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The Fabian Society is Britain’s oldest political think tank. Founded in 1884, the Society has and continues to be at the forefront of developing political ideas and public policy on the left.
The Fabian Society derives its name from the Roman general Quintus Fabius, known as Cuncator from his strategy of delaying his attacks on the invading Carthaginians until the right moment. The name Fabian Society was explained in the first Fabian pamphlet which carried the note.
“For the right moment you must wait, as Fabius did most patiently, when warring against Hannibal, though many censured his delays; but when the time comes you must strike hard, as Fabius did, or your waiting will be in vain, and fruitless.”
The Early Fabians: “Educate, Agitate, Organise”
The Fabian Society emerged in 1884 as an off-shoot of the Fellowship of the New Life. The new Society soon attracted some of the most prominent left-wing thinkers of the late Victorian era to their ranks.
The 1880s saw an upsurge in socialist activity in Britain and the Fabian Society were at the heart of much of it. Against the backdrop of the Match Girls’ strike and the 1889 London Dock strike, the landmark Fabian Essays was published, containing essays by George Bernard Shaw, Graham Walls, Sidney Webb, Sydney Olivier and Annie Besant. All the contributors were united by their rejection of violent upheaval as a method of change, preferring to use the power of local government and trade unionism to effect change.
The early Fabians’ commitment to non-violent political change was underlined by the role many Fabians played in the foundation of the Labour Party in 1900.
None of the early figures in the Fabian Society were more significant than Beatrice and Sidney Webb in developing the ideas that would come to characterise Fabian thinking and in developing the thorough research methodology that remains a feature of the Society to the present day. Both prodigious authors, Beatrice and Sidney wrote extensively on a wide range of topics, but it was Beatrice’s 1909 Minority Report to the Commission of the Poor Law that was perhaps their most remembered contribution. This landmark report provided the foundation stone for much of the modern welfare state (You can read The Solidarity Society the Fabian Society report to mark the centenary of the Minority Report here).
The London School of Economics & the New Statesman
The London School of Economics, today one of the most pre-eminent universities in the world, began far more humbly. A bequest of £20,000 left by Derby Fabian Henry Hutchinson to the Society for “propaganda and other purposes” was used by the Webbs, Graham Wallas and G.B. Shaw to found a research institute to provide proof positive of the collectivist ideal. The LSE flourished and continued to associate with Fabian academics including Harold Laski, Richard Titmuss and Brian Abel-Smith.
Today, the Fabian Society and the LSE continue to work closely together. The London School of Economics holds the Fabian Society archives including extensive correspondence and early photographs of Fabian Society events.
The New Statesman was founded in 1913, the brainchild of Beatrice and Sidney Webb. With the financial support of George Bernard Shaw and other Fabian Society members, the Webbs recruited Clifford Sharp as the founding editor of the magazine and sold over 2,000 copies of the initial edition.
Writing in the Manchester Guardian of the new magazine, Sidney Webb said:
“Its distinctive feature will be its point of view – absolutely untrammelled by party, or sect, or creed. Its general attitude will be best designated by the term ‘Fabian,’ but it will endeavour to bring to light and to appreciate in a wide catholic spirit all those features in other social projects or movements which can be recognised as making for progress. A number of these connected with it are members of the Fabian Society, but this is true of nearly every enterprise nowadays, and the paper is in no sense the organ of the Fabian Society, any more than it will be that of the Liberal party. It is going to be really independent.
The New Stateman remained true to Webb’s independent vision and the voice of Fabianism gradually diminished over time. But the New Statesman remains a prominent voice on the left in contemporary British politics and an effective partner with the Fabian Society.
Between the wars
As the electoral significance of the Labour Party grew in the inter-war period, the contribution of the Fabian Society kept pace. In 1923, over twenty Fabians were elected to Parliament, with five Fabians in Ramsay MacDonald’s Cabinet. Future Prime minister and Fabian Clement Attlee received his first ministerial post at this time.
The development in 1931 of a New Fabian Research Bureau, the brainchild of G.D.H Cole added vigour to Fabian debates and set the scene for much of the work of the 1945 Labour government. As war broke out in Europe, the Fabians creatred the intellectual architecture for the peacetime reconstruction. The Colonial Bureau of the Fabian Society attempted to set a timetable for the end of imperialism, and William Robson’s essay Social Security explored many of the ideas that would later feature in the landmark Beveridge report.
The war also saw the blossoming of local societies. In 1939 there were just 6 local socities, by 1945 there were 120 local societies across the country. Though we do not today reach the numbers of those heady days, the local societies continue to be at the absolute heart of the Society’s work.
