William Beveridge: A Biography

By Jose Harris | Go to book overview

9
LABOUR, MUNITIONS, AND THE GREAT WAR

I

IN July 1914 Beveridge attended a dinner given by Lady Lyttleton, at which the conversation turned upon prediction of the future. 'I told them,' Beveridge recorded, 'that I knew only one really good thing about the Future -- theirs or mine or anyone else's -- viz. that it was unknown. I did not propose to take that charm from the future. It has indeed been said that if we could all see the future as well as we can see the past, there would be no future. We should all commit suicide through terror or boredom at the prospect.'1

These light words, bandied around at a fashionable party, had in retrospect a certain painful irony, for to Beveridge as to most Englishmen of the period it seemed that the era of peace and progress could never come to an end. 'It seemed a time full of event and high endeavour,' recalled Beveridge twenty years later, '[of] working with great allies and leaders to make a better world. . . . Peace had become a habit and war unbelievable to us as to 99 people in ioo of all ages in Britain.'2 To a few more prescient observers there were threatening signs on the political horizon -- in the form of recurrent diplomatic incidents, the international arms race, and endemic labour unrest. But to Beveridge and most of his circle in the spring of 1914 the only flaw in an otherwise tranquil political landscape was the problem of Ulster and Home Rule. Even on the Irish question Beveridge was optimistic. He was a convinced supporter of Asquith's Home Rule Bill; and after the Curragh mutiny in March 1914 he recorded hopefully that 'this last crisis has probably done good in bringing us all near enough to civil war to see what it really means (in moving troops and arms etc.). In fact it's been like a mild attack of the same disease -- an inoculation -- which may help to make us immune from the real disease later and prevent it from attacking us.'3

On a personal level the year before the war was for Beveridge a period of marking time. 'I feel curiously unchanged,' he remarked, 'though so much has been changed in my corner of the state.'4 In July 1913 shortly after his rejection

____________________
1
BP, IIa, MS conversations with ASB, 23 June 27 July 1914.
2
BP, Ic 50, notes for WHB's diary, 29-30 Dec. 1934.
3
BP, IIa, WHB to ASB, 6 Apr. 1914.
4
BP, IIa, WHB to ASB, 7 Jan. 1914.

-196-

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