Working Class Politics in Britain Between the Wars:
My grandmother (above) was a ribbon-weaver, a fifth generation Baptist, who was a deacon in her village chapel. She was a founding and active life-long member of the Labour Party in Coventry from the early 1920s. My grandfather was a staunch member of the Miners’ Federation (later the NUM), from 1918, a self-taught man who died of pneumoconiosis, aged eighty-two. He had once lost his job underground for defending a fellow collier from a bullying foreman. The fight of my grandparents against injustice left a strong impression on me. In the 1980s, while reading and researching for my doctorate on the migration of south Wales miners to the Midlands of England between the wars, I also became aware of the contribution of Welsh nonconformists to the development of Christian Socialist values and the Labour Party in cities like Birmingham, Coventry and even Oxford. They took on and finally defeated the ‘establishment’ patriarchs (like the fellow nonconformist Chamberlains) in these cities. This was due largely to the influx of workers from those areas which had already become Labour strongholds, during the ‘Depression’ years. I interviewed many of these workers, ex-miners who became car-workers. They told me of the important roles played by chapels, choirs and sporting teams, as well as trade unions and social clubs, in this transformation of working class culture and politics in the ‘new industry areas’.
19 November 1940; the remains of Coventry Cathedral following the Blitz on the city
Some of these newcomers to Coventry were among the convinced and articulate group of Christian Socialists with strong pacifist convictions which Rev Howard Ingli James’ ministry at Queen’s Road Baptist Church in the city centre produced in the late 1930s and 1940s. For them, as for Rev. James himself, their experience of the ‘two Britains’ of the inter-war period resonated in their post-war visions of a more just and equal society. James articulated this impetus to social reform in his 1950 book, Communism and the Christian Faith. In it, he acknowledged his indebtedness to his congregation, who helped to give him a new vision of what a Christian community in a busy industrial city might be and do. He then went on to describe the means by which he came to his vision of Christian Socialism:
The depression of 1929-33 left a profound mark on my mind. All around me I saw the bitter struggle of the unemployed… I also realised that the world contained an abundance of the necessities of life which the system denied to the people.
However, these ideas were all vague, and I played no actual part in the struggles of the unemployed. At the end of 1934, I read my first copy of ‘the Daily Worker’. What I read filled the gaps in my political development…
Though recognising that, empirically, both Marxism and Christian Socialism derived their inspiration from the same root he found them incompatible:
Probably the most powerful weapon ever put into the hands of the British Marxists was the prolonged period of widespread unemployment between the wars. Those who wonder why ten thousand electors voted Communist in the Rhondda Valley in 1945, should reflect on the plight of the valley during that period, when streets of empty shops testified to its bitter poverty, when every male member of many a church was unemployed, when thousands of eager youngsters were compelled to seek employment far from home. The memory of what happened to Merthyr, to Jarrow, to many a small town in Lancashire during these years is still the most powerful weapon the Marxist propagandist can use. Conversely, the most convincing argument against Marxism would be a demonstration that we can build a relatively just society in which every citizen is assured of useful employment and a decent livelihood, without infringing on the rights of the individual and without resorting to violence… we must show how it might be done.
In his writing, Ingli James was not only giving expression to a vision which he shared with many of his congregation at Queen’s Road. He was also distilling the essence of the experience of a significant section of the British working class between the wars.
The migrating millions from the depressed areas, and in particular those from the coalfield valleys of South Wales showed that they were not prepared to be treated as mere pawns of the economic and political system which had displaced them. Instead, they made significant and diverse contributions to the economic, political, social, cultural and religious life of the ‘new industry towns’. They were present in churches, chapels, football matches and in the city councils, indeed in all walks of life. Their collective memory of the depression years had become a powerful motive force throughout industrial Britain long before 1945, but it finally found its fullest expression in the landslide election victory of the Labour Party in that year, and in the subsequent achievements of the governments of 1945-51.
Aneurin Bevan inspecting the National Health Service, 1948.