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9 March 2022

Peter Hennessy’s manifesto for post-pandemic Britain is too sweeping to be useful

In A Duty of Care, the historian asks whether politics after Covid can match the reforming ambition of the 1940s.

By Rachel Cunliffe

Almost as soon as the pandemic began, it became a cliché to compare the UK’s response to Covid to its experience of the Second World War, but if anyone has earned the right to do so, it is Peter Hennessy. The historian, broadcaster and cross-bench peer is renowned for his books on postwar Britain, so familiar with his subject matter that he treats his “characters” – Churchill, Bevin, Wilson – as though he is writing about old friends. But just because Hennessy is able to draw such parallels does not mean he should. And at times his new book A Duty of Care: Britain Before and After Covid, in which he attempts to chart the impact of the Beveridge reforms over eight decades and transpose their lessons on to the post-pandemic era, falters under the weight of its ambition.

Hennessy opens with the personal: a week before the UK first entered lockdown on 23 March 2020, already housebound as a result of illness and the government’s instructions to shield, he began to keep a diary. He concludes almost at once that “future historians would henceforth divide postwar UK history in BC (Before Covid) and AC (After Covid)”, which seems inevitable given how this virus has already reshaped the world in two years. This sense that something momentous was happening prompts him to see the events of early lockdown through the lens of the 1940s: “I could not just hear but also feel the linkage between the winds of early postwar reconstruction and those of Covid,” he writes, perceiving in the weekly Thursday clap for NHS workers the spirit of people determined that a better Britain could rise from the pandemic.

The postwar politicians, Hennessy argues, embraced and redefined the concept of the duty of care a state has to its citizens, engendering a transformation of both the UK economy and the public’s relationship with its government. Where William Beveridge identified five “giants” to be vanquished on the road to recovery (disease, want, squalor, ignorance, idleness), Hennessy’s thesis is that there are now five “tasks” facing the country that should form the manifesto of anyone wishing to lead it.

[see also: How we fell out of love with work]

To get to these tasks, we must first examine “how the Beveridge-shaped duty of care played out in the hands of successive postwar political generations”. This necessitates a comprehensive dash across history, from the debates over social reform in the aftermath of the war, to the wrangling over Britain’s relationship with Europe, the impact of Thatcherism, all the way through Major, Blair, Brown and Cameron to the Brexit wars of the late 2010s – and that’s just part one. Covering so much ground in a mere hundred pages results in a first half that, while commendably thorough, is almost impenetrably dense.

By the time we get to the “After Covid” section, there’s been such an information overload that it’s hard to remember this is supposedly a book about the pandemic. Now we come to the crux of the matter: could the surge of state intervention since 2020, the shift in political and public sentiment, and the national desire to finally mend the societal cracks torn open by Covid be directed into a productive consensus as ambitious as Beveridge’s? Few will argue with Hennessy’s five tasks: reforming social care, building more social housing, getting serious about technical education, preparing for artificial intelligence, and combating climate change. But these are not new arguments. The disagreement lies in how these tasks can be achieved, and on this question Duty of Care contains many interesting quotations from a wide range of experts, but offers few concrete answers.

I admit that the scope of this short book (it is publicised as 256 pages, but with the notes and timelines excluded it’s more like 170) is so broad, I found the pace dizzying. For example, Hennessy moves over the course of two pages from the movement for Scottish independence to the backlog of cases in the British courts system to the national security threats facing the UK. We can all support his belief that the national spirit and political will that enabled the most spectacular vaccine drive in UK history must be used to build a better society for future generations. Beyond that, I’m not sure what we’re meant to take away from this book, except that it might not be advisable to write both a history of Britain from the Second World War to the present day and a societal manifesto for a post-pandemic nation at the same time.

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

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror