During the war, my mum, like tens of thousands of other children, was evacuated. She left the terrace house she shared with 10 siblings and her parents and wound up in a beautiful convent perched on a headland near Conwy, north Wales, looking out to sea. It was heaven.
I sometimes take her back there and on each visit she recovers some new memory. Recently, she told me about the night her big sister woke her and took her to the window to show her a strange red glow on the horizon. “That,” she said, “is Liverpool. It’s all on fire.” She went back to bed believing that her world and the people to whom she belonged had been utterly destroyed.
Some children had terrible experiences of evacuation. Others could hardly bear to go back home. For all of them it was a defining experience. The evacuation is the only event I can think of that can compare with lockdown in the way that it will affect children.
Lockdown is evacuation in reverse. Instead of children being sent away while their elders stayed in the danger zone, we are asking children to stay at home in order to protect their elders.
Any crisis is like an x-ray passing through the national body, illuminating its strengths and weaknesses. Many evacuees turned up at their new homes filthy, half starved, ill shod. The operation made painfully visible a truth that had been hidden – that thousands of working-class city children were living in poverty and chaos.
It was partly this moment of truth that provoked Churchill’s government to commission the Beveridge report. They took the crisis as an opportunity to take a hard look at what had gone wrong and had the ambition to put it right. The report famously warned that there were five giants on the road to national reconstruction – “want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness” – and set out a strategy for fighting them.
There’s a lot in Beveridge’s approach – top down and inflected by his eugenicist beliefs – that you wouldn’t want to imitate. But the courage and ambition to imagine a brighter day in the darkest time is surely something we can learn from.
When I started to think about this I called up my brother, Paul, director of children’s services at Wirral council (who, as it happens, has just got himself an OBE for “improving provision for vulnerable children and families in Merseyside”). I hoped to pick his brain about the food poverty issue. We talked for a while about the volatile debate over the best way to deliver food – cash transfers, vouchers, food parcels or ready meals. Then he stopped the conversation and quoted Beveridge back at me: “A revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching.”
We are simultaneously dealing with a hunger crisis, an obesity crisis and a waste crisis
Yes, the immediate need has to be addressed, but isn’t this also a moment for working out how we have got here? We are simultaneously dealing with a hunger crisis, an obesity crisis and a waste crisis. We throw away a third of the food that we buy. Isn’t this the moment to start educating ourselves out of food ignorance?
The immediate food issue crystallised around school meals because we have increasingly turned to teachers to plug more and more of the gaps in our degraded social sphere. Teachers are now front-line social workers as much as they are educators. Everywhere, they rise to that challenge with a humbling commitment, creativity and ambition. I’ve witnessed this on Zoom “visit” after Zoom “visit” throughout lockdown. Just last week I saw a dazzling online nativity play from a school in Knowsley on Merseyside.
Yet we’ve allowed a situation in which these same teachers have had to work within a system that peers over their shoulder every minute of the day, nagging at them about which box to tick. The goal of that system in early years is that chilling phrase “a school-shaped child”. Yes, I have visited dozens of schools that act as safe havens for vulnerable children. However, one of the drivers of our education policy has undeniably been freeing up adults for the workplace. Maybe this is a moment to consider the possibility of creating some human-shaped workplaces instead of school-shaped children.
As teachers struggle to create situations in which poorer children can “keep up”, isn’t this a chance to consider whether our children are running in the right race? Is the one-size fits-all, grammar school-lite curriculum we currently prize really the best? I speak as the most school-shaped child that ever was. My brother, who turned out to be so valuable, was very much not.
Distracted by medical and political crises, we have failed to notice that the world of work is on the brink of incredible change. Anyone you talk to in AI or robotics will at some point ask the same question: “What are we going to do with all these people?” To quote the writer John Lanchester: “It says a lot about the current moment that as we stand facing a future which might resemble either a hyper-capitalist dystopia or a socialist paradise, the second option doesn’t get a mention.”
We live in a time of extreme polarisation when everything – even the wearing of a protective face mask – has become political. However, it is also a moment when one of the most powerfully persuasive narratives – that society is just a veneer and one that will break down completely under the least pressure – turned out to be nonsense. The bonds of neighbourhood and community turned out to be a lot more resilient and enriching than in any promised zombie apocalypse.
One good starting point for a new Beveridge report might well be the fact that there is such a thing as society and it is durable and desirable. It was not society that buckled under pressure but the whole idea of unfettered individualism. It just doesn’t work.
William Beveridge’s report, commissioned under a Conservative prime minister from a Liberal politician, was largely implemented by a Labour government. That kind of response seems impossible today. It wasn’t easy then. Churchill abhorred its recommendations but then, as Beveridge said, scratch a pessimist and you’ll find a defender of privilege. The best reason for thinking this better world is possible is that the alternative is too dire.
• Frank Cottrell Boyce is a British screenwriter and novelist