William Henry Beveridge was born in Rangpur, an Indian station in Bengal, on 5 March 1879. He was the second child and first son of Henry Beveridge, a district sessions judge in the Indian Civil Service, by his second wife, Annette Susannah Ackroyd, who had travelled to India, originally in response to a call to bring liberal education to Indian women.
At the age of five, Beveridge was left, with his two sisters and a German governess, at a small Unitarian boarding school in Southport. Annette Beveridge returned after two years to find her children undernourished, unhappy and subdued. Thereafter, private tutors in India took charge of his education until the family’s permanent return to England in 1890, when he was sent to Kent House, a preparatory school, as a weekly boarder. In the summer of 1892, he won a scholarship to Charterhouse, where he spent the next five years. He excelled in classics and mathematics, but neither of these subjects captured his imagination, and he was bullied for his lack of sporting ability. Although he acquired the habits of hard work and meticulous accuracy, he was later to complain that his life at Charterhouse had been intellectually and emotionally barren.
Beveridge went up to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1897, initially studying mathematics but switching after a year to classics. He developed a wider social circle, which included Richard Denman, a young historian with ambitions to enter liberal politics, and R. H. Tawney, with whom he shared a growing interest in social reform, fuelled by his belief that the main stumbling block to reform was a lack of precise sociological information.
Upon his graduation, in 1901, with first-class honours in literae humaniores, Beveridge embarked on a legal career. He studied at the chambers of a London commercial barrister for several terms, and was awarded a prize fellowship from University College, Oxford, in 1902. It was not long, however, before he developed a strong dislike for the work of a barrister, which he saw as having nothing to do with any real problems or difficulties. In the face of fierce parental objection, he accepted, in April 1902, the position of sub-warden at Toynbee Hall.
There, Beveridge fell under the spell of Sidney and Beatrice Webb and was strongly influenced by their theories of administrative reform. He became active in the old age pensions movement, the free school meals campaign and began important work on the problem of unemployment. During the 1904-05 depression, he helped establish the London Unemployed Fund. In 1905, he became a leading member of the Central (Unemployed) Body and began to campaign for a national system of labour exchanges to eliminate casual unemployment.
At the end of the year, he moved from Toynbee Hall to a post as leader writer on social problems with the Conservative daily, The Morning Post. In his articles, he argued for a far-reaching programme of social organisation to be implemented by a centralised and interventionist state, and advocated a dual policy of labour exchanges and state insurance to solve the unemployment problem.
At the end of 1907, the Webbs introduced Beveridge to Winston Churchill, the newly appointed Liberal President of the Board of Trade. In July 1908, Beveridge became a non-established civil servant in the Board of Trade, at a time when the Liberal government was setting out an ambitious plan of social legislation. Over the next three years he assisted the Permanent Secretary, Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith, in drawing up the Labour Exchanges Act of 1909 and the second part of the 1911 National Insurance Act. In 1909, he became a permanent civil servant, with responsibility for the labour exchanges system, and by 1913, he had reached the rank of Assistant Secretary.
During the First World War, Beveridge fully supported Lloyd George’s position that fighting the war required a total commitment of national resources, even if this involved a suspension of civil liberties. With Llewellyn Smith he drafted the Munitions of War Act in 1915, which severely limited wartime collective bargaining and imposed a system of quasi-military discipline upon civilian workers in munitions; and in the summer of 1916, he drafted a new Unemployment Insurance Act, which extended insurance to all workers employed in war production. These actions led to his unpopularity with the labour movement, and he was thus excluded from the new Ministry of Labour, created at the end of 1916, moving instead to the Ministry of Food as Second Secretary, responsible for rationing and price control. Early in 1919, he was appointed KCB and became Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Food – at the age of thirty-nine, one of the youngest ever to reach that rank.
In June 1919, Beveridge was offered the post of Director of the London School of Economics by his old friend and mentor, Sidney Webb, and duly resigned his civil service position. He spent eighteen years at the LSE, which – despite acrimony and controversy over his despotic and high-handed administrative methods – he succeeded in establishing as a leading centre for the social sciences. As Vice-Chancellor of London University between 1926 and 1928, he also laid the foundations for a new centralised university and was responsible for acquiring and raising funds for the university’s Bloomsbury site.
