The trouble with aunt Bo BOOKS
Quite recently, I mentioned to a great friend of mine, a devoted if no longer a devout member of the Labour party, that the Webbs had been buried in Westminster Abbey. She asked in a startled voice, 'Why?' I found it hard to think why. Many people less deserving than the Webbs have been buried in West- minster Abbey—bad poets, bad politicians; but on reflection I thought that was not a good enough excuse, and that the burial in 1947 of the Webbs marked a turning point in the history of modern Britain and not the kind of turning point the Webbs would have welcomed. It was all right to give the Order of Merit to Sidney Webb. It was more than all right to make Beatrice Webb the first woman member of the British Academy. And as a symbol or a symptom, the burial of Sidney and Beatrice Webb in Westminster Abbey was highly appropriate. And yet my friend's astonishment has also its justification.
It is the first of the many merits of Beatrice Webb: A Life by Kitty Muggeridge and Ruth Adam (Seeker and Warburg 36s) that it makes plain why there was some meaning in that burial, apart from the fact that Mrs Webb and her husband, Lord Passfield, were closely connected with Sir Stafford Cripps, a then important member of the government. It is quite likely that very few people today under thirty remember anything about Sir Stafford Cripps or about the Webbs. In the United States, it is true, people still think of the Fabian Society as one of the most effective weapons of whatever the Soviet secret service is now called; but I think it is safe to say few things are harder to explain to the young than the prestige of the Webbs and the importance of the Fabian Society. (As an ex-member of the Fabian Society, I find this painful.) All the Webbs stood for seems either to have been achieved and unimportant, or not to be achieved, and the disappearance of Webbiatzismus has been a happy delivery.
Mrs Malcolm Muggeridge makes it plain, with a great deal of extremely attractive sym- pathy, that her 'Aunt Bo' was not nearly as tiresome as the public came to think long before she died. She also makes it plain that one cannot understand modern Britain, for good or evil, without noticing the illusions of Sidney and Beatrice Webb. It would be idle to pretend, and Kitty Muggeridge would not believe me if I did pretend, that this is a book of academic learning showing the impact of the Fabian Society. Mrs Muggeridge, indeed, pulls her punches in her description of the Fabian Society. It was in its great days what the French call a pottier de crabes. The famous episode of Ann Veronica is not totally candidly reported. It was, in its long history, much more comic than Mrs Muggeridge allows it to be here in her more respectful report of the impact of success on the two founders of the London School of Economics.
On the other hand, she has, much to my surprise, converted me to a much more friendly view of her aunt than I ever expected to have.
I first met both Sidney and Beatrice Webb when I was at the LSE and they were in their seventies. At that time 1 thought, and I still
think in reminiscence, that Mrs Webb was an extremely beautiful and not merely a hand- some woman : she was both. But she was a remarkably tiresome woman in the English sense of the term. We are told here how annoyed she was, when she invited young men from Oxford and Cambridge to come to Pass- field Corner or to other religious sessions, that the young Cambridge men were indifferent and the young Oxford men hostile. And one can see why young Cambridge men were indifferent and young Oxford men were hostile—and also why Mrs Webb was indignant.
For there is a deep paradox in the career of this astonishing couple. After the First World War, Sidney Webb became a Member of Par- liament, became a cabinet minister, became a peer, received the Order of Merit. Mrs Webb became a great public figure whom the Prince of Wales honoured by calling her `Mrs Webb' and not Lady Passfield, and whose curtsy to the Duke of Connaught was news. But, and it was a very important but, the great days of the Webbs ended in 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War. Up to 1914, they could believe and did believe in an easy, painless movement towards a socialised society. They were very foolish in believing this, but it was not a totally preposterous belief. (They never seem to have realised that Haldane, once he undertook to give Britain a 'Hegelian army,' had very little time for the reform of the Poor Law.) The title 'Fabian' was significant. After all, Fabius Cunctator's job was to restore the power of Rome, not to create a new state.
But what was the achievement of the Fabians when they still had some achievement to look forward to? That they did a great deal to break down some of the absurd horror of corrupting the poor by giving them something for nothing is true. Yet Kitty Muggeridge points out that her aunt basically shared the view that nothing should be given to the poor for nothing. Perhaps she never quite recovered from the influence of Mr Herbert Spencer.
