The man who inspired the welfare state and is idolised by Labour was in fact an anti-statist Liberal
Although no punishment is legally ordained, few crimes are more cruel than intellectual grave-robbing, the misappropriation of someone’s name and legacy. We have just marked the 70th anniversary of the famous Beveridge report, and in a week when the welfare state is said to be imperilled by the present government, its supposed begetter has been lauded on all sides. Shirley Williams sings the praises of Beveridge on Radio 4, while Will Hutton names him as his hero. But do these admirers really know about their idol?
A fascinating and emblematic figure of his age, William Beveridge was a child of the Raj, born in Bengal in 1879 the son of a judge in the Indian civil service who himself hailed from Dunfermline, and William inherited a streak of Scottish Presbyterian rectitude. He had a rather lonely childhood, before public school in England. Instead of scholarship or the bar, for which he seemed destined, Beveridge became absorbed in the questions of social policy and social reform.
Before and during the great war, he worked in Whitehall, when he devised the Unemployment Insurance Act, but he was disappointed in his hopes, and returned to academic life, as director of the LSE and then head of an Oxford college. When the second war came he again hoped to play a central part, but was again neglected and pushed aside, as his biographer José Harris says, “into the chairmanship of an obscure interdepartmental inquiry into the co-ordination of social services – an inquiry that was not expected to report until after the war was over”.
But in December 1942 Beveridge did report, assailing “the five giants” of idleness, ignorance, disease, squalor, and want, and commending universal social insurance and health care as the remedy. Churchill wanted to ignore Beveridge, but public and parliament were riveted. The report quickly sold 70,000 copies, and in the new year the government suffered its only Commons defeat of the war when forced to accept Beveridge’s principles.
Actually, Churchill couldn’t complain. In his hot youth he had been a close ally of David Lloyd George in laying the foundations of state welfare, from old age pensions to wages boards. Indeed, when Lloyd George died in great old age in March 1945, Churchill saluted him in significant language. Lloyd George had launched this country “into the broad stream of social betterment and social security along which all modern parties now steer”. Months later, Labour won its landslide, before putting Beveridge’s scheme into action, and then some, with the creation of the NHS and cradle-to-grave welfare.
But here’s the fascinating thing about Beveridge, though his devotees seem unaware of it. He was twice a wartime convert to interventionism – and twice he repented. The huge degree of government control during the great war left him, as Professor Harris says, “considerably more sympathetic to traditional views of laissez-faire and considerably less enthusiastic for state intervention than he had been in 1914”. And so it was after the next war.
Like Keynes, whose name is also so often now invoked, Beveridge was not a socialist at all but a lifelong Liberal. In 1944 he left Oxford to become a Liberal MP, believing quite wrongly that a great Liberal revival was in the offing. Instead came the Labour landslide, and the Attlee government’s managerialist-socialist state – to Beveridge’s dismay. He was profoundly attached to the British traditions of personal freedom and individual initiative, which he now saw under grave threat.
More specifically, he was shocked by the Labour government’s assault on the voluntary friendly societies, those glorious creations of independent working-class endeavour. In 1948, Beveridge published Voluntary Action, a book which was a very different kind of manifesto from his report six years earlier, a passionate defence of voluntary provision of social welfare, and quite obviously a palinode: Beveridge was recanting his own role in the creation of a vast centralised bureaucracy.
And by the way, I wonder if Lady Williams and Will Hutton know one other thing about him. Beveridge detested the expression “welfare state”.