On Tuesday 24th May 2022, Paul Kissack delivered the 2nd Annual Archbishop of York Institute for Social Justice Lecture.
Titled ‘The Task Before Us’, in this lecture, Paul offers some thoughts on the work ahead for those pursuing social justice in Britain today. He reflects on the many calls over recent years for a new social settlement – or ‘new Beveridge’ – similar to the shaping of the post-war welfare state. In doing so he takes inspiration from Archbishop of York, William Temple’s, 1942 work, ‘Christianity and Social Order’, drawing on some of Temple’s principles for social justice and their relevance today. You can read the lecture below or listen to it as a podcast.
Paul Kissack is the Group Chief Executive of Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust (JRHT).
The Task Before Us
In February 1942, at one of the darkest moments of the Second World War, a report was published that looked ahead to the prospect of constructing a new, more just, social order in peacetime Britain. Setting out the principles which should underpin that future, the report concluded with ‘A Suggested Programme’ of action, covering education, housing, incomes, health and other areas of social policy. It ended with a rallying cry: “We cannot return to the pre-war situation… When peace returns action will be inevitable”.
The report captured the public imagination. Reprinted twice more in the following six months, it sold 140,000 copies. This was not, however, that most famous of plans for reconstruction, the government-commissioned report by Sir William Beveridge. That document would follow later, in November. This earlier report was a shorter, more personal and spiritual offering. Published as a Penguin special edition and entitled Christianity and Social Order, its author – fittingly for today – was the Archbishop of York, William Temple.
Temple was a towering figure of social reform in the interwar period. The first person to use the term ‘welfare state’ in print in 1941, he wrote Christianity and Social Order in the summer and autumn of that year. Shortly after the book’s initial publication Temple was ordained as Archbishop of Canterbury and took his social reform message to mass meetings across the land. Through this work he gained further prominence as one of the prophets of a post-war social order. But he did not live to see it, dying in 1944.
Christianity and Social Order was part of that broader ‘Beveridge moment’ which characterised the early 1940s. The present Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, has acknowledged William Temple as one of the intellectual drivers behind what became the welfare state, and has noted the wider role of the church in shaping that post-war consensus: “it is”, he has strikingly written, “probably the last really significant contribution to public life that the Church of England has made”.
The final chapter of Temple’s paper is entitled “The Task Before Us”. In that title lies a potent question for anyone interested in social justice. What is the task before us? It is a question which always takes on greater urgency at times of crisis, when old worlds seem to be in flux, and new worlds possible. The period during which Temple was working was undoubtedly such a time. Another came in the late 1970s, as the post-war consensus that Temple had helped to shape began to break down. After being out of print for many years, Christianity and Social Order was printed again in 1976 amid, as Edward Heath noted in his foreword to that edition, another period of “doubt and questioning”.
It feels to me that Britain is at a similar point of “doubt and questioning” today. Over recent years we have heard many voices – from Archbishops to retired central bankers – calling for a new social contract and a reimagining of Britain. There appears to be a profound sense that, as a nation, our collective progress has broken down. And with each new episode of political, economic or social turmoil – from Brexit, to the pandemic, to the current cost-of-living crisis – the calls for radical change grow louder.
I do not intend to use this lecture to discuss the main elements of the current malaise: that is well-trodden ground. The common features are depressingly familiar: deepening wealth inequalities; growing numbers of families in destitution; stark geographical inequalities and fracturing communities; the growth of in-work poverty; inter-generational divides; stalling life expectancy; entrenched and structural barriers based on race or disability; and alarming trends in mental health.
If what you take from this is a sense that things are moving in the wrong direction and that we have become stuck as a nation, you are not alone. Nearly two thirds of Britons believe that the UK is in decline. Astonishingly over half think today’s young people will have a worse life than their parents. The sad reality is that, unless things change, they could well be right.
It is in that context that calls for a ‘new Beveridge’ strike such a chord. There is a yearning for a fundamental resetting. I share this sense. I think a large part of the task before us is to engage in that deep and challenging work of striking a new settlement. I joined the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in part because I wanted to engage in that deeper work. And I’d like to use this lecture to offer some initial, tentative thoughts on what some aspect of that deeper resetting might involve.
But in doing so, I want to be clear that I don’t see that deeper, more radical work as an alternative to more urgent or incremental work. Indeed, I’m not sure that incremental change and radical change are opposites. We don’t have the luxury of diverting all our efforts to more speculative and longer-term change when confronted with the urgency of social injustice today. When we have families in Britain right now who cannot afford to feed their children, or clothe them adequately, who hang blankets at their windows because they cannot afford curtains, and who cannot heat their homes – we must recognise that the task before us is both deep and urgent.
And it is vital to acknowledge that we do have the ability to address quickly many of the most acute aspects of social injustice today. We saw this during the early stages of the pandemic when, almost overnight, the Government increased the basic rate of benefits for millions of families after years of real terms cuts. They chose to make use of the welfare state to relieve suffering – and it worked. Half a million people across the UK, including 200,000 children, were saved from falling into poverty. Nor should calls for reimagining our social settlement overlook the achievements of today’s public services. What they accomplish – in health, education, social and other services – is extraordinary. For millions of people every day these services are life-changing and life-saving.
In calling for a deeper reimagining, therefore, we need to be careful not to dismiss the current apparatus of welfare – our social security system, our public services – as somehow obsolete. If these things did not exist we would have to invent them. As a society we can, and often should, make different choices of how we use them: policy – even small changes in policy – can make a huge difference.
Part of the task before us today then is not to tear down the current welfare systems, or start afresh, but to redouble efforts to use them more purposefully and ethically in response to the most urgent and acute challenges we face. In that sense at least, this is – as it always is – a time for urgent and creative ‘patching’ as much as it is a time for policy ‘revolution’.
And yet, looking at the challenges we face today, I do believe we need a more fundamental shift. There is a risk that we spend too much of our energy tinkering with old industrial welfare machines, asking them to do things they will never be able to, in the face of profound new challenges. After 20 years in the civil service, this was too often how I felt.
Public services – no matter how good – simply cannot be expected to override the results of an economic model which throws up such deep inequalities as we see today. It is unfair to expect it and frankly the services were never designed to do so. Many of our welfare services were shaped to deliver time-limited help to address specific, acute needs in a period of growing, collective prosperity and improving health. Increasingly, though, the social challenges we face today are chronic in nature, requiring deeper, ongoing, relational help, not episodic interventions. It is not even clear that what we need to address some of these more chronic challenges are ‘services’ at all, but something different and more embedded in the fabric of communities.
Similarly, while there is a strong moral and economic case for making the social security system work harder, there will always be limits to what people want or will tolerate through that system. Social security policies could – and most definitely should – rapidly address destitution and deep poverty. But wider economic insecurity and inequalities will remain, unless we have a deeper shift in our economic and social settlement. Ultimately, the real prize isn’t to have welfare services that deliver more, but ones that are needed less.
The reality is that aspects of our current welfare settlement have certainly been overtaken. Economic and demographic changes – unimagined when Temple and Beveridge were working – have shifted the ground beneath our feet: from the bewildering technological changes which disrupt the organisational foundations of capitalism (and with it the meaning of work), to the transformed position of women and the vast growth in the number of older people. And then, of course, there is the most fundamental challenge of all: our growing realisation that, as a species, we are rapidly undermining the source of life on our planet. Even if our economy and society were humming along harmoniously, ‘business as usual’ would be about to run out of road.
So just as Archbishop Temple, William Beveridge and other pioneers had to reimagine the social order in their own time to reconcile society to the new industrial age, today our task is to shape another new settlement to cope with a very different era – and this time for planet as well as people.
If our task is framed as a ‘new Beveridge’, how are we to understand that idea? Popular mythology focuses on the Beveridge Report as a starting point – the beginning of a new, and very different, post-war welfare state. That makes sense in a way: after all the swathes of legislation of the 1940s certainly marked a critical departure. But, the way I read it, the Beveridge Report should be seen more as an end point than a beginning.
This was not about one man sitting down to describe a wholly new world. As the Times noted at the Report’s publication, for all its broad sweep it contained “no new departure in principle” from the development of social policy in Britain during the preceding decades. Beveridge himself described it as “a natural development from the past”, claiming his proposals sprang out of what has been accomplished in the preceding years, “in building up security piece by piece”. This was, after all, precisely what he meant by a very British ‘revolution’. And that is because the Beveridge Report came at the end of a period of extraordinary social policy development and experimentation.
The first decade or so of the twentieth century was a great turning point: from the introduction of old age pensions; to the introduction of a national health insurance scheme; to the state for the first time accepting a degree of responsibility for the challenge of unemployment (through national insurance and labour exchanges).
All of these measures were then extended and deepened in the interwar period – with the dismantling of much of the old Poor Laws, together with the arrival of the ‘dole,’ contributory state pensions, and many new local welfare services, including aid and advice on health and housing. The same period saw the establishment of the Ministry of Health, the expansion of midwifery and health visiting, free school meals and school medical inspections. It saw the first Children’s Acts, plus the reorganisation of schools, with smaller classes and raised school leaving ages. And, particularly from the 1930s, it saw the building of millions of homes such that, by the Second World War, 10% of households were council tenants, while one fifth of British manual workers owned their home or had a mortgage.
Historian David Edgerton has gone so far as to conclude that Britain “went to war in September 1939 with a welfare state already in place”. I can’t quite agree with that. Nevertheless, the picture in 1939 was undoubtedly transformed from the beginning of the century. The best recent history of social policy in Temple’s time – by York-based historian, Chris Renwick – certainly shows how the first 40 years of the century established much of the infrastructure, customs and practices of what became the post-war welfare state.
When I hear people calling for a ‘new Beveridge’, therefore, I think less about the process of sitting down to write a new detailed blueprint for change, and much more about the hard work that took place during that 40-year period leading up to 1942, in which William Temple played his full part. I find myself wondering how we might recapture some of the spirit of that time, with its sense of momentum and possibility.
This is of particular interest to me today leading a social change organisation – the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Like our founding father, we see our role as supporting and speeding up the transition to a more equitable and just future, free from poverty. There are, of course, many lessons we might draw from that earlier period of social change, but today I would like to mention just four – before moving on to consider where we might wish them to take us.
The first is the importance of insight. For those of us committed to social justice, we must constantly work to deepen our understanding and knowledge of the world before us and ask ourselves ‘what is really going on?’ The 40 years leading up to the Beveridge Report were punctuated by regular studies which shed new light on the scale and nature of poverty, challenging prevailing conceptions, disrupting lazy and prejudiced assumptions, and sharpening a humanitarian spirit.
Some of the finest examples were of course here in York, thanks to the great Seebohm Rowntree studies which bookended the period. But there were dozens more, including the Fabian Women’s Group’s famous 1913 study of life in Lambeth, Round about a Pound a Week; or Margery Spring Rice’s Working Class Wives which reset so much thinking on health care. Such studies not only shaped opinion, but often directly shaped policy. William Temple himself understood this power of insight, editing, in 1938, an influential study on the impact of unemployment: Men Without Work.
As Oxford’s ‘historian of the working class’, Selina Todd, has written, these studies also gave unemployed people “voices, histories and individuality”. And voice was a second key ingredient brewing up change. As so often, the social advancement of these years went hand in hand with greater political engagement. This was an age of organised labour – with rapid growth in union membership and, of course, the arrival of the Labour Party as a parliamentary force. The voices of the working classes were often loud and angry, and felt not just at the ballot box. This was, after all, a period of frequent mass unemployment, of protests and strikes, of hunger marches, and indeed the threat of insurrection. People didn’t wait for social change, they agitated and campaigned for it.
