Beveridge, William Henry, Baron Beveridge 1879-1963, social reformer and economist, was born at Rangpur in Bengal, 5 March 1879. He was the second child and elder son of Henry Beveridge, a district sessions judge in the Indian Civil Service, and his second wife, Annette Susannah Ackroyd, daughter of a Worcestershire business man. Henry Beveridge's father was David Beveridge of Dunfermline, a Scots Presbyterian bookseller and publisher who had written a radical history of British rule in India. The Beveridge parents were rather unusual figures in the Victorian raj, for Henry was a passionate advocate of Indian nationalism and home rule, and Annette had originally travelled to India before her marriage as a pioneer of secondary education for Hindu women. Both parents were deeply attached to Indian culture, and both became distinguished amateur oriental scholars and translators of Hindi and Persian texts. Of their four children only one apart from William survived childhood—their second daughter Annette Jeanie, or Jeannette, who married R. H. Tawney [qv.], Beveridge's Balliol contemporary.
Throughout his life Beveridge idealized family relationships and tended to portray his own childhood as uniquely happy. Yet he privately admitted that he had few adult recollections of childhood before his late teens; and evidence of family correspondence suggests that this ideal childhood was almost entirely imaginary. At the age of five he was sent to a Squeers-like Unitarian boarding-school in Worcestershire, and saw nothing of his parents for the next two years. Although intellectually precocious he was a sickly and solitary child with few friends. His mother, perhaps the main influence on his early life, was by turns domineering, neglectful, and violently possessive. In 1882 he won a scholarship to Charterhouse, where he was bullied for being bad at games and discouraged from pursuing his passionate interest in natural science and astronomy. He excelled in both classics and mathematics, but neither of these subjects captured his imagination, and he afterwards complained that both intellectually and emotionally his life at Charterhouse had been almost entirely barren. Later in life he frequently felt himself to be a natural scientist manqué and blamed his early education for blocking the possibility of a scientific career. These childhood experiences may perhaps help to explain certain characteristics that many people found puzzling about the adult Beveridge—that he was a man of powerful and at times dazzling intellect, who yet never seemed to have developed his creative faculties nor to have discovered his true intellectual métier.
In 1897 Beveridge went as an exhibitioner to Balliol College, Oxford, where he gained first class honours in mathematical moderations (1898), classical moderations (1899), and literae humaniores (1901). He then studied for several terms in the chambers of a London commercial barrister, and was awarded a prize fellowship at University College, Oxford, in 1902. The following year he became a Bachelor of Civil Law. A brilliant career seemed to lie before him, in academic life or at the bar. At this point, however, in the face of fierce parental opposition, he decided to abandon the law and to devote himself to the study and cure of social problems. He accepted an invitation from Samuel Barnett [qv.] to become sub-warden of the well-known Oxford settlement in the East End of London, Toynbee Hall. This decision was denounced by his father as sentimental philanthropy, but in fact Beveridge's motives were the reverse of sentimental. After reading T. H. Huxley [qv.] he had become convinced that social problems could be studied with the same rigour and exactitude as natural phenomena, and that social policies should be grounded not in spontaneous charity but in applied social science.
Beveridge's commitment to social reform came at a crucial moment in the history of social policy in Britain. The statistics of mass poverty published by Charles Booth [qv.] and Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree [qv.], the physical deterioration scare at the end of the Boer War, and the debate on tariff reform all conspired to thrust social problems into the forefront of high politics. At Toynbee Hall Beveridge soon found himself in contact with reformers of all parties—progressive Liberals, national efficiency Conservatives, and Fabian socialists—who were pressing for more positive government action on the social question. In particular he fell under the spell of Sidney and Beatrice Webb [qv.], and while rejecting their socialist economic policies, was strongly influenced by their concept of a national minimum and their theories of administrative reform. He became active in the old age pensions movement, the free school meals campaign, and in pressure for government action on behalf of the unemployed. In 1904 he began to collect material for what eventually became Unemployment: a Problem of Industry (1909)—a pioneering study which explored the structural complexity of the market for labour. During the depression of 1904-5 he helped to set up the London Unemployed Fund; and in 1905 he became a leading member of the Central (Unemployed) Body—a semi-official committee set up under the Unemployed Workmen Act to harmonize relief works provided by local authorities, boards of guardians, and private charities. It was as a member of the CUB that Beveridge first began to campaign for a national system of labour exchanges—bodies which he claimed would streamline the market for labour, eliminate casual unemployment, and enable social welfare agencies to distinguish between the loafer and the genuinely unemployed.
Toynbee Hall soon became too narrow a base for Beveridge's ambitions, and at the end of 1905 he accepted a post as a leader-writer on social problems with the Conservative daily newspaper, the Morning Post. During the next three years he produced nearly a thousand articles on such socio-economic questions as unemployment and casual labour, eugenics and the environment, progressive taxation and social insurance, rating reform and back to the land. He argued not merely for specific social policies but for the development of a strong, centralized, bureaucratic state and for a far-reaching programme of social organization—claiming, like the Benthamites eighty years earlier, that regulation of society through social administration would strengthen rather than weaken the free market economy. Beveridge's commitment to an interventionist state was reinforced by a visit to Germany, where he inspected the system of labour exchanges and contributory social insurance set up by the Prussian Government. He returned to England convinced that a dual policy of labour exchanges and state insurance offered the best practical solution to the unemployment problem; and he argued strongly for both these policies in evidence to the royal commission on the poor laws in the autumn of 1907. A few months later he was introduced by the Webbs to (Sir) Winston Churchill, the newly appointed Liberal president of the Board of Trade. Churchill at this stage of his career was strongly influenced by the claim of the national efficiency school that social reform was an urgent strategic and imperial necessity; and as a result of this meeting he invited Beveridge to join the Board of Trade as his personal assistant in preparing legislation on unemployment.
Beveridge entered Whitehall as a non-established civil servant in July 1908, at a time when the Liberal Government was embarking upon the most active and ambitious phase of its social legislation programme. He spent the next three years working closely with the Board of Trade's permanent secretary, Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith [qv.], in drawing up the Labour Exchanges Act of 1909 and part ii of the National Insurance Act of 1911. Under these acts labour exchanges under Board of Trade control were established in all parts of the country, and unemployment insurance was provided for two and a quarter million workers in heavy industries. Beveridge himself became a permanent civil servant in 1909, with administrative responsibility for the labour exchanges system, and by 1913 he had reached the rank of assistant secretary. During this period he was convinced that he was within reach of a final solution for the unemployment problem and was anxious to extend unemployment insurance and compulsory decasualization of the whole of the nation's labour force.
These ambitions were frustrated, however, by the outbreak of World War I. In 1915 Beveridge together with Llewellyn Smith was temporarily drafted to the new Ministry of Munitions, set up under Lloyd George to deal with the crisis in production of shells. Beveridge fully supported Lloyd George's view that fighting the war required a total commitment of national resources, even if this involved a suspension of civil liberties, and with Llewellyn Smith he drafted the Munitions of War Act, which severely limited wartime collective bargaining and imposed a system of quasi-military discipline upon civilian workers in munitions. This Act, which met with fierce resistance from the engineering unions and from the militant shop stewards' movement, was largely responsible for the prolonged mutual hostility that prevailed between Beveridge and the trade union movement for the next twenty-five years. In the summer of 1916 he returned to the Board of Trade where he drafted a new Unemployment Insurance Act, which extended insurance to all workers employed in war production. This Act was designed to take advantage of wartime full employment to insure workers against the probable onset of depression at the end of the war. It was opposed, however, by both sides of industry and further soured Beveridge's relations with the trade unions. His unpopularity with the labour movement was largely responsible for Beveridge's exclusion from the new Ministry of Labour, set up to co-ordinate all labour and employment policies at the end of 1916. In after years Beveridge looked back on this exclusion as the death-blow to his dream of solving the unemployment problem, and as the main cause of the futility of government unemployment policies in the inter-war years. He was moved instead to the new Ministry of Food, where as second secretary he was made responsible for rationing and control of prices. Throughout 1917 domestic food supplies were severely hit by the German submarine campaign and by diversion of the mercantile marine to the transport of American troops. There were severe food shortages and long queues in many parts of the country, and in spite of some opposition from food traders a general rationing scheme drawn up by Beveridge was introduced at the end of the year. When the war came to an end in 1918 Beveridge was sent as British representative on an Inter-Allied Food Mission to central and eastern Europe—where he pressed unsuccessfully for instant and unconditional famine relief to the defeated powers. Early in 1919 he was appointed KCB and became permanent secretary to the Ministry of Food, at thirty-nine one of the youngest men ever to reach that rank in Whitehall.
