Inspired by this piece by Martin Kettle, Crooked Timberite Chris Bertram wondered if Kettle’s prediction of the UK-as-Denmark would have been a likely outcome of a German victory in the Great War (aka the First World War) which started a century ago the coming August.
Counterfactuals in history are difficult to deal with as we don’t really have the opportunity to experiment with social developments. On the other hand, the problem with much political science and political history is that analyses tend to focus on the inevitability of the actual outcomes, not the contigencies of historical processes.
Comparative welfare state research have pointed to a fascinating pattern of similarities and differences between the UK and the Scandinavian countries and the best explanation available have focused on the Social Democratic hegemony in the three Scandinavian countries between 1930 and 1980 contrasted with the dominance of the British Conservatives interrupted by Labour governments during the same decades. Basically, programmes like the NHS would fit nicely in any of the Scandinavian countries while the low levels of benefits and the generally harsh treatment of benefit claimants in the UK are a distinct conservative element.
As it is, early – as in pre-World War II – comparative discussions of social policy often point to the similarities of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian policies (tax-financed, state controlled, means-tested) so it is not unreasonable to imagine the UK following a different trajectory. The question is what it would have taken for the UK to choose a more social democratic type of society.
Obviously, one major difference between Denmark and the UK is that the UK was a major power and controlled an empire until the 1950s. This meant that the UK spent relatively more on military expenses while Denmark was relatively demilitarised until the 1950s. We also have to consider the interplay between international and national politics – is the development of a large welfare state also a result of a small-state status in the international system? My guess is that this is the base of Kettle’s argument.
We also have to consider the general position of the labour movement in the political and economic system and the relationship between the different parts of the labour movement. The Scandinavian countries for a number of reasons developed a complicated but highly effective system of regulating worker-employer relationships outside of the party political sphere while the UK had a fundamentally adversarial relationship between the parties on the labour market, leaving more room for political intervention. Similarly, the Scandinavian Social Democratic parties and trade unions also maintained a clear division of labour between the parliamentary and the labour-market arenas while the balance of power in the UK until the Smith/Blair era was skewed in favour of the trade unions – in many ways, John Smith may have been the most “Scandinavian” of Labour leaders. And in any event, the Social Democratic dominance was not a short-term result of national defeats in international politics – even if both Sweden and Denmark lost multi-national Continental empires in the run-up to 1914 (Denmark lost Norway in 1814 and Schleswig-Holstein in 1864 while Sweden lost Finland in 1809 and Norway in 1905).
There are more problems in Kettle’s argument worth considering: Would an alternative Great War have been fought with France and Russia as allies with the UK and US staying neutral or would the UK have been on the losing side? What about the impact of Brest-Litowsk (Imperial Russia actually lost the war)? And wouldn’t a winning Germany in 191x have followed the example set by Prussia in 1871 and demanded huge reparations from France?