History,  The Left

From the Vaults: Manchester Guardian, 1958

Beatrice Webb (1858-1943) was a member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws. The Minority Report that this Commission published in 1909 is often credited for being the template for the welfare state. Together with her husband Sidney Webb, Beatrice was active in the Fabian Society, and also involved in founding both New Statesman magazine and the London School of Economics and Political Science. (It is an aside that the library associated with the latter institution has frequently been the source for many of the articles in this series.)

In the 1930s, the Webbs found a new love: Joseph Stalin. They both travelled to Russia and even wrote books praising Soviet Communism. Many years later, Beatrice Webb’s niece wrote a letter to the Manchester Guardian where she commented on what her aunt really thought both about the working class in England, and about the fate of starving Ukranians who were sent like cattle to Siberia.  I copy an extract from that letter below:

WAS MRS WEBB “RUTHLESS”?

A niece’s impressions

Letters to the editor

Manchester Guardian, February 4, 1958, p.6.

…. Aunt Bo, as she [Beatrice Webb] was affectionately known to members of her family (she was my husband’s aunt so it was this capacity that I knew her), despised the working classes with all the zest of her admirable middle-class Victorian upbringing. She disliked their fecklessness, their good nature, and the way they stood up for each other when in trouble…..

Most revealing of all, I remember, was one day after their [Beatrice and Sidney Webb’s] Russian visit, I had asked the headmistress of one of our local secondary schools who had been on an extensive tour down to the Ukraine to come and meet them. Over the teacups the headmistress mentioned her horror at finding her party in a station where several cattle-trucks of “enemies of the State” had been pulled up at a siding on their way to Siberia. “Very bad stage management,” said Aunt Bo severely, “Ridiculous to let you see them; the English are so sentimental!” At which the headmistress, rather shocked said: “But Mrs Webb, they were starving and held out their hands for food – they were in a pitiable condition.” “I know,” the great one replied, “but you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”….

Yours &c.,

KONRADIN HOBHOUSE

Hadspen House, Castle Cary, Somerset.

Res ipsa loquitur.

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