Opinion: Never mind ‘One Nation’; let’s bring back National Efficiency

Edwardian school License Some rights reserved by freeparking :-|There is a rule in British politics – non-codified, but always there, like the British constitution – that long-forgotten ideas will at some point come back into fashion. Witness Ed Miliband’s stuttering ‘One Nation’ pitch and the Tories’ tentative return to a hotchpotch of local relief schemes as a means of providing welfare.

There is one such Liberal concept which I believe could be updated and refocused as a thoroughly Liberal alternative to the New Right’s turbocharged capitalism and the New Left’s corporate-bashing fury: National Efficiency.

With an Empire to defend and the likes of Germany and the USA challenging Britain’s place as the world’s eminent economic powerhouse, the Liberal government of the mid-1900s realised that it was simply wasteful for Britain to have a workforce so lacking in education, health and decent working conditions. The result was a raft of policies designed to give Britain’s people a better shot at freeing themselves from lives of penury and ignorance. School medical inspections, National Insurance and new working regulations combined to make the British people fitter, healthier and better educated – and therefore better able to work, support themselves and their families, and contribute to the economy.

As Liberals, we don’t see people as mere cogs in a machine or pawns on a chessboard like Socialists, or as dogs (to eat or be eaten by other dogs) like the New Right; we see them as ends in and of themselves. It is a stupid society which allows the potential of so many of its participants to go unrealised, and it is a stupid country which allows it when we are all part of that ‘global race’. We therefore need to be getting the best out of all the people, wealth and resources that our country has.

“Aha!” you no doubt exclaim. “We already have universal healthcare and education. So what do you have to say that’s new?” Well, indeed we do. But many of the inequities those 1900s Liberals railed against remain with us now, and with them remain gross inefficiencies. Land distribution is still weighted heavily in favour of a tiny clique of descendants of William the Conqueror’s favoured barons, and too often they are a block on its proper use and development. Hereditary wealth and privilege still matter far too much in deciding how our lives will turn out, and is locked up in property and in bank accounts. Welfare policy is still used too often as a stick to beat the poor, rather than a way of helping them to better their own situations, making it harder for them to reach their potential.

So my initial policy prescriptions to bring about a more equitable, and thus more efficient, Britain are threefold. One – we need at the very least a Land Value Tax to encourage the more efficient use of land, preferably coupled with Common Agricultural Policy reform to encourage more productive use of agricultural land. Two – inheritance tax ought to be replaced with something like a Universal Inheritance or a French-style Accessions Tax, so that the opportunities presented by wealth may be spread more widely and that wealth may be put to good use by the many, not hoarded by the few. And three – we could consider introducing a Citizens’ Income, guaranteeing all a minimum level of income and devolving decision-making to the individual, who best knows his or her own wants and needs.

There are of course pitfalls to an approach based around National Efficiency – the Fabians saw rule by a detached elite of experts as the way to implement it in practice, which would necessarily lead to a loss of individual agency and liberty which we Liberals would surely find anathema. But I think the basic concept is a sound one. It may seem self-evident that a country should want its people to do the best they can, and so much chatter from our politicians these days is centred around that basic theme, but it all seems awfully incoherent and ad-hoc.

So let us reject meddling for the sake of meddling, and let us reject abandonment of our people to the mercy of abstract markets. Let us find a sensible middle way between red-raw capitalism and the dead hand of socialism. Let us, as is our style, moderate the worst excesses of those two extremes and find a middle way which is truly Liberal.

Photo by freeparking 😐

* Stephen Howse recently worked for a Lib Dem MP and is now working for a not-for-profit while campaigning for the party in Newcastle.

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  • Very well constructed article, Stephen. Dusting down a National efficiency drive as a concept and the initial policy prescriptions advocated to kick-it off sound well thought through.

  • Tony Greaves 24th Apr '14 - 4:28pm

    Oh dear.

  • Matt (Bristol) 24th Apr '14 - 4:51pm


    Whilst I would not oppose the specific policies you reference, see my post in Jeremy Browne’s thread referencing Rosebery (who those proposing ‘national efficiency’ tried to tie in to their schemes in the 1900s). National Efficiency and Liberal Imperialism were not purely idealistic concepts; they were both attempts to re-badge the Liberals after almost a decade of Tory rule, and the trauma of a very nasty split over Irish Home Rule. Both were associated with the idea of a global ‘race’ with Germany (hello, Mr Browne!). They were also about downgrading devolution/Home Rule, disestablishment and the other past favoured policy solutions of the 1880s for something more sellable. (Land Reform was also a hangover from this era).

    Figures from the both the then ‘right’ and ‘left’ of the party used both these terms differently to mean different things; the main difference (crudely) was that Liberal Imperialists were definitely not pacifists.

    National Efficiency had a technocratic, agressively interventionist tone, from time to time; it could include both conscription and prohibition of alcohol; it’s fingerprints are all over the Defence of the Realm Act, for eg, as well as old age pensions and other ‘nice’ things. I would be careful about using the term too widely; it was as much a matter of political expediency as anything else, which was about ‘bashing’ Harcourt and Campbell-Bannerman, the existing leaders, attacking the from both right and left, for their perceived old-fashioness and ddliatory leadership.

    I’d emotionally side with Campbell-Bannerman – in the present day, I (like he did in the 1900s) support the party’s recent oposition to foreign war and rearmament, and its onoing advocacy of structural reform of the consitution. I don’t wish these aspects of the party’s DNA to be traded away for a spurious modernism, however much I also like the legacy of Asquith, Churchill and Lloyd George.

  • Matt (Bristol) 24th Apr '14 - 4:53pm

    Ooos, in the third para, ‘attacking the’ should be ‘attacking them’ and ‘ddliatory’ should be ‘dilatory’.

  • Richard Dean 24th Apr '14 - 6:33pm

    I would have thought that “efficiency” cannot possibly be acceptable as a primary LibDem goal. Nor even a secondary one. It’s just too reminiscent of military and totalitarian regimes. What does it mean? – it’s just a tag to hang other, less fragrant desires on. Humanity should come first, and humans really aren’t very efficient at all!

  • This is an interesting idea but I hadn’t really thought of the Liberal government of 1906-1915 as one working under the banner of national efficiency but I do recall learning that many social issues were raised by the failure of some to qualify to join the British army for the Boar War (1899-1902). I dislike the phrase, perhaps it should be sub-titled an efficient use of wealth and human resources.

    Land Value Tax is a way to encourage a more efficient use of land and hopefully most party members support it. However I believe it has not been explained very well and until it can be it will not gain the popularity it desires.

    I haven’t heard of an accession tax, but looking it up on the internet it means that instead of the estate of a decreased person being tax, each beneficiary is taxed on what they receive. This should encourage people to leave smaller bequests to more people to reduce the tax paid and so spread the wealth around. It seems this idea might be Liberal Democrat policy already being included (worded very weakly – launch a consultation in the next Parliament) in the “Fairer Taxes” policy paper (4.6.4 and 4.6.5) agreed at Glasgow (Autumn 2013).

    I am a new convert to the Citizens Income and recognise that it shouldn’t replace all current welfare payments.

  • Before coming up with a new slogan, or a new brand, one might want to ask oneself: is this something that a lot of people can get excited and energised about? I may be in the minority here, but “national efficiency” seems rather pallid to me.

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