Bending the Arc of History towards Justice and Freedom

New Statesman (1996), April 12, 2013 | Go to article overview

Bending the Arc of History towards Justice and Freedom


Beatrice and Sidney Webb founded the New Statesman in a spirit of optimism. They were outraged by the plight of the poor and the way the unfettered market had created monstrous inequality at a time of great technological advance. (Does this sound familiar?) They wanted their new weekly review of politics and the arts to be a reforming journal as well as a vehicle for their ideas. They believed in the rational, scientific method and in the "world movement towards collectivism".

Theirs was a socialism of experts: technocratic, centralising, bureaucratic. Through their research - they co-founded the London School of Economics and William Beveridge worked for them as a young researcher - they helped to lay the foundations of the welfare state.

Yet their socialism of experts was flawed and often wrong-headed and its worst excesses have been deeply sedimented in the Labour tradition of "the man in Whitehall knows best": command and control, tax and transfer. The Webbs were fellow-travellers of the Soviet Union and they were imperialists. Statists rather than liberals, they were insufficiently interested in personal freedom. Very quickly, the journal they created broke free of their influence. In 1921, Sidney Webb resigned as NS chairman, unhappy that the "paper" was too free in its criticisms of the Labour Party "A melancholy ending to our one journalistic adventure," Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary.

Fifteen months after the first issue of the NS appeared, Europe was plunged into the imperial slaughter of the First World War. The twin evils of Stalinism and fascism and then the long cold war would follow. However, for the British, at least, the 20th century was broadly one of progress. In common with many countries, Britain incrementally became both a more liberal and a more equal society. Universal suffrage was introduced. The National Health Service was created and a universal welfare state was established. The UK surrendered its colonial possessions and Europe was transformed from a continent of war into one of peace. Capital punishment was abolished and homosexuality was decriminalised. Laws were passed against discrimination on the basis of race, sex or disability. Through decades of struggle, the left bent the are of history towards justice. …

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