Leonard Trelawney Hobhouse, 1864-1929

Leonard Trelawney Hobhouse, born at Liskeard, Cornwall on 8 September 1864, came from a long line of Anglican clerics. His father, the Venerable Reginald Hobhouse, was Rector of St Ive, near Liskeard, a position he had obtained through his political connections with Sir Robert Peel. His mother was a Trelawney from the prominent West Country family.

Although his immediate family were narrow Tories, Hobhouse became a committed radical while a schoolboy at Marlborough College, in the process also becoming a firm agnostic. He was influenced by his uncle, Arthur, Lord Hobhouse, a Gladstonian Liberal. His boyhood heroes included Morley, Dilke, Bradlaugh  and Bright, but he despised the conservative wing of the party, especially Rosebery . He greatly admired John Stuart Mill and read Spencer and Mazzini.

At Oxford (Corpus Christi) he came into contact with Marshall and Sidney Ball and was influenced by Green and Toynbee. He became increasingly concerned with social questions, especially the plight of agricultural labourers. His radical opinions, in favour of Home Rule, temperance and the abolition of the monarchy, brought him notoriety and the presidency of the Oxford Radical Club. He graduated in 1887 with a first in Greats and immediately won a Prize Fellowship at Merton. He was made a full tutorial fellow in 1894 and until 1897 taught philosophy, specialising in epistemology. He took a close interest in the campaign to unionise local agricultural labourers and became a trustee of the Oxfordshire Agricultural Labourers Union. At this time Hobhouse was close to the Fabians, although he never joined the society and later became a fierce critic of its elitism, imperialism and opportunism, showing particular hatred for George Bernard Shaw’s flippant authoritarianism.

Hobhouse’s first major political work, The Labour Movement (1893), was strongly collectivist, calling for the profits of industry to be appropriated to consumers in the form of the cooperative movement, trade unions and local and national government, and for a steeply graduated income tax, higher death duties and the taxation of ground rent. Its political doctrine was closer to Green’s organicism than to Mill. But Hobhouse soon saw that collectivism in its Fabian form was liable to turn into the glorification of the state and the pursuit of conformity in the name of equality. Hobhouse was also deeply internationalist and was revolted by the Fabian endorsement of the Boer War. His New Liberalism was, above all, the result of his disillusion with Fabian socialism.

Another event in Hobhouse’s life drew him back to the Liberal cause. In 1896, C. P. Scott, the editor of the Manchester Guardian, persuaded him to write occasional leading articles for the paper. Hobhouse was captivated by political journalism, and in 1897 left academic life and for six years worked full-time for the paper. Hobhouse and Scott revelled in their role as the conscience of the Edwardian Liberal Party, harrying both the Unionists and the Liberal Imperialists and supporting the pro-Boers. Hobhouse’s belief in Gladstonian moral rectitude in foreign policy was central to his political development. Both Joseph Chamberlain  and the Fabians combined collectivism with imperialism. For all his objections to laissez-faire economics, Hobhouse’s rejection of imperialism drove him back to the Radical Liberal camp. He subsequently sought to combine Mill’s devotion to individuality, his own commitment to social justice and Gladstonian morality in international politics into a theoretical whole.

In 1903 Hobhouse left the Guardian, intending to concentrate on academic work, but financial difficulties drew him instead into political activism. He became the paid secretary and organiser of the Free Trade Union, an early Liberal think-tank and campaigning body. The FTU poured out pamphlets and articles attacking Joseph Chamberlain’s imperialist protectionism.

In 1905 he left the FTU and became the political editor of a new London-based Liberal-inclined newspaper, The Tribune. The paper’s first edition came out in 1906, just after the party’s landslide election victory, with Hobhouse’s editorial warning against reaction in government: The work of Liberalism is never done because its essence is the permanent protest of Right against Force, the common good against class interest, of an ideal element in political life against a mere mechanical efficiency. But like so many new newspapers The Tribune could not reconcile the need to gain circulation with its political ideals. To attract new money, the paper moved to a populist line under the direction of a jingoistic managing editor. Hobhouse resigned.

