The political story of the European Union Part II: The dawn of hope

The beginning of the Welfare age in Europe, 1942-1948

When we watch World War II documentaries, we often see armies, weapons and planes bombarding cities all around the world. Other times, these documentaries show us horrors such as concentration camps, or scores of suffering citizens. What is sometimes overlooked, however, is the psychological warfare that was played out between two blocks using one of the most powerful weapons the world has ever seen: propaganda. After all, this war was, first and foremost, between two different notions of society, freedom, and how Europe should work. 

To fully appreciate this story, we must journey back to the pre-war British countryside and meet a then-unknown professor, William Beveridge. Having briefly worked on labour policies during the liberal governments at the beginning of the 20th century, Beveridge was one of the first to theorise that unemployment was not solely due to laziness, but also due to structural problems. Beveridge was not well-liked during this period and, in the public sphere, he remained a largely secondary figure. 

Like his friend Mynard Keynes and many others, he wanted to help the war by participating in the administrative side of things, an idea that, for the first few years of the war, was rejected by Churchill’s administration. Eventually, following much persistence, he was accepted into the Ministry of Labour. There, his popularity did not improve and they were rid of him by 1942, appointing him chair of a commission charged with creating a report on how to reform the social insurance system. In what was one of the most difficult periods of the war, this appointment was not a step up.

When life gives you lemons...

The Beveridge Report is born

As you can see in the video below – in which he explains his project – Beveridge seemed a rather ordinary, uninspiring figure. And yet, he was in the right place at the right time. A time for revolutions, as Beveridge himself would have said. He used this opportunity to create a document that is considered the blueprint of the modern welfare state. Churchill and the conservatives were so appalled by his creation that they made him sign a document saying that the results of the report were his own and not at all those of the government. This was not a problem for Beveridge and, from that point on, it became his report. The Beveridge Report.

The report’s sudden success must have surprised even Beveridge himself. His document became an instant hit. More than 600,000 copies of the full report and its summaries were sold by February 1944 in the UK. Beveridge addressed a series of packed meetings across Britain and embarked on a tour of North America, where his report sold 50,000 copies within six months. These were – and still would be – incredible numbers for a technical document. 

Intellectuals and progressives around the world began to talk about the Beveridge report as the future. Illustrated copies of the report were distributed to soldiers, even those behind enemy lines. It was translated into German and Italian in an attempt to convince some fascist soldiers to desert. A copy of the report was even found in Hitler’s bunker. The fascists immediately understood the strength of the document and began a massive, and ultimately unsuccessful, counter-propaganda response. The Beveridge Report became a symbol of a better world, the world that the allies wanted to build.

What was the Beveridge Report?

A technical document, rather than a piece of communication, many of the ideas that it contained were, to a certain extent, revolutionary. Up to that point, social policies were seen as a remedy to the more disruptive aspects of capitalism, necessary to maintain order and avoid revolution. In Germany, Bismarck became the first leader to use them as a means of limiting workers’ protests. 

Then, along came Beveridge. For the first time, the idea that the state is responsible for the wellbeing of its citizens was put in writing. Social insurance and social assistance were no longer concessions, they were rights afforded to all citizens without discrimination, ‘from the cradle to the grave’ as it would have been put, at the time. 

Basically, the state guaranteed protection to everyone throughout the entire course of their life. This protection was giving security to the citizens and, indeed, this concept was defined as social security. The state, which had been transformed into a warfare state during the war, was suddenly a welfare state.

A European Welfare state?

This concept was so powerful that every European state in the post-war period was forced to discuss introducing their own version of the Beveridge Report. The document resonated with much of the continent. In the 1940s, the Scandinavian countries all developed and applied their own version of the report. Beveridge himself helped to develop them, taking several trips in Scandinavia. 

In the UK, Labour had a landslide victory and, despite Beveridge being a liberal and having refused to run with Labour, the application of his report was central to their programme. But, after the war, even the conservatives didn’t bring the Beveridge Report up for discussion. It would remain out of the spotlight until the arrival of Margaret Thatcher. 

In Italy, a commission to introduce the report was created in 1944. This was a time when half of the country was occupied by the Nazis and the civil war was ongoing between what remained of the fascist forces, and the partisans who wanted to liberate the country. Italy prioritising welfare reform while a civil war was taking place shows us how important the Beveridge Report for citizens. Even in Spain, as my research has taught me, the report was making its way around Francoist circles.

The Beveridge report was on the verge of being applied by every European country. Each had its own slightly different version, but the key message was the same. A universal approach to the welfare system was accepted and, appropriately, this model was defined as universalist. In many ways, they were discussing the creation of a European welfare system. But, what happened?

A missed opportunity

As with most historical questions, the answer is complicated. The failure to implement a European welfare system has many causes, but if I were pushed to choose one particularly impactful occurrence, I would point to the Marshall Plan. 

In a way, the report could have been an alternative to the Marshall Plan, which, starting in 1948, rebuilt Europe using the North American model. Creating an internal market of consumption, promoting productivity and economic development, and helping the labour movement were touted as the key concepts. Social policies were still important, but they were seen as instruments to help economic development. A necessary evil, to maintain order. This attitude characterised many of the choices made after 1948 and heavily influenced the process of European integration. 

The Beveridge Report could have been the British, or, as I would say, the European alternative. It represented an opportunity to rebuild Europe, focusing not on economic development, but on welfare and on the concept that all the citizens had to be guaranteed a decent standard of living. It was a missed opportunity, right up to today, we continue to pay the price of that loss. 

I firmly believe that many of the concepts contained in the Beveridge Report are still relevant today, almost 80 years on. Innovative even! These days, EU Member States are debating creating a European welfare system in Porto. Arbury Road believes that it is time for the European Union to have the courage to create a new universal welfare system that protects all European citizens. We must find that same courage that an ordinary, British professor had in 1942, challenging Churchill – the most powerful man in the country – to create a system that would have benefited everyone.