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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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR