Article abstract: As an economist, Beveridge was a pioneer in the study of unemployment and the history of prices. He was the force responsible for building the London School of Economics into one of the world’s leading centers of social-science scholarship. He is remembered, however, as the intellectual father of the post-World War II British welfare state.
William Henry Beveridge was born on March 5, 1879, at Rangpur, Bengal, India. His father, Henry Beveridge, was a judge in the Indian Civil Service; his mother, the former Annette Susannah Ackroyd, was the daughter of a self-made Worcestershire businessman. They were mavericks within the Anglo-Indian establishment—he was an outspoken advocate of Indian nationalism and home rule, she a pioneer in the education of Hindu women. Strongly attracted to Indian culture, both became well-known translators of Hindi and Persian texts.
Although he would later pretend otherwise, Beveridge’s childhood appears to have been unhappy. While intellectually precocious, he was a sickly and solitary child under the thumb of his domineering mother. In 1892, he won a scholarship to Charterhouse, but he was not good at sports, the school’s dominating passion. Worse, he was discouraged from pursuing his interest in the natural sciences—a frustration that would permanently rankle him. In 1897, he went as an exhibitioner to Balliol College, Oxford, and was awarded first-class honors in classics in 1901. Beveridge stayed on at Oxford to study law, won in 1902 a prize fellowship at University College, Oxford, and received a bachelor of civil law degree the following year.
At this juncture, however, Beveridge abandoned what appeared to be a promising legal or academic career ahead of him to devote himself to the study and solution of social problems. The catalyst for this decision appears to have been his reading of Thomas Henry Huxley, whose vision of applying the inductive methodology of the natural sciences to the discovery of a “science of Society” captivated his imagination. His acceptance in 1903 of the position of subwarden at Toynbee Hall, the famous London East End settlement house, brought him into contact with a group of reform-minded activists who were urging stronger government action to deal with poverty and its attendant social pathologies. He was probably most strongly influenced by the Fabian Socialist leaders Beatrice and Sidney Webb. Although not embracing their socialism, Beveridge was strongly attracted by their call for a legally guaranteed “national minimum” income—an attraction that was reinforced by a later visit to Germany, where he studied the working of the Bismarckian social-welfare program. Beveridge’s major interest was in the problem of unemployment. His book Unemployment; A Problem of Industry (1909) was a pioneering study of the functioning of the labor market. He called for the establishment of a nationwide network of labor exchanges to aid job seekers in finding work. What he came to see as the key to solving what contemporaries termed the “social question,” however, was the adoption of a comprehensive system of compulsory social insurance covering not simply unemployment but also sickness, disability, and old age. He proposed that the system be financed along the lines of the German model by tripartite contributions from workers, employers, and the state.
In 1905, Beveridge left Toynbee Hall to become a writer on social issues for the influential Conservative daily, the Morning Post. In 1908, he accepted the invitation of Winston Churchill, the president of the Board of Trade in the Liberal Party government headed by Prime Minister H. H. Asquith, to join his staff. At that time, Churchill was allied with the “national efficiency” school of social reformers who, alarmed by the large number of men found unfit for military service during the Boer War, thought improvement in the conditions of life for the working class vital for imperial security. Beveridge worked closely with the board’s permanent secretary, Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith, in drafting the Labour Exchanges Act of 1909, which established a countrywide network of labor exchanges, and the provision in the National Insurance Act of 1911 establishing unemployment insurance for two and a quarter million workers in the heavy industries. In 1909, he became a permanent civil servant as administrative head of the new labor exchanges system, and in 1913 he attained the rank of assistant secretary in charge of the Board of Trade’s labor exchange and unemployment insurance department. His hope of achieving a full solution to the unemployment problem by the expansion of the unemployment insurance scheme to all workers, however, was stymied by the outbreak of World War I. He himself, in 1915, was temporarily drafted to the new Ministry of Munitions set up to deal with the crisis in war production.
Like his chief, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and future prime minister, David Lloyd George, Beveridge was convinced that the war could not be won without a total commitment of the nation’s resources—even if that required the use of coercive methods. Long suspicious of what he saw as the trade unions’ narrow-minded indifference to any interests except their own, Beveridge played a leading role in drafting the Munitions of War Act of 1915, which sharply limited wartime collective bargaining and imposed quasi-military discipline upon workers in the munitions industry. The resulting hostility felt by the trade unions against Beveridge was reinforced when, after his return to the Board of Trade in mid-1916, he pushed for legislation to extend unemployment insurance to all workers engaged in war production. Although his purpose was to protect the workers against the danger of a postwar depression, the unions saw the substitution of a government program of unemployment insurance for union-provided benefits as threatening to undermine the loyalty of their members. Union opposition was largely responsible for keeping Beveridge out of the new Ministry of Labour, which was established in late 1916 to coordinate labor and employment policies. Instead, he was made second secretary of the new Ministry of Food, with responsibility for rationing and price control. Because of his success in implementing an effective food-rationing system, he was in early 1919 made a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath and was promoted to permanent secretary of the Food Ministry—at the age of thirty-nine, one of the youngest men ever to attain that rank.
Beveridge’s wartime experiences, however, had undermined his former confidence in state intervention in the economy. All too typically, decisions were made not on the basis of expert knowledge but rather simply on the basis of political expediency....
(The entire section is 2811 words.)