When William Beveridge, an economist, wrote “Social Insurance and Allied Services” (later to be known as the Beveridge Report) he and his fellow committee members agreed that there were 5 “Giant Evils” in society.
They were – and remain – Disease, Squalor, Want, Ignorance, and Idleness – not necessarily in that order. From this report came the reforms to health care, housing, poor relief, education, and employment – across the nation.
The Beveridge Report was published in 1942; despite the war, improvements began to be made at once – by the end of the war, planning for an complete overhaul of how we viewed society took form and the Welfare State was born.
Free health care, a massive house-building programme, social security payments, free school-age education, and guaranteed employment for those able to work with support for those who were too sick or disabled to do so.
For decades, these reforms have continued – they have adapted to suit the conditions; they have at times been the envy of the world; they have always ensured that even our poorest and sickest have some support however frugally they are required to live; they have meant that everyone has the opportunity to read and write, to survive the dangers of communicable illness and childbirth, to have a safe roof over their heads, and to make the best of themselves wherever they were born and whatever circumstances they were born into.
Benefits, as we call them now, are a bargain. They prevent the 5 Great Evils.
People who have no home will die at the age of 45. They will not eat properly if at all, they will not have access to basic health care, they will not be able to keep themselves clean. They will suffer from opportunistic infection when they get cold; they will not have access to toilet facilities and can trigger (by fresh-water contamination) water-borne diseases like typhoid and cholera; they are likely to misuse drugs and alcohol in order to numb the pain of their situation.
People who do not have access to free health care may not be able to afford vaccinations for their children, thus causing a loss of herd immunity and the spread of communicable and sometimes fatal diseases; children whose club feet, hip dysplasias, and other neo-natal abnormalities are not fixed in early life will suffer increasing pain and disability, later on being unable to work; rotting teeth, unattended infections, and skin conditions can lead to septicaemia if left untreated; tuberculosis will increase again if vaccination becomes unaffordable; there are many more reasons to support universal free health care and prevention – without it, people will die of completely preventable and curable conditions, just as they do in countries without such health systems.
People who are not educated cannot participate in society as others can; their chances of well-paid work are slim, their life chances in terms of where and how they live are poor, and they will always be prone to poverty. Acquisitive and sometimes violent crime (outside white-collar fraud etc.) is much more likely to be perpetrated by people who are either poor, uneducated, or both; it is a blight on deprived communities the world over. It always reduces when the people become more able to survive through work when able or state support when not. Desperate people do desperate things.
It seems to me that benefits are a bargain. We all contribute to them, whether we work or not. We all pay our various taxes, and the poor pay more in marginal taxation than the rich; the rich pay more in income tax – and as they get 70% of the income, they should be paying more than the 30% they pay now. Whether it’s National Insurance through a working life to get a pension, income taxes to support those in need now, or purchase and other taxes like VAT and local authority charges, we are all paying towards a system we all benefit from.
Do we really want to return to a time when TB was rife, kids with club feet were seen everywhere, mothers died in childbirth as a matter of course, adults got sets of false teeth for their 21st birthday? Do we want to see queues of unemployed people standing waiting on street corners for the foreman to offer a bit of work? Do we want our halt, our lame, our mad and sad to be sent away to places where they will be ignored at best and mistreated at worst? Do we want our children to have nothing to look forward to other than menial labour, poor health, and homes at exorbitant rents in Rachmanite conditions? Do we want all that? Really?
Because that is what the electorate in this country seems to want. That is what they voted for. That is what the Tory party is about – dismantling the Welfare State. That is what they are doing , bit by bit, day by day, and calling it “reform” and “fairness”.
The benefits of benefits are that the 5 Great Evils are not endemic as they once were; benefits are not just the paltry pittance in personal allowances that DWP may deign to grudgingly dole out after insisting on draconian conditions, they are not just bits of money for those who have nothing, they are all the great social reforms of the 20th century that our forbears put in place and that are the hallmark of a civilised country – and we are losing them faster than we think.
Poverty, and the 5 Great Evils, caused misery and social unrest before WW2. There were strikes, there were riots, there were marches – the apotheosis of which, for me, was the Jarrow Crusade which my father, aged 16, watched leave his home town. Six years later, he was flying in the first operational flights of the great Lancaster aircraft – and the country he fought for then, the one he and many others rebuilt afterwards, was a new Great Britain and it was altered irrevocably by war, the new politics, and the new society that came with them.
If he were alive today, like his brother-in-arms the splendid Harry Leslie Smith, he would be horrified at what this country has become. He would be appalled at the antics of the very small, mean, utterly lacking in stature or gravitas, idiots that are currently our elected representatives and who do manifestly not have our best interests at heart – and he would be equally appalled at the “I’m all right Jack” attitude, so carefully fostered by the right wing in this country, that has led to this situation. People I know, people I like, people who are friends, neighbours, family – people who think they have voted in their own self-interest and are soon to discover that a Tory, and especially a rich Tory, cannot be trusted.
We know that benefits – be they financial support, free education, health care, decent homes, good jobs, and access to a fair and just system of all those things – are a bargain. They prevent homelessness, hunger, crime, disease, social unrest; they make us all better human beings and they help us all realise our potential.
And they are now being thrown away on the altar of capitalism – austerity for the masses, rich pickings for the chosen few. Fans of the risible tosh that is Downton Abbey might like to reflect on what life might really have been like for those in lifetime servitude to the rich – because that’s where their childrens’ futures lie if we don’t fight for what people like my father fought for.
I will fight. I will agitate, argue, complain, and make a nuisance of myself. I will not stop while there is breath in my body. I have poor health, but I can write and I can blog and I can campaign. I may not have the physical or financial wherewithal to march and protest with my peers, but I will advertise their struggle where I can.
I will NOT lie down and be quiet. I will NOT allow my fathers’ legacy and that of his peers – heroes all – to simply sink beneath the morass of what passes for political discourse in this country. We need change, we need a decent Welfare State now as much as we ever did. We need courage to fight what has become a corporate sell-off of all our assets and all our hard-won social support.
We pay for this. We have been sold a pup. We should follow the example of Podemos, Syriza, people who will not bow down to the forces of neoliberalism – forces that are proving time and again that austerity doesn’t work and it is always the poor who suffer the most.
Labour aren’t doing enough. I am beginning to think that without Ed Miliband, they are part of the problem. That’s why we need a new politics, a grand alliance of the left – we need to jettison our differences and work together.
And we need to do it right now…….