Responding to fresh insights and the many voices for change called forth a third critical ingredient. This was self–consciously a period of experimentation. That word crops up repeatedly in the speeches of leading politicians passing new legislation, and remains the spirit of the age in social policy. Beatrice Webb said she found it “really quite comic” that politicians suddenly engaged in a “scramble for new constructive ideas”. Practical new proposals were sought at home and abroad. The search tapped into the innovation of local government – often ahead of national government, in health services for example – and from charities and foundations, as well as trades unions and friendly societies. Indeed, part of the story of national policy development at this time was a wrestling of both ideas and power from such bodies up to the national level.
Legislation was more often born of pragmatic experimentalism than philosophy. Policy responses could be rushed and ad hoc seeking to respond to pressing challenges. The ‘dole’, for example, is often seen as being created almost inadvertently in 1921 as a panicked response in the face of mass unemployment: without it, Temple argues, it is hard to see how revolution would have been averted. This, then, was a period when people puzzled their way forward, tested and learned, building a welfare state through trial and error or, as Beveridge would say, “piece by piece”.
But there was also a fourth ingredient which was just as critical to progress. Improvised and incremental, technical and pragmatic as the process might have been, it did entail imagination and hope. Indeed, the essential fuel for the work was the ability to reimagine society. There was, in fact, a spirit of adventure to the work. Churchill, at the height of his new liberalism, talked of the state embarking on “novel and adventurous experiments”. Clement Atlee, writing in 1920 as a social worker in the east end of London, talked about “the possibilities of adventures” – for civil servants no less! Governments took bold steps into the unknown. The Old Age Pension Act of 1908 was passed by a parliament which had very little sense of what it would actually cost: the ethical imperative pierced the actuarial fog. Introducing the Bill, Lloyd George was quite clear the nation was entering unchartered waters: “You have never had a scheme of this kind tried in a great country like ours with its thronging millions, with its rooted complexities… This is… a great experiment…”.
Hope, imagination and a sense of adventure, therefore, lay beneath the practical puzzling of specific developments. And while such imagination was alive at national level, it was often most energetic at community level, amongst pioneering local authorities, charities and individuals. One of those individuals, of course, Joseph Rowntree, turned imagination into reality by building a new self-governing community at New Earswick, here in York.
This, then, was the spirit of the age which led to a reimaging of Britain a century ago: informed by fresh insights; inspired by campaigning voices; acted upon by practical women and men puzzling a way forward through new experiments; and fuelled by imagination and a sense of belief. Nobody knew what the ultimate destination would be. Those doing the work did not know whether they were patching up and sustaining an old world or ushering in something quite new. But critically, they got on with the work.
I should, of course, be careful not to romanticise this period. It was a time of deep economic fear, with an increasingly dark international context. But I cannot help but find something inspiring in its spirit of possibility, and I think we can draw useful lessons for the task before us today. Because, while I welcome calls for a new Beveridge, perhaps today we are not at a 1942 moment. Perhaps we are not ready to write a tidy new social settlement. Perhaps we haven’t done the work yet to get us there. Maybe, instead, we are closer to a 1932 moment, or 1922, still searching for the threads to pull together, feeling our way towards solutions to new challenges. Either way, we must get on with the work.
But to what end? What is the vision for a more socially just Britain to which we should work today? It is here that I must make my confession. I’m afraid I do not have a clear or detailed blueprint for a reimagined Britain. Indeed, I’m a little wary of anyone who claims they do.
One of the lessons I take from the history of Temple and Beveridge’s time, however, is that the lack of a clear sense of our destination need not prevent progress. It is critical to an understanding of their time to recognise that progress was not the result of following any clear blueprint or pursuing a single vision for a new political economy. Instead, the organic, slightly chaotic, iterative nature of the evolution of social policy was what ultimately allowed a new consensus to emerge, and helped to make it stick. While party political divides of course remained, and alternative ideas about the role of government clashed, it is telling that this was a period in which Conservative, Liberal, Labour and coalition Governments all played a part in what ended up being, to some degree, a shared endeavour.
Nevertheless, even if there was a lack of clear destination, a sense of direction was vital. And in Temple’s time much of that sense of direction in social policy sprang from a critical debate between two competing visions of the correct social order – ‘individualism’ and ‘collectivism. Indeed, much of the history of the development of the welfare state can be seen as a shift to a new reconciliation between these two concepts.
