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4 May 2021

From the NS archive: Mr Chamberlain’s fiasco

By New Statesman

In late 1916, Neville Chamberlain, then a successful businessman and Lord mayor of Birmingham, was asked by the Prime Minister David Lloyd George to take up the position of director-general of National Service. One of his duties in the role was to ensure that vital war industries, from shipbuilding to farming, had the workers they needed. He set up a scheme for National Service Volunteers to serve in the roles vacated by the men fighting in France and quickly amassed some 200,000 volunteers. What to do with them though? The writer of this editorial thought that Chamberlain had gone about things the wrong way round, recruiting volunteers before knowing how and where they should be used. He should have asked the farmers and shipbuilders what they wanted first. Chamberlain had ignored the rules of supply and demand with the result that too few volunteers were set to useful work and the scheme was a “fiasco”. Later in 1917, Chamberlain resigned.


It is impossible not to feel sympathy with the director-general of National Service, who was suddenly called away from his business at a moment’s notice, and charged to put into operation an idea and a plan which have proved hopelessly impracticable. Neville Chamberlain himself has worked almost night and day, and he has been helped by a band of able and zealous volunteers of his own choosing. For staff, for advertising, for organising, no expense has been spared. For three months the extensive St Ermin’s Hotel has been humming with activity. Millions of forms have been distributed; and more than 200,000 men have already been enrolled as National Service Volunteers, elaborately thanked and registered, and classified in a series of gigantic card catalogues upon the most up-to-date American model.

What has thereupon been discovered is the practical impossibility, by this method, of actually getting men into the places in which they are required. We attach no great importance to extraordinary stories that are floating round Whitehall about the disorganisation and chaos that prevail in the office. Any suddenly extemporised office, which chose to dispense with the very valuable assistance of the trained Civil Service, and aimed at “doing without red-tape”, would have found itself equally “snowed under” when it started advertising to the public on so colossal a scale; and would, anyhow, have given currency to some extraordinary anecdotes of ineptitude.

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What is serious is that the machine does not work. Seven-eighths of the volunteers are men who cannot be spared from their present posts; and no one knows how to extract the other eighth, or what to do with it when it is extracted. The total number of men so far taken away from what they were doing and placed in the so-called “National Service” – that is to say, the service of some employer who is himself working for his own private profit – is infinitesimal. We do not think we exaggerate when we say that the whole number so shifted up to the 31 March was actually smaller than that of the staff employed at St Ermin’s Hotel in shifting them – that it is to be counted, in fact, not by thousands but by hundreds, and a very small number of hundreds at that. So far as men are concerned, the scheme – in spite of the rush of some tens of thousands of genuine volunteers – has revealed itself as a hopeless fiasco.

Meanwhile the Marine Transport Department, whatever that is, which has been publicly asking, on its own account, for men ineligible for military service to go to France to unload ships at three shillings per day all found, and the usual separation allowances, has, we understand, already got more men for this one task than the entire number placed by the director-general of National Service during his whole official existence.

The last published monthly return of the Employment Exchanges shows that these despised agencies (the existence of which the Government seems to have momentarily forgotten) had, within one period of four weeks, apart altogether from sending people to casual or temporary jobs, quietly shifted into new situations – not necessarily in new trades, but presumably always where they were more needed – no fewer than 51,370 men (including 2,005 men for shipbuilding and even 283 men for agriculture), together with 65,163 women. How long will the director-general of National Service be in achieving as much?

What is the explanation of this fiasco? We infer that the idea of calling for “National Service Volunteers” was adopted by the War Cabinet on the discovery that working-class opinion, which had been secretly sounded at various private meetings, was violently opposed to the enactment of compulsion. The Army Council, we gather, was pressing simply for an extension of the Military Service Acts to enrolment for industrial employment, apparently imagining that it was just as easy to compel men to work, in the shipyard and on the farm, for a capitalist employer who was making his own profit out of the labour so supplied to him, as it has proved to be to induce the nation to submit to enforced military service in the direct employment of the Government, when no one is making a private profit out of the transaction.

When the Government took the necessary soundings, before embarking on that course, it was discovered that Organised Labour regarded the two services as poles asunder; and that whilst the British workmen were willing enough in war to serve the state under compulsion for an arbitrarily fixed wage, they would put up such a fight against enforced service for the profit of a capitalist employer that the result might easily have been disastrous. The War Cabinet, remembering the success of the comparatively small scheme of Munition Worker Volunteers, when mechanics were asked for to fill vacancies actually in existence, thereupon ordered the launching of a general appeal for National Service Volunteers. Now the War Cabinet, it is understood, is investigating the cause of its failure.