Beveridge throughout the war had been involved in prolonged discussions with the Webbs, Llewellyn Smith, and other administrative experts about the advance planning of post-war social and economic reforms. Nevertheless, his wartime experiences¾and particularly the resistance to state regulation that he had met from both trade unions and employers¾had gradually undermined his pre-war faith in the virtues of a strong paternalist administrative state. The failure of co-operation between Allied Governments in the relief of Germany and Austria convinced him that European prosperity could be restored only by a revival of business confidence and restoration of the gold standard and international free trade. Thus Beveridge emerged from the war considerably more sympathetic to traditional views of laissez-faire and considerably less enthusiastic for state intervention than he had been in 1914. He was highly critical of the view that food controls should be retained in peacetime; and in June 1919 he resigned from the Civil Service to take up the directorship of the London School of Economics¾a post offered him by his old friend and mentor, Sidney Webb.
The LSE had been founded by the Webbs in the 1890s as a college of London University, and had been closely involved in the Edwardian ‘national efficiency’ movement. In 1919 it was still a small college, catering mainly for part-time students; but Sidney Webb was convinced that the time was ripe for expansion in all areas of the social sciences. He looked to Beveridge as an ambitious and imaginative administrator to be the dynamo for that expansion. Over the next eighteen years Beveridge devoted himself to raising massive funds from such bodies as the Rockefeller Foundation, to a large-scale building programme, and to attracting a range of distinguished scholars in all branches of the social sciences¾Tawney [q.v.], H. J. Laski [q.v.], L. T. Hobhouse [q.v.], L. C. (later Lord) Robbins, F. A. Hayek, and Bronislaw Malinowski, to name but a few. In the early 1930s he was personally responsible for bringing to the School many distinguished academic refugees expelled from Hitler's Germany¾and he helped to find posts for many other refugee scholars in universities in both England and America. As vice-chancellor of London University from 1926 to 1928 he laid the foundations for a new centralized university, and was responsible for acquiring and raising funds for the university's Bloomsbury site. By the early 1930s the LSE was recognized as one of the world's leading centres of the social sciences, and Beveridge himself was seen as mainly responsible for its prodigious growth. Yet, as in the Civil Service, many of Beveridge's activities attracted controversy and conflict. His day-to-day administrative methods were seen as despotic and high-handed by many of his staff. On matters of politics he held the view that academics should abstain from open commitment to ideologies and parties¾a standpoint that brought him into recurrent conflict with the controversial professor of political science, Harold Laski. Beveridge had, moreover, very fixed ideas about how the social sciences should be properly conducted. Since his days in Oxford he had been strongly attached to the empirically based scientific positivism expounded by T. H. Huxley; and he was highly critical of those of his colleagues¾including a majority of the School's economists and sociologists¾who preferred a more deductive or analytical approach. To counteract such an approach Beveridge established in 1930 a social biology department under Professor Lancelot Hogben, to carry out empirical research into problems of the ‘real world’; but the department was never integrated with the rest of the School and folded up after Hogben's resignation at the end of 1936.
