Britain’s industrial revolution was in the eighteenth century, and followed into the nineteen and twentieth. She became super-powerful and rich, but apart from a handful of mine and factory owners, and those estate owners who had anything left to maintain, most workers lived in indescribably poor circumstances in Britain – worst of all in the nineteenth. Thank God for the reformers, the artist Hogarth and Charles Dickens. They showed the great industrial cities as they were – filthy, over-crowded, smelly, fog-ridden, unhygienic and socially divided.
The National Insurance Act was passed to everyone’s surprise by Asquith’s Liberal administration in 1911. It was the first Act of its kind, but it was soon to be copied by most other countries with a strong enough government to see it through, for it was revolutionary indeed.
Chancellor of the Exchequer (Minister of Finance or Minister at the Treasury) at the time was a Welshman called Lloyd George. At first the Act only gave unemployment benefit to workers in selected industries but it was at least a start. The industries concerned were building, shipbuilding, and civil engineering, but this list was soon enlarged, covering almost all industries by 1920. Even more surprising, especially shocking for Victorian-type magnates, was the new sickness benefit, provided for all manual workers. One supposes that workers such as teachers or estate agents were never sick.
The self-employed, however, were also exempted from sickness benefit. To pay for all this, employees paid four pennies a week, while three pence came from employers and two pence from the government. Special departments employing hundreds of clerks (who did not have sickness benefit either) were set up to handle the bureaucratic side; Lloyd George called it ‘ninepence for fourpence’.
The sickness benefit was for twenty-six weeks only, backed by medical, maternity and sanatorium care. One odd thing is that the Three-Tier System had actually been invented by von Bismarck’s state socialism in Germany, a country hated by the British for several sound reasons. It was to be used and abused again by socialist governments after the Second World War.
All this was a significant move towards what came to be known as ‘The Welfare State’: this in practice meant workers in the future not working because they got more that way, sitting at home; farmers not farming because of state subsidies; totally free medicine, totally free education, totally bad manners etc. No major reform, it seems, has ever achieved the required result. In Britain today couch potatoes of both sexes have been nurtured by the State since birth and will continue to benefit in this way until they drop dead of obesity, choler and laziness. They were educated free. Their medicines are, (or were) free. What they consume at the table comes free too, because of benefits. Many claim and get sickness benefit though they are members of cycling or swimming clubs and go to the Mediterranean for their month’s holiday. For all this we must thank persons like Sydney and Beatrice Webb and Bernard Shaw and other thinkers and writers, experts in persuasion.
For those students who take sides when politics enter the conversation, it should be noted that the Spanish National Insurance System, called La Seguridad Social was not introduced by a socialist chancellor or Presidente del Gobierno. It was the 40-year dictator General Franco. What a surprise!