‘The Nanny State Made Me’ by Stuart Maconie #FridayReads #BookReview

It was the spirit of our finest hour, the backbone of our post-war greatness, and it promoted some of the boldest and most brilliant schemes this isle has ever produced: it was the Welfare State, and it made you and I. But now it’s under threat, and we need to save it.

In this timely and provocative book, Stuart Maconie tells Britain’s Welfare State story through his own history of growing up as a northern working class boy. What was so bad about properly funded hospitals, decent working conditions and affordable houses? And what was so wrong about student grants, free eye tests and council houses? And where did it all go so wrong? Stuart looks toward Britain’s future, making an emotional case for believing in more than profit and loss; and championing a just, fairer society.

Last week I reviewed Cash Carraway’s book about her struggle to build a life for herself and her daughter under the current social system in this country. It felt timely then to read this book straight after – a book that praises that once great system, when the much maligned ‘nanny’ state looked after the people of this country and helped those who needed help.

I am slightly younger than Maconie, but I very much recognised the world he described – albeit that I lived further south, first in London and then in an estate in a new town, built to cater for the London overspill. Like Maconie’s estate, the estate we lived in had been planned to put open spaces at its heart – terraces of houses not in rows but in squares around a green area, and we had a toilet downstairs! 

I had a free education,  free library, free care from the NHS, and when I when to university I had a grant – a grant that didn’t need to be paid back – ever.

Things weren’t perfect. There was snobbery. There was still need. But it was a damn sight better than now.

Maconie’s book then, is a love letter of sorts to those institutions that meant so much to those of us who were working class – the swimming pools, the parks, the libraries (especially the libraries), the completely free education. And it’s also a warning that we are letting it all slip away. That we are letting this false narrative of scroungers, of benefit cheats, of people swanning up to food banks in Range Rovers (yes, I have been told this I by someone I know – she firmly believes it) to allow us to turn our back on a system that, although not perfect, was genuinely a safety net, was genuinely a way out for many of us.

Maconie writes with wit, with warmth, with intelligence. The book isn’t perfect though. In a section about how the privately educated have taken over the music industry, with the majority of bands in this country formed of ex-public schoolboys, Maconie wonders where are the John Lennons, the Jarvis Cockers, the Johnny Marrs? In doing so he completely overlooks grime – a whole genre of working class and independent music.

I also found his defence of the BBC a little hard to swallow, and a little disappointing too.

That said, however, this is a really important book. The ‘nanny’ state is not a terrible, interfering, wasteful behemoth that needs continuous overhauling – it is a lifeline for many that definitely needs proper funding (might help if the rich paid their taxes). We need those Sure Start Centres, those public libraries, the school playing fields, the public swimming pools. And we most certainly need free university level education. I couldn’t have done without these things. I wish the generations after me had had the benefit of them too. 

A much-needed warning, well-written, very readable, and an important book, especially as we head into the uncertainty of 2022.

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6 comments

  1. Sounds like a very interesting book, even if, as you say, not perfect. Although I’m American, I benefited greatly from the “nanny state”. My husband was one of those whose life (and thus mine) has been greatly enhanced by being part of the London “overflow” into Essex and having the chance of a grammar school and free university education. The latter would otherwise never have been possible. The overarching effect of thousands (millions?) of young people going on to uni and thus realizing their potential was not only an individual win, but it profited society as a whole – think GDP. Even if Parliament and Downing St still seem to be run by public schoolboys, they are not the ones creating the wealth of the nation. The powers that be would do well to consider how much potential is lost by creating a new underclass generation – thinking again of GDP, because in the end, for those at the top, that’s the language they really ought to understand.

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    1. Thank’s so much for commenting. So many of us benefited from those grants. I would like to think it’s just short-sightedness on the part of the government to prevent those who can’t afford it from accessing higher education, but unfortunately I think it’s deliberate.

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  2. We can’t go backwards. If we could then nurses wouldn’t need degrees, policewomen would have to be 5ft 8ins, women would stay at home and look after their own children and houses would be affordable on one income.
    I just wonder who are the civil servants who don’t seem able to guide our politicians to use the taxpayers’ money efficiently – or is it the fault of ‘educators’ who have neglected to teach people to take pride in their work? Why do we always seem to make a mess of everything? Or was it ever so, and we just didn’t notice?
    Have I been alive too long?

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    1. I think it’s the fault of those in government who aren’t really interested in using tax payers money efficiently – just look how much has been wasted on dodgy covid contracts and track and trace.

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  3. As an American, I can see how we are drifting toward the nanny state. I will admit there are government programs I have used to my advantage, mainly for education (my graduate student stipend and our daughter’s college loan). But there are far too many people in the US who do and would take advantage of anything offered without actually needing it. That, and the fact our Congress people waste taxpayer money by the billions on really stupid, ridiculous things to benefit those of their constituents who donate to their re-election campaigns. This book sounds like a wake-up call on both sides of the argument.

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  4. In the UK tax fraud costs four times as much as benefit fraud – yet you’re far more likely to be prosecuted for benefit fraud. I think I’d rather that a vey few people abused the system for a very small cost, rather than people in need not get help – which is the case in the UK with people having to choose between eating and heating their homes. For me, the nanny state is wholly a good thing, and for the author too.

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