Just now I am reading the first part of Alan Johnson’s biography “This Boy”. It tells the story of his upbringing in a deprived part of London in the 1950s and early 1960s. This is Alan Johnson MP, the former Labour Cabinet Minister, dubbed by some “the best Labour Prime minister we never had.” I have previously read part 2 about his years as a postie and thought I would like to read the story from the start.
It’s a truly moving account of a poverty stricken childhood in a family deserted by the father, with a mother afflicted by a terminal illness and the upbringing of a small boy the responsibility of his older sister. That may not sell it to you as bed time reading, but it is a great read. His district of London, now fashionable, was in the 50s typified by run down indeed unfit houses and flats with the ravages of the Blitz still apparent, even 10 or 15 years after the end of the war.
A reflection he offers more than once in the book is on the position he and his mother and sister would have been in had they been living in the decade before the welfare state came into being in the late 1940s, rather than in the decade after. The NHS in particular plays a central role in his story.
At one point the book makes reference to the Beveridge Report that gave rise to the NHS, the benefits system and so on. Published in 1944, before the end of the war, the report published under the name of William Beveridge, a Liberal politician and academic, established the modern welfare state. This was in response to the need to tackle what Beveridge called the five “giant evils”. Squalor, ignorance, want, idleness, and disease. Squalor relates to housing, ignorance to poor education, want to financial wellbeing and need, idleness to unemployment and disease to sickness and ill health.
All of these giants impacted on substantial sections of society in the UK, afflicting the lives of millions and well documented in Alan Johnson’s personal story.
This reference to Beveridge started me thinking about modern Britain and the extent to which we have managed to rid ourselves of the five giants through 60 years of endeavour.
In a country troubled by poor but expensive accommodation in short supply, with too many folk reliant on food banks and a changing benefits system, and in which the prospects of our young people seem limited, perhaps our world, although greatly improved in so many ways, has its own version of the post war challenges?