A watershed moment is approaching for Britain, says Francis Beckett. Alas, it looks certain to lead us the wrong way.
The end of this virus emergency, whenever it comes, will be a political watershed. As Britain’s most trusted historian, professor Lord Peter Hennessy, has said: ‘Those who write the history of Britain post-1945 will divide it into BC, Before Corona, and AC, After Corona.’
It will be potentially a 1945 moment – a moment when a new world is possible. But will we get it? The realistic answer, unless Keir Starmer can do something really clever, has to be: almost certainly not.
In 1945, the people supported, and the government delivered, a fundamentally different society from the one that had existed before the war: fairer, more generous, more internationalist, more at peace with our neighbours.
The ‘New Jerusalem’ was built on the Beveridge Report, which talked of slaying the ‘five giants’ – want, ignorance, disease, squalor and idleness. They were slain with a National Health Service, free and compulsory education, state interventions in the economy, unemployment pay and the welfare state.
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‘A new Beveridge is above all what post-corona Britain needs’ writes Hennessy in the Catholic magazine The Tablet. ‘Brexit wore us out – three-and-a-half scouring, souring years in which the worst characteristics of our politics were on display. The corona experience… has shown us the very best of ourselves once more.’
Many of the elements that made the 1945 New Jerusalem possible exist today. The men and women who had fought the war, looked after the wounded and lost friends and family were determined not to come back to the same brutally unfair society they had known in the 1930s, with its gulf between rich and poor, its conspicuous wealth beside grinding poverty.
Today, workers in the public sector, and especially the NHS – abused and despised by successive governments ever since Margaret Thatcher’s time – are dying in order that we may live.
They will not willingly remain at the bottom of the wages heap. Ministers who a few months ago were voting down pay increases for health workers, and cheering because they were able to do so, are now standing sheepishly in front of television cameras every Thursday and cheering the health workers.
The idea of the state playing a central part in our lives, controlling much of our economic activity, seemed strange, frightening and foreign in 1939. But to fight a war efficiently, any government must dictate to industry what it requires, and take to itself the power to get it, and this looked quite normal and unthreatening by 1945.
The present government – reluctantly and hesitantly – is doing the same. They cannot fight the virus without massive state intervention, any more than the Churchill government could fight the Nazis without it.
So, as in 1945, our idea of what we think the state can and should do has changed fundamentally in the last three months. Conservative ministers, who normally jeer at the idea that the state can be anything other than a nuisance and want to shrink it and leave everything to the market, have discovered that in a crisis, only the state can defend us.
So historical precedent, it seems, is with us. When coronavirus ends, it will be 1945 all over again, and we can build a New Jerusalem for the 2020s.
But here’s the rub. Looking back beyond 1945, the next watershed moment is 1918. Most of the same elements are there.
The Edwardian era before the First World War had grotesque inequalities of wealth, and men came back from the war determined not to return to the same old unfair society. The war had also made commonplace the idea of the state as enabler, for the wartime government in the Great War had had to take control of much of the country’s industry and economic activity.
Yet in 1918, unlike 1945, there was no Beveridge, no New Jerusalem. Britain sank back to a grey replica of what it had been before the war. Dreadfully disabled war veterans begged in the streets of our cities.
Here’s the difference between 1918 and 1945. Labour went into the 1945 general election pledged to implement Beveridge, and had politicians with the experience and drive to do it.
Voters showed they wanted it, and Labour was returned with a 145-seat majority.
In 1918, just 24 hours after the Armistice had been signed with Germany, prime minister David Lloyd George announced an election in alliance with his coalition partners, the Conservatives, who dominated the government and wanted to return to as near the status quo ante as possible.
The idea was to capitalise quickly on Lloyd George’s status as a war leader. Labour did not yet look like a serious contender for power, the Liberals were disastrously split, and a confused electorate did what looked like the patriotic thing.
By the time the Conservative government fell, six years later, the moment had passed.
And 2021, if that’s when the coronavirus battle ends, looks like being a lot more like 1918 than 1945.
Barring something very surprising, we’re stuck with the present government until May 2024. It will want us to get back to business as usual as fast as possible, to try to ensure that any Beveridge moment there might be passes unnoticed.
Ministers have taken to signalling this. Take this, from Boris Johnson’s first speech on his return from illness: ‘Without our private sector, without the drive and commitment of the wealth creators of this country, there will be no economy to speak of, there will be no cash to pay for our public services, no way of funding our NHS.’
On one level, it’s just a statement of the obvious: you can’t have an NHS without tax revenues. But it’s meant to say much more than that.
Johnson is saying: In this crisis we have to make ritual obeisance to the public sector and public sector workers, but we know that only the market really matters.
Another straw in the wind is the odd, almost unbalanced government approach to anything concerning the EU.
There was the very strange insistence that the deadline for the end of trade talks will be kept despite coronavirus, even though the British government is putting up no proposals, and it’s obvious that no deal can be done in time.
Put that together with the strange story of the ventilators. The government declined to join the EU scheme to buy ventilators and other medical gear, and it’s now clear from the EU statement of April 24 that ministers were not telling the truth when they said it was a mix-up. It was deliberate policy.
Keir Starmer was right when he told me Johnson wants to smash up our remaining relationship with Europe in favour of a trade deal with Donald Trump. Starmer says that is ‘not just swapping one trade deal for another, it is swapping one set of values, principles and standards for another set of values, principles and standards’.
But by 2024 it can be done and dusted, and everyone will have forgotten that we once had a relationship with our closest neighbours.
There are other straws in the wind. The Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), a think tank founded by former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, has recommended the threshold for the state pension move to 70 by 2028 and to 75 by 2035.
Duncan Smith seems to be a proxy for the government just now, regularly appearing on television to say the things ministers want said but do not want to say themselves: that the virus is all the fault of the wicked Chinese hiding information from us, that the government’s failure to get a grip at the start was all the fault of the World Health Organisation.
Johnson’s calculation is that by 2024, the moment will have passed, and we will be back to as near an approximation of 2019 as the government can arrange.