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.