On 24 November 2018 the School’s one-time Director and author of the famous 1942 report that laid the foundations for Britain’s post-Second World War welfare state, William Beveridge, was honoured through one of the English Heritage’s famous ‘blue plaques’ being fixed to the wall of the house where he lived a hundred years ago. As part of the ceremony in which LSE’s current Director, Minouche Shafik, unveiled the plaque, Beveridge’s biographer, Professor Jose Harris from Oxford University, gave these fascinating insights into what Beveridge had been doing in the aftermath of the First World War.
Professor Sir John Hills
Richard Titmuss Professor of Social Policy, Department of Social Policy, LSE
Who was William Beveridge, and why should we remember him today?
Before embarking on my two-minute commentary, I checked to see what exactly Beveridge was doing at this very moment, one hundred years ago today. I had imagined him beavering away inside this beautiful house, busily laying plans for post-war reconstruction. But, instead, on 24 November 1918 he was visiting on foot the newly silent battlefields of northern France, and in particular the Hohenzollern Redoubt which he found “haunted and horrible beyond words…the place is and looks like a murderer…the horror of the place…lies in its hopeless hideousness and its memories”. Recurring recollections of that moment were to trouble Beveridge throughout the inter-war epoch (and in some degree affected his role and outlook as Director of the London School of Economics – particularly in the 1930s when he was noticeably much less good-tempered, much more impatient, irascible and pessimistic than in his earlier years). This was in striking contrast to the immense optimism of his early youth, when he had been a leading pioneer of the reforms of Edwardian liberalism, but had also worked harmoniously with others of very different convictions. And it contrasted again with his outlook in the midst of the second world war, when he was to become temporarily immortal for promoting the 1942 Beveridge Plan – designed to abolish primary poverty forever - but was also deeply estranged from the making of actual policy, in the teeth of hostility from Churchill, Ernest Bevin, Kingsley Wood, and many other worthies in the wartime coalition government.
What would Beveridge have made of Britain’s national and social security crisis of the present day? Throughout his career Beveridge was often very inept at practical politics but very good at thinking creatively about possible future policy, so I will confine my brief conjectures largely to the latter sphere.
(1) I think in present circumstances he would have supported policies of at least temporary protection and subsidies to struggling British industries so as to maintain jobs threatened by current international uncertainties (though not to those intrinsically in long-term structural decline).
(2) I think he would have favoured the setting-up a national manpower commission to review migration policies of all kinds, including ways in which Britain’s welfare and migration policies have differed from those of many other EU countries; most notably in allowing migrants to Britain to access non-work-related benefits not available, or only very minimally available, in their own countries of origin.
(3) Similarly, I think he might have promoted a review of Britain’s own current welfare, tax, and income-maintenance policies at all levels, both contributory and non-contributory, with a view to bringing them more into line with those of the most progressive European countries. One thing we can be fairly sure of is that he would have been horrified by so-called ‘welfare-tourism’, whereby canny beneficiaries (reputedly) migrate from one country to another in pursuit of whichever welfare regime suits them best (a phenomenon that he would almost certainly have blamed, not upon the ‘tourists’ themselves, but on the false and ‘unscientific’ perspectives of the makers of social policies). In all these spheres there can be no doubt that Beveridge himself was fundamentally a ‘universalist’; but he was also deeply opposed to sentimental short cuts and ‘false economies’, to which he believed politicians of all parties in Britain were generically prone.
Professor Jose Harris
Emeritus Professor of Modern History and Fellow of St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford
Christine Chow, LSE alumna, shares her insights of the occasion.
BSc Economics, 1996
It is not a "BAU" Saturday afternoon, when a cohort of distinguished LSE academics and change makers and the Mayor of Kensington turn up at the house that Sir William Beveridge, a former LSE Director, lived in between 1914-1921. 24 November 2018 is to be remembered as the day when Gillian Day, a fellow Member of the Court and alumni of the LSE, welcomes the unveiling of the Blue Plaque by the English Heritage at her own home. This is the 942nd Blue Plaque to be unveiled in the UK and the 8th in 2018. I had on multiple occasions been in the audience when the current LSE Director, Dame Minouche Shafik speaks, but today, Minouche gave an emotional speech highlighting the importance of Beveridge's work as an architect of the welfare state. He was an academic who was not shy of asking the challenging questions, such as the role of the state in addressing unemployment, inequality and poverty. Professor Sir John Hills, recognised as the torch bearer of Beveridge, gave a short speech on the challenges of our times. Minouche concluded by reminding us that Beveridge's focus on data and evidence seemed even more relevant in the post-truth world, and that he has built the LSE from a small institute to a leading academic institution, partly by welcoming intellectuals who were oppressed and discriminated against. For example, he helped set up the Academic Assistance Council, supported prominent academics who had been dismissed from their posts on grounds of race, religion or political position to escape Nazi persecution. As LSE alumni, we are and shall be the rebels, the social reformers, and the contrarians.
Images courtesy of English Heritage