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An essential study of the foundation of the British welfare state

The Evolution of National Insurance in Great Britain: The Origins of the Welfare State - Bentley B. Gilbert

There are times when I come across books that, for one reason or another, I wish I had read sooner. Usually this is a subject of sadness for me, a judgment of how my prejudices kept me from enjoying something earlier. This is one such book, though here my feeling is one not of sadness but anger, as this book should have been one that I read back when I was studying for a degree in British history. I know why it wasn't; my adviser simply wasn't interested in the history of social policy, so he assigned us other books instead. Given that my interests were similar to his (not to mention that it usually isn't productive to quarrel with one's adviser), I really didn't question this. But I should have, because this really was a fascinating book.


Bentley Brinkerhoff Gilbert's examination of the establishment of national insurance in Britain begins in the Victorian period, with the growing concern for public health. This make perfect sense as one reads the book, because not only does he demonstrate it as a reflection of the growing concern for public health in British policymaking, but he then proceeds to walk his readers through the chain of events that leads to the passage of the act in 1911. It's a wide-ranging examination, one that leads the reader through Fabian socialism, the operation of friendly societies, the shift in attitudes towards unemployment, and the impact -- both negative and positive -- of the Anglo-Boer War on social policymaking. It's a journey that can be exhausting in the degree of minutiae (and even Gilbert rules out rehashing some of the details of legislative development), but the result is a finely nuanced portrait of how Britain gained a broad-based plan for social welfare insurance on the eve of the First World War. Though dated and suffering by the author's own acknowledgement from an inability at that time to utilize the David Lloyd George papers (an omission he attempted to rectify subsequently by writing a multi-volume biography of the prime minister, one that he died before completing), it remains the best study of how the British redefined the relationship between the British government and the people it serves.