“A Prophet Before Her Time:” Beatrice Potter Webb, Part 3: The Aftermath, 1909-1947

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Beatrice Webb

In late 1908, Beatrice began writing her landmark Minority Report. In it she wrote that people became poor

…from a variety of causes, from old age, from ill-health or accident, from mental disease, from the loss of a breadwinner, from wages that were too low to support the family, or from inability to find work. [1]

Very little of why a person became poor had to do with any lack of morality on his part – this only came after the poor had been destitute for a significant period of time. Since the Poor Law approached relief as a “one-size-fits-all” approach, it had to go. To replace the Poor Law, Webb suggested that several government agencies be created, and existing ones be given certain functions provided by the Poor Laws. Thus, instead of the elderly living out their last years in a Workhouse, a State pension would be given to them. Likewise, and education authority would care for the children, a medical authority would provide the medical needs of the community, and the problems of low wages be taken care of by minimum wages. [2] Her idea represented nothing less than a radical idea far ahead of its time.

The time that Beatrice spent on the Committee was not all for naught, though. Perhaps the greatest surprise of the Commission was that The Majority Report recommended several radical changes to the existing Poor Laws. In fact, on many of the points, it and the Minority Report agreed. As the Webbs wrote in the introduction to their Minority Report,

The Poor Law Commission of 1905-09 can hardly fail to be epoch-making in the history of the English Poor Law. For… the first time since 1834, a public inquiry into the Poor Law has ended without even paying lip-homage to the “principles of 1834.” …. All the Commissioners… agree that drastic changes in the Poor Law and its administration are urgently required; all agree that the “principles of 1834,” whatever they once were, are now hopelessly antiquated and inapplicable to the present state of things…. [3]

The last point is particularly important. By 1909, all were in agreement that the Poor Law Amendments of 1834 were hopelessly outdated, and should not be allowed to continue unchanged. But it should be remembered that this was not so in 1905, when the Commssion was appointed. Then, Beatrice was in a distinct minority; most wanted to tighten the law, not abandon its basic principles. This can be shown by their reluctance throughout the Commission of first accepting Beatrice’s methods of investigation and secondly accepting her reports and the results coming out of those investigations. Beatrice was almost always isolated on the Commission. But, how then, did this transformation take place?

It took place largely because the other members of the Commission could not effectively and honestly argue their previously conceived platforms in the face of the damning facts that emerged from Beatrice’s investigation. They were forced to abandon their ideals in order to realistically have an effect on public opinion, especially since the facts were largely on Beatrice’s side. This transformation can not be better described than the description given by the Webbs: it was “epoch-making.” [4]

Initially, neither report had a great effect, either on public opinion or on policy. The reports were released, but the Government did not enact either group’s recommendations as much as they would have liked it to have. Instead, Winston Churchill pushed on with his compulsory Unemployment Insurance Bill in 1911, and Lloyd George pushed on with his People’s Budget without paying attention to either side.

The Majority Report initially gained very favorable reviews in the newspapers. [5] It was considered to be far ahead of its time (in fact it took 20 years for many of its suggested reforms to be implemented). [6] But the Majority Report quickly lost its staying power. It was ignored, and today, it is a hardly mentioned document.

On the other hand, the Minority Report still has currency. It was not forgotten in 1909, mainly because the Webbs, realizing that the Government members were not going to act soon on their report, decided instead to launch a propaganda campaign in favor of it, hoping it to be as successful as John Blight’s and William Cobden’s Anti-Corn Law League of the 1820s and 1830s. [7] Thus in April 1909, they formed The National Committee for the Break-up of the Poor Law, which later became The National Committee for the Prevention of Destitution. [8] The following winter, they began to publish a monthly magazine – The Crusade – to publicize the group’s efforts. The Webbs went up and down the country on numerous speaking engagements trying to rally the public in favor of their proposals. Their efforts were largely a failure; their Anti-Destitution Bill was debated before the House of Commons, but never voted upon. [9] By early 1913, the group disbanded, and the publication was turned into the famous weekly publication: The New Statesman and Nation. [10]

