Democracy isn’t working

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA I was passing near Salford University yesterday and I noticed a poster in someone’s window which said “Democracy isn’t working”. Not a brilliant, original comment, I thought but as I had just left the Salford Museum Coffee shop where they were selling a range of nostalgic World War 2 merchandise including mini posters and fridge magnets with slogans such as Keep Calm and Carry On, Dig for Victory etc. it kind of resonated with me. Looking back to the war years, not that I was alive then, it seemed that whatever hardships British people endured, it was all worth it for the defence of Democracy. When peace returned to the UK in 1945, life for both lower and upper social classes changed dramatically with the former gaining a little at the expense of the latter  whilst the middle class prospered way beyond their wildest dreams. However, as this was post War Britain, wild dreams had not yet been invented so it would be more accurate to say that the “clerical classes”, those residents of suburbia with their umbrellas and rolled up newspapers tucked under their arms, did alright for themselves after the war. The reason why this group did better than the others was, perhaps, due to the huge expansion of the Welfare State and the National Health Service (NHS) in particular. Contrary to public misconception, the Welfare State was in place long before 1945, it just wasn’t very well resourced. There were Labour Exchanges which helped men and women to find employment and local hospital trusts which you could subscribe to in order to receive the most basic of care. In the 1920s the Liberal government encouraged the building of council houses, the introduction of mortgages and the expansion of  public services provided by the local Corporations, the forerunners of today’s local authorities. However, in 1942 a coalition of all political parties entrusted a committee led by Ernest Beveridge with the task of designing a much more generous and wider – ranging Welfare State to come into effect once hostilities had ceased. When it finally arrived in 1945/46 the enlarged Welfare State was not that different to what had been in place previously. Benefit levels remained very low and certainly, not enough to sustain a family without a “breadwinner” however, there was plenty of employment to be had and most families got by, albeit in a hand to mouth fashion. However, the arrival of the NHS in 1948 had a universally, positive effect on everyone but more so on the middle-classes. Apart from the obvious health benefits, the NHS brought so many job opportunities with it that Britain had to import workers from the Commonwealth in such large numbers that London became a multi-cultural society within the first decade of its’ existence. Other cities followed suit until by the 1970s we were no longer surprised to find our colonial brothers and sisters filling important, well paid positions within the NHS. Where the middle class benefited more than the lower class was in having wider access to the NHS. Not only did they have more flexible working arrangements but their overall demeanour, language and mannerisms, ensured that they were taken more seriously by  the ex-colonials or  their peers who were now working in the NHS. The doctors tended to work office hours and had most weekends off which made it difficult for those hourly paid workers, especially factory workers and labourers, to attend appointments. This gave rise to a huge industry manufacturing “over the counter” medicines for mass consumption which led indirectly to the rising consumption of both legal and illicit drugs. The middle class housewife, immortalised in the Rolling Stones song “Mother’s Little Helper” was able to obtain her diazepam or any of the other mood-enhancing drugs, from her local doctor and even Heroin was available on prescription until the late sixties. It took a long time for Britain to recover from the damage caused by WW2, physically, emotionally and financially. However, by the end of the 1950s we were being told that things had never been better and that we were entering a golden age in the history of Britain. Towards the end of the 1960s and under a Labour government we were led to believe that the future for Britain was so bright that we would all have to wear shades. However, the Welfare State soon brought an end to that promise as the following decade brought only political and social unrest culminating in public sector workers striking and millions of non-unionised workers seriously inconvenienced by their actions.  The behaviour of the Unions divided public opinion at every level and in many respects sealed the fate of some industries that were crucial to the future well-being of our nation. Our most vulnerable communities including those in remote areas of Britain and those  who had relied on coal mining for generations would never recover. Whether or not, the Welfare State remains in good health is debatable. What is certain though, is the extent to which it has changed over the past fifty years or so. For many people it is no longer seen as a safety net funded by the tax-payer (that’s you and me) but as something for everyone to use and abuse as they please. If you think that I’m being harsh then try visiting  any large A&E department after 9 pm, Friday, Saturday or Sunday and see what the staff have to put up with.  