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

From the archive.

William Beveridge in 1943
William Beveridge in 1943. Photograph: Getty Images.

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