GCPH interns: standing on the shoulders of giants

05 October 2017

Rachel Hewitt, who recently completed an internship at GCPH, reflects on the experience.

When I applied to my GCPH internship back in March, I made a joke in the interview that one of the most famous figures in the history of social protection was once an intern. When he was 24, in 1903, William Beveridge worked at Toynbee Hall studying the causes of poverty in Whitechapel.

The work at Toynbee Hall underpinned most of the modern day welfare structure (such as poverty and the life cycle), and most importantly the theory, evidence and community engagement that organisations like GCPH do so well. It was there that Beveridge worked on the term ‘unemployment’—a word that is essential to policy today. So, really, turning points in history have to happen somewhere, and involve someone. And interns can (possibly) change the world.

So I got the job: three months to develop a document exploring the future of social protection and the possibilities of a universal basic income in Scotland. And two women I’ve never met before to co-write it with. And I’m playing catch up, because Beveridge was two years younger than I am.

The intern team

As an intern team, our different disciplines gave us different approaches. In the first week, we started reading and sharing papers we thought would be a useful theory basis for our document. They gave me books by Guy Standing, Danny Dorling and Naomi Klein. I put on our shared drive archived reports on the 1909 Royal Commission on the Poor Laws. Everything I read about social protection seemed to follow the same pattern it did at the start of the last century, when Beveridge was at Toynbee Hall.

Then, when I moved away from my own discipline, I realised how much social protection today is working in a digital, global world— facing challenges that in 1942 was still the stuff of comic books and sci-fi films. Perhaps it was time to re-frame Beveridge’s ‘five giants’. Maybe it isn’t just want, idleness, ignorance, disease and squalor we need to address. We argue that the future of social protection is a fight against precarity, isolation, inequality, poor health and climate change. Do we really want full employment today? Or do we need something else entirely, like a guaranteed basic income?

The history of medicine has been a continual balance between failure and success. For every pioneer who discovered a vaccine or understood germs as the basis of disease there was one who tried to treat smallpox with the colour red or a nightmarish doctors mask stuffed with herbs to ‘prevent’ the plague. With history, you know what happened next: which ideas become common practice, and which didn’t. These ideas come from somewhere. They come from reports and documents and conversations and partnerships. Every archived document on the possibility of universal healthcare as a form of social protection is one piece of the story which eventually became the NHS.

From paper to practice

One of the most exciting things about this internship is seeing the way these ideas move from paper to practice— shifting the conversation enough so that previously impossible ideas seem within reach. Basic income may not fix the new giants, but it offers a change in approaches and values. It is a new chapter, a new possibility and a new chance to nudge policy in a slightly different direction.

Without hindsight and knowing what happened next, working on the ideas for the future of social protection is both exciting and terrifying. What if basic income is one of the bad ideas which in 100 years’ time is the lesson everyone learns in school about what not to do? Or what if this is one of those turning points in history, where the future of social protection is dictated for years to come? The intern team could be part of that story. What drives me is that William Beveridge was an intern at Toynbee Hall, and he invented unemployment insurance, so you have to start somewhere.

Read another perspective, from Rachel's fellow intern Ida, in her blog.


About the author

Rachel Hewitt Student


Rachel is based at the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare at Glasgow Caledonian University.  She is undertaking a PhD in the History of Medicine, funded by the Wellcome Trust, which focusses on the social history of epilepsy and alternative therapeutic communities in the early twentieth century. 

Read all articles by Rachel Hewitt