December 2012 marked the 70th anniversary of the Beveridge Report, significant not only for its content but also for its context. In the midst of World War II, with a budget deficit and national debt that make today’s look negligible, the Report laid the basis for the radical reforms introduced by the Labour Government in 1945. The Centre for Labour and Social Studies (Class) has launched the Social State project to look at what Beveridge’s analysis of society can teach us about the Giant Evils of today and how we can use this to chart an alternative course for a welfare state – or Social State – fit for a new settlement in 2015. This extract is from the introductory paper by Zoe Williams. You can read the full version here.
Want, Ignorance, Idleness, Squalor and Disease – Beveridge’s Giant Evils of society give us a perfect snapshot of the core beliefs that created the towering achievement that was – is, just about – the Welfare State. He was at the vanguard of framing unemployment from a macro-perspective by introducing to mainstream debate the idea that it might be the job of the economy, rather than the person, to tackle idleness. We have made significant gains in the way we understand society and our place within it – but we’ve also made significant losses, specifically, in the amount of responsibility we will take for one another’s conditions.
We can retake the vision and ambition of Beveridge’s project. However, it can’t be revivified on its own terms – different principles have to be underlined. Equality, as a goal, has to take the place of freedom from want. Ignorance, as a social problem, must be recast as a problem at the top more than at the bottom – the failure to see that the accumulation of great wealth comes at the expense of security and wages. We must rethink unemployment altogether; rather than seeking a return to the New Labour era, where any job was better than no job, and low wages were subsidised by the government on behalf of ‘the children’. We must go back to the principles that Thatcher tried to destroy – a fair day’s pay; collective bargaining; trade union representation.
Squalor has changed mainly in the sense of our perception that we have the power to change it – the disparity between wages and house prices ebbs and flows. It is at an all-time high right now, but it has, throughout history, been impossible for some workers to live in conditions that we would consider acceptable. Today, a combination of factors has led to an overwhelming feeling of impotence. The grand Thatcherite project to destroy social housing was a success. Meanwhile, in the mainstream market, a housing bubble forced all but those with inherited wealth off the property ladder, which in turn overheated rents. In this area more than any other, a new optimism is needed, married to an old pragmatism – subsidizing landlords in the form of housing benefit is not the solution, and nor does it result in any meaningful control for a government. A new programme of house building, as ambitious as that of the post-war period, is the only way out of this bottleneck.
And finally, disease – the awe-inspiring success of the NHS, both practically, as an institution, and philosophically, as a project, has sucked the fear out of this conversation. Without the constant spectre of what life would be without it, the NHS-conversation now spins on a different axis and debate centres on private provision of public services. The great battles of disease, in Beveridge’s time, were medicine against polio: sanitation against cholera; public infrastructure against chaos; mankind against nature. Our battle is subtler, and boils down to altruism against market forces; fellowship against self-interest. The protection of the NHS, in anything like its current form, depends upon the case being made that it is immoral to profit from another’s illness.
Which raises another demon, unremarked by Beveridge, perhaps because it simply didn’t obtain: disunity. It is a powerful political tool to set different income brackets against one another, and to divide people within the same income bracket by imagined characteristics. We have hard-working families against benefits cheats, and strivers versus shirkers. The rich are, apparently, a different quality of person altogether, people with no roots, who would happily move their families across the world if they lost a proportion of income that they couldn’t possibly spend to the public purse. Ed Miliband’s coinage of One Nation Labour begins to make a point that will need to be made ceaselessly and trenchantly if change is to be wrought: society will only work if we believe ourselves all to be fundamentally alike, with the same fundamental needs and qualities and ambitions and hopes, with the same desire to help one another, with the same urge to overcome our differences rather than retreat into them.
Replacing Want with Inequality; Idleness with Greed; fighting a different kind of Ignorance; attacking Squalor with fresh vigour; remembering Disease for the foe that it once was, and could be again; and recognizing the continuing threat of Disunity; we have our own Giant Evils. It is very last-century, to look at barriers and expect to feel galvanized by them. And yet, this is what the Marxist Antonio Gramsci called the pessimism of the intellect – without which, the optimism of the will has nowhere to go. Beveridge didn’t create the Welfare State from nowhere – he created it by articulating the dangers of a life without it.
Zoe Williams will be talking about her paper for Class at the Achieving a Social State event at the LSE on Wednesday 13th March. To find out more about the event, jointly organised with LSE British Politics and Policy, and the other panelists visit the event page.
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Zoe Williams is a British columnist, journalist and author. She writes for the Guardian and the New Statesman.