For Temple, as for his contemporaries this was a preoccupying question – confronted by the inadequacies of laissez faire individualism on the one hand and the spectre of totalitarianism on the other. It went to the heart not just of the correct social order, but to the nature of mankind. Temple writes: “It seems scarcely too much to say that neither individualism nor collectivism is compatible with a truly Christian understanding of man or of life”. In part Christianity and Social Order can be read as an attempt to resolve this dilemma, reconciling the importance of freedom and choice (which Temple saw as the first aim of social progress) with the imperatives of service and social fellowship (Temple’s two other Christian social principles). His conclusion is a fine balancing act: “the aim of a Christian social order”, he states, “is the fullest possible development of individual responsibility in the widest and deepest possible fellowship”.
During Temple’s lifetime, as the welfare state was emerging, the balance of the social order tipped gradually but clearly in a more collectivist direction. But in the last 40 years it has undoubtedly shifted decisively back towards individualism. It is the extent of this shift, I believe, that lies beneath many of our current challenges. This concern can be found at the heart of much contemporary writing and thinking about the state of Britain today, and how it might be reimagined. Such thinking – whether from the political left or the communitarian right – is often shot through with a desire to strike a new balance, searching to rediscover a more collective endeavour. And so my sense is that addressing this question may have an important role to play in unlocking a new social settlement today, just as it did for Temple.
To illustrate what I mean, let me briefly cover three areas where I believe the balance has fallen away, and we need to take action to restore it.
The first is the need to reassert the ‘common good’.
Central to Temple’s view of social justice was creating the conditions in which all people could fulfil their purpose and give expression to their personalities. That required an active collective endeavour to pool risk and spread opportunity. He called for every family to be housed with decency; every child given the opportunity to fully develop their aptitudes; every citizen secure in an income sufficient to live with dignity and raise a family. This vision of a common good also required self-discipline and self-sacrifice from individuals. While recognising the legitimacy of people serving themselves and their family, Temple asked that these narrow loyalties be balanced by wider duties to community and nation.
As we have seen, in Temple’s time, and afterwards, the state was fast growing in confidence, using new powers to provide greater collective security – through national insurance, social housing, new welfare services. After the war, this helped many realise their true potential and fostered a period of greater social mobility. But over the last 40 years that process has been put into reverse: risks that were formerly pooled by the state, the community or by employers have been pushed onto the backs of individuals. In too many ways, we have become a sink or swim society.
Deep changes have taken place in the workplace. Greater labour market flexibility has helped to deliver high levels of employment and assisted many – including women – into the workforce. But the flexible workplace has often become a less secure, more precarious place. From the declining role of trades unions, to the end of defined benefit pensions, to the advent of zero-hour contracts – over decades we have seen more risk passed onto individual workers. Meanwhile businesses and investors are encouraged to focus on short-term value for shareholders, rather than any deeper purpose or the common good of different stakeholders.
In the face of this, we need our institutions of the common good to work harder, and in more creative ways. But too often they are shrinking back. Today we live in a country where the state is at the same time over-centralised and over-mighty and yet frequently pleads its own helplessness, often leaving families to face risks alone.
For those of working age, our social security system no longer provides peace of mind about support in difficult times. We have some of the lowest rates of unemployment benefit and sickness benefit in the rich world. Today, someone on unemployment benefit receives just a seventh of the average wage – down from about a quarter around 40 years ago.
Social housing – for decades critical to a decent and secure life for millions of people – has fallen back dramatically. Since 1980 the social housing stock in England has declined by around 1.4 million homes, while in the last decade new social housing has virtually ground to a halt. Little wonder that over a million families wait on social housing lists, with more and more families pushed into the poorly regulated private rental sector. Our own analysis at JRF suggests that, even before the current cost-of-living crisis, almost a million families on low incomes in England were paying rents they couldn’t reasonably afford
Of course, we should not assume that all answers to new challenges lie with the central state. We need to devolve more power and resources to the local level. We also need more humility from government in how it works. But we do need government to be bolder and more determined to ensure these new challenges are met, including with fresh ideas and thinking.
