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Cambridge University study shows cutting health and welfare to protect the economy ignores lessons of history

By Ben Comber

closeup stethoscope on medical record application form. medical concept.
closeup stethoscope on medical record application form. medical concept.

St John's College researchers say investment in health and social care is integral to British economic success, and has been since 1600.

Cutting welfare and social care budgets during times of economic hardship is an “historically obsolete” strategy that ignores the very roots of British prosperity, a group of Cambridge academics have warned.

Writing in medical journal, The Lancet, a team of researchers from St John’s College, University of Cambridge, argue that the concept of a British welfare state, widely thought to have begun after the Second World War, actually dates back to a “precocious welfare system” forged during the reign of Elizabeth I, which was fundamental to England’s emergence as “the most dynamic economy in the world”.

They say squeezing health and welfare spending in order to reduce taxes, and on the basis that these are luxuries that can only be afforded when times are good, overlooks a critical lesson of British history – namely that they are central to the nation’s economic success.

While the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that there will be no further welfare savings during the present Parliament beyond those already announced, the paper is directly critical of the continuation of those existing policies, which have reduced welfare spending overall in the name of economic austerity.

Simon Szreter, Professor of History & Public Policy at Cambridge and a co-author of the Lancet piece, said: “We are arguing from history that there needs to be an end to this idea of setting economic growth in opposition to the goal of welfare provision. A healthy society needs both, and the suggestion of history is that they seem to feed each other.”

Referring to the statement made by the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, that “you can only have a strong NHS if you have a strong economy”, the authors argue: “The narrow view that spending on the National Health Service and social care is largely a burden on the economy is blind to the large national return to prosperity that comes from all citizens benefiting from a true sense of social security.”

“There are signs that Theresa May subscribes to the same historically obsolete view. Despite her inaugural statement as Prime Minister, her Chancellor’s autumn statement signals continuing austerity with further cuts inflicted on the poor and their children, the vulnerable, and infirm older people.”

By contrast, the paper argues that a universalist approach of progressively-funded health and welfare spending is an integral part of economic growth, and something that modern states cannot afford to do without.


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