by the Conservative Party’s misleading metaphor of ‘Broken Britain’, by its focus on the ‘Big Society’, and by its attempt to take us back to the 1930s.  For the welfare state was established to prevent the very problems that the evacuation revealed.  The answer to the challenging issues of today lies, not in a retreat from state involvement, but in addressing social inequalities.

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