Assessing ‘voluntary action’ legacy of British social reformer

Published 31 March 2011

beveridgepicMelanie Oppenheimer’s deep interest in the work of the British social reformer William Beveridge has led to a two-day symposium on Beveridge at the London School of Economics (LSE) and the publication of a book to be launched there next month (April).

Dr Oppenheimer, an Associate Professor at the University of New England, is an authority on the history of volunteering, and the author of several books on the subject, including Volunteering: Why we can’t survive without it (UNSW Press, Sydney, 2008).

William Beveridge, 1879-1963 (pictured here), is best remembered as the author of two reports to the British Parliament during World War II that served as the basis for the establishment of the post-war Welfare State.

“I was really interested, however, in his third report – Voluntary Action – published in 1948, the year of his visit to Australia and New Zealand,” Dr Oppenheimer said. “Commissioned by one of the large friendly societies, it deals with the two foundations of voluntary action: philanthropy and mutual aid. Mutual aid involves people coming together to make the world better for themselves in organisations such as cooperatives, trade unions and friendly societies, and Beveridge was concerned about the possibility that the over-arching Welfare State could squash such individual activity.”

“In 2006 I realised that the 60th anniversary of the report’s publication was approaching, and initiated plans for a symposium,” she said. Co-convened by Dr Oppenheimer, Dr Frank Bongiorno (a former history lecturer at UNE who now teaches in the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at King’s College London) and the Voluntary Action History Society, the symposium was held at LSE in November 2008.

The book to be launched there on the 18th of April – Beveridge and Voluntary Action in Britain and the Wider British World, edited by Melanie Oppenheimer and Nicholas Deakin (Manchester University Press, 2011) – comprises edited versions of papers from the symposium. “The list of authors is a virtual ‘Who’s Who’ of Beveridge scholars,” Dr Oppenheimer said, “including Josie Harris, Beveridge’s biographer.” Nicholas Deakin, the book’s co-editor, is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy and Administration at the University of Birmingham.

Beveridge and Voluntary Action in Britain and the Wider British World will be launched in London by Dr Justin Davis Smith, Chief Executive of Volunteering England.

“Beveridge’s Voluntary Action report has lessons for today – particularly in the wake of the global financial crisis,” Dr Oppenheimer observed. “It sounded a note of caution for a society in which the State was meant to fix everything, and a warning about the over-reliance on business. Beveridge believed that business was ‘a good servant but a bad master’.”