Peter Clarke

  • LSE: A History of the London School of Economics and Political Science by Ralf Dahrendorf
    Oxford, 584 pp, £25.00, May 1995, ISBN 0 19 820240 7

The troubles at the LSE go back a long way. Perhaps they began on the day in July 1894 when Henry Hutchinson shot himself, thus activating the terms of the will that he had made. A loyal if morose member of the Fabian Society from Derby, Hutchinson had stipulated that the bulk of his sizeable fortune – say a million in today’s money – should be applied by his executors ‘to the propaganda and other purposes of the said Society and its Socialism’. What he could hardly have anticipated was that Sidney Webb would use his position as an executor to deflect most of the money away from the obvious political uses that had been intended. George Bernard Shaw’s indignant account of a subsequent meeting of the Fabian executive, at which Webb ‘hinted that the bequest had been left to him to dispose of as he thought fit, and that the executive had nothing to do with it’, was not just Shavian hyperbole. His incredulity at the Fabians’ supine acceptance of some token Hutchinson Lectures, duly propagating socialism, at the price of Webb being allowed ‘to commit an atrocious malversation of the rest of the bequest’, was hardly unreasonable. But, as Beatrice Webb’s diary records, Sidney was already irrevocably committed to his own scheme: ‘His vision is to found, slowly and quietly, a “London School of Economics and Political Science” – a centre not only of lectures on special subjects, but an association of students who would be directed and supported in doing original work.’

That Sidney should have announced this immediately after opening the black-edged envelope from Derby, over a farmhouse breakfast at which he and Beatrice were joined by their habitual cronies, Graham Wallas and Shaw, makes a good story: one which Ralf Dahrendorf is essentially ready to credit in his unexpectedly fine history. It is not unexpected, of course, that a major history would be produced to mark the centenary, if not of the Borough Farm breakfast, then of the inauguration of an academic programme in October 1895, in two rented rooms in what is now John Adam Street. Nor is it unprecedented for someone who has run the School to write about it. One can point to the austere history of the LSE’s foundation by Sir Sydney Caine, or to what Dahrendorf calls ‘William Beveridge’s intriguing London School of Economics and Its Problems’ – some would point also to the celebratory history by Beveridge’s fellow intriguer, Jessy Mair, later Lady Beveridge. What this ex-director has pulled off, however, cannot be dismissed as dutiful commemoration, still less as score-settling. Dahrendorf’s LSE is a striking achievement, combining standards of detached scholarship with subjective insight in a way that exemplifies the virtues of the institution itself.

Most of the reviews of this volume have been by other insiders, especially old students prompted to recall even older teachers. Glimpses of the aged Sidney and Beatrice surveying their intellectual progeny; stories from the halcyon age of prurience of what went on in the new lift between Jessy and William; recycled gossip about Harold Laski that he had probably fabricated in the first place; golden memories of Lionel Robbins’s steely eloquence; affectionate embroidery of R.H. Tawney’s old clothes. With anecdotage piled on apocrypha in an innocent affirmation of corporate identity, this turns into the sort of college history in which we all wallow from time to time – so long as it’s about our own college, of course; otherwise it’s a bore. Dahrendorf, who first went to ‘the School’ as a student from Germany in the early Fifties, taps such floods of reminiscence, but he almost entirely escapes the indiscriminate inundation characteristic of the genre.

This does not mean, however, that he retreats into the School’s own archives, though he has put in a lot of work in mastering them. He generously acknowledges the help of his team of research assistants but evidently was not too grand to get his own hands dirty in retrieving dusty files and perusing the yellowing minutes of long-defunct committees. Why, it has been asked, should an intellectual of Dahrendorf’s calibre have devoted precious years to such a task? It is difficult to believe that those who have actually read the book will not feel they have an adequate answer literally in their hands. For its author capitalises on the fact that the LSE is virtually unique – Imperial College is analogous in the natural sciences – among major British academic institutions. The School is more famous than any single Oxbridge college, but smaller and more coherent than the universities of Oxford or Cambridge, its only world-class competitors. Not only does its development manifest relative academic coherence, being constrained in disciplinary scope to the social sciences, its lack of antiquity is crucial in endowing its story with dramatic unity, being nicely contained within the past century, during which the modern notion of a university evolved. Thus the nature of the institution has made it possible to write something more than an institutional history – this is an intellectual history, too – by exploiting the advantage of its being in the ivy league without the ivy.

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