Elliott Dodds, 1889-1977

Elliott Dodds lived a life of rich variety and contrast. A southerner by birth, he became indelibly associated with the laissez-faire Liberalism of the northern counties. A journalist, whose political beliefs were breathed into every corner of the Huddersfield Examiner, he wrote extensively throughout his life on the changing relationship between individual liberty and the role of the state. Although never close to entering Parliament, he was a popular President of the Liberal Party and played a central role in the battle which raged intermittently from 1928 between the right and left flanks of the party over Liberals’ relationship with socialism. After the Second World War his name became synonymous with the Liberal Party’s policy of co-ownership in industry.

George Elliott Dodds was born in Sydenham, Kent, on 4 March 1889, son of George William and Elizabeth Anne Dodds. His father was a tea merchant, originally from Berwick-upon-Tweed. Dodds was educated at Mill Hill School and New College, Oxford, taking a first in history. At college, he edited Isis magazine and was narrowly defeated for President of the Union. His early career was diverse. He worked for a time as private secretary to Herbert Samuel, including acting as tutor to his sons, before teaching at Calabar College, Jamaica. Returning home he began to read for the bar, but was attracted instead by the post of leader writer and literary assistant at the Huddersfield Examiner, in 1914. He remained connected with the Examiner for sixty years – as Editor from 1924-59, as Consulting Editor thereafter, and as a Director of the newspaper’s proprietors, Joseph Woodhead and Sons Ltd. Nevertheless, during the First World War he returned for a spell in London, editing the War Pictorial, a work of propaganda devised by the Department of Information. At the end of the war he married Frances Zita MacDonald, of Cheshire. She shared Dodds’ membership of the Congregational Church, and they had two daughters.

Dodds’ connections with Samuel, his Oxford pedigree, and his deep commitment to Liberalism would have sufficed before 1914 to carry him into the House of Commons as a Liberal Member. He concluded in his first book, Is Liberalism Dead? (1919), however, that Liberal principles, as all history proves, suffer eclipse in time of war, and his repeated attempts to enter Parliament – for York in 1922 and 1923, Halifax in 1929, and Rochdale in 1931 and 1935 – were all unsuccessful. His influence within the Liberal Party was to stem from his writing, not from a parliamentary role, though he was continually active in his local Liberal Association and also, throughout the 1920s, in the National League of Young Liberals. Throughout his life he sought to define the boundaries between Liberalism and socialism, the clarification of which would enable the Liberal Party to undertake a radical appeal to non-socialist reformist opinion. He resolutely opposed the Labour Party’s bureaucratic state collectivism, nationalisation in particular, expressing his views in Liberalism in Action (1922) and The Social Gospel of Liberalism (1926). Dodds’ views, controversial with some left-leaning Liberals, offered a beacon of light to many, illuminating the clouded political situation of the 1920s.

The economic depression of the 1920s and 1930s, and the Liberal Party’s answer to it, in the Yellow Book of 1928, posed a formidable challenge to those Liberals who saw no justification for state intervention in the economy. Dodds was at the heart of efforts after 1928 to reconcile the fashionable enthusiasm for central planning and state ownership of industry with older Liberal laissez-faire tenets. He chaired the party’s 1938 Ownership for All Committee, whose report argued that property is the pivot upon which civil and political rights depend. The report, later approved by the party, called for the restoration of free trade, reforms of the rating system and of inheritance taxation, and encouraged the development of co-ownership schemes in industry. While recognising a central economic role for the state to create the conditions of liberty, direct intervention in the economy was ruled out in all but the most extreme circumstances.

Ownership for All placed Dodds on a collision course with the left of the party, particularly Sir Richard Acland, Clement Davies, Megan Lloyd George and Tom Horabin, and battle was joined until the end of the Second World War. The left argued that Dodds was unduly pessimistic about the extent to which state intervention could assist the extension of liberty and under-estimated the power of big business to propagate monopolistic conditions. It would be wrong to view Dodds merely as a right-wing reactionary, however. His views were progressive and he was open to argument; he attended conferences of the Liberal Action Group, later Radical Action, and he gave a cautious but generous welcome to the Beveridge Report, helping to ensure for it the almost unanimous backing of the 1944 assembly.

Dodds’ views were again modified when a report by a party committee in 1945 advocated compulsory co-ownership for firms with more than fifty employees or more than 50,000 capital, something he had specifically rejected seven years previously. This proposal was bitterly contested at Liberal assemblies in 1948, 1949 and 1956, with Dodds this time firmly in favour. As President of the Party in 1948, and therefore Assembly Chairman, he was accused of breaching the impartiality of the chair by indicating his support for legislation on co-ownership. Dodds’ shift reflected further changes in his perception of the boundary between individual liberty and collective need as well as a journalists eye for the big idea the Liberal Party required to make an impact on the electorate.

Having written a short guide to Liberal policy, Let’s Try Liberalism, in 1944, Dodds returned to analysing the characteristics of Liberalism in the modern world with The Defence of Man, 1947. He was an obvious choice for Chair of the Unservile State Group when it was founded in 1953, primarily to follow up the work of the Yellow Book, and he co-authored, with Erna Reiss, The Logic of Liberty, one of the Unservile State papers, in 1966.

Dodds wrote extensively in the Huddersfield Daily and Weekly Examiner and in the News Chronicle. He attached enormous importance to his editorial articles and the tone they set for the newspaper, setting out to educate his readership without patronising them and to ally Liberalism with plain common sense. Arthur Holt attributed the post-war strength of the Liberal Party in Huddersfield in part to Dodds’ erudite writing. Following his retirement in 1959 Dodds continued to write occasional reviews and articles for a further fifteen years, while devoting considerable time to the golf course. Dodds had a lifelong involvement with Highfield Congregational Church, the Workers’ Educational Association, United Nations Association and Union Discussion Society. He was appointed CBE in 1973 and died on 20 February 1977.

His political writing is surveyed by Donald Wade and Desmond Banks in The Political Insight of Elliott Dodds (Elliott Dodds Trust, 1977).