Labour History Review

‘The Gentleman in Whitehall’ Reconsidered: The Evolution of Douglas Jay's Views on Economic Planning and Consumer Choice, 1937-47

Labour History Review (2002), 67, (2), 187–204.

Abstract

In his book The Socialist Case, first published in 1937, Douglas Jay wrote: ‘in the case of nutrition and health, just as in the case of education, the gentleman in Whitehall really does know better what is good for people than the people know themselves.’ This phrase became notorious, and, as a result, Jay's views on economic planning and consumer choice have frequently been misrepresented. Far from wanting to dictate to people what they should consume, Jay was a planning sceptic who believed that the price mechanism had many virtues. The experience of World War Two, however, convinced him of the merits of central planning, and this was reflected in key changes he introduced to the new edition of The Socialist Case, published in 1947. The changed role envisaged for Jay's ‘gentleman in Whitehall’ not only illustrates important points about the impact of war on the Labour Party's attitudes to planning and consumer sovereignty, but also casts light on the relationship between the socialist revisionism of the 1930s and that of subsequent decades.

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Douglas Jay, Change and Fortune, London, Hutchinson, 1980, pp. 15-49, quotation at p. 22. Additional recollections by Jay can be found in Douglas Jay, ‘Civil Servant and Minister’, in W. T. Rodgers (ed.), Hugh Gaitskell, London, Thames and Hudson, 1964, pp. 77-103; Douglas Jay, recollections of Clement Attlee (untitled), in Geoffrey Dellar (ed.), Attlee as I knew him, London, Tower Hamlets Directory of Community Services, 1983, pp. 25-6; Alan Thompson, The Day Before Yesterday: An illustrated history of Britain from Attlee to Macmillan, London, Sidgwick and Jackson, 1971, pp. 46, 52, 62, 64; and Peter Hennessy, Muddling Through: Power, Politics and the Quality of Government in Postwar Britain, London, Victor Gollancz, 1996, pp. 172-86 passim. A retrospective memorandum written by him in the early 1960s, reviewing the Attlee government's experience of planning, is also relevant: Douglas Jay, ‘Planning Under the Labour Government’, Labour Party Finance and Economic Policy Sub-Committee, January 1962, Labour Party Archive, National Museum of Labour History, RD. 201. For personal recollections of Jay by others, see in particular Shiela Grant Duff, The Parting of Ways: A Personal Account of the Thirties, London, Peter Owen, 1982; Peggy Jay with Eva Tucker, Loves and Labours: An Autobiography, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1990; and Nicholas Davenport, Memoirs of a City Radical, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1974, pp. 102-4. See also David Reisman, ‘Introduction’, in David Reisman (ed.), Democratic Socialism in Britain: Classic Texts in Economic and Political Thought 1825-1952: Volume 8, London, Pickering and Chatto, 1996, pp. vii-xiv. Change and Fortune 15 49 Google Scholar

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Jay, Change and Fortune, p. 34. See also Douglas Jay, ‘The Economic Strength and Weakness of Marxism’, in G. E. G. Catlin (ed.), New Trends in Socialism, London, Lovat Dickson and Thompson, 1935, pp. 105-22. Google Scholar

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Confusingly, Jay also recalled that he had worked on it ‘virtually every evening and weekend for three years’ (emphasis added). Jay, ‘Civil Servant’, p. 81; and Jay, Change and Fortune, pp. 62-3. Google Scholar

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The whole first part of this book, on unemployment, was, Meade wrote, inspired by the work of Keynes. And crucially, from the point of view of the argument here, the book stated that ‘The problem of a general planning commission, unaided by a pricing system … would be incapable of solution’. Jay, ‘Civil Servant’, p. 81; Jay, Change and Fortune, p. 63; J. E. Meade, An Introduction to Economic Analysis and Policy, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1936, pp. vi, 199. Google Scholar

The whole first part of this book, on unemployment, was, Meade wrote, inspired by the work of Keynes. And crucially, from the point of view of the argument here, the book stated that ‘The problem of a general planning commission, unaided by a pricing system … would be incapable of solution’. Jay, ‘Civil Servant’, p. 81; Jay, Change and Fortune, p. 63; J. E. Meade, An Introduction to Economic Analysis and Policy, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1936, pp. vi, 199. Google Scholar

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This book, a landmark in the discussion in English of economic planning, consisted of translations of articles previously published at different times in various parts of Europe, with additional material by Hayek: F. A. von Hayek (ed.), Collectivist Economic Planning: Critical Studies on the Possibilities of Socialism, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1935. Jay reviewed it when it came out, concluding that ‘Most readers … will probably lay the book down with the conviction that the solution of the problem must … come from some sort of blending of competition and collectivism’ (‘Collectivist Planning’ (unsigned review, by Jay), Times Literary Supplement, 20 June 1935). For evidence of Jay's authorship, see the TLS Centenary Archive database. Google Scholar

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‘Economic Thinking’ (unsigned review, by Wenzel Jaksch, of the second edition of The Socialist Case), Times Literary Supplement, 15 November 1947. For evidence of Jaksch's authorship, see the TLS Centenary Archive database. Google Scholar

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In his 1956 book Contemporary Capitalism (London, Victor Gollancz, 1956, pp. 138-40) Strachey quoted at length and with approval passages on the distribution of the national income from the second edition of The Socialist Case, which Jay had revised to take account of the passage of time. Google Scholar

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Toye, Richard