The 20th century saw great Liberal reforms to address the ‘five giant evils’ of squalor, idleness, want, disease and ignorance but there are signs they are returning, writes Christine Jardine MP.
A comment that a constituent made during the 2017 General Election has stuck with me.
At a hustings in Murrayfield, an elderly gentleman said that he felt he was being punished for living into his old age. I cannot tell you how upset that comment made me.
Old age is something to be looked forward to and, if you are lucky enough to reach it, enjoyed. That anyone could feel “punished” in our system is a sad indictment on all of us who claim to care.
At the time that gentleman was talking specifically about the notorious proposal for a so-called ‘dementia tax’.
To many of us, it seemed the complete antithesis of the welfare state, of which this country is so proud, and an erratic diversion from the Prime Minister’s stated intention to help those struggling to manage.
At the time, I was confident that the public outcry would force the Government to see sense and drop the suggestion. It did.
Our society wasn’t, I accepted, perfect, but at least we were trying. Now I’m not so sure.
And I do not confine my reservations to the UK Government. Holyrood has significant questions to answer as well.
Over the past month, I have supported constituents who’d just been told that the council can no longer afford the community services on which they depend.
The Scottish Government’s squeeze on council budgets is hitting us hard with everything from pavements too dangerous for the elderly to walk on to community centres struggling for funding.
I am constantly arguing with the Department for Work and Pensions on behalf of constituents struggling with disabilities who had found that the agency-run assessments for continued Personal Independence Payment support took no account of their very real needs.
We arranged extra surgeries to help those affected by the transition to what I had originally genuinely, like so many others from all parties, believed would be a new system of Universal Credit that would make benefits simpler and help people back into work.
Of course, it might have done if the Conservative Government hadn’t taken £3 billion out of its budget, and made it difficult to succeed in its aim.
In the middle of it all, I wondered if the elderly were no longer the only ones feeling they were being punished.
The gentleman whose comments prompted my doubts was around 70 years old. Much the same age as the National Health Service.
The National Health Service in which hundreds of people in Scotland are now waiting more than a year for hospital treatment.
In his childhood, that gentleman’s parents would have cherished the then-recent promise that his life in post-war Britain would guarantee cradle to grave care, free at the point of delivery.
The vision was first outlined by Lloyd George as Chancellor in 1909 in his People’s Budget, which placed a heavier burden on the rich to pay for Liberal reforms to subsidise “working” citizens, the ill and injured, and the elderly, including old-age pensions for people over 70.
He described it as a war against poverty and squalidness. Lloyd George also introduced the National Insurance Act of 1911.
The change he initiated had its ultimate expression in the Beveridge Report of 1942 which attacked what its author called the “five giant evils” in society and paved the way for the Welfare State. Squalor, idleness, want, disease and ignorance would, the report was determined, be things of the past.
But in the 21st century are they making a comeback? If, that is, they ever went away.
Food banks. How many of us discreetly dropped off donations at the supermarket while spending a small fortune on our own Christmas celebrations this year?
How many charities and organisations, like Muirhouse’s LIFT, in my own constituency were responsible for the Christmas trees and presents which helped make the festive season happy for numerous families?
What about those hundreds of people waiting for hospital treatment or frightened of what they might learn about the impact Brexit will have on their ability to get enough of the life-saving medicines on which they depend?
And there’s also the more than 320,000 estimated homeless across the UK and the 22 per cent increase in children – 12,858 – who were homeless on Christmas Day 2017.
The trends are not looking good.
In the 110 years since Lloyd George launched the change which saw British society go through its own quiet, but effective, revolution in the 20th century there have, of course, been others whose reforms have been critical. Conservatives will, of course, point to Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy council houses, although the collateral damage to our housing stock and the long-term contribution to housing problems cannot be ignored.
Tony Blair’s commitment to “education, education, education” aimed to expand key Sure Start services and make more university places available than ever before. And there is the Human Rights Act, the Equality Act, and last but by no means least the Equal Marriage Act.
All of them, and others, were aimed at one or all of those “five great evils”.
No-one, surely can doubt, that the 20th century was an age of great Liberal reforms and reformers.
But looking at where we are now, and with words of that elderly gentleman still ringing in my ears, I wonder what they would think of what we have done with the society they created?