William Beveridge: A Biography

By Jose Harris | Go to book overview

INTRODUCTION

IN August 1938, Sir William Beveridge spent a week-end in Hampshire at Passfield Corner, the home of his old friends, Sidney and Beatrice Webb. The famous partners were now both in their eighties, and Sidney was too tired to talk. With the indefatigable Beatrice, however, Beveridge went for two long walks and talks upon the Hampshire downs. Their conversation ranged over a number of topics that they had been arguing about for the previous thirty years -- the ideal organization of society, methods of economic and social research, questions of social welfare, and the problem of the unemployed. 'His conclusion is that the major if not the only remedy for unemployment is lower wages, 'recorded Mrs Webb:

. . . if this does not happen the capitalist will take his money and his brains to other countries where labour is cheap . . . He admitted almost defiantly that he was not personally concerned with the condition of the common people. . . . He declared that he had no living philosophy -- he was a thoroughgoing materialist agnostic about man's relation to the universe; and he had no particular credo or ideal as to man's relation to man.1

Four years later Beveridge became the author of the most popular blueprint for social reform ever produced in Britain, the Report on Social Insurance and Allied Services of 1942. Published shortly after the battle of Alamein this report was seen by many people as the light at the end of the tunnel of war, and as a promise of 'social justice' for the post-war world. Beveridge himself was widely acclaimed as the prophet of peaceful social revolution, as the champion of new forms of collective altruism, and -- in the decades after the war -- as the characteristic philosopher of the British 'welfare state'. These two pictures of Beveridge -- both of them exaggerated but both basically authentic -- give some idea of the complexities that lay beneath the ideas and character of this rather baffling man. These complexities are reflected in the recollections of people who knew Beveridge and in their assessments of his work. To some he seemed wise and lovable, to others overbearing and vain. To some he was a man of dazzling intellect, to others a tedious bore. To some

____________________
1
Passfield Papers, Beatrice Webb's diary, 10 Aug. 1938.

-1-

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