William Beveridge

William Beveridge

William Beveridge, the eldest son of a judge in the Indian civil service, was born in Bengal, India, on 5th March 1879. After studying at Charterhouse and Balliol College, Oxford, he became a lawyer.

Beveridge became interested in the social services and wrote about the subject for the Morning Post. In 1909 Beveridge, now considered to be the country's leading authority on unemployment insurance, joined the Board of Trade and helped organize the implementation of the national system of labour exchanges.

In 1909 Beveridge was appointed director of Labour Exchanges and his ideas influenced David Lloyd George and led to the passing of the 1911 National Insurance Act. During the First World War Beveridge was involved in mobilizing and controlling man power.

After the war Beveridge was knighted and made permanent secretary to the Ministry of Food. In 1919 he left the civil service to become director of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Over the next few years he served on several commissions and committees on social policy.

In 1937 Beveridge was appointed Master of University College, Oxford. Three years later, Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour, asked him to look into existing schemes of social security, which had grown up haphazardly, and make recommendations. The report on Social Insurance and Allied Services was published in December 1942.

The report proposed that all people of working age should pay a weekly contribution. In return, benefits would be paid to people who were sick, unemployed, retired or widowed. Beveridge argued that this system would provide a minimum standard of living "below which no one should be allowed to fall".

A second report, Full Employment in a Free Society, appeared in 1944. Later that year, Beveridge, a member of the Liberal Party, was elected to the House of Commons. The following year the new Labour Government began the process of implementing Beveridge's proposals that provided the basis of the modern welfare state.

Beveridge was created Baron Beveridge of Tuggal and eventually became leader of the Liberals in the House of Lords. William Beveridge, the author of Power and Influence (1953), died on 16th March 1963.

Primary Sources

(1) Harold Wilson worked as a research assistant under William Beveridge. He wrote about the experience in his autobiography, Memoirs: 1916-1964 (1986)

I found him a devil to work for. The long summer vacation lasted nearly four months; in my first after joining him, he allotted me three weeks' holiday. The rest of the time I was required to spend with him at his cottage at Avebury in Wiltshire, which he claimed was the oldest house in England. All our research work was done in an uncomfortable room we shared above the barn. Early rising was not my forte but Beveridge, after a swim in the coldest water I have ever known, kindly awakened me each morning at seven with a cup of tea. After dressing, without a swim, I put in a stint of two hours' work with him before breakfast, a formidable meal presided over by his cousin and constant companion for many years, Mrs Jessie Mair.

When I started working with Beveridge, I soon found that, although he was ruthless at getting at the facts and drove me as hard as he drove himself, he had certain ingrained views about unemployment, still derived from the historic study he had made in 1909. At that time, unemployment as a recognized social factor was relatively new, although it had always been there. Indeed I discovered that the word first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary less than twenty years before Beveridge began his studies. Beveridge was the first major figure to subject the problem to serious analysis, based partly on the figures he was able to obtain through the Poor Law Commission and partly through his characteristically humane work at Toynbee Hall in East London, where both he and, later, Attlee first became aware of the 'social problem'.

The main conclusion in his original work had been that unemployment was mostly frictional, seasonal in certain trades, aggravated by technological and structural change, but principally due to ignorance of the unemployed of the jobs that in any normally working society would be available. This had led to his appointment by Winston Churchill to set up the British system of labour exchanges and he become its first director. Even with the elimination of frictional problems, as far as administratively possible, by the time I joined him Beveridge was still not able to recognize that there could be in a modern society a permanent and inbuilt under-demand for labour. Equilibrium as then understood could be maintained at a level far below the full economic capacity of the country, measured in terms of the employable labour force.

(2) George Orwell, BBC radio broadcast (20th February 1943)

The Beveridge scheme of social security is still under debate. The government has already proposed the adoption of the greater part of it but a Labour amendment in the House of Commons demanding the adoption of the scheme in its entirety received as many as 117 votes have spoken of the Beveridge scheme in earlier news commentaries and don't want to detail its provisions again I merely mention the debate now taking place in order to emphasize two things. One is, that whatever else goes through, family allowances are certain to be adopted though it is not yet certain on what scale. The other is that the principle of social insurance has come to stay and even the most reactionary thinkers in Great Britain would now hardly dare to oppose this. The Beveridge scheme may ultimately be adopted in the somewhat mutilated form, but it is something of an achievement even to be debating such a thing in the middle of a desperate war in which we are still fighting for survival.

