Eighty years on from his famous report, it’s time to bust the Beveridge myth

The postwar settlement was always about far more than one man and his blueprint. The real lesson of the 1940s is to hunt out inspiration in the myriad and messy social experiments that are already underway

October 27, 2022
William Beveridge. Photo:  Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo
William Beveridge. Photo: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

In February 1942, at one of the darkest moments of the Second World War, a report was published that looked ahead to the construction of a new, more just, social order in peacetime Britain. Setting out the principles which should underpin that future, it concluded with “A Suggested Programme” of action, covering education, housing, incomes, health and more. It ended bluntly: “We cannot return to the pre-war situation.” 

The report captured the public imagination. Reprinted twice in the following six months, it sold 140,000 copies. This was not, however, William Beveridge’s famous report, whose 80th anniversary will be widely marked next month. This earlier report was a shorter, more spiritual offering. Published as a Penguin special edition, Christianity and Social Order was written by the Archbishop of York, William Temple—the first person to use the term “welfare state” in print. Shortly after his book’s initial publication, Temple was ordained as Archbishop of Canterbury and took his social reform message to mass meetings across the land. He died in 1944 before he could see the fruition of his work. 

Over recent years we have heard many voices—from Archbishops of our own time (including in Prospect!) to aspiring prime ministers and former central bankers—calling for a new social contract or a “new Beveridge”. The phrase has become shorthand for a reimagining of Britain. Over the past few weeks, with the country in the grip of political and economic chaos, the sense that our collective progress has broken down has become more acute—but the current crisis follows years of social and economic malaise. Recent decades have brought deepening wealth inequality and intergenerational divides; growing destitution; grinding in-work poverty; stalling life expectancy; entrenched barriers related to race and disability; and alarming trends in mental health. Nearly two-thirds of Britons believe that the UK is in decline and over half of us think today’s young people will have a worse life than their parents. Unless things change, they could well be right. 

So the appeal of the “new Beveridge” argument is obvious, and yet that shorthand misleads. The existence of Christianity and Social Order is only one reminder that the original “Beveridge moment” was always about more than one man designing a new social order from his desk. Campaigners, reformers, councils, trade unions and churches all played their part on the journey to 1942. Indeed, the present Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell, has described the role of the church in shaping that post-war consensus as “probably the last really significant contribution to public life that the Church of England has made”. 

Evolution and revolution

The mythology, which is about to get an extensive anniversary airing, focuses on the Beveridge Report as a starting point: the beginning of a new—and very different—post-war welfare state. Its corollary is the idea that all that holds us back from transforming our own society is a dearth of the sort of vision summoned in 1942. But the Beveridge Report should be seen more as an end point than a beginning, following an extraordinary period of social policy development. A proper reading of the history reveals the long road to Beveridge in both ideas and practice, and underlines how important it is not to make opposites of deep, radical change and incremental experiment and improvement.

As the Times noted at the Beveridge Report’s publication, for all its sweep, the document contained “no new departure in principle” from the development of social policy in Britain during previous decades. Beveridge himself described it as “a natural development from the past”, claiming his proposals sprang out of what had been accomplished in the preceding years “in building up security piece by piece”. When he claimed the programme represented a very British “revolution”, this is what he meant. 

The first decade or so of the 20th century was a great turning point: from the introduction of old age pensions to the advent of a national health insurance scheme, to the state for the first time accepting some responsibility for the challenge of unemployment (through national insurance and labour exchanges). 

All of these measures were then extended and deepened in the interwar period, which saw a substantive dismantling of the old Poor Laws, together with the arrival of the “dole”, contributory state pensions, and many new local welfare services, including aid and advice on health and housing. The same period saw the establishment of the Ministry of Health and the expansion of health services for mothers and their babies. It saw the first Children’s Acts, plus the reorganisation of schools—with smaller classes, raised leaving ages, free school meals and school medical inspections. And, after 1931, it saw the building of millions of homes such that, by the Second World War, 10 per cent of households were council tenants, while one fifth of British manual workers were homebuyers or owners. 

