Over the past two months the RSA’s Action & Research Centre has been undertaking a review of its work on public services and communities. As part of this we have held a series of regional events in order to gather the experiences and expertise of RSA Fellows and others working in the fields of public service and inclusive growth. At every event we asked the question: if William Beveridge was around today, how would he frame Britain’s new ‘giants’? This is what people told us.
Beveridge identified five giants in 1942 and some people at our events were quick to evaluate whether anything much has changed. There remains ample evidence of squalor, ignorance, want, idleness and disease but the majority felt that even if today’s giants had similarities with those of Beveridge they would be described very differently as our word cloud of responses suggests.
In pole position today comes inequality. This was mentioned most frequently at every single event and led to some fascinating discussions about its nature. Income and wealth inequality were at the forefront of people’s concerns and considered symptomatic of a society that had lost its moral compass. But in places like Manchester and Hastings there was a deep sense of spatial inequality too with a deep resentment towards London. Racial and gender inequality were also significant concerns as was the impact of inequality on our physical and mental health.
Secondly, many event participants were concerned with what was often phrased a ‘lack of connection’. Much as our travelling around the country laid bare the weaknesses of Britain’s transport infrastructure outside the capital, this lack of connection was much more profound. Isolation and loneliness were highlighted as key contributors to the apparent deterioration in the nation’s mental health – and nowhere was this felt more acutely than in London itself. Lack of connection even in the nation’s best connected city.
Third came ‘intolerance’ with many reflecting on the apparent polarisation evidenced by the Brexit referendum, the current state of party politics and the emergence of populist regimes around the world. Linked to this, some people spoke of ‘Fake News’ and a perceived lack of truthfulness at both personal and institutional levels which fuels division and exclusion. Heated debates ensued about the role of technology – and social media in particular – while few saw them as social evils, there was widespread concern about their regulation to mitigate their worst effects.
Giant number four was apathy. For some people this related to a sense of hopelessness and lack of aspiration in certain quarters but most saw the problem as symptomatic of our broken democratic system and people’s sense of deep disempowerment. Once again, recent political events loomed large: the pros and cons of referenda, the state of our political parties and our highly centralised decision-making structures.
Fifth and finally there was a profound concern for the environment. Naming the environmental evil about which we should be most concerned was more difficult. Some were concerned about energy use, our consumptive culture and air pollution while others spelt out more conservationist agendas concerning the future of housing, food, farming and the countryside.
Inequality. Isolation. Intolerance. Disempowerment. Environment. The five giants facing 21st century Britain. Taking the thought experiment a little further: if we were to redefine the respective roles of state and society in addressing these agendas what kind of system would we create? What kind of outcomes would we want to see? And how far would the policies and institutions we could develop resemble anything Beveridge would recognise? Event participants had countless ideas for opportunities ahead, pictured above. These are questions to which we will turn in the months ahead.
Many thanks to everybody who has participated in our review to date. We look forward to further engagement in the months ahead though feel free to post your further comments below. We look forward to outlining a new programme of work towards the end of the year.