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DLT: Liberal Summer School (now Keynes Forum)

For the past year, Duncan Brack and Ed Randall, authors of the Dictionary of Liberal Thought, have kindly agreed to let us publish extracts on Lib Dem Voice. Last month’s instalment was Keynesianism, following on John Maynard Keynes; this month, the Liberal Summer School. You can read previous chapters on LDV here. The entire book is available on Amazon here and can also be bought at the Westminster Bookshop.

Liberal Summer School (now Keynes Forum)

Founded in 1921 as an annual week-long residential school to develop innovative Liberal policies, domestic and international, for the post-war world, the Liberal Summer Schools were the source of the Liberal ‘Yellow Book’ and helped to develop the thinking behind Beveridge’s proposals for the reform of welfare provision. The School now survives as an annual one-day seminar, in 2004 renamed the Keynes Forum, and run by CentreForum.

The Liberal Summer Schools movement in the 1920s originated in the apparently disparate strands of Nonconformist (q.v.) Manchester liberalism, as represented by Ernest Simon (q.v.) and C. P Scott (1846–1932), social and industrial reformers from Toynbee Hall and the LSE (including William Beveridge (q.v.) and Seebohm Rowntree (1871–1954)); and John Maynard Keynes’s (q.v.) Cambridge- and Bloomsbury-based circle of young economists (including Hubert Henderson (1890–1952), Walter Layton (q.v.) and Dennis Robertson (1890-–1963)).

In 1920 Liberals were simultaneously faced with a world that seemed both dangerously disintegrated and full of exciting promise, and with the disastrous Asquith–Lloyd George (q.v.) split. Recognising the urgent need for positive Liberal polices to fill this vacuum, the powerful Manchester Liberal Federation under Ernest Simon and the chief national party agent, Thomas Tweed, initiated the movement which ‘recruited intellectuals to the Liberal Party, and provided a forum at which experts could float their ideas about contemporary economic, social, and industrial questions’.

The first Summer School was held at Grasmere in 1921, on the lines of the Fabian Summer Schools. The founders included the historians Ramsay Muir (q.v.) and Philip Guedalla (1889–1944), and the economists Keynes, Henderson and Layton, supported by Simon’s friend and Lloyd George loyalist, C. P. Scott of the Manchester Guardian. Eleanor Rathbone (1872–1946), herself from a Manchester Nonconformist Liberal dynasty, spoke on ‘Women and the Family’. ‘What a party!’ Simon noted in his diary at about this time: ‘No leaders. No organisation. No policy. Only a Summer School!’

The format, retained for many years, was a residential ‘school’ where Liberals and sympathisers met in a university setting to hear and discuss lectures on topical issues, domestic and international. The ‘school’ structure remained through the 1920s and ’30s; the programme was described as a ‘Syllabus’, with the emphasis on discussion rather than received wisdom, and a recommended reading list. The week included cultural excursions, concerts, a dance, a garden party and sometimes a satirical revue by School members.

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