At the same time, in the public arena, Beveridge participated in the Liberal Summer School movement (1922-24), served as a member of the Royal Commission on the Coal Industry (1925-26), campaigned for Eleanor Rathbone’s family allowances scheme in the late 1920s, and chaired the Unemployment Insurance Statutory Committee from 1934.
In 1937, Beveridge decided to leave the LSE to accept the mastership of University College, Oxford, and was elected a fellow of the British Academy in the same year. He devoted himself to the study of unemployment, but was increasingly anxious to return to some more central role in public administration. When the Second World War broke out, Beveridge expected to be given the task of controlling and directing civilian manpower and military recruitment, but it was not until a year later that Ernest Bevin invited him to carry out a survey of manpower requirements.
In December 1940, he was appointed Under-Secretary in the Ministry of Labour responsible for listing reserved occupations, and made clear his determination to control the wartime manpower programme. His reputation for bad relations with the unions from the First World War, however, made this undesirable, and he was put in charge instead of an obscure inter-departmental inquiry into the coordination of the social services. Beveridge knew he was being marginalised and accepted the appointment with tears in his eyes. Yet it was the report arising from this inquiry that was to make his name as the father of the welfare state.
Social Insurance and Allied Services was published in December 1942 and outlined a vision of society’s battle against the five giants, idleness, ignorance, disease, squalor and want. The report proposed a system of cash benefits, financed by equal contributions from the worker, the employer and the state, together with a public assistance safety-net. Underlying this system were three assumptions, all necessary, Beveridge argued, for the abolition of want: a national health service available to all, tax-financed family allowances and a commitment to state action to reduce unemployment (further developed in his book, Full Employment in a Free Society (1944)).
The Beveridge Report met with a cool initial response from Whitehall and the Churchill Government, but was immensely popular with the British public. Beveridge became a public figure, addressing large audiences throughout the country to canvass his proposals. After a major parliamentary revolt in early 1943, his plan was adopted as the blueprint for the Attlee Government’s legislation of 1944-48, laying the foundations of the British welfare state for the next forty years.
Until 1944, although he had been a participant in the Liberal Summer School movement, Beveridge had had no formal connection with any political party. Almost immediately after the report was published, however, he was invited to stand as a Liberal candidate for the parliamentary seat of Dunfermline by Lady Glen-Coats, an official of the Scottish Liberal Federation. He showed some interest, provided he could have sufficient independence of position and not be tied too closely to official Liberal policies; but by then the Dunfermline opportunity had passed.
In August 1944, he was adopted as the Liberal candidate for the Berwick-upon-Tweed byelection and was forced to resign his mastership of University College. Berwick was a Liberal stronghold, a border constituency of farmers and small tradesmen, which had consistently voted Liberal throughout the inter-war years; Beveridge was elected with six times as many votes as his only opponent, a right-wing Independent (no other parties fought the seat under the wartime electoral truce). He then moved to Tuggal Hall, a manor house in the constituency, and devoted himself to local affairs and the nation-wide revival of Liberalism. He took his seat in the Commons in October and made his maiden speech on the government’s Social Security White Paper. He spoke frequently over the next few months, supporting electoral reform, the development of small-scale industry and criticising the powers of the proposed Security Council of the United Nations.
When the 1945 general election was called, Beveridge was regarded by many Liberals as their chief electoral asset. He was placed in charge of the Liberal campaign despite the fact that his formal experience of electioneering had been minimal. The Liberals won only twelve seats in the election, however, and Beveridge lost Berwick to the Conservatives. He was elevated to the peerage as the first Baron Beveridge by Clement Attlee in 1946, sitting on the Liberal benches. In his old age, he became chairman of the Newton Aycliffe New Town Corporation (1947-52) and chairman of the committee that opposed commercial broadcasting (1949-51).
Beveridge retired from public life in 1954 and moved, with his wife, Janet (Jessy) Mair, to Oxford. He died at his home on 16 March 1963 and was buried in Throckington churchyard, on the Northumbrian moors. His barony became extinct upon his death. His last words were: ‘I have a thousand things to do’.
Beveridge’s autobiography, Power and Influence, was published in 1953. The best biographies are Jose Harris, William Beveridge: A Biography (1977), and Harris’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography and Janet Beveridge, Beveridge and his Plan (1954).
Eugenia Low was a postgraduate student at St John’s College, Oxford, at the time of writing this piece.