The ‘Beveridge 2.0 – Rethinking the Welfare State’ event on November 28th was billed as the kick-off for a year long, University wide discussion on the future of the welfare state to mark the 75th anniversary of the Beveridge report. The heavily promoted event comprised of a distinguished panel of academics in a near-capacity Old Theatre, whose first rows had been reserved for eminent guests of the University.
I am not naive enough to hope for radical political declarations at marquee events like these. But with that being said, what transpired left me in something like a state of disbelief, for what the audience witnessed was a debate on the welfare state almost completely devoid of politics. As usual, it was what was left unsaid that made the biggest impression – a troubling circumvention of engaging with the political and ideological reasons behind the uncertain future of the welfare state.
The evening began with an introduction from the Director of the LSE, Dame Shafik, who lead the audience on a tour of the biggest threats currently facing the welfare state. We heard about the usual culprits – the structural challenges of ageing demographics, automation, and public debt. But amazingly, nothing about the biggest and most immediate threat: extreme and destructive neoliberal ideology. On both sides of the Atlantic, and increasingly in continental Europe, traditional welfare states are being stripped back by politicians whose loyalties lie with preserving the profits of large corporations and the wealth of super-rich elites. These are people who willingly peddle the false narrative that excessive public spending caused the financial crisis in 2008 in order to justify painful austerity.
As Dame Shafik moved onto covering possible solutions, I assumed that a more progressive tax and serious action on tax avoidance would be one of the first things she mentioned. Although she had touched on the trend towards regressive tax policies as a threat, this most basic response -one that simply requires the requisite political will – was not alluded to. Somewhat taken aback, I lobbed a badly worded question at the panel to point this out. “Ah yes, you’re completely right.” “Hm..probably should have mentioned that.” “Tax avoidance is bad.” – these were essentially the rushed responses from the stage. In the audience, I sensed a reassuring relief that someone had pointed out the elephant in the room.
There were other notable absences too. Dame Shafik addressed the potential of radical innovations like Universal Basic Income, before pointing out that it was by no means a “panacea”. Its an open debate, but her comparative support for market-friendly reforms like “flexicurity” and an ill-timed decision to uphold Singapore as a welfare model (given its current support in the press from Hard Brexiters) were discomforting in comparison. Three seats down, the legendary Richard Sennett, very much at the forefront of the UBI debate in academia, seemed too timid to really engage with his host on what currently represents the most radical change on offer. A very prescient question on climate change was almost completely ignored.
Perhaps the most interesting contributions of the night came from the very eloquent Professor Alex Voorhoeve, the panel’s sole philosopher. He spoke about the need to remake the moral argument for the welfare state, and to rebuild the communal ties which engender the solidarity upon which the welfare state relies. And even then, he failed to articulate the explicit role elected officials play in this aim. We cannot avoid being explicit about which politicians use their platforms to divide and stigmatise.
I do not intend to suggest that any of the speakers harbour anti-welfare state sentiment. Indeed, I am almost certain that this is not the case. Rather, what left me disappointed was the way the event was staged and then played out, a way that seemed to preclude any serious engagement with the inherently political nature of the future welfare state. Who a society cares for, and how they do so, is a fundamental political question, and no worthy academic discussion on the matter can tip-toe around this fact. I sincerely hope the upcoming Beveridge 2.0 events will rectify this, and confront the political and ideological threats to the welfare state head-on.