Secondritain’s first Attempts to provide universal child care fell prey to baby boomers. The 1944 Education Act, part of the building up of Britain’s post-war welfare state, directed local authorities to provide nurseries for children under five and schools for older children. However, a post-war birthrate surge meant Britain’s cash-strapped government was unable to fund these places and expand secondary schools. Priority is given to older children and early education is sidelined.
In the March 15 budget, the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, did the job of making up for this omission. In England, working parents with children aged between nine months and two years will receive government funding for up to 30 hours of childcare from 2025. This builds on an existing program for children aged 3 to 4 years. These reforms both expanded the welfare state and reflected a uniquely British way of thinking.
In 1990, Danish sociologist Gøsta Esping-Andersen divided welfare states in developed countries into three categories: liberal, social democratic, and conservative. The liberal welfare state prioritizes market solutions over individual decisions. The state should step in just to prevent extreme poverty: think of America, with private health insurance and food stamps for the very poor. Benefits tend to be means-tested, providing a safety net for those struggling, rather than a means of escaping the labor force entirely.
Social-democratic types, such as the Swedish type, are characterized by universal welfare and high-quality public services that meet the needs of both rich and poor. State-funded childcare and a plethora of public sector jobs help ensure that women’s place is in the office rather than at home. The conservative welfare state associated with Otto von Bismarck’s legacy was more concerned with maintaining traditional family values than narrowing pay differentials. Pensions and unemployment benefits are often based on your contributions and are more generous for higher earners; meanwhile, the tax system provides benefits for married couples.
No country fits Mr. Esping-Andersen’s typology exactly (nor does it account for the emerging East Asian welfare states or the Mediterranean countries, which combine a vital role for the family with minimal state social protection). But it is a helpful way of thinking about the UK-specific concept of the welfare state.
Britain is generally on the liberal side. But from the start it will try to combine liberalism with a measure of social democracy. William Beveridge, author of the report that became the blueprint for the postwar welfare state, wrote that there would be minimum guarantees of “entitlement and non-means testing” but also “voluntary action by everyone to provide more than the minimum limited benefits”. For himself and his family”. This mix helps explain why the UK has both the NHS and private schools for the wealthy. It also sheds light on why childcare reform should be designed the way it is.
British voters seem to crave Nordic stuff. Polls consistently show that a majority of the public prefers a combination of higher taxes and spending on public services, not the other way around. The government has been emphasizing “serious” parts of its “cradle-to-grave” welfare state for more than a decade – with health care and pension spending largely uncut in recent years. Brits love to lean towards the cradle.
Mr Hunt’s bid to expand childcare for working parents has the support of more than 70 per cent of voters across all major parties, according to polling firm YouGov. Attitudes towards working parents have turned Scandinavian, an annual survey of British social mores has found. In 2007, about 20% disapproved of parents (usually mothers) having children under the age of 3 full-time; by 2019, this had dropped to 11%, the same figure as Sweden. (only a few conservative Congressmans bemoans the idea of the state replacing the family in caring for babies: the conservative tradition has few followers in Britain. )
The reforms would mean a significant expansion of the welfare state, doubling government spending on childcare to £8bn ($9bn; 0.4% of total revenue gross domestic product), creating a new and permanent political battleground for the funding and management of the program. However, if childcare reforms have social-democratic goals and meaning, their design remains liberal.
The state will foot the bill and help set prices, but actually providing places for children is up to for-profit businesses. Nor will high earners enjoy this right; British austerity triumphs over Nordic universalism. Any family whose parents earn more than £100,000 risks losing tens of thousands of pounds of state support to earn extra pounds.
“It ends up doing some weird things to incentivize work,” notes Christine Farquharson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies think tank. If the policy’s goal, she says, is to help those If the person at the expense gets a job, it fails: such costs are highest among high earners in London and south-east England. However, upper-middle-class stoppers are not popular. The welfare state may grow larger and taxes rise to pay for benefits, but it remains a competitive mess of British instincts. ■
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