State Control

By Vestey, Michael | The Spectator, December 7, 2002 | Go to article overview

State Control


Vestey, Michael, The Spectator


Every century has its social reformers and there's little doubt that the greatest of the 20th century was Sir William Beveridge, whose report in 1942 laid the foundations of what we call the welfare state. He was the subject of The Archive Hour: The Beveridge Inheritance on Radio Four (Saturday) presented by an expert in this area, the Labour MP Frank Field, a selfconfessed admirer of Beveridge.

Using crackly archive clips from the period, he took us through Beveridge's early career. As an academic at Oxford, Beveridge became interested in poverty amidst so much wealth, deciding to become a social scientist. Field played a 1940s radio reconstruction of an encounter between Beveridge and an unemployed man in London who spoke of walking miles every day in search of work. Beveridge asks the man, 'But isn't there anywhere to go where'll you'll be told there is work going? It's unbelievable. We have stock exchanges, exchanges for meat, for corn, for every commodity, but labour, the kingpin of them all has to be hawked from door to door. An exchange for labour, that's what's needed, an employment exchange.'

He became sub-warden of Toynbee Hall in the East End of London where residents, the poor, were expected to work and play a part in the local community. He studied unemployment before the first world war and later became a civil servant in the Lloyd George government, implementing the administration of labour exchanges. He became friendly with Winston Churchill, who was something of a social reformer himself. Beveridge came up with the idea of wartime rationing to solve the problem of food shortages. During his years as director of the London School of Economics from 1919 to 1937, whenever the government of the day wanted a report, Beveridge was summoned.

In the early part of the second world war, the Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, the former trade union leader who later became foreign secretary in the Attlee government, began to dislike Beveridge and put him in charge of a short-term review of welfare. It produced the Beveridge Report, which people queued to read and which proposed National Insurance for state pensions, cash benefits, children's allowances and a scheme of medical treatment for everybody, all of which remain today.

Churchill, though, knew it couldn't be afforded during the war and a version of it wasn't implemented until Attlee became prime minister in 1945. …

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