Last Victorian

Jose Harris

  • Selected Writings. Vol. I: Crime and the Penal System 1 by Barbara Wootton, edited by Vera Seal and Philip Bean
    Macmillan, 158 pp, £42.50, November 1992, ISBN 0 333 56676 9
  • Selected Writings. Vol. II: Crime and the Penal System 2 by Barbara Wootton, edited by Vera Seal and Philip Bean
    Macmillan, 185 pp, £42.50, November 1992, ISBN 0 333 56677 7
  • Selected Writings. Vol. III: Social and Political Thought by Barbara Wootton, edited by Vera Seal and Philip Bean
    Macmillan, 195 pp, £42.50, November 1992, ISBN 0 333 56678 5
  • Selected Writings. Vol. IV: Economic and Methodological Thought by Barbara Wootton, edited by Vera Seal and Philip Bean
    Macmillan, 199 pp, £42.50, November 1992, ISBN 0 333 56679 3

Eminent social scientists are not normally household names, but in the middle decades of the 20th century Barbara Wootton was well-known far outside the dim corridors of universities. Paradoxically for one who lived an intensely private life, she was perhaps best known as the lady professor who had flashed across the tabloid headlines by marrying a taxi-driver. Less sensationally, she sat as a lay magistrate for more than forty years, was a sparkling panelist on popular radio programmes, and contributed to numerous select committees and public enquiries. In her role as director of London University’s adult education services and mentor of mature students she was believed by many to be personally responsible for the marked swing to the left in British public opinion that took place during the early Forties. In 1964 she entered the House of Lords as the first Labour life peeress, and eventually became the first woman to ‘sit on the Woolsack’ as deputy speaker. She was a leading participant in debates that led to relaxation of the laws relating to divorce, homosexuality and the age of majority. She wrote books on social questions in crisp, ironic, jargon-free prose that were printed and reprinted in popular editions. Though she had been rigorously trained in Latin and Greek and had achieved a first with distinction in the Cambridge Economics Tripos, she always insisted that her ideas about society came from practical experience and direct observation and not from abstract reasoning or academic study. Her autobiography, In a World I Never Made (1967), gave a moving account of the intellectual and emotional cross-currents that had fashioned her lifelong beliefs. Loss of a much-loved father, followed by the deaths of her brother and first husband in the First World War (the latter after one night of marriage), nausea at the cultural dominance of ‘dead civilinations’, and gross maltreatment by the Cambridge male economics establishment, left her with a lifelong passion to ‘remake’ the world in a more humane, rational and scientific mould.

This passion infused all aspects of her intellectual career. As a professional social scientist (a term she used not as a cliché, but with a sense of conviction that society could be rationally deciphered by scientific method) Barbara Wootton became famous for a range of controversial opinions which seemed to many to herald (or threaten) a new era of intellectual, social, moral and legal change. The most celebrated of these opinions related to economic theory, wages policy, social work and crime. In Lament for Economics (1938) she attacked the current state of neo-classical economics, not so much for its technical doctrines (her own economic work owed much to Hayek’s analysis of price-theory), as for its divorce from the ‘real’ structures of the social and industrial world. In Freedom under Planning (1945) she challenged Hayek’s view that even the most benign forms of corporate planning must eventually degenerate into totalitarian tyranny. In The Social Foundations of Wage Policy (1955) she argued that wage and salary remuneration at all levels was determined not by supply and demand but by the vagaries of custom and historic social structure. In Social Science and Social Pathology (1959) she ridiculed fashionable discourse about ‘mental hygiene’, ‘problem families’ and ‘maternal deprivation’, and advised professional social workers to concentrate not on therapy and counselling but on material and practical help to the poor. And, perhaps most notoriously, in her Hamlyn Lectures on Crime and the Criminal Law (1963) she suggested that punishment based simply on criminal conviction was fundamentally irrational and outmoded: the aim of the penal system should be, not retribution for past crime, but prevention and prediction of crime in the future – including where necessary the indefinite detention of those who had not yet necessarily committed a crime, but were deemed by criminological experts to be likely to commit felonious acts.

The editors of the four volumes of Wootton’s Selected Writings have collected together many of her shorter works, written over a period of more than fifty years and extending from ethics to applied economics, from penology to political philosophy. These complement, and expand on, her major works, and confirm her reputation as an enormously wideranging theorist and lively and witty controversialist. They also provide evidence of ways in which her thought developed and changed over time. For instance, having been a passionate ‘Beveridgean’ in 1942, she gradually shifted to the view that social insurance was ‘now quite out of keeping with modern ideas’ and should be replaced by ‘a social wage payable from the public purse to every citizen merely for being alive and without regard to his or her income, marital status or other sexual relationships’. By contrast, her commitment to a publicly enforced incomes policy grew stronger with the passage of time; in the mid-Seventies, just as most Labour theorists on the subject were in ignominious retreat, she wrote that ‘as a lifelong member of a political party which has at least a socialist heritage’ she could not ‘understand the logic which does not allow a citizen to build a garage in his own back yard without official permission, and yet is content to leave the crucial matter of pay settlements to a system in which the weak go to the wall’.

