June 23. This week, BBC Radio 4 is running programmes under the heading of: “Re-think. People’s Hopes and Dreams for the world post-corona.” It launched the series with a talk by Peter Hennessy on yesterday’s World at One programme.
Peter Hennessy, Lord Hennessy, is, for those who do not know his work, the leading historian of modern politics in Britain. As a Times journalist and later an academic, he has written widely and authoritatively on the practice of government in Britain since the Second World War. His views repay attention. This is what he said:
“It is possible that out of our experience of a cruel, capricious and deadly pathogen something of real and enduring value could emerge. That out of tragedy could come possibility and purpose. Is there a usable piece of our past to guide us, to give us hope? I think there is.
The Covid 19 experience has sharpened our sense of the duty of care we have one for another, that a state has for its people, all of its people, to a degree we’ve not felt collectively since World War II and its aftermath. We heard it week after week on Thursdays at eight when we clapped, cheered and rattled our pots and pans in salute to the NHS front line and other key workers. It was the sound of people, rediscovering themselves.
There are too many differences between six years of total war and the likely length of the Covid emergency for easy comparisons to be made, but what we can learn from those war years is just how powerful and beneficial a never-again impulse can be if it is poured into the making of a new deal for the British people. The great World War II coalition led by Winston Churchill and Clem Attlee began to plan for exactly that on the back of what was and still is the most remarkable report ever produced for a British government. In late 1942, Sir William Beveridge, the leading social arithmetician of his day, identified what he called five giants on the road to recovery, and he put them in capital letters: Want, Ignorance, Idleness, Squalor, Disease. The report was a best-seller. Beveridge’s great insight was that all five giants had to be struck simultaneously if the hard crust of deprivation was to be shattered. After the war, governments of both parties were fuelled by a Beveridge-ite consensus for over thirty years.
Through the grim Covid weeks and months of 2020, can we see the possible outline of a new Beveridge, a new post Corona banner we can all rally round, a banner emblazoned with the heraldry of a new consensus? We can. I think there is a hard edged, not a fudged consensus to be crafted, using five priorities. Social care. Something must be done, and fast. A big public-private push on social housing. Getting technical education right at last after a hundred and fifty years of trying. Combatting and mitigating climate change. Preparing our country and our people for the full impact of artificial intelligence on our productive capacity and our society.
If our politicians could pick up this new consensus and run with it, finding the right tone and pitch of language in which to express it, the early twenty-twenties could be one of the most creative and productive patches of our history and a worthy memorial to the Covid fallen. It has taken a pathogen for us to find and refresh our shared duty of care, but rediscover it we have.”
More tomorrow on this vision. Others may wish to comment on his optimism, and on the five giants he has chosen to slay.
Add Mss (2) May 21 Being Local. “The NHS has decided to write its own track and trace programme, rather than install the simpler and operational Apple / Google app. To no-one’s surprise, it is already in trouble and missing deadlines. At this level, the bespoke solution is a mistake.” Thus it transpires. The only comfort is that in spite of the words spoken at the launch of the project, a computerised app seems no longer to be crucial, whoever designs it. A voice on the phone, preferably from the locality of the infected person, is what you need. And we have had telephones since 1875.