I’ve read some parochial comments about British social policy in the last week. A chapter in the new Routledge Handbook of the Welfare State claims that “In no country did social exclusion become more prominent as a basis for social policy than in Britain.” France, which has led the world in this, developed the concepts of “exclusion” and “insertion”, and restructured their benefit system around them in the 1980s; the European Union treaties, influenced by the French speaking directorates, depend on “combatting exclusion”; the model has now spread to places like Portugal and Brazil. A report from the IEA claims that “Social expenditure in the UK stands at one of the highest levels in the world.” That’s true in one sense – any relatively rich country is likely to spend more through social expenditure than a relatively poor country. More relevantly, the UK is just above the OECD average (24.5% social expenditure, compared to the OECD average of 22.1%). Its expenditure is exceeded by, for example, France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Portugal and Spain – in other words, by most long-standing EU members.
The heading I’ve put on this entry is admittedly unfair – I couldn’t resist it. The problem with these comparisons isn’t so much that they’re insular, as that they’re looking in the wrong direction. People making policy in Britain tend to focus on the example of other English speaking countries – notably the US and Australia – rather than its European peers, or any review of broader international developments. That’s our loss.