Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Happy Birthday Beatrice Webb

I'd never heard of Beatrice Webb. There are likely several very good reasons for this, first of which is that I'm not well versed in British Economic History. That said, when I came across a link to a biography of her recently, I was immediately interested. Here is a woman who was instrumental in studying and setting economic policy for Great Britain starting in1892 and all through the Victorian and Pre-WWII era, until her death in 1942.

Beatrice’s childhood explains a great deal. The eighth of ten children (nine of whom were daughters), she was born into considerable wealth and enjoyed a highly unconventional upbringing. Beatrice later claimed that her father was the only man she ever knew who genuinely believed that women were superior to men, a view which led him to ensure that all his daughters had rigorous educational training. Lively debate and intellectual curiosity were encouraged, causing great anxiety for Beatrice’s mother whose own prolific child-rearing had curtailed her personal ambitions. Perhaps more realistic about social realities than her husband, she feared the tension between nurturing daughters who were fully-rounded human beings and daughters who would make ‘good wives’.
Influenced by the scientific enquiry that was fashionable at the time, she set about observing and classifying the circumstances of poverty in the hope that this would help her to understand its causes. Working in Lancashire and the East End, she developed observational techniques which led her to conclude that private philanthropy was largely ineffective in the face of poverty on an industrial scale. The poverty she had witnessed in the East End could not be accounted for by individual acts. It was structural and it required a structural response. With these central revelations in mind, Beatrice began to develop a political narrative based on the the need to find ‘municipal means’ for curtailing capitalism’s worst effects.

She married Sidney Webb, and together they worked to expand her research and affect change in the political machinery.
Theirs was an extraordinary partnership. His writing skills complemented her research to produce some of the outstanding political works of their time. Their seminal History of Trade Unionism was widely read within the movement. Along with other works, it promoted the Webbs’ central doctrine of ‘the national minimum’ – the idea that there was a minimum level of wages and of quality of life to which the worker was entitled as a citizen and below which s/he could not, as a citizen, be allowed to fall. It is difficult to overstate the power of this fundamental idea on the policy and actions of the Labour movement in the middle decades of the twentieth century.
Beatrice was nominated to the royal commission on the Poor Laws. The commission took four years to investigate the current state of the Poor Laws and to propose ‘next steps’. Halfway into the four-year investigation, Beatrice resolved to write a separate minority report, which would be ‘a thoroughly Webbian document’.

Whatever you think about her political views, the fact that she was able to not only express them, but to work in such a public capacity is remarkable.
Her rigorous use of factual analysis to underpin socialist argument left its mark on a whole generation of Labour thinkers. The practice of empirical investigation has become central to British political science and sociology in the twentieth century. It is arguably her most enduring legacy. To my mind, Beatrice Webb stands as the earliest and perhaps the greatest example of a woman within the Labour movement who was allowed the space and support to flourish intellectually. The beauty of her ideas continue to tease and challenge us.
(biography source: Kathryn Perera via http://womenshistorymonth.wordpress.com/)

You can read her diaries, which have been digitized via LSE Digital Library


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