June 24. In the matter of identifying the aftermath of the pandemic, history has to be used with caution.
Peter Hennessy (see June 23) knows well that the Beveridge revolution was initially resisted by the war-time Conservatives. Churchill believed that planning for a post-war future was simply a distraction in the middle of a conflict whose outcome was far from certain. His attempt to bury the Beveridge report was defeated by its dry-as-dust author, who proved surprisingly adept at deploying the media of his time to publicise his document. The report was full of practical detail, but by couching his target in terms of the five ‘giants’, Beveridge tapped into the moral subconscious of the British people, engaging with a tradition of social justice that stretched all the way back to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.
The report became a best-seller. My dog-eared copy once belonged to my father, who used it in the latter days of the war to lecture to his fellow sailors with whom he was serving in a naval outpost in Sierra Leone. It was central to Labour’s landslide victory in 1945 (though Beveridge was himself a Liberal), and in turn the scale of that majority was critical to overcoming the opposition to many of the proposals, ranging from the Tory Party to a host of vested interests.
Starmer’s Labour Party will need another landslide, and another document to energise the electorate. The Beveridge Plan offers only a partial model. Lakes of ink have since been spilled over its recommendations. Eligibility for relief was centred on the outdated figure of the male breadwinner with his dependants. The ‘National’ in the NHS and other reforms reflected a passion to centralise every form of welfare, in most cases denying effective local participation in the provision of services. There was no engagement with the environment by a Labour Government which spent its time in office burning every ton of coal it could get out of the ground.
There is a case for simply taking on the same giants and this time slaying them properly. Anne Chappel has directed me to a recent article which points out in convincing detail how Beveridge’s agenda is still yet to be met.* We still have work to do with poverty, health, education, unemployment and housing. Nonetheless, three quarters of a century on, it is perhaps time to update the mission.
I would slightly re-shape Hennessy’s agenda. The giant of Squalor remains a task in the form of social housing. Idleness remains a task in the form of the vast numbers, barely visible in 1945, beyond working age and needing affordable social care as they grow old. Ignorance remains a task in terms of acquiring the skills to combat and exploit technical change, including artificial intelligence. Want has worsened since 2010, a permanent stain on the record of successive Conservative administrations. There is a new giant of Pollution to be attacked. And there is a new giant of Power, collected at the centre since the war by both parties, and now needing to be distributed to the localities in which the new sense of community is now flourishing, and more effectively devolved to the nations, where Labour urgently has to relaunch itself.
Above all we must revive and give purpose to the closing paragraph of the Beveridge Report:
“Freedom from want cannot be forced on a democracy or given to a democracy. It must be won by them. Winning it needs courage and faith and a sense of national unity : courage to face facts and difficulties and overcome them ; faith in our future and in the ideals of fair-play and freedom for which century after century our forefathers were prepared to die ; a sense of national unity overriding the interests of any class or section. The Plan for Social Security in this Report is submitted by one who believes that in this supreme crisis the British people will not be found wanting, of courage and faith and national unity, of material and spiritual power to play their part in achieving both social security and the victory of justice among nations upon which security depends.” (para 461)