Nothing of consequence happened from that point until the passage of Neville Chamberlain’s Local Government Act of 1929. This Act essentially codified The Majority Report as well as some aspects of The Minority Act; the Board of Guardians were finally abolished and their functions transferred to the county councils. [11]

The real history, however, would not come until 13 years later. In 1942, in the midst of the Second World War, Sir William Beveridge, the person who gave the Webbs the idea of labour exchanges, issued his famous report Social Insurance and Allied Services otherwise known as the Beveridge Report. [12] The report maintained that poverty could be abolished “through a comprehensive and integrated scheme of social insurance,” [13] an idea that was first publicly expressed by Beatrice Webb in her Minority Report. Although it was ignored by the Government [as it was concentrating on winning a war], it galvanized the public into demanding reforms. It had the same effect as well for about 100 idealistic Labour MPs, who held a backbench revolt in the House of Commons in order to demand that more attention be paid to it. [14] From that point onwards, opinion polls consistently showed Labour well ahead of the Conservatives in the next General Election. [15]

Labour proved the opinion polls right and won its first overall majority in the July 1945 General Election. Over the next six years of Government, it incorporated much of the Beveridge Report into their National Insurance schemes. Bit by bit, the old system was done away with, and on July 5, 1947, the Labour Government passed a Bill which abolished the Poor Laws going back to the original Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601. [16] The transformation that the Webbs pined fro throughout their lives and which Beatrice argued for nearly forty years previously was enacted into law, without serious qualms or disagreement. [17]

Ideas always have a context; they always affect the world around them in varying degrees of success and failure, and ideas are either remembered or forgotten. In this case, Beatrice Potter Webb’s ideas had their roots in late-Victorian England, when she found that the standard Victorian answer to the Fabian Society question “Why Are the Many Poor?” was very inadequate. [18] Her ideas greatly affected British history and society, although their full effect did not come until later. But most importantly, Beatrice Webb will always be remembered for her ideas that were far ahead of her time. Over time, Beatrice came to answer that Fabian question; she answered that

… “the poor” are not a separate race, with common characteristics, nor even a separate class, but groups of persons suffering from identifiable misfortunes; some sick, some handicapped, some orphaned or widowed, old or mentally ill, some either temporarily or continually unemployed and some of starvation wages. All these varied disabilities resulted in their ending up destitute, just as patients suffering from different complaints all end up prostrate in bed. But that does not mean that the same remedy is right for them all. [emphasis mine] [19]

The most important idea, however, was that “she suggested that a great many of the misfortunes which lead to poverty can be prevented from occurring at all.” [20] She was a prophet ahead of her time.

Footnotes:

  1. [1] Margaret Cole, Beatrice Webb, (NY: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1946), p. 110.
  2. [2] Ibid., pp. 110-11.
  3. [3] Beatrice and Sidney Webb, ed., The Minority Report of the Poor Law Commission, Parts I and II: The Break-up of the Poor Law and The Public Organization of the Labour Market, (Clifton, NJ: Augustus M. Kelley, Publishers, 1974), p. ix.
  4. [4] Ibid.
  5. [5] Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie, The Fabians, (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1977), p. 358.
  6. [6] The Local Government Act of 1929 finally abolished the Poor Law Board of Guardians, and implemented other recommendations from the Majority Report.
  7. [7] Cole, p. 112.
  8. [8] Ibid., p. 113.
  9. [9] Kitty Muggeridge and Ruth Adam, Beatrice Webb: A Life, (London: Secker & Warburg, 1967), p. 194.
  10. [10] Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie, pp. 384-85.
  11. [11] Michael Rose, The English Poor Law, (Newton Abbot, England: David & Charles, 1971), p. 318.
  12. [12] Peter Clarke, Hope and Glory: Britain, 1900-90, (NY: Penguin Books, 1996), p. 213.
  13. [13] Ibid.
  14. [14] Ibid., p. 214.
  15. [15] Ibid.
  16. [16] Rose, p. 322.
  17. [17] Clarke, p. 221.
  18. [18] Muggeridge and Adam, p. 182.
  19. [19] Ibid., pp. 182-83.
  20. [20] Ibid.
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