Cyril Norwood and a national labour service

Workfare schemes are constantly in the news at the moment. Many of Britain’s historic work camps schemes were very much forms of welfare, aimed at giving unemployed men and other vulnerable groups – including sex workers, people with learning disabilities, epileptics and the tubercular – exposure to a period of therapeutic manual labour.

The idea of some kind of universal voluntary work service for the young, popular among Conservative thinkers when the current British coalition government was formed, seems to have slipped under the radar. But there were persistent campaigns, particularly during the 1930s, for public work – mainly in camps – as a form of universal national service.

Sir Cyril Norwood

Sir Cyril Norwood

Cyril Norwood is best known in Britain for his influence on the 1944 Education Act. R. A. Butler, then minister for education, chose Norwood to chair a committee on secondary education, which  produced a report on Curriculum and Examinations in Secondary Schools that in turn influenced the 1944 Education Act, setting out the template for the division of state schools in England into three categories: secondary modern, technical, and grammar.

Little wonder that Gary McCulloch described Norwood as “one of the most prominent and influential English educators of the part century”. He was also a died-in-the-wool establshment figure who had passed the civil service entrance examination before devoting himself to a career in education. He served as a teacher in Leeds Grammar School, then as Master of Marlborough College, then headteacher of Harrow for eight years, before becoming Master of an Oxford College in 1934.

Norwood’s interests were many and varied, but among them was the idea of a national labour service. On a number of occasions Norwood wrote and spoke in favour of compulsory labour camps, setting down his ideas in journals like the Spectator. But his ideas were less concerned with workfare – or work-for-benefits – than with building character through collective body work, as a politically palatable alternative to national military service.

From Norwood's 1938 New Statesman article

From Norwood’s 1938 New Statesman article

Like a number of other writers – including GDH Cole and the Webbs, socialists who had little in common with Norwood’s political stance – he favoured a universal scheme for all young men. He delliberately contrasted his scheme with the Ministry of Labour’s work camps for unemployed men, presenting his proposals for camps as “places for education and recreation” rather than mere training, which would “shake together the classes of the country as nothing else can”. The result should be “a generation with a new temperament . . . proud of itself and with a new sense of power and fitness”.

This was, of course, a selective and masculine focus. McCulloch points out that Norwood’s career was spent entirely in organisations for boys, staffed almost entirely by men, and this formative environment was common in Norwood’s social milieu. Hard work was widely viewed as good for the male body; Norwood’s argument was that hard work and camp life for young men were also good for the nation.

Attlee, labour colonies and the welfare state

Clement Attlee

Clement Attlee

In 1920, a thirty-seven year old university lecturer published a book on social work. Clement Attlee, later to become famous as Prime Minister of the 1945 Labour Government, had spent several years after graduating at Oxford serving charities in London’s East End, most notably as secretary of Toynbee Hall. Like most men of his background and generation, he was commissioned in the Great War, and was one of the last to be evacuated from Gallipoli.

I was reminded of Attlee’s book when reading Georgina Brewis’ terrific study of student volunteering in Britain. Brewis shows that the university settlement movement of the late nineteenth century was part of an emerging student associational culture in which voluntary social service started to develop some of the forms of professional social work. She also, incidentally, demonstrates the disproportionate significance of women in the movement.social worker

Attlee’s book can be understood as part of the transition from organised volunteering as a form of inter-class bonding through to a professionalised body of social workers. In it, he describes the opportunities available to would-be social workers, and devotes a chapter to the training and qualifications that he deemed desirable. Interestingly, he wrote the book while serving as Labour mayor for Stepney.

It was inevitable that Attlee would say something about the labour colony movement. Given its scale and its much-debated status, he could hardly ignore it. Among others, he singled out the Salvation Army’s colony at Hadleigh, the municipal colony inspired by George Lansbury at Hollesley Bay, and Joseph Fels’ land settlement colony at Mayland.

What did Attlee make of these ventures? His view of Hadfield was coloured by his suspicion of the Salvation Army, whose combination of boisterous religion and financial relief put ‘a premium upon hypocrisy’. He also feared that the Army’s workshops were undercutting ordinary workers. Hadleigh, though, was ‘far better conceived’.

He also admired the other colonies for training the unemployed, though noting that attempts to settle them on the land had come to little. The solution, Attlee suggested, lay in translating the methods of the co-operative movement to land settlement.

It would be unfair, and flawed, to overstate his interest in the labour colony movement: it merited a few mentions in a detailed study of British social service. But Attlee’s reasons for sympathising with the movement are instructive:

It must be recognised that prolonged unemployment is very demoralising, and that it is idle to expect those whose moral stamina has been undermined by casual work and insufficient food to become useful citizens and workers by the mere provision of work. Some form of training is necessary, and also some form of moral suasion, and the Salvation Army employs methods that are, at least in some cases, effective.

Attlee, of course, was far from alone in his sympathies. George Lansbury, Labour’s leader for much of the 30s, was an enthusiastic proponent of labour colonies as a means of resettling London’s unemployed on the land, while the Webbs were among other socialists who took a more punitive view of labour coloniesBeveridge expressed interest in the labour colony as part of the wider remedy for unemployment.

Such ideas and practices were found across large parts of progressive British opinion. We cannot understand the nature of Britain’s welfare state, as it was forged during the 1940s, without having some grasp of this longer background and its influence on the thinking and principles of those who shaped the settlement of the 1940s.

Workfare and the Fabians

Britain’s Fabian socialists are famed for their contribution to modern welfare policy. They are particularly well known as architects – or at least popularisers – of ideas about the public provision of labour exchanges, health care, pensions and a range of other foundation stones of the welfare state. A reasonable assessment must acknowledge their central role in developing important institutions and measures that were taken for granted until the end of the twentieth century.

We know less about their part in promoting paths that in the end were not taken, perhaps the chief of which was a new design for incarcerating the poor. At the time, they were responding to the failure of the 1834 Poor Law to deal with unemployment, as well as the inability of the workhouse to cope with groups such as vagrants and the sick. But if we look back from the present, we can see the Fabians as the Edwardian designers of what we now call Workfare.

The Webbs made no bones about it: for those who were unemployed for more than a few months, their favoured solution was compulsion. Maintenance, they wrote in 1911, should be conditional on such training – physical and mental, general and technological – as may be found appropriate. They developed a proposal for training centres, run in conjunction with the labour exchanges and offering a combination of physical exercise and basic adult education alongside skills training. Some would be residential and based in the countryside,  while day centres ran in the towns.

Like many Edwardian reformers, the Webbs worried about those who refused to train. For those who insisted on sponging on the public, the Webbs proposed compulsory segregation’in what they called reformatory detention colonies. This idea – which Sidney described as following strict eugenic lines – had a history among the Fabians. In 1890, Sidney Webb reassured readers that they need not worry that socialist would deal tenderly with chronic cases of sturdy vagrancy, idle mendacity and incorrigible laziness’ – under socialism, they would go straight into a labour colony.

Nor were the Webbs alone. In a collection of essays edited in 1908 by George Bernard Shaw, Annie Besant laid out a plan for County Farms in each region, run by trained and experienced agriculturalists, housing the unemployed in the towns, the agricultural laborers who have wandered townwards in search of work, and many of the unskilled laborers.

H. G. Wells was a maverick (and philander) among the socialist planners, but he was also interested in work camps. Writing in 1903, Wells advocated a general conscription and a period of public service for everyone, mainly as a means of promoting a sense of civic obligation, with every class in the community having a practical knowledge of what labour means.

Wells’ ideas had wider support among the Fabians. Writing shortly before the 1929 election, Sydney and Beatrice Webb called for a national Government Labour Corps, a suggestion that Sidney riginally made in 1886.Young unemployed men who refused to serve, they recommended, should be committed to a penal detention colony. G.D.H. Cole also spoke publicly in support of a National Labour Corps in The Next Ten Years, which the prolific left-wing economist, historian and policy thinker published in the hope of influencing the 1929 Labour Government.

Beatrice Webb returned to the topic in her evidence before the Royal Commission on Unemployment Insurance in 1931, calling for a National Labour Corps, recruited from the unemployed, who would be sent about in detachments, equipped with tents, lorries and tools . . . to execute works of coast protection, embanking and draining land, and other improvements. She also thought government should have powers to order the unemployed to undertake Swedish drill.

It is important to understand these ideas in their historical context. Many people favoured labour colonies for the poor – especially for what they called the ‘won’t works. Relatively few, though, favoured compulsion, and a bare handful pursued the idea as consistently as the Webbs. Interestingly, Margaret Bondfield, Labour’s first cabinet minister, introduced compulsory service in work camps for unemployed young men in 1929.

Like the Fabians, Bondfield believed that she was doing it for their own good. It seems, then, that for all its admirable concern for equity and social justice, when it comes to work and unemployment, the socialist tradition includes a rather persistent streak of authoritarianism.