Saturday 21 February 2009

Heroes, villains and alternative histories

The history panel at the centenary conference on the 1909 Minority Report has contained several chances to interrogate alternative histories which never quite happened.

Roy Hattersley has placed John Burns and Keir Hardie in the dock.

Dianne Hayter, current chair of the Labour NEC and a Webb Memorial Trust trustee, has suggested that the whole history of Liberalism, Socialism and the British welfare state have been rather different had Beatrice Webb married her first great passion, the radical Liberal Imperialist Joseph Chamberlain? Might she then have persuaded the Liberal government in 1909?

Jose Harris, in the new Fabian collection, offers a different alternative history. Had Sidney, not Beatrice, been on the Royal Commission that his skill at committee work would have brokered a compromise between majority and minority report, and perhaps led to reform sooner.

Roy Hattersley did not use this occasion to renew the Croslandite challenge to the Webbs, but rather questioned whether the "second wave revisionists" who had turned Fabianism into a term of abuse knew what they were for at all. Hattersley's historical villians were John Burns and Keir Hardie. Burns for "dishing the Webbs", retailing how that proud, egotistical working-man in the Liberal Cabinet, on being appointed to the Cabinet, congratulated the Prime Minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman: "Sir Henry, I congratulate you. This will be the most popular thing you have ever done".

Keir Hardie suffered from a politics of "resounding declarations" and "silly prejudices as an alternative to thought" in seeing social insurance "as a palliative that mitigated the hardship of poverty without removing its causes and left the capitalist system intact". That, said Hattersley, was the opposite of the "practical idealism" which was needed.

Carole Seymour-Jones, brandished the picture of Joseph Chamberlain in her biography of Beatrice Webb, said that one could see why Beatrice had been tempted.

Hayter mentioned that there is an essay on a Chamberlain-Potter marriage in Duncan Brack's alternative history collection of essays President Gore, so I will need to catch up with that). It is, however, difficult to see how the 1909 Minority Report could remain in a parallel universe story. Beatrice's diary relates that she asked Chamberlain whether he could tolerate dissent in his household. His answer: "no".

Seymour-Jones noted too after she accepted Sidney Webb's proposal of marriage, after several refusals, that she had received from him a letter, with full length photograph. Her riposte that "I am marrying the head only". Seymour-Jones was certain not to offer a hagiography of Webb, stressing her grit, abrasiveness and willingness to make enemies in a "life full of conflict and contradictions". Webb had wanted to escape what appeared to be her fate and to lead "an epic life".

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