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(The Making of the Welfare State, 1942 – 1951) Examine the extent to which the AIMS of the Beveridge Report of 1942 had been achieved by 1951.
From the Cradle to the Grave
In 1941 the wartime coalition government ordered Sir William Beveridge to write a report suggesting policies that could be implemented to assist people on low incomes in the United Kingdom. In December 1942 Beveridge published his findings in his Report to Parliament on Social Insurance and Allied Services. The Report proposed that people in employment should pay a proportion of their pay into a fund which would then be distributed in the form of benefits paid to people who were unemployed, sick, widowed or retired. Essentially, Beveridge argued for a comprehensive system of social insurance ‘from cradle to grave’.
Beveridge reasoned that this system would establish a minimum standard of living ‘below which no one should be allowed to fall’. His proposals proved immensely popular among the British public and his suggested reforms were introduced by the Labour Government that was elected by a landslide vote (after adopting the objectives of the Beveridge Report in its manifesto) at the end of World War II in 1945.
The period under discussion in this paper extends from publication of the Beveridge Report to the end of the post-war Labour Government, which was led by Clement Attlee. The principle aims of the Beveridge Report were addressed to counter the five so-called ‘giants’ of illness, ignorance, disease, squalor, and want. The Report considered the broad question of social insurance, contending that social ‘want’ could be met by a state organised system of social security for the benefit of individual citizens. Beveridge proposed the establishment of family allowances, a national health service, a scheme for national insurance and assistance, and lobbied for policies to secure full-employment.
The Achievements of the Beveridge Report
Attlee’s Government introduced three acts of key significance and others that proved instrumental in pursuing the aims of the Beveridge Report. The 1946 National Insurance Act, implemented the Beveridge scheme for social security creating a comprehensive system of unemployment, sickness, maternity and pension benefits funded by employers, employees and the government. It is submitted that the Act represents a significant reforming achievement on any given set of criteria.
By June 1948, prominent Labour Minister of Health Aneurin Bevan had steered the National Health Service Act through Parliament and into force. This legislation provided the British public with free diagnosis and treatment of illness and disease, in hospital and at home, and also made comprehensive dental and ophthalmic services available. Again, it is argued that this Act constitutes an important achievement for the Beveridge agenda, indeed, with the benefit of hindsight and from the full perspective of 2005, it is hard to overstate its significance.
The 1948 National Assistance Act was the third of the key Acts inspired by Beveridge. The Act abolished the Poor Law and made provision for welfare services, enacting a raft of measures designed to relieve poverty in the United Kingdom.
All three of the above Acts entered into force on the same day, 7th June 1948. The 1948 Children Act was another important reform inspired by Beveridge. This Act established a children’s committee and a children’s officer in each local authority adding, it is submitted, an important perspective to the Beveridge agenda.
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Full employment also became government policy as a consequence of Beveridge. This goal has never been sustained for any long period, but it is submitted that it is unfair to judge Beveridge by the success or failure of this aspiration, given that so many socio-economic factors impact on the level of employment. Together, the achievements of Beveridge created a welfare state for the United Kingdom: a system of social security guaranteeing a minimum level of income, health and social services for all.
Returning to office in 1951 under Churchill, the Conservative Party pursued an agenda of pragmatic social modernity and accepted almost all of the social reforms, including all the key reforms, instituted by the former Labour government. This demonstrates that not only had the Beveridge Report achieved its primary objectives, but also that it had engineered a shift in the political norms and received social wisdom of the country.
Although securing almost one and a half million more votes than the Conservatives, Clement Attlee’s Labour Party, as stated above, narrowly lost the 1951 General Election. However, it is argued that the post war period of Government was by most measures a great success. Vigorous reform based largely around the model established by Beveridge was achieved. The goal of full employment has and will probably remain an elusive one for the foreseeable future, but great strides were taken during the period under review and the social superstructure of the United Kingdom changed out of all recognition and for, it is submitted, the better.
It is a testament to the influence and success of the Beveridge Report that some forty years after its publication, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government – in terms of its political stance poles apart from Beveridge and Attlee – which as a consequence opposed many of the principles behind Beveridge’s work, recognised his report as ‘by any measure a landmark’ in a white paper on social security reform.
In summary it is submitted that the British welfare state of 2005 is recognisably the progeny of Beveridge. This grand social system retains all the basic characteristics of the system created by the Labour Government between 1945 and 1951. Thus it can be claimed that the Beveridge Report achieved many of its aims, and, moreover, that those achievements have stood the test of time and proved both durable and effective.
Beveridge deserves a place of prominence in the political pantheon of the twentieth century. In terms of his lasting influence on modern Britain, it is arguable that he surpasses even his far more famous political contemporary Churchill. The following quote strikes an appropriate closing note.
“The welfare state, arguably the greatest achievement of European civilisation in this century.”
Marquand, 1997. p127
Report to the Parliament on Social Insurance and Allied Services (Cmd. 6404) London: HMSO, 1942 ISBN: 0108502767
George V. and Wilding P. (1999) British Society and Social Welfare, London, Macmillan.
Marquand D. (1997) The New Reckoning, Cambridge. Polity.
The National Archives: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
 See for comment: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/pathways/citizenship/brave_new_world/welfare.htm
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