As the UK continues to limp through yet another in the long list of crises it has experienced since the 2008 financial crash, the Prime Minister is filling our television screens and newspapers with his five pledges. Politicians presenting us with a list of promises is nothing new. Ed Miliband was mocked for offering up his six promises carved into stone. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher informed voters that she had five tasks for any future government. These lists usually end up as nothing more than soundbites or footnotes in books that undergraduates pretend to read. The Prime Minister’s five pledges appear to be destined for the same fate as they fail to address the scale of the cost-of-living crisis. This latest set of promises sound increasingly hollow as mortgages, rent, food, and utility bills spiral upwards. All the previous claims of a commitment to levelling up and building back better have failed to get beyond a memo on a civil servant’s desk. As our high street lose shops, rivers overflow with sewage, and the NHS experiences ever-increasing waiting lists, these pledges are increasingly recognised for what they are, a succession of false promises. Yet, society has not always spotted the deception that underpins such deceit.
Creating lists, wanting to carve out clear objectives is nothing new. Few have stood the test of time. There are exceptions. William Beveridge promised to eradicate the five giant evils in the new post-war world; Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor, and Idleness. He already had a reputation as one of the most significant British intellectual voices of the 20th Century. He was influenced by two important friends: Richard Tawney, and William Temple. In Christianity and Social Order Temple set out his principles to establish a flourishing post-war Britian. That families should be housed with decency, that every child should have an education to meet their full capabilities, that every person should an income to provide a secure and stable home, that people have a voice in the conduct of business and industry, and that industry is directed for the well-being of the whole community, and finally that every person should have enough income left over to allow time for the pursuit of leisure and personal interest.
Beveridge, Tawney, and Temple had gone into communities and viewed at first hand the consequences of unemployment, low pay, and poverty. Furthermore, they recognised how regional disparities in wealth exacerbated the situation for many. They were determined to discover why the UK could produce vast wealth, whilst at the same time many were crushed by grinding poverty. Their work, pledges, and promises were based on the profound moral belief that the whole community should flourish and be placed before individual, and sectional interests. Each of them processed a sense of genuineness and energy that made them and their vision immensely popular.
There are, however, considerable differences between the objectives of Beveridge, Tawney, and Temple with those of the current Prime Minister. The present government continues to promote and defend sectional interests ahead of community. People are demonised as undeserving, and that poverty is always the result of personal failings. They want us to believe that the five giant evils are the fault of others, not the result of the Governments political choices. Further, those who sit in comfort of the government front benches have made no effort to grasp the meaning and consequences of poverty in 21st Century Britain. They try and frame austerity as a virtue having never experienced the stress of food prices rising at twice the rate of wages. The moral energy and principles of Beveridge, Temple, and Tawney have been abandoned as we are encouraged to embrace selfishness individualism and not to concern ourselves with the consequences this has for others.
As we marked last weekend the 75th Anniversary of the founding of the NHS the consequences of false promises have once again been thrown into sharp focus. The latest King Fund’s report shows the results of years of austerity, underfunding and neglect. The UK now has a below average investment in healthcare infrastructure, fewer doctors and nurses, and high mortality rates (Guardian 2023). These are the repercussions of the failure to address deep-rooted societal fractures identified by Professor Sir Michael Marmot and others. Rather than addressing the criticism of world-renowned experts such as Marmot, the Department of Health has simply chosen to echo the Prime Minister’s false promises. The use of soundbites to repudiate well-researched, robust evidence is thread running through the last twelve years. Boris Johnson dismissed health and life expectancy, proclaiming that wage growth was the only metric that mattered. When presented with evidence of the effects of austerity at the COVID inquiry, David Cameron and George Osborne dismissed it with a confident hubris that comes from vast reserves of privilege and cultural capital.
The trick at the centre of the false promise is that it manipulates people into thinking that they will deliver our needs and wants. Yet when examined closely we have been misled into wanting things that we do not need and believing what is untrue. If this fails, then we are told that others are to blame and that more lists and new objectives are needed. The hope is that as false promises are recycled, we will support them in the belief that this time they will work.
As the NHS approaches its 75th year, over a decade of neglect has taken its toll. It is now beyond time to reject false claims and promises. We must stop blaming others for our discomfort. The cost of living with false promises is that it continues to dehumanise, it allows distrust to fester, and provides a veil to hide our diminishing sense of values. Beveridge, Temple, and Tawney showed that principle could have a significant impact in the public square. There is a pressing need to discover dynamic principles that are fit for the 21st Century, that build fellowship, community connection, collaboration, shared ambitions, and resist the temptation of rhetoric devoid of moral thought, wisdom, and insight.