‘The immediate post-war years were depicted as an era of social stability of secure functioning institutions, full employment, benign welfare state and trusted systems of expert knowledge.’ How far do you agree with this claim as an accurate picture of the UK after the Second World War? Did things change towards the end of the twentieth century?
The question requires a two part answer. First, do I agree with the claim regarding the immediate post war years, and second, was there a change towards the end of the twentieth century? First I shall look to the immediate post war years to see if the claim paints an accurate picture of the era in question, and second, I will look at some of the changes which occurred in more recent times.
In the immediate post war years in the UK the traditional nuclear family was a widely accepted concept. The father, as head of the household and the bread winner, would go out to work. In this role he formed the link between the family and the state. The mother’s responsibilities were to take care of the children and the home. Marriage was seen as a heterosexual union and was taken on as a life long commitment. Generally religion and the church would play a part in most family’s lives with religion taught in school during the week and Sunday school or church attendance expected at the weekend. Most men of that era were employed in the manufacturing or industrial sectors and these jobs were generally very secure, widely thought of as ‘jobs for life’. This was also the time when the welfare state was being established. This was intended to provide a good standard of healthcare, unemployment benefit, schooling, pensions and child benefit to the whole population, and would be free at the point of usage. This was touted as a ‘cradle to grave plan’ under an ‘all pay, all benefit’ system (Fergusson and Hughes, 2000, p.122). This system began to function very well under the prevailing conditions of almost full male employment. Crime rates were low and in general the police were respected, doctors were trusted and medical opinions rarely questioned.
All in all this seemed like a period in which the majority of people were content and life in general was good, but was this really the case? For women in particular, life’s choices were severely limited. A wife would be financially dependant on her husband, and through the style of education provided for her she was more or less trapped in the position of housewife or similar low paid domestic work. Even though many women were perfectly happy and fulfilled in these roles, choices for the discontent did not exist. Later research also revealed a hidden culture of violence and abuse towards women within the family (Sherratt and Hughes, 2000, p.50). Even for the man in the workplace, things were not necessarily as rosy as they seemed. Working hours were long and tightly controlled; the jobs were invariably dull and could leave workers feeling somewhat less than fulfilled at the end of a long day. There was a feeling of routine and inflexibility to all aspects of working life and the phrase ‘job for life’ could be seen to take on a whole new meaning, one similar to that of a prison sentence (Dawson, 2000, p.84). The power distribution within the family was unequal and the state was biased towards the man being the breadwinner, legislation made it very difficult for a woman to be independent and single mothers and unmarried women were stigmatized. The family was an institution with deep rooted problems for some of its members, and in failing to recognise this, the claim lacks comprehensiveness.
With regard to the newly created welfare state, this was indeed, at the time, a benign system. Conditions were ideal, with full male employment the contributions were high and as a result unemployment benefit claims were very low. Also this now afforded proper medical care to portions of the population who had previously only had access to home remedies.
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