The Great Welfare State Myth

By Parrott, Alec L. | Contemporary Review, October 1995 | Go to article overview

The Great Welfare State Myth


Parrott, Alec L., Contemporary Review


The summer of 1995 has seen a crop of fiftieth anniversary programmes on the television commemorating the end of the war in Europe and the election of Clement Attlee's Labour Government in 1945. These two events have been linked with the publication in December 1942 of the famous Beveridge Report Social Insurance and Allied Services, making up a composite whole which might well be described as the myth of the welfare state. The story as told is so much at variance with the facts, that serious researchers are beginning to wonder whether there is some kind of conspiracy to prevent the true version of events from being revealed.

According to the myth, Winston Churchill was a good wartime leader, but he was too busy winning the war to think about the welfare of the ordinary people and their peacetime needs. So it was left to the Labour Party Ministers in the wartime Coalition Government to take responsibility for such matters, and they appointed Sir William (later Lord) Beveridge to investigate them and report. He recommended widespread reforms, but Churchill would not accept them, so it was not until the 1945 election that the ordinary people were able to throw out Churchill and the Conservatives, allowing Attlee and his Labour Government to bring in the welfare state that Beveridge had proposed nearly three years earlier, a triumph of socialist endeavour over Tory reaction.

If this had been true, one would have expected the official social history of the Second World War to say so. After all, it was written by a left wing academic, Richard Titmuss, and published with the title Problems of Social Policy in 1950, during the lifetime of the Attlee Government. But the book does not contain a single reference to the welfare state, and Beveridge is mentioned only in a footnote as the author of an appendix to a 1936 report on Food Supply in Time of War.

Serious researchers have found it easier to demolish the myth than to replace it with the truth. Frank Honigsbaum, for example, the research director of an American trade union, spent 22 years in this country studying the origins of the National Health Service, before publishing his masterpiece The Division in British Medicine. One thing he was determined to find out was why Beveridge, prompted by Keynes, was so anxious to nationalize the Prudential and other industrial assurance companies. But he had to admit defeat, writing `we are unlikely to discover that until the two missing boxes of correspondence on the Beveridge Report are found'.

This was a reference to Jose Harris's admirable William Beveridge: A Biography, published in 1977, again after many years of research. Dr. Harris had searched through the collection of nearly five hundred boxes of personal papers amassed by Lord Beveridge and deposited in the British Library of Political Science. Two boxes were missing, and it transpired that they had never arrived at the library, nor had the correspondence in them been used by Lady Beveridge, to whom the boxes had been sent, in her book Beveridge and His Plan, which had been published in 1954.

The theme of the book was the proposition that the Plan for Social Security contained in the Beveridge Report was `the creative inspiration of a single individual' (the author's husband), a difficult claim to substantiate, since the identical plan, with the addition of a proposal for a minimum wage and a demand that the reforms should be carried out before the end of 1941, had appeared in Picture Post on 4 January 1941, some five months before the setting up of the Beveridge Committee and nearly two years before the Beveridge Report was published. The author was A. D. K. (later Sir David) Owen, socialist academic and fellow member with Titmuss of the 1941 Committee, a left wing pressure group sponsored by Edward Hulton, millionaire owner of Picture Post.

By the time Lady Beveridge's book was published, her husband's fame had been dimmed by time, but Owen was pursuing a distinguished career as a top international civil servant in the United Nations. …

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