The social reforms implemented by the Labour Party after the 1945 General Election, led to the creation of the Welfare State. The range of Acts including the Family Allowances Act 1945, the National Insurance Act 1946 and the National Health Service Act 1946, addressed the five giants of deprivation [Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness].
[...] For the first time, everyone was entitled to a reasonable income if they were unemployed, a proper pension, paid holidays and above all, free healthcare. If you became sick, the state would care for you. There are many countries in the world that still do not enjoy these entitlements today.
Built into these reforms was a strong conviction that the state should provide support as needed. However it was not to encourage dependency. Beveridge envisaged that workers could and should seek to improve conditions for their families.
The reforms which Tawney, Temple and Beveridge achieved in the 1940s represented the apogee of a shared 'big vision' for Britain in the last century. Intellectuals, church leaders and government agreed both on the big vision and on the ways in which it could be delivered.
It is a tragedy, to me, that we have increasingly lost this big vision.
In the following section, I will explore how it happened and what the results have been. Memory is important. For any community that loses its memory becomes senile. Memory loss has made Britain sleep-walk on streets supposedly paved with gold, but sadly littered with promissory notes whose cash value is the credit crunch and the economic downturn as well as a becoming country that is not a ease with itself.
How have we lost the big vision and how has it affected us?
[...] Increasingly we are living in a society which is ill at ease with itself. The reason for this is, I believe, because we have lost our vision of what we are about. We have also lost our confidence to develop a new vision. Why is this and why is it so serious?
Let me start with the Beveridge's reforms themselves. Some would argue that they have failed, and it has become increasingly difficult for our governments to deliver these objectives. My judgement is the opposite. I believe that Beveridge succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.
Britain achieved a National Health Service which became a model for Europe and the rest of the world. The United Kingdom has provided income and support to those who are sick, unemployed or incapacitated in many other ways. And at long last we have the minimum wage. Courage is now required of all of us to turn this into a living wage. Britain has developed an educational system which provides a free and full education for all. But sadly, until recently top-up fees at universities were unheard of!
So what has gone wrong? Well, our expectations have risen exponentially as we have seen with the NHS. Also, the NHS success has meant that we are all living longer – much longer in fact. As a result, we need far more medical services and pensions. We are victims of our own success!
We have also become a more self-absorbed society. I believe that one of the key factors which has contributed to our loss of the big vision for our country, has been the loss of the Empire. I am aware that this is a controversial view. But whilst Britain had an Empire, a large merchant navy, a large manufacturing industry and commerce, and significant numbers engaged in armed forces, and an expatriate Civil Service in the colonies, it encouraged an outward-looking perspective.
As the vision for Britain became more introspective, I believe we became more self-absorbed. Hugh Montefiore, in his Installation Sermon as the sixth Bishop of Birmingham on 4 March 1978 said that, "No-one can lead a fully human life unless he has a worthy aim in life. I sometimes fear that the people of this great country, having shed an Empire, have also lost a noble vision for their future. How can we rediscover our self-confidence and self-esteem as a nation? What do we really want for our beloved land? Man cannot live by bread alone, nor yet by cash alone. We need a nobler aim in life than an annual increase in take-home pay. [...] ....
Such worthy aims will not come from economics or from sociology, not from science or from politics, but from the Spirit of God welling up in the hearts of men." (An Installation Sermon, p.20 in 'Taking Our Past Into Our Future' Hugh Montefiore, 1978, Fount Paperbacks UK)
As the winds of change were blowing the British Empire away, the United Kingdom was rapidly becoming what has come to be termed a multi-cultural society.
It is important to see this within its historical context. Britain has always been a place of refuge to those seeking asylum and also for those seeking a new economic life here. For example, there were over 250,000 Jews living in Britain at the start of the First World War. They integrated and in the main, were accepted.
What happened after the Second World War was a different phenomenon. For the first time, significant numbers of immigrants from a non Judaeo-Christian background came to settle in the UK.
[...] migrants to Britain from the 1960s onwards have made their home with their cultural rights protected under legislation framed under a multi-cultural perspective. Consequently any sense of a shared common culture is eroded risking increasing segregation.
In all these developments, the lack of a common 'big vision' and the implications of this are becoming increasingly evident. I believe this has been characterised by over-cautious policy-formation, fear and irritation.
Since 2001, the government has tried hard to address the problems born of a multi-cultural approach through social cohesion. There have been no less than five major government reports on social cohesion since 2001. Although worthy, few have managed to fulfil their stated aims. The main reason for this is because, despite the rhetoric, governments have been reluctant to delegate real powers to local communities.