Our social security system, in particular, will need to adapt to an ever more complex world – probably, I would argue, through principles of greater simplicity and universality. We will also need to develop new approaches to security and collective worker voice for the digital economy: again, profound challenges requiring fresh insight, experimentation and imagination.
In other areas, rediscovering the wisdom in older approaches may offer our best course. A major programme to expand the stock of social housing, for example, is urgently needed – by socialising homes in the secondary market, and by building new houses for social rent. Such a programme could be a clear statement of both our commitment to our common good but also, with the right standards, our need to meet new environmental challenges. In our own city and region here in York, it is a challenge which the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust is committed to – with our plan to build hundreds of new homes for social rent in the years ahead.
Whether through new approaches or old, we cannot turn our back on the need to reassert the common good and pool risk. Recent decades have left growing numbers in Britain in insecure work, living in insecure housing, and lacking a social security system that will properly support them through difficult times. For these people, living with constant anxiety, the individual freedom to live a purposeful life – the goal of William Temple’s social progress – can be a cruel illusion.
The second area is the need to share our ‘common wealth’.
Temple, always a pragmatist, was comfortable with property ownership, even if in Christian teaching it was a compromise with original sin. But he was also clear that wealth was “subject at all points to control in the interest of society as a whole”. Indeed, property rights he believed were created as much for the protection of the poor as for the use of the rich: it was, he claimed, a fundamental Christian principle, to ensure that “all members of the community shared in the enjoyment of some portion”.
Extraordinarily, at the beginning of the twentieth century the wealthiest 10 per cent of households owned 90 per cent of all wealth. Then, throughout the period when Temple was active, and through most of what was left of the twentieth century, wealth in Britain became more evenly shared. This progress, though, broke down from the 1980s.
Initially the effect of this breakdown on the dispersal of wealth was concealed by a continuing rising tide in home ownership. Political attention focused instead on the rise in income inequality. But from the beginning of this century the rise in home ownership stopped. Rates of owner-occupation have collapsed: there are 1.5 million fewer owner-occupying households in England today than would have been the case without that collapse. With it the soothing idea of an inclusive property-owning democracy has fallen away.
Today the top 10 per cent still hold around half of our collective wealth, while the whole of bottom half of all households hold just 9 per cent, and many families have effectively no savings at all. Meanwhile, as inherited wealth becomes a much more important factor in the resources of young people today than it was for previous generations, a society defined by what you earn is giving way to a society defined by what you – or your parents – own.
If, then, we are to avoid entrenching a new caste society, and instead spread greater security and opportunity, addressing current wealth inequalities is unavoidable. Measures to support assets amongst those with the least, including the youngest, are urgently needed – giving them a new stake in our common wealth. We must also reform the taxation of wealth – from property or pensions, for example – which currently too often reinforces the concentration of that wealth.
Meanwhile, though we certainly need to build new homes, we won’t build our way to restoring previous levels of home ownership. So we must also address the distribution of our nation’s current housing: with measures to shrink the private rental sector – which has grown by more than two and half million homes in the last 20 years – and instead support greater owner occupation.
Beyond the focus on individual and household wealth, we should also welcome a renaissance of interest in older, shared and democratic forms of wealth. Witness the growing interest in ‘Community Wealth Funds,’ ‘Community Land Trusts’, and non-standard corporate models, such as mutuals and cooperative businesses. We are also seeing fresh interest in the power – rather than the ‘tragedy’ – of the commons: an ancient approach to the collective sharing of wealth given new life in the age of the internet with its ‘knowledge commons’. All are opportunities for wealth to be broadly held, and more locally and democratically grounded.
Archbishop Temple would certainly have approved. As he reminds us, wealth is “essentially social”: people hold property “as a steward and trustee for the community” and “for the needs of the present and future generations”. If that was true in Temple’s time, it is doubly so in an age when ecological change is asking deeper questions about human stewardship of our planet.
The third and final area I would point to, is the need for us to foster a ‘common life’.
