Kingsley Martin's obituary for William Beveridge (1879-1963)

From the archive.

Strictly speaking, I am the last person who ought to write an obituary of Lord Beveridge because I had a tremendous row with him. I have an excuse. This too personal a story illustrates why Beveridge, who was, on any showing, a great man and a great public benefactor, was prevented by temperamental defects from achieving the happiness and perhaps some of the success which would otherwise have been his.

The story can be quickly told. He was director of the London School of Economics and I a young, opinionated and very conceited member of his staff. I wrote a satirical little book about the General Strike which included criticisms of the coal commission on which Beveridge had sat and whose report I assumed he wrote. He summoned me to his room and produced a heavily underscored and corrected copy of my book. On the score that this was journalism, not academic work (though it was written in the summer vacation), he refused me normal promotion. At the same moment I received a flattering invitation to join the staff of the Manchester Guardian. I went to Manchester.

Beveridge was then at loggerheads with many members of his staff, including such eminent persons as L T Hobhouse. He and Harold Laski quarrelled furiously. Laski was easily able to refute the charge that he was spending his time on politics and journalism, because he managed in addition to do twice as much academic work as anyone else. Beveridge’s real ground for complaint, I think, was that Laski’s left-wing politics gave the LSE a totally undeserved reputation for Bolshevism, and that this interfered with Beveridge’s schemes for promoting the LSE with money from the City and from American trusts.

Beveridge was by nature lonely, a despot who resented criticism, could not tolerate opposition, did not hide his view that the people whose welfare he gave his life to securing were fools who deserved no such consideration. Such a despot needs a confidant on whom he must rely too much for his subordinates’ likings. All this was hard on him because he was entirely disinterested in his desire to do good to his fellow men; his initial decision after a brilliant career at Oxford to go to take a job at Toynbee Hall was proof enough of his desire to serve. His early work on unemployment was unique in treating the subject as a social disease with no pretence that the unemployed deserved their misfortune.

His autobiography shows that he was always divided between the rival advantages of influence and power. It was a blow to him when, for reasons that I think he never understood, the fellows of University College, Oxford, where he had become Master, refused to allow him to maintain his position if he stood as a parliamentary candidate. Because of his mistake in standing as a Liberal in 1945, he forfeited the chance of giving his services to the government at a time when, in theory at least, they were most needed by the nation. He might himself have made a brilliant minister, but he was never likely to succeed as a member of a team or to collaborate successfully with so dominant a per­sonality as Ernest Bevin. I recall meeting him one night during the war when he was deeply engaged in this quarrel; he was willing, in the most human way, to accept my company at a theatre as a distraction from his frustration.

He did not disguise a consciousness of disappointment in his later years. He had as compensation his happy marriage and the innumerable invitations he received as a lecturer. No one I think ever had as voracious an appetite for facts, as swift a capacity for marshalling them, or a more creative gift for seeing how a beneficial policy could be advised from them. He was a superb planner, but a bad administrator because administration involves individuals. Though disappointed by the response at first given to his famous insurance plan, he had the satisfaction of seeing it made into the very foundation of the welfare state. He turned his restless energies to the managing of two development corporations. Even here he was frustrated – this time by Harold Macmillan. The most famous of the reports he drafted was on the future of broadcasting. In spite of his approval of the BBC, an alternative system was also set up by which independent broadcasting would be financed by commercial advertisements.

When history comes to be written, the personal characteristics to which I have referred will seem of no importance at all. He will be remembered as one of the men who contributed most to the form of socialism accepted in Britain, and though he was no socialist it is likely that this is the memorial which he would have chosen. I recall once reading a paper on Bernard Shaw to a literary society, in which I discussed Shaw’s notion of the ancients as creative and beneficent beings above human emotions. As we came away Beveridge remarked, to himself perhaps rather than to me: “Yes, that is a most interesting question – ‘Does a man achieve more by dehumanising himself?’” It was a question that is underlined rather than answered by his career.

This is an edited version of an article that appeared in the New Statesman on 22 March 1963

William Beveridge in 1943. Photograph: Getty Images.

Kingsley Martin (1897-1969) was editor of the New Statesman from 1930 to 1960.

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No, Jeremy Corbyn did not refuse to condemn the IRA. Please stop saying he did

Guys, seriously.

Okay, I’ll bite. Someone’s gotta say it, so really might as well be me:

No, Jeremy Corbyn did not, this weekend, refuse to condemn the IRA. And no, his choice of words was not just “and all other forms of racism” all over again.

Can’t wait to read my mentions after this one.

Let’s take the two contentions there in order. The claim that Corbyn refused to condem the IRA relates to his appearance on Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme yesterday. (For those who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s a weekly political programme, hosted by Sophy Ridge and broadcast on a Sunday. Don’t say I never teach you anything.)

Here’s how Sky’s website reported that interview:


The first paragraph of that story reads:

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been criticised after he refused five times to directly condemn the IRA in an interview with Sky News.

The funny thing is, though, that the third paragraph of that story is this:

He said: “I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”

Apparently Jeremy Corbyn has been so widely criticised for refusing to condemn the IRA that people didn’t notice the bit where he specifically said that he condemned the IRA.

Hasn’t he done this before, though? Corbyn’s inability to say he that opposed anti-semitism without appending “and all other forms of racism” was widely – and, to my mind, rightly – criticised. These were weasel words, people argued: an attempt to deflect from a narrow subject where the hard left has often been in the wrong, to a broader one where it wasn’t.

Well, that pissed me off too: an inability to say simply “I oppose anti-semitism” made it look like he did not really think anti-semitism was that big a problem, an impression not relieved by, well, take your pick.

But no, to my mind, this....

“I condemn all the bombing by both the loyalists and the IRA.”, despite its obvious structural similarities, not the same thing.

That’s because the “all other forms of racism thing” is an attempt to distract by bringing in something un-related. It implies that you can’t possibly be soft on anti-semitism if you were tough on Islamophobia or apartheid, and experience shows that simply isn’t true.

But loyalist bombing were not unrelated to IRA ones: they’re very related indeed. There really were atrocities committed on both sides of the Troubles, and while the fatalities were not numerically balanced, neither were they orders of magnitude apart.

As a result, specifically condemning both sides as Corbyn did seems like an entirely reasonable position to take. Far creepier, indeed, is to minimise one set of atrocities to score political points about something else entirely.

The point I’m making here isn’t really about Corbyn at all. Historically, his position on Northern Ireland has been pro-Republican, rather than pro-peace, and I’d be lying if I said I was entirely comfortable with that.

No, the point I’m making is about the media, and its bias against Labour. Whatever he may have said in the past, whatever may be written on his heart, yesterday morning Jeremy Corbyn condemned IRA bombings. This was the correct thing to do. His words were nonetheless reported as “Jeremy Corbyn refuses to condemn IRA”.

I mean, I don’t generally hold with blaming the mainstream media for politicians’ failures, but it’s a bit rum isn’t it?

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

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