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I found an anecdote towards the end of The Road to 1945, the late historian Paul Addison’s history of how the second world war changed Britain. It centres on Winston Churchill, Ernest Bevin – then minister of labour in the wartime coalition government – and thousands of soldiers setting off to mainland Europe. In June 1944, two days before the D-day landings, Churchill and Bevin went to Portsmouth to say farewell to the troops. “They were going off to face this terrific battle,” Bevin recounted, “with great hearts and great courage. The one question they put to me when I went through their ranks was: ‘Ernie, when we have done this job for you are we going back on the dole?’… Both the prime minister and I answered: ‘No, you are not.’”
Despite the self-evident caveat that wars and pandemics are very different things, the parallels between the uneasy historical moment that story captures and the current phase of the Covid crisis are obvious. The past 12 months have seen a mixture of unprecedented deaths and huge collective sacrifice. Moreover, as the crisis has gone on, profound social questions that have been rattling around British politics for at least a decade – about poverty, inequality, work, and housing – have roared into the foreground. If some people are asking questions about a return to “normal” and the dashed hopes that would represent, that hardly seems unreasonable.
Eighty years ago, in the wake of campaigning and political work that had bubbled away between the wars, we all know what happened: a drive to decisively tackle “want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness” led first to the report on “social insurance and allied services” authored by William Beveridge, then to the programme enacted by the Labour government elected to power in 1945. The convulsive crisis of our own times, by contrast, has so far not produced anything even remotely similar. Worse, after a 40-year journey away from the postwar social settlement, a society of benefit sanctions, tent encampments in city centres, in-work poverty and so-called “holiday hunger” remains essentially unchanged, even though Covid has made the consequences for public health and our national resilience so clear.
The political conversation about these subjects is comically small. The government affects a belief in “levelling up”, but has not even dedicated a minister to the policy, if that’s what it deserves to be called. In his supposedly big speech, Keir Starmer referenced Beveridge, the 1945 spirit and “a determination that our collective sacrifice must lead to a better future”, but offered nothing that really matched such grand words. A few days later, Boris Johnson’s former homelessness adviser Louise Casey said it was time for “a new Beveridge report”, focused on the fact that “the nation has been torn apart”. But the current politics of poverty seem to extend little further than the pre-budget argument about the fate of last year’s £20 increase to universal credit, which is the only sign of a huge elephant in the national room: a welfare state that too often both sustains and deepens scarring inequality, and a benefits system that needs to be drastically changed.
Last week, I read the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s latest report on UK poverty. Even before coronavirus, it explains – thanks partly to the cruelties of a four-year benefits freeze – incomes were falling, and falling fastest for people with at the very bottom of the income hierarchy. In 2019, more than one in five of us was living in poverty, and 2.4 million, including more than half a million children, were destitute at some point in the year, an increase of about 50% compared with 2017. The proportion of people in work who were classified as also living in poverty was 13%, and among certain social groups that number was much higher: people from Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds, for example, registered a figure of 34%.
Now, 5.8 million people are experiencing the impossibility of life on universal credit, up from 3 million just as the pandemic began. Rates of destitution have skyrocketed. Covid deaths and infections map tightly on to patterns of disadvantage, and the government’s Joint Biosecurity Centre traces severe outbreaks in poorer parts of the country to “unmet financial needs”. The disproportionate effect of the pandemic on black and Asian people, linked to the grimly enduring way in which race overlaps with material disadvantage, is obvious. This is the kind of scourge that mere numbers cannot capture, along with the way the benefits system sits at the heart of a culture in which people have no choice but to take on precarious and often dangerous work, something manifested lately in thousands avoiding the test-and-trace system for fear of lost earnings and reprisals from their employers, and the overlooked issue of workplace outbreaks.
A conversation about a fundamentally different welfare state ought to fall two ways: between immediate answers to the cruelties of our current systems, and longer-term ideas about how to completely reinvent it. The former might include an end to universal credit’s built-in five-week wait, the abolition of the cruel and arbitrary benefit cap, and no more sanctioning. It should extend to a recalibration of housing benefit so that people – including key workers – can afford to live in even high-cost areas, a watershed rise in our miserable rates of statutory sick pay, and the upgrading of the minimum wage and national living wage to the so-called real living wage (£9.50 across the UK and £10.85 in London), with an ongoing link to inflation.
But as a means of pushing the conversation towards fundamental change, we really need to take things back to first principles. A good example is contained in the Scottish Social Security Act of 2018. It covered only the limited range of grants and payments devolved to Holyrood, but began with a set of starting-points that, in the context of Westminster’s conversations about “welfare”, still seem almost heretical. Social security, said the legislation, “is an investment in the people of Scotland”, “a human right … essential to the realisation of other human rights”, something founded on “respect for the dignity of individuals”, and a public service explicitly aimed at reducing poverty.
Policies that might make such ideas a reality are not hard to find. The central place of housing in any viable welfare state ought to be restored by a long overdue drive to build hundreds of thousands of homes for social rent. A first step towards a basic income might guarantee that, say, a family of four could count on a minimum of £10,000 a year. Seizing on the logic of Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme, we might consider a European-style way of helping unemployed people back on their feet whereby benefits for those who lose their jobs are not set at a level that does not even cover basic subsistence, but calculated as a proportion of lost earnings.
A 21st-century system should reflect people’s lives not just as workers, but carers, members of support networks and volunteers. Because ours is an age of participation rather than deference and diktat, it ought to originate not in the designs of politicians and bureaucrats, but the experiences of people in the everyday world, not least those who intimately know the welfare state and how it works. This, surely, is the only convincing response to one of the key stories of the last year: people with much the same hearts and courage that Bevin observed, being let down by systems that had become so inhumane and threadbare that they were always going to lead us to disaster. If we do not start to change them now, we will not have learned even the most basic lessons of the Covid era.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: What British politicians won’t admit – we need to transform the welfare state | Coronavirus