If the COVID-19 crisis has taught us anything it is the life-saving difference between good and bad government, and why the foundation of a successful society is well-funded and universal public services. This, of course, shouldn’t have needed reaffirming. As Stuart Maconie points out in ‘The Nanny State Made Me’, a book that is both wonderfully entertaining and annotate-every-page informative, “[t]he people who complain about the ‘nanny state’ are the people who had nannies”. Nevertheless, in most parts of the western world the public sector has been on the receiving end of a forty year battering. Let’s hope renewed popular appreciation of public services will stimulate a revival.
Stuart Maconie was “the 8,047,970th baby born into the [British] National Health Service” and grew up in a house rented from the council. Like every British person lucky enough to have been born between the 1940s and early 1970s, he benefited not only from the public provision of free universal healthcare and good quality, affordable housing, but also well-stocked public libraries, public parks and leisure facilities, free education, affordable public transport, designed to serve whole communities not just the most profitable routes, and a further plethora of public utilities encompassing water, energy, and telecommunications.
The experience was similar across most European countries and while revisionist right-wing historians and politicians paint this as a dark age, but Maconie hits back with the evidence that the short era of post-war social-democratic consensus brought the most sustained period of social and economic progress in human history. Indeed, economist Tim Jackson ranks 1976 as the peak year in his ‘Measure of Domestic Progress’. The New Economics Foundation concurs that 1976 was the best year in modern British history for overall economic, social and environmental well-being. 1976 was also the year in which the UK achieved its highest recorded annual economic growth rate, clocking in at a whopping 7.3%.
Indeed, in putting forward his ‘The Nanny State Made Me’ thesis, Maconie reveals that just about the only thing that he really valued as a child that was not publicly provided was television. This is somewhat ironic given that the author is now employed by the BBC, but as he explains: “The reason that Lancashire, Merseyside, Cheshire and bits of Cumbria were not dutifully devoted to the BBC was because we had the greatest regional TV franchise in the world [Granada TV], just of Deansgate [Manchester]. Even as children, this became clear to us the first time we venutred to Somerset, Devon and Norfolk for holidays. It was a chastening, salutary experience for a child of Granadaland..We had Coronation Street, World in Action, So It Goes, The Cuckoo Waltz, A Family at War, Brass, The Krypton Factor, University Challenge, Seven Up!, Brideshead Revisited and more and more and more. They had Gus Honeybun and Sale of the Century. How long the nights must have seemed in Barnstaple.”
In adulthood, Maconie became a top music journalist and broadcaster and thus it is no surprise that while he sprinkles ‘The Nanny State Made Me’ with useful statistics, he prefers to tell the story through interview and anecdote with musicians. Thus we have Half Man Half Biscuit’s Nigel Blackwell reading from the commemorative booklet for the 1847 opening of Birkenhead Park: “Look at these events – they are, by any measure, remarkable: ‘A Grinning Match Through Six Horse Collars’; ‘A Bell Race For A Hat’; ‘A Foot Race For Women Of All Ages’; ‘A Blindfolded Wheelbarrow Race’..This was the first park anywhere in the world by and for the people. It wasn’t some rich guy’s private pleasure ground that we plebs were allowed to use. This has never been privately owned. It was made with public money for the people of Birkenhead and we are very proud of that.” Or Nicky Wire, whose band, The Manic Street Preachers, sang that “libraries gave us power” explaining that “[o]ne of the most amazing things about public libraries remains their utter classlessness”.
The theory that public services should be so good that everyone wants to use them comes across most strongly when Maconie recounts Nye Bevan’s vision to reinvent housing in post-war Britain. Bevan is (rightly) remembered as the architect of the National Health Service (NHS), but at the same time as he was fighting the opposition of doctors leaders and Churchill’s Conservative Party to introduce universal free healthcare, he was simultaneously minster for housing responsible for rebuilding after Luftwaffe bombing.
The council houses that Bevan built weren’t just thrown up to get people off the streets, but well constructed and big, with three or four bedrooms, two toilets and gardens – a huge improvement for the vast majority of the population at that time. Nor was council housing designed to be homes of last resort – quite the contrary. Explaining his approach to the House of Commons in 1949, Bevan passionately argued that:
“These new estates should not just be for the poor. It is entirely undesirable that on modern housing estates only one type of citizen should live. If we are to enable citizens to lead a full life, if they are each to be aware of the problems of their neighbours, then they should be drawn from all sections of the community. We should try to introduce what was always the lovely feature of the English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer lived in the same street.”
