Facing the Future

Keith Middlemas

  • Fifty Years of Political and Economic Planning: Looking Forward, 1931-1981 edited by John Pinder
    Heinemann, 228 pp, £9.50, June 1981, ISBN 0 435 83690 0

Commemorative pieces tend to be pious rather than memorable, omitting or evading growing pains or the clashes of personality endemic in any institution. Some sections of this short collection of essays by past or present PEP workers are little more than catalogues of worthy research projects. But PEP (since its merger in 1978, now the Policy Studies Institute) has rarely been flatulent or woolly-minded, and the contributors, not always intentionally, reveal quite a lot about a characteristic institution of the 20th-century British political élite. In a well-known essay on ‘Middle Opinion in the 1930s’, Arthur Marwick called it ‘the most successful and most enduring of the “planning” groups’.

Sparked off by a revolt of journalists on the Saturday Review, and founded in 1931 in the context of world slump and authoritarian solutions to the problems of political decay in Europe, PEP sought to embody the cool voice of reason, by drawing on a tradition going back at least to Lord Haldane’s classic, but rarely studied, and never implemented, 1918 Report on the machinery of government. In Sir Ernest Gower’s words, PEP set itself against ‘our national habit of forming opinions by emotional reaction to labels, rather than by intellectual examination of ideas’. As such it was, of course, heir to Lloyd George’s Inquiries, in the 1920s; its personnel might still have been Liberals had the Liberal Radical tradition survived. Whether social-democrat Tories, in the Harold Macmillan mould, academics or bureaucrats, or liberal men of business and finance, the early members of PEP sought influence, not through political organisation (for fear of becoming another pressure group), nor through propaganda (avoiding the ideological trap into which both Mosley and the ILP group fell), but by force of reason, carefully packaged for government circles. Hence their insistence on anonymity, unlike the more eclectic group who signed the ‘Next Five Years’ manifesto in 1935. As one contributor puts it, ‘in that pre-war world, such things could be done discreetly and unobtrusively; there was no need to indulge in ungentlemanly tactics or drum-beating ... the carefully hand-picked nature of the Working Membership precluded infiltration by ambitious and discordant elements.’

In spite of its appearance as a sort of intellectual Hons Cupboard, PEP soon drifted into a conflict between the true planners, ambitious to draft a single, synoptic document for modern Britain, and the empirically-minded majority who sought to convince their audience by the sheer weight of evidence in regard to particular problems. At the outset, the planners had it their own way with a manifesto aimed at ‘the leaderless but thoughtful non-partisan minority’ which was as full as an SDP conference of generalities about technology, investment, education, devolution. But as soon as formal organisation began (thanks largely to the benevolence of the Elmhirsts of Dartington) tensions grew. First there was the rivalry between Sir Basil Blackett and Israel Sieff, between the neo-imperialists and the Eurocentric internationalists; then the struggle to define what planning meant.

This, rather than the mechanisms of research projects, Broadsheets, Reports, all lovingly set out here, was the test of how far middle opinion was prepared to go. The TEC Plan Group’s search for something like George Brown’s 1964-65 National Plan was challenged by the powerful and self-confident Industries Group, which confined itself to specific questions of market research, rationalisation or industrial relations, like a modern NEDC sector working party. Max Nicholson, who covers this period, seems now to believe that the chance of synoptic planning had been lost by 1933. Nevertheless the climax arrived only two years later, when it became clear that the TEC Plan had been grossly over-optimistic, not only about the possibility of forecasting (as if the amateurish economic models of the time had been a reality on which government could build), but, more important, about the capacity of even the National Government to overcome the massive resistance of capital, labour, finance and public opinion.

Unlike the Webbs, Mosley or John Strachey (in the authoritarian phase of his Coming Struggle for Power), PEP’s most outspoken planners still held to a belief in planning within an open democratic society. Yet they achieved this worthy position by evading the question of power. Power was not something PEP wished to get mixed up in, even when confronted by what Nicholson calls ‘the chronic and unshakable boneheadedness of major elements in British society and their inability or unwillingness to adapt to contemporary needs’. It is scarcely surprising that they never drew in hard-headed industrialists (and no trade-union leaders other than TUC research workers like Milne-Bailey): the industrialists found themselves ‘ill at ease with the idealistic attitudes of many of the younger members, and with the academic economists’.

Committed, therefore, to structural rather than ideological change – an orientation which has survived down to the present day – PEP’s agenda was guided by relevance, not to an ideal, but to national needs as seen by a latter-day Enlightenment. Its expertise and neutrality ensured that its Reports would be useful to decision-makers, based as they were on an underlying premise of political and social harmony. Setting aside the class-based jargon of the Thirties, PEP utilised the language of technocratic management, wrapped up in a sort of political Keynesianism in which extreme doctrine and class conflict were seen as aberrations. Planning thus became a natural function, not a means to revolution, as Strachey believed. As Macmillan put it in Reconstruction (1933), ‘planning is forced upon us ... not for idealistic reasons, but because the old mechanism which served us when markets were expanding spontaneously is no longer adequate when the tendency is in the opposite direction.’

