Saturday, 22 January 2011

Are these the most influential Liberal pamphlets of the last century ?

Certainly in the first fifty years of the last century these two booklets -'We can Conquer Unemployment' and 'Ownership for All'- can claim to have been the most influential Liberal pamphlets produced. Although published only about ten years apart and of similar length the price doubled which by itself tell us something of the turbulent economic times which gave rise to them.
I recall in the run up to the 1979 manifesto preparation Richard Moore announcing to the Policy Committee that he joined the Liberal Party in spite of and not because of its economic policy. In so doing he was giving voice to a widespread belief that the party's strong suits were in constitutional reform and foreign affairs and that we had not the same impact with our economic policy.  And yet these two pamphlets are primarily about industrial and economic policy.
There is no overlap in the memberships of the two Inquiries except to note that Rt Hon C F G Materman was appointed to the first but his death in 1927 meant he did not live to see its publication. His widow Lucy was appointed to the Ownership for all Inquiry and she is listed as Mrs C F G Masterman. This is the same women to whom Birkdale's Michael Braham presented a menu card of a Southport Liberal Dinner when he met her in 1977 at the centenary celebrations of the National Liberal Federation in Birmingham. Those who want to know more about the Mastermans would best be advised to present themselves at Bonkers Hall

The Yellow Book and the manifesto based on it 'We can Conquer Unemployment' was launched Lloyd George in1929 when he declared 
:If the nation entrusts the Liberal Party at the next General Election with the responsibilities of Government, we are ready with schemes of work which we can put immediately into operation, work of a kind which is not merely useful in itself but essential to the well-being of the nation. The work put in hand will reduce the terrible figures of the workless in the course of a single year to normal proportions, and will, when completed, enrich the nation and equip it for competing successfully with all its rivals in the business of the world. These Plans will not add one penny to national or local taxation. It will require a great and sustained effort to redeem this pledge, but some of us sitting at this table have succeeded in putting through even greater and more difficult tasks in the interests of the nation.

The Liberal Party Summer Schools had flourished at a time when the party's electoral fortunes had fallen and it was the Summer Schools which established the Liberal Industrial Inquiry under the chairmanship of W T Layton and whose membership included Lloyd George, J M Keynes, Ramsey Muir, B S Rowntree, Sir John Simon, Herbert Samuel, Margery Corbett Ashby, L T Hobhouse, and Archibald Sinclair. They produced a detail report (500 odd pages) which was distilled into the manifesto which asserted:
THE word written to-day on the hearts of British people, and graven on their minds is Unemployment. For eight years, more than a million British workers, able and eager to work, have been denied the opportunity. At the end of 1928 the total reached a million and a half; a quarter of a million more than a year before. These workers with their dependants, represent four or five million souls. They are a very nation, denied the opportunity to earn their daily bread, condemned to hardship, to wearing anxiety and often to physical and mental demoralisation. What a tragedy of human suffering; what a waste of fine resources; what a bankruptcy of statesmanship!

And in thinking outside of the mainstream the book said:
Here, as elsewhere, we are obsessed by precedent and routine. But the present situation cannot be dealt with by precedent. It is unique in history, and it must be met by unique methods. The countries of Europe have displayed infinite courage, resource and initiative, in rebuilding the towns and areas which the war had ruined; and we must profit by their example, if we do not wish history to brand us as destitute of the high qualities that make reconstruction possible. At the moment, individual enterprise alone cannot restore the situation within a time for which we can wait. The State must therefore lend its aid and, by a deliberate policy of national development, help to set going at full speed the great machine of industry.

It is hard to express how radical this approach was. It flew in the face of the advice from H M Treasury and the Labour Part and the Tories mocked it. As  one academic noted:

Interestingly, the Labour Party in the same campaign was caught out by the bold Liberal plan. They produced their own document – How to Conquer Unemployment: Labour’s Reply to Lloyd George which among other things said the work would be ephemeral and unproductive and that the financial aspects were “madcap”. The Labour Party won the election easily and the conservatives were tossed out. But in a sense, the conservatives (Labour) just swapped places with the conservatives (Tories).

When the Liberal History Group held a meeting about We Can Conquer Unemployment they invited Robert Skidelsky to speak. This is the same Skidelsky now appearing in the pages of the New Statesman  locking horns with Vince over Keynes's legacy. Iain Sharpe has made some pertinent observations on his present role as Ed Milliband's intellectual cover. The report of the meeting notes:

.....our speaker most clearly revealed his own views as a Conservative, believing that the public sector, whether because of high welfare spending or union militancy, had simply grown too big.  The prescription, Skidelsky argued, should be that the state must
retreat to its defining characteristics - ie only those actions which individual cannot achieve by themselves - or risk collapse.

and goes on

An additional factor, which Keynes did not foresee, was the 
substantial increase in capital mobility, resulting in a rise in 

interest rates from any unilateral attempt to expand the public 


Conrad Russell in his 'An Intelligent Person's Guide to Liberalism' notes that with the collapse of the international monetary system and particularly the abolition of exchange controls in1979 and the collapse of Keynes's theories of demand management we are living in a new economic world. ...'we can probably never again hope to fight an election on quite so interventionist approach to unemployment as...1929.' (page 69)

We have new threats as international capital races round the world looking for the best short term return on its investment. In recent years it has felt that the whole of Britain's economy is up for sale. And this brings us to the second Inquiry which looks at the maldistribution of wealth and the ownership of  business. failure to bring about reform in this area has been a major contributing fact to or poor economic performance and the economic shock waves that hit us last year. All this will have to wait till part two of this posting as I have a Focus to deliver.

Part two on 'Ownership for All' can be found here 
When I got back from delivering (and yes Simon I did Dover Rd as well) I started a new post and found I couldn't copy and paste across with all the links......still learning
And Part three will be an attempt to relate these ideas to 2011 and what we could do if we had a majority government, to follow  when I've mopped up the end of Lynton Road delivery...          

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