This article first appeared in the LGC on 05 February 2019.
Never in the field of political conflict were so many wartime references uttered by so few to be endured by so many. Whether it is Mark Francois MP telling us how the Germans don’t like it up them or his colleague Daniel Kawczynski revealing a shaky understanding of the Marshall Plan, the Second World War is clearly de rigueur in political rhetoric again.
Of course, what we are being told to do is to stand proud, knuckle down and suck it up just like the plucky generation that defeated Hitler. But there is another spirit associated with the period that is rarely invoked and yet far more relevant: the ambition to reinvent the state even as the smoke rose from thousands of bombed-out homes and workplaces.
The Beveridge Commission was established in June 1941 in the midst of the Blitz. The report was published just eighteen months later as the allied forces launched their invasion of North Africa. Most remarkably, the recommendations began to be implemented immediately even while Nazi forces eyed the English coastline from their redoubts in Calais and Normandy. It is this can-do radicalism rather than the cheery endurance of rationing that should be animating politicians right now.
If, as seems likely, the PM announces a delay to Brexit, she should channel this spirit of Churchill and Attlee and seize the opportunity to launch a commission to address the causes of the frustrations, divisions and alienation that stalk the country. That extra time would be used not just to work out how we leave the EU but also what type of future we want to build for ourselves together.
The wartime equivalent centred, of course, on the welfare state but it is clear that any modern commission would need to cast its remit far wider. Beveridge aimed to slay the five “giant evils” of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease. A modern commission might instead focus on today’s evils: poverty, social immobility, health inequality, political alienation, and rising intolerance.
Who could doubt that with such a remit, this commission would end up focused on the absurd centralisation of power and wealth in London? Its final report may have a plethora of excellent proposals but clearly grassroots devolution – giving communities and neighbourhoods across the UK the tools to generate change for themselves – would be at the heart of any effort to address both economic and political marginalisation.
From today’s detailed call by twenty-four cities for a new, post-Brexit settlement to the growing clamour from MPs and others for a Citizens’ Assembly, the straws in the wind for such an initiative are growing. Mrs. May could, maybe for the first time in three years, generate momentum rather than being dragged along by it. She could turn the division-promoting Brexit delay into something that may just have the power to unite the country around a new radical agenda of change and inclusion.
Of course, the now commonplace fears about lack of bandwidth will be raised. But quite frankly, if a previous government could find the time, energy and will to reinvent the welfare state while winning the biggest conflagration in human history, it should not be beyond the wit of today’s leaders to do something similar while extracting us from the European Union.