Arts Review: Chris Renwick & Vickie Cooper: The Origins and Dismantling of The Welfare State


As part of the Aye Write! Festival, 24th March 2018, 6:30PM – 7:30PM, Tramway. 

This event was ideal for a time when an extraordinary period of strike action at UK universities has just ended, debates about the rising privatisation of public assets and what we can do about it, are at the forefront of my mind, and the minds of many others. Both of the speakers at tonight’s talk took part in the strike. Chris Renwick, a lecturer in History at the University of York, and Vickie Cooper, a lecturer in Criminology at the Open University, come together under the stairs of the theatre space at Tramway, Glasgow’s postindustrial contemporary art space. They discuss their views on both the origins of the welfare state, and its subsequent decline as a result of recent government approaches.

Both authors begin with a brief introduction to their new books, before reading a short extract to the audience. Chris Renwick’s Bread For All: The Origins of the Welfare State discusses the rise of the concept of the ‘welfare state’. He argues that many of the principles and measures which underpinned Clement Attlee’s government of the 1940s, a period usually considered to signify the beginnings of the modern welfare state, were actually influenced by laws and policies from the late 19th and early 20th Century. Therefore, state involvement in taking care of its citizens is not such a recent phenomenon, but something which has been part and parcel of British politics for over a century. Vickie Cooper’s book, The Violence of Austerity, edited alongside David Whyte, a professor of Socio-Legal Studies at the University of Liverpool, places discussions of the welfare state in a contemporary context. Specifically, Vickie emphasises the inherently violent nature of Conservative austerity politics, which has led to rising poverty, increased foodbank usage, and worsening mental health, amongst other impacts.

Although the speakers may have had differing political views, with Chris admitting his students describe him as a ‘centrist dad’, both seem to agree that the current route the government is taking in terms of welfare is cruel, violent, and unsustainable. At one point, when asked by an audience member about the future of the welfare state, Chris suggests that we will see the bottoming out of austerity within the next 10 years. However, with 120,000 people reported to have died as a result of austerity since 2010, where do we draw the line? Why has this alone not catalysed radical change?

After the talk, I get into a discussion with two men sitting next to me, who must have noticed that I am by far the youngest audience member in attendance. They are interested in what drew me to this particular talk, and I find out that one of them is from a town not far from my home in Newcastle. We discuss the similarities between the Thatcher era Conservative government that they grew up with, and the Conservative government of today. We agree that the current political situation in the UK seems to be regressing back to that era of individualism, accompanied by intensive neoliberalism, and that something needs to change. But none of us seem certain of what the solution could be. I leave feeling downhearted at the reality of the state of things, but also empowered by the knowledge that people of all generations have the potential to unite against the status quo.

[Katie Fannin – @katfnan]

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