Historian David Edgerton has gone so far as to conclude that Britain “went to war in September 1939 with a welfare state already in place.” The best recent history of social policy in Temple’s time—by Chris Renwick—shows how the first 40 years of the 20th century saw the establishment of much of the infrastructure, custom and practices of what became the postwar welfare state. So when I hear people calling for a “new Beveridge”, I think less about someone sitting down to write an original blueprint, and much more about the hard work that took place over the 40 years leading up to 1942. And I find myself wondering how we might recapture some of the spirit of that time, with its sense of momentum and possibility. 

Of course, we are not starting from scratch—and nor should we try to. The basic “Beveridge” apparatus still stands and—as we saw in the pandemic, when basic benefits were raised and a huge potential rise in poverty was averted—the way it is harnessed can be just as important as any grand redesign. But even if we are not starting with a blank sheet of paper, looking at the difficulties we face today, I agree with proponents of a “new Beveridge” that we really do need a fundamental shift. There is a risk that we spend too much of our energy tinkering with old industrial welfare machines, asking them to do things they will never be able to, in the face of profound new challenges. During 20 years in the civil service, I often felt we were in danger of doing precisely this.

The real prize isn’t to have welfare services that deliver more, but that are needed less

Public services—no matter how good—cannot be expected to counteract the vast and enduring inequalities that result from our current economic model. Many of our welfare services were shaped to deliver time-limited help to address specific, acute needs in a period of growing collective prosperity. Increasingly, though, the social challenges we face are chronic in nature, and rather than episodic interventions, require deeper, ongoing help that puts human relationships at the heart of the solution. Some of these challenges may not be answered by “services” at all, but something different and more embedded in the fabric of communities. Social security policies could—and most definitely should—rapidly address destitution. But wider economic insecurity will remain unless our social settlement undergoes a deeper transformation. Ultimately, the real prize isn’t to have welfare services that deliver more, but that are needed less.

The reality is that aspects of our current welfare settlement have been overtaken. Economic and demographic changes—unimagined when Temple and Beveridge were working—have shifted the ground beneath our feet: from technological changes which disrupt the organisational foundations of capitalism, including the meaning of work, to the transformed position of women and the vast growth in the number of older people. And then, of course, there is the most fundamental challenge of all: our realisation that, as a species, we are rapidly undermining the viability of life on our planet. Even if our economy and society were humming along harmoniously, “business as usual” would be about to run out of road.

Learning lessons 

Look back beyond Beveridge, to the early 20th century, and the first lesson is the importance of working out what the social fabric of the country really looks like. These decades were punctuated by regular studies which shed new light on the scale and nature of poverty, disrupting lazy prejudices and fuelling a humanitarian spirit. 

The great studies of Seebohm Rowntree on his home city of York bookended the period. The Fabian Women’s Group 1913 study of life in Lambeth, Round About a Pound a Week, documented the realities of working-class budgeting. Meanwhile, thinking on healthcare was reset by Margery Spring Rice’s Working-Class Wives. Such studies not only shaped opinion, but directly shaped policy. 

Oxford’s “historian of the working class,” Selina Todd, has written that they also gave unemployed people “voices, histories and individuality”. And that “voice” was in itself an important ingredient for change. For early 20th-century social advancement went hand in hand with greater political engagement. This was an age of organised labour—with rapid growth in union membership and, of course, the arrival of the Labour party as a parliamentary force. The voices of the working classes were often loud and angry, and heard not only at the ballot box. It was a period of mass unemployment, of protests and strikes, of hunger marches, and indeed the threat of insurrection. People didn’t wait for social change, they agitated for it. 

Responding to fresh insights and the many voices for change called forth a third critical ingredient—experimentation. That word crops up repeatedly in the speeches of leading politicians passing reforms. At the time, Beatrice Webb said she found it “really quite comic” that politicians suddenly engaged in a “scramble for new constructive ideas.” They scrambled far and wide, tapping into innovations in local government and charities and foundations, as well as trade unions and friendly societies. Indeed, part of the story of policy development at this time was a wresting of both ideas and power from such bodies up to the national level.

