In the middle of World War II, in 1942, the National Government of Great Britain commissioned Sir William Beveridge, the Director of the London School of Economics, to produce a report on the reconstruction of Britain after the war ended.
His report set out a blueprint for a better, fairer, more prosperous society, which would reward the nation for the shared sacrifices during the war.
Specifically, Beveridge aimed to free Britain from what he called Five Giants:
- Want [poverty],
- Squalor and
- Idleness [unemployment].
The report was published in November 1942, and was overwhelmingly popular with the public.
Johnson and his government have made similar promises, and indeed these promises have also been popular with the public.
It is certainly worth comparing what Clement Attlee’s government delivered after the end of the war with what Johnson is government is delivering now. This comparison shows that whereas Johnson is a man of words but not of deeds, Attlee delivered on his promises:
- Johnson’s government says all the right things – but delivers the opposite;
- Attlee’s government transformed the UK’s social contract and ushered in the Golden Age of Capitalism – the most successful economic period in the UK’s economic history;
- We should therefore act like Attlee and create a better, fairer, more prosperous UK.
Johnson’s Government Says the Right Things – But Delivers the Opposite
Johnson and his colleagues have made pledges relating to all five of Beveridge’s Giants. But they have not delivered.
First, Want. Perhaps the most frequently repeated phrase by ministers is “levelling up,” but as the Financial Times reported, the levelling up fund is not being used to support the areas of greatest need but to channel money to Tory constituencies. Pay and benefits have both failed to keep pace with inflation. Child poverty is on the rise again. The nation as a whole has seen the weakest economic growth of all developed countries and the longest wage stagnation in over a century.
Second, Illness. Here there are two big issues: COVID and the NHS. On COVID they promised a world-beating response, doing all they can and following the science. What they have delivered is one of the worst death tolls in the world as well as one of the most damaged economies. Only two governments in the world have performed worse both on COVID and on the economy.
On the NHS they have promised huge investment and to solve the social care issue once and for all. What they have delivered is an underfunded system which would struggle even without COVID and a Bill to turn it into something rather like the US healthcare system – the worst in the developed world.
Third, Ignorance. Johnson has spoken eloquently about the importance of education, but when it came to funding the government’s education Tsar’s recommended catch-up programme, the government slashed the budget by 90%.
Fourth, Squalor. Government has repeatedly assured us that leaving the EU would not mean lowering standards and yet it has repeatedly signed trade deals which imply a lowering of food standards. And most recently 265 Tory MPs voted to allow water companies to pour sewage directly into inland waterways and coastal waters. The Budget, which is perhaps the clearest indication of what the government means to do, rather than just say, had woefully inadequate measures on the environment.
Fifth, Idleness. The government has promised a green jobs revolution with highly paid jobs. But it is failing to deliver, and ‘proper jobs’ which offer security and a reasonable rate of pay are in short supply. Many people are now in in-work poverty.
In short, while what the government promises to do is both attractive and reasonable, what it actually does is almost the precise opposite.
|Giant||What the government says||What the government does|
|Want||“Level up”||Channel money to mates and Tory constituencies
Reduce benefits for the poor
Increase public sector pay more slowly than inflation (real terms pay cuts)
Reduce Local Authority support
Rising rates of child poverty
Worst economic growth of developed economies (G7)
|Disease||“Follow the science”
“Protect the NHS”
|One of the worst death tolls in the world
A Bill to turn the NHS into something like the US system
|Ignorance||“This is the silver bullet, this is the magic potion, this is the panacea, this is the universal cure, this is the Swiss army knife, complete with Allen key and screwdriver and everything else, that can solve virtually every problem that inflicts humanity”||Reducing the catch-up spending after COVID by 90%|
|Squalor||“we will remain committed to world-class environment, product and labour standards”||Pump sewage into waterways and coastal waters
A Budget that almost ignores the environment
|Idleness||“higher wages, better working conditions and a rise in productivity”||Declining availability of proper jobs|
Attlee’s Government Transformed The UK’s Social Contract
Attlee’s government would have had plenty of excuses for non-delivery. Government debt to GDP stood at over 250% at the end of the Second World War; the cost of servicing that debt was over 5% of GDP; more than half of national income had been diverted to the war effort and over 5 million people mobilised into the Armed Forces; some 5% of national wealth been destroyed, and 1% of the population lost (and the equivalent figures were even worse in some other countries).
This was, of course, a far greater challenge than we face today.
But the national mood was different then. As Margaret McMillan, Professor of International History at Oxford University, explained, “The shared suffering and sacrifice of the war years strengthened the belief in most democracies that governments had an obligation to provide basic care for all citizens.” That shared suffering and sacrifice may have been necessary to win the war. As evolutionary biologists David Sloan Wilson and Edward O Wilson put it, “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary.”
Along with a mood of altruism and solidarity, there was one of hope. After six hard years, during the early part of which defeat seemed inevitable, the UK and its allies had emerged victorious. Even more than is usual after a war, the victors felt that good had triumphed over evil. Yes, there was a challenging task of reconstruction – but that was nothing compared with the challenges of the war itself. The national mood then was one of hope and solidarity.
In 1948, at a time when the ratio of government debt to GDP was still over 200%, government founded the NHS. Also in 1948, it passed the National Assistance Act, which abolished the poor law system and established a social safety net to protect the poorest and most vulnerable, completing the work of the National Insurance Act of 1946.
The social contract in the UK was transformed. Everyone, whatever their background and current financial state had access to high-quality healthcare. Everyone had access to a safety net for times when things in their lives went wrong. Everyone played a part in building this new world. And the UK economy benefited hugely: the Golden Age of Capitalism was the most successful period in the UK’s economic history.
Of course, the UK is far richer now than it was in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Anything we could afford to do then, we can afford to do now, and more. We have been conditioned to believe that we cannot afford to act; but there is no factual basis for such claims of impotence.
If we dismantle the NHS and the welfare state, it is not because it is unaffordable: it is because we have made a political choice.
Or rather, our elected representatives have made that choice.
We Should Create A Better, Fairer, More Prosperous UK
The UK is reeling from three crises – manufactured or magnified by government policy – Austerity, Brexit and COVID. The damage they have caused is, like WWII, enormous.
Like the Attlee government’s response after WWII, our response should be ambitious. We should set out a new – and of course stronger not weaker – social contract. We should have the courage to invest to build a better, fairer, greener and more prosperous UK.
As we commented in our analysis of the Budget:
“We should be aiming for a just, prosperous, democratic society in which everybody has the chance of a decent life. A society with secure, fairly paid jobs so that ordinary people have a reasonable expectation of being able to afford to buy themselves a flat or house. A society where people can count on being able to bring up children without fear of poverty. A society where access to healthcare is a right not a luxury. A society where the government accepts that it has responsibilities for the population as a whole and that collective action is often the only way to solve important problems (for example tackling the climate emergency or funding basic research with no immediate commercial application).
A society, above all, where each new generation has a reasonable expectation of a better life than its predecessors.”
And five, relatively simple steps – set out here – will ensure that we do build that world.
If you think you might like to help or just to keep informed, please do sign-up and join the 99% Organisation.