Wilfred Brown's Ideas Rejected By Labour's Socialisation of Industries Committee

Forrest ChristianWilfred Brown Leave a Comment

As I continue to attempt to understand the history of the Glacier Project, I’ve been reading about Wilfred Brown’s work in there political sphere to gain some of this. Because he was a socialist and socialism dominated the political landscape of the UK during this time, it is probably hard to separate out.

Nick Tiratsoo and Jim Tomlinson mention Wilfred Brown in passing (and Glacier Metal Company a bit more) in their 1993 Industrial Efficiency and State Intervention: Labour 1939-1951 (Routledge). They mention how the Socialisation of Industries Committee, chaired by Herbert Morrison, took to the ideas expressed by Brown during the Labour government of the late 1940s.

It’s interesting that “that other industrialist / theorist”, Lyndall Urwick, was also makin this call. Col. Urwick had similar thoughts about the need for clarity and precision of language in dealing with organizations, especially in separating out structural issues from personality and fit.

At the same time the committee stressed that matters of management, and the precise role for workers in it, were for the Boards of the nationalised industries to deal with. This was a constant refrain in these discussions, which was accepted by all of the Ministers involved as a principle (though Morrison in particular saw the doctrine of Board independence and responsibility as compatible with a degree of ministerial prodding.)29

This approach was, however, very much a weapon against more radical proposals. For example, when a group of managerial ‘progressives’, including Urwick, Wilfred Brown of Glacier Metals [sic] and George Dickson of the London Regional Board for Industry, urged the formation of advisory councils of managers, workers and consumers, emphasising the case for the involvement of workers on human relations grounds, Morrison was willing only to concede that existing managements were ‘unduly cautious and conservatively minded in their approach to the problems of enlisting the assistance of the staff’. There was, he emphasised, no call for new measures: ‘He doubted whether any corporate identity could be created out of the rather divergent interests of the workers, management and consumers’ and ‘whether any advisory council should be raised to a degree of responsibility which would derogate from the responsibility of the executive board.’30

The whole section is interesting for how much the Labour government got wrong. In the end, it certainly feels like they feared the Unions rather than worked with them. And perhaps with good reason. But they also missed an incredible opportunity. Had they had the guts to try what Brown was attempting at Glacier, nationalized industry might have had a different history in the UK.

It’s interesting that stakeholder theory would say that “the formation of advisory councils of managers, workers and consumers” makes good sense. Note that these councils were only “advisory”: the consultative role was emphasized in the statute, according to the authors.

Of course, he’s right that this committee should not reduce the authority of the executive. Brown would later explain this point at length, as he believed that his representative, “policy-making” Works Councils increased the exercised authority of management.

I wonder if anyone has done a comparison between this Labour government and the Allende government, which used Stafford Beer’s Viable Systems Model to create a central nervous system for the nationalized commercial activity.

I should also note that without Mr. Morrison, we may not have had Jaques’s life work. From Brown in Exploration in Management:

Our [Glacier Metal] Company was fortunate. In 1948, Mr. Herbert Morrison, then Lord President of the Council, set up a Committee on Productivity. The Human Factors Panel of this Committee sponsored a joint research project into industrial social issues by the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations and our Company. The project became a study of how the Company carried out its operations. The result of the work done has been fully reported in The Changing Culture of a Factory. a book which was the official report of the three-year research programme. When this programme came to an end in 1950 the management, in collaboration with its representative Works Council, decided to invite Dr. Elliot [sic] Jaques, who had led the original research team, to varry on the work.

(Also must note that Industrial Efficiency and State Intervention: Labour 1939-1951 is also available as an Amazon Kindle eBook. Really.)

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