Digital History

‘Building Welfare States’: Report on an Online Conference

Amidst the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic it seems that virtual conferences are here to stay. In the first half of this post, PhD student Ed DeVane reflects on the experience of ‘doing’ an online event. The second half of this blog serves as a report on the proceedings of the ‘Building Welfare States’ conference, hosted (online) by Warwick University, 23rd – 25th September 2020.

In December 2019, I began planning ‘Building Welfare States’, a conference promoting more radical approaches to the development of Britain’s built public services. A model was presented by Guy Ortolano’s recently published Thatcher’s Progress: From Social Democracy to Market Liberalism Through an English New Town. I wanted to engage with this and recurring outsourcing crises in the present-day including G4S’ role in the London 2012 Olympics, lack of accountability for the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire, and the 2018 collapse of Carllion. Despite these failings, Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office, Oliver Dowden and his successor Julia Lopez, have both maintained that businesses play a vital role in the delivery of public services and provide good value for money. However, the evidential basis for these claims is vanishingly small. More recently, the publication of signed government contracts has been delayed and competitive tendering is suspended under emergency provisions. Historians can further challenge assumptions about the past which underpin the current political preference for poorly performing or unaccountable contractors. The Coalition Government’s 2011 White Paper ‘Open Public Services’ still seems to define outsourcing policy. It deploys New Public Management rhetoric of innovation, choice, and transparency against an imagined bogey of Britain’s classic welfare state, something it defines as the: ‘old-fashioned, top-town, take-what-you-are-given model’. In organizing ‘Building Welfare States’ I aimed to answer a key question: did such a system of provision ever really exist?

Unfortunately, conference planning was compromised soon after it commenced. Guy Ortolano had agreed to travel from New York to deliver a keynote at Warwick, venue and hotel accommodation was booked, and a call for papers had been issued just as the spread of COVID-19 was classified a pandemic by the WHO. The subsequent restrictions placed on international travel and social distancing measures all seemed to spell the end of physical conferencing, but what could replace it?

‘Doing’ an Online Event

Well before the pandemic, environmentally conscious scholars paved the way with alternative formats such as the #flyingless conference. Research groups like the Temporal Belongings Network designed short workshops over multiple days, allowing participants to form relationships and meet across multiple time zones. Nor does moving a physical event online have to be time consuming. In April 2020, the Metropolitan Science project produced guidance for a ‘Rapid-Turnaround Online Conference’. Pre-recorded presentations minimize the possibility of technical glitches on the day but require a dedicated web page with adequate protections for work-in-progress material. At Warwick, our Centre for the History of Medicine research seminars had also moved online. Here, having multiple hosts and opening with light-hearted discussion appeared most conducive for sustained online debate.

‘Building Welfare States’ was adapted accordingly, running as a three-day Zoom Meeting with live presentations. Webinars tend to encourage people to remain muted, and in disabling video and private chat, a host risks creating an unwelcoming atmosphere. To foster inclusivity, I deliberately mixed speakers of different backgrounds. No meeting session lasted longer than four hours. During breaks I enabled ‘Zoom Rooms’ to encourage chance meetings. Each day had two panels, with the final session also featuring the keynote and a plenary discussion. Almost one-hundred people registered for the event from around forty different institutions. Beyond academia, there was strong interest including from those involved in policy. No fee was charged for registration and our costs, never inconsiderable when running even a small physical event, almost disappeared.

Nevertheless, the pandemic did impose additional burdens which would inevitably hinder intellectual engagement with the themes of ‘Building Welfare States’. Archives and libraries were closed, and levels of precarity already being imposed by the neo-liberal university were increased. Early career historians experienced the disruption of furlough, loss of income from the termination of casualised positions, or uncertainty over funding extensions. Tenured academics faced institutional demands to undertake greatly expanded online teaching commitments. While organizing and holding the event, I lost access to adequate workspace and was confined to shared private rented accommodation. Without resolution, many of these factors threaten the long-term viability of online conferencing.

Conference Proceedings

Speakers tackled the question of Britain’s classic welfare state with two broadly differing approaches. The majority looked to challenge the myth of overbearing and monolithic public services through case studies of how infrastructure actually developed. Here, dynamism emerged clearly as a theme from panels on ‘Deindustrialization and Regeneration’ and ‘Housing Reform’. Otto Saumarez Smith spoke on Telford New Town, where the collapse of heavy industry and creation of derelict land had aided the growth of the state by providing new spaces for intervention. Alistair Fair demonstrated how the Scottish Special Housing Association responded to political imperatives for economic diversification with new architectural languages and models of community. Two ‘NHS Modernization’ panels engaged with the related theme of responsiveness, detailing how different publics were able to speak back and shape provision. Victoria Bates gave a presentation on ‘patient-centred’ acoustic design in hospitals, which challenged attendees to think beyond the visual and grasp the sensory aspects of spatial interventions.

A second smaller group pointed to a longer history of tensions between corporate and social welfare. In the ‘State of Affairs’ panel, Robert Proctor’s study of the post-war design of industry in South Wales underscored capitalism’s long and underrecognized dependence on expanding state infrastructure. In a paper on the use of public architecture for profit, Ewan Harrison detailed British Rail’s speculative office developments. Panellists were clear that the purpose of uncovering pre-1979 collusion between the public and private sectors was not to make later phenomena like Margret Thatcher’s privatization agenda seem inevitable. Instead, evidencing continuity can decentre the significance of such high political changes. Returning to Harrison’s example, a series of initially pragmatic decisions by civil servants to offset rising operational costs were only later appropriated for ideological purposes. It is, then, possible to nuance our understanding of the changes which made recent crises in outsourcing possible without being ahistorical.

By the end of the conference, another important question was raised: If all the participants were so sure a classic welfare state never really existed, then what might a new and more radical direction in historiography look like? The keynote concentrated on theme of peculiarities. Using E.P. Thompson’s famous essay of the same title, Guy Ortolano encouraged less essentialist readings of Britain’s welfare state, rejecting comparisons to an artificial ‘classic’ past or idealized standard (read here Scandinavia). In the following plenary discussion, Andrew Seaton highlighted that such an approach risks repeating flaws in Thompson’s own body of work; if we concentrate on granular accounts of what actually happened, we may reproduce an insular view of British culture. Another concern was how such scholarship could become inwardly focused, leading to a disengagement with other disciplines. This point was elaborated by James Greenhalgh, who added that new meta-narratives, such as Jim Tomlinson’s work on Britain’s ‘De-industrialization Not Decline’, emerged precisely from a more serious engagement with the social sciences.

While this plenary discussion raised valuable criticisms, I would argue too close a preoccupation with different frameworks of academic Modern British History risks undermining a more serious engagement with the present. In this regard, the theme of ‘Building Welfare States’ revisits an earlier debate previously appearing on History Workshop Online. Now, however, the mounting human cost of recurring failures in outsourcing suggests a growing need to confront high political narratives like the classic welfare state. The conference proceedings had begun to show what we could learn from a more radical history. Speakers recognized that, while the development of built infrastructure was a decentralized and local process, it was often reworked by a range of inter/trans/extra national contexts. The demands of different publics were often co-opted in tension with a tendency to also privilege favoured private actors and interests. While these dynamics have allowed state expansion to transcend specific social, political, and macro-economic changes, they have further marginalized the needs of other peoples and places. Simplistic narratives of welfare state condemnation or celebration need to be rejected. After the pandemic, more critical historical perspectives might help us to use public services to rebuild in a more equal, participatory, and humane manner.


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