Government and Institutions

“A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After Covid” by Lord Hennessy: a preview of a review

Lord Hennessy is a historian who has recently been making some waves with his radio appearance on “Partygate” and the Prime Minister. He believes that “we’re in the most severe constitutional crisis involving a Prime Minister that I can remember”. Boris Johnson’s decision not to resign showed “complete and utter disdain for the decency of our constitutional conventions”. He said: “The Queen’s First Minister is now beyond doubt a rogue Prime Minister, unworthy of her, her Parliament, her people, and her kingdom. I cannot remember a day when I have been more fearful for the well-being of the constitution”. Strong stuff indeed.

Peter Hennessy is a former journalist, who has also been a Professor at Queen Mary, University of London, for many years. He has written some notable books on British history and politics: I particularly enjoyed his Whitehall, which explains in detail how the Civil Service works, and Having it So Good: Britain in the Fifties, which recalls the Britain of his childhood (and mine). I am, however, far less impressed by his latest book A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After Covid, which I am currently reviewing for our journal Economic Affairs.

It is a rather slight book, written (apparently in fountain pen, bizarrely) in a hurry under the shadow of the pandemic. It now already seems dated. Briefly, Lord Hennessy believes that the experience of Covid-19 brought us all together rather as the Second World War brought us together, with a renewed sense of the ‘duty of care’ we all owe to each other. We must build on this feeling for the future.

The first part of the book (“The Road from 1945”) recalls the reforming government of the late 1940s which in Hennessy’s view built the modern Welfare State and what he sees as its supreme achievement, the National Health Service. His hero is William Beveridge, and he wants to see a renewed attack on Beveridge’s famous giants of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.

Although much has changed for the better since the 1940s, Thatcherism and the thirty years since have in his view undermined progress towards the elimination of poverty and injustice. The position was dramatically worsened by Brexit, which he sees as hugely harmful to Britain. And even before Lord Hennessy could have been aware of the full horror of wine and cheese in the Downing Street garden, Boris Johnson is slated for turning his back on consensus and instead pushing ahead with a divisive break with Europe which now threatens the breakup of the UK.

Lord Hennessy has a rosy view of the European Union. He also has a rosy view of the achievements of the 1940s Attlee Government and in particular of the creation of the NHS. We need a “new Beveridge” to put us right and lead us on the “Road to 2045”, but his plan for the future is vague. He wants more money (of course) for the health service, more social housing, more investment. He is committed, though barely mentions it, to Net Zero. He reluctantly rejects a Universal Basic Income as too expensive, but has words of praise for, though no proper analysis of, the scheme of Universal Basic Services proposed by a team at University College London. This would extend the idea of ‘free’ health care to ‘free’ higher education, housing, transport, internet access and, partially, food.

He has, however, little to say on how the economy can be boosted so that we can afford all this. Skills need to be improved, as every government has wished for in my lifetime. Innovation needs to be encouraged. There are three pages of unexceptionable stuff on Artificial Intelligence, which is said to have the potential for massive productivity improvement. That’s about it.

The epilogue to the book is headed “Wouldn’t it be Nice?”, speaking of a potential decade of “real, shared accomplishment that can only come with a high level of consensus… a question of spirit that casts aside pessimism and invigorates ‘recovery Britain’ and the kingdom to come”.

Although it claims to look to the future, this book reeks of nostalgia. Lord Hennessy does not confront the failings of the NHS and the wider welfare state. He has little to say that will help us to devise sounder economic policy. He says nothing at all about the profound changes in our society which have been created by mass immigration and the cultural shifts it has enabled, as a result of which the prospect of restoring consensus and the idea of a shared duty of care which may (or may not) have characterised the immediate postwar years seem remote.

He exaggerates the lasting significance of Covid, which for many of us now seems like a curious dream from which we have woken, but doesn’t cover the predictable economic consequences which we are now experiencing. Of course he couldn’t have anticipated the Ukraine crisis, but this too has brought changes such as increased defence spending and has shifted thinking about the state and nationalism in a very few short weeks.

Even Lord Hennessy’s historical judgment (and he repeats “in my judgement” many, many times in this book) looks rather flawed. William Beveridge was undoubtedly a significant figure, but he may not be much of a guide to the kind of future Hennessy wants to see. Beveridge was very much an old-fashioned liberal. He always wanted an insurance-based system, where individuals were encouraged to take responsibility for themselves, and not a massively redistributive one. By the end of his life (he died in the 1960s) he thought the state had grown far too large. He also had some wacky ideas about eugenics which would not go down well with today’s Guardianistas.

In any case I have long thought that the true creator of the Welfare State (a term which Beveridge abhorred, incidentally) was David Lloyd George. As Chancellor of the Exchequer before the First World War he pioneered Old Age Pensions and National Insurance, and as Prime Minister of the Coalition Government until 1922 he extended the franchise and raised the school leaving age, subsidised local authority housing, and introduced compensation for industrial injuries. After leaving office he teamed up with Keynes to promote public works as a cure for unemployment in the 1930s.

Beveridge was a man who took cold baths before doing two hours work before breakfast and then worked throughout the day and into the night (much to the disgust of Harold Wilson, who worked for him for a while). He had few outside interests and a childless marriage. Perhaps his austerity and personal integrity appeals to Lord Hennessy.

Lloyd George, however, was an altogether dodgier character: a political operator through and through, and a non-consensual Chancellor who created a huge constitutional crisis with his ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909. He was a Lothario who couldn’t see an attractive woman without making a play, who exploited his first wife and chief mistress (later his second wife), neglected his legitimate children and sired several illegitimate ones. He was crooked: in the 1912 Marconi scandal he made money through insider dealing, and after the First War he more or less openly sold honours to build up his own political slush fund.

But, in addition to his substantial domestic achievements, he was also a great War leader.

If Lord Hennessy gets this excited about “Partygate”, let’s just be thankful he wasn’t around in Lloyd George’s time.


Editorial and Research Fellow

Len Shackleton is an Editorial and Research Fellow at the IEA and Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He was previously Dean of the Royal Docks Business School at the University of East London and prior to that was Dean of the Westminster Business School. He has also taught at Queen Mary, University of London and worked as an economist in the Civil Service. His research interests are primarily in the economics of labour markets. He has worked with many think tanks, most closely with the Institute of Economic Affairs, where he is an Economics Fellow. He edits the journal Economic Affairs, which is co-published by the IEA and the University of Buckingham.

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