Book Review: The Nanny State Made Me

I received Stuart Maconie‘s The Nanny State Made Me as a birthday present back in September (thanks, Tracy!) and, of course, it therefore jumped to the top of my reading list not least owing to the title.

Part-autobiography, part-paean to Stuart’s own upbringing and development within the arms of the Welfare State, this was written during 2019 and published, following a revision which took account of the results of the general election (the anniversary of which is of course a year ago next week), in early March. This was, quite clearly, an inauspicious time to be publishing a book about public policy; Covid-19, like the internet, having changed everything.

Following introductory chapters setting out the remarkable immediate post-War timing of the introduction of the Welfare State, and the sustained attacks on it during the Thatcherite years in which we have been living since 1979, each chapter then takes young Stuart through a stage of his life through birth (in 1961, in an NHS hospital), early education and teenage years to the worlds of work and the dole queue, housing, public transport, and BBC and the media; before, eventually, winding up with a few thoughts on getting back what we have lost.

Fans of Maconie’s work (and I am one, as my book-giver clearly also knows!) know what to expect: wry observation drawn from contemporary interviews illustrating his theme; a sprinkling of sharp epigrams drawing attention to the absurd (Maconie continues to have a sharp eye for a well-turned phrase); and a clear and engaging writing style mixing a patient, but quizzically frustrated, tone with occasional righteous anger at the absurdities of modern day living. Describing him as a ‘man of the people’ sounds somewhat pejorative, but Maconie is clearly interested in people and the combination of that and the ability to translate such interest into warm, affectionate writing detailing (or referencing) brief encounters and events, some contemporary, some historic, makes him always worth reading (or listening to, as his BBC 6Music shows also prove).

On top of that, there is also a very touching dedication which says a lot more – about theme and about author – than its 19 words allow; while it commences with a lovely anecdote involving a landmark famous on the London skyline, Tony Benn and an anonymous operative of a long-privatised business. And there is the – by now obligatory – puntastic title whose phrasing is capable of a dual meaning while also being inspired, at a deeper level, by the honourable member for the 18th century.

There is, of course, a lot to be angry about when it comes to what has happened to our public services in this now 40-year experiment of privatisation and liberalisation. The NHS is still – just about, perhaps – hanging together but public transport is a disaster and the nonsensities of trying to introduce competition into the supply of essential services like energy has been, at best, a failure and at worst, a scandalous scheme under which the public has been ripped off with a deliberate view to the enrichment of those few who are already well-off. The current controversy over NHS data contracts being sold to Peter Thiel, the shadowy billionaire behind the Cambridge Analytica data mining operation, and over the cronyism with which this government views its public service obligations during the current crisis, add to the frustration – as well they ought. Some of this is quite familiar – albeit that the decades-long failure to do much if anything about it means that to repeat the message is not, by definition, over-stating it. In particular, it is ground well-trodden in James Meek’s London Review of Books essays collected together in Private Island. Maconie’s quotes from this make me realise that this has also languished, in its 2015 (though still current) edition, too long on my to-read shelf.

What underpins the arena of Maconie’s theme is the growth of inequality in the UK. The post-war welfare state was, ultimately, inspired by the need to deliver a more equal society in which the resources of the state would be invested deliberately and practically to address sources of inequality. Any attack on the welfare state can thus be read quite easily – whatever mealy-mouthed arguments made on behalf of doing so by whichever vested interest is mounting them – as an attempt to undermine the perception of that need and, thereby, the goal of reducing inequality itself. It is clear from a look at the Gini coefficient (a flawed, perhaps, but clear yardstick against which a state’s progress in overcoming, or otherwise, inequality can readily be measured) that the UK has become a much more unequal society in these years. The bulk of that growth occurred the 1980s while little has happened in the last thirty post-Thatcher years to address that: the coefficient has, with some volatility as a result of some of the recent circumstances of our times, bumped around the same level ever since. This includes during Labour governments which, despite the good things that they did do, failed to address the growth in inequalities that the welfare state was set up to deal with and which had risen so sharply during the years of Thatcher:

Indexed series; 1997=100. Break in series in 2001. Source: Office for National Statistics

In this context, the arguments made by leading Brexiteers on the far right of the Tory Party of the opportunity which Brexit gives (and which indeed drove Brexit) to ‘complete the Thatcher revolution‘ need careful attention since they clearly herald a further rise in inequality.

The earlier, more autobiographical chapters of Maconie’s book work rather better than the later ones. In particular, chapter 2 on schooling, in which Maconie’s arguments on behalf of comprehensive education shine with undimmed passion (I write as a grammar school boy who did actually benefit from the social mobility arguments – though of course exceptions don’t prove the rule), is a marvellously sustained piece of writing. The later chapters suffer, in a lengthy section on the BBC by appearing a little defensive (and there’s a lot to defend, I know); as well as in arguments for the nationalisation of the internet appearing a little illiberal (and, also, would you really want a crony appointee of this government in charge of erecting garden walls around your internet? Better to regulate the abuses/abusers, I think – and there are many of both – and to break up the over-mighty and the anti-democratic among the giants of those that have exploited the ‘net. That quite clearly encompasses Amazon, Google and Facebook. For that, of course, we need a stronger hand than ‘global Britain’ alone.)

In particular, I feel he pulls his punches in the final chapter which sets out the ‘how to save it’ mission described on the cover but which is, unfortunately, episodic and indeed a little unformed. There are some useful conversations around the Norwegian example; and the references to the extraordinariness of ordinary, heroic people are timely (even if our essentially conservative nature and belief in sweet moderation means we keep on electing Conservative governments whose wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing disguise proves of apparently perennial value). But, aside from a call to ‘bring the Nanny State back’, just precisely how to do that proves a rather elusive target around which Stuart boxes well but on the practicalities of which he never really lays a glove.

Those farther to the left will identify a possible reason for this; while, as I said at the outset, this also reflects a timing problem of publication and deadlines: Covid-19 has laid bare that the priorities of the governments we elect, in what they choose to do in office, are very much a matter of choice – and especially at a time when interest rates are low enough to mean that borrowing money is not only extremely cheap but actually financially attractive. In this way, the rather public noise over the economic illiteracy of ‘maxing out the credit card’ – Thatcher’s Grantham grocer-shop ‘economics’ written for the 21st century – is a very welcome add to the public debate.

In short, the practicalities behind Maconie’s desire to bring back the Nanny State – kicking out the private sector from the NHS; achieving a comprehensive nature to the education system; restoring democratic power to local councils, not least as regards the building of homes; ending the farce and rip-off pricing of bus and rail privatisation; putting control of energy supply back in the hands of the nation as opposed to abiding by a figleaf of market economics (not least with green, sustainability goals in mind – this week’s collapse of BiFab proves that green jobs need to be worked for); and freeing the BBC from the straitjacket of the much-abused concept of ‘impartiality’ to abide by its Reithian objectives of public entertainment and education – are now more, perhaps oddly, a little visible than they were when he was finalising his draft. Maconie hints – strongly, even – at all this, but is missing a few of the ‘action words’ set out above.

If we can have the vision to develop a Welfare State in the midst of a war; what might we do now to develop that vision to restore it in the middle of a pandemic? If the country is to emerge from its mishandling by the over-promoted bunglers we’ve placed in charge, that manifesto needs to be put in place now. In retrospect therefore, this is something of a missed opportunity for Maconie to be this generation’s Beveridge – but, on the other hand, I might, therefore, look forward to a 2021 edition with a re-written final chapter which identifies the ‘how’ a little more explicitly. If the pandemic has been good for anything, it is at least that it has facilitated the ground for such thinking.

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