Only Men in Mind

Susan Pedersen

  • The Life of R.H. Tawney by Lawrence Goldman
    Bloomsbury, 411 pp, £65.00, September 2013, ISBN 978 1 78093 704 5

On 1 July 1916, Sergeant R.H. Tawney led his platoon over the top on the first morning of the Battle of the Somme, holding a gun to one young man’s head to get him to stop crying and keep going. Almost immediately afterwards, Tawney himself was shot through the chest and abdomen and lay for 24 hours in no-man’s-land before being rescued. Although he lived with pain for the rest of his life, he was amazingly lucky to survive at all. By the end of the day, of the twenty officers in Tawney’s battalion, ten were dead and eight wounded; of 754 men, 120 were killed, 241 wounded and 111 missing. Twenty thousand British soldiers died that day on the Somme.

If one were to search for an experience likely to change a man’s life, surely this would be it. But in fact Tawney’s ideals and commitments were already set by the time he enlisted as an ordinary private soldier in the autumn of 1914 and were not much affected by his horrifying experience that day. According to Lawrence Goldman, a rather different setback shattered Tawney’s expectations, recast his future and, in a word, ‘was the making of him’. This was getting a second-class degree at Oxford in the summer of 1903 rather than the first he and others had expected.

Goldman seems to be right about this. The ‘Harry Tawney’ who arrived at Balliol from Rugby to read classics in 1899 does not seem to have been marked out for a career in socialist politics. Born in India to a father employed in the Bengal education department and a mother who brought her children back to England when Tawney was five, he had the conventional childhood and schooling of his class. Yes, he had enough of a social conscience to join the Independent Labour Party while at Oxford and together with his friend William Beveridge founded a society to study social questions (though it appears to have met only once). But Tawney, who held a classical scholarship, received glowing reports in his first year and clearly loved his time at Oxford, appears to have assumed he would get a first and slide effortlessly into the life of an Oxford don. When he didn’t, that future was suddenly closed to him.

The result meant that Tawney had to find a job and a different path to achievement. But it also inserted a kind of awkward question, a sort of foundational discomfort, into Tawney’s relationship with Oxford and all it symbolised. For, Goldman notes, he was ‘profoundly hurt’ by his results. That language is worth remarking. He didn’t, it seems, experience his second as the ‘disgrace’ his father unkindly thought it, or as a predictable consequence of his own lack of application (apparently his examiners’ view), but as an unwarranted and personal slight, and one that he repaid in kind. Henceforth, Goldman tells us, Tawney would look at friends ‘quizzically’ if they used Latin or Greek tags, would hand out firsts freely since they ‘give a good chap a running start’ and since their proliferation caused no real harm, and would spend much time trying to force Oxford to open its doors to working-class students. It would be too much to say that he opened fire on intellectual elitism because the elite wouldn’t have him. But it is the case that the self-assurance, the ‘sense of infallibility’ and moral righteousness, that even Tawney’s friends thought his greatest strength and greatest limitation, would now be exercised both within and aslant England’s governing elite. And that had consequences.

Leaving Oxford in 1903, Tawney went to Toynbee Hall, the settlement house in East London, where Beveridge had taken the job of sub-warden. Like so many other morally serious and striving young Edwardians, he threw himself into social service, working for an organisation that sent poor children on restorative country holidays, helping with the campaign to establish wage-setting ‘trade boards’ in particularly ‘sweated’ industries, and, most important, undertaking a series of adult education lectures on social questions. Tawney spent almost three years living at Toynbee Hall, but he didn’t credit the men and women he met in the East End – ‘a subservient lot’, he told David Marquand years later – with his conversion to socialism. That may have already been underway but would be shaped by his work teaching in the industrial north.

His quarrel with Oxford in a sense drove him there. In 1905, Tawney joined the newly formed Workers’ Educational Association and moved quickly onto its executive; that same year, he and like-minded friends spearheaded a campaign for an inquiry into teaching and administration at Oxford and Cambridge. None was undertaken, but criticism of Oxford’s hidebound curriculum and social exclusiveness led sympathisers there to team up with the WEA to support adult education. Thanks to funds from All Souls, in 1908 Tawney was appointed for five years to teach, mostly economic and industrial history, in Oxford during the summer term and in towns around Stoke and Manchester.

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