Mile End Institute

After COVID19 - Lord Peter Hennessy

Lord Peter Hennessy asks what we might learn from the experience of another hinge moment: 1945, when an exhausted but victorious Britain launched a new social contract.

24 June 2020

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Photo of Westminster at dusk by Ming Jun Tan on Unsplash

Is it possible that out of our experience of a cruel, capricious and deadly pathogen something of real and enduring value could emerge? That out of tragedy can come possibility and purpose? Is there a usable piece of our past to guide us; to give us hope?

I think there is.

The COVID19 experience has sharpened our sense of the duty of care we have one for another, that a state has for its people all of its people, to a degree we have not felt collectively since World War Two and its aftermath. We heard it week after week when on Thursdays at 8, we clapped, cheered and rattled our pots and pans in salute to the NHS front line and other key workers. It was the sound of people rediscovering themselves.

There are too many differences between six years of total war and the likely length of the COVID emergency, for easy comparisons to be made. But what we can learn from those war years is just how powerful and beneficial a ‘never again’ impulse can be if it is poured into the making of a new deal for the British people.

The great World War Two coalition led by Winston Churchill and Clem Attlee began to plan for exactly that on the back of what was - and still is - the most remarkable report ever produced for a British government. In late 1942, Sir William Beveridge, the leading social arithmetician of his day, identified what he called ‘five giants’ on the road to recovery and put them in capital letters.

WANT, IGNORANCE, IDLENESS, SQUALOR, DISEASE

The report was a bestseller.

Beveridge’s great insight was that all ‘five giants’ had to be struck simultaneously if the hard crust of deprivation was to be shattered. After the war, governments of both parties were fuelled by a Beveridge-ite consensus for over 30 years.

Through the grim COVID weeks and months of 2020, can we see the possible outline of a New Beveridge, a post-corona banner we can all rally round – a banner emblazoned with the heraldry of a new consensus?

We can.   I think there is a hard-edged, not a fudged consensus to be crafted using 5 priorities.

  • social care; something must be done and fast
  • a big public/private push on social housing
  • getting technical education right at last after 150 years of trying
  • combatting and mitigating climate change
  • preparing our country and our people for the full impact of artificial intelligence on our productive capacity and our society

If our politicians could pick up this new consensus and run with it – finding the right tone and pitch of language in which to express it – the early 2020s could be one of the most creative and productive patches of our history and a worthy memorial to the COVID fallen. It has taken a pathogen for us to find and refresh our shared duty of care.

But rediscover it we have.  

Lord Peter Hennessy is Attlee Professor of Contemporary British History at Queen Mary University of London.

This a transcript from the episode, Rethinking Democracyfor the programme, Rethinkfrom the BBC. In the series, leading thinkers from across the globe give us their route maps to a better tomorrow.

Listen to the audio.