Sir William Beveridge

A true visionary

Who was William Beveridge? Whether you can answer that question may well depend on which generation you belong to or if you are or have been a student of British social policy. And yet there is not one person living in Britain today who will not have been touched by the work and vision of this one man.

Sir William Beveridge

Sir William Beveridge

William Henry Beveridge was born in Bengal (Bangladesh) in 1879. His father was a judge in the Indian Civil Service. William was himself a lawyer having been educated at Charterhouse and Balliol College, Oxford. He was sub-warden of Toynbee Hall from 1903 – 1905 and it was his experience of seeing poverty and squalor at first hand in the East End that prompted his desire to do something to promote social justice and eradicate hardship. In 1908 he joined the UK Board of Trade and from 1909 – 1916 he became a leading authority on unemployment and social security. As well as writing a study of the labour markets in 1909, he also helped draw up the Labour Exchanges Act in the same year and part ii of the 1911 National Insurance Act.

In 1919, he became Director of the London School of Economics and, under his tenure, it was regarded as one of the world’s leading centres for social science. He took up Mastership of University College, Oxford in 1937 before joining the government in 1940. It was in 1942 that he produced his greatest achievement – a report looking into the ways that Britain could be totally reconstructed after the war (called the ‘Report on Social Insurance and Allied Services’) and pave the way for a better Britain. It was this report that identified the five ‘Giant Evils’ the government should fight namely: ‘Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness.’

It was after the wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill was defeated in the 1945 general election and the Labour Party took office with Clement Attlee at the helm, that the welfare state proposals outlined in Beveridge’s report were introduced. This included the setting up of a National Health Service (1948) with free medical treatment for all. A national social security system was also established so that, along with the new NHS, the population of the UK would be protected from the ‘cradle to the grave.’ He did not intend that Britain should become a nanny state – on the contrary, he believed that the State should not remove from individuals the will to improve their lot by hard work and thrift, so he deliberately set the benefits at the minimum to provide a platform for individuals to provide for themselves above this if they so wished.

Beveridge also believed that full employment was a crucial part of the welfare programme and in 1944, he published another report called ‘Full Employment in a Free Society.’ In the same year he became Liberal Member of Parliament for Berwick-upon-Tweed and, after losing his seat in 1945, served as a Liberal peer in the House of Lords becoming leader of the Liberals. He died on 16 March 1963.

"The vision of Beveridge shone through his 1942 report. His ideas were truly revolutionary. The Britain that he lived in before the Second World War, particularly during the depression in the 1930s, bears no relation to what came afterwards. The attitude to social justice and people being the arbiters of their own hardships and therefore would have to suffer the consequences was ingrained. He turned that way of thinking on its head. His legacy is with us today. It’s been refined and altered along the way to suit changing attitudes and changes in British society, but the ethos behind his blueprint remains true. It was and still is ‘a big and fine thing"

(Manchester Guardian newspaper, 1942).

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