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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What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.