Beatrice Webb – first among equals
It’s a tough gig to summarise the contribution of Beatrice Webb (1858-1943) to the Labour movement in a few words. A list of her accomplishments – some achieved alone, most achieved in partnership with her husband, Sidney – are formidable: the foundation of the London School of Economics, the intellectual relaunching of the Labour Party, the shaping of the Fabian Society, the creation of the New Statesman and the composition of a ‘blueprint’ for the National Health Service. At most, a short summary captures only the spirit of an extraordinary woman who was given the space and encouragement to flourish despite her Victorian birth.
Beatrice’s childhood explains a great deal. The eighth of ten children (nine of whom were daughters), she was born into considerable wealth and enjoyed a highly unconventional upbringing. Beatrice later claimed that her father was the only man she ever knew who genuinely believed that women were superior to men, a view which led him to ensure that all his daughters had rigorous educational training. Lively debate and intellectual curiosity were encouraged, causing great anxiety for Beatrice’s mother whose own prolific child-rearing had curtailed her personal ambitions. Perhaps more realistic about social realities than her husband, she feared the tension between nurturing daughters who were fully-rounded human beings and daughters who would make ‘good wives’.
Beatrice’s unusual upbringing fostered her deep interest in social questions from an early age. She initially explored these ideas through philanthropic work with the Charity Organisation Society (COS) among the poor of Soho, in central London, yet the piecemeal nature of charitable efforts led to her nagging conviction that the causes of poverty were not yet fully understood. Beatrice came to realise that there was a logical step in the process which was missing: ‘social diagnosis’.
Influenced by the scientific enquiry that was fashionable at the time, she set about observing and classifying the circumstances of poverty in the hope that this would help her to understand its causes. Working in Lancashire and the East End, she developed observational techniques which led her to conclude that private philanthropy was largely ineffective in the face of poverty on an industrial scale. The poverty she had witnessed in the East End could not be accounted for by individual acts. It was structural and it required a structural response. With these central revelations in mind, Beatrice began to develop a political narrative based on the the need to find ‘municipal means’ for curtailing capitalism’s worst effects.
As such, the building blocks of Beatrice Webb’s particular brand of socialism were taking shape long before she met the man who would become her lifelong partner. When Beatrice met Sidney, it was not exactly love at first sight. He was distinctly unattractive and Beatrice initially viewed it as a purely professional relationship. She was, at that time, still deeply in love with Joseph Chamberlain, a fact that she later recorded as ‘the catastrophe of my life’. More than twenty years older than her, Chamberlain was a difficult personality and had little time for a temperamental young woman who would not know her place. Beatrice tormented herself with her love. While she recognised that Chamberlain would deny her the freedom of expression she craved, this rational understanding did not alter the emotional force of her attachment. Chamberlain’s later marriage threw Beatrice into bouts of prolonged depression which continued throughout her life. Despite this unpromising start, slowly Sidney won her over. They proved to be well-matched. Believing instinctively that Sidney would not curtail her personal ambitions, Beatrice married him, committing her life to political research and activism. At his prompting, she joined the Fabian Society in January 1891, from which time on they came to dominate its political direction. The Webbs were evolutionary rather than revolutionary socialists and they shaped the Fabian Society into that mould.
Theirs was an extraordinary partnership. His writing skills complemented her research to produce some of the outstanding political works of their time. Their seminal History of Trade Unionism was widely read within the movement. Along with other works, it promoted the Webbs’ central doctrine of ‘the national minimum’ – the idea that there was a minimum level of wages and of quality of life to which the worker was entitled as a citizen and below which s/he could not, as a citizen, be allowed to fall. It is difficult to overstate the power of this fundamental idea on the policy and actions of the Labour movement in the middle decades of the twentieth century.
By the late 1890s, Beatrice had developed a solid belief in the need to ‘permeate’ existing social structures, in order to achieve lasting change. Her reasoning was based on the assumption that ‘since most citizens were uninterested in most political issues’, it was more profitable to work on the knowledgeable and the influential. Her regular social events attracted most of the heavyweight politicians of the day, including Conservative and Liberal ministers. By this means, Beatrice was nominated to the royal commission on the Poor Laws. The commission took four years to investigate the current state of the Poor Laws and to propose ‘next steps’. Halfway into the four-year investigation, Beatrice resolved to write a separate minority report, which would be ‘a thoroughly Webbian document’. Yet the legendary Minority Report which she produced was a failure in its own time. Beatrice was unable to persuade her commission colleagues to countenance a radical overhaul of the Poor Law system. Nor did she persuade the government. Rather than heed the message of Beatrice’s work, the Liberal government remained determined to tackle poverty by other means.
