Fire and Theory: Defending The Welfare State

I freely admit that I don’t write here very much. Being Editor of London Reconnections and writing about TV history for Cult TV Times (I got to write the history of Bilko in the latest issue! Yay!) keeps me pretty busy.

I’ve been working on-and-off on a piece on the Beverage report (and its impact) for here though, and I think its safe to say that ploughing through the reading list for that, whilst listening to the near daily attacks on our public services from the current government, is leaving me in a pretty weird place mentally.

Great discoveries in medicine, Nye Bevan tells me via iPhone as I sit on the Victoria Line, “were made by dedicated men and women whose work was inspired by values that have nothing to do with the rapacious bustle of the stock exchange.”

He’s not literally telling me this of course. Nye died back in 1960 and even if he hadn’t I suspect he’d have been more of an Android man. Morrison would probably have owned an iPhone though (he was always trying to prove he was down with the cool kids) whilst Bevin would have almost certainly had a Windows phablet just to be bloody difficult.

But I digress. Nye is talking to me – or might as well be – because I’m reading In Place of Fear, written in 1952. He continues:

Pasteur, Simpson, Jenner, Lister, Semelweiss, Fleming, Domagk, Roentgen – the list is endless. Few of these would have described themselves as Socialists, but they can hardly be considered representative types of the competitive society.

The same story is now being unfolded in the field of curative medicine. Here individual and collective action are joined in a series of dramatic battles. The collective principle asserts that the resources of medical skill and the apparatus of healing shall be placed at the disposal of the patient, without charge, when he or she needs them; that medical treatment and care should be a communal responsibility that they should be made available to rich and poor alike in accordance with medical need and by no other criteria. It claims that financial anxiety in time of sickness is a serious hindrance to recovery, apart from its unnecessary cruelty. It insists that no society can legitimately call itself civilized if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.

The bolding is mine of course, but I’m sure if he could have bolded it himself Bevan would. Especially if he could see the attacks levelled against the institutions he had helped create today.

Into the Fire?

It’s hard not to inspired by Bevan’s words, or indeed by the words of many of the figures who dominated the push for a better Britain, in welfare support terms, after WW2. Which has been one of the wonderful parts of my current little research project. To embed yourself in a world full of men and women struggling, winning, compromising and sometimes losing the fight to improve the lot of the bulk of society is an incredible high. A high that is almost always inevitably cratered the moment I open up Twitter and see the ongoing effort the London Fire Brigade are having to go to in an effort to simply get the pension they deserve, or flick the radio on and listen to NHS workers talking about having to go on strike to get the pay rise an independent review said they should get. An independent review that the Government agreed to and then decided to ignore when it didn’t go their way.

All that’s even before we get to the ongoing efforts to stealth privatise the NHS which… I mean… I don’t even…

Gah.

How did it come to this? How did it come to a point where the mainstream public political focus of the Labour Party (of my party, I should admit for the sake of honesty) is sidetracked, obviously not entirely willingly, into arguments with Mylene Klass? Beyond that, as a generation, why are we apparently struggling so hard to understand why the Welfare State is so important?

It’s something I’ve thought about before and something that I’ve found myself pondering again thanks to all the above (at least in the moments when I’ve not been mentally whistling Steve Earle instead) and I can’t help but wondering if the simple fact is that we’re victims of our own national success.

We’ve never had it so good?

For the last sixty years the Welfare State in this country has acted as a great leveller. It’s waxed and waned, suffered its successes and its failures. Broadly speaking though, particularly as the children of the sixties and seventies grew up, it meant that for the first time you didn’t have to have rich or well-connected parents to be successful. You didn’t have to watch people in your community literally die from a lack of medicine and food. You weren’t confined to a job that “fitted your station” because you couldn’t afford to go to University or because your family would be destitute if you didn’t enter the workforce as quickly as possible. These and a thousand other horrors (some large, some small) that have plagued humanity for generations were finally removed – or at the very least were moderated.

Think i’m exaggerating? Here’s 91 year old Harry Smith talking about his childhood before the War:

My elder sister died in the poorhouse at the age of six from tuberculosis. For a young kid, I think the worst part about it was – I just couldn’t keep up with my studies. For one thing, we couldn’t stay in the same place – I must have gone to at least six or seven schools by the time we’d finished hopping around because we couldn’t pay the rent here or something else. And then this job I had which took from after school until just about dark and on Saturdays. So I was just buggered by the time it came to weekends.

