After leaving Oxford in 1903, he and William Beveridge lived at Toynbee Hall, then the home of the recently formed Workers Educational Association. The experience was to have a profound effect upon him. For more than forty years, from 1905 to 1947, Tawney served on the WEA’s executive, holding the office of vice-president (1920 – 28) before being elected president (1928 – 44). For three years from January 1908, Tawney taught the first WEA tutorial classes at Longton, Stoke-on-Trent and Rochdale, Lancashire. For a time, until he moved to Manchester after marrying Jeanette (William Beveridge’s sister), Tawney was working as part-time economics lecturer at Glasgow University. To fulfil his teaching commitments to the WEA, he travelled first to Longton for the evening class every Friday, before travelling north to Rochdale for the Saturday afternoon class.
During World War One, Tawney served as a Sergeant in the 22nd Manchester Regiment. He turned down an offer of a commission as an officer as a result of his political beliefs. He served at the Battle of the Somme, where he was wounded twice on the first day and had to lie in a field until the next day for evacuation. He was transported to a French field hospital and later evacuated to England.
Tawney's historical works reflected his ethical concerns and preoccupations in economic history. He was profoundly interested in the issue of the enclosure of land in the English countryside in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (although this was later shown to have occurred on a larger scale and with more important consequences in the fifteenth century) and in Weber's thesis on the connection between the appearance of Protestantism and the rise of capitalism. His belief in the rise of the gentry in the century before the outbreak of the Civil War in England provoked the 'Storm over the Gentry' in which his methods were subjected to severe criticisms by Hugh Trevor-Roper and John Cooper. His best book, ironically, was on Lionel Cranfield, the merchant who became Lord Treasurer.
A leading socialist, Tawney helped to formulate the economic and ethical views of the British Labour party through his many essays and books, and he participated in numerous government bodies concerned with education, trade, and industry. He was a member of the Fabian Society from 1906. Tawney supported the Republic during the Spanish Civil War, among many other political causes. He twice ran for a seat in the House of Commons for the Labour Party, without success.
The Oxford historian, Valerie Pearl, once described Tawney as having appeared to those in his presence as having an 'aura of sanctity'.
R. H. Tawney lends his name to the Tawney society at Rugby School, and the R. H. Tawney Economic History society at the London School of Economics.
In Keeping Left (1950):
Democracy is unstable as a political system as long as it remains a political system and nothing more, instead of being, as it should be, not only a form of government but a type of society, and a manner of life which is in harmony with that type. To make it a type of society requires an advance along two lines. It involves, in the first place, the resolute elimination of all forms of special privilege which favour some groups and depress other, whether their source be differences of environment, of education, or of pecuniary income. It involves, in the second place, the conversion of economic power, now often an irresponsible tyrant, into a servant of society, working within clearly defined limits and accountable for its actions to a public authority.
Interpreting Adam Smith in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
If preachers have not yet overtly identified themselves with the view of the natural man, expressed by an eighteenth-century writer in the words, trade is one thing and religion is another, they imply a not very different conclusion by their silence as to the possibility of collisions between them. The characteristic doctrine was one, in fact, which left little room for religious teaching as to economic morality, because it anticipated the theory, later epitomized by Adam Smith in his famous reference to the invisible hand, which saw in economic self-interest the operation of a providential plan… The existing order, except in so far as the short-sighted enactments of Governments interfered with it, was the natural order, and the order established by nature was the order established by God. Most educated men, in the middle of the [18th] century, would have found their philosophy expressed in the lines of Pope:
- Thus God and Nature formed the general frame,
Naturally, again, such an attitude precluded a critical examination of institutions, and left as the sphere of Christian charity only those parts of life which could be reserved for philanthropy, precisely because they fell outside that larger area of normal human relations, in which the promptings of self-interest provided an all-sufficient motive and rule of conduct.
- And bade self-love and social be the same.