Beveridge, William (1879–1963)

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British economist.

William Henry Beveridge is closely associated with the formation of the modern British welfare state, largely through the publication of Social Insurance and Allied Services, also called the Beveridge Report . He was deeply involved with the Liberal reforms of 1906–1914, Director of the London School of Economics between 1919 and 1937, and Master of University College, Oxford, from 1937. Beveridge was drawn into the civil service in Winston Churchill's wartime administration in 1940, and was put in charge of a relatively insignificant Ministry of Labour manpower survey. Released from his duties, in June 1941 Arthur Greenwood, Minister without Portfolio, made Beveridge chairman of the proposed inquiry into the reorganization of social insurance and allied services, which was to form part of a plan for postwar reconstruction.

Beveridge's brief was to survey the existing national schemes for social insurance and allied services, to examine how they interrelated, and to make recommendations. When it became clear that the report would be controversial, it was decided that Beveridge would sign the report himself and that the civil services would be regarded as an advisory body. The report was published in December 1942, just after the British military success at El Alamein and at a time when British confidence and expectation was high. It was an immediate bestseller and made three major claims or objectives. First, it claimed to be a break from the past, although in fact it was based very much upon the contributory system adopted by the Liberals before 1914, and Beveridge wrote that "I am sure that it is good Liberal doctrine" (Beveridge Papers, IIb, 42, letter dated 14 January 1943). Secondly, social insurance was to be directed at tackling want, although it was assumed that it would be part of a combined attack upon the "five giant problems of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness." Thirdly, it sought to combine state and personal initiative, and assumed that any government would wish to establish a family allowance system (as Beveridge had done for his staff at the London School of Economics), create a comprehensive health service, and establish full employment. With all these in place, he argued that the attack upon want would work.

The Beveridge scheme was not particularly revolutionary in its form. Much like the pre-1914 Liberal reforms, it suggested that, in return for a single and uniform weekly contribution, a qualified individual would receive standard benefits for sickness, unemployment, widows, orphans, old age, maternity, industrial injuries, and funerals. The system would be based upon a flat-rate contribution, and would provide subsistence benefits for all, although there would be room for adjustment based upon differing circumstances. In principle, however, it was to be universal; this is where it was different from the selective approach adopted by previous social legislation. In addition, the tackling of want was to be connected with the tackling of the other four giants. Therefore, as author Derek Fraser suggests, "Here, in the totality of vision, was the revolutionary element in the Beveridge Report" (p. 216). It would work if governments remained committed to ensuring that there was full employment (unemployment not being more than 3 percent).

The Beveridge Report certainly created a storm in wartime Britain and it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Nevertheless, Churchill was less than enamored of it. He was suspicious of where it might lead and noted that "Reconstruction was in the air" and that there was "a dangerous optimism … growing about post-war conditions" (Pelling, p. 170). As a result, Churchill refused to accept the recommendations, though Clement R. Attlee (1883–1967) and the Labour Party were supportive, Attlee stating that "Socialism does not admit to an alternative, Social Security to us can only mean Socialism" (Harris, p. 220). As a result, the Labour Party pressed for the government acceptance of the Beveridge Report, although a Labour resolution committing the government to accepting the Beveridge Report was beaten on 18 February 1943 by 335 votes to 119, with ninety-seven Labour MPs—twenty-two of whom were government ministers—voting for the resolution. Churchill's wartime administration was clearly in difficulty. With Labour 11 percent ahead of the Conservatives in the Gallup Poll, Churchill moved, reluctantly, toward setting up a Reconstruction Committee toward the end of 1943 that oversaw moves toward health, educational, and employment reforms during 1944 and 1945—the famous "White Paper Chase" that began to implement the Beveridge Report with, for instance, such documents as the white paper on Employment Policy (1944).

The Beveridge Report influenced the Attlee Labour government's postwar welfare state and shaped the domestic policies of postwar governments until the 1970s. Thereafter, the commitment to full employment, to universal provision, and many other aspects of the Beveridge Report was broken, and the Thatcher governments of 1979 to 1990 reintroduced selective social policies on a grand scale. Yet this was predictable given the great opposition the Beveridge scheme faced. Historians, as well as feminists, socialists, and Conservatives, have objected to the Beveridge welfare state for many different reasons. It has been argued that its universalism led to unnecessary expenditure and that there were many anomalies that cut across the provision, not least the continuance of the means test, which reduced benefits as family incomes rose, and the failure to merge the tax and benefit system. Conservative historians such as Correlli Barnett complain of the arrogance of the "Field Marshal Montgomery of social welfare" in imposing upon Britain a system of provision it could not afford; the "New Jerusalem" was not sustainable and was seen as responsible for Britain's industrial decline. This suggestion is debatable, but what is not is that the Beveridge Report shaped Britain's modern welfare state for about thirty years before falling foul of the problems of economic decline and the selective social policies of both Labour and Conservative governments.

See alsoUnited Kingdom; Welfare State.


Barnett, Correlli. The Audit of War: The Illusion and Reality of Britain as a Great Nation. London, 1986.

Beveridge, William. Social Insurance and Allied Services (Beveridge Report) . London, 1942.

Fraser, Derek. The Evolution of the British Welfare State: A History of Social Policy since the Industrial Revolution. 3rd ed. London, 2003.

Harris, José. William Beveridge: A Biography. Oxford, U.K., 1977.

Pelling, H. Britain and the Second World War. London, 1970.

Williams, Karel, and John Williams, eds. A Beveridge Reader. London, 1987.

Keith Laybourn