Beveridge's relations with his colleagues were further hampered by his increasing intimacy with the School's academic secretary, his second cousin-by-marriage, Mrs Janet (‘Jessy’) Mair, wife of David Beveridge Mair and daughter of William Philip, business man and philanthropist, of Newport, Fife. David and Jessy Mair had a son and three daughters, one of whom, Lucy, became professor of applied anthropology at LSE. An overbearing and temperamental Scotswoman, Mrs Mair had come to the School with Beveridge in 1919 (having been his secretary and aide during the war) and was highly unpopular with many of the School's professors. Throughout the 1930s there were complaints about the ‘Beveridge-Mair dictatorship’ and a general sense of relief when Beveridge decided to leave the School to accept the mastership of University College, Oxford, in 1937.
Beveridge returned to Oxford with the avowed intention of devoting himself to the study of unemployment and to a statistical study of the history of prices which he had started nearly twenty years before. In 1937 he was elected a fellow of the British Academy¾an honour that he accepted with some hesitation, fearing that it would identify him as a student of the humanities rather than a practitioner of science. His studies of both unemployment and prices were intended to demonstrate the superiority of empirical methods over abstract speculation, and both were designed to support the academic position that Beveridge had adopted at the LSE¾namely, that the problems of society would only be solved by discovering objective socio-economic laws rather than by ill-informed subjective political action. Yet it may be doubted how profound was Beveridge's inner commitment to this latter principle. Throughout his time at LSE he had periodically engaged in various kinds of public or political activity¾as a participant in the Liberal summer school movement in 1922-4, as a member of the royal commission on the coal industry of 1925-6, as a campaigner for the family allowances scheme of Eleanor Rathbone [q.v.] in the late 1920s, and as chairman of the Unemployment Insurance Statutory Committee from 1934. From the mid 1930s onwards it seems clear that Beveridge was increasingly anxious to return to some more central role in public administration. Since Hitler's invasion of the Rhineland in 1936 he had become convinced that another war with Germany was virtually inevitable¾and he was equally convinced that Whitehall was making no preparations whatsoever for such an emergency. At the same time his earlier faith in the capacities of enlightened public administration appears to have revived; he abandoned the rather exaggerated belief in an economic free market that he had adopted in the 1920s, and by 1939 had become committed to far-reaching state planning in both social and economic affairs. At the outbreak of war his ambition was to be given the task that he thought should have been his during the war of 1914-18¾that of controlling and directing both civilian manpower and military recruitment.
Not for the first time in his life, however, Beveridge's hopes were doomed to disappointment. No summons came from Whitehall. Throughout the winter of 1939-40 Beveridge kicked his heels in frustration¾occasionally meeting together with other neglected veterans of World War I such as J. Arthur (later Lord) Salter and J. M. (later Lord) Keynes [q.v.]. During these months Beveridge published numerous articles and made several broadcasts, arguing that the times required a totally new kind of socio-economic policy, both to mobilize resources for fighting the war and to lay the foundations of a more just and equal society after the return of peace. Not until a year after the outbreak of war was he invited by Ernest Bevin [q.v.] to carry out a survey of the Government's manpower requirements; and in December 1940 he was appointed under-secretary in the Ministry of Labour with the special task of drawing up a list of ‘reserved’ occupations. Beveridge's new career in Whitehall, however, ended almost before it had begun. From the start he made it clear that he was determined to take control of the wartime manpower programme. Ernest Bevin, possibly remembering Beveridge's clashes with the unions in the war of 1914-1918, was equally determined that he should not do so. The result was that Beveridge was hived off into the chairmanship of an obscure interdepartmental inquiry into the coordination of social services¾an inquiry that was not expected to report until after the war was over. Beveridge, who was under no illusions about what was happening to him, accepted his new appointment with tears in his eyes. Yet it was to prove in many ways the most important commission and the major drama of his life.
