from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: On Isolation and Hunger

July 2. Those of us in lockdown feel, of course, isolated from our friends and family.  We count the days, which in the present uncertainty stretch before us without limit, until we can share our lives with them.

This fragmentation of the population is reflected in other dimensions.  Sitting inside our houses, patrolling our weedless gardens, we don‘t see, literally don’t see, anything of how the rest of the country is experiencing the pandemic. Amongst the consequences of confining to their homes the fit and active of seventy and over is depriving the community of a host of active volunteers who could  both witness and respon to cases of need.

It is very easy to turn off our sensors and concentrate solely on our own misfortunes.  One effect of the lockdown is to throw attention onto the most trivial grievances.  The major event last Saturday in my household was the failure of Sainsburys to deliver the supplements in the weekend papers we had ordered.  No book reviews, no television guides.  It quite spoilt the day.

If you look for it, however, there is evidence that out there people are going without more than just newsprint.  There are those deprived of their income because they don’t qualify for the furlough payments.  There are the daily increasing numbers who are being fired in anticipation of the closure of that scheme.  There are those who legally have ‘no recourse to public funds’ because they have a right to live here but not to benefit from the welfare state.  There are those who had been barely getting by in the gig economy who are now wrestling with intricacies and inadequacies of universal credit.  There is the group described by the money expert Martin Lewis as experiencing a ‘financial catastrophe’ as their businesses have failed leaving them with no safety net of any kind.

The consequence is not just some kind of social poverty, but basic physical deprivation.  The Food Standards Agency has just published a report showing that since the pandemic began between 6.3 and 7.7 million adults had reduced their meals or missed them altogether because of lack of money, and that between 2.7 and 3.7 adults sought charity food or used food banks.*   The food banks themselves have found it difficult to meet the increased demand, despite a ‘Food Charities Grant’ the government has established to provide them with short-term assistance.

Just now, my wife and I are living in a two-person fenced community.  We must be grateful, I guess, that so far the material sufferings of so large a minority seem not to be reflected in the crime figures.

Add Mss 4.  OU brings down French Presidential candidate.  Further to yesterday’s discussion of the work of the Open University, the verdict has just been reported in the trial for embezzlement of the former French prime minister and presidential candidate, François Fillon, and his Welsh-born wife Penelope.  Up to a million euros were paid to Penelope over a number of years for office support that she never undertook.  The offence first came to light in a newspaper interview with Penelope back in 2007, when she admitted in passing that she was too busy to work for her husband.  The reason she gave for her lack of time was that she had just started an OU course in English literature.  She told the journalist that she was studying for a second degree because ‘her five children viewed her as “just a mother.”  She wanted to show them she was “not that stupid”’ (my own mother, in her time, took an OU degree in her sixties for much the same reason).  Both action and motive seem more than sufficient to acquit Penelope Fillon of the charge she faced.  As it is, she has been given a suspended sentence of three years.

*https://www.food.gov.uk/research/research-projects/the-covid-19-consumer-tracker 

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Six Giants

William Beveridge

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)

* https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/oct/10/beveridge-five-evils-welfare-state