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Profile of William Beveridge

Economist and social reformer 1879 – 1963

Who was William Beveridge?

William Henry Beveridge was born in 1879 in Rangpur, India (now Bangladesh), where his father was a judge in the Indian Civil Service. He was educated at Charterhouse School and Balliol College, Oxford. He went on to study law but rejected this as a career.

Interested in social reform, in 1903 Beveridge took up residence at Toynbee Hall, the University Settlement in London’s East End. Here he came into contact with the Fabians, Beatrice and Sidney Webb.

Beveridge studied the issue of unemployment which he considered to be ‘at the root of most other social problems’. He believed detailed research and statistical analysis should form the basis of policy.

Beveridge advocated the introduction of social insurance and a nationwide system of labour exchanges. These he had studied on a visit to Germany in 1907.

In 1909 he published his book Unemployment: A Problem of Industry.

Beveridge also wrote articles on social policy. In 1905 he had become a columnist for the Tory newspaper the Morning Post.

In March 1908 the Webbs introduced Beveridge to the (then Liberal) MP Winston Churchill. Soon after, Churchill made him an advisor at the Board of Trade. He worked on the 1909 Labour Exchanges Act and the 1911 National Insurance Act.

In 1909 he became a permanent civil servant, responsible for administering the system of labour exchanges.

During World War One Beveridge was involved with the mobilisation of manpower at the Ministry of Munitions, an appointment which made him unpopular with the trade unions.

He did not join the newly created Ministry of Labour in 1916. Instead, he was appointed to the Ministry of Food, becoming a Permanent Secretary in 1919 at the age of thirty-nine.

He left the civil service in June 1919 to become Director of the London School of Economics. The study of social sciences was greatly expanded under his somewhat autocratic directorship. He remained until 1937, when he became Master of University College, Oxford.

In 1934 he was made Chairman of the Unemployment Insurance Statutory Committee. A position he held for ten years.

On the outbreak of war, Beveridge was keen to return to Whitehall. It was not until the middle of 1940 however that Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour asked him to head up a small investigation into manpower requirements.

Beveridge thought his talents were being wasted and that he should be responsible for directing manpower. Beveridge could be egotistical and arrogant, and many found that he was not an easy man to work with.

In June 1941 Beveridge was asked to chair an inter-departmental committee that would look into the co-ordination of social insurance. Beveridge reluctantly accepted, believing it was Bevin’s way of removing him from the Ministry.

In the event, Beveridge pushed his remit to the limits. Published in December 1942, the Beveridge Report offered freedom from want with a plan to reform social insurance.

Beveridge saw tackling poverty as part of a wider policy of social progress. Want was only one of the ‘five giant evils’ that needed to be dealt with by post-war reconstruction. The Report and its vision of a fairer post-war society proved very popular with the public.

The Beveridge Report would help form the basis of the Welfare State introduced by Clement Attlee’s Labour Government.

Beveridge actively promoted his Report, giving radio broadcasts and writing numerous articles. He formed the Social Security League with the economist G D H Cole and travelled the country with his wife, Janet (Jessy) Mair giving talks.

In 1943 he began working on his recommendations for achieving full employment, one of the main assumptions of the Beveridge Report. He received no government support. Full Employment in a Free Society was published in 1944.

Disappointed by the government’s lukewarm response to his ideas for social reform, Beveridge turned to politics. In 1944 he was elected as the Liberal MP for Berwick Upon Tweed. He lost his seat to the Conservative candidate at the 1945 General Election.

Made a peer in 1946, he later became Leader of the Liberals in the Lords.

Sir William Beveridge died on the 16 March 1963.

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