There has also been a reluctance to acknowledge the strong Judaeo-Christian heritage which has shaped our language, our laws, our education and our hard-won civil rights.
The Church of England has also lost its nerve during this period. It acted prophetically in 1985 with the publication of Faith in the City.
This was a real and courageous witness of Christians standing up and proclaiming the value and rights of those who were weakest in our society. In many ways, it was the high point both in vision and witness by the church since the big vision of Tawney, Temple and Beveridge in 1942.
But, on facing savage attack by not only those in government but other powerful figures in society, the Church of England lost its nerve. Stung by the accusation that the Report was 'Marxist', the Church of England turned inwards and failed to maintain a big vision. It focused on pastoral and social projects, and did not pursue the other two characteristics of prophetic wisdom: speaking out what the Church believed God was calling England to become as well as speaking out on behalf of the voiceless and the unheard in the market square.
In this situation we need to be sure that that the call to 'Britishness' is not in fact a call to exclusiveness rather than inclusiveness. It is important for us to identify and celebrate the values and commitments we share rather than requiring people to 'opt into Britishness'.
The devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is also relevant for our concept of Britishness. We will need to consider how this affects our sense of belonging and our sense of what it is to be English in the English nation.
But these recent developments are also an indication that the sense of national identity is not as dead as some people might fear, and that there is a place for the big vision. Indeed there are numerous indications that there is a return to the desire for a coherent and inclusive cultural identity, and an ethic of society.
So how do we regain a big vision for Britain? How do we regain a vision such as that which Beveridge, Tawney and Temple developed so successfully?
"For it is essential that we have a big vision for 'without a vision, the people perish' (Proverbs 29:18).
III Regaining the big vision for Britain
I think the answer lies in going back to this original vision and seeing what lessons it has to teach us. In particular, I believe that the principles that inspired William Temple are highly illuminating.
In his Christianity and the Social Order, William Temple identified three core social principles.
These were seminal and were to inspire the reforms he called for and which were largely realised in the Beveridge Report. They were:
First, Freedom: the person is primary and not the state. The first aim of social progress is to give fullest scope to personal powers of which the highest is the power to choose. Freedom therefore is the goal of politics. Power to the people.
However, it should be freedom for as well as freedom from. In other words, people are called to contribute as well as receive liberty.
Second, Social fellowship: we are social beings and belong in community. The family and local community are of paramount importance. The government must recognise the importance of voluntary groups such a churches, trade unions, etc.
Third, Service: we should continually ask ourselves, 'where can I give my best service?'
These principles give a framework in which we can begin to build up a big vision for our time. Let me show you why I believe this is the case.
I believe that reclaiming our faith heritage is central to regaining our big vision for Britain. Over the past fifty years, we have become less confident as a nation and as faith groups to talk about faith in God in public life.
Some secularists have argued that faith is declining and should therefore no longer be tolerated in public life.
The classic example of this is Alistair Campbell's intervention in the middle of Tony Blair's interview with Vanity Fair in 2003. When the interviewer asked Blair about his faith, Campbell intervened, "Is he on God? We don't do God. I'm sorry, we don't do God". This example shows the extent to which it is hard to integrate religion into public policy discussion in Britain today. However, the 2001 census figures show us that we should be less fearful of claiming our religious heritage. Religion is a core aspect of people's identity and will not be relegated to the private sphere.
Our new vision for Britain must not just be political but ethical as well. Aristotle regarded politics as 'ethics writ large'. The political arguments in Britain today about the management of the economy and public services do not seem to live up to this principle. We need to re-assess the relationship between ourselves and government.
We can go two ways today. Either we can degenerate into a more self-absorbed, more frightened, more desperate society in which it is 'dog eats dog' and each person must fend for themselves. But there is no future in this. Or we can decide to work together to build a new vision for Britain based on the recognition that we all belong, we all matter and we can all make a difference. We can all adopt as our motto that of the Scouts and Girl Guides, Duty to God, duty to the Queen, and duty to the neighbour.
I want to end with another quotation this time from one of my favourite story-tellers, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who expresses perfectly the essence of what I have called for tonight:
If you want to build a ship
Don't herd people together to collect or buy wood
Don't summon them to prepare tools,
And don't assign them tasks and work;
But rather teach them and inspire in them a yearning for
The endless immensity of the sea
Let us all do it. Let us all do it now.
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