Christianity and government: swapping prime ministers doesn’t cure the diseaseOctober 25, 2022
Watch Back: Dr Iain McGilchristNovember 11, 2022
In this blog, Elaine Graham calls for the revival of Royal Commissions as a means of addressing some of the most deep-seated political challenges of our times. Modern Church would welcome further contributions on the subject.
Back in the day, when government wished to review areas of policy and consider its options for the future, it appointed a Royal Commission. Nearly 400 royal commissions were established between 1830 and 1900, falling to 145 in the twentieth century. The extent to which they went out of favour after the election of the Conservative government in 1979 is indicated by the fact that no Royal Commissions were appointed in the whole of the 1980s and only three in the 1990s. The last Royal Commission, on the Reform of the House of Lords, was appointed by Tony Blair as long ago as 1999. The last vestige of this particular model of public enquiry may actually have been the conscious adoption of similar terminology by the Church of England, in its ‘Archbishop’s Commission’ on Urban Priority Areas from 1982-85, which resulted, of course, in Faith in the City.
However, given the scale of the problems facing us today – climate emergency, turmoil in the financial markets, a European war, crisis in health and social care – is there a case for reviving this practice? It would represent a return to a kind of consensus politics that has been sadly lacking in British political culture since 2016.
In fact, the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2019 election contained a promise to set up a royal commission on the criminal justice system within the first year of government, with further pledges to undertake reviews of the British constitution. There were further calls for a revival of the Royal Commission model only two years ago, in a report from the House of Lords, entitled Royal Commissions: Making a Comeback? It noted that ‘Royal commissions have a long history, though their frequency has varied over time. Royal commissions have fallen out of use over recent decades, but they could be set to make a return.’
The report continues,
‘A royal commission is a type of committee appointed for a specific investigatory or advisory purpose. The monarch appoints its members on the Government’s advice. Governments have often appointed royal commissions to address high-profile social concerns, issues that may be controversial, or matters of national importance. Royal commissions typically work by gathering evidence and producing a report. It is then up to the Government of the day to decide how to respond and whether to act on any of the recommendations.’
Sadly, the publication of the Lords’ report had the misfortune of being published in April 2020 so was somewhat overshadowed by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic which probably put an end to any further discussion or adoption of its proposals. But maybe it is time to revive the idea of Royal Commissions, perhaps on a range of issues. What a prospect that would be! Government policy informed by a process that commissions non-partisan evidence, conducts its enquiries with transparency and even-handedness, is not blinkered by economic or political ideology and gives considered attention to long-term policy implications.
What areas of public policy might be candidates for a Royal Commission? Electoral and constitutional reform, including forms of proportional representation, would be one candidate. Readers of this blog may well have their own ideas, and we would welcome further thoughts. But for starters, let me suggest an obvious and urgent area in which a fundamental, root-and-branch review is called for, namely the future of the welfare state. Hardly controversial, but given the nature of the challenges facing our basic institutions such as health and social care, income support, education and training, pensions and disability support, it seems to me nothing short of a fundamental review is called for.
This seems all the more timely given that at the end of this year we will be marking the 80th anniversary of the publication of the Beveridge Report, which was highly influential on the formation of the Welfare State after 1945. It might be interesting, then, to speculate about some of the principles that might inform a renewed examination of our priorities for the future of welfare, and which might set an agenda for such a review.
At the heart of Beveridge’s recommendations was a system that would tackle what he called the ‘Five Giant Evils’ of Disease, Idleness, Ignorance, Squalor and Want. The Report set out proposals for a National Health Service free at the point of use, a universal scheme of family allowances and a commitment on the part of the state to achieve full employment as the foundations of a comprehensive, modernised system of social security. Like the 1939-45 war, the global COVID-19 pandemic has exposed fundamental inadequacies in the economy, the National Health Service and social care provision. As society moves out of the worst of the pandemic, it may be time to contemplate, as did Beveridge and his contemporaries (including William Temple – his book, Christianity and Social Order was published the same year as Beveridge), what kind of future provision may be required for the future. This would entail addressing the stresses and shortcomings that have built up in welfare provision since the 1940s – indeed, perhaps some of the fundamental weaknesses in the British economy as a whole.
This is what the political historian Peter Hennessey has done in his recent book, Duty of Care (Penguin, 2022). In his overview of the history of the Welfare State since 1945, he identifies consistent failures such as lack of investment in the economy, indecision on the part of political leaders and reactive rather than strategic thinking at the heart of government.
Even so, any prospect of rebuilding welfare after Covid will entail more than simple reform of the existing welfare system or even injection of public expenditure. For a start, political, economic, cultural and demographic conditions are very different today. There will need to be a radical overhaul of the very fiscal and financial structures underpinning the delivery of welfare. But secondly, any revision of welfare requires a rethinking not only of its economic and operational dimensions, but of the very values that underpin a ‘welfare society’ that is fit for purpose. What principles might inform any kind of reform?
Peter Hennessey suggests five key criteria for a reconstructed welfare system. These are: social care, social housing, technical education, combatting climate change, and preparing the nation for the impact of Artificial Intelligence on society. The moral heart of this is, according to Hennessey, the rekindling of a sense of a ‘shared duty of care’; a return not only to the collective values of 1939-45 but also a reminder of the way people came together during the Covid pandemic. Hennessey’s five ‘goods’ also reflect the necessity of preventative and holistic welfare provision.
So in the spirit of Beveridge’s five Giants and Hennessey’s five goods, here are some further suggestions. (You can read more about these in my article in Crucible, July 2022). They are: good governance, good citizenship, good work, good health and good earth.
The Covid pandemic taught us that state intervention, in the form of the furlough scheme, the power of state as provider and purchaser of major public health supplies, funding for NHS, or commissioning of scientific research, were all vital. Yet as the ‘Partygate’ controversy has shown, good governance is essential, as any functioning public policy rests in part on the probity, honesty and integrity of politicians.
Equally, however, Covid showed the importance of the voluntary sector and a range of community activism, formal and spontaneous, in delivering local and flexible responses to homes and neighbourhoods. Whether it is improving health or tackling crime, regenerating communities or beating poverty, active citizens are needed alongside responsible and responsive governments.
Similarly, during lockdown we all became aware of the contribution of essential workers, in health care, emergency services, transport and retailing. The reality of low pay and poor working conditions for many workers in those sectors highlights how urgently we need to rethink patterns of employment and remuneration for vital sections of the workforce.
The Covid pandemic exposed many structural inequalities in the health of the nation as well as highlighting the connections between physical, emotional and mental well-being. Finally, our concepts of welfare, wealth and prosperity can no longer be considered independent of the state of the earth. The future of human welfare must also encompass environmental health and sustainability. Our own well-being as individuals and as a species in the long-term is vitally dependent on access to green space and open air as well as sustainable and environmentally sensible agriculture and food production; our economic efficiency rests on sustainable transport and energy policies.
Attention to the basic principles and values underpinning the future of welfare would enable the recalibration of government priorities away from short-term fixes towards a long-range, fundamental revisioning of policy and purpose. Might the accession of a new monarch open the possibility for just such an approach, through a new generation of Royal Commissions?
Elaine Graham is chair of Modern Church Trustees and a Fellow of the British Academy.