William Beveridge was Director of LSE 1919-37, leaving for Oxford before producing his famous report in 1942. Professor Michael Cox explored his LSE career and relationship with Beatrice and Sidney Webb at the Beveridge 2.0 event A Beveridge Plan for an Unruly School? William Beveridge and LSE.
Who was Beveridge? What sort of institution did he inherit? Why was he chosen by Sidney Webb to be LSE’s Director? What could he bring to the job? What were his achievements while Director? Why in the end did he cut a sorry and lonely figure at the School by the time he left for Oxford in the second half of the 1930s? Finally, what link, if any, is there between this history and the Beveridge Report?
Meeting the Webbs
William Beveridge (1879-1963) was born in India, educated at Charterhouse and Balliol, Oxford where he took a First in classics and mathematics. Looking for a career, he at first tried law but soon concluded that this was not for him. So against his father’s wishes he decided to enter the community at Toynbee Hall in 1903. Situated in East London it provided educated but concerned young people with a chance to see what life was like for real working class people.
Within a year he had met Beatrice and Sidney Webb. They were not at first impressed but within a year or two appeared to have been round to the energy, commitment and expertise of the “boy Beveridge”. Within a very short time he had developed important ideas on unemployment and the idea of labour exchanges, and became the acknowledged expert on both. His 1909 book Unemployment: A Problem for Industry became the definitive work on the subject. Meanwhile, the ever entangling Beatrice Webb came to see in Beveridge an important ally (some saw willing instrument) in her ongoing efforts to recast the old 1834 Poor Laws. A special but complex relationship, that was to last until the death of the Webbs in the 1940s, had been struck.
A “little bit socialist”
Toynbee Hall could not hold the young and ambitious Beveridge for long and he moved on to become a journalist with the Tory Morning Post in 1905. When asked at the job interview about his own views at the time, he said that although he was not a conservative, he was only a “little bit socialist”.
Indeed, I believe he was then what I think he remained throughout his life – a scientific reformer who was genuinely concerned with the appalling economic and social health of the nation: partly for moral reasons; partly for reasons of efficiency; partly because he felt from a rationalist point of view that a people who were badly housed, poorly educated, undernourished and in ill health were unlikely make a useful contribution to national well-being; partly because reform from above was the best way to avoid more radical solutions coming from below; and partly because he thought the Germans had got it right. Though it became impossible to talk openly of such things after 1914, it is worth noting how much Beveridge and Lloyd George were impressed with Germany’s social system.
Beveridge soon found himself drafted into the war effort: first through the Board of Trade, then the Ministry of Munitions, and finally through the Ministry of Food. He was sent to Vienna to see what conditions were like immediately after the war; but his plea for a “humane and constructive policy” carried little weight.
Perhaps it was time to move on? An opportunity presented itself when Sidney Webb – whom he had known for over 15 years – approached him to think about applying for the now vacant post as Director at LSE.
But it was not what one might call a “shoe-in”. Indeed, Sidney’s preferred candidate was John Maynard Keynes. Nonetheless, Beveridge had much to recommend him. He was a known quantity. He was committed to social reform. And he had a great deal of administrative experience. Later Sidney even talked of Beveridge as an “energetic” and even an “adventurous” administrator. Yet there were problems, as even those close to him recognised. He was not always the sweetest of men. And he could be dismissive of those with less talent than he. Beatrice summed it up: “Beveridge is too mechanical minded… one never comes into contact with his intellect or his emotions” (4 May 1922).
LSE before Beveridge
Still, by the autumn of 1919 Beveridge had secured the position. He was now Director of the “School”. But what sort of School was it just after the war? It was a mixed bag. Facilities were basic. Most of the students were part-time. The previous Director – Pember Reeves – had become increasingly distant. Indeed, it was said at the time that even if Reeves “reigned”, the School Secretary – Miss McTaggart – actually “ruled”! . Yet in spite of its problems LSE had already achieved a great deal with very little. Since its creation it had attracted some very fine teachers – though most on a part-time basis. It had an enviable publishing output and an admirable library for research. It could also boast having admitted very large numbers of women who could actually take degrees (unlike Cambridge). It had been academically creative – not only in teaching a range of courses across the social sciences, but also in delivering a large and lucrative course on railway economics to over 300 professionals from the industry, as well as a course to the army.
