Still cause of disagreement

Seventy-five years ago, about this time of year, people were queuing round the block to get their copy of a government report; 600,000 of them eventually, a record for HM Stationery Office. The attraction was the Beveridge Report.

Friday, 15th December 2017, 8:00 am

Apart from its subsequent link with Berwick, it was unusual in several ways.

Beveridge was a difficult man, a posh civil servant turned academic, who had been “radicalised”.

In the middle of the war, he was pushed by both Conservative and Labour in the Coalition Government to write a report on workers’ insurance, possibly to keep him quiet.

His wife then told him to go beyond his brief (and to write in English, not civil service jargon).

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As he believed that major problems demanded revolution rather than patching, he did as his wife told him! As one does.

Beveridge wanted to tackle his Five Giants: Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness. These were less the product of individuals’ failings than of the system.

The key needs were health, child allowances, education and continuing employment.

The basis was to be not tax and hand-outs but personal contributions from everyone who was economically active, guaranteeing an appropriate subsistence level to all in times of need.

There should be no means test as that would put penny pinching before national solidarity.

Striving for evidence based policy rather than policy based “evidence”, he calculated an appropriate subsistence level but incorporated about six per cent extra for slack, contingencies and “human imperfection”.

The report was a wow across the world. Even the right-wing Daily Telegraph called it “A consummation of the revolution begun by David Lloyd George”.

The PM and his Deputy (Churchill and Attlee) were cautiously supportive but 160 MPs, including 45 Conservatives, wanted to implement the report more rapidly and fully.

Distrustful of the Government, Beveridge decided to enter politics, choosing the Liberals. He won a by-election, becoming Berwick’s MP until the 1945 Labour landslide.

The Beveridge Report was the foundation of the NHS and the rest of what came to be called The Welfare State (a name he disliked for its hint of top down hand-outs).

It is still at the core of many major political disagreements.

Peter Watts