Legislation was more often born of pragmatic experimentalism than ideology. New policies were often rushed responses to pressing challenges. The “dole”, for example, was created almost inadvertently in 1921, as a panicked improvisation in the face of mass unemployment: without it, Temple judged, revolution could have been unstoppable. Policymakers puzzled their way forward, tested and learned. Along the way, through trial and error, a welfare state was, in Beveridge’s phrase, built “piece by piece”. 

But improvised and incremental as the process was, another important driver was hope—the faith that society could be reimagined. Churchill, at the height of his new liberalism, talked of the state embarking on “novel and adventurous experiments”. Clement Attlee, writing in 1920 as a social worker in the east end of London, talked about “the possibilities of adventures”—for civil servants, no less! Governments took bold steps into the unknown. The Old Age Pension Act of 1908 was passed by a parliament which had very little sense of what it would actually cost: the ethical imperative pierced the actuarial fog. Introducing the Bill, Lloyd George was quite clear the nation was entering unchartered waters: "You have never had a scheme of this kind tried in a great country like ours with its thronging millions, with its rooted complexities... this is, therefore, a great experiment.”  

Hope, imagination and adventure were often most present at community level, among pioneering local authorities, charities and individuals. One of those individuals, Joseph Rowntree, turned imagination into reality by building a new self-governing community at New Earswick in York.

This, then, was the spirit of the age which led to a reimagining of Britain a century ago: informed by fresh insights; inspired by campaigning voices; acted upon by practical women and men puzzling a way forward through new experiments; and fuelled by imagination and a sense of belief. Nobody knew what the ultimate destination would be. Those doing the work did not know whether they were patching up and sustaining an old world or ushering in something quite new. But critically, they got on with the task. 

Towards a new commonwealth 

So where does this leave us? Despite all the calls for “a new Beveridge”, we need to face it: we are not at a 1942 moment; we haven’t done the work yet to fashion a new social settlement. Maybe, instead, we are closer to the place society was at in 1932, or 1922—still searching for the threads to pull together, feeling our way towards solutions to new challenges. 

But recognising this should not be a cause for despondency. It should instead be a spur to get on with the work. The early 20th century shows that the lack of a clear sense of destination need not preclude progress; a new enduring consensus eventually emerged. While party-political divides remained, it is telling that the inter-war period was one in which Conservative, Liberal, Labour and coalition governments all played a part in what ended up being, to some degree, a shared endeavour. 

The central task before us now is to rebuild our concept of the common good. In Temple’s time, confronted by the inadequacies of laissez-faire individualism on the one hand and the spectre of totalitarianism on the other, society had to agree on a way through. As the welfare state was emerging, the balance of the social order tipped in a more collectivist direction, fostering a period of greater social mobility and security. 

Over the last 40 years that process has been put into reverse: risks that were formerly borne by the state, the community or by employers have been pushed back onto individuals. Where we need our institutions of the common good to work harder and more creatively, instead they shrink back. The state is at the same time over-centralised and over-mighty and yet frequently pleads its own helplessness, leaving families to face too many perils alone. 

For those of working age, our social security system no longer provides peace of mind about support in difficult times; the UK has among the lowest unemployment and sickness benefits in the rich world. Today, someone on unemployment benefit receives just a seventh of the average wage—down from about a quarter 40 years ago. And that compounds changes in the workplace which reduce collective security: the declining role of unions, the end of defined benefit pensions and the advent of zero-hours contracts. In too many ways, we have become a sink or swim society.

The stock of social housing—for decades critical to a decent and secure life for millions of people—has shrunk by around 1.4m homes in England since 1980, and in the last decade the flow of new social homes has ground virtually to a halt. A million families languish on social housing lists, with more and more pushed into the poorly regulated private rental sector. Our own analysis at JRF suggests that even before the current cost-of-living crisis, almost a million families on low incomes in England were paying rents they couldn’t reasonably afford.