It was also beginning to acquire an international reputation – across the Empire, across the Atlantic and across the channel too. It was with support provided by the Tata family of India after 1912 that Sidney and Beatrice Webb were able to bring R H Tawney and Clement Attlee to the School to teach and write. LSE had gone global long before Beveridge came on the scene.
Beveridge therefore did not inherit a desert – as he was generous enough to point out in at least two of his books, Power and Influence (1953) and The LSE and Its Problems (1960). In fact, by the time he was offered the post, the School was already looking forward to a bright future. It was about to begin a Commerce degree. It had just acquired a large donation from Sir Ernest Cassel. Student numbers were on the up. However, it now needed a boost and Beveridge was to supply it.
Indeed, even those whom he sometimes rubbed up the wrong way (and there were more than a few) were generous in their praise – none more so than Hugh Dalton, a socialist who lectured on economics at LSE in the 1920s and became Chancellor of the Exchequer in the first Labour government of 1945. Beveridge’s appointment, Dalton noted in his Memoirs (1953), was pivotal: “With a humdrum successor to Pember Reeves, we should have made little progress. We should have gone on living insignificantly in a quiet backwater leading out of the busy Strand”.
A “second foundation”
Progress was certainly made. Even the ever critical Beatrice Webb talked of Beveridge’s arrival as marking a “second foundation” for the School. There is much to this claim.
It was after all through his efforts that the School was physically created. It was once remarked that he was the great empire builder upon whom “the cement never set”. It was also as a result of his hard work that the faculty moved from being mainly part-time to becoming primarily full-time. Their numbers rocketed too. Lecturers now also got their own rooms and an improvement in their salary as well. Although student numbers remained about the same throughout – c 3000 – they transitioned from being occasional to full-time.
Beveridge was certainly very proud of all this and provided numerous tables in his annual reports to show how much LSE was moving forward under his leadership. Thus in one table he shows that whereas in 1922-1923 the School could boast 51,085 square feet of accommodation, by 1936-1937 it had 133,760 square feet. The School’s income, according to Beveridge, rose from £25k in 1919 – the year in which he was appointed – to £135,014 when he left.
Beveridge was also an ardent fundraiser; and knew that without new money LSE was likely to languish. He struck gold early when a representative from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Fund approached Graham Wallas with an offer. Beveridge pounced and from 1923 through most of the 1930s, he courted the Rockefeller Foundation with a passion that was second to none. About 25% of LSE’s budget was courtesy of the Rockefellers. No wonder David Rockefeller was looked after so well when he came to study economics for a year in 1937 – even to the extent of being provided with one of the few surviving Elizabethan rooms in London; “quite small” according to David. But very handy for LSE and he was provided with a cleaner and a cook!
Beveridge did an enormous amount to widen the curriculum, with new chairs in International Relations (Philip Noel-Baker and then Charles Manning), International Law (Hersh Lauterpacht), and International History (first Toynbee and then Charles Webster). Economics also received a major boost with the appointments of Lionel Robbins in 1929, Arnold Plant (Commerce) in 1930 and Hayek in 1931. Bronislaw Malinowski was appointed to Chair in Social Anthropology in 1927; Harold Laski to the Chair of Government in 1926; R H Tawney to the Chair of Economic History in 1931; and Eileen Power to Chair in the same subject in the same year. Meanwhile, Beveridge helped launch a follow up study to Charles Booth’s earlier London Life and Labour.
The 1930s and polarisation
Nor was Beveridge indifferent to what was happening in the wider world. Indeed, he watched with horror as events unfolded in Germany and Austria during the 1930s. It was largely as a result of his efforts that British universities came to the rescue of many academics threatened by fascism, through what became known as the Academic Assistance Council. All told it rescued nearly 1500 academics. LSE academics were even “asked” to pay a small part of their salary to support all these efforts.
By the 1930s Lionel Robbins – who usually had little positive to say about Beveridge by then – admitted that when it came to taking a stand and doing something about the unfolding crisis, “All his best instincts – his sympathy with the unfortunate, his sense of civilised values were quickened”. Moreover, LSE itself benefitted as one exile after another from Karl Mannheim to Franz Neumann, Otto Kahn Freund and statisticians like Klaus Moser found refuge at the School.
