Clear Blue Water? The Conservative Party and the welfare state since 1940, by Robert Page

Policy Press, 2015, 1 84742 986 5, hbk, x + 201 pp, £70

The Conservative Party is again in power, and this time untrammelled by a coalition partner. The 2015 Summer budget has drastically reduced the level at which tax credits will be paid and at the same time has established an enhanced National Minimum Wage ( – it is not a ‘Living Wage’ according to the normal definition of that term). This is a significant shift from redistribution to predistribution, giving the welfare state less work to do. Robert Page’s book is timely because it enables us to locate such modern shifts within the history of the Conservative Party’s relationship with the welfare state: a history that proves to be more diverse than we might at first have thought.

The first chapter of this valuable survey finds a certain amount of consistency in the Conservative tradition, in terms of free markets, minimal government, the inevitability and usefulness of inequality, the importance of social order, the individual’s freedom, and the right to own property. The author then discusses a variety of possible classifications of types of conservatism, and sets the scene for subsequent chapters by outlining the Conservative Party’s contribution to social policy during the first half of the twentieth century.

Subsequent chapters treat the party’s relationship with the welfare state chronologically. By 1950 the party was an active supporter of the level of state provision that had emerged during the previous five years of Labour administration. During the 1950s the One Nation group of MPs emphasised widespread home ownership, an efficient economy, rising living standards, and a welfare state designed to promote opportunity but not equality. Edward Heath, the new party leader in 1965, sought pragmatic, evidence-based policies: but by 1970 both One Nation and neo-liberal ideas (such as tax reductions, small government, and the fight against inflation) had become part of the mix that won the party power at the General Election of that year. One of the pragmatic policies attempted was Tax Credits (the genuine article, not the means-tested benefit subsequently called by that name). The scheme would not have included the poorest, either those without employment or those with low numbers of hours of employment, and Page is right to say that the plan was designed to ensure employment incentives and the ‘free functioning of the market’ (p.69). He is also right to say that it was the administrative complexities that sank the scheme. Following the abandonment of tax credits, the Government decided to implement the means-tested Family Income Supplement instead of increasing the value of Family Allowance. Given that the Tax Credits plan was an important moment in social policy history, it is a pity that Page does not give it more than a short paragraph.

The party’s two election defeats in 1974 spelt the end of Heath’s leadership and of the party’s attempt at pragmatic rather than ideological social policy. The future would be with Keith Joseph, the Centre for Policy Studies, Margaret Thatcher, neoliberalism, the pursuit of economic and labour market efficiency, and a generally more negative attitude to the welfare state. Page identifies a renewed emphasis on deserving/undeserving terminology as an important aspect of the Major Government’s policy narrative following the party’s 1992 election victory.

During this period the party took leave of the One Nation, rather pragmatic tradition of the Heath era. In fact, it still existed as a minority interest at the beginning of this period ( – its standard-bearer was David Howells). A mention might have been made of Brandon Rhys Williams MP’s recommendation of a Citizen’s Income scheme to a parliamentary select committee in 1982, which might count as the movement’s last contribution to policy-making.

During the party’s time in opposition between 1997 and 2005, attempts to develop a more compassionate approach to the welfare state were quickly snubbed by the leadership: but by 2005 it was clear that a new direction was required, and David Cameron was elected: a ‘moderniser’, determined to shed the ‘nasty party’ image. It worked: and two election victories followed, one delivering a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and one a majority Conservative government. Page is right to emphasise the roles of the Social Justice Policy Group and the Centre for Social Justice in forming the social policy that has been pursued by these two governments. Iain Duncan Smith had been a failure as leader of the party between 2001 and 2003, but the Group and the Centre were a significant achievement, whatever we might think of the reports and policies that flowed from them. At the heart of the strategy is Universal Credit, which in character belongs to the pragmatic tradition of the Heath era. It has suffered from the same problem as the 1972 tax credit proposals: it is a reorganisation of benefits that requires complex administrative mechanisms – this time complex computerised ones – that anyone who has ever administered social security benefits can see are never likely to work.

The index leaves something to be desired ( – the Centre for Social Justice doesn’t get a mention), and so does the copy editing, but this is a thorough and detailed survey that will be of considerable benefit to anyone trying to understand the background to the present government’s social policy agenda.

The book is particularly interesting in relation to the Citizen’s Income debate. In relation to every phase of the history recounted, a genuine Citizen’s Income would have fitted nicely into the picture. If ever the Conservative Party wishes to recapture every one of its historic emphases – minimal state interference, the autonomous individual, pragmatism, One Nation, economic efficiency, labour market efficiency – in a single social policy, then a Citizen’s Income scheme could be implemented almost overnight: and it would work.