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Reference group
Next Five Years group (act. 1934–1938) was founded to foster broad political agreement around a progressive agenda of social and economic reforms. The group promoted many policy ideas that anticipated the post-war consensus of the 1940s and 1950s, including economic planning, the mixed economy, and Keynesian economics. Yet its fate also testifies to the intractable difficulties preventing ideological consensus in the partisan political climate of the inter-war years.

The group was the brain-child of Clifford Allen, Baron Allen of Hurtwood. Allen had been a leading figure on the political left in the 1920s, having served as chairman of the No Conscription Fellowship during the First World War and of the Independent Labour Party in the mid-1920s. However, his staunch support for Ramsay MacDonald, the increasingly isolated leader of the Labour Party, led to Allen's rapid estrangement from the Labour left late in the decade. When MacDonald formed the National Government without Labour support in 1931, Allen joined the breakaway National Labour group and became a vocal apologist for the prime minister.

Allen chastised the Labour Party for its failure to deal with the economic crisis, and depicted the National coalition as a government of national unity that could impose the sacrifices necessary to steady the economy. Yet he never abandoned his gradualist faith in a socialist future, and fully expected that, under MacDonald's leadership, the new government would deploy the new spirit of national unity in the pursuit of further social and economic reform. But Allen soon grew disillusioned with the government's reluctance to adopt a more progressive course and disheartened by the increasingly polarized political atmosphere. He set out in 1933 to mobilize ‘middle opinion’ from all parties in order to show that an effective consensus on a progressive programme was possible.

Though Allen worked hard to attract supporters of the opposition Labour Party, those who gathered at a conference at All Souls College, Oxford, in July 1934 came mostly from the centre and centre-right of contemporary politics. They included several dissident Conservatives led by Harold Macmillan, a number of opposition Liberals headed by Sir Walter Layton, editor of The Economist, and Geoffrey Crowther, a sub-editor at the same journal, and influential technocrats like Sir Arthur Salter, an economist and former head of the economic and financial section of the League of Nations secretariat. The only two Labour sympathizers in attendance were both close friends of Allen: the principal of Ruskin College, Oxford, Alfred Barratt Brown (1887–1947), who, like Allen, had belonged to the No Conscription Fellowship, and who in February 1934 had organized a manifesto entitled ‘Liberty and democratic leadership’ to counter the twin threats of fascism and communism; and William Edward (Will) Arnold-Forster (1886–1951), a painter and a League of Nations activist, who was the son of the Unionist politician Hugh Oakeley Arnold-Forster. Rather than forming a political organization, the new group resolved to craft a constructive programme to be endorsed by leading thinkers in all parties.

Published in July 1935, the book-length programme had been drafted mainly by Macmillan, Salter, and Allen. Its title, The Next Five Years: an Essay in Political Agreement, was intended to signify its authors' desire to formulate a short-term policy consensus. Democracy was on trial, menaced equally by its failure to tackle the economic crisis and the seductive promises of totalitarian ideologies on both the far left and far right. The purpose of the book was to encourage democrats of all colours to set aside sterile party differences and unite around a compromise agenda of immediate priorities.

In foreign policy the book offered little to distinguish it from the standard League of Nations Union line on collective security, and this portion of the book attracted little comment. It was in its lengthy sections on domestic policy that it sought to break new ground. It featured a number of progressive policies that would come to characterize the post-war consensus in the next decade, most notably the concept of a ‘mixed economy’ of public and private enterprise, a vaguely Keynesian public-works programme to even out the trade cycle, and a host of social reforms under the organizing concept of a ‘national minimum’, including a forty-eight-hour working week and higher unemployment benefits and pensions. Its language was overtly collectivist, peppered with terms like ‘economic planning’ and ‘public control’.

