It is 2020, we are slowly emerging from the shock and dismantlement of a pandemic – and without doubt, we need a new social contract based on the redistribution of esteem.
Britain created such a contract after WW2; a remarkable achievement. But the last remnants of that are now destroyed by years of austerity, Brexit and Covid.
These things have extinguished any lingering unity in post-war Britain, any sense of justice; and it is time to start again.
Based on the Beveridge report of 1943, a miracle arose from the ruins of war: the Welfare state emerged under the Atlee government – free NHS, free education, commitment to full employment.
Beveridge (a Liberal himself) had seen five evils crippling society – want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. Unless these were tackled, he said, nothing would change.
But they were tackled and things did change. The war had re-ordered social esteem, created new heroes and dismantled old social structures; there was no going back to Edwardian England.
‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ had to relate differently. Downstairs now had rights as well; some even went upstairs.
But the bedrock of it all: the practical esteem of universal health care, education and employment.
This was the fire the nation gathered round; a meeting place. But the fire has not been looked after.
The dismantling of health care and education has been apparent for a while; and while employment is high, wages are low. It is common now that a month’s earnings do not even pay the month’s rent.
To this extent, employment figures are a lie. We need employment we can believe in.
So we do need to seize the moment, make a virtue of necessity, and start again.
As Phillip Pullman said, “If we come out of this crisis with the rickety, fly-blown, worm-eaten old structures still intact,the same vain and indolent public schoolboys in charge, the same hedge fund managers stuffing their overloaded pockets, our descendants will not forgive us.”
Powerful stuff. But mainly we’ll do it because it’s the right thing to do.
I offer here a social contract between government and nation, a new fire to gather round.
It is a contract supported by four simple pillars of esteem. You will have your own thoughts, your own pillars. But when I’m listening to politicians from here on, this is what I’ll be listening for.
1) The Esteem of accurate statement.
Professor Brian Cox recently said that ‘anyone who says they are ‘following the science’ doesn’t know what science is. It is a mind set and one which includes doubt.’
During Covid, we have seen ‘bluster’ attempting to ride on the back of science, suddenly trying to be its friend – ‘experts’, exiled and reviled during the Brexit debate, are suddenly welcomed back.
And how pleasant it has been for us to hear some clear-speaking scientists offering analysis; a bluster-free zone of accuracy, (and when did we last hear that?) – which can also admit it doesn’t always know the answer.
And this raises the spectre of a bigger evil we have become familiar with over the past five years, long before Covid. The Trump/Johnson/Putin et al commitment to inaccuracy for populist purposes; and this must now cease.
I hope we have reached the tipping point, which says goodbye to lies on the sides of buses and unusual recommendations concerning dettol.
There is no esteem in lies; only narcissism, only emotional and psychological abuse; only hate. So from here on, the esteem of accurate statement, please.
We are watching.
2) The Esteem of free health care and education.
These deal with two of Beveridge’s evils directly – disease and ignorance. Though ‘want’ is wonderfully met here as well.
We have to offer more than applause every Thursday to our health care system and workers; and we need to start by believing in it rather than chipping away at it. Do the Tories now believe in it? A Damascus Road experience? We shall see.
While this pandemic has clearly shown education to be so much more than Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic. Our schools are at the very heart of social, as well as academic, care; beacons in the community for the care of our children.
So why are they so brutally under-funded? And why is Surestart,, such a crucial start to education, so savaged?
We are watching.
3) The Esteem of wage parity
The Tories applauded when nurses were refused a pay rise in parliament last year. Their public tone has changed of late. They need to start again, we all do.
Bin men and women, supermarket workers, care home workers, bus drivers, post men and women – after any war, there are new heroes, fresh ways of thinking.
Pay differentials, between shop floor and company bosses, are worse now than in Victorian England. How has this been allowed? No one believes in ‘drip-down’ economics any more.
The money isn’t dripping down and there is no esteem here; and though it will be a slow change of direction, we do need to begin to turn this tanker around.
Esteem of wage parity must be one of the pillars of the new order.
We are watching.
4) The Esteem of environmental care
One of the glories of the pandemic, and there haven’t been many, is to see the world breathing again – sky lines clear, waters clear, air clear.
How the ozone layer laughs. But for how long?
Taking care of the environment is the ultimate act of esteem by government; for we have no other world to live in. ‘Love me, love my world.’
So exciting challenges here, particularly in relation to pollution – exciting because humans have a stunning track record in problem-solving and innovation.
Money is one of the things that makes the world go round, so money will be important, investment and profit.
But money only makes the world go round, if there’s a world to go round; so we do need to look after it. Profit is good, investment is vital, and the environment non-negotiable.
We are watching.
So there are my four pillars for a new social contract, rooted in esteem; and as I say, you will have your own.
But Johnson’s present vision of a free-wheeling liberal democracy, which suits both his personality and personal circumstances, will not work now.
Government, like parenting, is about boundaries and affirmation.
Boundaries around protection and behaviour, which keep us and others safe; and affirmation of our worth which heals us when sick, educates us when young, pays us as adults – and always tells us the truth.
This is esteem, lost along the way, but now waiting new birth, eager for fresh adventures.
So we’ll start again, rather than make-do and mend; and this starting again may include old loyalties discarded. It’s a clean slate for everyone.
Who will offer us a social contract we can believe in?
And what will be their pillars holding this adventure together?