Doing our duty at home and abroad — A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After Covid by Peter Hennessy review

Britain’s pre-eminent political historian and constitutional analyst chronicles the pandemic and lists the ingredients for a ‘new Beveridge’; but there are international parallels, too.

Nurses and matron gathered around a patient in hospital, c. 1960. M&N / Alamy Stock Photo
Nurses and matron gathered around a patient in hospital, c. 1960. M&N / Alamy Stock Photo

During the period covered by this book, from March 2020 until September 2021, Britain, like many other countries, experienced the acute early phase of a pandemic virus that killed many thousands and hospitalised more, destabilised national institutions and produced a raft of unprecedented political and economic measures to meet a national emergency. From the start of the first lockdown, Peter Hennessy (Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield), instructed to ‘shield’ for health reasons, began to keep a Covid diary. For this we should all be grateful, for who better qualified than he to analyse the extraordinary events of those eighteen months and consider their implications for the future? His position as outstanding chronicler of British post-war history, wide range of political contacts, and parliamentary experience make him the ideal commentator. But the aim of Duty of Care is more ambitious than to provide a record of events and analysis of governmental decisions in response to them.

During this extraordinary period, when enforced isolation and the dislocation of the familiar rhythms of work and education inevitably encouraged introspection, many of us thought that ‘when the pandemic is over’ things would be different, and there might be an opportunity to do things better in the future. Some changes would be negative: not just the loss of relatives and friends, of key periods of learning, but also the undermining of economic and social life. But there were hopeful thoughts, too, inspired partly by the powerful example of those who rose magnificently to the challenge of the crisis, whether by developing vaccines, reconfiguring their businesses to produce essential equipment, working or volunteering in hospitals, or helping their neighbours get hold of essential goods. The National Health Service, always a British talisman, now assumed heroic status. The importance of interdependence at a human level—a societal level—was underlined. We understood that we had a duty of care, to each other and to the country as a whole. Was it not possible that something positive would emerge from this, a renewed sense of urgency to tackle urgent problems, perhaps even a more consensual politics?

Hennessy spent a lot of time in lockdown considering such issues and sets out his thoughts and conclusions in this book. In Part 1, The Road from 1945, he looks back to the origins of the welfare state and the other elements of modern British society set out in William Beveridge’s 1942 report and implemented during the Attlee Labour governments of 1945-51. He then goes on to analyse the record of successive governments in their diverse efforts to slay the Five Giants targeted by Beveridge—Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness; names that give a pretty fair indication of the scope for differing interpretations by those to the left or right of the political spectrum, even though (almost) all politicians accept a duty of care to improve their citizens’ lives as one of their highest priorities.

In Part 2, Covid Britain and After, Hennessy argues that we should, indeed, seize the post-pandemic moment. We need a ‘new Beveridge’ to tackle the most urgent—and, historically, intractable—problems: social care, social housing and technical education, as well as preparing the economy and society for Artificial Intelligence, and combating and mitigating climate change. (Hennessy would like to add a sixth, refreshment of the UK constitution, but accepts there are too many variables, not least the future of the Union, to do so at present.) Though by his own admission on the Pollyanna end of the spectrum, in September 2021 even he found it hard to envisage the necessary renewal of social energy and the sense of a duty of care; politics were all too depressingly business-as-usual.

Hennessy is always worth reading, and this book is up to his highest standards in being both informative and thought-provoking. But writing in April 2022, when ‘post-pandemic’ still seems aspirational and the world is greatly disordered by war and political strife, I should like to pick up on a particular aspect of the origins of the modern state, in the context of international developments, and contrast it with the situation today, when a war is again being fought on the European continent and the institutions built so painstakingly in the early years after the Second World War are being brought into sharper focus than they have for many years.

What Hennessy calls the ‘statutory paving’ of the 1940s, the legislation that embodied the provisions of the Beveridge report, from the 1944 Education Act through to Legal Aid in 1949, was planned during a global war. Within the British wartime coalition, alongside the will to victory over the Axis powers went a determination to build a better Britain thereafter. It fell to the Attlee government that took office in July 1945, with its exceptionally able ministerial team, to take the social project forward, despite Britain’s desperate financial state. When Hennessy interviewed the late Shirley Williams on BBC Radio 4 in July 2013, she described her impression at that time of ‘a world where dreams were possible’, no longer imperial but ‘very international’. It was a timely reminder that during those years, other projects than the welfare state were under construction, of equal importance to Britain.

Again, the process began in wartime, with the establishment in 1944 of the Bretton Woods financial system, including the IMF and what became the World Bank. The United Nations Organisation was also planned before peace came. Again, it was the Attlee government that led British participation in the early meetings of these institutions. Meanwhile, as Allied unity frayed in the aftermath of war, yet another key set of institutions was formed between 1945 and 1951: the Western security project, planned to serve what might be called a duty of care to the peace and security of Western Europe against Soviet expansionism and a nuclear threat. The Dunkirk Treaty in 1947, the Brussels Treaty in 1948 and the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949 were the keystones of this project, allied to the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation, directing the Economic Recovery Programme (Marshall Aid) launched by the US in 1947. In building these institutions, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin was a driving force, having concluded at the end of 1947 that collective security, reinforced by US guarantees, was essential to the preservation of European peace. ‘It is not enough,’ he wrote in January 1948, ‘to reinforce the physical barriers which still guard our Western civilisation. We must also organise and consolidate the ethical and spiritual forces inherent in this Western civilisation of which we are the chief protagonists.’

This was the beginning of what we now call the Cold War, which lasted for 40 years and has now been ‘over’ for roughly a further 40 years. Are we at another turning point? It is hard not to see parallels between the long-term failure to maintain ‘social energy’ and a duty of care with a failure to pay due attention to the maintenance of collective security, as well. Now, when the Russian war on Ukraine raises the spectre of more far-reaching conflict, and tensions rise in the Indo-Pacific, there is a move to renew, indeed to expand, collective security, in Nato and other bodies. Janet Yellen, US Treasury Secretary, recently told the Atlantic Council we need a ‘new Bretton Woods’. Peter Hennessy says we need a ‘new Beveridge’. Perhaps it is not Covid that will bring governments to the realisation that they need to renew and strengthen important institutions, or face a much darker future both at home and abroad. Not ‘it took a virus’ but ‘it took a war’?

A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After COVID by Peter Hennessy, Allen Lane, pp 256, £20


Gill Bennett