Modern British history can be divided into two parts: before Covid and after. That is the central pillar of this at times arid but ultimately compelling account of British social policy since 1945. We recovered in the aftermath of the second world war. Can we do it again, post-pandemic?
Peter Hennessy, a crossbench peer, starts with the observation that government has a duty of care to the people, a conviction that emerged in the aftermath of the war and underpinned the creation of the welfare state. At the centre of it all was William Beveridge – ‘dry, prickly and difficult, but a genius when it came to the social arithmetic of welfare’. His aim was to attack the five great social evils of the time: want, disease, ignorance, idleness and squalor.
Post-war conditions were pretty tough. In 1947-8, less than half of homes had a bathroom. Even by 1951, 15 per cent of households shared a WC with the neighbours. Britain eventually got its much needed welfare state with the help of vast subventions from the US. It worked. Life improved. The duty of care was upheld.
Yet by the 1960s, although education and livelihoods were improving, ‘a shared sense of “no satisfaction” increased’. It seemed that government had pressed every button on the political-economic dashboard, but it still hadn’t led to the social improvements that Whitehall had expected. Edward Heath recognised this, and in 1973 warned his party that
“the alternative to expansion is not… an England of quiet market towns linked only by trains puffing slowly and peacefully through green meadows. The alternative is slums, dangerous roads, old factories, cramped schools and stunted lives.
Beveridge’s assault on social ills ran through the manifestoes of all post-war governments. John Major was appalled by the grimness of public services and the grinding indignity of homelessness, both of which he was resolved to change. Tony Blair’s great ambition was to eradicate child poverty within a generation. He didn’t get there, but the ambition itself marked him out as Beveridge’s direct political descendant.
But Brexit changed everything. According to Hennessy, ‘its searing and unsettling effects helped to diminish our sense of the duty of care’. The cabinet chosen by Boris Johnson was specifically composed of individuals ready to accept no deal with the EU. This kind of extreme Brexit focus has led to the ‘coarsening of political conduct and political language’. Unless we can shift it, ‘a jet stream of acrimony and recrimination will dominate our political climate’.
Hennessy’s point is that a nation can only make substantial social improvements through political consensus. When you have a liberal free market party up against a social democratic party, as has traditionally been the case in Britain, you get a lot of arguments and shouting – but consensus is possible. When the central questions in political culture concern identity – ‘who are we?’, ‘what is our place in the world?’ – then consensus becomes much harder. The cogs begin to jam. This is what Brexit has done.
If Britain is beached on the problem of Brexit, can we ever hope to address our current social problems? And if not, how can we fully recover from Covid? Hennessy takes the example of social care, and the recent decision by government to hike National Insurance to pay for it. Everyone in British politics knows that social care is a huge problem and needs to be solved. In Hennessy’s view it offered a prime opportunity to build political – and therefore social – unity. But the government failed. Instead it imposed a tax increase that will weigh heaviest on the least well off.
That doesn’t bode well, especially in a time of rising public debt and inflation. Covid has already cost Britain far more than the global financial crisis of 2008. The need now is for a strong, unifying government, like that of 1945. But the pursuit of sectional political ends, such as the government’s decision to meddle in culture-war bickering, suggests that things are heading in a very different direction.
This is an unsettling book. There’s no doubt Brexit changed something in the character of our politics. Perhaps we are still too close to say precisely what that is. But Hennessy is convincing when he argues that the injection of Brexit into the national bloodstream has made consensual politics harder to achieve. The new sourness, he says, will check our ability to deal not only with the complications arising from Brexit, but also with the deep social problems that existed long beforehand.
Britain, he writes, risks becoming ‘a nation that no longer inspires itself’. If that happens, then our admirable post-war recovery, based on the notion that government has a duty of care to the people, will start to feel like another country.