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.

From 1922 to 1939 the Schools were held annually, alternately at Oxford and Cambridge. They were a uniquely Liberal combination of distinguished speakers and rank-and-file party members and supporters, meeting and debating on equal terms in a relaxed setting. The lectures, the discussions, and the interaction within the influential group behind the Schools, developed and influenced Liberal Party thinking throughout the 1920s and ’30s, and disseminated ideas through the other parties, both in Britain and the US.

The pre-war Summer Schools were supported by a powerful press network, finally ending with the death of the News Chronicle in 1960. Keynes augmented the Manchester Guardian connection by buying the weekly Nation & Athenaeum in 1923, appointing Henderson as editor. The Cadbury-owned Daily News, which merged with the News Chronicle, the New Statesman (which later absorbed the Nation), Tribune, The Economist, the Westminster Newsletter and The Liberal Magazine all had active Summer School connections. Wilson Harris, editor of the Spectator, was on its ruling council.

Facing political eclipse in the 1920s, Lloyd George used the Schools for his ‘crusade’ to galvanise Liberal policies with new, radical solutions. His research department, at 41 Parliament St., SW1, operated through the Summer School organisation to produce a series of ‘coloured books’ on industrial and social issues. The most famous was the ‘Yellow Book’ (Britain’s Industrial Future), whose principal contributors – Keynes, Beveridge, Henderson, Layton, Jules Menken, Ernest Simon and Sir Herbert Samuel MP (q.v.) – were Summer School members.

The ‘coloured books’, especially the Yellow Book, supplemented by Keynes’s and Henderson’s pamphlet Can Lloyd George Do It?, offered a novel and dynamic programme for the 1929 election. However the Liberals were defeated by the electoral system – a 2½m rise in votes only increased the number of MPs from forty to fifty-nine – and the Liberals’ adventurous policies did not suit Baldwin’s ‘safety first’ approach.

Beveridge was a member of the Summer Schools Council and its executive committee from 1924 to 1935, and his long association with Keynes and Seebohm Rowntree (a Summer School Council member until 1939) arguably influenced his subsequent proposals for overcoming the ‘five giants of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness’. His 1942 and 1944 Reports show his move from belief in a self-regulating free market towards Keynesian-style (q.v.) fiscal regulation and state support for ‘all social contingencies from the cradle to the grave’.

The Schools’ approach to internal politics was broad-church. In spite of their strong Lloyd George connection, Herbert Asquith (1852–1928) addressed Schools in the 1920s; his son-in-law Sir Maurice Bonham Carter (1880–1960) was on the council, as was his wife Lady Violet (later Lady Asquith, 1887–1969), before and after the Second War. Runciman and Sir John (later Viscount) Simon (1873–1954) attended regularly until the political and economic crises of the Labour government of 1929–31 opened up the possibility of a revival in Simon’s career, and he and Runciman left to form the Liberal National Party (q.v.).

Sir Herbert (later Lord) Samuel, former Home Secretary and a social reformer – vilified by Lloyd George for his attempts to hold the party together in the 1930s (though Samuel had stuck with the official Liberal Party during the divisions of 1931) – nevertheless attended Summer Schools regularly until well into his eighties.

The 1939 School was held in Cambridge from 3–8 August, under the shadow of war. Some Czecho-Slovaks had attended the 1938 School – ‘to join with us in upholding the dignity and ideals of free Democracy’, as the secretary wrote. ‘This year these friends will not be with us. We do not know how dearly they may be paying for the beliefs which we and they have voiced in common….’ But, memorably, the School was addressed by ex-President Beneš. Before the School met again after the war, he was to have been murdered by the Communist regime.

The Liberal Summer Schools had a lasting influence on political thinking, domestically and abroad. Exact quantification is impossible, partly because it was achieved through a network of like-minded economists, historians, philosophers, social reformers and politicians, and partly because the party’s parliamentary decline meant the influence had to be Maquisard in nature, stealthily working in the undergrowth of conservative thought. It is widely believed that Keynes, together with his Gordon Square coterie, which included Layton, Beveridge and Arthur Salter (1881–1975) (later known as the ‘Old Dogs’), influenced President Roosevelt’s thinking before and during the Second World War.

The Schools’ heyday lasted from 1922 to 1939. After the war they continued in more or less the same form, though Keynes, Guedalla and Muir had died. By the late 1950s increasing costs of travel and accommodation reduced the Schools to a long weekend, Oxbridge being replaced by provincial venues. Although their influence as a creative source of Liberal political philosophy was reduced, the Schools continued to attract distinguished lecturers, and the participants greatly valued the opportunity for free discussion and debate with the speakers, a ‘High Table’ mentality being discouraged.

In the 1990s, as ‘Summer Schools’ went out of fashion, and costs continued to rise, they could not be financially sustained in their original form. The Liberal Summer School is now run by CentreForum (q.v.) as the Keynes Forum, a one-day autumn seminar with invited speakers on topical political themes.

Ann Moore

The Dictionary of Liberal Thought is one of the many titles available from the Liberal Democrat History Group. Find out more about them on their website.

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