Wednesday 18 February 2009

A spot of bother with the Treasury

Continuing our series of posts ahead of Saturday's a centenary conference at the LSE here is Beatrice Webb's diary entry from a hundred years ago today, February 18th 1909, as the newspapers covered the majority and minority reports of the Poor Law Royal Commission. The majority report taken more seriously than the Webbs anticipated, while the Treasury sought to block the Fabian edition of the Minority Report. The diary entry also shows that think-tanks and political activists knew media reaction mattered well before the 1990s.

February 18th - The day after the reception of the reports of the Poor Law Commission. We turned out to be quite wrong as to the reception of the Majority Report. So far as the first day's reviews are concerned, the majority have got a magnificent reception. We have had a fair look in, but only in those papers which had got to know of the existence of a Minority Report before the issue late on Wednesday evening. If we had not taken steps, we should have been submerged completely, by the great length of the Majority Report, coupled with their revolutionary proposals, the largeness of their majority and the relative weight of the names. Roughly speaking, all the Conservative papers went for the majority proposals, and the London Liberal papers were decidedly for ours. We secured, in fact, belligerent rights, but not more than that. The majority hold the platform. Perhaps we felt a trifle foolish at having crabbed the Majority Report to our family and intimate friends, and exalted our own. That has certainly not proved

We have had an amusing little encounter with the majority over the separate publication of our report - by the Fabian Society and Longmans. We thought we had the copyright; or that Sidney had it. I told the Royal Commission staff that we intended to publish immediately after the Royal Commission published. A few days before the publication, the Fabian Society received a peremptory letter from the Treasury solicitor forbidding the publication of the Ministry Report as an infringement of the Crown Copyright. This was I think clearly instigated by Lord George or Duff; and it was apparently unwarranted bluff, as there is a Treasury minute (1887) permitting republication unless the public has been notified otherwise. We did not know of this minute, and got a bit flustered. But an appeal to Haldane settled the matter, and the Treasury letter was withdrawn. Both editions were published on Thursday, the day on which the Reports were reviewed in the press.

Webb goes on to note that the government had printed 10,000 copies of the Minority Report "encumbered with Majority Report! and notes and references in a ponderous blue book" at just 5 shillings and 6 pence ("an amazingly cheap blue book", while the Fabians had printed 3,000 copies of their 3 shilling version, with a commercial Longmans' edition (1500 copies) available at 12 shillings and sixpence.

The Fabian edition of the Minority Report went on to sell 25,000 copies during the year.

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