Beveridge started work on his social services inquiry in June 1941 and within a few days had convinced himself that it offered the opportunity he had been looking for to determine the shape of British society after the war. Over the next eighteen months he carried out a detailed survey of the deficiencies of Britain's social services¾focusing particularly on the long-term unemployed, on inadequate provision for health care, and the widespread problem of poverty in childhood and old age. With the help of a committee of Civil Service advisers he interviewed hundreds of witnesses and consulted with economic experts like Keynes, Robbins, and James Meade. His proposals were drawn up in close consultation with representatives of the Trades Union Congress, with whom Beveridge at last found himself in close harmony. For perhaps the first time in his life he became fired with an abstract ideal of ‘social justice’, and in numerous articles and broadcasts he argued passionately for the forging of an ideal new society out of the ashes of war. His conception of how such a society should be organized was spelt out in the report on Social Insurance and Allied Services in December 1942. In it he outlined a Bunyanesque vision of society's battle against the five giants of idleness, ignorance, disease, squalor, and want; and he put forward a programme for overcoming them which consisted of a free national health service, family allowances, government policies to maintain full employment, and universal subsistence-level social insurance to include all classes in society and to cover all social contingencies from the cradle to the grave. Such a programme, Beveridge maintained, could eliminate poverty without in any way impairing the civil and personal freedom that was central to the British political tradition. The lynch-pin of his programme he believed to be the maintenance of full employment, and his views on how this might be attained were spelt out in a second report, Full Employment in a Free Society, published privately in 1944. In this second report Beveridge argued that full employment could be achieved in a variety of ways¾either by Keynesian-style fiscal regulation, or by direct control and deployment of manpower, or by total state control of the means of production. Beveridge's private papers suggest that at this stage in his career he had little objection to this latter policy, nor did he think it incompatible with personal freedom: ‘private ownership of the means of production’, he wrote, was ‘not one of the essential British liberties’ and could not be allowed to stand in the way of rebuilding British society after the war.
Beveridge's report of 1942 met with a cool response in Whitehall and from the Churchill Government, but it proved overwhelmingly popular with the British public, and over 70,000 copies were sold in the space of a few days. Early in 1943 the only major parliamentary revolt of the war forced the Government to commit itself to the Beveridge proposals¾with the result that Beveridge's plan eventually became the blueprint for the welfare state legislation of 1944 to 1948. Shortly after his report appeared Beveridge married, on 15 December 1942, his recently widowed cousin, Jessy Mair, and with his new wife he travelled about the country canvassing his proposals and addressing large public audiences. His curiously prophetic figure, with its straight white hair, sharp, bird-like profile and high-pitched, meticulous Oxford voice, was flashed by Pathé News into every cinema in the country. Dazzled by this success, and disappointed by the Government's lack of enthusiasm, Beveridge was tempted by the suggestion that he should promote his Plan by going into politics. He had previously had no formal connection with any political party, but in 1944 he resigned the mastership of University College and entered Parliament as Liberal MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed, at the same time setting up home with Lady Beveridge in a Northumbrian country house, Tuggal Hall. Almost certainly he hoped that the first postwar election would bring about the long-awaited ‘Liberal revival’ and that he would find himself in charge of post-war reconstruction. In 1945, however, he lost his seat and went to the House of Lords as a Liberal peer.
His old age was employed in a series of rather peripheral public roles¾leader of the Liberals in the Lords, chairman of the Newton Aycliffe New Town Corporation from 1947 to 1952, and chairman of the committee that opposed commercial broadcasting in 1949-51. As a private individual much of his time was spent in writing his autobiography (Power and Influence, 1953) and a memoir of his parents (India Called Them, 1947). To this Dictionary he contributed the notice of Lord Stamp. He did not hesitate to attack the shortcomings of the social legislation that emerged after 1945. He was highly critical of the Labour Government for excluding the voluntary friendly societies from state insurance and for rejecting the principle of subsistence-level pensions. His book on Voluntary Action (1948) was a passionate defence of the role of the voluntary sector in provision of social welfare¾and, perhaps, an admission of doubt about the increasing bureaucratization of welfare that his own ideas on social policy had done much to bring about. In the mid 1950s he was highly critical of the erosion of pension values by continuous inflation, and spoke frequently on this subject in the House of Lords. Increasingly, however, he devoted himself to his unfinished history of prices, still hoping that this would unravel the mysteries of the economic system; and to his dying day he believed that his history of prices (in 1939 had been published the first volume of his Prices and Wages in England from the Twelfth to the Nineteenth Century) rather than his much acclaimed report on social insurance would be his ‘main contribution to the understanding of the modern world’.
