Purnell offers Labour a way forward on welfare

Purnell's vision of a narrower but deeper welfare state deserves attention from Miliband.

James Purnell has long been one of Labour's brightest and best thinkers, so it is right that his intervention on welfare policy has received significant attention. The former work and pensions secretary followed up his Times article (£) with a film for last night's Newsnight in which he outlined his proposal to recast the welfare state as a "protection state".

If people are to "fall back in love" with the welfare state, he said, it must offer benefits that they actually value. To this end, Purnell suggested a job guarantee for those unemployed for more than a year (those who refuse to work will lose their benefits), wage protection - the unemployed could receive up to 70 per cent of previous earnings for up to six months - and free childcare. To pay for all it, we should cut back on those benefits - free bus passes, free TV licences, the winter fuel allowance - that many, not least the well off, do not value. Even universal child benefit, Purnell says, should no longer be considered sacred. Alongside this, he argues, we should reassert the contributory principle by, for instance, ensuring that those who pay in receive a higher pension than those who do not.

After all, it was Beveridge who declared in his 1942 report: "The correlative of the state's undertaking to ensure adequate benefit for unavoidable interruption of earnings is enforcement of the citizen's obligation to seek and accept all reasonable opportunities of work."

The real question, as the Spectator's Peter Hoskin suggested yesterday, is whether any of Purnell's ideas will be taken up by the Labour leadership. Ed Miliband has long defended "middle class benefits" on the grounds that, as Richard Titmuss put it, "services for the poor will always be poor services". He opposed the government's decision to withdraw child benefit from higher-rate taxpayers and warned it not to cut the winter fuel allowance. By contrast, Purnell declares: "I have never bought the argument that universal benefits bind the middle classes in. It feels too much like taxing with one hand to give back with another."

It is Miliband who is closest to his party's centre of gravity. Most Labour activists are dismayed by the thought of cutting back the benefits that Blair and Brown championed for so long. Ken Livingstone, one suspects, spoke for many when he tweeted last night: "James Purnell on Newsnight saying maybe we shld end free bus passes. Must be fought all the way. It is a political dead end for Labour."

Miliband has, however, shown an interest in reviving the contributory principle. In his speech on responsibility last month, he argued that services such as housing should not only prioritise those in the greatest need but also those who contribute the most to their communities, be it through volunteering or employment. Whether he will consider some of Purnell's more heretical proposals remains to be seen. But there is no doubt that, as Liam Byrne, the shadow work and pensions secretary, observed, "Labour is behind on welfare reform. It must get back in front". Purnell's vision of a narrower but deeper welfare state offers one way to do so.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear