William Beveridge – a supporter of the labour colony

William Beveridge is widely known as the architect of the welfare state. As such, he is automatically a hero for the Left. Right-wing modernisers like the Free Enterprise Group praise Beveridge’s intentions and principles while lamenting the supposedly bloated socialist bureaucracy that has distorted and displaced his original vision. Now Geoffrey Wheatcroft of the Guardian has joined in, reminding us that Beveridge was indeed a reluctant convert to state intervention, and was shocked by the Attlee government’s contempt for friendly societies.

Beveridge was also a youthful fan of the labour colony movement. This is sometimes passed over by later generations as a fleeting fancy, a brief moment of authoritarianism towards the poor that he inherited from the reformer and researcher Charles Booth. Booth famously classified the poor into five groups, and proposed that the most idle two groups should be packed off to ‘labour schools’ in the countryside.

Beveridge developed this idea in a paper in 1904, proposing that labour colonies should be used to train, not the idle poor, but those who were genuinely unemployed. Beveridge’s early ideas were based on experience. During the trade recession of 1903-5 that followed the Boer Wars, a number of poor law bodies and charities opened labour colonies.

Beveridge, then living in the university settlement at Toynbee Hall, visited several of the colonies, and wrote extensive notes. At Osea Island (later famous as a ‘retreat’ for celebrities struggling with addictions), he noted that the 80 unemployed residents were required to be sober at all times, and were inspected for infections and cleanliness before entering the colony. He concluded that ‘work on the colonies, carried out under good conditions, in country air, with good food, and in the absence of intoxicants, produced a marked improvement in the physique of the men’, and also ‘widened their horizon and stimulated their enterprise’.

Several historians suggest that Beveridge later changed his mind about labour colonies. As an economic liberal, they argue, he saw labour exchanges as more effective in underpinning labour mobility, believing that once the unemployed knew about opportunities for work, they would have every incentive to move to new jobs. Labour colonies, they argue, were part of an outdated way of thinking about the poor – and entirely inconsistent with Beveridge’s recognition of the importance of structural unemployment.

But this is simply not the case. Beveridge saw unemployment as partly what we would call structural in nature, but he also accepted that there was a small number of ‘unemployables’, arguing that their defects were often the result of casual employment. Just as they had learned to balance extremes of employment and idleness, so they might learn to work steadily if only they were properly schooled. And they would learn to labour in organised colonies.

This is clear from Beveridge’s evidence to the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws. Beveridge told the Commission that a labour colony could usefully serve either as a ‘technical school’, training for a specific purpose, such as emigration, or as ‘a hospital’ for the reintegration of ‘men broken down through privation or vice’. He also favoured more penal types of colony, to discipline the few who were ‘incurably defective or idle’.

Similarly, in his well known book on Unemployment: A problem of industry, Beveridge praised those colonies which focused on training, such as Hollesley Bay. He had certainly modified his view since 1904, warning that their positive effect was largely short term, and that they tended to institutionalise the trainees. But I am in no doubt that he continued to see a place for labour colonies, alongside rather than instead of labour exchanges, as a way of reducing unemployment.

Did this make Beveridge an enthusiast for state intervention? Hardly. The labour colonies of 1903-5 were mainly created and directed by municipal rather than national government, usually working with voluntary bodies, charities and philanthropists. While the movement had many supporters on the Left (and the Right), they tended to belong to the land reform wing of Labour, like George Lansbury.

The idea of a national state system of labour colonies was developed most systematically by the Fabian Socialist thinkers Beatrice and Sydney Webb, but Beveridge and the Webbs did share an interest in creating national quasi-penal colonies for the ‘incurably defective or idle’.

Wheatcroft’s much-debated article is at: www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/dec/07/william-beveridge-hated-term-welfare-state

1 thought on “William Beveridge – a supporter of the labour colony

  1. Pingback: Osea Island: workfare camp, inebriate retreat | thelearningprofessor

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