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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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad