William Beveridge was an economist and social reformer, best known for his 1942 report ‘Social Insurance and Allied Services’ (the Beveridge Report), which formed the basis for the post-Second World War welfare state. In 1908, he had joined the Board of Trade and helped implement the Liberal government’s national system of labour exchanges, as well as a National Insurance scheme designed to combat unemployment and poverty. He was director of the London School of Economics from 1919–37 and served briefly as a Liberal MP from 1944–45.
When did you first hear about William Beveridge?
A conversation with my nan made me think about what he had achieved. She explained that she and my father might not have survived his birth had it not been for the brand new National Health Service (NHS). There was a serious complication which meant mother and baby (my father) spent a long time in hospital.
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What kind of person was he?
Beveridge had a sharp mind and a keen conscience, and was eager to improve the lives of those society had forgotten. From his early days he used his formidable skills as a lawyer and economist to promote social reform. In the great reforming Liberal government of 1906–14, he helped establish unemployment insurance and labour exchanges. And he never lost this hunger for reform. His dying words were: “I have a thousand things to do.”
What made Beveridge a hero?
He had an enormous influence on 20th-century Britain. If Lloyd George provided the political brilliance for the great welfare reforms of the pre-First World War Liberal government, Beveridge provided the intellectual firepower. And remember, a lot of the building blocks for the post-Second World War welfare state were first put in place by the Liberals, driven in part by Beveridge’s determination to fight the five “giant evils” of “want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness”. This resulted in the poor, for the first time, being given some protection from unemployment, illness and poverty in old age.
Later on, the Beveridge Report of 1942 established the postwar settlement and it broadly remains in place today.
What was Beveridge’s finest hour?
Although the 1945 election cut short Beveridge’s career as a Liberal MP, it started his most enduring legacy – the NHS. Labour was elected with a landslide and set about implementing the welfare state, which Beveridge had set out in his report. The jewel in the crown was the NHS, establishing the principle that health care should be available to all, regardless of ability to pay.
Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about him?
Like many thinkers in the first half of the 20th century, Beveridge was interested in eugenics, which makes us shudder today. Even the greatest thinkers are still products of their time.
Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?
The principles which guided him are in many ways the same as those that still guide the party I belong to today. And I believe we saw his influence in Lib Dem policies such as free early years education, the pupil premium, the national apprenticeship scheme and free school dinners, which were all enacted during the coalition years.
If you could meet Beveridge, what would you ask him?
About his hopes and dreams for the future of the NHS. I’d also love to know what it was like working for figures such as Churchill and Lloyd George.
Tim Farron was talking to York Membery. Tim Farron was the leader of the Liberal Democrats from 2015–17. He has been MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale since 2005
LISTEN AGAIN: Hear Anne Fine discuss William Beveridge on Radio 4’s Great Lives:bbc.co.uk/programmes/b007738t