Monday 11 March 2013

Why we don't want to re-invent 1945

I found myself on Start the Week this morning with Ken Loach and others talking about class, and talking about his film Spirit of '45.

I also talked about my forthcoming book about the squeezed middle, Broke, but let's leave that on one side for a moment.

Since watching the film last week, I have been struggling to articulate what I felt was wrong with the Attlee government and the post-war settlement that is given such heroic and emotional support in Ken Loach's film.  The best I can come up with is this: those huge institutions created by Labour to slay Beveridge's Five Giants were not up to the job.

Oh yes, they slayed the giants, but the giants came back to life again - and still come back to life again every generation, and have to be slayed over and over again, and it costs that much more each time.  That was not how they were designed and not what was expected - Beveridge expected the NHS and welfare state to get cheaper to run over time, not more expensive.

The trouble was that these institutions also disempowered people.  They had their own agendas, their own elites and - more recently - their own dysfunctional targets hollowing them out.  Beveridge warned that this would be the case as well, in his report Voluntary Action, and he was ignored.

Watching the Ealing film Passport to Pimlico recently, there is a hint of this too - someone shouts at the officials:

"We're sick and tired of your voice in this country - now shut up!"  That sheds some light on why the Attlee government was voted out in 1951.

Ken Loach hinted at something similar, so I can't accuse him of this.  But the idea that somehow the Labour creation was betrayed or destroyed by Mrs Thatcher, and we must look back to 1945 and do it all over again, is really nonsense.  The truth is that these huge institutions carried the seeds of their own destruction.  They carried the Thatcherite revolution within them, because they did not work - they disempowered, undermined communities, poured scorn on self-help, worshipped professionals, and never asked for anything back - which meant they failed to build community around them.

But how do you explain all that in about 30 seconds?  Most of my attempts end up with me being pigeon-holed either as a conservative (that I want to sell off the welfare state) or that I am a socialist (I want to build it all again, just the same).  I don't believe either of those.  We need to somehow mould what we've got into something far more flexible and far more effective - and do it very fast.

That requires people who are capable of making relationships with the people they are trying to help - which is precisely the opposite direction the big welfare institutions have been going.  It means the very opposite of economies of scale.  Whatever it means, it certainly doesn't mean going back to 1945.

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