Giants of poverty to be slain: J Enoch Powell on the wartime determination to 'win the peace'

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The Independent Online
The Beveridge Report reflected a perfect image of the mentality of wartime Britain. The war was going to be won, however long it took and however high the cost. It was being won because of the total, voluntary mobilisation of the resources, human and material, of the United Kingdom - a mobilisation which, it was to transpire later, was more comprehensive even than that of Germany itself.

From this, by a quirk of popular logic, it followed that the same methods as were winning the war would, in the then current phrase, 'win the peace'. Recollection of pre-war Britain was disfigured by mass unemployment and the stigmata of poverty. Upon those blemishes the same forces of total mobilisation and central direction as were winning the war ought to be brought to bear.

Social security and the social services had grown haphazardly over time in pre- war Britain, expedient being superimposed upon expedient. It seemed to be a structure that cried out for rationalisation, for reduction to a logical uniformity. Optimistically - wartime is a time of optimism - the government was expected to prepare for just that transformation.

The lower paid were already covered by a compulsory contributory system of insurance against unemployment and for medical care. That system had now to be rationalised. The wartime Emergency Medical Service had already brought under central control the three main strands of hospital provision - emergency, voluntary and municipal. An untidy pattern was ripe for amalgamation.

Unperceived in wartime, when everything that is needed can be afforded, there lay a lion across the path - the illimitable volume of demand that would be released by the magic wand of public provision. Wondrous to relate, the reforms were envisaged as self-financing. The contributory principle, topped up with assistance from public revenue, would balance the books of social security.

A national health service, through its broadened and improved treatment of ill health, would create a larger, more effective and more continuously employed workforce. Besides, had not somebody called Keynes demonstrated that the spectre of a return to pre-war levels of unemployment could be banished by the creation of money? Thus a Britain fully employed in winning the war would be transformed into a Britain fully employed in peacetime production.

That was not how things turned out. Aneurin Bevan found himself needing all his eloquence to justify choking off demands upon the National Health Service. The reservoir of demand for care provided free at the point of delivery was proving inexhaustible.

As if that were not alarming enough, the sharp, steep surge in the scope of medicine and surgery which has characterised the last 50 years swamped the modest financial estimates that accompanied the inception of the National Health Service. The service was evidently not going to pay for itself by the improvement in public health that it would bring about.

Under a universal system of so-called insurance, so far from the community offering a guarantee of social security to a section of itself, the entire nation was being taxed more heavily while going through the motions - Bevan again - of 'counting ourselves to see if we are all there'. What had been devised was an irresistible tax-inflator, though the pretence of a National Insurance Fund was dropped, tardily and reluctantly, only many decades later. The long post-war inflationary climb had been inaugurated.

It helped to lighten the legacy of pre- war and wartime debt; but it plunged the United Kingdom into continuing confrontation with its own commitment to a post-war world of stable currencies.

Fifty years can be eternity in the life of a nation; but one link still connects the Beveridge era with the preoccupations of our own day. It was to be a more efficient, more productive Britain that the health and social security reforms would create. Behind the over- optimistic financial expectations on which the great rationalising structures floated can already be discerned the outlines of that utilitarianism which dominates political debate today.

Education, the health services and social security are to be disciplined on the assumption that they serve the purposes of national efficiency - or, as we prefer it nowadays, of national competitiveness. The search for economic measuring rods that will enable the social services to be organised rationally absorbed the attention of government and Parliament in the years of the Thatcher administration and led, indirectly, to the attempt to introduce market or quasi-market systems of management and allocation.

The reception of the Beveridge Report was understood at the time as registering a mood of national determination, a mood that perhaps was reflected by the composition of the House of Commons which succeeded that of 1935-45. In wartime it was easy to overlook the distinction between the nation as a military machine and the nation as an organism governed by emotional instincts. In peacetime the economic struggle has brought with it the tendency to a similar confusion between the nation as a production and trading organisation on the one hand and as an organic and instinctual society on the other hand. The two live side by side in uneasy juxtaposition and the line that divides them will always be drawn arbitrarily.

In the mood of the early Forties, it seemed - mistakenly, as it turned out - that the line had been abolished: the allocation of effort and resources between the two remains invincibly fortuitous and judgemental. To read again what was written and said in the mood of the Beveridge Report is to take a glimpse into an age of innocence that we have still not quite outgrown.