On the Defensive

Ross McKibbin asks who’s afraid of the Borrie Report, and gets a surprising answer

  • Social Justice: Strategies for National Renewal. The Report of the Commission on Social Justice
    Vintage, 418 pp, £6.99, October 1994, ISBN 0 09 951141 X

The Report of the Commission on Social Justice, Social Justice: Strategies for National Renewal, is not the first attempt since Beveridge to consider our social security system as a whole – nor is it necessarily the best – but it has been the most widely publicised and reviewed. That is because, unlike the others, it comes from the heart of the political élite itself. The Commission was instigated by the late John Smith and conducted its work under the auspices and with the assistance of the Institute of Public Policy Research. The Institute also published the important working papers which preceded the Report. The Commission was carefully not tied to the Labour Party, and its chairman, Sir Gordon Borrie, the former Director-General of Fair Trading, is very much one of the ‘great and the good’ – those who (before 1979) could expect to preside over such enquiries regardless of which party was in office. Its membership is drawn broadly from the progressive class and the Report, though acknowledging the Commission’s general ideological alignment with ‘the Opposition’, conspicuously denies any particular attachment to the Labour Party. In fact, the Commissioners look remarkably like the Gaitskellite Labour Party – and that includes those of its members who might have left the Labour Party in the Eighties.

The Commission began its work in 1992, the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Beveridge Report, and most reviewers have made the obvious comparison between the two. Yet their differences are more striking than their similarities. Beveridge’s Report was commissioned by the Government and not by the Opposition. His committee was interdepartmental: all its members, aside from Beveridge, were civil servants co-opted from what were thought to be the appropriate departments – Labour, Health, Pensions etc. That was why it was deemed proper that it should be signed by Beveridge alone: the civil servants were there as his ‘advisers’ and ‘assessors’. Thus, whatever doubts members of the Government had about Beveridge’s recommendations, his Report had an ‘official’ character which raised expectations that it would be implemented. That is not true of the Borrie Report.

Furthermore, the political and ideological circumstances in which the two Reports emerged could scarcely have been more different. Beveridge’s was almost classically an idea whose time had come. Popular opinion shifted ideologically faster and more deeply in the early Forties than at any other moment in modern British history. The remarkable move to the left was accompanied by the politicisation of many, even those who did not go left, for whom overt political discussion had been hitherto socially unacceptable. The long queues outside HMSOs; the hurried reprintings; the intensity of public discussion and, to judge by wartime diaries, private discussion as well; the enormous publicity given to Beveridge by the Mirror – all contrived to give the Report a social centrality inconceivable today. Beveridge was himself well aware of this:

a revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not for patching ... The Plan for Social Security in this Report is submitted by one who believes that in this supreme crisis, the British people will not be found wanting, of courage and faith and national unity, of material and spiritual power to play their part in achieving both social security and the victory of justice among nations upon which security depends.

As the last sentence implies (it is indeed the last sentence of the Report proper) Beveridge’s Report had international resonance: its huge circulation was not confined to Britain. In many ways, and quite deliberately so, it summed up what the Allies were fighting the war for. This wasn’t something their enemies missed: Goebbels worried about Beveridge’s effect on neutral opinion and wondered whether the Germans should not produce their own version. Nor was this due entirely to the Report’s intrinsic qualities. Britain was still a great power with great prestige and what it said and did mattered.

The position of the Labour Party was also strikingly different. Beveridge’s Report was formally commissioned by a Labour minister, Arthur Greenwood, and formally presented to another, William Jowitt. The Labour Party, both in Parliament and in the country, was its strongest proponent. And the Labour ministers of Churchill’s coalition had no doubt that the war, as Attlee put it, was to be fought for, and according to, their ‘ideas’. Nor did many doubt that the country’s political institutions and its Civil Service could and would execute Beveridge’s recommendations if they were required to. Their implementation was to contemporaries a matter of political will, and by December 1942 – the month of their publication – that will existed, even if it took the 1945 election to confirm it.

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[*] See particularly A.W. Dilnot, J.A. Kay and C.N. Morris, The Reform of Social Security (Oxford, 1984).