But not all was well. There were early rumblings about Beveridge’s rather high-handed approach to running the School – something which he went out of his way to deny in later reflections. But by the middle of the 1930s something clearly was up. Again, it was the ever observant Beatrice Webb who talked about it in her (then) private diaries. She records in July 1936 a visit by Chairman of Governors, Lord Josiah Stamp. The reason for the visit was “the crisis at the London School of Economics” where there had been in her words a “violent upheaval led by the representative committee of the professors on the Committee of governors against” Beveridge. Moreover, it was not just one faction of the School professors in revolt but all of them.
What was the cause of all this commotion? Stamp left the Webbs in no doubt. It was Beveridge’s relationship with Jessy Mair, the School Secretary and his close confidante. He might remain. However, if she did not go (something Beveridge refused to contemplate) the professors would resign “wholesale”. Beveridge’s biographer deals with all this in detail in the second edition of her biography. Jose Harris is in little doubt that the deeper problem was personal and lays most of the blame for the crisis at Beveridge’s increasingly close relationship with Jessy (who later married him and became known as Lady Janet Beveridge). Jessy was indispensable for Beveridge, but what is equally clear is the hostility she generated amongst senior academics.
Then there was the issue of governance. Beveridge claimed he was most inclusive. However, as Dahrendorf points out in his history of LSE, there was no written constitution for the School defining the powers of the various bodies including the powers of the Director. Inevitably this lack of clarity was bound to feed the belief the School was too top heavy. Some even talked of a Beveridge-Mair axis running LSE.
Perhaps none of this would have caused a crisis if the times had not been such convulsive ones. But the collapse of market certainties after 1929, the political crisis of 1931 in the UK, the rise of fascism across most of Europe and the great Soviet experiment, all taken together made the political atmosphere febrile. Beatrice Webb surely got it right in 1934 when she observed: “political and economic studies carried on in London, one of the hubs of the world by an assembly of 3,000 students taught by a miscellaneous staff is bound to develop heated antagonism of creed and class.”
Indeed, it did. Polarisation was the result. The free marketeers at the School attacked the left. The left in turn – and Harold Laski in particular – demanded the right to speak on whatever topic in whatever place (including Moscow), forcing Beveridge to try to quieten him down in order (in his view) to protect the academic reputation of the School. Laski responded by crying foul. Beveridge was between a rock and hard place.
Nor, one suspects, could Beveridge have approved of the Webb’s new-found obsession with the USSR. They in turn began to turn against what they saw as Beveridge’s increasing economic orthodoxy. Beatrice Webb saw the world economic crisis as a representing a crisis of capitalism. Beveridge, according to Beatrice, saw the remedy to unemployment in lowering wages. Otherwise the “capitalist will take his money and to other countries where the labour is cheap”. Beatrice was outraged at the suggestion. The old alliance was coming apart.
Then there was the issue of science and the social sciences. Beveridge held two views on this: one that the closer the social sciences could get to the natural sciences the better; and secondly, that much of what was passing for social sciences and economics at LSE was far too abstract and theoretical. He established a department of Social Biology in 1930 to resolve these issues and appointed a brilliant Professor to run the department, Lancelot Hogben; a known radical who had been a pacifist in World War I, an opponent of racism in South Africa where he had worked, and a well-known critic of the so-called science of eugenics. He quite admired Beveridge but simply could not stand the polar positions now defining politics at the School. When he resigned, Beveridge it seems had yet another reason to look for the door marked exit.
There was also a crisis looming on the Rockefeller front. But by the second half of the 1930s the relationship was wearing very thin. The Rockefeller Foundation wished to shift their focus from supporting institutions to something different. And they had heard of all the problems now facing the School. So in 1937 they terminated the money.
Influence but not power
Finally, Beveridge I sense really wanted to get back to doing real research on things that really interested him. He may have exercised power at LSE, but he felt that he could exercise much greater influence not through wielding power but through developing ideas and then applying them. In this regard he held the Webbs up as exemplars.
One could argue, with reasonable certainty, that without his 18 years at LSE and even longer relationship with its two key founders, the Plan which finally bore his name may never have seen the light of day.
Contributed by Professor Michael Cox (Director of LSE IDEAS)
Listen to the full event podcast
LSE and wartime