Chris Willmore writes for the Social Liberal Forum arguing that going back to Beveridge will not be enough to address the five great disruptions of the 21st century.
“Are we ever going to create a Britain for everyone?” asked the homelessness expert Louise Casey in the pages of the Guardian on 21st February. It is a call to arms that is hopefully beginning to resonate across the political spectrum.
We need to be sure, though, that in responding to the dire need facing many right now, we do not simply offer a quick fix to undoubtedly urgent problems, but ultimately let down the very people we aim to help.
Casey talks explicitly about the great Liberal William Beveridge, calling for a new Beveridge Report and citing the same giant social evils of poverty, ignorance (education), poor housing, unemployment, and ill health that he identified. She may be right that they have not changed - but the causes and key challenges in addressing them have.
Most crucially we must find solutions to the giant evils in the context of five great disruptions, which change the fundamental nature of the sort of responses that will work:
- Artificial intelligence
- The environmental destructions of the Anthropocene (including climate change and ecosystem collapse)
- The rise of nationalism
- The crisis of capitalism
To tackle poverty, health, unemployment, education, lack of affordable housing, ignorance and conformity has to start from recognising the scale of these threats. This changes the scale of the response that is needed; and demands that it is integrated, rather than tackling the challenges in isolation from one another.
As a result, going back to Beveridge simply won’t work. The new vision has to tackle the great evils in the face of the great disruptions. The model has to be much more fundamental and radical. It is not about adjusting the current model to improve the lives of the poor - though of course that is vital and urgent. We must embrace a new economic model, one that ensures our grandchildren have a planet that can still cope with them, and through which they are free to live the lives they choose.
For example, it is not enough to talk about employment and job creation. In the face of AI and the crisis of capitalism, we need to undertake the much more fundamental task of rethinking what society values: how people are ascribed value and how they accord themselves value. What we really need to do is to move away from the notion of ‘employment’ as the way in which people achieve autonomy and the necessities of life.
For another example, consider how ecosystem collapse fundamentally changes how we address poverty. We cannot just try to enable everyone to live as the rich do today. To take just one of the most obvious facets of this, the climate and ecological emergency demands that we create a cheap, comprehensive, high quality public transport system, so people no longer need a car.
I start from Kate Raworth’s ‘doughnut’ concept – and the notion of finding the safe and just space for humans to occupy within the carrying capacity of the planet. The model adapts really well, to the sort of evils facing us, and to the multiple challenges, because of its recognition of that safe space, between all the pressures. Working with the doughnut focusses our minds on finding the place where we CAN deliver all the things we need to deliver a quality of life for everyone, now and into the future. The UN Sustainable Development Goals offer a similarly useful prompt: in their plurality, they remind us that we need to ensure we have a holistic view when we set out to tackle one.
Perhaps the most important way in which our response today needs to go beyond the example set by Beveridge is that it must be developed with and by the people most affected. The poorest have been failed time and time again by being given the solutions that governments think they OUGHT to want, rather than the solutions they actually want. Since the days of Jo Grimond’s leadership of the Liberal Party and now expressed in the Citizens’ Britain agenda set out by Jon Alexander and Ian Kearns, liberals have recognised that the notion of participation, the ability for everyone to be part of shaping our shared future has to be part of any settlement. This is not merely a ‘how’ question but is a fundamental part of the new deal, with people getting freedom, choice and an ability to shape their own and their community’s future.
At the core of this approach is the notion that we don’t tackle poverty, health, housing, unemployment by trying to get everyone what the better off currently have within the old, failed, model. It can’t deliver that (without destroying the planet). Instead we have to change the conversation about what we can expect from and for the planet, and each other, and what we are willing to give to achieve that. Tackle the great evils in a way that recognises the great disruptions rather than ignoring them. Now that may not be electorally popular, but Beveridge et al did not set out to win votes, they set out to argue for the right thing.
Chris Willmore is an Emeritus Professor at the University of Bristol, a Liberal Democrat Councillor and a member of the Social Liberal Forum Council.