Making herself disagreeable
- The Diary of Beatrice Webb. Vol. III: ‘The Power to Alter Things’ edited by Norman MacKenzie and Jeanne MacKenzie
Virago, 445 pp, £20.00, October 1984, ISBN 0 86068 211 0
- Beatrice and Sidney Webb: Fabian Socialists by Lisanne Radice
Macmillan, 350 pp, £20.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 333 36183 0
The third and final volume of the Webb diaries, which covers the period 1905 to 1924, is appropriately subtitled ‘The Power to Alter Things’. Hitherto Beatrice had been mainly the stay-at-home book-writer and social entertainer, while Sidney pursued his activities in the London County Council as well as in the London School of Economics which the Webbs had themselves founded. Towards the end of this volume Sidney became an MP and a Cabinet Minister in the first ever Labour government, but for Beatrice the turning-point was an invitation to join a Royal Commission on the Poor Law, which was Balfour’s legacy to the Liberal government that followed his defeat in the General Election of January 1906. In Volume Two of the diary Beatrice had already escaped from the neurotic self-analysis and sense of guilt which had characterised the first instalment; now in Volume Three we are aware of a confident, outgoing, independent-minded and very sociable woman approaching her fifties. In these entries, even before the defeat of the Balfour government, she presents herself as anxiously awaiting news as to who her colleagues in the Royal Commission were to be. When the full list arrived, she was ready to welcome her old friend Charles Booth, already famous for his researches into the lives of the London poor: but of the others only George Lansbury, and perhaps to some extent Octavia Hill, looked likely to share what would today be called Beatrice’s left-wing opinions. In consequence, Beatrice was compelled from the outset to fight a solitary battle for the principle that destitution was something to be prevented, not just mitigated after its occurrence.
The Commission got off to a bad start. At the first meeting on 15 December 1905, the diary records, ‘the procedure was amazing. There was no agenda. A cut-and-dried scheme was laid before us by the Chairman [Lord George Hamilton], and we were not asked to vote on it, only to express our opinion on half-a-dozen points ranging from the hour of luncheon to the appointment of assistant commissioners,’ who would conduct any necessary research. However, on 9 January, the diary admitted that the second ‘meeting went off well’, and that Beatrice had ‘made friends with the Chairman’. Nevertheless in the course of the subsequent proceedings she became somewhat irritable at finding herself in perpetual disagreement with most of her colleagues; and she confided to the diary that it was ‘a new experience to me to have to make myself disagreeable in order to reach my ends’. On that experience she founded the curious generalisation that ‘whereas in private life one can only get one’s way by being unusually pleasant, in official life ... I shall only get my share of control by quickly and persistently standing on my rights as an individual commissioner.’
In the early years of this century Beatrice must have lived a most exhausting life. She was producing an endless flow of papers for the Commission, and attending the meetings at which these and others were discussed. At home she was writing a book on a quite different subject for joint publication with Sidney; and on top of all this she was involved in a hectic social life. As dinner party succeeded dinner party, the diary records miniature sketches, by no means always very charitable, of the notable personages by whom these functions were attended. She and Sidney dined with the millionaire Sir Julius Wernher, ‘partly from curiosity to see inside such an establishment’ and partly because ‘we both like and respect the man.’ Sir Julius came out of this ordeal well, and was judged to be ‘superior to his wealth’, whereas ‘our hostess and her guests were dominated by it.’ ‘Wealth! wealth!’ was ‘screamed aloud’ from the food and music ‘wherever one turned’. On another occasion, Beatrice contrasted the style of a party given by the Asquiths where the ladies were ‘all very decolletées and the conversation aimed at brilliancy,’ with another hosted by the Commission’s Chairman, at which the guests belonged to ‘much the same set as the Asquith party, though of a dowdier hue’. At the latter, Beatrice and Sidney felt as they drove away, that they had ‘gained stimulus from the refinement and public spirit manifest in our hosts and their guests’.
The reciprocal entertaining was hardly less taxing. In July 1906 Beatrice records that ‘I had this week 30 persons to lunch or dinner as well as half-a-dozen in the afternoon – nearly all of the lot being on business of some sort.’ We don’t know how far Beatrice herself participated in the planning of the lunches and dinners presented to her guests. In those days every middle-class household expected to employ at least two or three domestic servants; and the Webbs were not short of money. In the diary there are occasional references to secretaries and research workers, and one or two ‘maids’ are also incidentally mentioned by name. But we are left with no clear picture of the behind-the-scenes domestic arrangements. All I can say, as an occasional guest at these functions, is that the menus were impeccably conventional, and the food always good of its kind.
On 17 February 1908, the Poor Law Commission published two reports both of which proposed a radical restructuring of the machinery for dealing with the destitute. Both began by proposing to abolish the workhouse and also the locally-elected Boards of Guardians who at that time were required to perform this function and no other. Despite this agreement, Beatrice soon parted company with the majority, inasmuch as she started from the assumption that ‘the poor’ were not a class apart, but a miscellaneous collection of all sorts of people who had been impoverished in various ways – as by illness, old age or unemployment. She therefore sought her remedy in the provision of specialist agencies competent to handle these contingencies before they led to destitution. In effect, this led her to sketch what turned out to be something like a forecast of the social legislation which was subsequently developed. Beatrice wanted free medical treatment, pensions for the aged and a national system of labour exchanges and training centres to minimise unemployment.
