Sidney Webb (1859–1947) and Beatrice Webb (1858–1943) were British social reformers and founding members of the Fabian Society, with which their names are inextricably linked. They came from disparate backgrounds but married in 1892 and began a celebrated fifty-year partnership.
Sidney’s father was a radical who had worked for British philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill. In 1865, at the age of sixteen, Sidney became a clerk for the city of London, educating himself by attending evening classes. He took an external law degree and was called to the bar in 1885. He was a professor of public administration at the London School of Economics from 1912 to 1927.
Martha Beatrice Potter was born to wealth and privilege. Though not formally educated, she had a desire for knowledge and an intelligence that was aided by her friendship with English philosopher Herbert Spencer. Influenced by Spencer’s individualism, she adopted many humanist ideas.
Once Sidney and Beatrice were married, he resigned from the Colonial Office. Beatrice’s private income permitted them to work on a series of books, of which the first was The History of Trade Unionism (1894). It was followed by Industrial Democracy (1897) and a monumental series of volumes in the History of the English Local Government (1906–1929). Beatrice was a member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Law from 1905 to 1909, and she and Sidney also authored the commission’s minority report on the elimination of poverty. This report influenced successive British governments in their social policies.
Sidney played a central role in the formation of the Labour Party, serving on its executive board from 1912 to 1925. He wrote both its constitution and its manifesto, Labour and the New Social Order, in 1918. He was a Labour member of Parliament from 1922 to 1929, president of the Board of Trade in 1924, Dominions Secretary from 1929 to 1930, and Colonial Secretary from 1929 to 1931. He was created Baron Passfield in 1929.
The Webbs believed the best way to improve politics was to combine popular control and administrative efficiency. They maintained the ideal method to achieve these twin goals was through education, depending on the inevitability of change in human societies to transform the social order. This was the mission of the Fabian Society, which the Webbs were instrumental in founding and to which they dedicated much of their later life. As a Progressive member of the London County Council and as chair of the council’s Technical Education Board, Sidney created the London school system that became the national model until 1944. He also helped to design the comprehensive plan for the University of London and founded the London
School of Economics and Political Science, which remained in the early twentieth century as one of the premier institutions in the United Kingdom. The Webbs also founded the influential journal, The New Statesman, in 1913.
The Webbs were reformers, not agitators, and they made only one significant foray into public controversy. Destitution—often compounded by sickness, unemployment, and old age—had been the main problem confronting Victorian society, and the Poor Law System had virtually broken down in addressing this issue.The Webbs’ minority report to the Royal Commission on the Poor Law had made radical recommendations that were struck down by David Lloyd George, at that point president of the Board of Trade, despite the Webbs’ vigorous opposition. It was not until 1945 under the postwar Labour government that many of the Webbs’ recommendations were implemented.
The Webbs cowrote A Constitution for the Socialist Commonwealth of Great Britain (1920) and The Decay of Capitalist Civilization (1923). Beatrice also wrote her autobiography, My Apprenticeship (1926), based on the diary she had kept from childhood. The Webbs’ last years were clouded by their adulation of Stalinism, although the Soviet system was the very antithesis of everything for which they had always stood. After a conducted tour of the Soviet Union in 1934, the Webbs published Soviet Communism: A New Civilization? in 1935, even as Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was forcing millions of peasants into poverty.
Although the Webbs’ endorsement of Stalinism was a sad postscript to a life guided by idealism, they left a solid legacy in the Labour Party, the London School of Economics, and the New Statesman, all of which continue to flourish in the early twenty-first century. Only the Fabian Society had ceased to exist. In 1947 the ashes of Sidney and Beatrice were interred in Westminster Abbey.
Together, the Webbs wrote more than one hundred books. In addition to those previously noted, they wrote The Cooperative Movement in Great Britain (1891), The History of Trade Unionism (1894), Industrial Democracy (1897), The Manor and the Borough (1908), The Break-up of the Poor Law (1909), The English Poor Law Policy (1910), Works Manager Today (1917), The Consumer’s Cooperative Movement (1921), and Methods of Social Study (1932). Sidney authored alone Facts for Socialists (1887), Problems of Modern Industry (1887), The Restoration of Trade Union Conditions (1917), and Grants in Aid: A Criticism and a Proposal (1911). Beatrice wrote Cooperative Movement in Great Britain (1891), Wages of Men and Women: Should They Be Equal? (1919), and Our Partnership (1948).
- Cole, Margaret. The Webbs and Their Work. London: F. Muller, 1949.
- Mackenzie, Norman. The Letters of Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978.
- McBriar, Alice. Fabian Socialism and English Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962.
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