Seventy-five years ago, in the middle of the Second World War, William Beveridge published a report which set out the foundations for the British welfare state. It identified ‘the five giant evils’ of British society: squalor, want, ignorance, idleness and disease. Beveridge proposed a range of measures to address these evils. These included: the introduction of family allowances; free, universal health care; and a national insurance scheme to provide old age pensions, unemployment and sickness benefit.
When the Beveridge Report was published it flew off the shelves. Seeing this as an extraordinary moment for Britain, the original Mass Observation team wanted to record this event, and asked members of the public for their reactions. It conducted a street survey, sent out a ‘directive’ to its panel of writers to gain their views of the report, and even asked the writers to observe the reactions of others they overheard discussing it.
In 1948, when post-war Britain was in the grip of ‘austerity’ and rationing was worse than it had been during the war, Beveridge published another report called Voluntary Action. This examined voluntary help provided by individuals and organisations, and help provided by the state, for different types of welfare needs. It also questioned whether there was a future for voluntary action. This time, Beveridge commissioned Mass Observation to do some of the research for this book. His publication drew on the results of Mass Observation street surveys, and writing by Mass Observation writers, and included the views of people from Scotland, Wales and England.
As part of our study we have looked at responses from the 1940s; and revisited some of the questions asked of the Mass Observation writers, and people taking part in the street questionnaires. And we have just commissioned a new Mass Observation directive entitled ‘Charity and the Welfare State’ which was sent out to the current panel of Mass Observation writers in April 2018.
We’re very excited about the new directive, which we hope will enable today’s Mass Observation writers to consider how they feel about the issues that were being discussed 70 to 75 years ago. We spent quite a while trying to hone the questions, working with our Steering Group to get their views on the types of questions we should be asking writers today.
The text of the directive (which can be accessed on the Mass Observation Archive website) focuses on how relevant the welfare state is to people’s lives today; and investigates the role of welfare services provided by charities and voluntary organisations in contemporary Britain. Several of the questions posed have similar wording to those asked in the 1940s. But we have also included some new questions, to reflect the changes that have taken place over the last 75 years. We’re just starting to receive the first responses now, and are keen to read what the writers have to say!