Beveridge's life and personality may be, and indeed have been, interpreted in a number of different ways. Some people regarded him as a mechanistic bureaucrat with little feeling for the infinite subtleties and complexities of human life. Others saw him as a tireless if sometimes tactless campaigner for a more efficient, just, and compassionate social order. Throughout his life he continually clashed with colleagues who resented his autocratic ways and his chronic inability to suffer fools gladly. Yet in private life he is remembered by people who knew him well as gentle, humorous, quixotic, and humane. He was perceived by many, and indeed described himself, as a ‘self-centred’ person; yet he could devote himself with utter selflessness to a cause which fired his moral imagination. In middle life he had a reputation for hardness and harshness; but this was belied by the loving and unflagging care that he bestowed on his aged parents, both of whom lived with him almost continuously from 1918 until their deaths in 1929. It was belied also by the fact that he secretly gave away more than a third of his income to charitable causes, needy relatives, and friends. The abrasiveness of Beveridge's character may be partly ascribed to the unsatisfactory nature of his personal life: in youth and middle age he deeply regretted his failure to find a suitable wife, and one of the attractions of Mrs Mair was undoubtedly that she provided him with the kind of close-knit family circle that he always cherished as the highest social ideal. Yet Beveridge had certain unusual characteristics that cannot be explained away simply in terms of personal unhappiness. For a man of such keen intellect he showed little interest in general philosophical ideas, and he sometimes admitted rather regretfully that many of the main intellectual currents of his generation had simply passed him by. He was curiously unconscious of many of the glaring paradoxes and contradictions contained in his own beliefs¾such as the view implicit in his writings of the early 1940s that one could indefinitely expand the powers of the state without thereby modifying any of the basic structures of political, social, and family life. Beveridge's intellectual blind-spots may perhaps have been linked with the fact that from early childhood he had been cut off from the kind of scientific studies that might have been his true vocation. A more speculative conclusion is that such blind-spots may be a necessary part of the mental equipment of all effective social reformers. ‘I really do think’, he wrote at the age of nineteen, ‘that no man can do really progressive work who had not one idea carried to excess ¼ The man must have one great ideal to aim at, to a certain extent excluding all else, and his convictions must be very strong.’ In this early statement of faith lies the clue to many aspects of Beveridge's inner personality and of his public career.
Beveridge received many honours. In 1916 he was appointed CB and in 1919 KCB. In 1946 C. R. (later Earl) Attlee created him first Baron Beveridge. He became honorary LLD at the universities of London, Aberdeen, Birmingham, Chicago, Columbia, Melbourne, Paris, and Oslo; honorary D.Litt. at New Zealand and McGill; honorary D.Litt.Hum. at Pennsylvania; honorary Dr of Social Sciences at Brussels; and honorary Dr.Econ. at Rotterdam. He was made an honorary fellow of Balliol, Nuffield, and University Colleges, Oxford.
Beveridge and his wife retired to Oxford in 1954. She died in 1959, he surviving her for four years until he died at home in Oxford 16 March 1963. They were buried together in Throckington churchyard, high on the Northumbrian moors. Upon Beveridge's death the barony became extinct.
There is a portrait in oils by (Sir) William Nicholson (1927) in the London School of Economics, a photographic portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, a portrait in oils by Allan Gwynne-Jones (1959) at University College, Oxford, and a bronze bust by Benno Elkan at Balliol College, Oxford.
Beveridge correspondence in the British Library of Political Science;
Lord Beveridge, Power and Influence, 1953;
José Harris, William Beveridge: a Biography, 1977;
Janet Beveridge, Beveridge and his Plan, 1954;
Lord Salter in Proceedings of the British Academy, vol. xlix, 1963;
J. Harold Wilson, Beveridge Memorial Lecture, Institute of Statisticians, 1966;
Contributor: José Harris