William Beveridge addressing a group of housewives, 1944. Photograph: Hans Wild
by Will Hutton
Sat 23 Oct 2010
n 1942 William Beveridge's report on social insurance was a national bestseller: with memories of the 30s still vivid, wartime Britain had an enormous appetite for the promise that the postwar world would be different. The scant support for millions locked, through no fault of their own, in the "five evils" – want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness – had been a disgrace. There had to be change.
Beveridge knew full well that unless any welfare system is based on the contribution principle – citizens pay in and earn the benefit as their due desert – the principle of welfare soon gets degraded. The more taxpayers contribute, the more they will ask if welfare beneficiaries really deserve what they are receiving. The pressure is now on to make benefits ever meaner and ever more tightly means-tested, because, as George Osborne put it this week, why should ordinary working families pay taxes for people to live on benefit? Beveridge's solution was to create a system of social insurance into which everyone paid to insure themselves against life's inevitable hazards – old age, disability, sickness and unemployment. He proposed a national insurance system to pay unemployment benefit, disability benefit and pensions. Every citizen would pay in; every citizen would receive their benefit as an universal entitlement. There could be no means test, no criticism that beneficiaries were fiddling honest tax-payers.
Philosophers and psychologists now recognise what Beveridge knew in his bones: that human beings intuitively believe we are all, to some extent, responsible for our actions – the sentiment that the anti-welfare state brigade tap when they want to differentiate between the deserving and undeserving poor. The only way to trump that thinking is a system of social or national insurance, which the British left has been as guilty as the right in allowing to be abused as just another tax. Yes, William Beveridge is one of my heroes. We need his thinking no less urgently today.