Great Thinkers: Jose Harris FBA on Beatrice Webb FBA

by Professor Jose Harris FBA

17 Jun 2019

Beatrice Webb’s greatest and most positive impact has been on social welfare. She transformed the lives of many people in this country.

Professor Jose Harris FBA 

In 1931, the British Academy elected its first female fellow, Beatrice Webb. A sociologist, economist and social reformer, she was one of the four founders of the London School of Economics. In this episode, Professor Jose Harris FBA and Dr Ben Jackson take a closer look at Webb’s extraordinary life and legacy.

Almost everyone who comes after them on the left in Britain feels the need to define their position in relation to the Webbs... to say what they take from them and what they reject.

Dr Ben Jackson

Beatrice Webb, born in 1858, was the eighth of nine daughters in the wealthy and modestly progressive Potter family. She began keeping a diary at the age of 15 and continued throughout her life. The diaries provide fascinating insights into the development of her political and social theories, as well as the wider peculiarities of the English class-structure, class-relations and religious beliefs of the time – insights that were greatly enriched by the unusual diversity of her own family connections, who ranged from the new commercial aristocracy through to very humble members of the rural working class. Her early writing reveals a struggle with self-doubt; one entry reads, “If I ever feel inclined to be timid as I was going into a room full of people, I would say to myself: ‘you’re the cleverest member of one the cleverest families in the cleverest class in the cleverest nation in the world. Why should you be frightened?” As Harris notes, “you don’t go around saying that to yourself if you’re naturally full of self-confidence”.

In 1891, the social reformer Charles Booth, Beatrice’s cousin by marriage, asked her to join him in his social study of England, titled Life and Labour of the People in London. The grassroots research Beatrice conducted helped to shape her socialist principles.

As a young woman, Beatrice fell in love with Joseph Chamberlain, a radical Liberal politician. Her first diary recounts her ultimate heartbreak as she realised the impossibility of becoming, as Harris puts it, “a tame wife of a famous man, rather than being a person in her own right”. Instead, Beatrice turned to Sidney Webb, an economist and social reformer from a modest background, who fully supported her ambition. Sidney had taken a different but complementary route to socialism, studying law and radical economics. They were married in 1892. Writing in her diary, Beatrice reflected:

I am not in love, not as I was, but I see something else in him – a fine intellect and a warm-heartedness, a power of self-subordination and self-devotion for the common good, and our marriage will be based on fellowship, a common faith and a common work.

Beatrice Webb FBA 

In 1895, the Webbs, George Bernard Shaw and Graham Wallas founded the London School of Economics and Political Science, with a bequest from Henry Hunt Hutchinson. Today, LSE is one of the major centres of academic life in this country.

In 1905, Beatrice joined the Royal Commission, appointed by the outgoing Conservative government to investigate the operation of the Poor Law. She became a prominent spokesperson for the view that the existing law should be broken up and replaced with distinct services for poverty due to ill health, or old age – a prefiguring of the welfare state. Her ideas were rivalled by another group of reformers led by Helen Bosanquet of the Charity Organisation Society. This ideological split resulted in the 1909 publication of both a majority report from Bosanquet’s group and a minority report from Beatrice and four others, but the Liberal government ultimately rejected both. Dr Ben Jackson marks this as an important milestone in the development of the Labour party: “Until that point, the Webbs’ idea was that they would seek to influence governments of all parties. They found to their frustration, after the Poor Law Commission, that neither the Liberal party nor the Conservative party seemed to be a reliable vehicle for the ideas they wanted to put forward.”

The Webbs founded the New Statesman magazine in 1913 and joined the Labour Party the following year. Sidney became the MP for Seaham and served from 1922 until he was elected to the peerage and became Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1929. However, the collapse of the Labour government in 1931 left both Webbs disillusioned with the traditional democratic system. Now both in their 70s, they visited Soviet Russia in 1932, interested to see whether communism presented a viable alternative.

What they saw looked a lot like their vision of a moral, equal society, although Jackson notes that as neither spoke Russian, their supposedly rigorous investigation would have been largely managed by their hosts. On returning to England, they published Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation? (1935), in which they abandoned gradual socialism and embraced communism as the inevitable future of the world. Their belief in the USSR only strengthened in their final years, as they famously dropped the question mark from the book’s 1938 second edition.

Beatrice Webb continued writing her diaries throughout nursing an increasingly unwell Sidney in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Indeed, the diaries indicate something of a resurgence in her own independent interest in the fast-moving pace of public affairs, as Sidney himself became increasingly less able to guide her. Her entries show that she continued to engage with the major national and international political questions of the period right up until her death in 1943. Sidney died four years later. The couple were originally buried in the garden of their London home, but later interred in Westminster Abbey. Their legacy lives on in the Fabian Society, the New Statesman, the London School of Economics and the ongoing debates around their ideas and impact.

Jose Harris is Professor Emerita of Modern History at the University of Oxford. She was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1993. Ben Jackson is Associate Professor of History at the University of Oxford. 

Sign up to our email newsletters