A British Utopia: The Webbs’ Constitution for a Socialist Britain

Okay, I’ve finally finished reading Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s A Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain, first published in 1920 and then again in 1975 by the LSE and Cambridge University Press. It’s very dated and clearly shows how very different things were when it was written and today.

The Advance of Socialism

Firstly, it’s an optimistic book. Democracy had finally arrived in Britain and the mobilisation and state industrial planning introduced during the First World War seemed to the Webbs to show very clearly that capitalism was in retreat. One of their earlier books, cited in this text, was on the decay of capitalism. The vast increase in efficiency and the production and distribution of goods through the state management of the economy in the War years also seemed to them to provide a further demonstration that capitalist was a wasteful, inefficient system that was destined to be superseded by socialism. The industries and businesses taken into state, municipal or cooperative ownership would be able to produce goods more cheaply and affordably than capitalism with its class system and exploitation. The Webbs were not just impressed with the arguments for state ownership, but the way local authorities up and down Britain were also operating and managing local services, including medical care, electricity and gas companies. Another powerful motor driving the march of socialism and its transform of Britain was the cooperative movement and the trade unions. Millions of Brits belonged to their local coop store. The businesses handled millions of pounds, owning subsidiary companies and trading with other, similar businesses right across the globe. At the same time, the trade unions were resisting capitalism and, with the entry of working men into parliament, providing proof that the working class could manage industry and govern.

The Problems of the Cooperative Movement and Workers’ Control

There were problems with both of these latter movements, however. The coop’s managers and directors were unimaginative in the development of new goods and services, and as exploitative as capitalist business when it came to the treatment of their employees. The trade unions were divided with a hodge-podge of very different and often contradictory constitutions and frequently in conflict with each other and their leaders. Some times this conflict was physical, as when one group of trade unionists broke into their headquarters and physically removed their leaders from power. At the same time, against the syndicalists and Guild Socialists, the Webbs argued that the management of industry solely by the workers was always unsuccessful. When it had been tried, it had shown that the workers always managed their firms for themselves, so that they either became uncompetitive with conventional capitalist firms, and ignored the demands and requirements of the wider community.

Criticisms of Parliamentary System

At the same time, the traditional British parliamentary system was also inadequate to deal with the increase in political business created by the nascent welfare state and emergent state sector. The Webbs took seriously contemporary Conservative criticism about the decay of parliament. Their solution was to recommend the creation of two different, separate assemblies. One would be a political parliament, that would follow the traditional 19th century view of what constituted politics. This would deal with criminal law, defence, foreign relations and the Empire. The second would be a social parliament, that would manage the economy, industry and social and cultural matters, including education. The members of both parliaments would be elected, but, in contrast to the arguments of the syndicalists, this would be by geographical constituency, not by trade. The conventional system of government by cabinet ministers was also unsuitable and incapable of dealing with the demands of the new political and economic realities. Thus the Webbs instead recommended that the parliaments should operate under the system of committees used by local authorities.

Local Government

The book also shows the state of local government at the time it was written in its recommendations for that sector’s reform. This was a time when the functions of what would later become local councils was split between a number of different boards. There was one for the poor law, another for sanitation, and others for education, medical care and so on, each of whose members were separately elected. At the same time, local councillors themselves were unpaid volunteers, which meant that it was dominated by landlords and businessmen, who governed in their own interests. The Webbs therefore demanded what is now the obvious, established practice: the creation of local authorities which would absorb and carry out the functions of the various boards, whose elected councillors would be paid. At the same time, the local ward would be the basis building block of local democracy, and the local authorities would be free to unite in larger, composite organisations where this was suitable, even to the point where they could compete in the management of industry with the social parliament.

Nationalisation, State Control and Personal Freedom

The Webbs believed that nationalisation would actually involve very few industries. Only those that affected the nation as a whole, such as the mines, the railways and natural resources, that would need to be carefully protected and managed for the future, would be taken into state ownership. These would in practice be managed by individual industrial boards and organisations, not by the social parliament itself. This would confine itself to supervision and matters of general investigation and legislation. That was partly so that, if there was an industrial dispute, it would not be seen as an attack on the state requiring the intervention of the armed forces. At the same time the Webbs were keen to stress that the new system should take every step to preserve individual liberty. Legislation should be scrutinised to ensure that it did not take away personal freedom, and no-one should be compelled to use a socialised firm if they preferred a capitalist alternative. Local authorities would also set up a range of businesses and services for the benefit of their communities. Yet others would be owned and operated as cooperatives, including the press. This would solve the problem of its use to spread capitalist propaganda. While firms would continue to be managed by a salaried, professional staff, their boards would also include the representatives of the workers.

Active Public Involvement in Industry

At the same time, the Webbs were also keen to include the British public in the management of industry and conduct of politics. Consumers’ groups were to be encouraged and their suggestions for improved conduct and services should be taken seriously. In contrast with capitalism, where firms kept their operations very secret, the British public would have access to all the facts and figures about the management and conduct of industry and economy presented in government publications and reports from their own MPs and councillors. They were to be encouraged to take an active interest in government and the economy, and be ready to make their own criticisms and recommendations. At the same time professional and trade associations like the British Medical Association, law society and scientific and engineering associations, including the trade unions, would also be encouraged to develop high standards of morality and professionalism with their occupations.

Protection of Indigenous Peoples

They also recognised that there would be ethical problems with a socialist Britain trading with other countries, who remained capitalist, and with less developed countries. They therefore looked to the new League of Nations and other institutions as new guardians of a new international morality, who would protect the indigenous peoples of the world from capitalist exploitation.

Socialism Cutting Down on Capitalist Bureaucracy

They also take care to refute two particular objections to socialism. One is that it would be too bureaucratic. Instead, they argue that uniting different firms into a single industrial organisation, as would be done for the mines and railways, for example, would actually reduce bureaucracy. At the time they were writing these industries were split between a number of different companies all with their own separate management boards.

Socialism Means Expanding Private Property

The second is that socialists are totally opposed to private property. This is not so, declare the Webbs. They are not opposed to private property, and active want its expansion. What they are opposed to is the private ownership of industry. But they want people to have their own homes and gardens, and for an expansion of personal property as ordinary people are able to afford a wider range of goods and possessions which at present are only confined to the wealthy.

The Individual Professional in a Socialist Economy

The Webbs also believe that there will be a place in the socialist economy for some capitalist, private industry. This particularly includes individual professionals, who provide their professional expertise for a fee. They also look forward to an expansion of education. They believe that socialism will lead to rapid improvements in technology and industrial management, which will mean that some workers will become unemployed. Those workers will be retrained and taught new skills. Those unable to master these will not be allowed to starve, but will instead be given good pensions on which to live.

The Webbs’ Vision and Contemporary Reality

The Webbs’ vision is obviously more than a little Utopian. They have been proven right in their recommendations for the reform of local government, some of which they were actually responsible for. At the same time, they’ve been proven right in the expansion of education. At the time they were writing, most working people left school around age 12. Now the government wishes half of all school leavers to go on to university, which in their case means they complete their education at 21.

On the other hand, the cooperative movement has failed to transform British society and is now effectively just another retail chain. Parliament has also shown itself competent to deal with both the increased business and areas of government, like industry and the economy so that there is no need for a separate, social parliament. It’s just that it’s been a disaster that the country is governed by doctrinaire Tories, who have wrecked the economy, society and manufacturing industry, not to mention health and education, in favour of the free market. But there are still strong arguments for nationalisation and for the inclusion of the workers themselves in the management of their firms. As for the British Empire, it’s now long gone and has been transformed into the Commonwealth. However the neocolonial system of tariffs imposed by the developed world prevent their former colonies in Africa from developing their own manufacturing industries and have imposed a new system of capitalist exploitation.

Capitalism Creating Misery and Poverty

But conditions in the early 21st century also show that, if the socialist utopia hasn’t materialised, capitalism hasn’t fulfilled its promise either. The free market economy zealously promoted by Thatcher and Reagan is very definitely and obviously not bringing prosperity. Rather it is a just returning us to the poverty and misery of the 19th century, coupled with the threat of global climate change and the ecological crisis. The problems that the Webbs and other socialists believed could only be solved through socialism.

Conclusion

Socialism probably doesn’t have all the solutions. But it still has many of them. Even though it’s very dated, this book is still worth reading. At its heart is a vision of socialism which would lead to greater prosperity and for working people to be able to develop and improve themselves. At the same time, individual freedom and the rights of the individual would be secured. A state bureaucracy would govern the nationalised industries, that of the local authorities those under their control. But there would be a range of companies and industries created and managed through ordinary people themselves through cooperatives they would be encouraged to found. Instead of entrepreneurs being limited to a small class of individuals, the public as a whole would become business owners and managers, actively interested in their companies and enterprises. This would be too much for many. It’s arguable that most people in this country have little interest in politics or industry and are content to leave it to others. Hence the persistence of capitalism and the electoral success of the Tories.

The Webbs’ constitution is an attempt to provide an alternative system to capitalism and its failures. It’s dated, but still inspiring. And real socialist solutions are as necessary now as they were when it was written. I hope that more people discover it, as I have, and that it also inspires them.

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One Response to “A British Utopia: The Webbs’ Constitution for a Socialist Britain”

  1. A6er Says:

    Reblogged this on Tory Britain!.

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