May 13. As much as we are all wondering how we will get through to the end, we are also contemplating how we will be changed by the experience. From hospitals to universities, managers of complex, rule-bound organisations are astonished at how behaviours set in stone for decades have been transformed in a matter of weeks, and are speculating about how long such a metabolism of change can continue.
There is another way of considering the aftermath. I have a new great nephew, born on May 1st in a village on the shores of Loch Lomond, a great niece due next month in York, and if all goes well I shall have a new granddaughter, born to my son and his wife towards the end of August in East London. The brave post-pandemic world will be the one in which these children will take their first steps, and form their identities and ambitions.
In this regard, I have a shared experience. I was born early in 1949, when Britain was still in the midst of reconstruction after VE day which we have just celebrated. The bomb damage in the major cities was yet to be cleared. Rationing was to continue for a further five years. Whilst we now celebrate the heroic construction of the welfare state, life in those years was hard. The winter of 1946-7 was one of the coldest on record, causing and compounded by serious fuel shortages.
Looking back, what strikes me most about my childhood was how much my perspective was cast towards the future. This was partly because my own family had not suffered greatly in the war. There were no fatalities, no battlefield injuries still blighting civilian life. It was partly because I spent my early years in parts of the country which had not experienced physical damage (in Stoke-on-Trent, where my father’s family came from and which we frequently visited, the story was that the Luftwaffe had flown over the city, concluded that it had already been bombed, and passed on).
And it was partly because as a small child I was the direct and immediate beneficiary of the Welfare State. I was conceived in the same summer that the NHS began its life. My father was a junior civil servant, seconded to Blackpool after the war to work on planning the new system, then promoted to run the first office of the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance in the north midlands town of Banbury and then in Oxford. I was in every possible way a child of the new provision, and I can still remember walking with my mother to collect my welfare orange juice from the clinic and my reading books from the children’s library next door. Later came free education all the way up to my Cambridge doctorate.
If I have hope for the new members of my family, it must be based on two aspirations. Firstly, that they should be lucky in the homes into which they are born, as I was in mine. Where there has been death from coronavirus, where the outcome of the pandemic is of embittered lives, undermined health, shattered finances, long-term unemployment, it will be so much harder to form confident, optimistic identities.
Secondly, that we do in fact create a new world in which, once more, the wellbeing of every child, physical and educational, is front and centre of our collective action. It is a matter of addressing the inequalities which continue to disfigure our society three quarters of a century after the reforms of the 1945 Labour Government. And is a matter of ensuring, by signs and by facts, that each child feels itself the most important and cared-for person not just in its immediate family, but in all the places in which it develops as a person. I had that sense in my beginning. I grew up looking forwards, learning about the Second World War and its suffering only much later, mostly through history books. Whilst as adults we must never forget what we have lived through this year, these growing children should never be held back by it.