The Magazine

Winston vs. the Webbs

A century-old precursor to the Obamacare debate

Apr 21, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 30 • By GERTRUDE HIMMELFARB
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The combination of little faith in the “average sensual man” and complete faith in the “professional expert” was the earmark of Fabianism. “Nothing in England is done,” Sidney wrote soon after joining the society, “without the consent of a small intellectual yet practical class in London not 2000 in number. .  .  . We, like the homeopathists and the old Radicals, shall win without being acknowledged victors, by permeation of the others.” He might have enlarged that figure in later years as the society grew in numbers and influence, but he would have been confirmed in the strategy of “permeation.” Sidney dominated the London County Council for many years, Beatrice was an influential member of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, and they coauthored the Minority Report in 1909 proposing, among other things, penal colonies for those who refused to work. When they were not permeating the existing institutions of society, they created new ones—the London School of Economics in 1895 and the New Statesman magazine in 1913—all of this while incessantly writing (more than half-a-dozen books before the war), lecturing, organizing meetings, and hosting dinner parties that were long on talk and notoriously short on food. (Later Sidney permeated, so to speak, Parliament itself, sitting in the House of Commons for much of the 1920s, until moving to the House of Lords as 1st Baron Passfield.)

It may have been the intention of the Webbs to recruit, if not to the Fabian Society, then to their select “class” of experts, a new and promising member of Parliament, Winston Churchill, when they invited him to dinner in 1903. Beatrice’s account of him in her diary was hardly favorable, yet not entirely hopeless.


First impression; restless—almost intolerably so, without capacity for sustained and unexciting labor—egotistical, bumptious, shallow-minded and reactionary, but with a certain personal magnetism, great pluck and some originality—not of intellect but of character. .  .  . No notion of scientific research, philosophy, literature or art, still less religion. But his pluck, courage, resourcefulness and great tradition may carry him far unless he knocks himself to pieces like his father.

Churchill had then been in Parliament for three years, as a Conservative (like his father), hence Beatrice’s characterization of him as “reactionary.” But he was something of a maverick from the beginning, which is perhaps why she found him interesting. He was at odds with his party (and his own constituency) principally on the issue of free trade, for social as much as economic reasons. Protectionism, he said, meant “dear food for the million, cheap labor for the millionaire”; workers were justified in seeing tariffs as “taxing every mouthful they eat.” But there was something else that must have endeared him to the Webbs. “Our movement,” he told a group of Liberals in May 1904, “is towards a better, fairer organization of society”—“organization of society,” practically a Fabian slogan. Two weeks later, Churchill moved to the opposition benches, deliberately seating himself next to David Lloyd George—the same seat his father had occupied during his term in the opposition.

Churchill’s rise in the Liberal party was rapid. One of Henry Campbell-Bannerman’s first acts, as Liberal prime minister in December 1905, was to appoint Churchill undersecretary of state at the Colonial Office. And one of Herbert Asquith’s, when he became prime minister in April 1908, was to bring Churchill into the cabinet as president of the Board of Trade. Two years later Churchill became home secretary and the following year first lord of the Admiralty. By that time, he had supervised and seen through Parliament a series of major reforms: the Old-Age Pensions Act, the Mines Eight-Hours Act, the Labour Exchanges Act, several prison reforms, and the National Insurance Act providing health and unemployment insurance in those industries where unemployment was chronic. The last act was not passed until late in 1911, by which time Churchill was in the Admiralty, but he had been an enthusiastic promoter and defender of it for two years, culminating in the final debate in the House of Commons. To his chagrin, the bill was officially introduced by Lloyd George, the chancellor of the Exchequer. “Lloyd George,” Churchill wrote to his wife, “has practically taken Unemployment Insurance to his bosom, and I am I think effectively elbowed out of this large field in which I consumed so much thought and effort. Never mind! There are many good fish in the sea.”

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