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Reference group
Rainbow Circle (act. 1894–1931) was a political and social discussion group which met regularly in London between 1894 and 1931. It served as an important intellectual laboratory for much of the progressive agenda that inspired Liberal governments before the First World War, for the welfare ideology that permeated British social-democratic politics in the early twentieth century, and for developing an ethical foreign policy. The first four of its five minute books, recording its debates up to 1924, have been preserved and offer an exceptionally detailed glimpse of a crucible of modern British social thought, covering a broad range of topics.

The circle drew its name from The Rainbow tavern in Fleet Street where it first met on 7 November 1894, having ventured out from a caucus formed within the National Liberal Club. Among its founding members were its first secretary, J. Ramsay MacDonald, in whose exemplary handwriting the minutes were written up to 1900; John Atkinson Hobson, the social theorist, economist, and journalist; William Clarke (1852–1901), the Fabian essayist and journalist; Herbert Burrows, the co-founder of the Social Democratic Federation; John Archibald Murray Macdonald (1854–1939), the Liberal MP; and Richard Stapley (1842–1920), a prosperous merchant, philanthropist, and chairman of the circle from 1894 to 1920. By 1895, in search of better post-prandial amenities, the circle's meetings were moved to Stapley's house at 33 Bloomsbury Square. The house was demolished in a major redevelopment in 1929, and for the remainder of its existence the circle repaired to the nearby offices of Sir Percy Alden, Liberal MP, writer, and social reformer.

The size of the circle remained at around twenty-five (though formally restricted first to twenty, then to thirty) throughout most of its existence. Its membership was recruited from the ranks of Liberal, Labour, and other radical politicians, from the London Ethical Societies, from Fabians and Christian socialists, and from among journalists. In 1904 some of the circle's members founded the British Institute for Social Service, a co-ordinating body of social reform activities. Other political associations served as feeders and alternative sites for many of the circle's debates, but its closely knit durability was distinctive. Hence a large number of the circle's members were able to reinforce their ‘sense of cameraderie’ (Hobson, 96), built up through previous friendships or acquaintances, at its monthly meetings, usually from October to June, on the first or second Wednesday after dinner at 8 p.m. Eventually, declining attendance, old age, the dilution of progressive radicalism, and the resignation in 1931 of its chairman, John Roskill (1860–1940), barrister and judge, following his wife's death in a fire, forced the circle's termination.

Additional early members included Maurice Adams (1850–1935), insurance broker and a founder of the Fellowship of the New Life, the precursor of the Fabian Society; Cloudesley Shovell Henry Brereton (1863–1937), educationist and agriculturist; John Bullock (1850–1931), an Anglican clergyman and the circle's secretary, 1900–06; William Montgomery Crook (1860–1945), schoolmaster, lawyer, and Liberal journalist; John Hunter Harley (1865–1947), journalist and expert on Poland; John Octavius Herdman (1862–1927), barrister; Frederick James Matheson (1868–1936), journalist, national insurance promoter, and Fabian; George Francis Millin (1840–1921), writer on social and land questions; Sydney Haldane Olivier, Baron Olivier, Fabian essayist and colonial civil servant; (Arthur) Ambrose Parsons (1872–1929), civil servant and the circle's secretary, 1906–29; (George) Herbert Perris, journalist and secretary of the Cobden Club; Russell Rea (1846–1916), shipowner and Liberal MP; William Pember Reeves, barrister, politician, and high commissioner for New Zealand; John Mackinnon Robertson, writer, social and literary scholar, and Liberal MP; Herbert Samuel, later first Viscount Samuel, Liberal politician and future leader of the Liberal party; and William Trevor Haynes Walsh (1866–1938), schoolmaster and local government official.

Among the better-known later or occasional members were Cecil Delisle Burns (1879–1942), lecturer, civil servant, and writer on social and political affairs; Noel Buxton, first Baron Noel-Buxton, Liberal, then Labour, MP and minister of agriculture; William Constable, art historian and director of the Courtauld Institute of Art; St George Lane Fox-Pitt (1856–1932), writer, inventor, and activist in the Society for Psychical Research; Alfred George Gardiner, editor of the Daily News; George Peabody Gooch, historian and Liberal MP; Alfred Leslie Lilley (1860–1948), theologian and canon of Hereford Cathedral; Charles Philips Trevelyan, Liberal, then Labour, MP; Graham Wallas, Fabian essayist, social and political theorist, and educationist. Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse, liberal theorist, sociologist, and journalist, and Victor Verasis Branford (1864–1931), sociologist and banker, were elected as members but did not take up their places. Among the speakers at the circle's meetings who were not members were Richard Burdon Haldane, the Liberal politician and philosopher; and Alfred Eckhard Zimmern, the classicist, historian, and internationalist.

