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From the NS archive: Reconstructing Britain

4 August 1917: Who decides how to rebuild a country as it recovers from war?

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By the summer of 1917, the British government was under pressure to announce plans for how they would rebuild society following the First World War. In this unsigned article from August of that year, the author wrote that former prime minister H.H. Asquith had previously promised a “Peace Book” – a plan of action for the government and local authorities – and David Lloyd George, who followed Asquith as prime minister in 1916, had appointed a new Reconstruction Committee, including Christopher Addison as Minister of Reconstruction. But what these structures had planned remained unclear. The issues that needed to be seen to following the war – including unemployment, new housing, and the restoration of schools, roads and railways – were complex. “In short, what is involved in Reconstruction is not a litter of isolated and mutually conflicting proposals, but a comprehensive plan, in which all the separate problems find their several solutions,” concluded the author.

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For some reason which it is difficult to understand, the government makes a mystery of its organisation and proceedings in connection with Reconstruction, and we are left in the dark as to the meaning of the change that has now been made. Dr. Addison has been appointed, we are told, as “Minister of Reconstruction (without portfolio).” What is a portfolio? A new ministry is being established, under a statute of its own, with its own staff and its own official seal, its own (potential) parliamentary under-secretary, and its own functions, for which the minister will be responsible to Parliament. What more “portfolio” can any minister enjoy? We do not grudge Dr. Addison his portfolio, but it is worth asking how the very serious and very pressing business that we call Reconstruction will be affected by the new departure.

It is now more than a year ago since Mr. Asquith publicly recognised the need for a systematic consideration in advance of the social, economic, and official problems into which we should be suddenly plunged when the war stops. The prime minister promised us a “Peace Book,” meaning an elaborately worked out scheme of the action to be taken, on the Declaration of Peace, by the Cabinet and Parliament, by each of the government departments and by the several local authorities, in order to cope with the difficulties that can be foreseen. The late Cabinet referred the matter to a “Reconstruction Committee,” composed, almost entirely, of its own members; and it is understood that a number of sub-committees and departmental committees were appointed to work out particular problems.

When Mr. Lloyd George succeeded Mr. Asquith, he appointed a new Reconstruction Committee, composed of less exalted personages, who, through Mr. Montagu as their vice-chairman, were perhaps to contribute to the Prime Minister fresh ideas rather than departmental experience. We imagine that the promotion of Mr. Montagu to the India Office, and the appointment of a responsible Minister of Reconstruction, necessarily bring the second Reconstruction Committee to an end.

So far as is known to Parliament and the public, not much progress has been made, after more than a year’s deliberation, with the actual preparation of the “Peace Book,” the systematic formulation in advance of the policy to be adopted, and the action to be taken, by each public authority. We have been told that the plan for the Demobilisation of the four or five millions of soldiers and sailors has been elaborately worked out in detail, but nothing has yet been published as to the similar plan that will be required for the analogous “Demobilisation” of the three millions of workers in munitions and other war trades, including the temporary substitutes whom the returning soldiers will displace.

It is important to remember that the discharge of the bulk of these three million will necessarily take place before that of the Army; and it is actually their hurried seeking for new situations that will begin the gigantic “General Post” of half the entire wage-earning population. It is rumoured that a new sub-committee has just been set up to consider this question. But nothing has leaked out as to there being yet any government programme for the prevention of unemployment during the first year or two of this “General Post”. 

It may be that the government is contemplating, as it would be well advised to do, the extension of Unemployment Benefit, as a strictly temporary measure, for the first year of Demobilisation, to the whole wage-earning population. But apart from the Unemployment Benefit already promised to all the discharged soldiers and all the workers in certain trades, apart even from its possible extension to the remainder of the wage-earners, it is pretty certain that the government will find it necessary, under the Unemployed Workmen Act or otherwise, to see that enough work is put in hand, step by step with the progress of Demobilisation, to ensure employment for all. This, however, involves not only a timely settlement of policy, but also the selection of works, the acquisition of land, the preparation of plans, and what not, long before peace is upon us. It would help to allay the Labour unrest about which the government is rightly solicitous if some definite announcement could be made upon this point.