At the same time the book's other ideas reflected the challenge of fashioning an ideological compromise within the group gathered around Allen. Its definition of the ‘mixed’ economy, for instance, sought to accommodate the group's more conservative-minded members by explicitly rejecting either central planning or state ownership of industry. In fact the only targets slated for inclusion in the public sector of the ‘mixed economy’ were the existing public utilities in electricity supply and public transport. Most dramatically, in the private sector the group endorsed Macmillan's long-standing call for statutory planning by monopolistic trade associations. In short, while the language and social policies of The Next Five Years promised a progressive ‘middle view’, its blend of economic policies fell further to the right-of-centre of the contemporary ideological spectrum, somewhere between the opposition Liberals and the quasi-corporatist ideas on ‘capitalist planning’ espoused by Macmillan and his ‘Tory planners’.

Nevertheless, Allen and some of the group's members initially promoted their new programme as the basis for a new opposition alliance between the Liberal and Labour parties, suggesting that a ‘centre party’ could challenge the National Government in the forthcoming general election. However, the group's appeal never transcended its centre-right origins. The book was published with 153 signatures from an impressive collection of prominent academic, literary, business, and religious figures, including Ernest Barker, R. C. K. Ensor, H. A. L. Fisher, Julian Huxley, Cyril Joad, Oliver Lodge, Ernest Rutherford, H. G. Wells, Laurence Cadbury, Montague Burton, and William Temple. The book also drew signatures from a phalanx of Liberals and traditional progressives, such as Gilbert Murray, Sir Norman Angell, J. A. Hobson, J. L. Hammond, Isaac Foot, Henry Nevinson, Seebohm Rowntree, and Eleanor Rathbone, as well as from a number of National Labour figures, led by Godfrey Elton and Richard Douglas Denman (1876–1957), who had begun his parliamentary career in 1910 as a Liberal but had joined Labour in 1924, going on to support Ramsay MacDonald in 1931. Yet only a handful of Conservatives, like Marjorie Graves and J. W. Hills, added their names. While there were some trade unionists and former Labour MPs among the signatories, including G. N. Barnes, C. W. Bowerman, John Bromley, Arthur Pugh, and Edith Picton-Turbervill, not a single prominent Labour politician signed the book.

Public reception after publication proved equally uneven. The programme was welcomed by National Labour and opposition Liberal politicians and press, who invariably claimed its ideas as their own. However, it was greeted with indifference by Conservatives, and spurned by Labour commentators for its inadequate concessions to socialist aspirations. In the event the group had little impact on the general election in November 1935, as both government and Labour candidates generally ignored its programme.

If reception of the book revealed the deep ideological obstacles in the path of progressive agreement in the 1930s, the subsequent history of the group was indicative of the tactical dilemmas facing the progressive cause in this decade. Following publication, the group's leadership became embroiled in a bitter conflict over its future course and identity. While Macmillan pressed the group to adopt a more politically active role by allying itself with David Lloyd George or rallying opposition to appeasement, Allen became increasingly anxious that direct political activity only narrowed the group's appeal, and sought to limit its role to that of a non-partisan publicity organization to promote progressive policies. Their increasingly acrimonious differences culminated with the abrupt departure of Macmillan and many of the more active members early in 1936.

Macmillan and others continued to work on behalf of opposition unity in the campaign for a popular or people's front in 1936–7, which again sought to rally critics of the National Government's foreign policy around a compromise domestic programme. The Next Five Years group itself carried on under Allen's sole control into 1938, issuing occasional statements to the press, endorsed by Macmillan and many of the signatories of the original book. However, Allen further deepened his own isolation by actively supporting appeasement and the Munich pact, and the group ceased to be active long before his death in March 1939.

Daniel Ritschel


The next five years: an essay in political agreement (1935) · D. Ritschel, The politics of planning: the debate on economic planning in Britain in the 1930s (1997), chap. 6 · Plough my own furrow: the story of Lord Allen of Hurtwood as told through his writings and correspondence, ed. M. Gilbert (1965) · A. Marwick, Clifford Allen: the open conspirator (1964) · A. Marwick, ‘Middle opinion in the thirties: planning, progress and political agreement’, EngHR (1964), 285–98 · H. Macmillan, Winds of change, 1914–1939 (1966) · South Carolina Archives and History Center, Columbia, Clifford Allen papers