Book Review: Disability and the Welfare State in Britain

Jameel Hampton, Disability and the Welfare State in Britain: Changes in Perception and Policy, 1948-1979 (Bristol: Policy Press, 2016), 277 pp., $ 110.00 cloth, ISBN: 9781447316428.

Reviewed by Sasha Mullally, University of New Brunswick

From 1948 to 1979, British society might have been on a ‘collective train’ into an egalitarian social democratic future, but, as Jameel Hampton argues, many disabled people were often left behind at the station. During this important era of postwar welfare state reform in Britain, select groups—such as veterans of armed conflict and the mentally ill—secured and saw expanded support for their convalescence, rehabilitation, or permanent care.  Yet, those Hampton describes as ‘general classes’ of disabled people routinely fell through the cracks in the system.

Hampton organizes this policy history chronologically, beginning each chapter with a list of major events: key legislation, government reports published, election outcomes, and relevant statistics like the rise and fall of the unemployment rate. Chapters 3 and 4, in particular, describe the implementation of important personal social security programs and analyze to what degree disabled people were included or excluded from these provisions. Hampton critiques three decades of the welfare state, observing how the incremental improvements in personal social services for disabled people changed with the evolution of ideas about disability in wider British society.

Disabled people, Hampton argues, first became an influential constituency between 1964 and 1969. The Disablement Income Group’s (DIG) rising profile strengthened their lobbying capacity such that, by the early 1970s, they demonstrated to both labor and conservatives that there would be both public relations and electoral consequences for not offering disabled people equitable levels of services. The rise of civil rights movements in Britain and elsewhere also cultivated a general societal willingness to assist whose misfortune could not be construed as ‘moral failure.’ The evolution of perceptions of disability, and the political power of advocacy organizations, combined to support the first major targeted legislation, the Chronically Sick and Disabled Person’s Act of 1970.

Both before and after passage of this landmark legislation, the provisions for disabled people were complicated by the ‘tyranny of work.’ Central government bodies and individuals in both major parties increasingly demonstrated concern about the status of disabled persons. By the late 1960s, for instance, the adoption of residential accommodation marked a major inclusive step forward. But measurements to determine eligibility quickly followed. While Hampton finds no overt exercise of moral judgments on unemployed disabled citizens over these decades, the adoption of limitations, such as means tests in the 1970s, limited access to policy and programming. ‘The social insurance system,’ Hampton explains, ‘never fully escaped the work ethic’ (239).

Hampton’s convincing critique of the welfare state’s weak support for disabled people is strongly supported by his organizational analysis of program delivery. Because no coherent philosophy underpinned the expansion of provisions for general classes of disabled people, such provisions did not come under the administration of any single national agency. National policies might create programs, but local authorities were almost always left in charge of implementation. Local administrators often relied upon community groups, charities, as well as family and friends of disabled people, to function.  Hampton reveals how reliant the state was on a remarkably wide range of nonstatutory organizations to offer critical services to disabled people over these decades.  This decentralized approach resulted in very uneven levels of care and service across the country. In this way, British social democratic traditions routinely and systematically failed to include disabled people, and ‘[t]he psychological and representative gains made with new statutory provisions in the 1970s were fleeting.’

This book seems primarily written for policy scholars and those very familiar with the postwar British welfare state. Hampton deploys acronyms as if they were common terms and wields last names without always providing identification. But it is worthwhile to cross-reference and keep up with this important new policy analysis of post-war Britain. It will interest humanities scholars of health and illness, medicine, and social policy. It contributes to emancipatory disability studies and will be of interest to those who work in personal social services today. This includes policymakers, who might read and reflect on how perception shaped reality for many disabled Britons since mid-century.

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