Measured (as it is here) by press coverage, MPs’ reactions, and government’s own activity, PEP can be seen to have had considerable effect on such matters as Special Areas policy, or the Barlow Commission on location of industry. More important, it served as seed-bed for many wartime and post-war civil servants, and members of the Tory opposition to Neville Chamberlain. But before 1940 it won little support from industry at large or from the TUC for schemes for self-government or rationalisation. On nationalisation it got no further than the Morrison model, ‘where monopoly was in the public interest’. Nevertheless, it probably helped to humanise government’s home policy in the late 1930s – the years of its best empirical work, on town and country planning, the press, fuel usage, consumer protection, agriculture – after abandoning the quest for overall planning.

PEP was like Solomon’s House in Bacon’s New Atlantis. ‘Recruited from the best intellects in the country ... devoid of politics, concerned rather with synthesising existing knowledge, with a sustained appraisement of the progress of knowledge, and a continuous concern with its bearing upon social readjustment’ (to quote the BSA President’s address, 1933), it combined voluntarism, anonymity and expertise, while remaining flexible enough to contain both the synoptic planners and the empiricists. It remained respectable and acquired respect precisely because it did not follow Strachey or Mosley. Its arguments were tailored to what government could, after much argument, accept, as were those of Haldane or Balfour in the 1920s. The British Medical Association could welcome its 1937 Health Services Report because it did not provide a radical alternative. PEP, according to one essay here, ‘was doing a new kind of job in between the social and economic organisation on the one hand and Parliament and the Press on the other’ – in effect acting as intellectual broker, as individuals like C.F.G. Masterman or J.J. Mallon had done twenty years before.

The obverse was that PEP’s Reports (as opposed to its condensed Broadsheets) spoke chiefly to a political élite, to ‘readers with the necessary focus of interest and background of training and experience to be prepared to tackle much more solid and, if need be, semi-technical material’. But then, even if it could convince this public, and face up to vested interests opposed to change, what of the problem that ‘action occurred at such a snail’s pace that the context was drastically changed and the plan was overtaken by other events’? This problem PEP never solved, but only handed over as an almost insoluble question when government finally entered the arena in and after the Second World War.

Government in wartime rapidly acquired the statistical, economic and social scientific apparatus whose absence PEP had so long deplored, leaving PEP, with a much-depleted staff, to undertake limited inquiries in aid of the main war effort. The question of PEP’s raison d’être, though raised in the late Thirties by Pigou’s Socialism versus Capitalism, and Aldous Huxley’s melancholy Ends and Means, and again in Max Nicholson’s visionary European Order and World Order (November 1939), was not taken too seriously during the Forties. Yet PEP was overtaken by the Establishment Left in wartime, though its devotion to planning was to find no permanent home. By the late Forties, it was taking its tune from, rather than seeking to instruct, government and Civil Service. Middle opinion had been incorporated in the wartime state, with Keynes and Beveridge as its intellectual arbiters, and PEP remained on the fringe, even though its new secretary, Michael Young, put what he could into Labour’s 1945 ‘Let us face the future’. Afterwards, there was no alternative but to switch from being a ginger group to becoming a fully-fledged research institute, in which professional researchers, jealous of status, prospects and salary, took over from ‘amateur’ working members. PEP began to look like the institutions with which it now competed, such as Chatham House.

Almost bankrupt in 1949, it assimilated itself to the years of mild Tory interventionism, years in which it became easier to define problems than to solve intricate matters such as the sterling balances, export deficiencies, fuel and power resources. PEP suffered as the chickens of the Thirties came home to roost: in postwar conditions, was planning even possible? Alternative ‘human relations’ questions, posed in the report on ‘Active Democracy’, led it straight into ideology, or a proliferation of large, inchoate inquiries for which its finances were quite inadequate. PEP found salvation in working on subjects agreed with major research foundations. As its researchers acquired their own leverage, and published reports under their own names, the social climate changed also: the old club had to be wound up.

PEP’s metamorphosis came with reports on coloured students in Britain, and on world population, and with much useful work on the EEC before 1964 – though it is probable that it did more to explain each side to the other than to convince either. In the aftermath of de Gaulle’s rejection of the British application, PEP floundered and again ran short of cash, until saved by a new round of grants from Leverhulme and Rowntree. But by the late Sixties it had become a true research institution, and, with its merger with PSI, a replacement for the abortive British Brookings.

The essays chronicle this transition, and PEP’s particularly effective investigations of race relations, sex discrimination and minority culture, where it seems to have revived its former capacity to take on the do-nothing attitudes of institutions like the CBI and the TUC, or the purely instrumental Civil Service approach. ‘Reshaping Britain’ (1975) even talked of manpower planning, incomes policy, and corporate representation for industry and labour in the House of Lords. Yet the rapidly growing polarisation of politics since then has left less space for middle opinion, however well-researched. Would a Brookings have been better? Sandy Isserlis argues against. PEP still has its place in relation to the British political scene of the late Seventies and early Eighties, where increasing prejudice and ignorance cloud the reason to which even a Brookings must appeal, where ‘partisan choices and presentations of policy options’ are expressed ‘in the jargon of garbled theory and selective compassion’. As in the Thirties, PEP’s antidote is ‘quietly authoritative persuasion rather than more forthright propaganda’.