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Guardians in the mists of time

“For God’s sakes, what’s wrong with you? Venal and evil men are destroying the world you were born in. Can’t you understand that? Why do I see fear in your face?”

That line is spoken by the ghost of a Confederate general in James Lee Burke’s ‘In The Electric Mist With The Confederate Dead.’ It’s a book worth reading, if you like violent crime thrillers with a strong sense of place that are written by frustrated poets, and the film is worth two hours on the sofa with a bag of a nuts and a couple of cold beers, even if John Goodman’s acting has, as Burke would put it, all the depth of a pie dish.

It’s a meditation, as a book, on the idea that all it takes for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing, which is not exactly a new idea, in crime fiction or in politics.

It provoked in me the memory that, as a principle of studying history, I decided, a long while ago, that if I did not understand why people did something, in the past, it might be because I did not understand them, or because I did not have enough evidence, but that it was my job to fill the gaps in my understanding and knowledge.

On one of the central political issues of our time, I failed that test, and it took the Scottish devolution debate and a straight to DVD (in the US) movie of a book I once enjoyed to make me realise it.

Back in the Blair years there was an argument against the then prevailing NHS structure that said, in short, that a centralized, centrally administered NHS was a bad thing, and only came about because mid twentieth century social democrats didn’t know any better. It was preferable by far, apparently, to move to a structure of trusts and local bodies that could better serve the areas they were based in.

It was all pervasive and also, to be blunt, it was hogwash.

The devolution debate in Scotland seemed simple until you think about the issues of risk that Gordon Brown discussed at length in his book on the Scottish situation.

Devolving the power to tax and spend seems obvious, until you consider the reality of what devolution means

Here’s a question. If you had the money, would you pay your neighbour’s rent if they were unable to?

It’s a serious question.

The notion of a welfare state is predicated on a shared commitment to pool taxes and redistribute them, to fund all the agreed commitments of the state. Devolving the power to decide on welfare spending is irrelevant if there is no funding for such a power. I would like to pay my neighbour’s rent, but I don’t have the money. Now imagine devolved administrations required to fund welfare payments from within their own resources. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it. Look at what’s happened to housing benefit over the last four years. Look at the way in which local authorities have sought to cut the amounts they have to pay in housing benefit as the responsibility for managing the cost has been shipped onto them by government.

As I pondered Brown’s heavy, hard working but hard work to read history of one kind of Scottishness, pressed into political service like an unwilling conscript trudging towards the sound of the guns, I thought about the welfare state in those terms, as a pooling of risk in the face of challenges, and a thought at the back of my brain summoned Nye Bevan, and his first Parliamentary battle, acted out in his maiden speech.

One of the principal reforms of the 1834 Poor Law was the grouping of parishes (who were responsible for the relief of the poor) into Unions which shared the costs of managing the system and providing the workhouses that the new law required. Even so, the Unions struggled to fund the cost of maintaining the poor from the local rates; by the 1920s the Board of Guardians in the Bedwellty Union, which covered Bevan’s beloved Tredegar, struggled to cover the costs of supporting the people of the mining communities of Western Monmouthshire, and had to apply for loans from the Dept of Health, which had to be re-paid out of the same rates as would have to finance future current payments. Moreover, Board of Guardians who could not make their books balance, or who refused to apply the sanctions and disqualifications government required, would be replaced by commissioners, who would apply the rules and set the rates strictly in accordance with the government’s rules. The circumstances were beyond their control, and yet they were expected to manage the consequences; here is Bevan from that first speech;

What hon. Members opposite really want is that private enterprise shall set up new industries where it likes in any part of the country, and that the poor people shall migrate to those industries, and have to put up with the bad housing conditions that would exist. What is happening now ? There is a drift of industries towards the south, and new industries are  springing up all over the place. From South Wales there is a migration of workers to those industries. The heavy overhead charges of South Wales still have to be carried, and the high rates and all the standing charges have to be carried by a declining industry.

Gordon Brown’s stolid chapters and leaden prose make the same point, over a couple of hundred pages, that Bevan made in an off the cuff paragraph.

In his speech launching the Health Bill that made real the NHS Bevan said, in 1946,

“if it be our contract with the British people, if it be our intention that we should universalise the best, that we shall promise every citizen in this country the same standard of service, how can that be articulated through a rate-borne institution which means that the poor authority will not be able to carry out the same thing at all? It means that once more we shall be faced with all kinds of anomalies, just in those areas where hospital facilities are most needed, and in those very conditions where the mass of the poor people will be unable to find the finance to supply the hospitals. Therefore, for reasons which must be obvious —because the local authorities are too small, because their financial capacities are unevenly distributed… so I decided that the only thingto do was to create an entirely new hospital service, to take over the voluntary hospitals, and to take over the local government hospitals and to organise them as a single hospital service. “

Far from the national character of the NHS being a political eccentricity that we should look back on with a mixture of pity and condescension, it was a rational and wise response to the experiences that formed and shaped Bevan, and which still persist today.

However, if we apply the same assumption of rationality to Conservatives as I seek to apply to Bevan, how do we explain the disaggregation of the NHS, the willingness to devolve welfare, the increasing use of sanctions and test work for the unemployed?

Out of the mists the General’s words speak to me; venal and evil men are destroying the welfare state I was born in.To paraphrase Bevan, quite the worst thing that can be said about democracy is that it has tolerated this government for far too long, but to anyone who thinks that the devolution of responsibility for welfare from this government is a good thing, I say think again, for you might find yourself in the mists with the Bedwellty Board of Guardians, unable to balance the books and condemned to do government’s bidding.

The Bedwellty Guardians were, in the 1920s, replaced by commissioners appointed by government, who were directed by the Department of Health. Good intentions were not enough.Here’s Bevan again.

The Chairman of the present commissioners is a member of the Abergavenny Board of Guardians, and we are told by the Monmouthshire County Council that, where he has a free hand as an elected guardian, his administration is reasonable and humane, but, as chairman of the commissioners, he has had a reputation of being more barbarous than any other administrator ever known in that district. Why? Why is it that one man as an elected representative of one board of guardians is considered to be humane, and yet when he is under the supervision of and appointed by the Tory Government he introduces administration which is admitted to be barbarous in the extreme?

What could be more barbarous than a devolved administration, fenced about by a lack of resources and a dependence on finance from elsewhere, imposing cuts on its own people?

Anyone noticed the state of the Welsh NHS recently?



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This entry was posted on September 26, 2014 by in Uncategorized.

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