Sadly, however, it is not possible for the ‘The Nanny State Made Me’ to be entirely celebratory, because for most of the author’s (and my) adult life, the British welfare state has been under attack. Water, energy, bus, rail, and telecommunications have long-since been privatised, gifting billions to a handful of investors, at the expense of millions who now pay more for worse services. Schools have been semi-privatised, in the form of ‘academy trusts’ and ‘free schools’. Ten per cent of the UK landmass has passed from collective to private ownership since 1979. Even beloved health services have been stealthily undermined and over a quarter of the NHS is now in private hands.
In Maconie’s thesis, part of the reason for this regression is that the original job of providing universal public services was never finished. The NHS has been the hardest to dismantle because such a large proportion of the population benefit from it so directly, but hasn’t been true in all sectors. Those who don’t experience a direct stake in the welfare state are often the most keen on removing it. Maconie particularly focuses on the fact that private, fee-paying schools have educated 74% of today’s judges, 71% of generals, and 86% of national newspaper journalists.
Maconie argues, “[p]rivilege and unfairness will never be eradicated, social justice will never be achieved while well-meaning but handwringing liberals pay for their children to go to private schools..Abolish them. Turn them into Aldis, sports halls and nail bars.. It may mean your kids have to work harder to get on. It may make your domestic life less smooth. But so did abolishing slavery for the comfortably off.”
Playwright and national treasure, Alan Bennett, puts it less forecfully but equally firmly: “Private education is not fair. Those who provide it know it. Those who pay for it know it. Those who have to sacrifice in order to purchase it know it. And those who receive it know it, or should.”
Looking out from the sceptered isles, Maconie notes sagely that the most prosperous countries in Europe have not followed Britain down the route of privatisation. Recounting a train trip he made with markontour’s favourite band, the Stone Roses, to shoot an NME cover in the Swiss Alps, Maconie recalls a conversation between the band’s bass play, Mani, and a Swiss “captain industry” who shared their carriage. After passing compliments on the quality of Swiss trains, Mani explained that Britain was selling off its public railway. The CEO “looked at us with a smile of what seemed a lot like pity, and not just for our haircuts and baggy flares. ‘You are planning to sell off your trains to the private franchises. That is…insane. Switzerland is a byword for capitalism. We worship business and money and profit. But we know that no sensible country sells off its railways”.
The rest of Europe agreed, but nevertheless quickly started buying up Britains railways, power stations, water companies and airlines, ensuring that the UK’s utilities remain state-owned, albeit by foreign states, and even more heavily subsidised by the taxpayers of Britain who used to own them.
This is something that can give rise to anger, as evidenced in an anecdote Maconie recalls from an interview he made with former Cabinet Minister, Tony Benn, a few years before his death in 2014. The filming was taking place at the top of what used to be London’s tallest building, and was interrupted by a PR man, who reminded them to refer to the building as the “BT Tower. As in British Telecom, who own it”. Benn, Maconie writes, “fixed him with a stare that combined pity and scorn. ‘Excuse me, I oversaw the opening of this building. It was built using British labour and skills with the money of the British people who paid for it with their taxes. It belongs to them and always will. Margaret Thatcher took it from them and gave it to you when it was not hers to give. This is not your building. It is theirs..’ – he pointed to the streets below and the busy, swarming, preoccupied workers – ‘and it was stolen from them’”.
That’s a rather sad note on which to end, given that I thoroughly enjoyed reading ‘The Nanny State Made Me’ and will be recommending it to everyone for the rest of the year. So let’s give the valedictory words to Maconie himself:
“Between the end of the Second World War and the early 1980s, Britain produced some of the greatest, most imperishable, popular and pioneering art, science, literature, pop music, comedy, film and sporting achievements the world has ever seen. To a major degree, these were achieved by generations of children of the state. Having defeated global fascism [I think the Russians and Americans, among others, had a hand in that too, Ed], a ruined country rebuilt itself from rubble thanks to the most progressive government in our history and the talents of its children – kids raised by and large outside of the establishment and the elite on a diet of orange juice, free school milk, NHS specs, Watch With Mother, public libraries, art schools, galleries and all the other benefits of a forward-looking state and commitment to the public good not the private profit.”