It’s not a lot better on the remaining days of the week. You should also consider the amount of time and expense spent on patching up those individuals who participate in dangerous activities such as substance misuse or contact sports. Some say that the problems within the NHS and other parts of the Welfare State  have been caused by underfunding however, in reality, the problem is not that funding is being cut but that, it is being wasted. Huge amounts of tax payers money, some so large that it is almost impossible to comprehend, is often thrown away on abandoned projects that were never required in the first place. Information Technology being a particularly fond area of wastage. Our resources are being stretched so far that cracks are inevitably beginning to show and mistakes are being made. NHS treatment is being with-held on grounds of cost, patients are kept waiting months for appointments, benefit claimants are being told to submit their claims on-line, not in person and so on. It seems that the Welfare State prefers not to have to look into the faces of those who for whatever reason have come asking for help. There is a long held opinion amongst academics that the only legitimate role for  Governments is to inform, enable and protect their people and I suspect that most of us would be happy if this was ever the case. However, the Welfare State comes close to fulfilling that role. We have seen many examples of the Government seeking to inform, remember 1966 and the information on what to do in the event of a nuclear bomb attack? Very re-assuring –  not! Or, perhaps you were one of the lucky ones who was enabled by a Grammar School education. Of course you deserved it because you worked hard at your Junior School however, there was still an element of luck involved especially as there were so few Grammar Schools and places were extremely limited wherever you lived. There had to be some form of arbitrary selection process going on otherwise many more hard working, bright young people would have been entitled to a superior level of education.  For obvious reasons I will simply mention the words, The Falklands, Iraq and Afganistan to emphasise my final point. So, what is the future for our Welfare State? Will it still be here in fifty years time? The easy answer is that it will always be around whilst there is a State to support but what if there wasn’t a State? What if some catastrophic event occurred and people were dying everywhere. Think Ebola, think Sarin attack, think Nuclear accident! Scary isn’t it? And yet, these events are either happening as I write or have happened in the recent past somewhere in the world and there is no possible reason why they could not happen here. Not so long ago we were threatened with an epidemic of “Bird Flu” and as far as I can recall, huge stockpiles of the antidote were stored away ready for the first wave of casualties. I know that I’m prone towards these kind of situations being a great reader of novels featuring a dystopian future but I really thought that this was it – the end of civilisation as we know it. Fortunately, it didn’t happen although, I suspect that those stocks of antidote remain on standby. Some of you may be familiar with “The politics of Risk” a theory suggesting that any human action regardless of how large or small can adversely effect everyone on the planet. We see examples of this each time that an oil refinery or chemical plant carelessly deposits its’ waste product without first taking the required precautions.  We also see this at the micro level, in our rivers and ponds where inconsiderate people may have discarded plastic bags and the like. I’m spending a lot of my time hospital visiting and the first rule is to “Wash your hands” when entering the wards but there is always some git who thinks that this rule does not apply to them. The patient they are going to visit lying there unaware that their visitor may have brought something other than a bunch of bananas or a bunch of flowers in with them. Unfortunately, the Welfare State is powerless against those who take unnecessary risks and yet, it is the first thing that people turn to in their time of need. We now live in such a diverse society, full of individuals who want to be allowed to follow their own paths, believe their own faiths and basically, be left alone. All of which is fine and to be complimented however, how can a one-size-fits-all Welfare State even begin to address all of their needs, it simply cannot. The best it can do, is its’ worst! In other words, it cannot do what it was designed to do or even, do what it feels obliged to do. The Welfare State can only do the very least that it can afford to do which is why after more than seventy years since it was first mooted, benefit payments still remain well below the subsistence level, social housing is virtually impossible to find unless you happen to be a teenage mum, an ex-offender, an asylum seeker or a relative of someone who works at the council. Seriously ill people are left on trollies on the hospital corridors whilst beds are found and so on. However, the tax payer continues to fund this almost imaginary institution in the hope that we will never have to rely on it. It’s rather like paying your local Mafia Boss for the privilege of not having your business burnt down, your legs broken or both and if you think that I’m being flippant, try opening up a pizzeria in Naples! Sorry, I am being flippant but you can see what I mean. We definitely do need the Welfare State, perhaps more than it needs us however, how much longer can it be allowed to flounder before someone puts it out of its’ misery?

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About hovisb

Retired socialworker specialising in substance misuse and mental health (Dual Diagnosis). Previously worked in management. Enjoys culture, especially music, literature and art. Animal lover.
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One Response to Democracy isn’t working

  1. hovisb says:

    I heard someone comment (on Woman’s Hour of all places) that she refused to vote on the grounds that if Democracy actually worked then it would be banned. She has a point. George Orwell often said the same thing in his novels and the Socialist Bible, “A Different Way of Life” is full of similar untruths.

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