J Epidemiol Community Health 61:95-97 doi:10.1136/jech.2006.046367
  • Public health past and present

Knights, knaves, pawns and queens: attitudes to behaviour in postwar Britain

  1. John Welshman
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr J Welshman
 The Institute for Health Research, Bowland Tower East, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YT, UK; j.welshman{at}
  • Accepted 2 August 2006


The choice agenda is currently one of the most prominent in public policy. One of its main architects, Julian Le Grand, has used the metaphors of knights, knaves, pawns and queens to characterise changing attitudes to questions of motivation and behaviour among public servants and service users. He has said, for example, that, in the immediate postwar period, public servants were perceived as public-spirited altruists (or knights), whereas service users were seen as passive (or pawns). It was only in the mid-1980s that public servants came to be seen as essentially self-interested (knaves) and service users came to be regarded as consumers (queens). However, this highly influential model has undergone remarkably little critical scrutiny to date. This article explores the debate over transmitted deprivation in the 1970s to provide a historically grounded piece of analysis to explore the accuracy and utility of these metaphors. It challenges Le Grand’s arguments in three respects. Firstly, a concern with behaviour and agency went much broader than social security fraud. Secondly, the metaphor of pawns is inadequate for characterising attitudes towards the poor and service users. Finally, Le Grand’s periodisation of the postwar era also has serious flaws.


  • Funding: The researcher is independent of any funders.

  • Competing interests: None.