John Harris

Journalist & Author

What British politicians won’t admit – we need to transform the welfare state | John Harris

Nearly 80 years on from its creation, the benefits system has been exposed by Covid to be broken beyond repair

I found an anecdote towards the end of The Road to 1945, the late historian Paul Addison’s history of how the second world war changed Britain. It centres on Winston Churchill, Ernest Bevin – then minister of labour in the wartime coalition government – and thousands of soldiers setting off to mainland Europe. In June 1944, two days before the D-day landings, Churchill and Bevin went to Portsmouth to say farewell to the troops. “They were going off to face this terrific battle,” Bevin recounted, “with great hearts and great courage. The one question they put to me when I went through their ranks was: ‘Ernie, when we have done this job for you are we going back on the dole?’… Both the prime minister and I answered: ‘No, you are not.’”

Despite the self-evident caveat that wars and pandemics are very different things, the parallels between the uneasy historical moment that story captures and the current phase of the Covid crisis are obvious. The past 12 months have seen a mixture of unprecedented deaths and huge collective sacrifice. Moreover, as the crisis has gone on, profound social questions that have been rattling around British politics for at least a decade – about poverty, inequality, work, and housing – have roared into the foreground. If some people are asking questions about a return to “normal” and the dashed hopes that would represent, that hardly seems unreasonable.

Related: The combination of Covid and class has been devastating for Britain’s poorest | Owen Jones

John Harris is a Guardian columnist

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