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The Political Economy of Government Redistribution in Britain 1870–1955

Jenny Pleinen

The project aims to provide a new perspective on the relationship between the state, capitalism, and society in Britain since the middle of the 19th century by focusing on the political economy of redistributive policies. Taking an approach drawn from fiscal sociology, state finances are seen as the result of conflicting interests that play out in the political arena through elections, lobbying, and the media. At the same time, state interventions create interest groups and voter alliances – some of which are interested in maintaining the status quo, while others try to alter it in their favour.

This theoretical framework connects case studies on specific debates and policy changes with structural developments in a long-term perspective.

The redistributive policies considered include state revenues, such as taxes, but also tariffs and fees. Tariffs are of particular importance in this context as Britain has imported a substantial portion of her food staples since the middle of the 19th century. The level of tariffs has affected both the income of (mostly aristocratic) landowners and the consumption rate of the urban poor and working classes, which has led to multiple conflicts. An equally broad definition is applied to state expenditure, including often-overlooked tax expenditures such as tax exemptions, deductions and evasions. In addition to revenue and expenditure, the project also examines forms of regulation that have affected or have tried to affect the distribution of income and wealth in British society, such as the setting of base interest rates or the imposition of price/wage/rent controls.

The project examines how interests, perceptions, concepts, and circumstances have shaped the debates and decision-making behind these policies. Particular attention is paid to popular notions of social justice and appropriateness. Instead of constructing a coherent theory of social justice, the project focuses on the discussion of abstract principles via the use of social figures such as ‘the decadent aristocrat’ or ‘the welfare queen’. During and immediately after both World Wars, ‘the war profiteer’, who enjoyed an ‘excess’ and therefore illegitimate profit while his compatriots suffered loss of life and property, drove the discussions about a potential wealth tax. The project analyses how such ideas of moral economy interacted – and sometimes collided – with market logics and property rights.

The project also contributes to a history of knowledge by examining how scientific knowledge was selected, rearranged, and translated into the codes and logics of the political system. Royal commissions and parliamentary committees on aspects of redistributive policies are used as case studies since they produced ‘official’ knowledge on social inequality.

Lastly, the project also traces how these policies changed the distribution of income and wealth, both intentionally and unintentionally. By including a social history perspective, it reveals which social inequalities became part of the political debate and which remained an unquestioned part of the status quo.