Would Lord Beveridge turn in his hilltop grave?
It took us a few minutes to find William Beveridge’s grave as it lies behind the more flamboyant memorials to the local grandees. The pioneer women aviator Constance Leathart is also buried here and the novelist Tom Sharpe’s ashes were scattered one night without so much as a by-your-leave so Lord and Lady Beveridge are in good company.
The left leaning aged walking group had arrived at Throckington church for lunch. The oldest member admitted he was born in the year that Lord Beveridge laid the foundations of the welfare state in 1942. Two others actually had copies of The Beveridge Report, which recommended a safety net of national insurance handed down by their fathers.
What a place to be buried. St Aidan’s church is perched on top of the Great Whin Sill with panoramic views all round. According to legend, a returning sailor brought home typhoid that killed everyone in the village which has long since disappeared so the church is splendidly isolated but regularly used and well looked after. As we arrived, we passed a couple who had been married in the church forty years ago.
Beveridge was briefly the Liberal M P for Berwick but his connection with Throckington is tenuous. His daughter married into a local family and Lady Beveridge died when visiting her. The two simple and now pockmarked gravestones are side by side.
It was thanks to Beveridge’s wife that the great report was written at all. He didn’t think the invitation to chair a committee on social insurance was sufficiently important to take him away from his Oxford college but Beveridge extended his brief and produced a report that sought to vanquish the “five giant evils ” of Want, Disease, Ignorance, Squalor and Idleness by establishing a system of contributory insurance that would provide benefits for the sick, unemployed, retired and widowed. All this in the middle of a world war, yet to be won. Beveridge became a public hero who was stopped in the street for his autograph.
Would Beveridge turn in his grave today we asked over our sandwiches? Standards of living, of education and of health care have improved beyond recognition. Housing conditions are immeasurably superior for most people and unemployment does not blight large regions of the country as before the war.
Beveridge might be surprised by our longevity. In 1942 life expectancy was 68 year as opposed to 82 in the South and 80 in the North today. He might be bemused at the greater calls on the National Health Service when he imagined that improved health would reduce demands on hospitals. He would never have envisaged the extent that inequality has become a modern evil and the way that the United Kingdom has become the seventh most inegalitarian country in the advanced world. Beveridge would be a kindred spirit of Richard Wilkinson. Whilst he might have predicted a man on the moon, would he have dreamed of mobile phones?
In the last 40 years we have witnessed the dismantling of the Welfare State which was originally meant to be free for all at the point of entry. Beveridge was an economic liberal but would still be shocked at how individualism has triumphed over any sense of community and at how we have allowed the excessive hoarding of wealth by a few.
Beveridge would be dismayed by the way people living on benefits are treated and stigmatised and would surely be supporting Citizens Advice’s call for a delay in mass implementation of Universal Credit over Christmas and New Year. He would not have expected that foodbanks would be needed to stop people from starving.
Beveridge was an indominatable researcher and campaigner rising early, taking a cold bath and working a 14 hour day. His last words sitting up in bed aged 84 were “ I have a thousand things to do”. What, we asked each other over a pint of beer after a long hot day walking in the North Tyne Valley, would he be reporting about today?
The most obvious cause is social care for the elderly which is an unintended consequence of longevity. He would undoubtedly build on the sensible ideas put forward by the Dilnot Report. He might make the case for universal basic income, championed by Rutger Bregman, which would transform the standing of benefit claimants and revitalise his cherished system of basic insurance.
Beveridge would be bound to tackle to the major issue of the day and look for ways to curb our obsession with economic growth as the be-all and end-all. He would want to see a society in which we cared more about well being. He might draw on Richard Layard’s work on happiness and find a way in which we could live with ourselves within the resources of the planet. Someone would have to explain about climate change.
Beveridge always retained his idealism, stating in the House of Lords at the age of eighty that “I am still radical and still young enough to believe mountains can be moved”. Time for us yet then, fellow walkers, even if the mountains themselves are ever more difficult to climb.
Thanks to comprehensive information about William Beveridge at St Aidans’s Church, quoted here, and to thoughtful contributions from Tom Adams, John North and Mike Worthington.
Published in Newcastle Journal on 11th July 2017