The Webbs had confidently expected that the Majority Report would be very disappointing to the Conservatives, but in the light of the first day’s press comments, Beatrice had to admit this was ‘quite wrong’: the report had a ‘magnificent reception’. The fact was that Beatrice’s arguments in the Commission had influenced even those members who would not go all the way with her. Some critics actually found it difficult to understand just what was the difference between the two schemes. As soon as the Webbs realised their failure to win top place for Beatrice’s version, both she and Sidney embarked upon a campaign to popularise their proposals by addressing public meetings all over the country.
However, in one way or another, the early years of this century do not seem to have gone well for the Webbs. The change from a long sequence of Conservative governments to a Liberal regime might have been expected to make their relations with officialdom more cordial: but things just did not happen that way. Indeed by midsummer 1909 Beatrice complained that ‘we have been strangely dropped by the more distinguished of our acquaintances, and by the Liberal ministers in particular,’ adding that she had never had ‘so few invitations as this season’. H.G. Wells, for example, is said to have become remarkably cool towards them, although he had co-operated most warmly in the foundation of the Fabian Society a few years earlier. Was this change of attitude on the part of their former friends due to their growing reputation for being absorbed in work, Beatrice and Sidney asked themselves, or was it based on a fear of socialism? Whatever the answer, they decided, in the face of the new situation, to take time off for a tour round the world.
During this episode, the diary in its original form was suspended. Beatrice would never commit intimate reflections to it if Sidney was close at hand. Its place was taken by a composite account of their voyage, running to three volumes not yet published, much of it composed by Sidney, and comparable to the ‘travelogues’ in which tourists record the facts as to where they went and what they saw or heard.
By the time the Webbs returned to London in May 1912 things had greatly changed. Balfour had resigned the leadership of the Tory Party, Ireland was thought to be drifting into civil war, and the suffragettes had embarked on their campaign of violence; the outbreak of the First World War was just round the corner, less than four years away, but totally unexpected by the general public. Although, after we were involved in war, anti-war movements quickly sprang into active protest, Beatrice did not go that far. Her first reaction, as recorded in the diary, was a declaration that ‘we English, at any rate, are quite uncertain who ought to win from the standpoint of the world’s freedom and man’s spiritual development. The best result would be that every nation should be soundly beaten and no one victorious. That might bring us all to reason.’ In January 1915 she repeated that ‘I still think that the only safeguard against future wars is a long continual war almost equally disastrous to all the races and governments concerned. If we are triumphant, we shall be demoralised.’
The war period turned out to be a kind of blank in the Webb story. Beatrice resumed the diary, but apart from a few incidental expressions of horror at the carnage at the front the entries are mainly concerned with the same topics as in peacetime. She and Sidney were able to live out the war in their London flat, and to maintain their customary social routine, subject of course to rationing and similar restrictions, to which, however, no reference is made in the diary. In her admirable biography of the couple, Lisanne Radice reports that Beatrice served on ‘a number of’ – unspecified – ‘prestigious government committees’, not mentioned in the diary, and that ‘as the war continued into its second and third years, the Labour movement began to assume greater importance.’ So marked indeed was this latter trend that one is tempted to believe Beatrice rated the survival of the British Labour Party more highly than that of the British nation.
In the post-war period, the diary continues mainly as a commentary upon Labour politics, until the final entry on 15 January 1924 which was polished off with the words: ‘Here ends the Old Testament.’ It is perhaps regrettable that the diary did not survive into the famous Russian tour of the Thirties, which did so much, justly or unjustly, to undermine the reputation of the Webbs as reliable independent investigators. But the principle was already well established that the diary as such was regularly abandoned on foreign tours. For details of how their Russian information was collected, we have to turn to the Webbs’ biographers, while their own conclusions are amply displayed in a massive two-volume account of their experiences and reflections published after their return, and entitled Soviet Communism – A New Civilisation? As Lisanne Radice has observed, in the second edition of this work, published in 1937, the Webbs ‘felt they had to comment’ on a number of events and changes subsequent to their tour, such as the treason trials, but they underlined their faith in the regime by withdrawing the question-mark in their title.
Beatrice Webb was indeed a remarkable women, of powerful intellect, with a strong sense of social obligation and an astonishing capacity for work. Yet the reader of these diaries cannot but be uneasily conscious throughout that something is missing in their author. It is not sexuality: her passionate attachment to Joseph Chamberlain, let alone her long and faithful love for Sidney, are more than sufficient evidence that her intellectual quality had in no way diminished her femininity. Personally I can only attribute the uneasy impression left upon the reader to the absence in her of any hint of a sense of humour. In these volumes the reader will find little that provokes a laugh and what little there is may well be a laugh against rather than with Beatrice. The reference to the Old Testament at the end of the diary is the nearest approach to a joke that I could find in the whole story. After the ending of the diary and the Webbs’ retirement to Passfield Corner, their new home in Surrey, Beatrice still had 19 years to live. As Sidney was already an MP, she must have been much alone, but we have no further record of her doings or thinkings. We only know that in the last few years before her death she suffered greatly from a kidney disease which finally put an end to her life at the age of 85. She must at least have died with the satisfaction that she had indeed ‘altered things’.