He continues, having been asked if he remembers his youth as a time of hunger:

Oh yes, absolutely. If you didn’t have a job, you didn’t have money; if you didn’t have money, you didn’t have food – that’s the whole point. That’s why I did this barrowboy job as a child. I got four shillings a week and managed to put a little bit more food into the house. I had a maths teacher – Froggie Dawson – he was a rather fattish man, with a corpulent body. I remember one time I hadn’t gone to school for a couple of days; it was in the winter, and the snow was on the ground, and so when I came back, at the end of the class, he made me stay behind, and demanded to know: “How come you were off school yesterday and the day before?” And I remember lifting up my shoe – and I had cardboard there for a base, and it was all soggy. So he said – go home now, get there as quick as you can, and see me after school tomorrow. So after school the next day, when all the others had gone, he reaches into his drawer for a pair of shoes. And they were a bit big but I knew I could stick some newspaper in the front, and I thanked him profusely [sobs]. We didn’t have any hope at all that I could remember, until after 1945. We just didn’t believe they were going to do anything about it, because we existed under such a cruel system for so long.

And that – everything above – is why the Welfare State really has to go down as one of the greatest things this country has ever done. By robbing a generation of those experiences, however, it has also meant that for far too many of the current crop of politicians – and indeed us citizens – those experiences only exist in the abstract.

Now that’s fine for most of the Conservative Party – for them that’s always been the case. They never liked the whole Welfare State thing to begin with. Replace the words “Big Society” with “Church and Charity” and the last Conservative Party Manifesto probably looks awfully similar to that of 1945. Indeed it might actually be less liberal.

For Labour (and to a certain extent the Liberals), however, it’s a huge problem, because combating those experiences was arguably the very reason the Party was founded. More importantly, it’s those very experiences that motivated many of the 20th Century’s greatest Statesmen to bring about the Welfare State (and other reforms) in the first place. A theoretical understanding of Social Justice is important and great, but if you haven’t seen the need for it first hand in full, brutal, technicolor then perhaps it’s just tricky to understand what life might be like without it and why it’s so important that it be defended.

A Terrible Cost

Welfare, ultimately, is a high-stakes game. If you screw it up, you kill some people and doom others to a life where they never even have the chance to live up to their potential.

The architects of the Welfare State knew that, because they’d seen it first hand. If you’d questioned the need for Housing and Social Services in front of Clement Attlee, he’d have dragged you down to the East End of London and given you a personal tour of the communities in which he had worked for twenty years. If you’d questioned the need for the NHS in front of Herbert Morrison he’d have popped out his fake eye and explained how he’d lost it to infection as a baby in Lambeth. If you’d asked Ernest Bevin whether state education was really that important he’d have told you how lucky he had been to get the opportunity to learn to read out in the West Country as a child.

“Fire and Theory” Nye Bevan called it, during his brutal fight with the British Medical Association over just what would be covered in the new NHS. You needed to understand the theory to push for social justice, he explained, but you also had to know deep down that the alternative just isn’t an option. More importantly, people need to see that cold, hard belief in you.

Sadly, in many ways the Welfare State state seems to have robbed us, as a collective at least, of that “Fire.” It has perhaps turned the Labour party into a victim of its own hard-earned achievement. I like Ed Miliband a lot, and I have little doubt that with the right opportunity and belief he could be just as good as many of the politicians mentioned above from a generation now long past. But to do so he, and this party, and this generation needs to find – and more importantly communicate – Bevan’s Fire.

That we don’t collectively have it is perhaps understandable. But as a generation (or more) of British people who have benefitted so heavily from the “cradle to the grave” protection that our forefathers fought so hard to win, we need to do something about it pretty sharpish.

If not, then we’re going to doom our children, and their children, to a life that is once again dominated by Beverage’s five giants of Squalor, Ignorance, Want, Idleness and Disease.

And they will never forgive us for it.

Apologies for the random political musings (a version of which I originally posted as a comment on a site called Metafilter ages ago). Beverage Report post incoming in the near future. Also something interesting about the history of cheese which I promise won’t be full of any leftyism at all.

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