Delia Smith’s football team, Norwich City, may not win many matches but she has won my heart. Asked about what she thought of the Home Office demanding visas for Ukrainian asylum seekers on the Radio 4 Today programme (12/03/2022), she compared it to “coldly slamming the door in their face”. The government’s response had been “dreadful” and “unforgiveable”. Delia’s conclusion was we “need leaders who want to care for people”. We should “rid ourselves of dictators and inept leaders”.
In more measured words but with a similar basic critique, on 9 March a group of London leaders of Churches in UK, including Archbishop Nikitas, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Great Britain, the Coptic Orthodox Archbishop Angaelos, Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, United Reformed, Salvation Army and others wrote to the Prime Minister: “Surely, we feel compassion today for Ukrainian mothers with young children, the elderly and those with disabilities, who have undertaken dangerous and arduous travel, and look to the United Kingdom with hope and are now reaching out to us in Ukraine's greatest hour of need. How can mothers with young children, the elderly and the disabled, who have travelled a thousand miles be expected to complete online application forms in a language foreign to them? Times of war require swift action and flexibility, the easing of normal procedures and the removal of complex bureaucratic obstacles that can easily turn hope into despair and resignation”.
The government response to such widespread criticism was to hoist the moth-eaten flag of National Security. The Home Office couldn’t possibly allow Ukrainian grannies, or mothers with babies, beyond the White Cliffs of Dover without visas and proper checks. The FSB and GRU (former KGB and Russian military Intelligence) would be infiltrating agents disguised as traumatized women. Really? Are we in a lie-of-the-month competition with Putin? Nobody seemed to wonder why 27 other countries, the EU, didn’t block entry in this way and, by inference, didn’t care about their own national security.
We are watching the unsavoury instincts of Priti Patel at work endorsing the Home Office bureaucracy and its ability, by intent or chronic mismanagement, to create a hostile environment for those without a multi-million dollar account in an off-shore bank. Government Ministers have had weeks to make contingency plans for managing refugees from Ukraine and only bestirred themselves under public pressure. Three quarters when polled wanted government to be hospitable to the Ukrainians. As Delia said, commenting on Government’s behavior, “That’s not what Britain is”.
I wanted to believe Delia and turned to one of the most prolific, informed - and kindest - of writers about what Britain once was, Peter Hennessy. His new book, A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After COVID sounded as if it might help. It did. In short, a factual account with plentiful tables and statistics of the rise and fall, impediments and accelerators of our national commitment to the common good. Hennessy takes the October 1942 Beveridge report with its five giants to be slain, Want, Ignorance, Disease, Squalor and Idleness, and tracks the struggle to slay them, its reverses and successes, the slings and arrows of outrageous politics, up to September 2021.
“A ready-reckoner way of capturing the statutory paving of the 1940s version of the duty of care” Hennessy says, “is to chart the legislative flow”. He lists two wartime coalition government Bills, the 1944 Education Act and the 1945 Family Allowance Act followed by Atlee’s 1946 National Insurance Act (to give security from ‘cradle to the grave’ to use Churchill’s 1943 phrase), the National Health Service Act, Housing Act, and New Towns Act. Town and Country Planning came in 1947 and, in 1949, the Legal Aid and Legal Advice Act, providing greater access to justice for all. The achievements of the Atlee government were prodigious. Nye Bevan believed the indirect benefit of the NHS providing “the best that medical skill can provide” was that Britain would become “more wholesome, more serene and spiritually healthy”. It became a talisman national for national identity and wellbeing.
A duty of care informed social policy in subsequent Conservative as well as Labour governments. Hennessy has a soft spot for Harold MacMillan (Prime Minister 1957-1963), more housing, more schools, the welfare state safe in his Conservative hands. It was the economic crisis of the 1970s and the Thatcher years, 1979 – 1990, that brought in a new political culture in which a duty of care began to disappear from policy. From 2010 its absence was palpable.
From 2010, and part of the Coalition Government’s austerity measures, a 21% Ministry of Justice reduction in funding for Court and Tribunal Services, as well as legislation reducing the scope of civil and family legal aid meant that access to justice was undermined. The backlog in the Crown courts was c. 40,000 cases pre-pandemic and is now 50,000. Whilst living conditions have improved impressively since the Second World War, amongst Beveridge’s giants, Disease, Want and Squalor still show signs of life. From 2020-2018, the number of people in temporary accommodation rose by 74% (for children 69%). According to Professor Michael Marmot, life expectancy outside London fell for women. Thanks mainly to austerity and COVID, with 5.8 million people (the population of Denmark) now on a huge waiting list for treatment and elective surgery, we are more anxious today than serene about the future of the NHS and of our country. Nor did BREXIT bring much serenity and spiritual health. Rather, in Hennessy’s words it “contributed powerfully to a general coarsening of our politics and our national conversation, leaving us in a diminished and psychologically poor state by the time the virus struck”.
What is to be done? Hennessy warns that his manifesto for the 2020s needs a new consensual politics that would ‘run with the grain of our better past’. He speaks of five shared ‘tasks’ for a new Beveridge plan that he hopes could be adopted ‘after COVID’: social care, social housing, technical education, preparation of the economy and society for Artificial Intelligence, combating and mitigating climate change plus a sixth, ‘refreshing the UK constitution’. I would add a seventh: extending government’s duty of care beyond British citizens to refugees.
Putin’s war looks like adding at least four million to the total of Europe’s refugees needing care. Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine as the book was published. If anything it makes Hennessy’s social market prescription for a united, spiritually healthy UK, a kinder Britain, more urgent but demanding even more financial backing to realise it. I think he would agree. For he starts his first chapter by quoting Beveridge: “a revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching”. And as R.H. Tawney, whom Hennessy also cites, said in 1917, we need to think in terms ‘not of the least that is essential but the most that can be achieved’.
See TheArticle 16/03/2022