The Selected Writings also make possible at least a tentative assessment of Wootton’s long-term role in intellectual and social history – a role that has so far been curiously ignored by the army of researchers who are now busily re-writing and re-fighting the history of the Second World War and its aftermath. Ironically, many of the views with which she shocked orthodox opinion forty years ago now seem like conventional wisdom; for good or ill, her scepticism of social work, of professional economists, of lifelong matrimony, and of the impartiality and efficiency of conventional legal processes are all deeply woven into the popular culture of the Nineties. Even the most radical of lawyers have never dared to pursue to its logical conclusion the archutilitarianism of her views on punishment, but her influence is clearly visible in current parole procedures, community service orders, the continuous extension of ‘strict liability’ offences, and efforts (often highly controversial) to tame and civilise recalcitrant young offenders. Progressive ideas about poverty, which from the 1900s to the Fifties circled around the issues of mental deficiency and biological-cum-cultural heredity, have swung dramatically in the direction indicated by Wootton – towards seeing poverty overwhelmingly as a problem of inadequate material resources. Indeed so powerful has this change been that the mere articulation of any other approach tends to be instantly denounced as beyond the pale of liberal consensus.

Conversely, there are other aspects of Wootton’s social philosophy – her admiration for Mao and the Cultural Revolution, her confidence in the ultimate solubility of all social problems, her belief that socialism would prove not merely more ethical than capitalism but more productive and efficient – that now look very remote. Her brand of feminism – which emphasised the fundamental irrelevance of intrinsic sex differences to both mental processes and career performance – is, temporarily at least, somewhat out of fashion. Her brisk rejection of ‘psychological’ explanations of social failure and contempt for those who ‘wallowed’ in self-analysis are wholly out of tune with the current explosion of ‘counselling’ (the fastest-growing of the new parapsychological professions). Her suggestion that in certain circumstances wage-reductions were a necessary tool of rational economic planning (so as to divert manpower from declining industries) has never found favour in any quarter. Her belief that ‘evil intent’ should be strictly irrelevant to the definition and punishment of crime may have gained a hold in criminological circles, but there are few signs of its acceptance among the people at large (and its creeping penetration into sentencing procedures may well have helped to deepen widespread popular conviction that the law is an ass).

At a more theoretical level, few would now share Wootton’s belief in the ultimate possibility of a ‘value-free’ social science – or her confidence that the collection of ‘realistic’ social data can be made to solve problems without the intervention of interpretative ‘theory’. Her proposal that ‘treatment’ should displace conviction and punishment in society’s handling of deviance never recovered from H.L.A. Hart’s response that any such policy would violate human rights. To the reader of the Nineties, there is perhaps something slightly incongruous about Wootton’s scorn for ‘virtue’, ‘holiness’ and ‘morality’ as guides to political life – in conjunction with her insistence that the new polity of the future would have to be governed by a consensus of ‘ethics’ and ‘fairness’. And R.H. Tawney’s discussion of the inherent tension between liberty and equality – which Wootton dismissed as ‘tilting at windmills’ and ‘a very silly subject’ – still seems to some people the most profound political dilemma of our age.

Yet by any standards Barbara Wootton was one of the most fertile and formidable intellects in British public life of the mid-20th century. When historians come to view the Forties and Fifties, not as a prelude to the battles of the present day, but as part of real history, then she will surely figure largely in the story of that epoch, both as a representative of and creative participant in major currents of thought, and as the intellectual midwife of a new kind of society. Those Labour MPs who recently confessed that the main intellectual influence in their lives had been Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists could well move on to more strenuous engagement with some of the problems posed by the works of Baroness Wootton.

One of the most interesting of those problems – and one which she constantly hinted at, but never explored fully – was the question of how far popular consciousness, values and behaviour are themselves transformed by the impact and diffusion of various kinds of social science. For the historian, Wootton’s writings provide a kind of intellectual bioscope into many aspects of the mind of the modern era: into its rationality, its humanism, its search for social laws, its passion to replace the superstitious slumland of history with neat, well-ordered, purpose-built analytical blocks. One curious thing that emerges from these volumes is that, although she dismissed everything Victorian as part of ‘the Dark Ages of the 19th century’, Wootton was herself a direct descendant and exemplar of a certain kind of Victorianism. Though her optimism often faltered, she believed like many Victorians in ‘the future’ as a land of limitless possibility. No less than the disciples of Bentham and Comte she thought that science had replaced religion and metaphysics as the key to all significant knowledge. For all her confidence in detached social science, like many Victorian reformers she envisaged that the gap between scientific theory and democratic practice could best be met by improvement in ‘the quality and attitude of the people’. Like George Eliot she believed in personal decency and ethical self-policing without superstitious underpinnings. And like her Victorian positivist forebears she identified but left unsolved the problem of how to invent a rational secular morality for a new progressive age.