"When I went down to the Stationery Office to get it, there were queues of people buying it, and I was looking at it on the bus and the conductor said 'I suppose you haven't got a spare copy of that?'"
One does not generally expect a 172-page Government report, with the riveting title of Social Insurance and Allied Services, to sell 100,000 copies in a month. But this was the Beveridge Report, published in 1942, which became the basis of the postwar welfare state. This book is the story of how Britain arrived at that point, after around a century and a half of agonising about the causes of chronic poverty and how best to tackle it.
It is a story both of ideas and of the individuals who espoused them. On the ideas front, the challenge was to get beyond the conviction of many that poverty among the able-bodied must be the consequence of moral failings, like drink or idleness, and that any kind of state intervention would inevitably demoralise the recipients and render them even less willing to work. Even now, this has not wholly gone away, but in the nineteenth century it was unquestioned, until research by the likes of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree showed otherwise in the 1890s. One of the most oddly moving things in the book is the conversion of Edwin Chadwick, he who in 1834 had been partly responsible for deliberately making workhouses as unattractive as possible, lest the idle be minded to give up their jobs and move in. This is all most school history teaches about him, which is unfortunate, for Chadwick was that rarity, a man capable of learning better and admitting he had been wrong. The more he found out about working-class poverty, the more he realised that it was intimately bound up with ill health, and that this in turn resulted from the insanitary conditions in which many were forced to live. Like all converts, he then went too far and decided ill health was at the root of everything, which wasn't true either, but at least it had dawned on him that poverty was not necessarily the fault of the poor.
Rowntree's research in York went further, by identifying a five-stage working-class life-cycle of poverty and relative comfort. Basically he concluded that there were only two periods in which such a man might be able to save money. The first was when he first began to earn but could still live with his parents; if he managed to put enough aside, this period might last into early marriage, while his wife too could still bring in a wage, but the birth of children would put paid to it. The second was when his children were old enough to bring in a wage and had not yet left home. Even then, though, they would be near what Rowntree was the first to define as the "poverty line"; there was little spare to cope with illness or other calamity. In other words, the Victorian ideal of a family with a man earning and a wife and children at home did not work for this class, because with few exceptions, one man's wage would not support it. This was crucial, because it meant things could not simply be relied on to sort themselves out; there was something fundamentally wrong with the system. The question was how it could be put right: should wages for men be raised (Rowntree and others thought so) or was the radical feminist Eleanor Rathbone on to something in advocating child allowances? Various committees and commissions would debate these and related questions and methods hotly for the next 50 years, and it is an odd and recurrent theme that the people with the right ideas were often the most abrasive and apt to irritate their fellow-members rather than getting them on board.
One thing the research of people like Booth and Rowntree achieved was to open middle-class and intellectual eyes to a world about which they knew almost nothing and had inaccurately assumed a great deal. Much the same revelation would come to pass during the Second World War, as a result of evacuation, when many well-to-do country people came for the first time into contact with the children of the urban poor and were horrified enough at the state of them to realise that something radical had to be done. This may have been part of the reason for the overwhelming support for the Beveridge proposals shown in a poll by the British Institute of Public Opinion. This support crossed all social boundaries: there was 76% approval in the upper income group and 90% among those who worked in a profession. Henry Durant, the pollster, wrote, sounding slightly bemused, "People's view of whether the Report should be implemented does not seem to have been influenced by their calculation of whether they personally are likely to gain or lose. They seem to have approached the question from the angle of the public good."
The emergence of personalities – from genuinely principled philanthropists like Rowntree through abrasive oddities like Beatrice Webb to Lloyd George and Churchill, both ready to betray any cause at any moment for party advantage – is part of what makes this book much more readable than its academic subject might suggest. The writing style is generally accessible and entertaining. It does have some irritating tics, notably his belief that "as if" can be replaced with "like": phrases such as "it looked like he did not care" grate horribly on the ear and there are a lot of them. But in general he has done a good job of showing what led up to a momentous revolution in ideas of what the state can and should do to make life better for the individual and for society as a whole, and also what a difference this revolution made to people who, for the first time, did not have to decide whether they could afford to call in a doctor, or go about half-blind for lack of spectacles. The book concludes with a timely warning: "Many of those who lived through the war and the difficult decades that preceded it greatly appreciated what had come into being by the end of the 1940s. Yet the generation that followed found it much easier to take for granted something that quickly became central to everyday life in Britain. […] But as the 150 years before the end of the Second World War show, building something like the welfare state is immensely more difficult than allowing it to fall apart."