Deserving of more than a footnote: George Watson and The Unservile State

The Unservile StateThe announcement that the Cambridge academic George Watson had left the Liberal Democrats £950,000 in his will was one of the most surprising political stories of 2014.

George Watson was a distinguished literary scholar and a lifelong Liberal. After working for the European Commission as a translator and interpreter during the 1950s he became a Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1961 and remained there until he retired in 1990. As a scholar, he was known for serious bibliographical work, spirited polemics, and a traditional approach to literary criticism. He also made two forays into electoral politics, contesting Cheltenham in 1959 and Leicester in the 1979 European Election.

Watson is perhaps best remembered by Liberal Democrats, however, as the editor of The Unservile State – a 1957 volume billed as ‘the first full-scale study of the attitudes and policies of contemporary British Liberalism since the famous Yellow Book’ of 1928. In truth, it was a collection of essays by a diverse group of authors, designed to fly policy kites and showcase the party’s intellectual talent – much like The Orange Book half a century later. Yet the book has lasting value as a cogent exposition of the kind of Liberalism which prevailed within the party during the late 1940s and 1950s – Keynesian in macroeconomics, market-oriented in microeconomics, and distributist in ethos.

The late Sir Alan Peacock described the background to the book in his 2010 memoir Anxious to Do Good. Peacock traced its origins to an informal gathering of Liberal MPs, candidates, and sympathetic academics in the summer of 1950 ‘in a down-at-heel Bayswater hotel’. The academics were all economists from Oxford and the LSE – including George Allen, Peter Wiles, and Neville Ward-Perkins – and talked about how recent research could help inform Liberal policies, but their comments were met by ‘weary scepticism’ from the seasoned politicians. Peacock himself was taken aback when Lady Violet Bonham Carter complained that his paper on social security reform made no reference to proportional representation!

One senior Liberal who did take the academics seriously was Elliott Dodds, the editor of the Huddersfield Examiner and party president in 1948-9, who had long been keen to sharpen the party’s ideological edge. (Indeed, Dodds had been the driving force behind the Ownership for All report before the Second World War.) In 1953 the Liberal academics formed the Unservile State Group, which met periodically in Oxford and London with a view to compiling a book, and by 1955 Dodds had raised some funds to underwrite printing costs. Other prominent Liberals such as Jo Grimond, Nancy Seear, and Graham Hutton also agreed to contribute. However, the first editor resigned, and progress stalled until George Watson agreed to take it on. Peacock credited Watson with improving the book’s coherence and readability through ‘a combination of tact, persuasion and genial brutality of editing’. Watson also suggested that each essay should carry the main author’s initials, allowing the contributors to take credit for their ideas without destroying the cohesion of the whole.

In this short article, it is hardly possible to do justice to a book in which the essays ranged from parliamentary reform (Grimond’s contribution) to industrial relations and foreign policy. Its main intellectual concern, however, was the relationship between liberty and welfare, which formed the subject of Elliott Dodds’ opening chapter. Liberals had long taken pride in the fact that it was the Asquith government that laid the foundation of the twentieth-century welfare state and Beveridge who provided the blueprint for its post-war development; ‘along the path of social reform’, Dodds wrote in 1949, ‘all progressives have marched together.’ Eight years later, Dodds still believed that welfare provision was compatible with liberty – indeed, it was ‘actually a form of liberty in as much as it liberates men from social conditions which narrow their choices and thwart their self-development’ (a formulation of which the Edwardian New Liberals would have been proud). He argued, however, that Liberals could not regard the system of state welfare provision created by the Attlee government as intrinsically desirable:

With the value they attach to self-direction, Liberals must naturally desire that people should be able to make more adequate provision for themselves… We recognize that the State must remain responsible for those for whom other sources of Welfare are not available, but in a Liberal society we should look increasingly to the release and stimulation of private endeavour and voluntary agencies of service and mutual aid to diminish the rôle of the State. Eventually society, i.e. individuals and groups of individuals, would be able and ready to provide most of its welfare for itself.

This argument was taken further in the chapters by Peter Wiles on ‘Property and Equality’ and Alan Peacock on ‘Welfare in the Liberal State’. Wiles suggested that the welfare state would become redundant if private property were distributed so widely that all citizens could draw a subsistence income from their labour and assets, and speculated that ‘with good luck and good management’ this state of affairs might be reached around 2010. Peacock argued that, in the meantime, the state should focus on cash transfers between citizens rather than benefits in kind, and perhaps even finance health and education through voucher systems.

This critique of the welfare state drew on a long tradition of distributist thought which stretched back through Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton to the classical liberals of the nineteenth century; in some ways it also chimed with the thinking of ‘One Nation’ Conservatives such as Iain Macleod and Peter Goldman, and anticipated the backlash against the bureaucratic and centralized character of the social services which began in the 1960s and 1970s. On the other hand, Dodds, Watson, and their colleagues were arguably ill-informed about the level of poverty that still existed among pensioners and low-income families, overly optimistic about the possibilities of private provision, and too vague in their proposals for redistributing wealth. Friedrich Hayek thought they also ignored the political loyalties which the welfare state inspired and the vested interests it created.

Perhaps for these reasons, The Unservile State marked the end of an era in Liberal thought as much as a beginning. By the time Watson edited a second volume of essays, Radical Alternative, in 1962, Jo Grimond had allowed young activists such as Frank Ware, Christopher Layton, and Harry Cowie to push Liberal policy in a more social democratic direction, calling for higher public investment and indicative planning to generate faster economic growth. Far from allowing the welfare state to wither away, the party redoubled its commitment to the NHS and state education and pressed for more adequate pensions and unemployment benefits. Even so, Dodds’ distributism lived on, in different ways, in the party’s enduring interest in employee ownership and in the community politics movement of the 1970s and 1980s. The Unservile State thus deserves much more than a footnote in history.

* Peter Sloman is a junior research fellow in history at New College, Oxford, and author of The Liberal Party and the Economy (Oxford University Press, 2015).

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  • Tony Greaves 31st Dec '14 - 4:53pm

    The book was also the catalyst for the formation of the Unservile State Group which went on to publish at least 36 pamphlets between the mid-1950s and 1990 (I think Watson’s own pamphlet “The Toppling of the Terms – Thoughts on the death of socialism” was the last but I am not sure). Richard Wainwright took over from Elliot Dodds as the main funder of the group for much of its existence. The pamphlets always claimed that the group was “formed in Oxford” in 1953.

    It’s fair to say that Peacock was always on the right-wing fringe of the Liberal Party (and probably of the USG as well). By the end, as well as Watson, the officers of the group were Nancy Seear, Richard Wainwright and Philip Watkins – all mainstream progressive Liberals. In 1972 Elliott Dodds was President (a position they seem to have dropped after his death), Heather Harvey and Bernard Jennings, as well as Wainwright and Watson.

    One of Watson’s lifelong claims was that the genuine left wing philosophy was Liberalism, not socialism, and that socialism was an imposter – as he set out in his earlier USG pamphlet “Is Socialism Left?” in 1967 and 1972. His reasoning chimes well enough with some of us but hardly fits with perceptions in 2014. Peter Sloman’s suggestion that under Grimond the Liberal Party became more social democratic is (to my thinking as one who joined at that time) nonsense. Progressive liberalism yes, not the same as social democracy, which is something that caused so much bother at the merger of the Liberal Party and SDP 25 years ago, when many Liberals’ suspicion of the SDP is that they were too centralist and too right wing. One thing that is clear is that the Liberal Party in 1962/3 was well to the left of any of the three main UK parties today!


  • Peter Sloman 31st Dec '14 - 6:22pm

    Hi Tony,
    Thanks for filling me in on the later history of the Unservile State Group – I haven’t been able to find much about it, so I’d be very interested to learn more.
    As for social democracy, I suppose I’ve been impressed by the technocratic character of Liberal programmes in the early 1960s with their emphasis on growth and public spending – I think it was William Wallace who said that the Roy Jenkins-era SDP reminded him of the Liberal Party of twenty years earlier. Jo Grimond, of course, combined this with a distinctively liberal emphasis on participation and citizenship, which perhaps became increasingly pronounced over time as the Wilson and Heath governments ran into the buffers and the social and environmental costs of top-down “modernization” became more apparent.

  • George Crozier 1st Jan '15 - 10:58am

    Thanks for this interesting article. Although I’d heard of this book I knew nothing about it or its authors before now.

  • Very good to read his article. I have always been a big fan of George Watson. I have a well- thumbed copy of both The Unservile State and The Radical Alternative, and a number of the pamphlets. I did not always agree with everything in them, but they were always worth a read.

    I was also interested in the link to Peter Sloman’s new book ‘The Liberal Party and the Economy’ (Oxford University Press, 2015).
    I would recommend everyone to click on the link and read the review, and either buy a copy or order it through your local library.

  • Bill le Breton 1st Jan '15 - 3:51pm

    Great to read this. My copy is always close to hand. In 1997, shortly after the election I did try to interest a few people in putting something similar together, thinking the moment pivotal, but to no avail. However, I didn’t have a hedge-fund backer.

    I do have some USPapers, Peter, if you’d like to get in touch. I look forward to reading your book, which surely deserves a review here.

  • Tony Greaves 1st Jan '15 - 8:27pm

    Liber Books have quite a lot of USG pamphlets (for sale at very cheap prices!) including the two by George Watson – email [email protected] .

    I don’t know what if anything was required of a member of the USG but by 1970 the listed members were, in addition to the officers listed above: George Allen, Alan Butt Philip, Maurice Cranston, Ralf Dahrendorf, Lord Gladwyn, Lord Grimond, Russell Johnston, Walter James, Bernard Jennings, Derek Mirfin, Richard Moore, Alan Peacock, Cedric Sandford, Trevor Smith, Sandy Walkington, William Wallace and Peter Wiles,

    The pamphlets were published “on behalf of the Unservile State Group” by the Liberal Publication Department, and from 1985 to 1990 by Hebden Royd Publications Ltd.


  • Richard Underhill 21st Apr '16 - 4:48pm

    At a meeting of the John Stuart Mill Society at the National Liberal Club former EU Commissioner Ralf Dahrendorf told us about being censured. He considered resigning, but survived for a while because there was no power to remove an individual Commissioner.
    The EU Parliament does have a power to remove the entire Commission and has done so once, setting a precedent and preventing people assuming that it was unthinkable.
    Therefore if the issue is sufficiently serious a Commissioner could be removed after a power struggle.
    The late Tony Benn used to ask “How do I get rid of you?” but this is not a power to be vested in an individual MP or an individual Minister in the government of one member state.

  • Richard Underhill 21st Apr '16 - 4:50pm

    Ralf Dahrendorf thought that Finland would vote NO to joining the EU. They led the way in voting YES.

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