Victims of the diswelfare state: listening for pertinent silences

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Dr Michael Lambert, Lancaster University


The current erosion of welfare state institutions – the National Health Service (NHS), social services, and schools – caused by years of underfunding and political intervention exposed by the pandemic, mean that many hark back to a time when things were different. A time when there was a genuine safety net for people, public institutions had power and resources, and the state cared for the welfare of its people. In this view diswelfare is a new phenomenon, a recent betrayal by successive governments of the values of equality and social mobility that shaped Britain from 1945 until the 1970s.

Such a view overlooks how diswelfare was woven into the very fabric of the public institutions that made up the welfare state. Historical scandals and major government inquiries are the tip of the iceberg. They show that this idealised welfare state was not innocent, but a perpetrator of diswelfare during its supposedly golden age. They also demonstrate that what many experienced as individual acts of injustice were not isolated or one off, but a pattern of behaviour shaped by those who ran and delivered the welfare state. This injustice is more searing for children and young people for whom the state was supposed to act as a corporate parent. An uncaring bureaucracy instead neglected them.

In 2010, the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown made a public apology for the migration of children from Britain to its Dominions, which was purportedly in their best interests. Subsequent inquiries, in both England and Wales and in Scotland, have shown the scale of neglect and harm and the impact these experiences had for thousands. These inquiries have also explored the sexual and physical abuse in residential children’s homes. More recently, a completed inquiry in Northern Ireland, and an ongoing one in England and Wales, concerning the forcible adoption of children of unmarried mothers again points to the systematic extent to which the state failed in its duty as a corporate parent.

The call for inquiries, recognition, and apologies for these acts have come largely from communities whose defining identity was in many ways deemed shameful. Children abused at the hands of state and charitable authorities. Young people beaten, abused, and exploited. A potential failure to adequately parent by unmarried women. Such communities are defined by their lived experiences of victimisation and injustice at the hands of the welfare state. They do not necessarily have the same empowering characteristics or forms of identity as other communities that have reclaimed their own histories. Such histories are often individual, personal, and private.

It has been their collective voices calling for action and recognising injustice which have resulted in change. Social worker Margaret Humphreys listened to the plight of child migrants as adults during the 1980s. This resulted in her inquiries into the scope and scale of the practice, which subsequently turned into Hollywood film Oranges and Sunshine. It was only following the death of Jimmy Savile in 2011, and public revelations about the enormity of his sexual abuse, that those who had been speaking out were finally listened to. It was only with public action being taken elsewhere, in Canada, Australia, and above all Ireland, that compelled the voices of adopted children and their birth mothers to be heard. It has been their voices and expertise by experience which has given substance to the extent of failures of the welfare state and its corporate parenting.

Yet academics have been studying the welfare state for years. From social administration academics at the time, to historians and sociologists, there remains an abundant volume of published work about these practices which scarcely scratches the surface of the scale of suffering recounted during the oral testimonies of such inquiries. There often appears to be a dialogue of the deaf between professionals and these communities defined by their experiences at the hands of the state.

Part of the explanation may come from a sense of loyalty to the welfare state amongst professionals, particularly against political attacks including austerity, commercialisation, and deprofessionalisation of services. Another may be reluctance or unwillingness among those who lived through and with the experience of harm and subsequent stigma. Perhaps an enduring sense of shame or seeing their own life histories as uninteresting or irrelevant compared with the great and the good.

Undoubtedly the main reason for the dialogue of the deaf is not unwillingness from either side but a lack of comparability. The voices of those who have been largely victimised as children by the state when viewed in isolation are seen to constitute an individual accusation, claim or grievance. Without corroboration these can, and have been, readily dismissed. However, it is their collective testimonies which provide a basis for their legitimacy as an experience of a public injustice and act of diswelfare.

Beyond the nature of their research, for academics the barriers arise in accessing such sources. At the level of government policy many of the relevant files are restricted, remained closed, or when made public are redacted beyond reasonable use. Below this, where many decisions were taken by the great and the good concerning the fate of those deemed to be in need of their welfare, materials have either been destroyed or closed given their sensitive nature. This applies doubly for the case of voluntary organisations – involved as a crucial provider of services for child migration, children’s homes, and adoption – whose ability to retain their own records means that few are given access in the name of protecting their reputation and integrity.

Many of those who are the very subject of such case files are routinely denied access to their own pasts, histories and experiences, as the work of the MIRRA (Memory – Identity – Rights in Records – Access) project at UCL has shown. Conversely, it has only been through privileged access to these records that Dr Satinder Sandhu was able to explore the ‘choices’ open to unmarried birth mothers who were coerced into giving their children up for adoption. Similarly, it was only through sanctioned access, to both statutory and voluntary social work files, that I have been able to explore the complex dynamics of welfare practices for children and families. Such access has not always been forthcoming, which in turn shapes research through gaps, silences, and omissions.

E. P. Thompson, the architect of modern social history, sought to recover and amplify the voices of those otherwise condemned to the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’. This remains a noble intention for current social historians. However, the role of academics for such communities could be better served by providing a platform for their voices to be heard. Both collectively and individually. Particularly given the unwanted and often rejected form of identity conferred by being victimised by the activities of the diswelfare state, academics should not use their privileged position to speak on behalf of groups or communities.

Being able to listen for what Richard Toye terms ‘pertinent silences’ of political agreement across these formative years of the welfare state is crucial. Identifying gaps, silences, and omissions. Understanding policies, practices, and processes. Centring the experiences of those concerned rather than amplifying the voices of bureaucrats, elites, and the powerful. Ultimately it is about performing public social history which speaks with, not above, the voices of those who have been – and remain – silenced for too long. It is better to act against such injustices whilst those who suffered can still obtain redress rather than waiting to be condemned to the posterity of history.

About the author:

Michael Lambert is a Fellow in Social Inequalities at Lancaster University. His doctoral research critically reconstructed the everyday operation of the welfare state for children and families in Britain from the 1940s to the 1970s. He has supported the work of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry into child migration and submitted both written and oral evidence for the UK Parliament Joint Committee on Human Rights inquiry into the Right to Family Life: Adoption of Unmarried Children of Unmarried Women, 1949-1976.

Featured Image:

CC/CWV/2. Used with permission of Lancashire Archives.

2 responses to “Victims of the diswelfare state: listening for pertinent silences

  1. Same happened in Aotearoa/New Zealand, we believe the disappearing social services and the caring society is about the the impact of neo-liberal accounting philosophy of the last 30 odd years. The promised ‘trickle down effect’ failed to happen.

  2. And social capital – trust, participation, sense of belonging, hope, shared purpose, *not* being fearful/anxious, justice, equity (eg the role of women) etc – is what underpins all enterprise.
    Robert Putnam, Amartya Sen, Manfred Max-Neef all worked and researched in this space. Neoliberalism has *zero* understanding of social systems – what society? – and so destroyed what they didn’t know.
    They’re also the ones who brought corporate managerialism into the public service. They’re the ones who destroyed so much.
    Blind uneducated unimaginative fools. Like so many psychopathic or train scheduling Eichmann CEOs. (thanks to Chris Perley NZ

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