Sir William Beveridge served at the highest levels of the civil service and academia, and is remembered for his groundbreaking official reports on social policy in the 1940s. But towards the end of the Second World War he also squeezed in nine months as a Liberal MP.
In 1941 Beveridge had been asked to chair two obscure government committees. One, a report on social insurance and allied services, became known as the ‘Beveridge Plan', the blueprint for the welfare state. He gained a strong public profile and by the time the report was published in December 1942, both he and it were headline news, to the government's embarrassment.
This soon brought invitations to stand for Parliament, but with the coalition government hesitant over his plan, an influential political base appealed to Beveridge. He was not keen to stand as an independent, as that would imply opposition to the wartime government. A university seat, where independents were common, was his preferred option.
He was wooed by Labour leaders, including Herbert Morrison, but the trade unions prevented a deal, suspicions that their role and influence would suffer if his plan was implemented. He was also approached by the Liberals who, branding themselves as a non-socialist left-wing party, stressed their support for his policies. But when asked to stand for Dunfermline he hesitated too long, still hoping to be given further government work and wishing to operate "with sufficient independence of position". In January 1943, he missed another opportunity - this time to contest a vacancy at Watford - for similar reasons.
However the Liberals persisted and a vacancy unexpectedly appeared at Berwick-upon-Tweed in late July 1944, after Liberal MP George Grey, was killed in action. Grey had visited Beveridge at Oxford a few weeks earlier to express his admiration for both him and his policies. An electoral truce, whereby the major parties had agreed not to stand against candidates of the previous MP's party in by-elections, meant that nomination as a Liberal virtually guaranteed election and Beveridge decided to accept should he be asked to stand. He was adopted as a candidate in September, aged 65. However this annoyed University College, Oxford, where he was Master. Many feared that his election would increase what they already regarded as neglect of his duties.
Beveridge easily beat the one independent opponent at the 17 October poll, 8,792 to 1,269. His wife, Janet apparently declared at an eve-of-poll meeting: "You have your chance of Willum. Take it. When I had my chance of Willum I never hesitated for a moment."
He took his seat two days later and was personally welcomed by Churchill. Fortunately, this came just a few weeks after the publication of two major white papers based on his report, enabling him to participate in the debates. He made his maiden speech on 3 November during the social insurance debate, including a rather laboured reference about his ‘baby': "It is nearly two years ago since I laid on the doorstep of His Majesty's government in Whitehall, a report on social insurance - a large and rather noisy baby. But most kindly the government took that baby in and cared for it, and I lost sight of it..."
Thereafter, he made several speeches, not just on social policy. In January 1945 he supported the single transferable vote for local elections, and later criticised the Allies' plans for the structure of the post-war United Nations organisation. He also dealt with constituents' concerns, including the repeal of the Witchcraft Acts.
With a general election imminent, despite a lack of electioneering experience, Beveridge chaired the Liberal's campaign committee and made more than 150 speeches in three months. One commentator of wartime politics said the Liberals regarded him as "their political lifebelt". But this was to no avail as the party was marginalised and both Beveridge and his leader, Sir Archibald Sinclair, lost their seats.
Beveridge's political naivety and hubris was exposed by his clear defeat at Berwick in July 1945. As he admitted: "I never doubted my power of holding the seat indefinitely." He had even bought and moved into a house there that spring. But he had misread the strength of Tory support and how suspicious local Liberals were of his collectivist ideas. His stepson shrewdly wrote: "Will's inexperience of the political scene led him to confuse the acclaim, which was still showered on him, with votes at the poll."
The defeat marked the end of Beveridge's Commons career. He refused an offer of nomination as an independent in a university by-election in 1946 and entered the House of Lords in June that year, where he became an active participant.