80 years ago this month the Beveridge Report was published – a major blueprint responsible for the establishment of the post-war Welfare State. The report grew out of a wartime committee on social insurance set up in 1941. Beveridge, a top civil servant (and later a Liberal MP for Berwick Upon Tweed in 1944) was committed to tackling the ”five giant evils” of squalor (poor housing) disease (ill-health and lack of healthcare) ignorance (lack of educational opportunity), idleness (unemployment) and want (poverty). His aim was for the creation of a post-war society where people would have the right to be cared for by the state from ‘womb to tomb’ or from the ‘cradle to the grave’.
World War Two played a key role in Beveridge’s and indeed the nation’s thinking. The war produced a common experience due to its unique nature as a ”total war’ or in the words of Calder ‘a People’s War’. A shared vulnerability and opposition to a common enemy – fascism – bonded people of all ages and classes. Derek Fraser, the historian argues, it reduced people’s fears to ”collectivist and egalitarian” social reforms.
“British society came to know itself”
Millions of working-class children were evacuated to the countryside to live with middle-class families which exposed the extent of poverty, hardship and inequality. As Fraser notes, ”this is when British society came to know itself”. And people began to demand welfare.
The Beveridge Report
The report, which sold out immediately on publication, noted that the main causes of poverty were unemployment, illness and old age. Over a quarter of large families could not make ends meet.
For Beveridge, the state had a key role to play in welfare. But Beveridge stressed that government action shouldn’t stifle thrift or hard work. In his report, he called for a national insurance system backed up with ‘national assistance’. National insurance (NI) was to cover all employed workers and benefits were to be ‘universal’ and as-of-right. Contributions and benefits were to be set at a flat rate, at subsistence level, and to last for as long as they needed to. For Beveridge national assistance was to act as ”a safety net” for those not covered by NI – means-tested and funded out of taxation.
Beveridge’s blueprint to tackle ‘want’ would only work if national government ended mass unemployment, brought in a comprehensive health service, and introduced family allowances. The programme was based on a policy of full employment – advocated by his colleague, the LSE economist, JM Keynes.
Reservations and implementation
Throughout the UK there was strong popular support for Beveridge’s proposals, especially amongst servicemen and women both on mainland Britain and overseas. The report was endorsed by the wartime coalition government. But Winston Churchill as PM and some Conservative MPs had reservations. The plan was not implemented till 1945 under Attlee’s Labour government.
Some historians like Marwick regard the Beveridge Report as the foundation stone of the post-war social security system. For Fraser, however, this is too simple a view. The social security system, set up in 1946-1948, was built heavily on the Liberal government’s 1906-1911 social reforms. The existing insurance principle formed the basis of Beveridge’s plan and public provision was seen as a compliment to private provision.
Social insurance lay at the heart of the new system with national assistance as a backup.