The fact that the Webbs did not understand that a war was coming in 1914 (or in 1939) showed their curious isolation from the painful realities of the modern world. But there is another lesson to be learned from this ad- mirable book. Aunt Bo was a very emotional woman. She revealed this in her lifetime, and it is still more candidly revealed by her niece. She fell in love desperately with that very unpleasant character Joe Chamberlain. He be- haved very badly to her. But she, as a beautiful, intelligent and rich young woman, never quite understood the limitations of her beauty, her intelligence, or her wealth. Only one of these was an absolute: her beauty. And I think Kitty Muggeridge does not quite understand why her aunt suddenly discovered, round 1910, that she was far less important than for a brief moment she had thought her- self to be. If Balfour abandoned Beatrice Webb, it was partly because Balfour himself was about to be pushed out of his job as Leader of the Opposition, to be replaced by that dumb and dour character Andrew Bonar Law. If Asquith, who had never professed to be sym- pathetic to the Webbs' ideas, ignored their righteous claims, it is because Asquith, with all his faults, had a very serious sense of priorities: he had to worry about Ireland, he had to worry about the possibility of war.
One of the most revealing episodes in this book is the sudden disillusionment of Beatrice Wabb when she learned that her minority report on the Poor Law was being eclipsed in public attention by the majority report. There is a very revealing passage quoted by Mrs Muggeridge in which Beatrice Webb confesses her complete contempt for the other members of the Commission on the Poor Law, and reports how - time-wasting it was to attend meetings of the commission. Other members of the com- mission noticed this, notably Helen Bosanquet, who was quite as bright if not as beautiful as Beatrice Webb.
There was, indeed, about both Webbs an engaging credulity. They confused, to quote Sir William Beveridge, whose success later angered them so much, influence, and power. When the real world broke in on them in 1914, they were quite incapable of dealing with it. Nothing that appears here will alter my belief that Beatrice Webb was not really a very clever woman, and certainly, although her husband was much cleverer, it was absurd of Shaw to call him a genius: the real genius was Shaw, as he very well knew. Formally, the Webbs had a very great success; but they realised, after two Labour governments, that they had no notion of why there was unem- ployment. They had no remedies for it.
It would be possible, though unkind, to point out what bad observers in any country out- side England the Webbs were, e.g. in Australia and the United States. But the real tragedy of the last years of their lives, a tragedy more for Beatrice than for Sidney, was the realisation that Fabian gradualism paid no dividends. Beatrice, as her niece makes clear, had always been a managing woman. Soviet Russia was a place where people were managed. Kindly. Mrs Muggeridge writes very little about the last sad years of this very public-spirited couple. Their trouble was not Shaw's senile vanity; it was their senile disillusionment. We learn that Beatrice Webb had an illuminated picture of Lenin in Passfield Corner: this was what was called in Russia immediately after the October Revolution 'the Lenin corner,' re- placing the ikons of Imperial Russia—which was so like Soviet Russia.
So the older the Webbs got, the less they had to contribute except nonsense, and some unedi- fying nonsense. There is the significant passage in which Beatrice Webb wonders whether it was worth saving the lives of people: dissolute workers, they would breed a lot more children; if they died, there would be fewer dissolute children. This reminded me of what Benjamin Jowett, that not very sentimental Master of Bal- liol, had heard Nassau Senior say, that it was a pity the famine had not removed more Irish people, as this would have solved the over- population problem. After that, Jowett never paid any attention to what any economist said.
There was in Beatrice Webb a good deal of the Nassau Senior attitude. And yet—and this is the great charm and the great success of this book—it is made evident that Beatrice Webb was full of warmth, generosity, compas- sion, and of illusion. Alas, she had not enough basic intelligence to realise where her various illusions were taking her. As for Sidney, he was a man who would have been happy in any society with blue books, even if he never noticed any difference between the blue books and the real life around him. It would have been very easy to pick out of this book even more unkind examples of the irrelevance of the Webbs—indeed, of the Fabians—to the modern world. Kitty Muggeridge makes it plain that both Sidney and Beatrice had much better hearts than they had heads.