Tomorrow will be 70 years since the publication of Social Insurance and Allied Services – the Beveridge Report,William Beveridge’s seminal plan that laid the foundations for the establishment of the welfare state. The writing of the report and its reception were extraordinary events, given they occurred when Britain was in the darkest stages of the war. I’m not going to recount the compiling of the report or indeed what it contained, as this has received significant attention already, and you can listen to a great summary which was aired on Radio 4.
The collections of the Working Class Movement Library (WCML) and People’s History Museum (PHM) contain significant material relating directly to the report and the ideas which informed it. There are two things which I’m going to write about here, firstly that Beveridge’s ideas were not that new; similar schemes had, as Paul Addison states, been common coin of the ‘progressive centre’ before 1939. And secondly that its euphoric reception was in part due to the excellent interpretation of what Beveridge had said in a number of pamphlets and publications.
Evidence that Beveridge used already established ideas can be seen in the Labour Party’s research memorandum held by PHM. In July 1941, just a month after Cabinet Minister Arthur Greenwood had formed the committee which Beveridge chaired and published his report, the Labour Party had formed its own committee of reconstruction. The idea for the committee came from Harold Laski the strident socialist academic who throughout the war had demanded that Britain should immediately enact a socialist state, even before an Allied victory had been secured.
The committee’s papers reside at the PHM; their scope and detail is breathtaking. In part they are amalgamations of past research committee minutes, a synopsis of Labour thinking from the party’s existence until 1941. For instance in October 1941 the committee, not unsurprisingly, stated that a significant period of house building would have to commence. However, it also thought about the design of these houses. Stating ‘The ministry of Planning should co-operate with the board of Education in setting up a Committee on the teaching of good design in Schools, Colleges and adult education centres.’ Materials for reconstruction were also considered. In November 1941 the committee rejected the idea that houses should be built out of glass bricks, as it ‘precluded prefabrication’ and would involve the use of brick-laying an ‘unaccustomed material’. That Britain would be covered in see-through houses was clearly not thought a problem.
In his report Beveridge assumed that Britain would establish a National Health Service, yet gave scant detail to the practicalities of it. Labour’s reconstruction committee went into significant detail, highlighting how many hospitals would be needed and where they should go. Furthermore, the research committee suggested that rather than having lots of generalist hospitals, one hospital in each should would have a maternity or eye specialism. And for even more specialist care such as plastic or brain surgery only one in a hospital region would undertake this role; intriguingly the NHS is moving again towards this model. The author of these ideas, Somerville Hastings, laid down the principles of the National Health Service: ‘Prevention and cure of disease and maintenance of optimum health’. He was unequivocal in who the NHS should be for, namely ‘all’. ‘Why’ as he whimsically put it ‘penalise the wealthy?’
When the Beveridge report was published Labour’s Research Committee were largely supportive of its aims, indeed, most of the population were, one survey suggesting that 86% of the population approved. One reason for this wide acceptance was because Beneridge’s ideas were so widely read and understood. The actual report sold 635, 000 copies. But it wasn’t just through the official document that people would have learnt about the plan. The archives of the WCML and PHM show that many pamphlets from a variety of organisations promoted the benefits of the act. G.D.H Cole wrote ‘Beveridge explained’ for the New Statesman, a guide that that was ‘an explanation not a criticism’.
In a similar vein the preface to The News Chronicle & The Star’s ‘Guide to the Beveridge plan for social security’ stated that the aim is to ‘help the man-in-the street to understand Sir William Beveridge’s Plan’.
By far the most visually stimulating to all these guides is Social security: the story of British social progress and the Beveridge Plan (see front cover above). This pamphlet not only explained Beveridge in words, but contained illustrations by ISOTYPE. This was a visual language developed in Vienna in the 1930s. Its founders Otto & Marie Neurath fled Austria at the outbreak of the war and by 1941 found themselves in Oxford. The Ministry of Information sponsored and used ISOPTYPE to explain economic and political ideas in many of its publications and in all probability Social security: the story of British social progress and the Beveridge Plan was an MOI publication. It was certainly not lost on the war-time government that Beveridge’s ideas could provide a huge morale boost to the population. There is a great website about ISOTYPE, and in the future I’ll be looking at how images and graphs like this were used to explain economic and political ideas. It remains an unconsidered area of research, one in which PHM and WCML hold important collections.
Above you can see how ISOTYPE was used to explain how government administration would be before and after Beveridge. Below is a diagram to visually show the needs of various sections of society. One reason Beveridge was so popular, I think, was because it was so well explained. Not just in the ‘official’ government document but also in the myriad publications that were published at the same time about it.