Welfare's great worker

William Beveridge
April 17, 1998

In the last years of the 20th century it is difficult to discuss welfare policies without mentioning the name of William Beveridge. It still appears in the headlines. At times it is difficult to believe that the Beveridge Report appeared more than half a century ago. Beveridge was born in the 19th century, of course, in 1879, and the first chapter of Jose Harris's superb biography is called "A late-Victorian childhood". Other writers have compared him with "eminent Victorians" such as Chadwick and Shaftesbury. Yet Beveridge (who died in 1963) was very much a man of our own century, which he helped to fashion. Carlyle, Ruskin and William Morris do not figure in Harris's index, as they would do in a book on say R. H. Tawney, Beveridge's brother-in-law, G. D. H. Cole, quoted ten times in the Harris index, or Clement Attlee. Toynbee Hall comes into the Beveridge story, but not Arnold Toynbee whose life gave it more than its name.

In assessing the nature and extent of Beveridge's contribution to this century much, perhaps most, attention has to be paid to his Edwardian years when, like many of his socially aware contemporaries, he was driven to examine the relationship between state and society, the individual and government, law and opinion, market forces and legislation, the heart and the mind. It is dangerous, as Harris points out in a thoughtful conclusion, to use "such crude and catch-all dichotomies as social versus capitalism, individualism versus state intervention", but the danger lies not in identifying the dichotomies but in emphasising the word "versus".

In his long life Beveridge changed his mind more than once, as often indeed as Winston Churchill, with whom he had an ambivalent relationship; and it is impossible to write about him in any depth without examining all his many "variations of opinion and sentiment". As Harris suggests, they were not peculiar to himself: "They mirrored certain conflicting strands within the elite political culture of the British nation in the first half of the 20th century, and to a certain extent in popular culture as well."

To pursue Harris's suggestion further means moving, as she herself has done in other books and articles, from biography into social history, with the politics, and not just the party politics, always put in, and with both halves of the century brought in and not just the first. We do not get far if we think of intellectual and social currents in entirely party terms. Beveridge himself, who wrote a book in 1945 (at election time) called Why I am a Liberal, stated his own position more memorably in Plan for Britain without mentioning the word "Liberal". "You may begin to think I am a contrary person. Wherever I see a Conservative audience, I am inclined to say that if there were a Socialist Party in Britain I should join it. And, when I see a body of what, I hope, are good socialists, I am inclined to stress the other point of view and the merits of private enterprise and private risk."

Beveridge emerges from this biography as a highly complex character, a perfect, if not always congenial, subject for a biographer. It was a reviewer in the Journal of Economic History, quoted on the jacket of this new edition, who noted that "not the least of the pleasures of this excellent book is the acute, sometimes hilarious, picture Harris provides of Beveridge's private life". Certainly funny stories collected around Beveridge. Many of them were told me by John Fulton, who was a close friend, the kind of witness whom Harris does not, perhaps could not, draw upon. He is missing from the index as is David Glass, another great source of stories. Mary Agnes Hamilton, whom Harris does quote, would have loved to tell her more stories had she not died in 1966.

Many of the stories originated in the London School of Economics, where Beveridge was director from 1919 to 1937. There is a good chapter on the LSE in this new edition, a story which has as many twists and turns as Beveridge's life as a whole, and the role of Jessy Mair, whom he married at the age of 63, is considered at some length in a brilliant new prologue. It is possible for Harris, with restraints removed - and with some new evidence at her disposal - to dissect in more detail than in 1979 "the roots of Beveridge's public life as a social reformer in the private history of Beveridge the man". The story is certainly not always a hilarious one, and in telling it Harris draws as much attention to Beveridge's "rootlessness" as to his roots. Her final judgement is sympathetic. "Far from being inhuman, his face was all too human in its tale of early bereavement, personal misjudgements, moral frailty, and making the best of blighted hopes. Such experiences render him a true hero of the 'disenchanted' 20th century, at least as much as, if not more than, the epic story of his public career as author and protagonist of the modern 'welfare state'."

Harris makes two particularly interesting points which have not been made elsewhere, the first en passant, the second carefully pondered over. The first deserves to be pondered over by her readers. Beveridge was born in India, and his young parents believed that in the 1880s poverty in Calcutta bore "a much less dread prospect than in London or in Edinburgh". The second also brings in Edinburgh. There were Scottish as well as English strands in Beveridge's thought, and it was curiously fitting, therefore, that in 1944 he was elected MP for Berwick on Tweed. Beveridge always thought in terms of Britain, attaching importance to the idea of a "virtuous polity" for the whole realm. For Harris this was one of the two keys to his thinking. The other was his remorseless "positivist" conception of social science.

Lord Briggs was formerly provost, Worcester College, Oxford.

William Beveridge: A Biography

Author - Jose Harris
ISBN - 0 19 820685 2
Publisher - Chicago University Press
Price - £18.99
Pages - 511

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