Of course, the central state can’t provide all the answers to new challenges. We need to devolve more power and resources to the local level. We need more humility from Whitehall about how government works. But we do need to rediscover a sense of mission and purpose in government to support the common good.

In some areas, that means rediscovering the wisdom in older approaches. A major programme to expand the social housing stock is urgently needed—building new houses for social rent and socialising homes in the secondary market. We must also raise the basic rates of social security, to ensure families know they will always be able to afford the essentials of life. 

We also need to share our common wealth. Temple was always comfortable—within limits—with private property ownership: but those limits were important. For Temple, it was crucial that wealth be “subject at all points to control in the interest of society as a whole”. There had to be a reasonable chance for everyone to get a slice of the pie.  

Extraordinarily, at the beginning of the 20th century, the wealthiest 10 per cent of households owned 90 per cent of all wealth. Then, through the decades leading up to Beveridge and right through most of what was left of the 20th century, wealth in Britain became more evenly shared. This progress, though, broke down from the 1980s.

Today, the top 10 per cent hold around half of our collective wealth, while the bottom half of all households hold just 9 per cent. The nation’s growing housing wealth is concentrated in fewer hands: the soothing idea of an inclusive property-owning democracy has fallen away. Inherited wealth has become a much more important factor in the resources of the young. A society defined by what you earn is giving way to a society defined by what you—or your parents—own.

If we are to avoid entrenching a new caste society, a central plank of any new social settlement must be to support wealth-building among those with the least. Reforming the taxation of wealth is politically hazardous but unavoidable. Despite the huge growth in private wealth since the 1980s, wealth taxes make no more contribution to our common good today than they did then. Instead, the exchequer looks to balance the books on the backs of earners, not owners, with tax policy—from property to pensions—reinforcing the concentration of assets. And though we certainly need to build new homes, we are not going to build our way to previous levels of home ownership without deliberate measures to shift tenures in the existing housing stock and reduce the bloated private rental sector.

A society defined by what you earn is giving way to a society defined by what you—or your parents—own

Beyond the focus on individual and household wealth, we should also welcome a renaissance of interest in older, shared and democratic forms of wealth. Witness the growing attention on “Community Land Trusts” and non-standard corporate models, such as mutuals and cooperative businesses. We are also seeing fresh interest in the power—rather than the “tragedy”—of the commons, given new life with the internet’s “knowledge commons.” All present opportunities for wealth to be more broadly held, and more locally and democratically grounded.

Finally, we need to foster a truly common life. People are fundamentally social beings. As Temple wrote, “if you take all these social relationships away,” then “there is nothing left.” It followed that the state’s role was to nurture the institutions of fellowship.

The yearning to rediscover that fellowship is a strong theme across the political spectrum today, putting strengthened, empowered communities at the heart of a reimagined Britain. It is coming to be understood that investment in the social infrastructure of our common life—our parks, libraries, sports clubs, pubs, but most of all in the relationships in which human flourishing occurs—is a precondition of beginning to get the country moving forward again. 

Richer relationships—nurtured by having places to meet, connect and engage with the community—correlate closely with the sort of political engagement that can spur democratic revival. They might make for more balanced, and less polarised, discussions. They can also support economic renewal, for strong social networks are not an alternative to functional markets; they are essential to them. Last but not least, strong communities can help us reimagine our approach to welfare to address those longer-term, chronic challenges we face.

Next month, as we look back with nostalgia on the Beveridge settlement, we need to remember that the report of 1942 was not simply wished into existence. It was the result of decades of hard work and experimentation. Today, we must put our shoulders to the wheel as our forebears did a century ago. We must rediscover the same sense of hope and determination, building a new consensus amid our fractured politics, tapping into the ingenuity of ordinary people and communities doing extraordinary things. It is the best way to truly honour the legacy of Beveridge.