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January 19, 2005

The Collapse of Institutional Democracy in Britain

Posted by Frank Prochaska

Before the rise of the modern welfare state, Britain had a strong culture of free association; it had a vast network of charities, societies for mutual aid, and voluntary schools. These institutions have declined in tandem with the rise of the welfare state. Frank Prochaska, Lecturer in History at Yale University and leading historian of British philanthropy, argues that these voluntary associations gave people a very real measure of control over their own affairs and their immediate environment. With the advent of mass democracy and the welfare state, such local self-management has collapsed. Ironically in our democracy citizens may now have less immediate control over their own lives. Dr Prochaska asks: "Has Tocqueville's warning about the rise of a democratic form of despotism, built on class resentments and justified in the name of welfare, come to pass, not in America but in Britain?"

The relationship between government and the people changed so dramatically in the twentieth century that we may, like the historian G. M. Young, see late Victorian Britain as an ancien régime [G. M. Young, Victorian England: Portrait of an Age (Oxford, 1936), p. vi]. While central government was little noticed in the 1850s, the tendrils of the state were everywhere to be seen a century later, from the local surgery to the unemployment office on the High Street. Translated into quantitative terms, government spent less than 8 per cent of gross national product in the 1900s and over 50 per cent in the 1960s [Jose Harris, 'Society and State in twentieth-century Britain, The Cambridge Social History of Britain, 1750-1950, ed. F.M. L. Thompson, 3 vols., (Cambridge, 1990), vol. 3, p. 64]. Victorians held government in esteem, but expected little from it on social issues. In a national culture dominated by Christianity, they commonly believed that poverty was ineradicable, yet they sought its amelioration through voluntary service. A century later, most Britons believed poverty could be abolished, but that responsibility for welfare provision resided in the political process. With collectivism in the ascendant, the payment of taxes had become the primary civic duty.

To the Victorian mind, democracy was immanent in institutions. Before the advent of universal suffrage, the nation's charities, societies for mutual aid, voluntary schools and various other bodies represented the most effective way for disparate groups to have an influence in their communities and integrate into the wider society. Self-governing, voluntary institutions gave a voice to those who were excluded, or felt excluded, from the political nation: dissenters, minorities, women and the working classes. Through the culture of free association, which had its origins in the Reformation, the most obscure sects could prosper in their own enclave of belief. Voluntary societies not only made life more bearable and human, but propelled those traditions of free association that were thought essential to the creation of a vibrant democracy. As John Stuart Mill argued in the Principles of Political Economy (1848):

The only security against political slavery is the check maintained over governors, by the diffusion of intelligence, activity, and public spirit among the governed.
Without the habit of spontaneous voluntary action, he added, citizens "have their faculties only half developed". [John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy (Penguin edition, 1970), pp. 312-13].

Associations, it was often said, were the nurseries of democracy, which provided opportunities for grass-roots participation, a moral training, and lessons in decision-making and organization. In the nineteenth century there were literally millions of them in Britain, from the humble mothers' meeting and burial club to the great missionary societies and charitable hospitals. The very density of free associations, catering to all manner of maladies and aspirations, thwarted the revolutionary theorists, who anticipated the collapse of the social order [R. J. Morris, 'Clubs, societies and associations', The Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750-1950, vol. 3, p. 443]. The fluid, instrumental traditions of voluntary association made a rigid, monopolistic political system less likely to develop in Britain. The Reverend Archer Gurney, a former English Chaplain in Paris, put the religious cum political case for charity in 1872 [Rev. Archer Gurney, Loyalty and Church and State: A Sermon Preached . . . on the occasion of the National Thanksgiving for the Recovery of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales (1872), p. 6]:

We are no friends to benevolent despotisms in this land of ours. We like, in most ways and as far as may be, to administer ourselves. So private charity is with us an all-important agency.
By the twentieth century, however, voluntarists were increasingly on the defensive. In an age of social science, mass politics and national priorities, they looked increasingly parochial. In a culture growing more urban and diverse, they had difficulty rebutting criticisms that charity and mutual aid were patchy and inadequate. Unemployment and two world wars, which accelerated government controls, pushed the voluntary sector to the margins of social reform. The extraordinary circumstances of the Second World War had boosted Labour's planning mentality, and its leadership paid scant heed to the democratic impulses and good offices of voluntary societies with their ethic of contributory citizenship. By the end of the Second World War, the citizenry looked to government, not to self-governing institutions, for redress. The representative principle, which developed a magical hold on the citizenry after the extension of the suffrage in 1918, had trumped the principle of duty.

The vast expansion of state-directed health and welfare services after the war threw voluntarists into disarray. Central government largely displaced the vast array of voluntary institutions in the provision of health and social services. Politicians of all parties, transfixed by the role of the welfare state in their election prospects, narrowed discussion of social policy down to government action. So did civil servants in the expanding welfare departments, who jealously guarded their new authority. In the heyday of centralized bureaucratic administration, social policy shifted from the local to the national and from the religious to the secular. Indirect, representative democracy, expressed through Cabinet government, now reigned supreme in educational and social policy over the spontaneous form of democracy inherent in voluntary institutions. To put it another way, the ministerial, civil service state had routed civic pluralism, whose foundations lay in Christian and humanistic notions of individual responsibility.