(3) Henry (Chips) Channon, diary entry (2nd December, 1942)

I attended a meeting of the 1922 Committee, which was addressed by Sir William Beveridge. He is a pleasant, earnest, professional little man, obviously capable of immense work. He explained the report, which surprisingly enough irritates the Socialists more than it does us. I think it should be adopted.

(4) Tom Hopkinson, Of This Our Time (1982)

In December 1942, Sir William Beveridge was the master of University College, Oxford. After a successful career in the civil service, he had been made director of the London School of Economics, remaining there from 1919 to 1937, when he moved to Oxford. His concern with social problems had been lifelong, from his early days as a Toynbee Hall social worker and a protégé of Sidney and Beatrice Webb around 1905, to his appointment in 1934 as chairman of a government committee on unemployment insurance. During the first weeks of the war, in an article published in The Times he had called for a full-scale planning of the wartime economy, and his convictions had been strengthened by what he had seen since 1940 - in his role as temporary civil servant in the Ministry of Labour - of the failure to organize manpower as he felt it should be organized.

The opportunity which would lead Beveridge to much more than instant fame had been presented to him inconspicuously enough, back in May 1941, with his appointment as chairman of an interdepartmental committee, its brief being to prepare "a survey of the existing schemes of social insurance and allied services, including workmen's compensation, and to make recommendations". An innocent enough way of keeping a body of senior officials occupied, it would appear; yet from this modest cocoon would emerge a plan to establish full security for all British citizens 'from the cradle to the grave', and lay practical foundations for the post-war welfare state. This was the renowned Beveridge Report.

Its author's assets for drafting the report were an immense capacity for hard work, strong convictions and a thorough knowledge of his immensely complex subject. He was also, within the limits set by his character, a skilful political manipulator whose experience of Whitehall from the inside, understanding of politicians, and shrewd evaluation of the effect of popular opinion and of press support in putting his work across, would stand him in good stead. A serious obstacle in his way, however, lay in a certain aspect of his character. He had now been in positions of authority for over twenty years and his urbane assurance of his own superiority, turning rapidly to irritation were he in any way challenged, alienated many of those whose backing he most needed. Indeed the hostility which his manner provoked might well have destroyed the effect of all his valuable work, but for extreme good fortune in the matter of timing.

(5) Henry (Chips) Channon, diary entry (18th February, 1943)

Beveridge Day. I spent most of it in the House and watched the revolt grow. The Whips are ill-informed, insensitive to opinion and rumour: and the much-abused Margesson is now missed . . . Herbert Morrison wound up for the Government in a balanced, clever, eloquent speech which revealed his increasing Conservatism - was it a bid for the future leadership of a Coalition Government? The crowded House listened with interest and even the more truculent Socialists, whilst later prepared to vote against their leaders, were too cowardly to attack Morrison.

(6) Harold Wilson, speech on Sir William Beveridge at the University of London (1964)

Influence, never power, in the conventional sense - but a power to influence the thinking of millions of the urgency, the simplicity and the clarity of his solution to the problem of the poverty of Britain. For a brief moment he saw himself in a - role for which his intolerance of human frailty and even his political naivety would never have fitted him. He must be judged in the succession of great public servants - Sir Edwin Chadwick and Sir Robert Morant - rather than a challenge in his own time to Ernest Bevin or Stafford Cripps.

I have always thought - I once said this to Beveridge at a time when he would have taken it as a compliment - that he would be to this century what Edwin Chadwick was to the social reform of the Victorian Age. Let us judge him then not by the test he might in the short term have applied to himself. Let us respect him as a great contributor to practical, not theoretical economics, as one of the greatest social reformers in our history, as a man with few peers in his own generation, either in intellectual ability or in intellectual integrity, and as a man who could inspire all who came under his dominating sway with a love of work for its own sake, of the discovery of truth for its own sake and the application of that truth for the betterment of his fellow citizens.