The circle's debates, as an early statement declared, were intended ‘to provide a rational and comprehensive view of political and social progress, leading up to a consistent body of political and economic doctrine which could be ultimately formulated in a programme for action, and in that form provide a rallying point for social reformers’ (Freeden, 1). The circle adopted an annual theme, and at each session a lecture was given, followed by a discussion. These ranged freely, frequently occasioning dissent and now and again political audacity. The themes for the first few years were emphatic departures from received political and ideological truths, and included a closely argued attack on the laissez-faire of the Manchester school, restatements of the relationship between individual and state, and a detailed scrutiny of the possibilities of democratic reform. The new liberalism, in which personal development was attached to social interdependence and the rationality and morality of collective political direction, made many of its tentative steps aided by the circle's rigorous explorations. Organic theories of the state jostled with individual rights in an attempt to tackle poverty and the political marginalization of the masses. In its investigation of human welfare, the economic aspects of distribution, and wealth and income evaluation, shared space with the appraisal of protective legislation towards the vulnerable.

As that theoretical agenda became more widely accepted, and the political successes of progressives mounted, the circle increasingly reflected topical issues in its choice of subject. In 1898–9, not long before the Labour Representation Committee was set up, it debated the formation and programme of a progressive party, mirroring the short-lived London county council experiment, and declared that affinities on constitutional and social justice already formed an overlap among liberal and socialist groups. Against the backdrop of the South African War, many members berated imperialism as an unacceptable cost to the nation in economic and moral terms, but those of liberal imperialist persuasion praised the British empire as solicitous of the welfare of other peoples. By 1906 the circle had congratulated eight of its members—one-third of its membership—for obtaining seats in the House of Commons following the January elections. The circle examined taxation and poor law reform when the 1909 budget crisis and the minority report of the royal commission on the poor laws of the same year greatly exercised radicals. In 1911, while the House of Lords was under intense pressure to reform itself, the circle engaged in a comparative consideration of second chambers. That latter session produced the circle's only published book, Second Chambers in Practice (1911). Social unrest, strikes, and the minimum wage fittingly dominated the programme for 1912–13. Land reform, central to the political agenda of 1913–14, gave way to concerns surrounding the First World War—supporters and opponents causing a split from which the circle never recovered—and subsequent proposals for post-war reconstruction. By the 1920s attempts to offer a consistent yearly topic had faded.

As befitted a group containing highly erudite members, other annual themes included English statesmen of the nineteenth century, discussions of socialism and of ethics, and modern thinkers in conjunction with political movements. An array of past and recent political thinkers, from Aristotle to Herbert Spencer, produced a high degree of competence and analytical finesse from the circle. Contemporary writers such as Conrad, Arnold Bennett, and H. G. Wells elicited choruses of approval and disapproval in equal measure. In 1895, attempting to reach a broader public, the circle devoted much of its time to setting up the Progressive Review, a monthly that lasted for a year (1896–7) before folding due to lack of funds and personal altercations over British conduct in South Africa. But it was not all work and no play. Dinners at the National Liberal Club became annual events, and Stapley entertained the circle at his country house in Sussex, as well as at the Spa Hotel in Tunbridge Wells, where ‘some of the staidest members … revealed unsuspected powers, & depths, of frivolity’ (minutes, 23 June 1912, quoted in Freeden, 221). Women, however, were not beneficiaries of the circle's progressive mood. Two ladies' nights (in which guest women speakers addressed the circle) and the occasional women visitors notwithstanding, it boasted no women members. But women's issues often figured on the agenda, with regard to the suffrage, the education of girls, or women in sweated labour.

The Rainbow Circle was not only one of the most significant focuses of British social thinking and political creativity at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It also sheds light on the culture of progressive activists and intellectuals at the time, most of whom preached social reform from positions of financial comfort. The use of spare time for earnest public ends was typical of the interleafing of leisure and duty such reformers displayed, and epitomized the enthusiasm that social visions could generate. Dedication and a sense of service channelled private energies into fertile experimentation, even as the external trappings of venue and discussion remained highly conventional. That moment was not to last, and it is doubtful whether the circle's fifth and final minute book, presumably destroyed by a German bomb in the Second World War, would have lived up to its predecessors.

Michael Freeden


M. Freeden, ed., Minutes of the Rainbow Circle, 1894–1924, CS, 4th ser., 38 (1989) · Parl. Arch., Herbert Samuel papers · J. A. Hobson, Confessions of an economic heretic (1938) · Progressive Review (1896–7)


BLPES, Coll. misc. 0575