When I was a child, in the Fifties, there was free orange juice and school milk, you didn’t pay for dental treatment or glasses (though you did if you wanted nice frames instead of the pink or blue plastic National Health ones), prescriptions didn’t cost anything and students got grants to go to university. There was lots of council housing – even if some of it was prefabs – and I think I’m right in saying that fares weren’t such a huge bite of people’s income as they are now. Postage certainly wasn’t something you’d think twice about. The Post Office and the railways were nationalised, like gas and electricity, and before Dr Beeching came along in the early Sixties you could go almost anywhere by train. There were plenty of police stations and policemen on the beat, and you rarely saw a beggar. Prime Minister Macmillan, who always reminded me of a Scottie dog, kept saying, “You’ve never had it so good.” I was too young to understand what he meant, but I knew that for some reason my parents (who I later learned had far-left sympathies) didn’t like it.
I was bemoaning the current state of this country the other day with a friend of a similar age and she said, “Of course you mustn’t forget that as you get older there’s always a tendency to think things were better back then.” My immediate response was, “But they were,” as I thought of all the depredations inflicted on the Welfare State by Thatcher and her disciples Blair and Cameron. (Yes, I do mean Blair.) When I think back to the Fifties, though, the picture is far less simple. Society may have become more egalitarian in the Sixties, but in my south London suburban primary school the divisions according to class and income couldn’t have been clearer. Children like me from owner-occupied homes, whose fathers had a profession rather than a job, were more likely to be put in the top stream and then to pass the eleven-plus. This meant they went on to grammar schools, or if they did especially well they might get a scholarship to a fee-paying school. Children who didn’t pass the eleven-plus went to the Secondary Modern, which meant they stood little chance of going to university or even getting more than a couple of O-levels. Far fewer people went to university then – polytechnics didn’t really count – and most subjects were unremittingly academic. In ‘good’ schools anything creative or practical tended to be marginalised, giving people who weren’t up to the mark academically the message that they were already second-class citizens. Michael Gove has his precedent in this not so good aspect of the good old days.
The children who went to the Secondary Modern were more likely to come from the council houses – which were still roomy and solid, by today’s standards, though not as pretty as the private ones – and to have fathers who worked locally, perhaps even mothers who worked as well, which mothers didn’t do unless they had to. I can remember some children in my class whose clothes were definitely older and more worn than the rest, and one or two who gobbled up not only their own – to me – disgusting school dinners but other people’s leftovers too, because they didn’t get enough to eat at home. One of these was a girl from a big family, whose mother worked as a lollipop lady. I suspect now that she had to look after her younger siblings, while at the same time trying desperately hard to pass the eleven-plus and get a good education. She didn’t make it, but people said there was a chance of transferring to a grammar school later if she did well enough. I don’t know if she did, but even then it didn’t seem fair that with all her hard work she shouldn’t get the opportunity, especially when people from my sort of background might swan through the exam with comparative ease.
If someone complained, “It’s not fair,” teachers at school were quick to say, “Life isn’t fair,” implying you should jolly well put up with it. It was never a popular doctrine. Most of us had a basic sense that things should be as fair as possible, not just for ourselves but for everyone. And in the Fifties and Sixties there was at least some sort of commitment to the idea that inequalities could be minimised, income differentials to some extent levelled out, opportunities made available to more of the population. Comprehensive schools, the CSE (forerunner of the GCSE) and the ‘new universities’ were part of this, as was the ongoing commitment to the Welfare State by governments on the Right as well as the Left. I was shocked recently to read the following quotation from a speech by President Eisenhower in 1954: “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of the party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things… Their number is negligible and they are stupid.” That was America and Eisenhower was a Republican; in this country you might well have heard something similar from some who called themselves Conservatives. It shows with appalling clarity just how far the whole political spectrum has moved to the right since that time.
I’m tempted to follow this with a rant about Thatcherism, adding my voice to the thousands who still deplore the way that in the Eighties she dismantled so much that held our society together – not that she believed in society, of course. The consequence, inevitably, was that the rich started getting richer again and the poor poorer. Taxes were lowered for those who had most, so that they could have even more, and at the other end of the scale people became homeless and beggars appeared on the street. The Seventies had been a troubled decade and many people thought Thatcher’s kind of leadership was just what we needed. And wasn’t it great to be able to buy your council house? At least it was until your son or daughter had no prospect of owning a house and no opportunity to get on the council list.
I won’t go on, though I could. I’ve already nailed my colours to the mast as an Old Labour socialist who doesn’t swallow the idea that people should stand or fall solely by the operation of the free market. That’s all very well for those at the top of the tree – who have usually had more help than they like to admit in getting there – but in what sense is it fair and equitable, in a society that has so much, for increasing numbers of people to be unable to afford to feed their families? Though I was shocked by the quotation from Eisenhower, I was even more shocked to hear Camila Batmanghelidjh say that many of the children who now come to her charity, Kids Company, are not distressed or in trouble but simply don’t have enough to eat. If Cameron is hoping that private philanthropy or voluntary organisations, as opposed to the state, will pick up the tab, the plain fact is that in a lot of cases they don’t and can’t.
That was a rant and I’m not going to delete it. I know there are plenty of arguments against state interference, and few of us would want to go back to the kind of ‘we know what’s best for you’ paternalism that delivered the benefits of the Welfare State in the Fifties. But surely that doesn’t mean successive governments have to abdicate greater and greater amounts of responsibility for the necessities that should be available to us all. Instead of bending over backwards to keep visible taxes as low as possible (they don’t talk about all the hidden taxation), why not raise taxes and provide better services? It wouldn’t cost people any more in the long run, if we’re already having to pay increasing amounts for the dwindling services that are still available.
There – I’ve had my say. What it comes down to is that for me it isn’t right – it isn’t fair – for a small percentage of the population to own so much of the country’s wealth, while those at the other end of the scale struggle to afford even the basics of life. We are all human beings and fundamentally we all need the same things, and I believe that it’s up to the state, in an appropriate way, to take some responsibility for providing them. I don’t like the way we are going, and yes, I do think that in those respects things were better when I was young.