The explanation is simple. The National Service scheme began at the wrong end. If Chamberlain had been consulted at the inception, and if he had drawn on his own business experience, he could have told the Government that, with regard to every commodity, the point to begin at is the market, not the production. What a manufacturer does is to diagnose a deficiency and then proceed to supply exactly what is required to meet the foreseen demand. The fundamental mistake was in beginning with a vague general appeal for men for an undefined service without having any situations to send them to. What the Government ought to have done was to ascertain and organise the demand.

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It was known last summer that during the autumn and winter of 1916-7 farmers could utilise, and ought to be pressed to ask for, many additional ploughmen, horsemen and stockmen, partly in order to replace the conscripts whom the Army Council were intending to withdraw for the army, and partly in order to enlarge the area under arable cultivation. The Board of Agriculture could have told the Cabinet that, the British farmer being as he is, it was certain that, so long as any men remained with him, he would not spontaneously project his thoughts into the future, and arrange to take on men months in advance. There was accordingly room, on a national scale, for skilfully directed canvassing of all the farmers as to their future needs, and for an extensive registration of these prospective vacancies for competent agriculturists, farm by farm, and month by month. With such a list of vacant situations in his possession, Chamberlain could then have used all the ingenuity of the St Ermin’s Hotel staff to advertise in the right quarters for the men required.

There are in the towns, in every conceivable occupation, tens of thousands of men who have been ploughmen, horsemen or stockmen – Hubert Llewellyn Smith has described, in an economic classic, exactly how they have been drifting away from agriculture – and it was open to the Government to appeal to this specific class to resume, for a time, their agricultural employment. But Hubert Llewellyn Smith does not seem to have been consulted.

The same course could have been pursued with regard to the shipyards and to any other occupation in which it could be foreseen that additional men would be required. The shipbuilding employers could have been perfectly definite in their requirements if the Government had asked them for exact lists of their prospective vacancies for men of each craft. Men possessing the necessary skill and experience have drifted away to other occupations (though in much smaller numbers than the agriculturists) some of them to Canada and the US, whence they might have been withdrawn on terms. Once the list of prospective vacancies had been compiled, yard by yard and month by month, these definite situations could have been specially advertised – the Employment Exchanges even knew of a few unemployed shipyard workers in London and in Ireland to whom special inducements might have been offered – and every existing competent operative could have been separately approached.

If the requisite number are nowhere to be found, the only thing to be done is to train more; and the shipyard employers might have been asked to supply a list of exactly how many “learners” or “improvers” they were each prepared to take for quick training, what sort of candidates they needed, and what terms they offered. These situations could then have been advertised in the same way.

Mr Chamberlain has, in short, used his unrivalled canvassing and advertising opportunities in the wrong order. He ought, in all cases, to have begun with a national canvass of employers for notification of prospective vacancies; and then to have advertised for men to fill these specific vacancies. This is how the Army Council has got the various kinds of civilian labour that it has from time to time required. This is how contractors charged with great works get their men. This is how the Army Council is getting the women it needs for work in France. And this, if at all, is the way – not by inducing the Queen to come to an Albert Hall meeting – in which Chamberlain himself might actually place a considerable number of women on the land.

Moreover, it is to be noted that exactly this method of discovering prospective vacancies, and then scouring the country for men to fill them, is being pursued, without great expense, by the network of Employment Exchanges, which have been quietly doing the work for which Chamberlain was appointed. They have been allowed, it is true, practically no funds for canvassing employers and advertising for men. There were good reasons, in the present emergency, for giving a great impetus to this work, and putting into it the driving force of money and energy. But it was a mistake to set up a separate machine for this canvassing and advertising, unconnected with the network of Employment Exchanges, which alone are able to bring together the supply and demand.

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What was wanted was a new branch and a new officer in this department: a director-general of the Canvassing and Advertising Branch of the Employment Exchanges, equipped with the necessary funds and staff to enable him suddenly to expand the relatively small amount of actual expenditure of this kind that had hitherto been undertaken. The baleful influence of the only half-abandoned project of Industrial Conscription, and perhaps an instinct for the sensational and the dramatic which is scarcely Anglo-Saxon, seem to have led to the more spectacular episode which has been such a fiasco. What is now to be done? We have lost the spring sowing; but we need not jeopardise either the hay or the corn harvesting, or tempt the farmers to diminish their flocks and herds by failing to organise a labour supply. Moreover, the War Office can say, if it chooses, which men in other trades it is intending to call up during the next 12 months.

The director-general of National Service must either see his department wound up, or else brought into intimate relation with the Employment Exchanges, which it could very usefully supplement. We must stop the absurd general advertising for volunteers – perhaps sending to the War Museum as a collection of autographs the 200,000 forms already received – and begin canvassing employers to make them register their present or prospective vacancies either for trained men or for “emergency improvers”. The men qualified to fill these vacancies must then be sought out wherever they are, and individually induced to transfer their services temporarily to specific vacancies that can be proposed to them on sufficient inducement being offered. There is no other way.

Read more from the NS archive here and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) 

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