GENERAL ARTICLES

Charter For An Election?

Says this writer: "The Beveridge Report is of the greatest political importance and may play a chief part in shaping the future of Britain"

DOUGLAS REED February 1 1943
GENERAL ARTICLES

Charter For An Election?

Says this writer: "The Beveridge Report is of the greatest political importance and may play a chief part in shaping the future of Britain"

DOUGLAS REED February 1 1943

QUITE SUDDENLY a bright new star has appeared on the stage of public discussion here. This is Sir William Beveridge, a man hitherto quite unknown to the greater public. His Report has made a very loud report, and not only in this island, if we are to believe what we are told. Our broadcasting services have spread its fame throughout the world, and the general opinion of the rest of the planet, we are told, is approbatory— with the exception of Germany, which, in its English broadcasts, derides Sir William’s proposals in one breath and in the next complains that Bismarck anticipated them sixty years ago.

While we still fight to make society secure, we discuss “Social Security.” Here the debate recalls that of old Omar’s student, who when young did eagerly frequent Doctor and Saint, and heard great argument about it and about; but evermore, came out by the same door wherein he went. In The Times and The Daily Telegraph some voices despairingly cry that the spirit of self-reliance and adventure will die in this country, if Sir William’s proposals are carried out: in The Daily Herald and The New Statesman leader-writers and indignant intellectuals clamor that “vested interests” once again are setting about to perpetuate poverty in England and wreck reform.

Unless I am far wrong, the matter is much less simple than that. I opine that the Beveridge Report is of the greatest political importance, apart from its social significance, and may play a chief part in shaping the future of Britain. To try and establish social security before society has been made secure, that is, before a way has been found to ensure enduring peace, is to build the upper story of a house before the foundation has been laid. But the popular appeal of these proposals is so glittering that a government, intent on securing a long term of power, might well achieve its aim through them. What if that government, secure in office, should then pursue foreign policies as disastrous as those which were followed between 1919 and 1939? Where would the foundation of the House Secure be then? Which is horse, and which cart? Here is the greater importance and possible peril of the Beveridge Report. It is impossible to forget that, when the last war reached about the same stage as the present one, the cry of “a land fit for heroes to live in” was loudly raised, and lured many voters. But governments returned in virtue of those glowing promises neglected to secure peace, and without peace talk of social security is vain.

Thus, if first things are to come first, I for one would say that the Beveridge proposals, even if they are realized, will prove to be illusions unless a foreign policy calculated to secure peace is followed after this war, and of this the signs at present are far from clear. The Darlan affair, for instance, too strongly recalled many of the episodes of the years before this war to inspire confidence. It is noteworthy that the old-age pension rates foreseen in them are only to reach their maximum in twenty years. But twenty years after the last war we were just beginning another.

Taking the proposals entirely on their intrinsic value, and apart from this other unfortunately vital consideration, you may say that public opinion in this country is overwhelmingly in favor of them. This is logical and inevitable in a country where, as Mr. Seebohm Rowntree showed in his survey of “Poverty and Progress,” about one third of the working-class population lived in poverty before the present war. It is logical and inevitable in a country which has such vivid memories of unemployment, derelict areas, and mass misery in the years between the two wars. Put before the country as an electoral program, they would reap an enormous vote and comfortably establish in office any government that appealed to the country on them. And this, as long as a clear and firm line in foreign policy lacks, may be their great danger.

Most of the proposals, I believe, would receive (he support of a great majority of the people in any and every circumstance. For instance, I cannot imagine that more than a tiny minority of fine old crusted diehards would oppose the substantial increase in old-age pensions. The fear of destitution in old age is a terrible thing that should be abolished once and for all, for it has no right to survive in any country where the word “civilization” is in use. In old age the “spirit of self-reliance and adventure” does not help. A book recently published (“A Cornish Childhood,” by A. L. Rowse) gives this picture of an aged Cornish granny: “Her last years were made easier for her by Lloyd George’s Old-Age Pension. If there was ever anybody to whom five shillings a week was an inestimable help, it was she. The consequence was that she worshipped the name of Lloyd George. The work of that remote politician away in Westminster, a mere name to her who knew nothing of politics and politicians, meant that much concrete security in her last years, so much for tea and sugar and bread and candles and coal and house-rent . . . ”