For Temple it was only in the myriad local associations – the family, the church, the trade union, the football club, the school – that freedom and individual personality became real. The social nature of people was fundamental to their being. “If you take all these social relationships away”, he claimed, “there is nothing left”. The role of the state, therefore, was to nurture and support these institutions of fellowship.
The yearning to rediscover this social fellowship is a strong theme across the political spectrum today – whether dressed in the language of ‘social fabric’, or ‘social capital’, of community paradigms, or a citizen story. They are all slightly different concepts, no doubt, but they seem to me to have at their heart the same sense that strengthened, empowered communities are vital to a reimagined Britain, and to flourishing lives.
A reinvigoration of a common life sits at the heart of political renewal. Richer relationships – nurtured by having places to meet, connect, and enjoy community engagement – correlate closely with the sort of political engagement that can spur democratic revival.
It sits, too, in how we might reimagine our approach to welfare to address those longer-term, chronic challenges we face. After all, it is in the knowledge, time and relationships of people in their communities that our greatest resource lies, and in the capacity for ordinary people doing extraordinary things together.
The common life may lie too at the heart of economic renewal. In economic textbooks, and so in politics, too often debates have been about the balance of markets or individuals on the one hand and the state on the other: the third pillar of community has often been absent. But strong social networks are not an alternative to functional markets; they are a precondition to them.
In short, investment in the social infrastructure of our common life – our parks, libraries, sports clubs, pubs, but most of all in the relationships in which human flourishing occurs – must be foundational to a reimaged Britain.
Ultimately, perhaps, this may even provide the key not just to the means but to the end of our pursuit of social justice – for as William Temple reminds us, it is in the social fellowships we form “that the real wealth of human life consists”.
Together, I think these three areas offer useful questions for us to ask ourselves as we undertake work in pursuit of social justice in Britain today. Is our work helping to reassert the common good? Is it helping to share our common wealth? Is it helping to foster a common life? If so – even if we do not know where it might ultimately take us – we should be pushing in the right direction.
To be clear, this is not an argument against individualism. We should cherish and feel grateful for our individual freedoms and rights, not least as war stalks Europe and shows us once again that such rights can never be taken for granted. Nor is it an argument against the accumulation of individual wealth. Still less is it an argument against leading a private life. I am, by nature, something of an introvert, so to be told by Archbishop Temple that my personality can only be made whole through human relations in a community is not a pleasing idea!
Instead, my plea is to embrace a more balanced, and perhaps a more complicated, view of ourselves as social beings. Clearly, in today’s politics of polarised tweets and raging tribes, the very idea of balance might seem like a tough sell. But I would argue that getting this particular balance right is central to our task.
So in concluding this evening, I want to argue that – if we are going to get there; if we are going to build this more collective endeavour – we must start telling ourselves a different story about who we really are.
The individualistic social order we live in today is propped up by many powerful stories. But I believe that two in particular have weighed heavily in the scales. I grew up with both, and they dominated much of the environment in which I helped to make policy as a civil servant. They are everywhere, and they are powerful. I hear people telling versions of each story almost every day. There is some truth in both of them. But they are, ultimately, distorting and impoverishing stories about who we are individually and collectively.
The first is the consumer story. Today we are encouraged to see ourselves first and foremost as individual consumers. The market is geared not merely to meeting our choices, but to encouraging us to demand ever more. Meeting those demands, including through economic growth, is elevated to an end in itself, the principal definition of human flourishing. And the values underpinning that process are elevated beyond the narrowly economic: we have moved from a market economy to a market society, where belief in unrestricted commerce and individual choice is raised above collective social values.
Taken to this extreme this is, of course, a narrowing and false story of what it means to be human: our infinite complexity reduced to homo economicus. It is a story which pits the interests of humans as consumers against the needs of the planet. And reduces people – collectively and individually – to a purposeless existence of short-term gratification, plagued by addictions and anxieties. Even 80 years ago, Temple was alive to this risk: “Nothing is so futile as the unhampered satisfaction of sporadic impulses”, he claimed “that is the sort of existence which leads through boredom to suicide. Freedom so far as is it a treasure must be freedom for something as well as freedom from something. It must be the actual ability to form and carry out a purpose”.
Which leads to a second story we tell ourselves today – the story of meritocracy. Encouraging individuals to shape a purposeful and meritorious life is a good thing. Indeed, it sits at the heart of Temple’s conception of freedom – to live a life of “self-direction”. But in our current conception we have distorted this into a troubling and misleading story.
Today we are encouraged to see ourselves as individual makers of our own destinies – the heroes of our own life stories. In a very practical sense, in twenty-first century Britain, this is often quite false. In a society where educational gaps track deep disparities in wealth, and where those in positions of privilege hoard opportunities, it is quite wrong to assume people end up where their intrinsic ‘merits’ should take them. In any case the accumulation of ‘merit’ is not just a product of individual agency: we are all instead shaped by the lottery of our birth and the circumstances of our upbringing. As Temple observed, “each individual is born into a family and a nation. In his maturity he is very largely what these have made him”.
The meritocratic story also has invidious consequences. If we are encouraged to believe we arrive at our lot in life principally as a result of our own individual actions and merits, then it follows that we somehow ‘deserve’ that lot. For those whose particular merits happen to be valued highly by society this can breed a sense of entitlement and hubris. It can erode their feelings of solidarity and mutual obligation to those deemed less ‘deserving’, breeding resentment on both sides. And so the meritocratic story pushes against the idea of the esteem and dignity of all: it masks what Temple’s great friend RH Tawney described as “the supreme value of every personality” and “the belief that every human being is of infinite importance”.
My appeal is, once again, for balance. I like being a consumer. I like individual choice. But, like others, I want a more shared and purposeful life than the mere satisfaction of my passing day-to-day wants. Similarly, I relish my sense of agency and my ability to determine my own life course. But I should never begin to believe I ‘deserve’ whatever success I might enjoy. Like everyone else, I am the product of the accident of my birth, the collective endeavour of the community which raised me, and of what some would call sheer luck and others would call the ‘grace of God’.
Justin Welby has written that reimagining Britain “requires re-finding the deep stories that survive short-term ups and downs”. This rings true to me. I believe that to reimagine our social settlement in Britain today, we need to embrace a deeper and more complicated story about who we really are. A story which sees us not merely as consumers, or as the all-powerful agents of our own individual destinies, but as infinitely more interesting beings.
Embracing that story is at the very heart of Temple’s Christianity and Social Order. He is, he claims, concerned with “men as they are, not as they ought to be” – not perfectly good, but not utterly bad either. For him, mankind is a complex, contradictory creature: self-serving, and yet incurably social; capable of extreme acts of selfishness and also of bountiful acts of generosity, self-sacrifice and solidarity.
If the idea of embracing this more complex story about ourselves sounds fanciful or even nostalgic, I do not believe it is. A yearning for a more collective endeavour is always just below the surface. And we have seen that these last two years: for all its miseries, Covid has undoubtedly helped us catch glimpses of a different story.
Every day, for weeks or months on end, sacrifices were made by individuals and families up and down the land, in recognition of the greater, common good. Workers previously dismissed as ‘low skill’ – care workers, delivery drivers, supermarket workers – were suddenly afforded new esteem and dignity as the heroes on the frontline.
Meanwhile, the UK’s governing regime, which had spent years, even decades, proclaiming its own impotence before the laws of the market, adopted a ‘whatever it takes’ approach in service to the common good.
It was also often at the local level – in the common lives of neighbours – that the collective spirit became evident. Local infrastructure developed quickly and spontaneously, bringing communities together, distributing food, providing help and support. Polls showed a sharp rise in indicators of community strength, often after many years of decline.
Momentarily we told ourselves a different, deeper story of who we are. We were cast in a new role, and we played our part fully. Because it was in our nature to do so. As Archbishop Temple reminds us: “man is self-centred; but he always carries with him abundant proof that this is not the real truth of his nature”.
So, as we approach the task before us – with ambition and imagination – let us tell ourselves that different story.