The problem of housing, for which it is now said that a million new cottages will be required within the first four years of peace, is intimately bound up with this prevention of unemployment. The government, it appears, has just repeated its decision to subsidise housing from the Exchequer on an unprecedentedly large scale; but the total number of cottages, the localities in which they are to be built, the part to be played by the local authorities, the acquisition of the sites, and the preparation of the plans are all still under discussion. Unless Dr. Addison and Mr. Hayes Fisher can get all these points definitely decided this autumn, it does not seem likely that the new cottages can be got ready for occupation, as Mr. Walter Long once declared they must be, before the soldiers return home.

There are two ranges of problems on which we know that sub-committees have reported, without any government decision having been arrived at. In the important matter of commercial policy and the regulation of oversea trade, Lord Balfour of Burleigh’s sub-committee has made some proposals, largely on the lines of the resolutions of the Paris Economic Conference. Apparently, the entry of the United States into the war, and the growing recognition of the impending world-shortage in food, materials, and shipping, has taken all the vitality out of these proposals.

At any rate, they are not inscribed in the “Peace Book,” and no others yet replace them. In the not less important problem of the restoration of trade union conditions, the maintenance of the standard rate and the prevention of industrial strife, the government has apparently got no further than publishing, for general information, both the interesting report of Mr. Whitley’s sub-committee on National Councils of Employers and Employed, and the recent reports of the eight local commissions on Labour unrest. These reports propound questions rather than afford answers to them. As to any decision on such important matters as the future administration of the railways and the coal mines, or of finance, we can hear nothing.

It is, we fear, evident that the “Peace Book” has, so far, not made much progress. If the establishment of a Ministry of Reconstruction means that the Prime Minister realises the need for quickening the pace, and intends to support Dr. Addison in the necessary measures, we cannot but admit that some such action was called for. Probably the second Reconstruction Committee, like the first, never had a fair chance of coping with its very considerable task. It had only an exiguous secretarial staff; it could exercise no authority over other government departments; and it does not seem to have employed experts of its own. We assume that the Minister of Reconstruction will not fail to get what he needs for his new department, which certainly has as great a claim on the Treasury as some of the 40 other ministries by which we are now governed.

It is of comparatively little use setting leisurely committees of busy people to discuss at periodical meetings all that they happen to know about a particular problem. What the Minister of Reconstruction will want in each case is a terse and authoritative statement of the facts that have to be dealt with, the proposals and suggestions that have hitherto been made, and a critical examination of the manner in which the particular problem and the various alternative solutions fit in with the other problems of Reconstruction.

Such a statement can only be drawn up by a practised investigator, who has made himself acquainted with all the information available in the various government departments. If the attempt is not to be a fiasco, the generous co-operation of all these departments is required. All the aspects of Demobilisation, for instance, have necessarily to be dealt with in line with the preparations for preventing unemployment; these, again, involve a parallel treatment of housing, and the urgently needed restoration of schools and other public institutions, roads and railways; all of which will depend on the continuance of government control of raw materials and the maintenance of allocation according to priority of need, and this, again, on the extension for the period of reconstruction of the necessary portions of the emergency powers of the Defence of the Realm Acts. Equally bound up with this is the restoration of trade union conditions and the maintenance of the standard rate; and this involves the issue of the relation of the state to the manufacturing employers and the close combinations into which these are now hurrying, if not also the regulation of prices and profits as well as wages. But in order to meet these conditions the manufacturers are asking for cheap electric power, which involves giant new power stations, hardly to be erected otherwise than by the government.

These super-power stations obviously cannot be started without an assurance that they will not be “held up” by a coal-ring, and the government must therefore make up its mind whether it is not compelled to retain its present ownership or control of the mines – just as it must in the case of the railways. In short, what is involved in Reconstruction is not a litter of isolated and mutually conflicting proposals, but a comprehensive plan, in which all the separate problems find their several solutions. The “Peace Book” that Mr. Asquith spoke of is a big thing; and Dr. Addison will earn the nation’s gratitude if he does the job.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)