In the Name of Liberalism: Illiberal Social Policy in the USA and Britain

By Desmond King | Go to book overview

5

'Reconditioning the Unemployed':
Work Camps in Britain

THE scale of unemployment in Britain in the 1920s and 1930s could not be ignored politically. It seemed to demonstrate the inability of the labour market unproblematically to achieve an equilibrium of supply and demand. Particularly in those areas of highest and most persistent unemployment, the so-called 'distressed areas', life was miserable. As part of its strategy to cope with unemployment, the government opened Instructional Centres (dubbed 'labour camps') and instituted physical training classes. Described as the '"slave camps" of Labour's first New Deal' in a recent newspaper article, these collectivist experiments have been the source of controversy and interest, with their detractors viewing them as malevolent mandatory work institutions, attendance at which was only notionally voluntary for the affected unemployed workers. 1One recruit, William Dunseath, describes how he joined a work camp after a period of unemployment: '"I had been working in a spinning mill in Accrington, and been out of work for six months, on the Means Test, not receiving any benefit because we'd got one person in a family of five working." He was summoned to the employment exchange: "I received a card asking me to call and see the Manager of the Labour Exchange. He asked me if I'd go to a training centre. Well, I agreed to go, with three pals of mine; we'd worked together."' 2 Dunseath proved to be one of many unemployed workers directed to the instructional centres for physical reconditioning.

In this chapter, the establishment and operation of British Instructional Centres is documented. The competing negative and positive assessments of these collective institutions are rehearsed and assessed. Several issues are pursued. First, the question of whether camps constituted illiberal institutions is considered. As an experiment in social policy, camps were a dramatic response to the problem of unemployment. Their novel character feeds into the second theme of the chapter: what was the expertise or

____________________
1
M. Austin, 'Revealed: "slave camps" of Labour's first New Deal', Sunday Times, 9 Aug. 1998; and see D. McKie and M. Wainwright, 'Jobless "hardened" in labour camps' Guardian 12 Aug. 1998.
2
Quoted from an interview in Field (1992: 80).

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