Commission on Social justice: Beveridge's appeal for an attack on five giant evils: The Beveridge report turned its author into a hero - 'The People's William'. Nicholas Timmins reports

Nicholas Timmins
Tuesday 25 October 1994 00:02

When the Beveridge report was published on 1 December 1942 with its clarion call for an attack on the 'five giant evils' of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness, queues formed all night outside the Stationary Office's Kingsway headquarters - barely a hundred yards from where the Borrie Commission launched its 'new Beveridge' yesterday - to buy it.

Sales of the full Beveridge report topped 100,000 within a month, and reached 600,000 after a shortened summary was produced. (No official report outsold it until the Denning report into the Profumo scandal 20 years later.) It was translated into 22 languages, sold to the United States, circulated to the troops, and dropped over Nazi-occupied Europe. At the end of the war, a summary of it was found in Hitler's bunker, a commentary noting that it was 'no botch-up . . . superior to the current German social insurance in almost all points'.

The report overnight turned its author - an overbearing, vain, but brilliant one-time civil servant, who had helped Winston Churchill set up the first Labour exchanges and headed the London School of Economics - into a national hero, 'The People's William'.

Sir Gordon Borrie will no doubt be grateful that such a fate is unlikely to happen to him. But Beveridge's report was very different from yesterday's Borrie Commission. Despite its reputation for launching the modern welfare state, the Beveridge report was far more limited and detailed in scope.

The Borrie publication ranges from recommendations on wage subsidies to a ban on tobacco advertising, and the need for a Scottish assembly.

Beveridge was originally appointed to tidy up the then existing mess of public and private social insurance. He so bent his terms of reference that his report proved, in Paul Addison's phrase 'the prince's kiss', which brought to life the outline of pre-existing plans to create a national health service and secondary education for all, while providing the stimulus for the coalition government to accept responsibility for ensuring a 'high and stable' level of employment.

Beveridge's direct contribution was limited to a plan for social security.

To make it work, however, he wrote in three assumptions without which, he said, the scheme could not work - a National Health Service, free at the point of use to prevent medical bills causing poverty; family allowances paid at the same rate in and out of work because purely means-tested help would leave those with large families better off out of work; and a commitment to full employment to ensure that the wages were there to pay the contributions needed to fund the scheme.

His committee originally consisted of himself and a dozen civil servants from the departments most affected. When the Treasury realised the scale of what he was up to, Sir Kingsley Wood, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, asked Beveridge to withdraw his three crucial assumptions. When he refused, the departmental representatives were reduced to mere 'advisers or assessors', with Beveridge's signature the only one on the final report.

As a result, the report essentially containing none of the evident compromises and occasional open failure to agree that mark the work of the 16-strong Borrie Commission.

It also allowed Beveridge to use the Bunyan-esque prose that so inspired a nation emerging from the darkest hour of war, proposals that the The Daily Mirror dubbed his 'cradle to grave' plan.

Social security, Beveridge declared, was 'one part only of an attack upon five giant evils: upon the physical Want with which it is directly concerned, upon Disease which often causes Want and brings many other troubles in its train, upon Ignorance which no democracy can afford among its citizens, upon Squalor . . . and upon Idleness which destroys wealth and corrupts men . . .'

Married to that grand vision, however, was a programme for social security detailed down to the value of each benefit and costed on a scale not attempted by the Borrie Commission for any of its recommendations. It was this programme which was, in essence, although not without some crucial modifications, enacted by a Labour government in 1945.

Nicholas Timmins's history of the welfare state since Beveridge, entitled The Five Giants, is to be published by Harper Collins next year.

(Photograph omitted)

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments