William Blackley’s 19th Century Plan for ‘National Insurance’

Looking through Pauline Gregg’s book, The Welfare State, I found this very interesting passage discussing William Blackley’s scheme in 1878 for setting up something very much like the National Insurance that forms part of the Social Security system set up as part of the welfare State. She writes

It [the 19th century movement for social reform] included the suggestions of a Church of England clergyman, the Reverend William Lewery Blackley, who, in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, advanced the notion of basing social security upon an insurance principle. His scheme was startlingly simple. There would be a compulsory levy on all wage- or income-earners from the age of about seventeen, the total amount payable by each person to be assessed according to his earnings by a National Friendly Society or Club. But though the total payment was fixed, the time taken to pay it was at the payer’s discretion, with an outside age limit of twenty-one, and there might be a reducation for rapid payment. It is remarkable how much of the scheme later adopted by the Government was anticipated by Blackley. Arguing that the instrument of the National Friendly Club would need to be present in every parish, he seized upon the Post Office as the executor of his plan. Going to the source of income, as the National Insurance Acts to, he put the onus on employers to deduct the instalments of the national tax from wages, and he made proof of payment depend upon stamps stuck upon a card. The amount paid was thus readily ascertainable, and when a card was fully stamped the holder was exempt from further payments. In return for the sum of £10, which Blackley tentatively suggested as an average amount of levy, claims of something like 8s. a week for sickness and 4s a week as pension over the age of seventy were proposed. Not only would his scheme take away the stigma of Poor Law relief from the old and the sick, but, since the rich would be paying higher contributions and would not claim benefits, funds would accumulate and the National Friendly Club remain permanently solvent. In anticipating the actual words ‘National Insurance’ in the title of one of his articles in the Nineteenth Century Review in 1878 Blackley was in some doubt. “I have long hesitated”, he wrote, “before fixing on such a title as I have chosen for the present writing, from a knowledge that its very sound may induce most readers to pass it over as a matter so extravagant, impracticable, and Utopian, as to be unworthy of serious consideration.”

(Pp. 8-9).

Unfortunately, few people did consider his scheme worth considering. It’s a pity, because if the plan had been put into action, much of the squalor and suffering of the Victorian age could have been alleviated, and the foundation of the welfare state put in place forty years early.

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