The failure of her Minority Report hit Beatrice hard. In terms of her political development, it was a turning-point. Having embarked on a tour of India, it was at this time that she committed to the Labour Party. During the party’s early years, her attitude towards it had been condescending. ‘Do we want to organise unthinking persons into Socialistic Societies, or to make the thinking persons Socialistic?’ she had asked Ramsay MacDonald rhetorically, before answering on behalf of the Fabian Society: ‘We believe in the latter process.’ Yet the failure of the Minority Report had demonstrated the failure of the Webbs’ attempts to influence the powerful rather than use a more formal mechanism to advance their ideas. While Beatrice remained sceptical of the Labour Party (and in particular, the influence of the trade unions), she saw it as the most likely vehicle to ensure that socialist ideas were given political effect.
When Sidney stood for and won the constituency of Seaham, Co. Durham in 1922, Beatrice played the constituency wife. She bought a flat for the use of the parliamentary party and founded the Half-Circle Club where she organised lunches with a view to bringing together the wives of Labour members. This ‘Queen Bee’ role suited her well. Famously anti-feminist until the early twentieth-century, Beatrice remained an intimidating figure for young female activists within the Labour Party. She was self-aware enough to note that she was ‘more admired than liked’ by her Labour colleagues, a point that chimes with the young Ellen Wilkinson’s account of meeting Beatrice at a local Fabian society event:
“She came to speak for us one afternoon in a dress of scarlet velvet and ermine…Rather frightened, I took the great lady for tea. ‘How do you like my dress,’ she asked. ‘I have had it made from my aunt’s coronation robes’ … We then went on to discuss the wages of the outworker seamstresses whom I was organising into a trade union in my spare time.”
Yet Ellen, like others, eventually came to regard Beatrice with affection and became a regular visitor to her home. She inherited from Beatrice an absolute belief in the power of facts, an idea which we now take for granted but which was, in its time, revolutionary.
Following the collapse of the 1931 Labour government, and with Sidney Webb’s brief parliamentary career at an end, Beatrice turned away from domestic political reform. Deeply disillusioned with Ramsay MacDonald, the Webbs became increasingly interested in the ‘new civilization’ of the Soviet Union. In May 1932 they toured the USSR and returned home eulogising what they had seen. The Webbs’ love affair with the USSR is something of an embarrassment within Labour hagiography. The fact that neither of them spoke Russian, and that their travels were carefully circumscribed by the Soviet hierarchy, barred them from authentic access to the political realities of the country. This may account in part for the rose-tinted accounts Soviet progress which the Webbs espoused in their later years. From this distance in time, there is a staggering naivety to Beatrice’s conversion to Stalinist collectivism. So convinced was she of its merits that the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 appeared incomprehensible, ‘a great disaster’. While Beatrice did not live to know of the true nature of collectivisation and the Terror, her inter-war association with the Soviet regime discredited her in the eyes of many later commentators.
In a sense it is an artificial exercise to consider the life and works of Beatrice Webb without examining Sidney Webb as well. They were an intellectual partnership: they fortified each other and together created works of lasting value. Their ideas helped to shape the post-war welfare settlement pushed through under Attlee’s leadership. Their legacy was evident across the ‘New Jerusalem’ of 1945: the nationalization programme, the health service and the welfare state could all be said to have Webbian roots. Yet it is also important to identify Beatrice’s individual achievements. Her rigorous use of factual analysis to underpin socialist argument left its mark on a whole generation of Labour thinkers. The practice of empirical investigation has become central to British political science and sociology in the twentieth century. It is arguably her most enduring legacy. To my mind, Beatrice Webb stands as the earliest and perhaps the greatest example of a woman within the Labour movement who was allowed the space and support to flourish intellectually. The beauty of her ideas continue to tease and challenge us.
Copyright: Kathryn Perera, 2010
This article was originally posted at Labour List.