BENN, Sir Ernest John Pickstone
25th June 1875 to 17th January 1954
Benn owned one of England’s leading publishing companies. He at first espoused the liberal political views of his family, but from the early 1920s drifted towards the political right. He was a prolific writer, and became known as a champion of laissez-faire economics and libertarianism.
Benn was born in the London borough of Hackney on 25 June 1875. He was the eldest son of Sir John Benn, bart, owner of the publishing company Benn Brothers. Ernest Benn’s younger brother, William Wedgwood Benn, became Viscount Stansgate; Tony Benn, the prominent twentieth-century Labour politician, was Ernest Benn’s nephew. Benn was educated at the Central Foundation School in London, a progressive establishment, and also for a time at the Lycée Condorcet in Paris. In 1891 he joined his father in the family business. As Sir John Benn became more heavily involved in politics, first on the London County Council and then standing several times for Parliament, Ernest Benn began taking on more responsibility for the family business. By the time his father was elected MP for Devonport in 1904, Benn was effectively managing the firm, though he did not take formal control until after his father’s death in 1922 (at the same time also inheriting his father’s baronetcy). Benn married Gwendolyn Andrews in 1903.
Benn was a successful businessman who expanded Benn Brothers from a fairly small firm into a large and dynamic company. Benn Brothers was primarily a publisher of trade journals, but in 1923 Benn branched out into literary publishing, founding a new firm, Ernest Benn Ltd. One of its most successful brands was the Sixpenny Library, an imprint that anticipated later mass-market book brands like Penguin. Benn also served as chairman of the life assurance company United Kingdom Provident Association from 1934-49.
Benn had a long record of public service. During the First World War he volunteered his service to the government and served with the Ministry of Munitions, where he may have first met Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree, and then the Ministry of Reconstruction. For his work during the war, Benn was awarded the CBE. He chaired at various times several charitable organisations, including the Readers’ Pensions Committee and the National Advertising Benevolent Society. In 1932 he served as high sheriff of the County of London. Benn died at Oxted, Surrey on 17 January 1954.
Benn’s political views underwent a considerable transformation in the 1920s. In his early years he espoused the liberalism of his father. During the First World War he published several books including Trade as a Science (1916) and The Trade of Tomorrow (1917), urging closer collaboration between government and industry, and also between industry and trades unions. His political views at this time are similar to those of the Fabians and the more radical liberals, taking a collectivist approach to business and government.
Some time after 1920, however, Benn’s views began to change. In 1921 he began a series of letters to The Times in defence of individualism. He conceived a particular hatred for the Labour Party of Ramsay MacDonald and its brand of socialism, and wrote a bitter polemic against Labour in 1924, in advance of the general election of October that year. His best-known work, Confessions of a Capitalist (1925) continues his attack against socialism and is a strong defence of capitalism, free markets, private property and individualism. Benn was also a strong critic of the Soviet Union; one of his more curious works is a book on trades unions in 1927 which takes the form of a debate between Benn and the Marxist, pro-Soviet political scientist Harold Laski.
By the 1930s Benn had become a fully-fledged libertarian. He was a founder member of the Society of Individualists, which published some of his later works. The title of one of his last books, The State, the Enemy (1953), shows how far his thinking had come from his younger days. Benn continued to regard himself as a liberal, and named Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill among his intellectual heroes.
Benn’s Rowntree lecture was given in April 1924, four months after the first Labour government led by Ramsay MacDonald came to power. Benn begins by declaring that he is neither an economist or a politician but ‘merely an old-fashioned type of businessman, hanging on, like a drowning sailor to a spar, to any remaining fragment of the capitalist system.’ He accuses, not just the socialists but the entire political class, of failing to understand not only the needs of business, but the position that business occupies in society as a generator of wealth. The problem of unemployment, Benn argues, can best be solved by enabling businesses to create more jobs. More work will lead to higher wages, and an end to poverty.
Work, in Benn’s view, is not just something we do to earn money for subsistence. Work, he says, ‘is service to others’. ‘We work to serve others, and it seems to me that all of us, employers and employed, are almost forgetting that we are really working for others, and that it is others that matter.’ This is in effect a restatement of the centuries-old view that the object of business should be to provide goods and services that society desires and needs, rather than the enrichment of individuals, either workers and employers. This much of Benn’s earlier collectivist view still remains in his thinking. Benn also blames the increasing specialisation and division of labour that accompanies scientific management for the divorce of business from society: ‘The demarcation of function has become such a science as to blind us all to the fact that behind our job is somebody [i.e, the customer] for whom we are working, and only by satisfying that somebody can we keep our job.’
Rather than supporting industry in its mission to create wealth, says Benn, the Labour government has chosen to intervene directly. He singles out for particular attack James Wheatley, the Christian socialist Minister of Health who pushed through the Housing Act of 1924, leading to a massive expansion of council housing. Benn then finishes his lecture by going off in a different direction and launching a passionate defence of the British Broadcasting Corporation and its license fee, which he declares delivers very substantial value for money.
The lecture is on the whole a curious document, beginning with a passionate but reasoned critique of socialism and defence of capitalism before descending into polemics about issues of the day. The reader is entitled to wonder what Benn’s audience made of this lecture, and whether the content was what Rowntree and his staff had in mind when they issued their invitation to speak.
Trade as a Science, 1916.
The Trade of To-morrow, 1917.
Why Not to Vote Labour: The Business Implications of Socialism, 1924.
Confessions of a Capitalist, 1925.
Letters of an Individualist: to the Times, 1921-6, 1927.
(with H.J. Laski) The Trades Dispute and Trade Union Bill, 1927.
The Return to Laisser Faire, 1929.
About Russia, 1930.
Unemployment and Work, 1930.
Honest Doubt: Being a Collection of Papers on the Price of Modern Politics, 1932.
The Profit Motive, 1941.
Governed to Death, 1948.
Happier Days: Recollections and Reflections, 1949.
The State, The Enemy, 1953.
Abel, D., Ernest Benn: Counsel for Liberty, London: Ernest Benn.
Abel, D., ‘Benn, Sir Ernest John Pickstone’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Higgins, S., The Benn Inheritance: The Story of a Radical Family, Worthing: Littlehampton Book Services, 1984.
Shaw, C., ‘Benn, Sir Ernest John Pickstone’, in Dictionary of Business Biography, London: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1984, vol. 1, pp. 280-4.