Beveridge Report

The Second World War helped to create a remarkable unity among the British people. Most people felt that the only way to defeat Nazi Germany was to stand firmly together. The unity was most clearly expressed in their readiness to accept the war sacrifices imposed by Winston Churchill and his coalition government. Between 1940 and 1945 the British government contained members of all three major political groupings: the Conservative Party, Labour Party and the Liberal Party.

There was a strong feeling that the British people should be rewarded for their sacrifice and resolution. To encourage the British people to continue their fight against the axis powers, the government promised reforms that would create a more equal society. The first of these was the 1944 Education Act. This measure raised the school leaving age to 15 and provided free secondary education for all children.

The British government also asked Sir William Beveridge to write a report on the best ways of helping people on low incomes. In December 1942 Beveridge published a report that 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". These measures were eventually introduced by the Labour Government that was elected in 1945.

Sir William Beveridge, a member of the Liberal Party, was elected to the House of Commons in 1944. The following year the new Labour Government began the process of implementing Beveridge's proposals that provided the basis of the modern welfare state.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Harold Wilson, Memoirs: 1916-1964 (1986)

They underestimated their Beveridge. With only a small staff to help him, he produced one of the greatest and most revolutionary documents in our social history. He certainly was not guilty of underselling his achievement. When he produced his report a little over a year later, he said modestly to me: This is the greatest advance in our history. There can be no turning back. From now on Beveridge is not the name of a man; it is the name of a way of life and not only for Britain, but for the whole civilized world.'

He had presented his detractors with a highly embarrassing, forward-looking report, rapidly accepted as a blueprint for post-war Britain. It was seized on in Parliament. He became, for the first time, not a Whitehall expert, but a national figure, in some way the harbinger of the kind of postwar world people wanted to see. Public opinion forced the adoption of his report by Parliament.

Beveridge was an administrative genius, probably without parallel in this century. Set him a problem - food rationing in the First World War; the call-up and fuel rationing in the Second World War - and he would retire to a small room and produce an answer. But as a practical administrator he was a disaster, because of his arrogance and rudeness to those appointed to work with him and his total inability to delegate. The few research assistants, including the present writer, who stayed with him, biting the bullet, found him inspiring and constructive in research, impossible in personal relations.

(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 emphasise 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) The Picture Post (February, 1943)

The House of Commons has said its say. It has not precisely rejected the Beveridge Report - indeed, so far as words go, it gave it a kind of welcome. It has not even quite killed the Report. It has done something different. It has filleted it. It has taken out the backbone and the bony structure. It has added up the portions that are left - and assured us that they amount to 70%. Sixteen portions out of twenty-three by the Herbert Morrison reckoning - and the only proviso attached is that none of these portions is quite definitely and finally guaranteed. The opponents of the Report - from Sir John Anderson all the way down to Sir Herbert Williams - spoke as though the basis of the Report were an attempt to cadge money off the rich on behalf of the not entirely deserving poor.

Yes. They might be willing to give something. They recognized the justice of the claim. But not all that was asked. And certainly not now. And, above all, they could not make promises for the future. Sir Arnold Gridley wondered "how want is to be defined. Can it necessarily be met by any specific monetary sum? The family of a hard-working and thrifty man can live without want, perhaps on £3 a week, whereas the family of a man who misuses his money or spends it on drink or gambling, may be very hard put to it if his wages are £5 or £6 a week."

The fear that small children or old age pensioners may take to drink or gambling is a very real one to large sections of the Conservative Party.

Sir lan Fraser congratulated the Chancellor on having "done a most difficult thing". He had called the House back "from the fancy fairyland in which it loves to indulge, to reality, and thereby rendered a great service to us all." Further on in his speech Sir LAN carried misrepresentation to the pitch of mania. Objecting to Sir William's plan to make insurance compulsory and national, so as to cut the cost of collection to a fraction, he declared that Sir William's object in doing this was "to steal a capital asset so as to get some revenue for his scheme".

Finally, Sir Herbert Williams let out of his own private bag the largest cat released on the floor of the House of Commons since Baldwin explained why he had to fight the 1935 election on a lie. He did it with the words "If the scheme is postponed until six months after the termination of hostilities the then House of Commons will reject it by a very large majority." Exactly. If we don't get the foundations of a new Britain laid while the war is on, we shall never get them laid at all. Sir Herbert Williams and others of the same kind - or nearly the same kind - will see to that. For so huge an indiscretion the Conservative Party should un-knight Sir Herbert instantly.

These snivelling objections are quoted for one purpose only: to show the low level at which the opponents of the Report chose to conduct the battle. They fought it on the Poor Law level, the three halfpenny, ninepence-for-fourpence, Kingsley Wood and Means Test level. The common people of this country were asking for more than their directors and controllers chose to give them. They could get back where they belonged, and say thank-you the mercies were no smaller.

(4) German News Service (17th February, 1943)

The Beveridge Plan was given so much publicity for the sole purpose of demonstrating to the world Great Britain's claim to leadership in the social sphere. In Europe there has been nothing but laughter at this attempt. It now transpires that the whole Beveridge humbug has feet of clay. The wine of enthusiasm of the British leftists has been watered down by insurance experts, doctors, pensioned officers and big businessmen. Nothing will remain of the comprehensive social scheme but the ensuring of a State grant for the veterinary treatment of cats and dogs.

(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) 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 postwar 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.