Author: Katharine Pindar
Almost 80 years ago in November 1942, Sir William Beveridge, working for the coalition government during the Second World War, produced a report, Social Insurance and Allied Services. It promised, he said, “a comprehensive policy of social progress”, to restore the country when the war should end. He identified ‘five giants’ to be confronted on the road to reconstruction: Want, Disease, Squalor, Ignorance and Idleness. Being himself an expert in social insurance, he determined that all citizens should be assured of a sufficient income at all times, working or not, for a small weekly contribution. There would also be children’s allowances, and comprehensive medical treatment and rehabilitation, all to be paid for by the state.
The Manchester Guardian called the report ‘Revolutionary’. Beveridge told people that his plan would cost a lot of money – probably near £700m, in 1945, perhaps more than £850m, 20 years later. But, he said, those were not large amounts compared with the total national income. “I can’t believe we won’t be able to find it”, he told Pathe Gazette.
Winston Churchill, heading the war-time government, was not keen on spending so much, but he lost the 1945 election. The Labour party won it, and in the following years produced a raft of reforms, beginning with a National Insurance Act and the NHS Act in 1946. The moneys were found. The country was revived. Beveridge’s first two evils, Want and Disease, were thoroughly tackled. As for Squalor, Ignorance and Idleness, thousands of houses were built, educational opportunities were found for returning troops, and new employment and manufacturing replaced the wartime industries. It seemed that there was a social contract between government and people, as Beveridge sought: freedom from want but responsibility from everyone.
Some 70 years later, in 2015, the state of the nation seemed less happy. The Coalition Government of 2010-15, wedded to reducing the national Deficit, had brought in the years of austerity. ‘Want’, now known as poverty, had returned. On his visit to Britain in November 2018, the UN Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, was shocked to find 14 million people living in poverty in this rich country. He found, he wrote in a Statement that month, indifference and even callousness in the attitude of the Government to the poorest and most disadvantaged people in this country. He noted how the roll-out of the new benefits system, Universal Credit, had caused hardship, that social services had decayed everywhere, and concluded that the post-war social contract was clearly broken.
Scant notice was taken of the Statement, or the final Report which followed in April 2019, and the Government rejected them. But then Professor Sir Michael Marmot, in his review this year of the past ten years of health equity in England produced another damning report. Life expectancy had stalled, he reported, and the conditions for healthy life were lacking in the poorest neighbourhoods.
The present crisis has revealed this starkly to everyone. It is in the poorer neighbourhoods, with people living cheek-by-jowl, often in overcrowded poor housing, that infections have proliferated. Educational inequality has deepened as well as health inequality, with children in households where their families have been unable to provide them with sufficient digital access and home teaching falling behind.
Just as Beveridge’s great report was needed in this country for revival after the Second World War, so surely a new plan is required now for social reconstruction as the Covid crisis is brought under control. Just as there was in the years of war a longing for and determination to have better times once it was ended, so now there is likely to be in Britain today a desire not only for an end to the anxiety and fear, the loss and the suffering, but also once again to be able to share in a society where government truly cares for the citizens, and people look out for each other.
Progressive politicians should now tackle the social injustices that have been festering for years and which are starkly revealed by the outcomes of the health crisis. The Liberal Democrats, taking the mantle of Beveridge, should surely lead the way, and confront this government with answers to all five of today’s social ills. The Plan must be both for immediate reforms and then working out deeply and gradually.
It should first of all propose to lift people out of poverty, starting with enhanced welfare benefits and better treatment of the people needing them. It must demand well-funded health and social care provision, and their needed integration. It will require better education and training for young people, as they face both new digital demands and the challenges of climate change. It will seek provision of numerous new jobs for the newly displaced and unemployed people, jobs which are secure and adequately paid, and which protect the environment. There must be far more provision of social housing for rent, as well as greatly increased house building and provision for homeless people.
Such a social reconstruction within a new national social contract will help fulfil the Liberal values and aims we share with William Beveridge, so that every citizen in this country may live in freedom and security, able to fulfil their talents and look after their children, and be as contented as their life chances permit.
And yes, it can all be afforded now, just as it was in Beveridge’s lifetime after the war.
Katharine Pindar is a writer, accredited counsellor and long-standing activist with the Liberal Democrats. She joined the Social Liberal Forum to address the pressing issues of social injustice in our country, especially the rising numbers of people living in poverty.