Representative democracy has proved to be a poor servant of associational culture. In so far as it has led to government expansion, it diminished institutional democracy, and opened up charities and foundations to the criticism that they are intrinsically undemocratic in nature. Against this background, the citizenry tended to forget that the scope for 'active' participation in the democratic process is proportional to a nation's associational life, a point that William Beveridge was at pains to make in his book Voluntary Action (1948) [William Beveridge, Voluntary Action: A Report on Methods of Social Advance (London, 1948), pp. 10, 318, 320]:

The making of a good society depends not on the State but on the citizens, acting individually or in free association with one another, acting on motives of various kinds — some selfish, others unselfish, some narrow and material, others inspired by love of man and love of God.
Beveridge may have been reading Alexis de Tocqueville, the great theorist of associational democracy. But Tocqueville had a sharper political edge [Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (Modern Library Edition, New York, 1981), p. 578]:
Among democratic nations it is only by association that the resistance of the people to the government can ever display itself; hence the latter always looks with ill favour on those associations which are not in its own power.
It may seem paradoxical, but it is possible to argue that there was more social connectedness, or social capital, in the age of Queen Victoria, with all its class distinctions and fear of representative democracy, than in post-war Britain, with its New Jerusalem egalitarianism. Those very distinctions and fears made social contact between the classes essential. In an era of religious revival, limited government and strong local allegiances, social responsibility was not simply a corollary of privilege but a corollary of citizenship. A secular age given to the rhetoric of egalitarianism and redistributive justice seemed less in need of the citizenship of contribution. Post-war politics introduced for the first time in British history the sense that virtually everything was subject to politics. But if all human ills were subject to political solutions, there was less point in personal service. If by the push of a ministerial button a programme of social progress could be set in train, was there any need to look after thy neighbour?

As a consequence of the state's ascendancy in welfare, the public and surviving voluntary institutions generally dealt less directly with social issues, leaving the individual disconnected. Individuals were in some ways more impotent in an age of universal suffrage and parliamentary democracy than their disenfranchised ancestors had been under an oligarchic system. Those self-governing local institutions, which connected citizens to their communities, gave them a measure of direct control over their own affairs. But the nationalization and professionalization of the social services made such institutions look provincial and amateurish. Clearly, something fundamental had happened to British culture, once so voluntarist, in which the burden of care shifted so radically to government, in which volunteering became characterized as a frill and faceless officials doled out the nation's capital in the name of progress and 'the people'. The traditional liberal ideal of balancing rights and duties had been overturned, in the words of David Selbourne, "by a politics of dutiless right" [David Selbourne, The Principle of Duty: An Essay on the Foundations of the Civic Order (London, 1994), p. 38].

As Max Weber pointed out [From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, eds. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York, 1946), p. 224]:

bureaucracy inevitably accompanies modern mass democracy in contrast to the democratic self-government of small homogeneous units.
In compensation for the decline of rival sources of democracy, politicians and social commentators sought to replace the sense of community, which people had built up in the past out of family life and self-governing institutions, with a sense of national community, built out of central bureaucratic structures and party politics. In passing social legislation, government acted in the name of freedom, progress and social justice. The beauty of such abstractions perhaps blinded the public to the dangers of overburdening the state. But the more the government expanded its role into areas that were formerly the responsibility of families and voluntary institutions, the more it reduced the scope for individual service and social interaction. Having subdued its rivals, central government was on its way to perfecting what may be described as executive democracy, illiberal in character, in which citizens became 'consumers' of government rather than its 'producers'. [Ferdinand Mount, The British Constitution Now: Recovery or Decline (London, 1992), p. 168].

With the years, the notion that a representative government had tutelary power over the citizenry took hold, and with it the concept of ministerial responsibility for social provision from the cradle to the grave. To the prophets of the New Jerusalem, who believed that social laws offered a blueprint for the reconstruction of society, voluntary agencies were dated and irrelevant. How many times have we all heard disparaging remarks about 'do-gooders'? Government benefits, reliable and universal, made the case for state intervention virtually irresistible. Few, after all, wanted a return to interwar conditions, or opposed advances in health care, least of all the middle classes who were the principal beneficiaries of the National Health Service. In the post-war decades, there was relatively little public debate over the insensitivity of central government to the periphery. It was not a strong current in political discourse to argue that effective social reform might come from below, from local institutions that derived their energy and legitimacy from openness to the immediate needs of individuals and communities.

In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a rearguard campaign to counter the effects of an impersonal state devastating traditional allegiances and local institutions, but the public in general seemed content to queue up for their false teeth and child benefits. A few social critics, often Christian in background, complained of a bloodless takeover of civic responsibility by anonymous bureaucrats. Tocqueville, who believed that Christian charity was essential to social well being, had argued that without a culture of association, democratic nations became prey to overbearing government prone to a benign form of despotism, in which the citizenry exchanged freedom for benefits. He put the case forcefully in Democracy in America [Tocqueville, Democracy in America, pp. 584-5]:

Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
If Tocqueville were alive today, he would find contemporary Britons decidedly sheepish. Since the Second World War, most Britons have been content to sacrifice the traditions of voluntary service in exchange for rights and state entitlements [Philip A. Hall, 'Social Capital in Britain', British Journal of Political Science, part 3, July 1999. p. 453]. But as their elected ministers vacillate and stumble, political cynicism has grown and faith in the shepherd has become more tentative. Across the party spectrum, politicians now concede that the state has failed to elevate the principle of social duty and have adopted the mantra of balancing rights with personal responsibility. But what are the springs of personal responsibility and public spirit in a society that has lost so much of its associational and religious moorings? Has Tocqueville's warning about the rise of a democratic form of despotism, built on class resentments and justified in the name of welfare, come to pass, not in America but in Britain?

Dr Frank Prochaska is Lecturer in History, Yale University. Dr Prochaska's other essays on philanthropy for the Social Affairs Unit can be found here.


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