Today, when we spend untold millions every day upon the war, I think few people would cavil against the raising of the old-age pension (now ten shillings) to twenty-four shillings for a man, or forty shillings for a man and wife, in twenty years time. Many of the other proposals, too, seem to the bulk of public opinion to be above reasonable criticism. Some of them are things which have long since become the practice in other countries, for instance, the marriage grants. Allowances for children, too, are desired by most people. No substantial opposition has been raised to marriage grants, or to the allowance to be made to a pregnant working woman for thirteen weeks before and after her confinement, so that she may not suffer in pocket or in health by bearing children.

‘‘A Decent Burial”

ONE of the most excellent—and most dynamite-laden—of the proposals is that which would introduce grants for funeral expenses. This harmless-looking proposal derives from a very sordid chapter in our interwar social history and arouses the fierce enmity of one of the most powerful and wealthiest groups of “vested interests” in this country— the great insurance concerns, whose shares dropped £5,000,000 in value on the day the Report was published.

One of the strongest and strangest characteristics of the British poor is the obsession, which they develop shortly after leaving the cradle, with the desire for “a decent burial.” In this country the poor pay in advance for an elegant funeral by subscribing a penny a week, or thereabouts, to “the insurance man,” who knocks at their door every Friday.

With the womenfolk this penny-a-week habit sometimes becomes a kind of mania. They take out four or five or six “insurances,” believing in some muddled way that they are doing something good for themselves or their children by it. Sooner or later their husbands fall ill, or become unemployed, and they cannot keep up the payments. The policy lapses and the payments made disappear into the coffers of the great insurance concerns. At the period of our greatest distress, unemployment and impoverishment, millions of pounds travelled, by this means, from the pockets of the poor to the balance sheets of wealthy undertakings. The thing was a public scandal and from time to time there was talk of reforms, but as far as I know nothing effective was done.

Sir William Beveridge’s proposal for funeral grants would go a long way to end this pernicious practice. That is presumably why the insurance shares fell, and why the most violent opposition has come from insurance quarters. The great concerns, however, which were wont to spend £l in every £3 paid to them in premiums on running their business are prepared, if they cannot kill the proposals, to make the best of them—by taking over the whole Beveridge scheme and running it themselves!

Unemployment Made Easy

IN MY opinion only one of Sir William Beveridge’s proposals is open to sound and substantial criticism. This is the one for unemployment pay of forty shillings a week for a man and his wife. This is quite a different question from a generous Old Age Pension. Unfortunately, it is beyond doubt that certain people exist who, from lack of energy, resistance or what not, are content to let themselves be lulled into indolence. Here is a gap in the proposals which would need to be filled. Some safeguard against the abuse of this proposal would have to be found, and it is not easy to find one. I myself have known men who allowed themselves to drift too easily into professional unemployment, even on the pittance which was paid to them in the interwar years.

So much, then, for the Beveridge proposals, and the public reaction to them. But I repeat that I think their primary importance is political. Why has a Government, which is still predominantly Conservative in its composition, suddenly encouraged them to be made? What goes on behind the political scene?

Behind them I think I see the shadow of a coming election, for one must be fought sometime; the present Parliament, elected in 1935 to check aggression at its source, has already prolonged its own life three times. The Government is a Coalition one, of Conservatives and Socialists (and a few token Liberals). If the Conservatives plan to go to the country on this issue, the last piece of ground will be cut from beneath the Socialists’ feet. They will have nothing to fight on and will need to resign themselves to political decline.

Who knows? Perhaps another “snap” election lurks behind the Beveridge Report. Dazzled by its glitter, the electors would once more roll up to the polling stations in their millions and establish firmly in power a Government pledged to realize these proposals. Foreign affairs, always a thing of mystery to the native Briton, would be forgotten. If that should happen, I fear the Britons of 1963 might have cause to look back on the Beveridge Report with much the same feelings as those which rise in us today when we think of the “land fit for heroes to live in.”