1945: High tide and after
“It looks just like an enormous Fabian School”
Zena Parker on seeing the 1945 Parliamentary Labour Party in conclave
229 Fabian Society members were elected to Parliament in the 1945 Labour landslide, with many of them ministers in the Attlee administration.
But the Fabian contribution to Attlee’s reforming programme of 1945-51 had begun much earlier. The Labour manifesto Let Us Face the Future had been written by Fabian Michael Young and many of the pioneering reforms of the 1945 Labour government had been first developed in Fabian essays or pamphlets.
The process of renewal that had always been a part of the Society began in earnest as the general election in 1951 loomed. The New Fabian Essays included contributions from Anthony Crosland, Richard Titmuss, Richard Crossman, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and would do much to refocus the Society’s work on the continuing problems of inequalities that persisted in British life.
These thinkers would prove vital to developing the agenda of the next Labour government in 1964 as Crossman, Titmuss, Abel-Smith and Crosland became the intellectual engine that underpinned much of the Wilson government.
But the 1960s and 70s proved a challenge for the Society. Though it continued to expand its activity into new areas and developed a formidable research wing, it came to be marginalised as the post-war consensus in British politics was put under increasing pressure in the mid- to late seventies.
Challenge and recovery
The Fabian Society, like all organisations on the left, was rocked by the post-1979 Labour disputes. The Chair of the Society, and former General Secretary, Shirley Williams became one of the founding members of the SDP and the defection of a number of Executive Committee members challenged the long-standing affiliation of the Fabian Society to the Labour Party. In a ballot of the whole membership it was affirmed that members of the SDP could only be non-voting, associate members and that the Society would continue to be affiliated to the Labour Party.
This crisis successfully weathered, the Fabian Society recovered to provide a platform for debate in the Labour Party following the electoral mauling Labour suffered in 1983. It hosted the only debate between the post-Foot leadership candidates which was televised. The eventual leader Neil Kinnock and deputy leader Roy Hattersley were both actively engaged with the Society and the 1980s saw a number of important pamphlets published that both addressed the social and economic challenges of the day while developing and articulating an electoral strategy for the left to win again.
New Labour and Beyond
In the 1990s the Fabian Society came to be a major force in the modernisation of the Labour Party, building on its work from the 1980s and developing many of the ideas that would come to characterise New Labour.
A New Constitution for the Labour Party was instrumental in the introduction of “one member, one vote” to party elections and contained the original recommendation for the replacement of Clause IV. The Fabians applied themselves to the challenges that Labour faced in building an election-winning coalition of voters and in the Southern Discomfort series pointed the way towards many of the changes that would take place and help Labour to its historic 1997 victory.
After Tony Blair’s landslide victory in 1997, over 200 Fabians now sat in the House of Commons, including many of the Cabinet. However, the Fabian Society developed its role as a critical friend, supporting the Blair and Brown government’s in developing policy, without being afraid to draw attention to the omissions or shortcomings of the government.
The advent of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government in 2010 again posed new challenges for the Society. It has renewed its focus on tackling the big issues facing policymakers including the future of the state and public services, and the creation of a more robust, balanced and equal economy. It has also applied itself to the task once again of defining and articulating the electoral strategy that Labour needs to regain power.
Chairs of the Fabian Society
|1939-46||G.D.H. Cole||1891-1913||E.R. Pease|
|1946-48||Harold Laski||1913-20||W.S. Sanders|
|1948-50||G.D.H Cole||1915-19||E.R. Pease (Acting)|
|1950-53||John Parker||1920-39||F.W. Galton|
|1953-54||Austen Albu||1939-45||John Parker|
|1954-55||Harold Wilson||1946-47||Bosworth Monck|
|1956-56||Margaret Cole||1947-49||Andrew Filson|
|1956-57||Arthur Skeffington||1949-53||Donald Chapman|
|1957-58||Roy Jenkins||1953-60||William Rodgers|
|1958-59||Eirene White||1960-63||Shirley Williams|
|1959-60||H.D. Hughes||1964-76||Tom Ponsonby|
|1960-61||Lord Faringdon||1976-82||Dianne Hayter|
|1961-62||C.A.R. Crosland||1982-85||Ian Martin|
|1962-63||Mary Stewart||1985-89||John Willman|
|1963-64||Brian Abel-Smith||1990-1996||Simon Crine|
|1964-65||Anthony Wedgwood Benn||1993-94||Glenys Thornton (Acting)|
|1965-66||Peter Townsend||1996-97||Stephen Twigg|
|1966-67||William Rodgers||1997-2003||Michael Jacobs|
|1967-68||Arthur Blenkinsop||2003-11||Sunder Katwala|
|1981 Apr||David Lipsey|