Bread For All:  The Origins of  the Welfare State
by Chris Renwick Allen Lane

BOOKBUSTER BOOK REVIEW BY TIM BARTON

The air over Britain was dark, condensed into mournful gloom, as Captain Korzeniowski steered the Narcissus toward the harbour. As an employee of His Majesty’s Empire, he cast a patrician glare at a crew-hand, a cockney name of Donkin. A continual irritant, his type, as workers across the nation became more forthright in their demand to be given a voice, to be lifted out of poverty. Donkin looked back, and a dark look in his eyes, waxed yet more loudly ‘with filthy eloquence upon the right of labour to live’.

Two years on, a Canadian departs the same port, aboard the Roamer. The East London skies to the rear are darker than ever. His last years had been spent amongst the people of the abyss that was Stepney and Whitechapel, people whose life-span averaged between 25 and 35 miserable years. Jack was an angry socialist – and by 1908 a communist, advocating bloody revolution in his novel, The Iron Heel.

After two world wars, between which the economic collapse of the Great Depression had further hollowed out Albion, no revolution had come to save us. But over the decades a realisation that change was needed was shared by Left, Liberal, and Right parties. The Right favoured a capitalist economy, but saw the need for a healthy and passive workforce; the left more belligerently sought full rights for workers, unionised and equal as a class to the established upper class. It was unlikely that a died-in-the-wool imperial apologist like Churchill would be an instrument of deliverance. But, in 1945, the wartime leader, the kind of leader who had been needed in such times, was rightly ousted from power. A new broom was needed, and the people swept in a Labour government on a landslide.

Chris Renwick’s Bread for All traces the various strands of thought that led to a compact between these seemingly disparate powers – strands that weave across class and party boundaries, from the 1601 Poor Law, through the 1834 New Poor Law, to the 1942 ‘Beveridge Report’, and that required also the Swing Riots, Peterloo, the creation at grassroots of trade unions, credit unions, working men’s clubs, a women’s suffrage movement, and a new party to represent labour. This new compact began to lift the dark smog of despair off the backs of Blighty’s worker slaves. At last, in 1945, the new Labour government passed into law many of the policies suggested in Social Insurance and Allied Services, a surprise bestseller for HMSO. Many a man on the Clapham omnibus would be seen reading a copy. My own grandmothers, ‘computers’ at Lyon’s tea-shops, read it over Earl Grey in their lunch breaks.

Both a boon and a soporific, the new Welfare State, creating state-run free-at-the-point-of-delivery health services, and unemployment support, paid for via a new flat-rate ‘national insurance’, alongside a mass housing programme, was ‘a British revolution’. It helped us build a compact between workers, now freed from the worst depredations of poverty, and the capitalist private companies. Core services were nationalised (or remained so, after being taken under state control under the war economy), whilst the rest of the economic sphere was incentivised. A safety net allowed risk, and risk allowed growth.

And a New Jerusalem was founded. But, of course, there is many a slip between a cup and a lip. A failure to understand that ‘compromise’ was not only not a dirty word, but a necessity, if we were to maintain balance in a complex social and economic ecology, led both Labour and Conservative parties to the intransigent ideological idiocies of the late 70s and early 80s.

Renwick’s book gives a necessary historical understanding to not only how we built a (relatively) peaceful compact between classes in the creation of the Welfare State, but also to what we are, today, at risk of losing. Thatcherism and its fallout, crushing the services built to create a stable life for the masses, has run the spear of free market capitalist ideology right through every government since.

The dark clouds in the offing glower ever lower, as we face the very real danger of a return to ‘Victorian’ and ‘Edwardian’ ‘values’. The populist nationalism rampant today is more akin to blind monarchic Empire Fever than to the Spirit of ‘45, and threatens a blind rush to pour away a compact the conditions for which took centuries to mature. We must mind what we stand to lose, and with maximal urgency. Learn our history, see the huge slow grind of poverty and the energy expended to lift it inch by inch up from the bodies of the poor: and understand that the energy a political and economic minority require to push us right back down the entropy slope is far, far less, and in their power. And that they have been and are using it to destroy us, reversing our progress, for their misguided short-term self-aggrandisement.

In the next few years, we have a war to fight: a war to raise the Spirit of ‘45 once more, a war to stop our stone rolling back to the bottom of the dark dank valley yet again, a war to allow Sisyphus to be happy not in his pained imagination, pushing his rock back up the entropy slope against all the weight of economic collapse and servitude, but happily freed from his task. With the proviso that, unlike in the hedonistic latter half of the twentieth century, we keep our eyes, this time, on the ball; that, this time, we fight back and never forget the fundamental truth of the old adage ‘the price of freedom is eternal vigilance’.

Collapse is threatening, the sky is darkening, not from cloud or fog: we are in the shadow of a rising tsunami, and it seems we must sail through this storm to fight again. If we fail, we drown, and in doing so desecrate the memory of all those who fought power and died to give us what we are not only losing but blindly throwing away. Do we want a new Conrad or London to chronicle our demise, bobbing in the estuary, staring aghast at the maelstrom? Or do we wish to avert the need and save ourselves?

Only a return to a mixed economy, balancing socialistic values with entrepreneurial spirit, and a return of collective consciousness, can avert disaster. At present, only a progressive government offers the ethical stance needed for us to rise to the task, which under the current system means Mr Corbyn’s Labour Party. To succeed, though, will require the rest of the political spectrum to once again see the necessity of looking after the needy well, to create a civilised matrix from which to build a better future for all. The economic ideologies of the 1980s must be spurned, and a new ‘Beveridge Report’ drafted – one, perhaps, that includes significant constitutional reform alongside (re)educational and economic reforms. As an aid to facilitating this process smoothly, the lessons of history are here to learn, in Bread for All.

Available in hardback, rrp £20, available from Bookbuster at £15

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