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 . . .