Profile in courage — G D H Cole

Jonathan Derbyshire on the pioneering social and political theorist who did more than most to bring about the ideals of the Beveridge report.

G D H Cole
G D H Cole. Photograph: Getty Images

The New Statesman offered a robust welcome to William Beveridge’s Social Insurance and Allied Services in a leading article in the issue of 5 December 1942 (the report had been published four days earlier). The NS, that week’s leader declared, looked “highly favourabl[y]” on Beveridge’s proposals. If Sir William were to get his way, it went on, we would see an end to the “long-tolerated scandal of the exploitation of the poor by insurance companies” and the introduction of a “guaranteed income” for every working person when he or she fell sick, was injured at work or became unemployed.

Not only was it morally desirable for the state to take responsibility for ensuring “security of income” and the provision of what Beveridge called a “national minimum”, it was efficient, too. The leader cited the “monstrous figures of waste” involved in the existing system of private insurance. Though some of the details of the plan might be quibbled with, the schemes for social insurance, children’s allowances and an “all-in scheme of medical treatment of every kind for everybody” were “worth backing through thick and thin”.

Yet social security on its own, the NS declared, was not enough to give every household in the country a “tolerable living income”. Only an active economic policy designed to bring about “full employment” could do that. Beveridge recognised this, acknowledging that “income security by itself would not produce a good society”.

The Statesman returned to this theme in its leader of 26 December 1942. Beveridge had been concerned with protecting people against temporary interruptions of income, not with guaranteeing to all citizens an income on which “a decent standard of life can be sustained”. That required economic planning and the imposition of certain “conditions” on industry. As for those who insisted that such planning offended against the laws of political economy, they were “talking nonsense”.

In March 1943, the NS published a pamphlet, entitled The Beveridge Plan: Where Are We Now?, by the political theorist and longstanding contributor G D H Cole. (Beveridge subsequently joined Cole in helping to set up the Social Security League, which campaigned for immediate implementation of his report.) Cole’s pamphlet examined the response of the wartime coalition government to Beveridge’s plan. He feared that the recommendations of a committee chaired by Sir John Anderson, the Lord President of the Council, threatened to weaken the original vision. “The discrepancies between Sir William Beveridge’s Plan,” Cole wrote, “and what the Government is willing to accept are very serious.”

He was particularly worried about the government’s reluctance to recommend the establishment of a new ministry for social security. The government favoured instead setting up a statutory board or commission that would take responsibility for those aspects of social security that existing departments of state could not handle. Cole detected a “fear of democratic control”. He reiterated the point about full employment that the NSleader had made. Without a commitment on the part of the central government to maintain production and employment, “most projects of social amelioration will come to nothing”.

Beveridge believed the same. In a letter of February 1943, he wrote: “While I am still mildly interested in my own proposals for Social Insurance and Allied Services, I am much more interested in the much more important problems of maintenance of employment (Assumption C of my Report) [and] of the organisation of industry . . .” By this time he was already at work on Full Employment in a Free Society, the sequel to his first report; it was eventually published in November 1944.

The NS published a 50-page summary of the second Beveridge report as a pamphlet. It ends with a ringing peroration on the “meaning of social conscience”. Beveridge writes: “The Policy for Full Employment outlined in this Summary is a policy of spending and doing. It is a policy of common action. If we attack with determination, unity and clear aim, the four giant evils of Want, Disease, Ignorance and Squalor, we shall destroy in the process their confederate – the fifth giant of Idleness enforced by mass-unemployment.”