Fortunately, he had managed to maintain his academic interests and had taken an interest in the new study of sociology, publishing in 1901 The Mind in Evolution and in 1906 Morals in Evolution. In these works, rejecting Spencer and social Darwinism, Hobhouse attempted to establish, both theoretically and empirically, that progress in human thought and conduct was inevitable not as the result of biology or instinct but as the result of self-conscious intelligence. On the basis of this work, in 1907 he was elected to the newly-established Martin White Chair in Sociology in the London School of Economics. Hobhouse thus became the first (and for many years the only) professor of sociology in Britain. (It should be noted that his optimistic view of progress was limited to the moral and mental spheres – he disliked intensely many modern inventions, including motor cars and the games of bridge and golf.)

Hobhouse retained the White Chair until his death and it provided him with an income which freed him from the need to resort too often to journalism. He continued for many years, however, to contribute leaders and other articles to the Manchester Guardian. The security of the White Chair also discouraged political adventures. For example, in 1909 he was offered the constituency of Northampton, the seat of his boyhood hero Bradlaugh, but he declined. According to his son, Hobhouse objected to the constraints of party discipline and preferred the freedom of the life of a writer and thinker to the subservience of the life of a Member of Parliament.

It was during this period that Hobhouse’s mature political and economic thought emerged, culminating in his extraordinary little book Liberalism (1911). He sought to explain the social programme and taxation policies of the Liberal government as an extension, not a reversal, of the economic principles of earlier Liberals such as Mill. His underlying theory, difficult to apply in practice but clear enough in theory, was that wealth was created by a combination of individual effort and social organisation, and that the state was entitled to redistribute for the common good that part which arose from social organisation. He also distinguished between property held for use and property held for power, recognising the need for the former but not the latter to be protected by a system of rights. Out of the combination of these ideas, Hobhouse developed Liberal justifications for a guaranteed minimum income funded by income tax.

Hobhouse also developed a distinctive view of liberty and the proper purposes of state power. He maintained, against what we now call libertarianism, that liberty depended on restraint – that every liberty depends on a corresponding act of control. He followed Mill in pointing out the many forms of coercion in social life, including features of existing social and economic conditions. His conclusion was that the proper role of the state was to maximise the availability of liberty by reorganising the existing constraints. But Hobhouse differed from Mill in explaining why paternalism should be opposed. Whereas Mill starts with the harm principle, that no-one should be coerced except to prevent harm to others, Hobhouse says that we should refrain from coercing people for their own good not because [their] good is indifferent to us but because it cannot be furthered by coercion. He believed that the value of liberty lies precisely in its role in human self-development.

In Liberalism Hobhouse advanced the view, useful in the political situation of the time, that socialism could be subsumed within Liberalism, though not if socialism were understood in its Marxist or bureaucratic elitist forms. He also advocated a Progressive Alliance between the Liberal Party and the Labour movement, a hope he maintained throughout the 1920s when despair at the divisions in the party separated him from membership of it. Unlike other New Liberal intellectuals, however, Hobhouse did not join the Labour Party. He was hostile to class-based politics, and although a supporter of trade unionism, opposed the idea of a political party based on sectional interest. He participated briefly in the discussions which led to the Liberal Yellow Book. In the last month of his life, following the election of 1929 which had seen a Labour minority government come to power, he wrote that he was ‘sorry that the Liberals did not get more seats, as I think (I know its blasphemy) they carry more brains to the square inch than Labour, most of whose men are merely dull and terribly afraid of their permanent officials’.

Hobhouse died in Alenon, France on 21 June 1929. He had married Nora Hawden 1891, and was the father of three children.

Further references include Stefan Collini, Liberalism and Sociology: L. T. Hobhouse and Political Argument in England 1880-1914 (Cambridge University Press, 1979); and James Meadowcroft (ed.), L. T. Hobhouse: Liberalism and Other Writings (Cambridge University Press, 1994).


David Howarth was a Fellow in Law at Clare College, Cambridge and Lecturer in Land Economy, at the time of writing this piece. He is a Cambridge City Councillor and member of the Liberal Democrats Federal Policy Committee.