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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear