Giants of poverty yet to be slain: Fifty years after Beveridge, Want, Disease, Squalor, Ignorance and Idleness persist. Ben Pimlott calls for a new visionary to fashion a social policy for our age

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The Independent Online
Fifty years ago this week, the British government published a blockbuster and bestseller. The queue to buy copies was reputedly a mile long, and sales reached a hundred thousand within a month of its publication.

Such a remarkable success was partly because of media hype followed by rave reviews, and partly because of the unusual subject matter - a fantasy about a patriotic war against five giants with funny names: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. The author described how these monsters were to be banished, especially Want.

The battle aim, he explained, was 'to make want under any circumstances unnecessary'.

The story combined elements of More's Utopia, Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and Swift's Gulliver's Travels, with a dash of Star Trek thrown in: it urged politicians to boldly go where none of their predecessors had dared venture before. The author's name was Sir William Beveridge, and the snazzy title of his creation was Social Insurance and Allied Services: Report presented to Parliament by command of His Majesty.

The Beveridge Report was talked about by nearly everybody. In those days, chattering was not confined to the professional classes: the word 'Beveridge' was soon on the lips of naval ratings and coal miners. 'From now on Beveridge is not the name of a man,' the author told his former research assistant, the young Harold Wilson, 'it is the name of a way of life, not only for Britain, but for the whole civilised world.'

It was an accurate prophecy. The Beveridge Report, with its prescription for cradle-to-grave social security, a free health service and policies for full employment, had a novelistic element. Nevertheless, its combination of soaring vision and a detailed ground plan has provided the basis for all social policy discussion ever since - or at least until the arrival of a giant called Selfishness, against whom the Beveridge proposals were impotent.

Would there have been a welfare state without Beveridge - or without a Labour victory in 1945? The smart answer is that the report was part symptom and part cause, itself helping to create the conditions of political upheaval that made it possible to carry out its provisions.

In retrospect, Labour's 1945 victory can be seen as a massive popular endorsement of Beveridge- style proposals - even though Beveridge himself, briefly a Liberal (not Labour) MP, lost his seat in the same election.

It is a truism that tidal changes in political affairs occur between elections, seldom at them. Denis Healey's 'monetarist' U-turn in 1976 was one such alteration of the flow, anticipating the advent of Thatcherism three years later, and the Beveridge Report and accompanying hoo-ha was another. The half-centenary of Beveridge occurs in a singularly bankrupt, barren and directionless year, and we may wonder whether another such symbolic moment is not overdue. Little can be expected from the Major-Lamont Ealing comedy. What of Labour?

After the 1987 election, Neil Kinnock made a brave attempt to update his party's creaking programme by setting up a 'policy review', with an open brief to slaughter sacred cattle.

It was successful, possibly too much so. The result was a shiny document called Meet the Challenge, Make the Change, which was so inoffensive that only experts could distinguish it from what the government was doing anyway.

During this year's post-defeat Labour leadership contest, John Smith pledged that he would set up a Beveridge-style investigation to take a fresh look at poverty. This scheme is now well advanced and a 15-person committee with a distinctly Beveridge-like remit will be announced early in the new year.

It will be a kind of shadow Royal Commission, including expert and non-political inquirers well beyond the bounds of the

Labour Party. It will report after 18 months, leaving a Beveridge-length gap before the next election.

The Beveridge team was an interdepartmental, civil service committee that acquired influence because of its access to Whitehall and because of the ferocious ambitions of its chairman. Still, the project of a new-style

review that challenges not only traditional party shibboleths, but also party philosophy, has much to recommend it.

In the post-devaluation, post-US election era, in which state intervention has ceased to be a matter of apology, the new Beveridge must not be afraid to challenge the giants that the nation still faces, with the intention this time of finally exterminating them.

Here, Sir William sadly failed. If you take a walk, in 1992, from the glitter of London's Oxford Street to the shanty towns of Lincoln's Inn Fields, the giants of Squalor, Want and Idleness repeatedly confront you: in the faces of families huddled in doorways, young dossers scavenging in dustbins, respectable old gentlemen begging for tenpences.

Enter almost any underfunded, understaffed, inner-city school and the giant of Ignorance will give an illiterate and ill-disciplined guffaw. Of course, for the majority, there is less hunger and disease than in the Forties, but for the millions in the minority, there is much more.

What is required is not a dutiful re-examination of received wisdom or a weary recontemplation of values, but a grand, outrageous, overarching and - yes - Utopian scheme, which ties the lot together: Europe, jobs, benefits, tax, incomes, hospitals, schools and training.

It would not be the first time since 1942. In the mid-Sixties there was such an undertaking, a well-meaning but ill-starred echo of Beveridge called the National Plan. That attempt foundered because the Wilson government took it too seriously, without the wherewithal to carry it out.

The new Beveridge will need, of course, to think about practical constraints. But the aim should be to conceive of a new order, not to provide a politically acceptable blueprint.

The new Beveridge will be hard to find. He or she must be somebody who commands respect across the political spectrum, not just on the left and centre-left: an obsessional workaholic with the ability to write elevating prose.

The members of the supporting team should, relatively speaking, be worker ants, able and experienced people who will perform necessary but unglamorous tasks without expecting much of the glory.

It must be one monomaniac's visionary scheme; the essence of the original Beveridge Report was precisely that it was the invention of a brilliant, overweaning individual, not the product of committee compromises.

Such a report could turn out to be a flop, or even an embarrassment. It will certainly be a gamble. If it fails it can simply be shelved; that, more or less, was the intended destination for the Beveridge Report, whose author was widely regarded in Whitehall as a rogue elephant.

Yet the chance of success exists, perhaps as never before since the Forties, and with it an opportunity to capture the imagination of the British people.

Sir William Beveridge was much moved by the wave of public excitement that transformed him from a dry administrator into 'the People's William' and turned his marriage into the populist equivalent of a royal wedding. Humility was not his style. 'This is the greatest advance in our history,' he told his former research assistant, a young statistician called Harold Wilson. 'There can be no turning back'

The writer is professor of politics at Birkbeck College, London. His biography of Harold Wilson was published this autumn by HarperCollins, price pounds 20.

(Photograph omitted)