Today, everybody seems to agree that something has gone badly wrong with the British welfare state. In the midst of economic crisis, politicians and commentators talk about benefits as a lifestyle choice, and of "skivers" living off hard-working "strivers" as they debate what a welfare state fit for the twenty-first century might look like. This major new history tells the story of one the greatest transformations in British intellectual, social and political life: the creation of the welfare state, from the Victorian workhouse, where you had to be destitute to receive help, to a moment just after the Second World War, when government embraced responsibilities for people's housing, education, health and family life, a commitment that was unimaginable just a century earlier. Though these changes were driven by developments in different and sometimes unexpected currents in British life, they were linked by one over-arching idea: that through rational and purposeful intervention, government can remake society. It was an idea that, during the early twentieth century, came to inspire people across the political spectrum. Not only could poverty be conquered, but the policies used to do so could produce better citizens who would in turn create a modern and dynamic Britain. In exploring this extraordinary transformation, Bread for All explores and challenges our assumptions about what the welfare state was originally for, and the kinds of people who were involved in creating it. In doing so, it asks what the idea of the welfare state continues to mean for us today.
Chris Renwick is Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of York, where he has taught since 2010. His main area of expertise is the relationship between biology, social science and politics, especially how the interaction of the three has shaped the way we think about, study, and govern society since the early nineteenth century.