Webbs on the Web

The diaries of NS founder and social reformer, Beatrice Webb, tell a fascinating personal and politi

Published digitally and in full for the first time today, the diaries of Beatrice Webb, leading Fabian and social reformer -- as well as co-founder of the London School of Economics and New Statesman magazine -- offer a fascinating insight into British social life from the late nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries. Funded by the Webb Memorial Trust and part of the LSE Digital Library, Webbs on the Web comprises 9,000 pages from Beatrice's diary manuscript (plus 8,000 transcribed pages) and covers such varying issues as the demoralised Labour party, a fierce attack on the financial institution, and the joys of clothes shopping. Surprising, then, that some of such entries were penned one hundred years ago.

Among the highlights, we read Webb on bankers after the formation of a national government following the onset of the great depression:

We know now the depth of the delusion that the financial world have, either the knowledge or goodwill to guard the safety of the country over whose pecuniary interests they preside. They first make an appalling mess of their own business - involving their country in loss of business and prestige - and then by the most bare-faced dissimulation and political intrigue they throw out one Cabinet and put in their own nominees in order to recover the cost of their miscalculation by hook or crook from the community as a whole.

Of the Irish playwright and New Statesman contributor in its early days, she writes in 1913:

We are unhappy about [George Bernard] Shaw. About five years ago I thought he was going to mellow into deeper thought and feeling, instead of which he wrote Fanny's First Play! He used to be a good colleague, genuinely interested in public affairs and a radically kind man. Now he is perverse, irate and despotic in his relations, and he is bored with all the old questions. And the quality of his thought is not good.

Leading economists, too, are at times the subject of gossip (1931):

In London we lunched with Beveridge, who heartily dislikes Keynes and regards him as a quack in economics. These two men are equally aloof from the common man: but they have little appreciation from each other - Keynes the imaginative forecaster of events a speculator in ideas - his mind flashing into the future - Beveridge bound down to the past - bureaucratic statistician, intent on keeping intact the inequality between the few who can govern and the many who must be governed - and believing in the productivity of the acquisitive instinct. The contrast is carried out in the women of their choice - the perfect artist Lopokova with her delightfully sympathetic ways, and the hard-faced administrator and intriguer Mrs. Mair - the Russian prima donna dancer and the Scottish business woman and social arrivist. Beveridge is beginning to suspect that I am a Bolshevist at heart, and therefore "out of the picture"; but he still believes in the good sense and experience of The Other One: with his comfortable slogan of the inevitability of gradualness.

And that same year following the party conference, Webb writes of Labour:

Dull, drab, disillusioned but not disunited . . .

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader agreed to back down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while he would hold a free vote, party policy would be changed to oppose military action, an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote. Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, members made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbot and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory"approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet. There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.