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In place of fear

Enthusiastic crowds queued to buy Beveridge’s plan for a welfare state. How would a modern-day Beveridge restore the standing of his creaking creation?
William Beveridge discusses his report at the Ministry of Information

On 30th November, 75 years ago, in the middle of the Second World War, an anticipatory queue formed on London’s Kingsway, the then headquarters of Her Majesty’s Stationery Office.

Barely a fortnight earlier, Winston Churchill had ordered that the church bells be rung in recognition of Montgomery’s victory at El Alamein. It was the first domestic cause for rejoicing after three years of a war where there had been nothing to celebrate aside from the retreat from Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain, and stoic defiance of the Blitz. It was El Alamein—the first victory—that brought forth Churchill’s famous declaration that “Now is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning.”

The lengthening queue on Kingsway, however, was not focused on the end of anything; they were after a new beginning. They were there for the somewhat unlikely purpose of buying an oftenimmensely technical 300-page government-commissioned report, written by a retired civil servant, with the uninspiring title “Social Insurance and Allied Services.”

Much of the report was as hard going as the title suggests. But its 20-page introduction and 20-page summary, which were sold as a cheaper cut-down version, punchily dug the foundations on which the post-war welfare state would rest. These parts of the report were stuffed with inspirational rhetoric—”five giants on the road to reconstruction”, “a revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching”: language that no government report, on any subject, has rivalled since.

In the context of the welfare state today, after seven years of austerity and with more to come, it is pretty hard to imagine news about anything other than cuts. The NHS is in the midst of the biggest squeeze in its history. Social care is in crisis. Spending per pupil is due to stop rising, and to fall in real terms. And entitlements to working age benefits—having been cut— are due to be cut again. Even back in the New Labour years, when the government was mobilising serious resources to make work pay and avoid the poorest families falling behind, there was almost an element of embarrassment about the endeavour. Certainly, nobody queued down Kingsway, Whitehall or anywhere else to hear about Gordon Brown’s tax credits, which were expressly designed to disguise a poverty-reduction programme as tax cuts, the calculation being that the war on want would be unpopular and so must be waged with stealth. Compared to 1942, it is another world.

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In Prospect’s November issue: Joris Luyendijk and Stuart Ward try to uncover the way Britain is perceived by Europe and the rest of the world. Luyendijk—who lived in Britain for six years before recently moving back to his native Netherlands—explains that the Brexit vote has shown Europe that Britain needs time alone to find its identity again, while Ward—a native Australian—argues that its Britain’s imperial backstory that stops it from truly understanding what the world thinks of it. Elsewhere in the issue Jeffrey Lewis argues that US foreign policy has helped North Korea develop the nuclear bomb and we explore the effect that the Palestinian museum near Ramallah is having on the creation of a national identity. Also in this issue: Sameer Rahim profiles Armando Iannucci, Joseph Stiglitz on Britain’s tricky political situation.