Archive for the ‘Scotland’ Category

The British Labour Party & the Left, 1931-1936: The Roads from Coventry to Wigan & Jarrow to London.   1 comment

How comparable is Labour’s defeat of 2019 to that of 1935?

The electoral facts have shown that, at the end of 2019, the Labour Party in Britain suffered its worst defeat since 1935, yet those who led the Party to this are still refusing to accept responsibility for the debacle. They tell us that, had it not been for ‘Brexit’, they would have persuaded the British electorate to back Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘marvellous manifesto’ stuffed full of uncosted radical policies which would have transformed Britain, including widespread nationalisation without compensation, massive tax increases for private companies and entrepreneurs, and trillions of additional expenditure. Watching the daily parade of uncosted spending pledges, I was reminded of the tactics of the Militant-controlled Liverpool Council in the 1980s which followed the Leninist tactic of making impossible ‘transitional demands’ in order to take over the public agenda and sow the seeds of continual chaos. However, as a historian of the inter-war period, I’ve been re-discovering the parallels between Labour’s current crisis and the one it had to claw its way out of from 1931-36 and the ‘devils’ are ‘legion’.

Francis Beckett, a fellow historian of the Labour movement, has just published an article in the ‘New European’ pointing to a curious figure from the left’s past who seems to have inspired the party’s calamitous current state. He argues that the cause of the calamity was not Brexit, nor even the incompetence of Corbyn, McDonnell and the ‘Shadow Cabinet’, but the sectarianism of those who advised Corbyn, principally Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray, who are the modern equivalents of one of the strangest figures in Labour movement history, Rajani Palme Dutt. Beckett continues:

Képtalálat a következőre: „R. Palme Dutt”

Dutt was the leading theoretician (that was the word they used) of Britain’s Communist Party, from the 1920s until he died in 1974. In the 1930s Dutt … pioneered a Moscow-inspired policy called ‘Class against Class’ which required communists to reserve their first and most deadly fire for their rivals on the left, who would divert the working class from the true path of socialism. … In the 1980s Murray and Milne ran Straight Left, the monthly journal associated with the ‘Stalinist’, pro-Soviet, anti-Eurocommunist faction of the Communist Party. This group was ruthlessly and bitterly sectarian, in the spirit of Class against Class. After the miners’ strike of 1984-5, they reserved their bitterest abuse for anyone on the left who criticised Arthur Scargill (disclosure: I was the target of some of this).

This author had a similar, albeit local, experience to this when, after teaching in a Lancashire comprehensive, I tried to re-join the Labour Party in Coventry in 1986. By then, the ‘Militant Tendency’ and the ‘hard Left’ had taken control of the constituency party my grandparents had helped to found. Even the testimony of the local councillor my grandmother had worked alongside for half a century wasn’t enough to guarantee me entry. Apparently, I was in the wrong teachers’ union, although I discovered later there was no such rule about belonging to a TUC-affiliated union. They had obviously spotted that I might be a threat to their hegemony and weren’t interested in Labour heritage. The following year, two of the Militant/ hard-Left group, David Nellist and John Hughes were elected as two of the three Coventry MPs, but they only survived one term before they were expelled from the party. Though they were replaced by ‘mainstream’ parliamentary candidates, Labour lost its fourth general election in succession in 1992, largely because it still seemed to be rent with divisions, at least until John Smith took charge. I went into self-imposed exile in Hungary, then undergoing its transition to democracy. There I learnt what ‘revolutionary socialism’ had really been about; Hungarians told me that they had really experienced Orwell’s dystopia in real life at exactly the time he had been writing about it in his Hebridean hermitage. Five years later, I returned to Britain just in time to witness a ‘Social-Democratic’ Labour Party finally win power in 1997, holding onto it until 2010 and achieving much in the first twelve of those thirteen years.

The Drive to Municipal Socialism in Coventry:

In order to understand the relationship between Socialism and the recovery of the Labour Party in Britain between the wars, we need to understand the growth of the local parties in municipalities like Coventry and their rise to power in the Thirties. What happened to the constituency parties in Coventry in the 1980s was largely a reaction of the ‘revolutionary socialists’ to the dominance of municipal socialism as the Party’s main creed since the mid-1930s. In some ways, it appears strange that it took Labour until 1937 to gain power in so working-class a city, and this may be the result of the party’s concentration on gaining and sustaining representation in parliament through what was, after all, a coalition of national and regional political groups, unions and societies. At the local level, the ‘shopocracy’ was left to preside over Coventry’s industrial and social revolution long after its social base had ceased to be dominant. The ‘shopocracy’ was an uneasy coalition of different forces, seldom able to achieve united and disciplined action. Yet it succeeded in holding up the Labour advance for decades. Finally, in 1937, Labour gained power almost by default.

In its drive for municipal power, Labour was in a fight not with the big companies that controlled the economic life of the city and its workers, but with a political anachronism that remained in power until it was virtually exhausted. The political expression of the ‘shopocracy’ were the Liberal and Conservative parties. In the late 1920s, they had come together to form a coalition. Of all its councillors and aldermen whose occupations can be identified in the inter-war period, one third were dealers or retailers, mostly shopkeepers. Only just over a fifth were manufacturers, mostly associated with the older-established trades such as watchmaking, silk-weaving and clothing manufacture. A further fifth was from the professions, including lawyers and doctors, alongside builders, publicans and commercial agents. Only a very small number were associated with big engineering companies, including a few senior managers, who did not stay politically active for very long.

Throughout the inter-war years, almost all the figures on comparative expenditure by county boroughs show Coventry lagging behind the majority, in particular on libraries, houses, schools and poor relief. Consequently, Coventry was low on in the list of rates levied per head. This may have encouraged more industrial concerns to move into the city, but the extension of the city and lower than average rates of unemployment allowed a policy of inactivity to survive. With a gradual improvement in the Labour vote in the 1930s, it was clear to the Coalition that its days were numbered unless drastic action was taken. It decided on a new initiative, therefore, and launched the ‘Progressive Party’. There were two reasons for this change; one was to improve organisation, and the other was to draw in support from Coventry industrialists. For years, the Coalition had won elections because of the weakness of the Labour Party rather than because of its own strength. An editorial in the Midland Daily Telegraph complained of the fact that the Labour Party had a central organisation, did political work throughout the year, had developed a policy for the city, whereas the Coalition had done none of this.

In 1935, when the City Council agreed to promote a Parliamentary Bill to extend its powers, Labour saw this as a victory for socialism. The Bill was necessary in order to deal with the new lands that the City had taken over in view of its expansion. It sought to acquire powers to drill water wells, acquire land for roads, set out an airport and parks, and close private slaughterhouses.  It was not controversial and George Hodgkinson, Labour leader on the Council declared at the meeting which agreed to it, We are all socialists now. He made it clear that Labour was supporting the Bill because it was a socialist measure. There were opponents, still wedded to a policy of non-intervention, who were uneasy about the growth in the authority of city departments. Coalition parsimony tended to encourage Labour to overemphasise the collectivist aspect of extending local government services. Certainly, these services had to be planned, and this was the worst charge that Labour could throw at the Coalition, that it had failed to plan municipal enterprises.

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The early failures of the trade unions in the industrial struggle pushed the Coventry Labour Party into seeking its salvation in the municipal strategy. Labour projected itself as the party of ‘planning’ in which municipal enterprise would combine with co-operative ideals to create socialism. Many of Labour’s local leaders were also active in the co-operative movement which embraced the whole city, including the new working-class suburbs. Their vision of socialism – large, generous and undefined, included public ownership which, if properly handled, could provide the key to realising that vision. This was a very different vision of socialist values than that held by many in the trade union movement, expressed through the Trades and Labour Council which had been established a full decade before the Labour Party in the City. It had been founded before the First World War and besides co-ordinating support for major strikes at the local level, it also took up local issues on behalf of the trades unions.

What is of interest in Coventry is that for a number of years the number of people voting Labour greatly outnumbered the number of people joining trade unions. Increasingly, the unions were concerned with money, while Labour was concerned with social justice for all. The irony, of course, was that the decision by Labour to concentrate on municipal politics made it more likely that workplace politics, in turn, would become narrower in focus. From about 1934 onwards, trade union membership began to improve, very slowly at first but speeding-up from 1937.  The vehicle and aircraft industries did well for most of the Thirties, with higher pay for pieceworkers, and this stimulated many craft workers to re-join their unions to try to overtake the pieceworkers. As elsewhere in the country, the trade union revival offered scope for radical politics and the hardening of the divide between workplace politics and municipal politics, which once again made it possible for the Communist Party (CPGB) to spread its influence. It had survived the ‘lean’ years by going through a period of decline and sectarianism, which characterised its role and activities for the remainder of the decade.

But the inter-war period as a whole had seen a shift from socialism based on workshop power in Coventry to socialism as a municipal enterprise. A key factor in this shift was the existence of two distinct ruling groups within the City, the manufacturers and the ‘shopocracy’. The Coalition, with its hands growing increasingly shaky on the economic and social levers of power, and with its narrow-minded neglect of municipal duties, was an obvious target for the Labour Party. This concentration on attacking the Coalition meant that it had comparatively weak links with the trade union movement, and perhaps an over-emphasis on the road to socialism through municipal planning. But the emphasis on ‘planning’ was clearly needed to overcome the financial problems which could follow from the increase in municipal enterprises. Some traditional working-class members of the early Labour Party had a horror of borrowing instilled in them; T. J. Harris, the first Labour Mayor of Coventry could seldom be restrained from preaching against its evils, though his views were not altogether shared by some of his younger party colleagues. Nevertheless, he remained a major influence on the party throughout the inter-war period, as did the values of ‘thrift’. Fear of getting into serious debt remained a great handicap to a Council that needed to spend money. Labour hoped that the modern language of ‘planning’ and ‘intervention’ could get round the problem.

Of course, the danger of a local study, however brief, is that it might lead to an overemphasis on special local conditions and the playing down of national politics. Throughout most of the inter-war years, despite some notable ‘hiccups’, Labour succeeded in establishing itself as a major Parliamentary force, and for a few years, as a party of government. The habit of voting Labour gradually spread among working people and no doubt national developments affected voting patterns in Coventry in a similar way as they did in other parts of the country. Even before Labour came to power in Coventry, George Hodgkinson was urging the Council to look forward to the day when … property would be required by the Corporation for laying out the centre of the city on the lines followed by continental cities. Such planning was not just for a better city in the near future; it was a long-term investment that would yield funds for social spending beyond current horizons.

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Planning for the People:

Coventry had quickly become a city whose economic life was dominated by large factories, and factory life was also important to shaping social and cultural activities in the city. Labour policies had little impact on factory experiences; its appeal was based on the improvement of living conditions, and the standard and the general quality of life rather than on people’s working lives. Working people were beginning to measure this, especially in Coventry, by the extent of their access to leisure activities and facilities. The local Labour approach was to take the political passivity of the working class as a given. Labour developed a socialist programme that meant acting on behalf of working people rather than bringing them into power. Its retreat from the workshops, necessary in order to clearly establish its own identity, left a gulf in working-class politics that the Communist Party sought, in vain, to fill. The Labour Party both nationally and locally was still fully committed to the replacement of capitalism with Socialism. But in 1935 it lacked a strategy for working-class power at a national level. It saw its programme of municipal socialism in Coventry and other corporations as a means of securing a broader victory.

In retrospect, A. J. P. Taylor (1970) saw the Thirties as a period of paradox with politicians attempting to strengthen the weakened and declining remnants of industrial greatness, while the more prosperous part of the population was buying the ‘new’ industrial products. This, he argued, was a good example of a ‘disconnect’ between politicians and the people. Taylor wrote that September 1931 marked ‘the watershed’ of English history between the wars. He defined this by reference to a number of events and longer-term developments. The end of the gold standard on 21 September was the most obvious and immediate of these. Until that point, governments were hoping to restore the unregulated capitalist economy which had existed (or was thought to have existed) before 1914. After that day, they had to face their responsibility to provide conscious direction at least as far as the banks and money markets were concerned. Taylor went on to highlight the key themes of the Thirties compared with the preceding decade:

Planning was the key word of thirties; planned economy, plan for peace, planned families, plan for holidays. The standard was Utopia. …

Politicians strove to revive the depressed areas; the inhabitants left them. Public policy concentrated on the staple industries and on exports. Capital and labour developed new industries which provided goods for the home market. … The individual spent his money on domestic comforts – indeed with the growth of hire-purchase, spent other people’s money also. … the English people were ‘more planned against than planning’. …

The nineteen-thirties have been called the black years, the devil’s decade. It popular image can be expressed in two phrases; mass unemployment and ‘appeasement’. No set of political leaders have been judged so contemptuously since the days of Lord North. … The members of the National Government … would hesitate at nothing to save the country, to save the pound. The result of their courage was that the children of the unemployed had less margarine on their bread. After this resolute decision, ministers dispersed to their warm, comfortable homes and ate substantial meals. Such was ‘equality of sacrifice’. 

Yet, at the same time, as Taylor himself also pointed out, most English people were enjoying a richer lifestyle than any they had previously known: longer holidays, shorter hours and higher real wages. They also had motor cars, radio sets and other electrical appliances (many of them made at the GEC in Coventry). This other aspect of the Thirties, less dramatic than the narrative of the ‘depressed areas’ and the hunger marches, has no place in song and story. But standards of living were actually rising in that black decade. In the Thirties, if you had a job, and particularly one in the new light industries, you were not badly off, and your parents’ way of life could seem dismally restricted and archaic. Except for the trough of the economic crisis which, unfortunately for Labour, coincided with their time in government, from October 1929 to September 1931, it was only the old-fashioned heavy basic industries, the ones which had made Britain’s fortune, which were now derelict: in the new industries based on electricity or petrol instead of steam, and consumer goods rather than iron and steel, there was a genuine and rising prosperity.

It was the mass unemployment of ‘the Slump’, more than anything else, which gave the Thirties their distorted image as a ‘long weekend’. Britain’s exports were almost halved between 1929 and 1931 and not only did the depressed industries of the Twenties now have to face, according to Cook and Stevenson (1977) an economic blizzard of unprecedented severity, but the slump also affected every branch of industry and business. Unemployment continued to rise through the winter of 1931-32, reaching a peak in the third quarter of 1932 when there were almost three million people out of work in Great Britain. The National Government’s response was to implement further economy measures, including cuts in unemployment benefit. Financial orthodoxy and economic conservatism remained the dominant features of its strategy to cope with the slump.

Pomp & Pageantry – A Monarch for the Masses:

001George V photographed circa 1935.

The mass of the people, middle class and working class, who had fought in the war and still hoped for a ‘Merrie England’, lined up solidly behind the Pageant of History’s living representatives, the Royal family. George V commanded massive popularity. He was gruff, solid and sensible. He made sensible remarks, and his Christmas radio broadcasts in which, after a round-up of voices from all over the Empire, he spoke with great simplicity to his people, made him a father figure. His image was greatly enhanced by the fact that his Hanoverian origins had given him a classless accent. Of a member of MacDonald’s Government with whom he became friendly, he said If I’d had that man’s childhood I should feel exactly as he does. The King’s relations with MacDonald and the other Labour ministers formed an important chapter in his Kingship. According to Churchill, he was determined from the outset to show absolute impartiality to all parties in the Constitution and the workings of Parliamentary Government, irrespective of their creed or doctrine, who could obtain a majority in the House of Commons. Indeed, if the balance were to be swayed at all, it must be on the side of newcomers to power, who needed help and favour by the Crown. Never, Churchill wrote, did he need fear the British Democracy:

He reconciled the new forces of Labour and Socialism to the Constitution and the Monarchy. This enormous process of assimilating and rallying the spokesmen of left-out millions will be intently studied by historians of the future. … the spectacle was seen of the King and Emperor working in the utmost ease and unaffected cordiality with politicians whose theories at any rate seemed to menace all existing institutions, …

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In 1935, George V had been on the throne for twenty-five years and the nation decided to give him a party. The Jubilee celebrations were marked by a genuine warmth of feeling, which came as a surprise to the King himself. When they toured the poorer parts of the capital, the King and Queen received an overwhelmingly affectionate and enthusiastic welcome. He is supposed to have said, I am beginning to think they must like me for myself. In the photo above, vast crowds cheer the procession as it returns to the Palace. The King wrote later that this was the greatest number of people in the streets that I have ever seen in my life. 

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Below: A Jubilee street party in May 1935. All over Britain, workers decorated their houses and streets, and made the most of the occasion with a spirit that must have dismayed ‘true socialists’. In his speech, the King made reference to the unemployed, saying ‘I grieve to think of the numbers of my people who are without work’.  The Stockport Chamber of Trade recommended a public holiday to mark the Jubilee but left it to the employers to decide whether or not to pay their workers.  As a result, only one mill gave the day off with pay, so that thousands of workers celebrated the Jubilee with a reduced pay packet.

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Below: Earlier in the Jubilee year, Alderman F. Bowler, the leader of the local Labour Party, had led a protest march to the Town Hall (on 6 March) to fight inside the Council against the rate reduction of threepence in the pound, and for more jobs. The Labour group put down a motion urging the Council to ‘respond to the Prince Of Wales’ appeal to employers to engage an extra one per cent of men on permanent employment’. The photograph shows protesting men forming a cordon around the Town Hall. 

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Why did so many workers vote Tory in December 1935?

Besides producing a different kind of factory worker, the new industries greatly augmented the middle class at its lower-paid end; it was these people, together with the old middle class of independent shopkeepers and small tradesmen and small businessmen, with the professional upper-middle class, the new financial and managerial upper class and the remnants of the land-owning aristocracy, who could have been expected to vote solidly for the National Government and stability. In the event, they were joined by at least half the old working classes who were in such dire straits, and this was a straight vote for tradition: ‘in the crisis’ they thought, as was often the case with British workers, that we shall be saved, if at all, by those who are used to ruling and governing according to well-tried formulae which in the past have put us on top. That was the reason for the huge parliamentary majorities for MacDonald, Baldwin and Chamberlain. René Cutforth summed up the British attitude as follows:

Put lucidly the proposition before the British nation in the 1930s would run something like this:

“In the last war nearly a million British men, in the younger half of the population, laid down their lives for King and Country/ Civilisation/ Freedom. Take your pick. Since we are not at this moment, as we sometimes feared we would be, a bankrupt German province, it can be said that their sacrifice saved us. We are now in the position of having to be saved again. It seems that the sacrifice required this time is that a further one and a half million, the permanently unemployed, lay down their lives, not abruptly and in violence like the soldiers: they will not even have to stop breathing, but ‘lives’ in the sense in which we want to preserve them in these islands, they cannot have. If this is what has to be, amen.”

Put like that, I don’t believe the proposition would have won a single vote, but in fact that is the way we voted and that is what happened. 

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At the beginning of October 1935, Harold Nicolson, career diplomat and diarist, was offered a ‘safe’ seat in the National Labour interest at Leicester West in the November General Election. He jumped at the offer since he had been regarded as ‘damaged goods’ since his ill-starred flirtations with Beaverbrook and Mosley earlier in the decade. He was certainly not a socialist in any meaningful sense of the word, admitting himself that such socialism as he owned was ‘purely cerebral’ and that he did ‘not like the masses in the flesh’. So of course, Real Labour was out of the question, and Nicolson really saw himself as an Asquithian Liberal, but they were now extinct as a parliamentary organism. He had, therefore, wandered aimlessly along the political spectrum, from the New Party to National Labour, stopping off along the way to check out the Conservatives or the Liberals, without ever ideologically coming to rest at any one particular point. In his attempt to identify this point in public, he wrote a pamphlet for National Labour which took the form of an imaginary conversation between himself and a fellow passenger on a train journey between London and Leicester, published as Politics in the Train. He told his sceptical companion that how much he disliked sectional parties and bureaucrats, those that place their own interests or theories above the interests of the country as a whole. 

Although he favoured the concept of an organic state, he did not believe in rendering Britain a totalitarian State; in fact, he abhorred all forms of ‘isms’ and ‘dictatorships’. National Labour, he argued, represented ‘the future point of view’: it would base its policy on ‘Internal Reorganisation’ and ‘External Peace’. He believed in National Labour because he believed ‘in reality’ and Labour because he believed ‘in idealism’. He sympathised completely with the plight of the poor and thought of himself as belonging to a ‘progressive left-wing’. Although he considered Eton ‘the most perfect education system in all the world’, he deplored the class system in education and the division between public and council schools. Favouring equal education for all, he wanted people of any class to enjoy the privileges of the capitalist class, aiming at bringing Eton to the masses. These views were perhaps not so far removed from those emerging from George Orwell’s pen. But when Nicolson was writing in his diaries, he stated that while he had ‘always been on the side of the underdog’, he had also always believed in the hereditary principle. Once he sensed that his aristocratic values were under threat, he revealed his true colours.

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But, knowing little of domestic politics and having nothing in common with the middle-class and working-class voters he sought to win over, he flinched from the cut and thrust of electioneering. The hustings held no appeal for him, especially when having to face working men and women lowing in disgust and hatred. He wrote in his diary after a campaign meeting in the constituency that he loathed every moment of the Election. His mood was not improved by the Liberals deciding at the last moment to enter a candidate, making it a much closer-run race.  When voting took place on 14 November, the contest could not have been more tightly fought.  After a recount, Nicolson sneaked in with a majority of just eighty-seven, much to the delight of his supporters. As he told his wife Vita later, I put all my philosophy of life into that Election. Yet it was a philosophy expressed by an Asquithian Liberal disguised as a National Labourite, propping up a National  Government controlled by the Conservatives led by Baldwin with the rump of National Labour trailing behind, led by an ailing Ramsay MacDonald, its eight members swallowed up in another huge Tory majority. MacDonald offered him a job as his Parliamentary Private Secretary, but he refused, explaining to Vita that:

… I fear that Ramsay is a vain and slightly vindictive old man … somewhat like King Charles I addressing the Cavaliers from the Whitehall scaffold. ‘You eight people … are at the seed-bed of seminal ideas. The young Tories are on your side. Work hard; think hard; and you will create a classless England.’ 

MacDonald also championed the idea of a ‘Tory Socialism’ which  Harold Nicolson must have considered to be almost as absurd as the notion of ‘a classless England’. It was fortunate for him that foreign affairs came to dominate the new Parliament as well as public opinion. On these matters, he was able to speak with authority and from experience not given to many MPs. His first opportunity to do so came sooner than he planned. On 19 December 1935, he rose from the backbenches to deliver his maiden speech at a dramatic moment, just after the Foreign Secretary, Samuel Hoare, had resigned over his role in the Hoare-Laval Pact which was designed to end the Ethiopian war which had been raging since October. The war in Abyssinia had already cost the Labour opposition its leader.

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Despite the overwhelming victory of the ‘National Government’ at the General Election of November 1935, though now essentially a Conservative one, the recovery of the Labour Party under Clement Attlee’s leadership was evident in it gaining 154 seats, making it the major party of opposition to the Tories. George Lansbury, a committed pacifist, had resigned as the Leader of the Labour Party at the 1935 Party Conference on 8 October, after delegates voted in favour of sanctions against Italy for its aggression against Abyssinia. Lansbury had strongly opposed the policy and felt unable to continue leading the party. Taking advantage of the disarray in the Labour Party, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, who had replaced MacDonald as PM in June of that year, announced on 19 October that a general election would be held on 14 November. With no time for a leadership contest, the party agreed that Attlee, as Deputy, should serve as interim leader, on the understanding that a leadership election would be held after the general election. Attlee, therefore, led Labour through the 1935 election, which saw the party stage a partial comeback from its disastrous 1931 performance, winning 38 per cent of the vote, the highest share Labour had won up to that point. Although numerically the result can be compared with the result of the 2019 Election, that is where the similarity ends. In historical terms, Labour was back on the road to its 1945 victory. Contemporaries also saw the result as a harbinger of things to come for Labour, as the letter written by the Liberal Marquess of Lothian to Lloyd George shortly after the election shows:

The Labour Party … is the party of the future; it proclaims that Socialism is the central issue of the century as democracy was of the last, and individual rights of earlier times, and has a vague, and largely unpractical programme of reform; it has behind it the interests of the Trade Unions and the co-operative movement reinforced by a steadily growing body of young intellectual Socialists. … The practical choice is between letting the Liberal Party die and encouraging liberally-minded people to join the other two parties in order to liberalise them and compel them both to be faithful to essential liberal tradition.

The Liberals won only twenty-one seats, losing eleven seats to Labour and four to the Tories. In fact, though, both the (by then) main parties benefited from the Liberal decline and, given the Conservative dominance after 1931, it was perhaps the Right rather than the Left which gained most in the long-term. More importantly, perhaps, the 1935 Election set the pattern for the post-war political system as a two-party rather than a multi-party democracy, especially in terms of governments.

Attlee Arrives, two Kings Depart. …

Képtalálat a következőre: „Clement Attlee, 1935”

Attlee (pictured above in 1935) stood in the subsequent leadership election, held soon after, in which he was opposed by Herbert Morrison, who had just re-entered parliament in the recent election, and Arthur Greenwood: Morrison was seen as the favourite, but was distrusted by many sections of the party, especially the left-wing. Arthur Greenwood meanwhile was a popular figure in the party. Attlee was able to come across as a competent and unifying figure, particularly having already led the party through a general election. He went on to come first in both the first and second ballots, formally being elected Leader of the Labour Party on 3 December 1935. Writing in 1954, S. Haffner was clear about the significance of his two victories in Attlee’s career:

... As a statesman, Attlee’s formative period undoubtedly began in 1935. His party had been crushed at the 1931 election after the MacDonald ‘betrayal’; and Lansbury had proved quite ineffective as a parliamentary leader. So Attlee – one of the few Labour candidates to have survived the landslide – was told to act as leader until after the next election.

The Labour Party was in an almost hopeless mess – utterly defeated, and divided into quarrelling factions. Attlee, loyal, modest, impartial, clear-headed, capable of decision, and with the courage of his personal detachment, had precisely the qualities needed. In reuniting his broken party he added to those qualities a volume of experience in political management – so that he has quietly led the party ever since. It was at this time that the loyal Attlee learned to stomach disloyal colleagues. …

In his Memoirs (1964), the Earl of Kilmuir wrote that no-one could underestimate the strength of Attlee’s leadership. His contemporaries had tended to write him down as an amiable little man, but the Conservative peer regarded him as a shrewd, reasonable, and practical man … closer to the aspirations and difficulties of ordinary people than contemporary political leaders.

At five minutes to midnight on 20 January 1936, King George died at Sandringham in Norfolk. The public had been well prepared for the death of the King and a few hours earlier the BBC’s chief announcer had told the country; The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close. He was sincerely mourned as the representative of tradition, stability and ‘the good old days’. At the end of January, vast crowds once more stood on the streets of London, some having waited all night to watch the King’s funeral procession.

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The new King, Edward VIII had a very different image from his father’s and already, as Prince of Wales, he had become something of a hero among the unemployed in his role as patron of the National Council of Social Service. Having already toured the depressed areas in 1928, he had already irritated Stanley Baldwin as Prime Minister and other members of his cabinet, who at the beginning of 1936 were now in charge of the National Government. Later in the year, on touring the South Wales Coalfield once more, now as monarch, he had been heard to utter Dreadful! Something will be done about this! which was misreported as Something must be done! The first phrase might have been regarded as a promise of a re-doubling of efforts by charitable agencies, but the Government took umbrage at a time when Baldwin and the King were already protagonists in the abdication crisis. With that one misreported utterance, his reputation among ministers as ‘irresponsible’ was sealed together with his fate as King. Little wonder then that there were rumours of a march to London of South Wales miners to restore him as King, following his forced abdication.

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The Radical Writers on the Left:

Another growing class in the Thirties was ‘a strange and disorderly mob’ according to René Cutforth. The Left referred to it as the ‘intelligentsia’, made up of intellectuals and artists and included a fair number of the rich and fashionable and their ‘hangers-on’. Cutforth commented that in the Thirties this layer of the population went violently Red almost overnight. This new mood was born at Oxford University and led by its young poets, Wyston Auden, Stephen Spender, Cecil Day Lewis and, a little later, Louis MacNeice. They were called the ‘Auden Group’ but all they had in common was a frame of mind – outrage at the plight of the poor and the ‘smugness’ of the rest. They launched the revolutionary movement which was to create the most characteristic intellectual climate of the time, and from the start, Auden’s was the voice of the decade. What they were after was a Bolshevik-style revolution. It was to arrive with ‘the death of the Old Gang, the death of us’. Auden always sounded as if ten thousand revolutionaries were fighting to snatch his words from the press as they appeared. In fact, the audience was so small that it often seemed that these poets were writing for each other.

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It was just possible in the early Thirties to believe that social justice was flowering in the Soviet Union and that mankind was on its way to the millennium via Moscow, but even then only to addicts of Communist belief who were the Thirties’ most characteristic academic product. For these, the Soviet Union was the sacred cow, and any word of criticism of it was no mere disagreement or even heresy, but rank blasphemy. Most of the intellectuals on the Left were far too ‘committed’ to bother to get the facts right, and later plenty of them dismissed Stalin’s terror brightly as ‘necessary for the creation of the new order’. The Thirties was the great age of illusion in which intellectuals could believe anything they wanted, regardless of the available evidence to the contrary, and frequently did.

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The Marxists expected the Revolution ‘any week now’. Capitalism was supposed to be on its last legs, to have at most a few tottering years to run. One good push would topple it over, and then the road to socialism would be found out of the ensuing chaos and catastrophe. C. Day Lewis wrote:

Drug nor isolation will cure this cancer.

It is now or never the hour of the knife,

The break with the past, the major operation. 

In many ways, he was speaking for his time. The idea of the ‘necessary chaos’ was the notion underlying all the art of the Thirties. The revolution was seen by Auden as making the artist’s private sensibility an irrelevance; the revolutionary poet should remain absolutely detached, like a surgeon or a scientist. He believed, therefore, that poetry should reflect this by being classical and austere:

Financier, leaving your little room

Where the money is made but not spent, …

The game is up for you and the others,

Who, thinking, pace in slippers on the lawns

Of College Quad or Cathedral Close, …

Seekers after happiness, all who follow

The convulsions of your simple wish,

It is later than you think.

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The last line of Auden’s poem might well have been an apt motto of his whole ‘group’. Throughout the decade, however, George Orwell maintained a critical view of the group in particular and the orthodox Soviet-worshippers in general, whom he regarded as divorced from humanity: they had never met anyone outside their own social class, he said, annoying them greatly because they knew he was right. Even if they were intellectually exciting and were genuine poets, they were most genuine when least political, and their political achievements were very limited. Far more effective politically was Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club, established in May 1936 with forty thousand readers who each received a book a month, chosen by Gollancz and two other Marxist intellectuals, John Strachey and Stafford Cripps, to revitalise and educate the ‘British Left’. It was not necessary to be either a Marxist or even a Socialist to be on ‘the Left’ in the Thirties. There was also a large, somewhat vague area of opinion which called itself ‘anti-fascist’, and it was to those of this opinion that the Left Book Club addressed itself. The use of the word ‘Left’ was known from the nineteenth century due to the adversarial nature of parliamentary seating according to the Speaker’s position in the Commons, but it was not ‘common’ as a general description before the 1920s. The Left Book Club helped to make it a synonym for ‘Socialist’ since it became a key left-wing institution of the late 1930s and the 1940s, with over sixty thousand readers. According to Cutforth, the Left Book Club exerted a strong influence on the mind of the decade.

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‘The Autobiography of a Miner Working in South Wales’, London: Gollancz, 1939.

Perhaps this is best exemplified by its best-known book, written in 1936 and published the following year, written by the most influential author of the Thirties and Forties, if not the century. Three days after the King’s funeral at the end of January 1936, George Orwell left London by train on the beginning of a journey of journalism, investigation and self-discovery. Victor Gollancz had commissioned him to write a book on Britain’s ravaged industrial north, and for this purpose, Orwell wanted to see the effects of unemployment and experience the British working class ‘at close quarters’. At that time, he was a contributor to the left-wing literary journal, The Adelphi. George Orwell was the first writer to travel to the north to report on the horrors of poverty and deprivation to be found there. J. B. Priestley had already journeyed around Britain in the Autumn of 1933, and his best-seller, English Journey, had drawn attention to the awful conditions to towns in the Midlands and the North. Priestley, the bestselling novelist and playwright, used his journalistic skills to write a travelogue about his ‘sojourns’ in various towns and cities in the previous year. It seems to describe England in accurate, realistic terms, contrasted with Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier of a year later, which was written with the main aim of filling the English middle classes with guilt and so exaggerated some of the evidence gathered to gain that effect. The spectre of Bolshevism which he also used to great effect, later became one of the facets of the mythology of the Thirties, and Priestley provided a useful corrective to a view which, as Orwell later admitted, emphasised the worst rather than the improving features of British society. Orwell’s view was as bleakly pessimistic as it could be; Priestley was ever the optimist.

013There was also a growing sense, felt especially keenly on the left, that while much was known about the British Empire, the experience of the working classes at home had been hidden for too long. To put this right a number of groundbreaking novels were published on the subject, one or two of them written by working-class authors. The most successful of these was Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, a moving account of an unemployed family in Salford, where the author grew up. It was a best-seller, later made into a play (in which this author played a leading role in the early eighties) and a film. Left-wing film-makers, led by the pioneering producer John Grierson, were using the new medium of the documentary film in the hope of creating a new perspective on a Britain, in which at least two nations existed in parallel realities.

At the beginning of 1936, Britain was still a class-bound and divided nation, split between a rapidly modernising and growing ‘south’ and the impoverished peripheral regions of south Wales, northern England and central Scotland.  For Priestley, the ‘two nations’ view of the Thirties was greatly oversimplified. There was certainly depression and appalling human suffering but it was localised rather than general as the Thirties progressed. Equally, in parts of the Midlands, there were ‘blackspots’ of high unemployment among the generally prosperous  ‘new industry towns’ as Orwell had also noted in his diary on his journey, partly on foot, through the Midlands from Coventry to Birmingham to Cheshire before taking the train to Manchester. Priestley wrote of how he had seen England:

I had seen a lot of Englands. How many? At once, three disengaged themselves from the shifting mass. There was first, Old England, the country of cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns, of Parson and Squire, guidebook and quaint highways and byways England … But we all know this England, which at best cannot be improved upon in the world. …

Then, I decided, there is the nineteenth-century England, the industrial England of coal, iron, steel, cotton, wool, railways, of thousands of rows of little houses all alike, sham Gothic churches, square-faced chapels, Town Halls, Mechanics’ Institutes, mills, foundries, warehouses, refined watering-places, Pier Pavilions, Family and Commercial Hotels, … This England makes up the larger part of the Midlands and the North and exists everywhere; but it is not being added to and has no new life poured into it. To the more fortunate people it was not a bad England at all, very solid and comfortable. …

The third England, I concluded, was the new post-war England, belonging far more to the age itself than to this island. … This is theEngland of arterial and by-pass roads, of filling stations and factories that look like exhibiting buildings, of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafés,  … You could almost accept Woolworth’s as its symbol. … In this England, for the first time in history, Jack and Jill are nearly as good as their master and mistress. … Most of the work  … is rapidly becoming standardised in this new England, and its leisure is being handed over to standardisation too. …

Here then were the three Englands I had seen, the Old, the Nineteenth-Century and the New; and as I looked back on my journey I saw how these three were variously and most fascinatingly mingled in every part of the country I had visited. …. 

North of Manchester:

George Orwell was just one of a host of journalists, economists, sociologists, medical experts and nutritionists who produced reports in 1936 that were to be seminal in the envisioning and formation of the welfare state in the next decade. But Orwell was different. He scorned journalist such as Priestley for their ‘middle-class writing’. He didn’t wish to study the poor and then go off to a comfortable hotel to rest and recuperate. He wanted to plunge into people’s lives, albeit briefly, and experience working-class life at first hand. In his desire to immerse himself in poverty and discomfort an urge for self-punishment and a degree of voyeurism, a tradition in English literature of slum-visiting that went back to Mayhew and Dickens. Orwell had first become familiar with the world of poverty (of a different kind) by becoming a tramp in order to describe this world in Down and Out in Paris and London. Denys Blakeway has recently written of the impact on him of his journey north:

Orwell, the former Imperial policeman who had served in Burma, had never been to the North of England before; he had never seen the smoking chimneys and satanic mills of the industrial areas that had given rise to to Britain’s wealth and that were home to its worst oppression. Like a latter-day Engels, he experienced an epiphany, as what he saw changed him from a sceptical liberal into an unorthodox but nevertheless committed socialist, ready later in the year to fight for the cause in Spain.   

Arriving in Manchester, Orwell was put in touch with Jerry Kennan, an activist and unemployed coal miner in Wigan who took him to the town’s market square, where every weekend a series of political meetings took place. These were attempts, mostly unsuccessful, to engage workers in radical action, much of which took place outside of the sterile world of the coalition government in Westminster. According to Kennan, that Saturday afternoon there were several meetings going on in the square, held by the ILP, the Communist Party, the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, and various religious bodies. The NUWM was much mistrusted by the authorities as a Communist front, but by the jobless, it was widely regarded as the most effective organisation working on their behalf. It had been responsible for many hunger marches and protests against the Means Test that had helped to raise awareness of the suffering of unemployment through the years of depression. Kennan and his guest headed for the NUWM shelter, a dreadful, ramshackle place, he wrote, although he acknowledged that it was warm and welcoming. When the men there learned about his mission, they immediately offered help with finding information and, more importantly, lodgings. To his discomfort, however, his southern origins and background could not be hidden, and the men insisted on calling him ‘Sir’. In 1936, his class could not be easily disguised, and Orwell’s public school accent would have been unmistakable, however scruffy he may have appeared after days and nights spent on the road to Wigan.

On the first evening in Wigan, Orwell went as a guest of the NUWM to Wigan’s Co-operative Hall to hear Wal Hannington, a veteran activist, one of Gollancz’s authors, and the leader of the Movement. He was also one of the founding members of the CPGB, which made him an object of state suspicion and police surveillance. Stanley Baldwin saw activists such as Hannington as real dangers to the security of the realm. The CPGB and the NUWM had been behind numerous strikes, sit-ins and hunger marches during the previous five years, and within the establishment, there was genuine fear of revolution. Orwell dismissed Hannington as a ‘poor speaker’ who used all ‘the padding and clichés of the socialist orator’, but was impressed by the audience’s response and ‘surprised by the amount of Communist feeling’. At the time, the CPGB had only 11,500 members in Britain compared with the 400,000 members of the Labour Party, but its popularity and influence extended far beyond its membership. When Hannington told his audience that, in a war between Britain and the USSR, the latter would win, he was greeted with ‘loud cheers’. The Soviet Union under Stalin was revered by many, from founding members of the Labour Party, like Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the authors of Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation; like H. G. Wells and G. B. Shaw; like the young Oxbridge intellectuals mentioned above and like the ‘working-class radicals’. such as B L Coombes (see his book cover above).

George Bernard Shaw, the other ‘ancient’, was still writing, though he had nothing much to contribute in the Thirties. He enjoyed showing off in the newspapers and, together with Wells, both of them committed socialists, made a trip to Moscow and came back with a rose-tinted view of Soviet life. Bertrand Russell meanwhile, committed to the pursuit of the truth, also went to the Soviet capital and reported that Stalin was indeed a cruel man and that life in Russia was indeed Red but far from rosy. But most intellectuals were still more influenced by ‘Victorian’ liberal writers, like W. B. Yeats, one of whose verses from ‘The Second Coming’ seemed to fit the times and was always being quoted:

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

As 1936 progressed, the call for action for Priestley’s nineteenth-century Britain to have new life poured into it, for something to be done, became stronger. As L. J. Williams (1971), the economic historian, pointed out, although the size and nature of the unemployment problem changed comparatively little over the two decades of the inter-war period, there was, with the flood of writing, research and social heart-searching on the topic, a much greater awareness of the basically localised and structural nature of the unemployment problem. With the publication of Keynes’ General Theory, 1936 became the key year for advancing (but not implementing) modern economic solutions to the problem of unemployment. By this time, it was clear that the British economy had recovered from its low point at the beginning of 1932, and was growing rapidly compared with its European rivals, and even compared with the USA. At the same time, to the government’s great embarrassment, a number of studies of unemployment and poverty were revealing the causal link with poor health. Orwell’s publisher, Victor Gollancz, commissioned one of these studies from the Medical Officer of Health for Stockton-on-Tees, whose research showed that an appalling ninety-four per cent of children in County Durham schools had signs of rickets as a result of poor diet. In March, the future PM and Conservative MP for Stockton,  Harold Macmillan, published Sir John Boyd Orr’s massive study, Food, Health and Income. This was an act of rebellion by a Conservative MP representing a northern industrial constituency. The government had done its best to suppress the study, which revealed the devastating fact that:

… one third of the population of this country, including all the unemployed, were unable, after paying rent, to purchase sufficient of the more expensive foods to give them an adequate diet.

Moreover, Boyd Orr calculated that that half the population did not eat ‘up to the modern health standard’. Rural poverty was also shown to be rising rapidly. Ted Willis, a young socialist in 1936, recalled how his mother used to go out and buy four pennyworths of scrag end of lamb and with that, she would make a big stew which would last us two or three days. On one occasion, he came home to find his mother putting a lid on the stew and taking it out of the house.  When he protested at her taking it to a neighbour’s house, his mother slapped his face, saying You’re hungry, but they’re starving!  In 1934 a National Assistance Board had been created, which set a uniform rate for ‘unemployment assistance throughout the country.’ In general, benefits to the unemployed were cut by about ten per cent in the 1930s. In South Wales, Central Scotland and the North of England, unemployed people were much more reliant on means-tested and discretionary benefits than insurance. This was because periods of unemployment in these areas were longer, forcing unemployed workers onto ‘the dole’ when their insurance benefits ran out. This fuelled the sense of shame and anger among the unemployed and their families. René Cutforth commented on the continuing plight of the unemployed throughout the decade:

To the end of the decade about a million and a half workers were relegated to limbo and their lives laid waste. But not without a struggle. 

Fighting back; Marching on …

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The unemployed ‘struggled’ against their condition by marching, organising rallies and engaging in rent strikes. Led by Wal Hannington of the CPGB, the NUWM had around twenty thousand members by 1932, with the active support of at least twice that number. Their most famous actions were the ‘Hunger Marches’ of 1932, 1934 and 1936. There were also protest marches against the introduction and operation of the means test, particularly from Scotland and South Wales. The photographs below show Wal Hannington and Harry McShane leading the Scottish marchers and contingents from Teeside and Sunderland crossing the Tyne Bridge in 1932.

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The pictures of the 1934 March on the left below are two of those taken of the women’s column which marched to London from Derby. They capture the feeling of comradeship and purpose that existed between the marchers on their wintry trek to London. The shots of the first aid treatment of blistered feet demonstrate the determination of the women, either unemployed themselves or having out-of-work husbands. The marchers all depended on the goodwill of local labour organisations to provide nightly accommodation during the journey. The picture on the right shows heads turning in the crowd that gathered in Trafalgar Square on 3rd March, as they watched the approach of the marchers

The March Council had requested a meeting with the PM, Ramsay MacDonald in a letter supported by a number of Labour MPs, but they did not succeed in putting their case to the House of Commons, though they had the support of a large number of MPs including Sir Herbert Samuel, leader of the Liberal opposition. Clement Attlee also spoke up for the marchers, saying that they were …

… fair representatives of the unemployed. The injustice from which these men and women suffer is very widely known in all parts of the House and the feeling in the country is now tremendous … there is no reason why these men should be refused a hearing by the cabinet.

The marchers sent a delegation to Downing Street, led by two ILP MPs, Maxton and McGovern, and the two Communist leaders of the NUWM, Hannington and McShane. He was ‘not at home’, but, in an outburst in the Commons, asked, …

… Has anybody who cares to come to London, either on foot or in first-class carriages, the constitutional right to demand to see me, to take up my time whether I like it or not? I say he has nothing of the kind! 

However, the most successful march was not organised by the NUWM and in fact, eschewed any involvement from it and other sectarian organisations. In fact, ‘The Jarrow Crusade’ of October 1936 owed that success to the determinedly non-political and cross-party organisation of its leaders, most notably that of the town’s Labour (and ILP) MP, Ellen Wilkinson with the official support of Jarrow’s Mayor, Bill Thompson, who was a Labour man, but insisted that it should have the backing of all parties. It was an entirely bipartisan, peaceful march for jobs, approved by the whole Council, which also enjoyed the support of many local and regional Church leaders, including the Bishop of Sheffield, though (infamously) not the Bishop of Durham. It involved two hundred carefully-chosen, relatively fit unemployed men. Jarrow was one of the worst-hit areas in England, largely because of the closure of its shipyard, with eighty per cent of its workers on the dole. The ‘crusaders’ carried over eighty thousand signatures to Parliament, asking the House of Commons to realise the urgent need that work should be provided without delay. They achieved little in the short-term by way of economic relief but did draw widespread public attention to the plight of the unemployed ‘left behind’ in the older industrial areas as the economy as a whole recovered in 1936, due to the expansion of newer industries and the beginnings of rearmament.

The Labour Party, together with the TUC, was fearful of the taint of Communism that went with hunger marches and instructed local branches to reject requests for help from the crusaders as they passed. Some delegates at the Party conference in Edinburgh that October attacked Ellen Wilkinson directly. One of them, Lucy Middleton, criticised her for sending hungry and ill-clad men on a march to London, advocating the making of propaganda films about the distressed areas instead. This ‘stab in the back’ from her own party was one which would rankle for years to come. Though hailing from one of the poorer areas of Coming from metropolitan Manchester herself, Wilkinson soon discovered that, in a tight-knit community such as Jarrow, where almost all were workless, the highly-skilled man, the ambitious young foreman, the keenest trade-unionists provided the leadership for the unemployed. One such man was David Riley, the Council leader, a hefty Irishman with an iron will. He volunteered to lead them on the road to London and it was he who insisted that this would be a ‘crusade’, not another hunger march. An appeal for signatures for the petition and funds was made under the Mayor’s name and Thompson used his civic position to gain the support of the many Conservative town councils along the route south. Paradoxically, it was the Conservative councils who most often held out the hand of friendship to the crusaders. Following Thompson’s request, and joint letters from the Conservative and Labour agents, they offered food and lodging at every Tory-controlled town and village through which the men passed, including Harrogate, Leeds and Sheffield.

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Ellen Wilkinson (pictured above, leading the Crusade) had described herself, on more than one occasion, as a ‘revolutionary socialist’, and had needed a great deal of persuasion not to raise the issues of party politics during the Crusade. She was the moving spirit in Jarrow, a small, slight, red-haired ball of fire, the year before, during the General Election campaign, she had led a march to ‘beard’ Ramsay MacDonald in his constituency of Seaham, fifteen miles away. In the event, all that march achieved was a bleating admonition from the cornered statesman:

Ellen, why don’t you go out and preach Socialism, which is the only remedy for all this?

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On 5 October, the two hundred men set out under a banner, ‘Jarrow Crusade’ to march to London, three hundred miles away, as an official delegation to Parliament. Everybody turned out to watch them go. The Mayor and Mayoress led them for the first twelve miles and, after that, Ellen Wilkinson. David Riley insisted on the removal of any socialist banners that appeared with sympathisers along the route. One marcher was sent home for expressing ‘communistic beliefs’ and another was threatened with expulsion. It was an effective policy since other marches were ignored, whereas the Crusade received widespread friendly attention from the press, and the march became a long-running national story. The government became alarmed by its popularity, as the Manchester Guardian reported that there could be no doubt that the march was an abounding success – the organisation seems well-nigh perfect. The Cabinet issued a statement in a parliamentary democracy, processions to London cannot claim to have any constitutional influence on policy.  No deputations would be received by ministers.

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This response might have been expected, but the crusaders’ reception by the Labour town council in Chesterfield was surprising, considering the welcome they had just received from the Sheffield Tories. The pleas for assistance were turned down, forcing the marchers to rely on the charity of local businessmen, mainly Tories, for food and blankets. Ellen Wilkinson recalled how they weighed in with hot meals and a place to sleep. A clear pattern was emerging, with the Conservatives welcoming and Labour shunning, a pattern which continued to the end of the trek, to the enduring bitterness of all the crusaders. In Leicester, however, the Co-op worked all night mending their boots. Bedford, in the suspect south, rallied to their support. They arrived in London in a cloudburst with their mouth-organ band playing ‘The Minstrel Boy’. On their final evening in London, they had hoped to be addressed by the London Labour leader, Herbert Morrison, together with an audience of influential Londoners. In the event, he did not show up, probably on the orders of the national leadership, and had to be replaced by Canon Dick Sheppard as the keynote speaker (pictured below).

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The next morning the crusaders went to the House of Commons, dressed in smart suits specially bought for the occasion with funds raised during the march. They were expecting to deliver the petition, but Stanley Baldwin, with the support of Neville Chamberlain (pictured above) refused to allow the men to come to the bar of the House to deliver the petition in person. To avoid any ugly scenes, Ellen Wilkinson gave them a guided tour of Westminster and then packed the majority of the men onto a River Thames pleasure-boat for a sightseeing cruise. It was a deception cooked up with Sir John Jarvis, a Surrey MP with longstanding charitable connections to Jarrow. Only a few of the men were allowed to watch from the Strangers’ Gallery while Wilkinson went through the solemn procedure of presenting the petition to the Speaker. She spoke tearfully of their plight, but Runciman, who had said earlier that Jarrow must work out its own salvation, refused to answer a question because it was not on the order paper, although he did say that his information was that the situation in Jarrow was improving. Baldwin refused to say anything, and that was it. When they arrived back in Jarrow by train, the speakers at the Town Hall put a brave face on the obvious failure of the crusade. The goal of the march was to get the National Government to overturn the decision to close down the shipyard, not to put up a new steelworks, as Jarvis had proposed at the last minute, looking like a ‘fairy-godfather’, but in reality, simply trying to help save the Conservative Party from an electoral wipe-out in a region devastated by economic malaise.

Nevertheless, the crusaders had aroused a sympathy throughout the country which compels the Government to act, as David Riley told them. By rejecting class-based politics and appealing to broader social sympathies, the Jarrow Crusade had touched the hearts of many for whom talk of the distressed areas had meant nothing until they saw it in person or on the newsreels. With its military discipline, and containing in its ranks many veterans of the First World War, it harked back to that conflict, evoking in the onlooker feelings of compassion and guilt. The Crusade was also one of the foundations of a new consensus that was emerging and would solidify after the Second World War. The country came to agree almost unanimously that such extremes of poverty should never be allowed to return. A new, very British idea of social justice was emerging and a collective opinion-forming that would eventually give rise to the welfare state. Jarrow was the classic march, but even while it was going on, other marches were in progress. Four hundred Scotsmen from Glasgow, for instance, were marching south to join up with other contingents from South Wales and elsewhere to protest against the means test, as seen in the photos below. Marching became an epidemic in the Thirties in Britain.

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The NUWM had no difficulty in raising a Welsh contingent of eight hundred men and contingents of women for the biggest and most united of the hunger marches against the means test in November 1936. The two postcard-size photographs below came from South Wales. When the eight hundred marchers, carrying their Keir Hardie banner from Aberdare, reached Slough, they were greeted by eleven thousand compatriots, because by that time Slough had become known as ‘little Wales’ peopled by migrants from the valleys. 

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The photograph below shows some of the Welsh marchers lining up outside Cater Street School, Camberwell, where they were to spend the night, prior to the march to the Hyde Park rally. Among the speakers were Aneurin Bevan MP and Clement Attlee. The former said that ‘The hunger marchers have achieved one thing. They have for the first time in the history of the labour movement achieved a united platform. Communists, ILPers, Socialists, members of the Labour Party and Co-operators for the first time have joined hands together and we are not going to unclasp them.’ The latter moved the resolution that ‘the scales (of unemployment benefit) are insufficient to meet the bare physical needs of the unemployed. …’

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From the Threat of Revolution to the Promise of Reform:

Politicians of all the parliamentary parties began to fear a revolution by the end of 1936, not least because there were Fascists as well as Communists marching. The Church became involved with William Temple, the Christian Socialist Archbishop of York commissioning a scientific inquiry into long-term unemployment, Men Without Work, based on the experiences of the jobless for twelve months up to November 1936 as its evidence. Researchers were sent out across Britain as a whole to immerse themselves in the areas of greatest poverty, staying in the households of the workless. Besides being a national survey, those sent by Archbishop Temple were experts, unlike Orwell. They were economists, psychologists and social scientists, funded by the Pilgrim Trust and supervised by the Director of the London School of Economics, Sir William Beveridge, who advised them to study in detail the lives of a thousand long-term unemployed men, and their families; their health, living conditions and physical environment. Beveridge was able, from 1942, to use their findings to provide the evidential basis for the creation of the post-war Welfare State.

One of these researchers was a young Jewish refugee, Hans Singer. A brilliant economist, he had moved to Britain to study under his hero, John Maynard Keynes. Having escaped from Nazi Germany, Singer found him himself the victim of anti-Semitic abuse as a professor at Istanbul and moved to Cambridge. After two years, Keynes recommended him to Temple because of his interest in unemployment. His detailed research papers, archived at the LSE, are essential sources for social historians of the period. Many of these, along with the Pilgrim Trust Report in full, were not published until 1937, by which time the argument for ‘Planning’ had already been won. But the devil still remained in the detail of the implementation, in which the Labour Party had little if any official responsibility, except on a local basis. However, together with a more united and progressive Left, they did have increasing influence over public opinion nationally and regionally.

Sources:

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbott: David & Charles.

Norman Rose (2005), Harold Nicolson. London: Pimlico.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (ed.) (n.d.), Life & Labour in a Twentieth-Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry (University of Warwick): The Cryfield Press.

Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents & Debates: Twentieth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan Education.

Denys Blakeway (2011), The Last Dance: 1936 – The Year Our Lives Changed. London: John Murray (Publishers).

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (eds.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Joanna Bourke et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

 

Posted January 8, 2020 by TeamBritanniaHu in Abdication, Affluence, Anglicanism, anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, Birmingham, Brexit, Britain, British history, Charity, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Conservative Party, Coventry, David Lloyd George, democracy, Economics, Education, Edward VIII, Family, George V, Great War, History, Humanities, Jews, Journalism, Labour Party, Leisure, liberal democracy, liberalism, Literature, manufacturing, Marxism, Methodism, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, Mythology, Narrative, New Labour, Patriotism, populism, Poverty, Refugees, Respectability, Revolution, Scotland, Second World War, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Trade Unionism, Transference, tyranny, Unemployment, United Kingdom, USA, USSR, Utopianism, Victorian, Welfare State, West Midlands, Women's History, World War One, World War Two

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‘Socialism’ and the Rise of the British Labour Party, 1901-1931: Views from Above and Below; part three – Labour’s Slump: 1929-31.   2 comments

Labour Arrives; Summer 1929:

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In response to John Gorman’s request for photographs for his 1980 book (see the list of sources below), Helen Hathaway of the Reading North Labour Party contributed the picture of women supporters of The Daily Herald at the start of the circulation campaign for the election of the 1929 Labour government. Under the editorship of George Lansbury, before the First World War, the newspaper had become uncompromisingly socialist and was a paper for rebels, supporting strikes, opposing wars and providing a platform for suffragettes and syndicalists. But during the war, Lansbury’s pacifist stance meant that it could not compete with the war stories of the right-wing popular newspapers which were avidly sought by the public. From September 1914, the paper appeared only as a weekly. In 1919, there was a resurgence of the paper, financed by the trade unions and Co-operative societies, but it continued to struggle until 1922 when Ernest Bevin led the TUC and Labour Party into joint ownership. ‘Labour has arrived’, proclaimed the poster proudly held by the working-class women lined up for the photograph, ‘heralding’ the advent of the second Labour government, as shown below:

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Elected in 1929 for the first time as the largest party in Parliament, the second Labour Government had succeeded the Conservatives relatively smoothly, largely as a result of the usual ‘wax and wane’ of party popularity with the electorate. The Labour Party was now the second greatest of the political camps in Britain, having clearly displaced the Liberal Party as the main rivals of the Tories to power. Though its professed ‘creed’ was socialism, it had little in common with the socialist parties on the Continent. Its backbone was the trade unions, which were, according to the writer and politician John Buchan, the most English thing in England. They were more radical than socialist and in a sense more conservative than radical. Their object was not to pull things up by the roots but to put down even deeper roots of their own. Their faults lay in occasional blindness of eye and confusion of head, not in any unsoundness of temper or heart. As a Scottish Unionist MP, Buchan recalled that the hundreds of new Labour MPs …

… brought to the House of Commons a refreshing realism, for they spoke as experts on many practical things, and their stalwart vernacular was a joy amid the clipped conventions of parliamentary speech. But larger questions they were apt to judge on too low a plane and with imperfect knowledge. The corrective was to be looked for in the socialist intellectuals, of whom they were inclined to be suspicious, but who applied to policy a wider education and broader sympathies. … as a group they were serious students of public affairs, with a genuine scientific apparatus behind them. It was well for Labour, and well for the country, to have thislaboratory of experiment and thought. 

It had been five years since Labour had carried the ‘Bolshie’ tag and Ramsay MacDonald introduced his Cabinet as chosen for very hard work and because I believe the nation fully believes they are perfectly competent to perform it. In the event, they proved as incompetent as any of the previous governments to stem the rising tide of unemployment.  But although Labour was the largest party in Parliament, the Labour government of 1929 was still a minority government. Besides, any government, whatever its election programme, has to face the same problems as its predecessor. On taking office, the Labour government floundered in a quagmire of conservative remedies for the worldwide slump. Pledged to solve the problem of unemployment, the newly-appointed ‘Minister for Unemployment’, J. H. Thomas, had boasted I have the cure as he ‘hob-nobbed’ with bankers and watched the number of registered unemployed soar. He demonstrated a complete lack of imagination and ineptitude but was not aided by the resistance of the Civil Service, the innate conservatism of Snowden at the Exchequer and the world-wide financial and economic crises which beset this administration. In her diary for 21 December 1929, Beatrice Webb recorded her conversation with ‘Jimmy’ Thomas, in which she tried to console the unfortunate minister, who naturally thought he was being scapegoated for the Government’s failure to keep its election promise:

We sat down for a chat together. The poor man was almost hysterical in his outbursts of self-pity; everyone had been against him and the ‘damns’ flowed on indiscriminately. Margaret Bondfield and her d_ insurance bill, the d_ floods, the d_ conspiracy between restless Lloyd George and weathercock W. Churchill to turn out the Labour Government, and the d_ windbags of the Clyde responsible for his not fulfilling the d_ pledge which he had never made, to stop this d_ unemployment. There is honesty and shrewdness of his deprecations of doles and relief work for the unemployed. But he took no counsel, not even with Mosley and Lansbury who had been appointed to help, either about the appointment of his staff or about remedial measures. Then he lost his nerve and with it his strength. Poor Jimmy is egregiously vain and therefore subject to panic when flattery ceases and abuse begins. For years he has looked upon himself as the Future Prime Minister; today the question is whether he will be fit for any position at all in a future Labour Cabinet. …

Labour’s Conservatives & Radicals:

Neither is there any evidence that the Labour Government of 1929-31 sought to abandon transference as the main means of dealing with unemployment, though Margaret Bondfield (pictured standing on the left below), now Minister of Labour (and first woman minister of any government), did not consider that the continuance of the policy should exclude attempts to attract industries to the depressed areas or to develop public works schemes. Oswald Mosley also tried hard to get Thomas, whom he considered a ‘useless minister’, to ‘do something’ about the unemployed. He had a ‘sensible plan’ for increased allowances and organised public works, but the ‘old men’ of the party didn’t want to know about it. So he walked out on it early in 1931 to form the ‘New Party’, taking some of the more dynamic men of the Left like John Strachey. But they soon left him when he took off down the right-hand road to Fascism. However, the scale and widespread nature of unemployment in these years, making it more than a structural problem in the ‘staple’ industries, tended to preclude either the possibility of a radical response to the problem, while at the same time preventing the effective operation of the transference scheme. There were few areas that were not experiencing a significant level of unemployment during these years which actually showed the greatest convergence between regional and national figures in terms of absolute volumes of workless.

 

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Ramsay MacDonald was, by all accounts, including that of René Cutforth, a young journalist at the time, a noble-looking creature, in the manner of some great Highland chieftain. Originally the Labour Government of 1924 had had some qualms about wearing even evening dress when attending Buckingham Palace or in Parliament, remembering the lone cloth cap in the House of Commons of their first independent Labour member, Keir Hardie. MacDonald never subscribed to such qualms, as the picture below shows, and the higher he rose in social circles, the more he was in his element. In fact, he became something of a ‘snob’; at one time he so frequently attended the soirees of Lady Londonderry, wife of the coalowner so hated in MacDonald’s own constituency in South Wales that, and an upper-crust socialite and political hostess, that James Maxton, the ILP MP asked him in the House of Commons whether the Labour anthem was still the ‘Red Flag’ or whether it had been exchanged for ‘The Londonderry Air’. Churchill said of MacDonald that he liked the Tory atmosphere and tradition; the glamour of old England appealed to him. Of course, MacDonald was to die with the curses of those in whose service he had spent his life ringing in his ears for the ‘great betrayal’ of 1931.

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The truth is that, even before taking office and despite its pledges to solve the problem of unemployment within three months, the Labour leadership had accepted Conservative economic philosophy. The proposal of the Chancellor, Philip Snowden (on the right of the steps below) to effect economies by cutting maintenance for the unemployed was to precipitate not just the political crisis which led to the formation of a National Government, but the biggest and most controversial demonstrations witnessed in Britain since the days of the Chartists, the hunger marches of the 1930s. Snowden, according to Churchill, …

 … viewed the Socialist creed with the blistering intellectual contempt of the old Gladstonian radical. To him Toryism was a physical annoyance, and militant socialism a disease brought on by bad conditions or contagion, like rickets or mange. …

Snowden’s rigidity of doctrine was otherwise inpenetrable. Free imports, nomatter what the foreigner may do to us; the Gold Standard, no matter how short we run of gold; austere repayment of of debt, no matter how we have to borrow the money; high progressive direct taxation, even if it brings creative enegies to a standstill; the ‘Free breakfast-table’, even if it is entirely supplied from outside the British jurisdiction! …

We must imagine with what joy Mr Snowden was welcomed at the Treasury by the permanent officials … here was the High Priest entering the sanctuary. The Treasury mind and the Snowden mind embraced each other with the fervour of too-long-separated kindred lizards, and the reign of joy began. …

... He was a man capable of maintaining the structure of Society while at the same time championing the interests of the masses. …

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Above: Forming the National Government, August 1931 (see full picture below).

Most of the published memoirs, with the possible exception of Churchill’s, still reek of contemporary prejudice, ignorance, and partisan blindness to facts. The historian’s interpretation of the contemporary judgements both of MacDonald and his ministers by others and by MacDonald himself should depend first on the evidence available, and secondly on analysis of this evidence on the basis of fair-minded, non-partisan criteria. The historian, seeking some ‘truer’ perspective, must recall how different the problems of 1925-31 were compared to those of 1945-51, though at both times Labour faced almost insurmountable obstacles. So, before we fast-forward to the failure and fall of the Labour government in 1931, we need to understand why and how it had accepted Conservative economic philosophy. John Buchan, writing in 1935, provides an alternative contemporary perspective to that of the Labour diarists. He took a longer-term perspective of the economic orthodoxy of the Twenties:

The main concern for Britain, as for other nations, was economic – how to keep body and soul together. In its preoccupation with material needs all the world had gone Marxist. The problem was how to pass from the unbridled extravagance of the war to a normal life. We had been living on stimulants, and we must somehow transfer ourselves from dope to diet. There was a brief gleam of prosperity just after peace, when the replacement of stocks required still further expenditure, and then the nation settled itself to a long, thankless toil in the shadows…

The first duty was to cease spending more than we could afford; no easy thing, for our obligatory expenses were almost beyond our earnings. We had to face some  eight thousand millions of war debt, and this meant a scale of taxation which crippled industry and bore crushingly on all but profiteers. … But while our costs had risen our business was declining. We had lost our industrial pre-eminence in the world’s markets … Our exports, visible and invisible, looked like soon ceasing to pay for our necessary imports. The whole nineteenth century fabric of British trade was breaking down. 

With shrinking markets, and the cost of Government, local and central, nearly three times what it had been in 1913, Britain’s economy was failing to pay its way. The fact was that industrial workers were already receiving a higher remuneration than could be justified according to the value of their products. The situation was met by a vigorous effort on the part of industry both to enlarge its range of products and to set in order its older ones. Agriculture had slipped back into a trough, but a second industrial revolution by which a variety of new businesses arose, chiefly making luxury products and based mostly in Southern and Midland England. There were also notable technical advances in production, which while improving industrial efficiency, also led to increasing unemployment. There was also a growing economic nationalism throughout much of the industrialised world, though not yet in Britain, so that the British industrialist, already heavily taxed, and facing rising costs, had to compete in export markets hedged around by tariffs, and in domestic markets against cheap foreign imports, often subsidised.

Added to all of this, at the heart of national economic policy was a banker’s policy. Deflation was the watchword of this, and the international stability of the currency was considered the key to a revival in trade. In April 1925, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill had taken the fateful step of returning to the gold standard at the level of pre-war parity. As a result, the amount of money was curtailed, leading to a drop in internal prices while interest charges and wages remained relatively high. In turn, this added to the costs of production at home, while the price of exported goods automatically increased. This return to orthodox fiscal measures re-established Britain’s role and reputation as the world’s financial centre, but at the cost of its export trade, leading to wage troubles in the exporting industries, especially coal.  Seven difficult years followed this decision as unemployment grew and it became clear that some of Britain’s heavier industries had sunk to a permanently low level of output. Under the futile system of war debts and reparations, the debtor countries could not pay their debts since their creditors had erected colossal tariff walls, and the consequence was that their exports were diverted to Britain, the one free-trade area that remained. But the payments received for these were not used to buy British goods in return, but to buy gold with which to pay off their creditors.

The disaster was already imminent by the time Labour took charge in the summer of 1929 as the whole mechanism of the world’s commerce was out of gear, and the climax began in the autumn of that year with the downfall of America’s swollen prosperity. Historians have since argued about the extent to which the Crash of October 1929 and the Great Depression which followed were caused by the First World War, as well as to the extent which it led, in turn, to the Second World War. However, from the perspective of the time, certain facts seemed undeniable. The money system of the world was no longer adequate to deal with the complexities of international trade, made even more complicated by political troubles and economic nationalism as well as by the unbalanced position of gold, and by a lack of trust of politicians and bankers among the general populations.

Bleak Scenes, Hard Times:

The bleak scene shown below from April 1930 at Ferryhill in the north-east coalfield features the lone figure of George Cole, local miner’s leader and militant trade unionist. The small contingent with banners and rucksacks are the north-east section of the unemployed march to London, on their way to join another thousand from Scotland, Plymouth, Yorkshire, Lancashire, the Midlands and Kent. The first march of the unemployed in the thirties, it was a small demonstration compared with those to follow over the rest of the decade, but what gave it special significance was that it was the first of its kind to be directed against a Labour government. The march was organised by the Communist-inspired National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM), founded in 1921 as part of the British Communist Party’s ‘Class against Class’ policy. The marches, therefore, divided the loyalties of Labour members and supporters. Northampton Labour Party said that it could not support a movement in opposition to the government.

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The marchers arrived in London on May Day, to be greeted by twenty thousand at the entrance to Hyde Park, with another thirty thousand at the meeting inside. That night the weary marchers presented themselves at the Fulham Workhouse, refused to be treated as ‘casuals’, won the right to beds and food and, to the fury of the Workhouse Master, hoisted the red flag over their quarters. Ten months after taking office, the MacDonald government had failed to halt the steadily increasing number of jobless and in fact, unemployment had increased from 1,169,000 when Labour came to power to 1,770,000 by May 1930. After eighteen months in office, the numbers of workless under Labour had risen to two and a half million. Wal Hannington, the Communist leader of the NUWM, sarcastically remarked that as Minister of the Unemployed, J. H. Thomas is a howling success.

The conditions of working-class life had on the whole been greatly improved since the Great War. Higher wages did not lead to waste, but to higher standards of living. The average household had better food, better clothing, more margin for amusements and wider horizons of opportunities. Small wonder then that they struggled to maintain what they had won. That was for those in employment, of course. For the unemployed, who now (by the end of 1930) reached two million in number, there was a bare subsistence and tragic idleness, a steady loss of technical skill, and a slow souring and dulling of mind. In the heavy industry towns of Northern England and valleys of the South Wales Coalfield, unemployment became a permanent way of life, sometimes for whole communities. A problem of such magnitude required for its solution not only the energies of the State but the thought and good-will of every private citizen and public body. Owing partly to the work of the Prince of Wales and the National Council of Social Service, of which he was patron, these were forthcoming. People began to develop a  sense of personal and civic duty for the unemployed, especially the miners in the ‘distressed areas’.

By early 1930, the ‘social service movement’ had obtained a substantial footing throughout a wide area of the South Wales Coalfield in particular. At Brynmawr, one of the ‘blackspots’ on the northern edge of the Coalfield, over a hundred people took part in a Survey which was begun in 1929, but these were mainly professional and business people since the trade unions, the Labour Party and the Urban District Council refused to co-operate. As a former member of the ‘settlement’ reflected in the 1980s, …

… they felt that they had been slighted: they resented interference and they felt their dignity and authority undermined … the local people were suspicious of a group of English Quakers with middle-class backgrounds interfering in the town … the Quakers became known as the BQs (Bloody Quakers)!

Another settlement at Maes-yr-Haf in the Rhondda spawned over fifty unemployed clubs throughout the valleys from 1929 and provided an advice centre for the settlements which were established elsewhere, the first of which was at Merthyr Tydfil in 1930. Percy Watkins, Head of the Welsh Section of the National Council of Social Service, saw the settlements as representing the idea that those who had been privileged to enjoy university education should live and ‘settle’ among the workers. This was, in itself, not a new idea. Clement Attlee, the future Labour leader, had done this in the East End of London before the Great War. But what was new was the way in which these ‘settlers’ were to help open up ‘lines of communication’ between the coalfield communities and the outside world, to act as a means of cultural ‘irrigation’, in order to establish ‘an educated democracy’. Watkins and Thomas Jones, Deputy Secretary to the Cabinet before becoming Secretary of the Pilgrim Trust in the 1930s, combined to offer charitable help for Maes-yr-Haf for it to spread the settlement idea throughout the coalfield. At the beginning of 1930, it had become affiliated to the Educational Settlement Association and it soon became seen as a model of ‘intervention’ in working-class communities.

Some historians have suggested that the movement was not well enough funded to imply that the government saw it as a major barrier to revolution, but it was not the level of funding which the government itself provided which was significant, but the way in which civil servants were able to facilitate and direct charitable funds from the Mayors of various cities, the Society of Friends and those poured in by the Carnegie Trust and Pilgrim Trust. The last of these was established by the New York businessman, Edward S. Harkness, who provided a gift of over two million pounds. The trustees included Stanley Baldwin, Lord Macmillan, Sir Josiah Stamp and John Buchan. Although a Labour Government was in power committed to ending unemployment, these men continued to exert considerable influence over the affairs of the depressed areas both in South Wales and the North of England and over the Government’s policy towards the unemployed. It was the duty of the trustees, …

… to apply their resources at key points of the present distress,  … to prevent many places where moral and intellectual leadership is absent, from sinking into despair.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1931, 2,500 unemployed marched on London and were met by a baton charge of police in Hyde Park. The march was broken up on what, for a time and for some at least, became a very rough occasion (see the photo below, taken later in Hyde Park). They had deposited an enormous petition which they hoped to present to Parliament in the left luggage office at a London terminus. When they went back to pick it up, it had ‘unaccountably’ disappeared and so was never presented.

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However, the numbers involved in such demonstrations were often limited, of necessity perhaps, to a small segment of the unemployed. As the depression worsened, the political energies of an increasing number of the unemployed were drained away by decreasing resources. Successful political agitation depended upon the addressing of the immediate issues facing the unemployed, such as the actions of the ‘Courts of Referees’, and matters such as these took up nearly all of the time of the Trades Councils in the late 1920s as well as bringing about the growth of the NUWM under the leadership of Wal Hannington. But the available evidence does not suggest any accompanying widespread shift towards the ideological position held by Hannington.

The Crisis of 1931 & The Cuts:

In early 1931, as the Labour government continued to pursue the traditional conservative remedy for a recession by cutting expenditure and wages, the whole European credit system sustained a near-fatal jolt when the Austrian bank, Kredit Anstalt, failed and had to be shored up with a loan from the Bank of England, among others. There had been a steady drain of gold from the Bank of England ever since the US loans had ceased to flow into Central Europe, and now the Bank of England asked the New York banks for a loan. They refused this until Britain had taken steps to balance its budget. The Cabinet turned to the advice of Sir George May, former Secretary of the Prudential Insurance Company and Sir Montague Norman, Governor of the Bank of England. At this point, few in the government were able to read the signs of the impending crisis. The warnings of the Chancellor, Philip Snowden, had little effect upon some of his colleagues, whose financial creed was a blend of mysticism and emotion. During the summer, a creeping sickness was spreading over Europe, and the symptoms were becoming acute, first in Austria, then in Germany and last in Britain.

The crisis came to a head in Britain in the late summer of 1931, beginning with a conference of European Ministers in London in July provided no remedy. At the end of that month, the May Report was published, showing that the Government was overspending by a hundred and twenty million a year. It proposed cutting expenditure by ninety-six million pounds, two-thirds of which was to be made by reducing maintenance for the unemployed by twenty per cent. There followed immediately a heavy withdrawal of foreign balances, but the Bank of England failed in its approach to the United States. Without the US loan, the Government faced the prospect of having to default on its repayments which would result in Britain having to go off the gold standard. The effect of that, the Government believed, would be a drastic reduction in the pound sterling, since the gold standard was viewed as a ‘holy cow’ in international financial circles at that time.

A programme of drastic cuts in Government expenditure was the only answer, and MacDonald and Snowden made a plan to reduce the pay of the armed services, civil servants and school teachers, and to cut unemployment pay by ten per cent. The TUC Economic Committee had warned in March 1931, that the application of such a policy can only intensify the slump by reducing the purchasing power of the community thereby leading to further unemployment. Now Ernest Bevin and Walter Citrine led a trade union delegation to a Cabinet Committee and declared total hostility to the cuts. Sidney Webb, now Lord Passfield and a Secretary of State in the Cabinet, told his wife Beatrice, the General Council are pigs, they won’t agree to any cut of unemployment insurance benefits, or salaries, or wages. But although the Opposition said the cuts were too small, half of the Cabinet refused to accept the cut in unemployment pay. There was much to be said for their point of view as they were, after all, a Labour government which had been committed to ending unemployment within three months of taking office. Unemployment had stood at one million then, but now it had reached 2.75 million: all they had been able to do for the unemployed had been to go on paying them ‘the dole’.

So the Labour Cabinet dug its heels in and MacDonald resigned on 24 August, together with the rest of the government. The stricken statesman went to the Palace to tender his resignation to the King, who had arrived in Balmoral three days earlier, on the 21st, for his annual Scottish holiday only to have to return to London the next day. It was not for him to have any public opinion on economic policy or any preference among the parties. But as the ‘trustee’ of the nation,  the King felt that a national emergency should be faced by a united front. According to many popular Socialist narratives, ‘what happened next’, almost inevitably, was that MacDonald conspired with a ‘traitorous caucus’ which included Snowden and Thomas, in forming a National Government with the Liberals and Conservatives. In fact, the common procedure was would have been for MacDonald to resign, and he was prepared to follow this constitutional precedent, giving way to the Conservatives, but the King’s view was supported by the senior  Ministers, and MacDonald accepted his invitation to form a National Government composed of Conservatives and Liberals as well as some of his own senior colleagues. The next day MacDonald returned to Downing Street to proclaim the appointment to a mixed reception from his former Cabinet members, few of whom were willing to follow him.

Divided Opinion & Reaction – Mutiny & Gold Standard:

Contemporary reaction to the Cabinet split and creation of the National Government in August of that year can be seen from two points of view in the following extracts from The Times and The New Statesman:

The country awakens this morning to find Mr MacDonald still Prime Minister, with the prospect of a small Cabinet representative of all three parties. The former Cabinet resigned yesterday afternoon, and a statement issued last night announced that considerable progress had been made towards settling the composition of its successor, which would be a Government of co-operation formed with the specific purposes only of carrying through a very large reduction in expenditure and raising ‘on an equitable basis’ the further funds required to balance the Budget.

All concerned are to be warmly congratulated on this result, so fully in accord with the patriotic spirit which has inspired a week’s most anxious negotiations. The Prime Minister and the colleagues of his own party who have followed him deserve in particular unqualified credit, both for the manner in which they took their political lives in their hands by by facing and forcing the break-up of the late Cabinet, and for their new decisionto translate courage in the Cabinet into courage in the country. The readiness to share the responsibility – honour is perhaps the better word – of carrying through to the end the policy of retrenchment adds enormously to the prospect of its success.

The Times, 25 August 1931   

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In many respects the situation which confronted the Cabinet was like that of August 1914. … In 1914, Mr MacDonald refused to join a War Cabinet: Mr Henderson accepted. Mr MacDonald was denounced as a traitor: Mr Henderson applauded. In leading arguments in ‘The Times’, for instance, Mr MacDonald’s patriotism is extolled, while Mr Henderson is denounced as a man who put party before country. Meanwhile, in Labour circles all over the country Mr MacDonald is being denounced … for betraying his party. … Mr MacDonald’s decision to form a Cabinet in conjunction with the Liberals and the Tories seems to us a mistake, just as it would have been a mistake for him as a pacifist to join a War Cabinet in 1914. For he must inevitably find himself at war with the the whole of organised labour, and …with all those, in all classes, who believe that the policy of reducing  the purchasing power of the consumer to meet a situation of over-production is silly economics. … An effort is being made to represent the whole issue as merely one of a ten per cent reduction in the dole and the refusal to cut it could only be based on cowardly subservience to the electorate. … We oppose it … because it is only the first step, the crucial beginning of a policy of reductions, disatrous, we believe for England and the rest of the world. …

New Statesman, 29 August 1931    

On 11 September, a supplementary budget was passed by the House of Commons, which by heavy economies and increased taxes provided a small surplus for that and the forthcoming year. The cuts were duly brought into force by Philip Snowden, who remained as Chancellor. He added sixpence to income tax, ten per cent to the surtax, a penny on a pint of beer, and reduced teachers’ pay by fifteen per cent and Police, Army, Navy and Air Force pay by varying drastic amounts. The dole was reduced from seventeen shillings to fifteen and threepence.

There was an immediate reaction to the wage cuts, as on 14 September a naval mutiny broke out in Invergordon when the ratings of three ships refused to obey orders to put to sea. According to René Cutforth, it was the ‘politest mutiny ever staged’ since no-one was hurt or even intimidated and respect for officers was fully maintained. The few ratings who started to sing ‘The Red Flag’ were considered to be out of order by the other ratings, who preferred to sing, ‘the more we are together the merrier we shall be’, a popular drinking song. They sent a written representation of their case to the Admiralty, stating that while they refused to serve under the new rates of pay, they were willing to consider ‘a cut which they ‘consider within reason’. Although the incident was barely mentioned in the British press, garbled versions of it appeared in the foreign press, which made it look like a revolutionary rising. If the British Navy was disaffected, it was suggested, then Britain itself must be on the road to ruin.

As a result, there was another spectacular run on the Bank of England’s gold. The government dealt quickly with the situation, reducing the cuts and restoring the status quo almost at once. Twenty-four ratings were eventually suspended. But the run on the Bank was so exhausting that the Government which had been formed just a few weeks earlier to safeguard the gold standard was now forced to give it up anyway. Instead of crashing through the floor, however, the pound only fell to about seventy-five per cent of its former value which, if anything, improved Britain’s balance of trade. John Buchan commented:

The gold standard proved to have been largely a bogy; it had seemed the only palladium when we were on it, but we found that we did very well without it. The sterling group soon became a force in the world. There was no fall in the purchasing value of the pound at home, and its depreciation in terms of certain foreign currencies was in effect a bonus to our export trade. We had redressed the inequalities of our 1925 ambitions.

Nevertheless, the psychological impact of this event on those now in government could not have been more dramatic, as Paul Adelman pointed out, with a little help from A. J. P. Taylor, in his 1972 book on The Rise of the Labour Party 1880-1945:

On 21 September 1931 … Britain abandoned the gold standard. Bank rate was then raised to six per cent, and for the moment this brought to an end the long-drawn-out financial crisis. As Taylor comments (in ‘English History, 1914-45):

“A few days before, a managed economy had seemed as wicked as family planning. Now, like contraception, it became a commonplace. This was the end of an age”.

MacDonald – Man, Motives & Myth:

In October, the Prime Minister went to the country as the leader of a National Government, and they were returned to power with an immense majority. The General Election of 1931 was a straight fight between the Labour Party and other parties in office led by MacDonald. In an atmosphere of monetary panic, Labour representation in the house had already been cut from 289 to 46. The National Government was returned with 554 seats, while the Labour opposition was reduced to a mere rump of 52, with the Liberals winning just sixteen seats. The country was convinced that the Socialists had brought the pound to the verge of disaster, and it had only been snatched from the brink by the noble MacDonald. The photo below shows the Transport and General Workers’ Union secretary, Ernest Bevin (on the left), at Gateshead in 1931, with a band of loyal Labour Party supporters. Abolish poverty, abolish slums, wipe out destitution reads the poster on the election van. It was Bevin that was to be wiped out, temporarily, from the parliamentary scene, losing a safe Labour seat to the National Liberal candidate by 12,938 votes.

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In the Labour Party, and in the Labour movement generally, there had never been such an uproar as the one which broke out at the end of the election, and the wound would still rankle just below the surface right into the 1970s. No name was too vile for MacDonald and his ‘apostate crew’. Accused of ‘betraying his class’ and ostracised by his own party, he became a tragic, isolated figure for the rest of his political life. Since he was at heart a warm man who needed sympathy and valued loyalty, this rough handling deeply upset him and was directly responsible for his decline and deterioration as a public figure. René Cutforth praised MacDonald’s patriotism, which he identified as the main motivation for his political decisions:

MacDonald was a Victorian. His loyalty to ‘the Nation’ was quite unequivocal. When it was seen by him to conflict with his socialism, it was the socialism that lost out. Though for the rest of his life he was quite sure that he had done his duty by the nation and was unjustly put upon, something in him gave way. … 

According to Winston Churchill, Philip Snowden was similarly motivated by his deep love of Britain and his studiously concealed, but intense pride in British greatness. So, these two key questions still remain for historians to answer:

  • Was MacDonald’s decision to form the National Government one of patriotism or pragmatism?

  • How far did it demonstrate the importance of the consensual nature of British politics, even in times of national crisis?

From the 1960s, historians have been able to look at MacDonald’s decision in a slightly longer-term perspective than just the crisis of July-September 1931 and the subsequent October election. Robert Skidelsky’s analysis of the second Labour government, with his emphasis on the distinction between economic radicals and economic conservatives, began this discussion in 1970, although Ralph Miliband had published his Marxist critique of Parliamentary Socialism in 1961. Perhaps Skidelsky had this study in mind when he wrote that previous studies of MacDonald’s second government had tended to reinforce the tendency to view interwar politics in terms of a struggle between socialism and capitalism, between the Labour Party and the ‘Rest’. The real division, between radicals and conservatives, cut right across party lines, with the latter defeating the former. This economic debate was centred on unemployment, ten per cent of which Skidelsky claims was ‘endemic’ in the 1920s. It was often argued that before Keynes’ General Theory (1936) governments were bound to pursue conservative, orthodox, economic policies. Yet, as Skidelsky pointed out …

… most economists and most businessmen at the time rejected the ‘treasury view’, and dissent from orthodoxy increased progressively as traditional policies failed to restore prosperity. By 1929 there existed a substantial body of economic and political support for a radical unemployment policy embracing an expansionist monetary policy and a big programme of government investment. … 

Why then, he asked, did the Labour Party fail to make use of this dissent for the ends of a radical unemployment policy? He argued that the consequences of that failure determined the politics of the following decade and that it was a failure that could have been avoided. Usually, criticism of MacDonald and his colleagues started with their handling of the financial crisis which began in early 1931, rather than with their omissions over the previous two years. But whereas between 1929 and 1931 there were plenty of effective choices open to the Government, in 1931 itself there was virtual unanimity on the need to defend the gold standard. But MacDonald broke with half his Cabinet, not over economic policy, but over primary loyalty:

As Prime Minister he considered his first duty was to the ‘national interest’ as it was almost universally conceived; the Labour Party saw its first duty to its own people. … The real criticism of MacDonald is not that he formed the National Government, but that under his leadership, the Labour Government had drifted into a position which left it so little choice. … the Government rejected Conservative protection, the Liberal national development loan, the Keynesian and Mosleyite amalgams of both, preferring instead the advice of the least progressive sections of the ‘economic establishment’.    

Skidelsky’s ‘neo-Keynesian’ approach was challenged by Ross McKibben in his 1975 Past and Present article, who criticises the narrowness of an interpretation which was chiefly interesting as an explanation of the Labour Party’s apparent economic conservatism, but didn’t properly identify the alternative strategies available to MacDonald. McKibben provided some useful comparative material to support those who argued for a deflationary policy. He argued that the government fell essentially because it failed to agree on a programme of budgetary economies that would satisfy both the Conservatives and the Liberals, the latter party providing the majority which Labour, by itself, was short of in the Commons.  McKibben emphasised that …

The ‘desertion’ of MacDonald caused great bitterness and generated a partisan history usually designed to justify the behaviour of one side or the other in the debacle. … a newer school has sought only to explain why the Labour government did not adopt economic policies which might appear to have been obviously the right ones. Why did it not, for example, attempt to reverse economic contraction by a programme of public works financed by budget deficits, or by tax-cuts, or a policy less untypical of a socialist party – by a redistribution of income that might have raised demand? Why was the government apparently so inflexibly attached to existing monetary policies?

The 1929 Labour government assumed, first, that the problems of the British economy were partly structural, and secondly, that Britain’s place in the international economy almost uniquely influenced its monetary policies. These assumptions were related: structural weakness in the older export-based industries led to falling exports and payment difficulties. On the other hand, the requirements of ‘the City’ led to monetary policies that made internal economic reconstruction difficult. Both these problems weres were powerful disincentives to economic unorthodoxy when it had become obvious that British industry had failed in the Twenties because it was still focused on the old staples, producing goods that people no longer wanted or needed. McKibben further argues that there were practical alternatives available to the Labour government, but these were not ‘drift or reflation’ but rather ‘drift or deflation’. This strategy would not have been such a ‘leap in the dark’, as there was already plenty of evidence from around the world of its efficacy as a remedy:

Until the crisis of July-August 1931, Britain alone of the major countries seriously affected by the depression refused to follow deflationary policies. Her relatively generous social services were not only maintained but somewhat increased in scope; despite the shrinkage of the tax-base, government expenditure continued to rise; no serious attempt was made to balance the budget.

Consequently, when the pressure to abandon drift and adopt deflation became too strong, the government collapsed. Two pressures came together, in fact: the pressure to solve Britain’s internal budgetary problems by deflation which reached a peak when the May Report was published on 31 July, and, almost simultaneously, the pressure created by the European liquidity crisis reaching London, which immediately called into question the exchange rate of the pound. The budgetary crisis and the exchange crisis had been distinct phenomena before this point, but throughout August 1931 they played off each other like thunder and lightning in a perfect storm.

Adelman provided some useful criticisms of Skidelsky’s assertion that the economic failures of the Labour Government before the crisis of 1931 were a necessary consequence of the ‘Utopian ethic’ to which the party was committed. On this, Skidelsky had written:

The Labour Party’s commitment to a nebulous Socialism made it regard the work of the ‘economic radicals’ such as Keynes as mere ‘tinkering’, when in fact it was they who were providing the real choice. It was the failure of the Labour Party to recognise that this was the choice that doomed it to failure and sterility in this crucial period.

In a subsequent article, published in the Society for the Study of Labour History Bulletin in 1970, Skidelsky went further, arguing that the Labour Party’s failure was a failure, not so much of socialism itself, but of Victorian liberalism, the parent ideology from which British socialism sprang and which, in its economic aspect at least, had persisted virtually unchallenged well into the twentieth century. Adelman argued that both Skidelsky’s original thesis, and this later refinement, seemed to exaggerate the influence of ideas, or their absence, as an explanation of economic and political events. Motivation is one of the primary interests of the historian, who cannot explain events without understanding the reasoning behind the people actually involved or connected with them. To deny its importance seems to imply that human action is somehow controlled by impersonal factors like economics or political philosophies, and this would lead on to a deterministic view, and a de-personification of history. Adelman argued the case for the analysis of motives behind MacDonald’s actions, suggesting that the second Labour Government’s failures had rather deeper roots in human psychology:

How are we to explain MacDonald’s conduct? It is probably true that, as his critics aver, he was a vain, ambitious and increasingly out of touch with rank-and-file sentiment  within the party, and this explains his inability to appreciate the depth of feeling over the ten per cent cut. But there is no real evidence … that MacDonald was either in sympathy with or had been planning to become leader of a ‘National Government’ before the events of August 1931 thrust the role upon him. For a generation after this crisis Ramsay MacDonald was branded as a traitor to the Labour movement, but most impartial historians now agree with the spirit of Bassett’s remark that ‘he was moved primarily by his sense of duty’, even though we need not accept his further implication that what was good for MacDonald was also  good for the Labour Party. What gave weight to MacDonald’s actions too was his belief that his leadership of the National Government would be temporary: as he stressed to his colleagues at that last fateful Cabinet meeting, it was to deal with an extraordinary crisis only, and, as had happened in 1918, he would return to the fold later on to lead a reunited party. 

For his Labour colleagues, as MacDonald himself seems to have accepted, the position was different: for them the primary issue was one of party loyalty and not the question of the unemployment cuts (over which the gap between the two groups was very narrow), or a vague ‘national interest’ over whose meaning no one could agree. After all, a majority of the Cabinet had supported all of the cuts, and even the minority must have accepted that they would in any case be imposed by the next Conservative/ Liberal government. For most Labour ministers the major question was, therefore, … how to avoid a major split within the party, and on this issue a majority preferred to resign together rather than follow the Prime Minister into the National Government and accept a major breach in the Cabinet and the party. 

The Dole, ‘Dope’ & The Means Test:

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The newly-returned National Government not only cut the dole by ten per cent but also introduced the means test. The photograph above shows a protest meeting developing spontaneously among the crowd of disappointed unemployed outside the St Pancras Labour Exchange in London. Of all the blows which fell upon the poor and unfortunate in the Thirties, whether by accident, intelligence or design, this measure was the best calculated to divide the nation and the most bitterly resented. The dole had grown out of the old poor law system and the old unemployment benefit system when, back in 1921, it had proved inadequate to cope with the new scale of mass unemployment. The unemployment fund had had to thirty million pounds from the Treasury in order to finance ‘the dole’, with a new bureaucracy growing up to administer it, which after 1931 enlarged itself to administer the means test. The unemployed man who had come to the end of his insurance stamps was now at the mercy of the Public Assistance Committee, empowered to enquire into every halfpenny that found its way into his household, camping out in his front room and then adjusting his dole accordingly.

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There was not much The Labour Party could do to help the unemployed and defend them against the cruelties imposed by the means test since it had put itself out in the cold in 1931 and remained there for the rest of the decade. Outside Parliament, protests and demonstrations were mostly led by the Communist Party and the NUWM. Labour politicians polished up their propaganda and tried to formulate a clear alternative to ‘MacDonaldism’. For a time its leader was yet another Victorian figure who had been in MacDonald’s cabinet before the split. George Lansbury was a Christian Socialist of real integrity and piety. His line was that all would be well when we had complete Socialism and power as well as office. In the meantime, he encouraged his comrades to sing the ‘Red Flag’. John Strachey wrote Marxist books and articles and gave speeches in which he seemed to hover between Fascism and Communism. On the Left, the Independent Labour Party, a few revolutionary Socialists, retained their seats. The most notable and charismatic of these was James Maxton, with his fringe of black hair falling across his burning eyes and reaching his shoulders, looking as if he was ready at any moment to ‘Man the Barricades’. Another ILP MP, John McGovern, recalled his intervention in the King’s Speech following the 1931 Election:

I happened to be standing beside Lady Astor M.P. , and she said “McGovern, this is a wonderful scene. This is what makes Old England such a great nation.” I replied, “But there are two Englands …” (As the King finished his speech) I called out, “What about the restoration of the cuts in unemployment allowances and the end of the Means Test?!” … 

The return of the National Government led to the Social Service movement becoming a clearly recognised substitute for direct State intervention. The Cabinet took the decision that neither local authorities nor the Central Government should assume direct responsibility for welfare work for the unemployed (but that such work could) more appropriately and effectively be undertaken by private agencies with limited financial help in appropriate cases from National funds. The role of the National Council for Social Service as the main agent in this was soon established by its patron, the Prince of Wales. In political, social and economic terms, the year 1931 marked the end of the Victorian régime which had given Britain prosperity. Changed conditions forced it to accept some degree of economic nationalism, and free trade of the nineteenth-century form had departed for good. The corporate effort of total war had led, eventually, to a greater acceptance of the need to seek collectivist solutions to modern problems, like the onset of mass unemployment. Capital came more under state control and direction because it had to seek the support of the State more often. In addition, there was a collectivist stimulus to clearer thinking and Planning. This was to bear greater fruit later in the decade. It was no longer simply a matter of ameliorating the effects and defects of industrialisation, but of transforming industrialism itself.

Socialism, Parties & Patriotism:

Yet the phrase, ‘the new socialism’ remained a misnomer. Collectivist methods were used, not because they were deduced from a particular creed, but because they happened to meet a particular need. In accordance with its long-held secular practice, Britain and its people remained largely uninterested in political theory, accepting change when there was a compelling case for it, supported by clear evidence. Above all, the English working-class remained deeply patriotic, as did the Scots and the Welsh. In 1937, a Nottinghamshire coal miner recalled his interaction with a Socialist speaker earlier in the decade and how his admiration had turned to annoyance when the speaker had turned to this subject:

“What is this England you are supposed to love? It is only a tiny portion of the earth’s surface.  Why should you be expected to love it, or be prepared to die for it, any more than you would for Russia, China or Greenland?”

I was thunderstruck. “Because it’s England!” I yelled out in a fury.

Didn’t he know that most of the happiness that ever I had came from this love of England that he spoke so contemptuously about? Didn’t they know that in the early winter mornings when the frost glittered on the half frozen fields and the air was so clear and so sharp that it hurt one’s nostrils, or in the hot summer afternoons when the forest of Sherwood was quiet under the heavy heat except for the popping of the bursting broom-pods – that England spoke to you? How she told you the wonderful stories of famous men who fought and ruled and died because of their love for her. Of the simple men who toiled, ploughed, reaped, loved every handful of her brown soil and died still loving her.   

In political terms, then, what was this England, and this Britain? In the Twenties, it was more of a changing landscape than it had ever been. Urgent facts had played havoc with party creeds. At no time previously or since, at least until recently, had the party interest sunk so low. That was due to the fact that British democracy had become essentially plebiscitary since that advent of the universal franchise in 1928. The 1929 ‘flapper election’ was the first to become a real scramble for votes and gamble for votes in the first-past-the-post system, compared with the well-planned binary contests which had previously taken place, leading to the turn-taking between the Conservatives and Liberals. The ‘arrival’ of Labour was one of the disruptive factors in this, but perhaps the major factor was the fact that in a crisis like war or national bankruptcy the ordinary party business meant little. The King’s view that a national emergency should be faced by a united front, which was supported by his ministers and confirmed by the people in the 1931 Election, had proved to be correct. As George Orwell was later to observe, patriotism was a far more potent popular force than socialism could ever become in Britain. The Labour Party has always done best when it has demonstrated its understanding of what appeared to be a ‘natural’ force, and worst when the party’s leadership show contempt for it.

Sources:

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-1935.  London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (ed.) (1972), Portraits & Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

René Cutforth (1976), Later Than We Thought: A Portrait of the Thirties. Newton Abbot: David & Charles.

Theo Barker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of Working-Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Press.

Richard Brown (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth-Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

A. J. Chandler (1988), The Re-making of a Working Class: Migration from the South Wales Coalfield to the New Industry Areas of the Midlands of England, 1920-1940. Cardiff: Unpublished PhD thesis.

Posted December 31, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in American History & Politics, Austerity, Austria, Britain, British history, Charity, Child Welfare, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Churchill, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Commemoration, Communism, Conservative Party, David Lloyd George, democracy, Domesticity, Economics, Education, Edward VIII, Family, George V, Germany, History, Humanism, Jews, Labour Party, manufacturing, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, morality, Mythology, Narrative, nationalism, Nationality, Navy, Oxford, Patriotism, Population, Poverty, Quakers (Religious Society of Friends), Reconciliation, Remembrance, Russia, Scotland, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Technology, Trade Unionism, Transference, Unemployment, Unionists, United Kingdom, USA, USSR, Utopianism, Victorian, Wales, World War One, World War Two

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‘Socialism’ and the Rise of the British Labour Party, 1901-1931: Views from Above and Below; Part Two, 1921-29.   Leave a comment

The Decline of the Liberals & Break-up of the Coalition:

002By the end of 1922, the Liberal Party had been relegated to the position of a minor party. Despite the promises of David Lloyd George (right) to provide ‘homes fit for heroes to live in’, it had been slow to develop the effective policies needed for dealing with the economic and social problems created by the First World War; promises based on moralistic liberal ideals were not enough. But there were many among their Coalition partners, the Conservatives, who were more concerned to keep the threat from Labour at bay than to jettison Lloyd George as their popular and charismatic Prime Minister.

The policies of the Coalition government, the alleged sale of honours by Lloyd George, the Irish treaties of 1920 and 1921, the failures of the international conferences at Cannes and Genoa, and the Chanak incident of 1922 exacerbated the withdrawal of backbench Conservative support for the Coalition Government. That dissatisfaction came to a head for the Tories in October 1922 when Austen Chamberlain and Stanley Baldwin argued the cases for and against continuing the Coalition. Baldwin’s victory and the fall of the Coalition government led to Lloyd George and his Liberals being without positive programmes. The disastrous 1922 election was followed by a further fusion between the two wings of the Liberal Party and they revived in the 1923 General Election. But this was a short-lived triumph and in the 1924 election, the Liberals slumped to forty MPs, with less than eighteen per cent of the total vote. After this, the Liberals were a spent force in British politics.

At the famous meeting of ‘back-bench’ Conservative MPs at the Carlton Club on 19 October 1922, Chamberlain debated with Stanley Baldwin the future direction of their party in the following terms:

The real issue is not between Liberals and Conservatives. It is not between the old Liberal policy and the old Conservative policy. It is between those who stand for individual freedom and those who are for the socialisation of the State; those who stand for free industry and those who stand for nationalisation, with all its controls and inefficiencies. 

Stanley Baldwin, acknowledging that Lloyd George was a dynamic force, a remarkable personality, but one which had already smashed the PM’s own party to pieces, and would go on to do the same to the Tory Party if they let it. Baldwin’s victory over Chamberlain and the fall of the Coalition left Lloyd George and his Liberals without partners and without positive programmes of their own. Lloyd George had become an electoral liability both the Conservatives and, as it soon turned out, even the Liberals could do without.

In the British political and electoral system, there was no place for two parties of the Right or two parties of the Left. This was the Liberal dilemma. By 1924, the Liberal-Conservative see-saw had been replaced by a fast-spinning roundabout of alternate governments of the Labour and Conservative parties on which there was little opportunity for the Liberals to jump on board. To change the metaphor completely, they now found themselves caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea. Where, then, did the Liberal support go? Liberal ideals were no longer as relevant to the twentieth century as they had been in Victorian and Edwardian times. In fact, both the Labour and Conservative parties benefited from the Liberal decline. Given that Conservative-led governments dominated Britain for all but three years of the 1918-39 period, the Liberal decline perhaps helped the Right rather than the Left. Besides which, the logic of the ‘adversarial’ British political system favoured a dominant two-party system rather than a multi-party governmental structure. Yet even the emergence of a working-class party with an overtly Socialist platform could not alter the fundamentals of a parliamentary politics based on the twin pillars of finding consensus and supporting capitalism. Despite his party’s commitment to Socialism, Ramsay MacDonald accepted the logic of this situation.

History has not been kind to the memories of either Stanley Baldwin or Ramsay MacDonald who dominated politics between 1922 and 1937. The first is still seen as the Prime Minister who thwarted both the General Strike and the rule of Edward VIII. The latter is seen, especially in his own party, as the great betrayer who chose to form a National Government in 1931, resulting in the split in that party. Here, I am concerned with the causes of that split and the motives for MacDonald’s actions. A further article will concern itself with the consequences of those actions and the split resulting in Labour’s biggest electoral disaster to date in 1935. In his book, published in 1968, The Downfall of the Liberal Party, 1914-1935, T. Wilson has pointed out the need for historians to take a long view of Liberal decline, going back to the 1880s and as far forward as 1945. In particular, he points to the fact that, in the three decades following 1914, the Conservatives held office almost continuously, with only two minor interruptions by Labour minority governments. In part, he suggested, this was the consequence in the overall decline of ‘the left’ in general, by which he seems to have meant the ‘left-liberals’ rather than simply the Socialists:

The left parties suffered from the loss of buoyancy and self-confidence which followed from Britain’s decline as a world power and the experiences of the First World War, as well as from the twin phenomena of economic growth and economic crisis which ran parallel after 1914. The resultant urge to play safe proved largely to the advantage of the Conservatives. So did the decline in ‘idealism’. … Before 1914 the Liberal and Labour parties so managed their electoral affairs that between them they derived the maximum advantage from votes cast against the Conservatives. After 1914 this became impossible. During the First World War Labour became convinced – and the decrepit state of Liberalism even by 1918 deemed to justify this conviction – that the Liberal Party would soon be extinguished altogether and that Labour would appropriate its entire following. … By concentrating on destroying the Liberals, Labour was ensuring its own victory “in the long run”, even though in the short run the Conservatives benefited. … 

Certainly, from 1918 to 1939 British politics was dominated by the Conservative Party. Either as a dominant member of a Coalition or National government or as a majority government, the Conservative Party retained hegemony over the system.

Structural Decline – The State of the ‘Staple’ Industries:

The problems which British politicians faced in the inter-war period were primarily of an economic nature. British industry was structurally weak and uncompetitive. It was therefore not surprising that two areas were of particular concern to politicians: first, the state of the staple industry, especially coal with its immense workforce; and secondly, the question of unemployment benefits and allowances.

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Above: A boy working underground with his pity pony. In 1921, the school-leaving age was fourteen, though many left in the spring before their fourteenth birthday and boys were legally allowed to work underground in mines at this age, entering the most dangerous industrial occupation in the country.

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Pictures can create an impression of mining life but they cannot convey the horrific danger of the work, and even the statistics elude the experience. Every five hours a miner was killed and every ten minutes five more were maimed. Every working day, 850 suffered some kind of serious injury. In the three years, 1922-24, nearly six hundred thousand were injured badly enough to be off work for seven days or more. No records were kept of those of work for fewer than seven days. Combined with work that was physically destructive over a longer period, producing diseases such as pneumoconiosis and silicosis were working conditions that are virtually indescribable and company-owned housing that was some of the worst in Britain. The reward for the daily risk to health and life varied from eight to ten shillings and ninepence a day according to the ‘district’ from eight shillings and fivepence a day in South Staffordshire to ten shillings and ninepence in South Wales. That was the wage the owners insisted on cutting and the toil they insisted on lengthening. The mine-owners were joined together in a powerful employers’ organisation known as the Mining Association. They represented owners like Lord Londonderry, the Duke of Northumberland and Lord Gainford, men whose interests extended to banking and press proprietorship. They also spoke for big landowners like the Duke of Hamilton and Lord Bate who drew royalties on every shovelful of coal hacked from beneath their lands, amounting to more than a hundred thousand pounds a year.

In 1915, the MFGB had formed a ‘Triple Industrial Alliance’ with the National Union of Railwaymen and the Transport Workers’ Federation. Its joint executive could order combined action to defend any of the three unions involved in a dispute. However, the Alliance ended on 15 April 1921 which became known as ‘Black Friday’. The NUR, the Transport Workers’ Federation, the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Fireman called off their strike, leaving the Miners to fight on. All along the Miners had said they were prepared to make a temporary arrangement about wages, provided that the principle of a National Wages Board was conceded. On the eve of ‘Black Friday’, the Miners’ leader, Frank Hodges suggested that they would be prepared to accept a temporary wage arrangement, provided it did not prejudice the ultimate decision about the NWB, thus postponing the question of the Board until after the negotiations. It was this adjustment that stopped the strike and ended the Alliance. The Daily Herald, very much the ‘mouthpiece’ for Labour, reported the following morning:

Yesterday was the heaviest defeat that has befallen the Labour Movement within the memory of man.

It is no use trying to minimise it. It is no use trying to pretend it is other than it is.We on this paper have said throughout that if the organised workers would stand together they would win. They have not stood together, and they have been broken. It is no use for anyone to criticise anyone else or to pretend that he himself would have done better than those have done who have borne the heaviest responsibility. …

The owners and the Government have delivered a smashing frontal attack upon the workers’ standard of life. They have resolved that the workers shall starve, and the workers have not been sufficiently united to stand up to that attack.

The Triple Alliance, the Trades Union Congress, the General Staff, have all failed to function. We must start afresh  and get a machine that will function.

… We may be beaten temporarily; it will be our own fault if we are not very soon victorious. Sectionalism is the waekness of the movement. It must be given up. Everybody must come back to fight undiscouraged, unhumiliated, more determined than ever for self-sacrifice, for hard-work, and for solidarity. … We must concentrate on the Cause.

The thing we are fighting for is much too big to be beaten by Mr Lloyd George or by anything except betrayal in our own ranks and in our own hearts. 

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Already by 1922, forty-three per cent of Jarrow’s employable persons were out of work, whilst forty-seven per cent in Brynmawr and sixty per cent in Hartlepool were in the same condition. By contrast with the unforgiving bitterness of class war across mainland Europe, however, social divisions in Britain were mitigated by four main ‘cultural’ factors; a common ‘heritage’; reverence for the monarchy; a common religion, albeit divided between Anglican, Nonconformist and Catholic denominations; an instinctive enjoyment of sport and a shared sense of humour. All four of these factors were evident in the class-based conflicts of 1919-26. In March 1922, the Daily News reported that an ex-soldier of the Royal Field Artillery was living with his wife and four children in London under a patchwork shack of tarpaulins, old army groundsheets and bits of tin and canvas. He told the reporter:

If they’d told in France that I should come back to this I wouldn’t have believed it. Sometimes I wished to God the Germans had knocked me out.

In the House of Commons in June 1923, the ILP MP James (‘Jimmy’) Maxwell used his ‘privileges’ to accuse the Baldwin government and industrialists of ‘murder’:

In the interests of economy they condemned hundreds of children to death, and I call it murder … It is a fearful thing for any man to have on his soul – a cold, callous, deliberate crime in order to save money. We are prepared to destroy children in the great interest of dividends. We put children out in the front of the firing line.

Baldwin & MacDonald arrive ‘centre-stage’:

In attempting to remedy the existing state of affairs, Baldwin set himself a dual-task. In the first place, he had to lead the Conservatives to some imaginative understanding of the situation which had called a Labour Party into being and to convince them that their survival depended on finding a better practical solution to the problems than Labour’s. Secondly, he sought to convince potential Labour voters that not all Conservatives were blood-sucking capitalists, that humanity and idealism were not the exclusive prerogatives of left-wing thinkers. For the cartoonists and the and the public at large, there was Baldwin’s carefully cultivated image of the bowler hat and the pipe, Sunday walks in the Worcestershire countryside which ended in the contemplation of his pigs; ‘Squire Baldwin’ appeared, according to William McElwee, to be simple, straightforward, homely and above all trustworthy. MacDonald had the same task in reverse. He had to convince the nation that Labour was a responsible party, perfectly competent to take over the reins of government, and resolved to achieve in its programme of reforms within the framework of the constitution. He had also to persuade Labour itself that it was in and through Parliament that social progress could best be achieved; that the existing constitutional structure was not designed to shore up capitalism and preserve personal privilege, but was available for any party to take hold of and will the means according to its declared ends, provided it could ensure a democratically elected majority.

Both Baldwin and MacDonald were enigmatic figures to contemporaries and still are today. On Baldwin, one contemporary commented in 1926 that …

If on the memorable afternoon of August 3, 1914, anyone, looking down on the crowded benches of the House of Commons, had sought to pick out the man who would be at the helm when the storm that was about to engulf Europe was over he would not have given a thought to the member for Bewdley. … He passed for a typical backbencher, who voted as he was expected to vote and went home to dinner. A plain, undemonstrative Englishman, prosperous and unambitious, with a pleasant, humorous face, bright and rather bubolic colouring, walking with a quick, long stride that suggested one accustomed to tramping much over ploughed fields with a gun under his arm, and smoking a pipe with unremitting enjoyment. …

McElwee considers their personality traits in his book, Britain’s Locust Years, in which he tries to indicate the immensity of the problem facing these problems, characterising it as years of plenty followed by years of shortage. He raises the important question of judgement and argues that the historian must reach a ‘truer perspective’ in appreciating that the problems facing the country in 1925 were very different from those which had to be confronted in 1935 and 1945. Yet the picture still emerges in the national mind of…

Baldwin personified by his pipe and pigs and MacDonald by his vanity, ambition and betrayal.

This popular picture, he suggests, fails to take into account the contribution each made to his own party. Both men could claim that during their periods in office they were compelled to act in ‘the national interest’. The events of 1926, in the case of Baldwin, and 1931, in the case of MacDonald, and their actions in them, could both be justified on these grounds alongside the judgements they made. Historians’ interpretations of these judgements must depend first on the available evidence and secondly on their analysis and treatment of this evidence-based on non-partisan criteria. Only then can they adduce true motives. As for the Liberals, the disastrous 1922 election was followed by a re-fusion between the two wings of the Liberal Party and they revived their fortunes somewhat in the 1923 General Election. But this was a short-lived recovery and in the 1924 election, they slumped to forty MPs, with only 17.6 per cent of the total vote. Their decline after 1924 can be seen in the electoral statistics below:

Table I: General Election Results, 1918-1929.

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Table II: Liberals and the General Elections, 1918-1929.

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Writing in Certain People of Importance in 1926, A. G. Gardiner suggested that the emergence of Mr Baldwin would furnish the historian with an attractive theme. … The ‘Diehards’, following the fateful Carlton Club Meeting, at which he effectively broke up the Coalition, felt that at last, they had found a hero. But in November 1923 Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative Government fell. In 1923, in the middle of the election campaign, a Cabinet colleague was asked to explain the true inwardness of his leader’s sudden and inexplicable plunge into Protection, he replied: Baldwin turned the tap on and then found that he could not turn it off. Gardiner commented by extending this metaphor:

He is always turning taps on and then found that he does not know how to stop them. And when the bath overflows outside, lights his pipe, and rejoices that he has such a fine head of water on his premises. …

The Tory’s revival of ‘Protectionism’ was an attempt to stem the tide of support for Labour by protecting the new engineering jobs which were growing rapidly in the new industrial areas of the Midlands, which were meeting the demand for new electrical goods in the home market. My own grandparents, a miner and silk-weaver campaigning for Labour from the front room of their new semi-detached house in Coventry, which served as the Party’s constituency office, used to sing the following campaign song decades later, to the tune of ‘Men of Harlech’:

Voters all of Aberavon!

Wisdom show in this election,

Don’t be misled by Protection,

Ramsay is yer man.

Ramsay, Ramsay! Shout it!

Don’t be shy about it!

On then comrades, on to glory!

It shall be told in song and story,

How we beat both Lib and Tory!

Ramsay is yer man!

In the following month’s general election (the full results of which are shown in the statistics in Table I above), the Labour Party won 191 seats to the Conservatives’ 258 and the Liberals’ 158; Margaret Bondfield was elected in Northampton with a majority of 4,306 over her Conservative opponent. She had been elected to the TUC Council in 1918 and became its chairman in 1923, shortly before she was first elected to parliament.  In an outburst of local celebration her supporters, whom she described as “nearly crazy with joy”, paraded her around the town in a charabanc. She was one of the first three women—Susan Lawrence and Dorothy Jewson (pictured in the group photo below) were the others—to be elected as Labour MPs. With no party in possession of a parliamentary majority, the make-up of the next government was in doubt for some weeks until Parliament returned after the Christmas ‘recess’.

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In the short-lived minority Labour government of 1924, Margaret Bondfield, seen above as Chairman of the TUC, served as parliamentary secretary in the Ministry of Labour. 

The First Labour Government:

The Liberal Party’s decision not to enter a coalition with the Conservatives, and Baldwin’s unwillingness to govern without a majority, led to Ramsay MacDonald’s first minority Labour government which took office in January 1924.

The Women MPs elected to Parliament in 1923 (three were Labour)

Working-class expectations of the First Labour government were soaring high, despite its ‘absolute’ minority status and the lack of experience of its cabinet ministers. Beatrice Webb wrote in her diaries (1924-32) for 8th January:

I had hoped to have the time and the brains to give some account of the birth of the Labour Cabinet. There was a pre-natal scene – the Embryo Cabinet – in JRM’s room on Monday afternoon immediately after the defeat of the Government when the whole of the prospective Ministers were summoned to meet the future PM (who) … did not arrive until half an hour after the time – so they all chatted and introduced themselves to each other. … On Tuesday (in the first week of January), JRM submitted to the King the twenty members of the Cabinet and there was a formal meeting at 10 Downing Street that afternoon of the Ministers designate. Haldane gave useful advice about procedure: Wheatley and Tom Shaw orated somewhat, but for the most part the members were silent, and what remarks were made were businesslike. The consultation concerned the PM’s statement to Parliament. …

On Wednesday the twenty Ministers designate, in their best suits … went to Buckingham Palace to be sworn in; having been previously drilled by Hankey. Four of them came back to our weekly MP’s lunch to to meet the Swedish Minister – a great pal of ours. Uncle Arthur (Henderson) was bursting with childish joy over his H. O. seals in the red leather box which he handed round the company; Sidney was chuckling over a hitch in the solemn ceremony in which he had been right and Hankey wrong; they were all laughing over Wheatley – the revolutionary – going down on both knees and actually kissing the King’s hand; and C. P. Trevelyan was remarking that the King seemed quite incapable of saying two words to his new ministers: ‘he went through the ceremony like an automation!’

J. R. Clynes, the ex-mill-hand, Minister in the Labour Government, recalled their sense of being ‘out of place’ at the Palace:

As we stood waiting for His Majesty, amid the gold and crimson of the Palace, I could not help marvelling at the strange turn of Fortune’s wheel, which had brought MacDonald, the starveling clerk, Thomas the engine-driver, Henderson the foundry labourer and Clynes, the mill-hand to the pinnacle.

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The pictures and captions above and elsewhere in this article are taken from ‘These Tremendous Years, 1918-38’, published c.1939, a ‘picture-post’ -style publication. What is interesting about this report is its references to the King’s attitude, which contrasts with that reported by Beatrice Webb, and to the Labour Ministers as ‘the Socialists’.

According to Lansbury’s biographer, Margaret Bondfield turned down the offer of a cabinet post; instead, she became parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Labour, Tom Shaw. This appointment meant that she had to give up the TUC Council chair; her decision to do so, immediately after becoming the first woman to achieve this honour, generated some criticism from other trade unionists. She later described her first months in government as “a strange adventure”. The difficulties of the economic situation would have created problems for the most experienced of governments, and the fledgeling Labour administration was quickly in difficulties. Bondfield spent much of her time abroad; in the autumn she travelled to Canada as the head of a delegation examining the problems of British immigrants, especially as related to the welfare of young children. When she returned to Britain in early October 1924, she found her government already in its final throes. On 8 October MacDonald resigned after losing a confidence vote in the House of Commons. Labour’s chances of victory in the ensuing general election were fatally compromised by the controversy surrounding the so-called Zinoviev letter, a missive purportedly sent by Grigory Zinoviev, president of the Communist International, which called on Britain’s Socialists to prepare for violent revolution:

EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE, THIRD COMMUNIST

INTERNATIONAL PRESIDIUM.

MOSCOW

September 15th 1924

To the Central Committee, British Communist Party.

DEAR COMRADES,

The time is approaching for the Parliament of England to consider the Treaty concluded between the Governments of Great Britain and the SSSR for the purpose of ratification. The fierce campaign raised by the British bourgeoisie around the question shows that the majority of the same … (is) against the Treaty. 

It is indispensible to stir up the masses of the British proletariat, to bring into movement the army of unemployed proletarians. … It is imperative that the Labour Party sympathising with the Treaty should bring increased pressure to bear upon the Government and Parliament any circles in favour of ratification …

… A settlement of relations between the two countries will assist in the revolutionising of the international and British Proletariat not less than a successful rising in any of the working districts of England, as the establishment of close contact between the British and Russian proletariat, … will make it possible for us to extend and develop the propaganda and ideals of Leninism in England and the Colonies. …

From your last report it is evident that agitation propaganda in the Army is weak, in the Navy a very little better … it would be desirable to have cells in all the units of troops, particularly among those those quartered in the large centres of the Country, and also among factories working on munitions and at military store depots. …

With Communist greetings,

ZINOVIEV

President of the Presidium of the I.K.K.I.

McMANUS

Member of the Presidium

KUUSINEN

Secretary

Pictured right: The Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, depicted in a hostile Punch cartoon. The luggage label, marked “Petrograd”, links him to Russia and communism.

The letter, published four days before polling day, generated a “Red Scare” that led to a significant swing of voters to the right, ensuring a massive Tory victory (Table I).

Margaret Bondfield lost her seat in Northampton by 971 votes. The scare demonstrated the vulnerability of the Labour Party to accusations of Communist influence and infiltration.

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The Conservatives & the Coal Crisis – Class War?

Baldwin (pictured on the left above) and his Tories were duly returned to power, including Winston Churchill as Chancellor of the Exchequer. It was Churchill’s decision in 1925 to return Britain to the Gold Standard, abandoned in 1914, together with his hard-line anti-unionism displayed during the General Strike, for which his second period in office is best remembered. The decision was a monetary disaster that hit the lowest paid hardest since it devalued wages dramatically. Despite being flatly warned by the Cambridge economist Hubert Henderson that a return to gold… cannot be achieved without terrible risk of renewed trade depression and serious aggravation and of unemployment, it was actually Baldwin who told Churchill that it was the Government’s decision to do so. Churchill decided to go along with Baldwin and the Bank of England, which restored its authority over the treasury by the change. The effect of the return to the Gold Standard in 1926, as predicted by Keynes and other economists, was to make the goods and services of the most labour-intensive industries even less competitive in export markets. Prices and the numbers out of work shot up, and wages fell. In the worst-affected industries, like coal-mining and shipbuilding, unemployment was already approaching thirty per cent. In some places in the North, it reached nearly half the insured workforce. In the picture on the right above, miners are anxiously reading the news about the ‘Coal Crisis’.

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Beatrice Webb first met the ‘Billy Sunday’ of the Labour Movement, as Cook was nicknamed, with George Lansbury. He was the son of a soldier, born and brought up in the barracks, then a farm-boy in Somerset when he migrated, like many others, to the booming South Wales coalfield before the First World War, a fact which was continually referred to by the Welsh-speaking Liberal élite in the Social Service movement. He had, however, passed through a fervent religious stage at the time of the great Welsh Revival, which he came out of by coming under the influence of the ‘Marxist’ Central Labour College and Noah Ablett, whom he helped to write The Miners’ Next Step, a Syndicalist programme for workers’ control of the coal industry, published in 1912. Graduating into Trade Union politics as a conscientious objector and avowed admirer of Lenin’s, he retained the look of the West country agricultural labour, with china-blue eyes and lanky yellow hair, rather than that of the ‘old Welsh collier’ so admired by the Liberals. For Webb, however, Cook was altogether a man you watch with a certain curiosity, though to her husband, Sidney, who was on the Labour Party Executive, he was rude and unpleasing in manner. However, Beatrice also judged that…

It is clear that he has no intellect and not much intelligence … an inspired idiot, drunk with his own words, dominated by his own slogans. I doubt whether he knows what he is going to say or what he has just said. It is tragic to think that this inspired idiot, coupled with poor old Herbert Smith, with his senile obstinacy, are the dominating figures in so great and powerful an organisation as the Miners’ Federation.

Walter Citrine, the TUC General Secretary in 1926, had a similarly mixed view of Cook’s speaking abilities:

In speaking, whether in private or public, he never seemed to finish his sentences. His brain raced ahead of his words. He would start out to demonstrate something or other in a logical way … but almost immediately some thought came into his mind and he completely forgot all about (his main theme) and never returned to it. He was extremely emotional and even in private conversation I have seen tears in his eyes.

The mine owners’ response to the crisis, made worse by the fact that the German minefields were back in production, was to demand wage cuts and extensions to working hours. Worried about the real possibility of a general strike, based on the Triple Alliance between the miners, dockers and railwaymen, Baldwin bribed the owners with government subsidies to postpone action until a royal commission could report on the overall problems of the industry. However, when the Samuel Commission reported in March 1926, its first of seven recommendations was a cut in wages. The response of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain, voiced by their militant national secretary, A. J. Cook, was to set out the miner’s case in emotive terms:

Our case is simple. We ask for safety and economic security. Today up and down the coalfields the miner and his family are faced with sheer starvation. He is desperate. He will not, he cannot stand present conditions much longer. He would be a traitor to his wife and children if he did. Until he is given safety in mines, adequate compensation, hours of labour that do not make him a mere coal-getting medium, and decent living conditions, there can be no peace in the British coalfields.

Lord Birkenhead said that he thought the miners’ leaders the stupidest men he had ever met until he met the mine owners. They proved him right by locking the miners out of the pits at midnight on 30 April. The Mining Association, strongly supported by Baldwin and Churchill, stated that the mines would be closed to all those who did not accept the new conditions from 2 May 1926. The message from the owners was clear; they refused to meet with the miners’ representatives and declared that they would never again submit to national agreements but would insist on district agreements to break the power and unity of the MFGB and force down the living standards of the miners to an even lower level. The smallest reduction would be imposed on mine labourers in Scotland, eightpence farthing a day, the largest on hewers in Durham, three shillings and eightpence a day. Cook responded by declaring:

We are going to be slaves no longer and our men will starve before they accept a reduction in wages.

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Above: Women and children queue outside the soup kitchen in Rotherham, Yorkshire, during the miners’ lock-out in 1926.

The Nine Days of the General Strike:

The following day, Saturday 1 May, the TUC special Conference of Executive Committees met in London and voted to call a General Strike in support of the miners by 3,653,527 votes to just under fifty thousand. As early as 26 February, the TUC had reiterated support for the miners, declaring there was to be no reduction in wages, no increase in working hours, and no interference with the principle of national agreements. In the face of the impending lockout, the special Conference had begun meeting at Farringdon Street on 29 April and continued in session until 1 May. At this conference, in a committed and passionate speech, Bevin said of the decision to strike in support of the miners …

… if every penny goes, if every asset goes, history will ultimately write up that it was a magnificent generation that was prepared to do it rather than see the miners driven down like slaves. 

The TUC Memorandum called for the following trades to cease work as an when required by the General Council:

Transport, … Printing Trades including the Press, … Productive Industries, Iron and Steel, Metal, and Heavy Chemical, … Building Trade, … Electricity and Gas,  … Sanitary Services, … but … With regard to hospitals, clinics, convalescent homes, sanatoria, infant welfare centres, maternity homes, nursing homes, schools … affiliated Unions (were) to take every opportunity to ensure that food, milk, medical and surgical supplies shall be efficiently provided. Also, there was to be no interference in regard to … the distribution of milk and food to the whole of the population.

Telegrams were sent out on 3 May and on the 4th more than three million workers came out on strike. The General Council issued a further statement that evening, again placing the responsibility for the ‘national crisis’ on the shoulders of the Government. It went on to try to reassure the general population of its good intentions in calling the strike:

With the people the trade unions have no quarrel. On the contrary, the unions are fighting to maintain the standard of life of the great mass of people. 

The trade unions have not entered upon this struggle without counting the cost. They are assured that the trade unionists of the country, realising the justice of the cause they are called upon to support, will stand loyally by their elected leaders until the victory and an honourable peace has been won.

The need now is for loyalty, steadfastness and unity.

The General Council of the Trade Union Congress appeals to the workers to follow the instructions that have been issued by their union leaders.

Let none be disturbed by rumours or driven by panic to betray the cause.

Violence and disorder must be everywhere avoided no matter what the cause.

Stand firm and we shall win.

On the 4th, The Daily Herald published the following editorial backing the Strike:

The miners are locked out to enforce reductions of wages and an increase in hours. The Government stands behind the mineowners. It has rebuffed the Trade Union Movement’s every effort to pave the way to an honourable peace.

The renewed conversations begun on Saturday were ended abruptly in the early hours of yesterday morning, with an ultimatum from the Cabinet. Despite this, the whole Labour Movement, including the miners’ leaders, continued its efforts yesterday.

But unless a last minute change of front by the Government takes place during the night the country will today be forced, owing to the action of the Government, into an industrial struggle bigger than this country has yet seen.

In the Commons Mr Baldwin showed no sign of any receding from his attitude that negotiations could not be entered into if the General Strike order stood and unless reductions were accepted before negotiations opened.

In reply Mr J. H. Thomas declared that the responsibility for the deadlock lay with the Government and the owners, and that the Labour Movement was bound in honour to support the miners in the attacks on their standard of life.

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In the following eight days, it was left to local trades unionists to form Councils of Action to control the movement of goods, disseminate information to counter government propaganda, to arrange strike payments and to organise demonstrations and activities in support of the strike. The scene in the photo above gives a strong impression of the life of a northern mining community during the strike, in which a local agitator harangues his audience, men and children in clogs, with flat caps and pigeon baskets. Most of the photographs of 1926 taken by trades unionists and Labour activists do not show the strike itself but reveal aspects of the long lone fight of the miners to survive the lock-out. We know from the written and oral sources that the nine days in May were sunny and warm across much of the country, perfect for outside communal activities. The Cardiff Strike Committee issued the following advice:

Keep smiling! Refuse to be provoked. Get into your garden. Look after the wife and kiddies. If you have not got a garden, get into the country, the parks and the playgrounds.

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At Methil, in Scotland, the trades unionists reacted to the call in a highly organised manner, the Trades and Labour Council forming itself into a Council of Action with sub-committees for food and transport, information and propaganda and mobilising three cars, one hundred motorcycles and countless bicycles for its courier service. Speakers were sent out in threes, a miner, a railwayman and a docker to emphasise the spirit of unity with the miners. Later in the strike, the Council of Action added an entertainments committee and, more seriously, a Workers’ Defence Corps after some savage baton charges by the police upon the pickets. The snapshots are from Methil, one showing miners and their families waiting to hear speeches from local leaders, one man holding a bugle used to summon people from their homes. The lower photo shows three pickets arrested during disturbances at Muiredge. Deploying a sense of humour reminiscent of that of the class-conscious ‘Tommies’ in the trenches, the Kensington strike bulletin greeted Sir John Simon’s pronouncement on the legality of the Strike with the following sardonic comment:

Sir John Simon says the General Strike is illegal under an Act passed by William the Conqueror  in 1066. All strikers are liable to be interned in Wormwood Scrubs. The three million strikers are advised to keep in hiding, preferably in the park behind Bangor Street, where they will not be discovered.

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Throughout the country, those called upon by the TUC to stop work did so with enthusiasm and solidarity. The photograph of trades unionists marching through ‘well-heeled’ Leamington Spa (above) is typical of thousands of similar popular demonstrations of solidarity that took place throughout Britain. Though the establishment in general and Winston Churchill, in particular, feared revolution, the march of building workers and railwaymen has the air of a nineteenth-century trade union procession, like those led by Joseph Arch in the surrounding Warwickshire countryside, the carpenters and joiners parading examples of their work, window sashes and door frames, through the streets on the back of a horse-drawn wagon. The figure in the foreground, marked with an x, is E Horley, a member of the Bricklayers’ Union. It was a scene repeated in a thousand towns as meetings were held, trade union news sheets were printed daily, and Councils of Action controlled the movement of supplies, organised pickets (Bolton organised 2,280 pickets in two days) and provided entertainment and speakers.

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Government plans to cope with the strike of the ‘Triple Alliance’ or for a general strike had originated in 1919. The TUC seemed unaware of the government plans to distribute supplies by road though Lloyd George claimed that Ramsay MacDonald was aware of it and even prepared to make use of it during 1924. The organisation had evolved steadily during a period of continued industrial arrest and was accelerated after ‘Red Friday’ in 1925 so that the government was not only ready to take on the miners but was looking forward to dealing the unions a massive blow. Private support for a strikebreaking force came from a body calling itself the ‘Organisation for the Maintenance of Supplies’ (OMS) under ‘top brass’ military leadership. The professional classes hastened to enrol, especially those with military commissions and experience, alongside industrialists.

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Whilst the popular image of the Strike is one of the ‘Oxbridge’ undergraduates driving buses, the reality was that most of the strike-breakers were as working-class as the strikers. Churchill, however, mobilised resources as if he were fighting a war. Troops delivered food supplies; he set up the British Gazette and ran it as a government propaganda sheet (above), with more soldiers guarding the printing presses.

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The armed forces were strategically stationed, armoured cars and tanks brought out for guard and escort duties. The Riot Act was read to the troops and even the artillerymen were given bayonet drill. Both food deliveries and Gazette deliveries were sometimes accompanied by tanks. Attempts to press Lord Reith’s BBC, which had begun broadcasting in 1922, to put out government bulletins, were defiantly resisted, a turning point in the fight for the corporation’s political independence.

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The photograph above shows troops carrying an ammunition box into their temporary quarters at the Tower of London, where the contents of London’s gunshops were also stored during the strike.

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Since 1925, the number of special constables had been increased from 98,000 to 226,000 and a special reserve was also created. This numbered fifty thousand during the strike by ‘reliable’ volunteers from the universities, the professions and by retired army officers who happily donned the blue and white armband over cricket sweaters and drew their helmets from the government stores. The photo above shows a group of swaggering polo-playing ex-officers wielding yard-long clubs and flourishing whips replete with jodhpurs. They cantered around Hyde Park in military formation. The class divisions were clearly drawn and while for the most part, the volunteers saw it as answering a patriotic call, some talked of ‘teaching the blighters a lesson’.

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In a strike remarkable for a lack of violence, given all the ingredients for near civil war, it was the specials who were involved in some of the most brutal incidents during the nine days. The most dramatic incident was the semi-accidental derailment of The Flying Scotsman by a group of miners from Cramlington Lodge, but their four-hundred-yard warning enabled the engine to slow to twenty m.p.h. before it toppled off the section where they had removed a rail. Consequently, no-one was hurt, but a police investigation led to one of the miners turning King’s Evidence and his nine ‘comrades’ were arrested and given sentences of four, six and eight year’s penal servitude. On the other side, mounted specials supported the Black and Tans in an unprovoked attack on a mixed crowd in Lewes Road, Brighton, while at Bridgeton attacks by the specials on unoffending citizens led to an official protest by the Glasgow Town Council Labour Group. It was also the specials who took part in raids on trade union offices and arrested workers for selling strike bulletins; for the miners, it was a fight for survival, for the university students and their middle-aged fathers in search of glory, it was all ‘jolly good fun’.

At the height of the strike, with messages of support pouring into the TUC, the number of strikers growing and spirits high, the strike was suddenly brought to an end on 12 May. At first, trade union officials announced it as a victory, for example at a mass meeting at Gravesend. With the strike solid and growing daily and trades unions in control of many areas, its ending was similarly interpreted in hundreds of cities, towns and villages throughout the country. As the truth slowly became known, the news was received with shock and disbelief. The strike had lasted just nine days before it was called off unconditionally by the TUC General Council. The coalowners and the Conservatives had no doubt at all that it was an unconditional surrender. Certainly, J. H. Thomas’ announcement of the end of the strike seemed to one group of railwaymen listening to the ‘wireless’ to confirm this:

We heard Jimmy Thomas almost crying as he announced the terms of what we thought were surrender, and we went back with our tails between our legs to see what the bosses were going to do with us.

The next day The Daily Mail headline was ‘surrender of the revolutionaries’ and Churchill’s British Gazette led with ‘Surrender received by Premier’. The TUC had agreed to the compromise put forward by the Samuel Commission, but the embittered MFGB leadership did not and the lock-out continued for seven months (see the photo below, titled End of the Strike). The miners refused to accept the cut in wages and increase in hours demanded by the owners and the government.

The reasoning behind this decision has been argued over ever since, but, following the backlash over the ‘Zinoviev Letter’, the General Strike of 1926 demonstrated the unwillingness of even radical trade unionists to push the system too far and be seen to be acting coercively and unconstitutionally. Additionally, when the showdown came in 1926 it was not really, as The Times had dramatised it in September 1919, a fight to the finish, because industrial union power was already shifting to other sections of the economy.

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From Retribution & Recrimination to ‘Recovery’ & Reconciliation, 1926-29:

After the Strike was called off, the bitter polarisation of the classes remained. There are few photographs which record the misery of victimisation that followed the ending of the strike. Courageous men in lonely country districts who had struck in twos and threes were easy victims for retribution. The railway companies were the first to act we, turning away railwaymen when they reported for work. Men with decades of loyal service were demoted, moved to posts far from home, or simply not re-engaged. The railwayman quoted above was one of these victims:

I was told within a couple of days that I had been dismissed the service – a very unusual thing, and I think that very few station masters  in the Kingdom can say that they had had the sack, but that was the case with me, and I know at least two more who had the same experience. 

Of those who formed the TUC deputation to Baldwin, only Ernest Bevin sought an assurance against retribution. None was given, so speaking at the end of the strike, he prophesied that thousands would be victimised as a result of this day’s work. The NUR was forced to sign a humiliating document that included the words the trade unions admit that in calling the strike they committed a wrongful act. The coalowners’ final reckoning came with the slow return to work at the end of the year. They prepared blacklists, excluding ‘militants’ from their pits, and gave them to the police at the pitheads. Some men never returned to work until 1939, following Britain’s declaration of war. Vengeful employers felt justified in these actions by the blessings they had received from the pulpits of Christian leaders, including Cardinal Bourne, the Roman Catholic Primate and Archbishop of Westminster, preaching in Westminster Cathedral on 9th May:

There is no moral justification  for a General Strike of this character. It is therefore a sin against the obedience which we owe to God. … All are bound to uphold and assist the Government, which is the lawfully-constituted authority of the country and represents therefore, in its own appointed sphere, the authority of God himself.

In a period when these issues of morality, legitimacy, and constitutionalism carried great weight, and church-going was still significant among all classes, it is not wholly surprising that the TUC leaders were wary of over-reaching their power in mid-twenties’ Britain. We also need to recall that the Labour Party had a very strong tradition of pacifism, and although outbreaks of violence against people or property were rare events during the coal stoppage and the General Strike, at the time the strike was called off there would have been natural concerns among the Labour leaders about their ability to control the more militant socialists and communists active among the rank and file trades unionists. George Lansbury (pictured below) addressed some of these concerns in the context of his Christian Socialism:

One Whose life I revere and Who, I believe, is the greatest Figure in history, has put it on record: “Those who take the sword shall perish by the sword” … If mine was the only voice in this Conference, I would say in the name of the faith I hold, the belief I have that God intended us to live peaceably and quietly with one another, if some people do not allow us to do so, I am ready to stand as the early Christians did, and say, “This is our faith, this is where we stand and, if necessary, this is where we will die.”

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On the other hand, the Fabian Socialist, Beatrice Webb was scathing in her assessment of what she believed the General Strike had revealed about the lack of support for revolutionary socialism among British workers:

The government has gained immense prestige in the world and the British Labour movement has made itself ridiculous. A strike which opens with a football match  between police and strikers and ends nine days later with densely-packed reconciliation services at all the chapels and churches of Great Britain attended by the strikers and their families, will make the continental Socialists blaspheme. Without a shot fired or a life lost … the General Strike of 1926 has by its absurdity made the Black Friday of 1921 seem to be a red letter day of common sense. Let me add that the failure of the General Strike shows what a ‘sane’ people the British are. If only our revolutionaries would realise the hopelessness of their attempt to turn the British workman into a Red Russian …The British are hopelessly good-natured and common-sensical – to which the British workman adds pigheadedness, jealousy and stupidity. … We are all of us just good-natured stupid folk.

The Conservative government revelled in the defeat of the strike and turned to the slow crushing of the miners. They sent an official note of protest to the Soviet government, determined to stop the collection of relief money by Russian trade unionists. Neville Chamberlain instructed the authorities to tighten up on relief payments which were already at a starvation figure of five shillings for a wife and two shillings for each child. The men were precluded from Poor Relief by a law originating in 1898 in which the coalowners had brought a court action against the Guardians of Merthyr Tydfil for giving miners outdoor relief during the miners’ strike of that year. The government was now quick to insist that work was available, albeit for longer hours and less pay than that those set out in the previous agreements between the mine-owners and the mineworkers, and then insisted that the law concerning relief should be vigorously applied, even to the pit boys, aged fourteen to sixteen, who were not allowed to join a trade union. When, after months of hunger and deprivation, the miners organised a fund-raising mission to the United States, Baldwin wrote a vindictive letter to the US authorities stating that there was no dire need in the coalfields. This was at a time when Will John, MP for Rhondda West, was telling the Board of Guardians that women were now carrying their children to the communal kitchens because the children had no shoes. As the plight of the miners grew worse, the govern In July, his government announced that a bill would be passed lengthening the working day in the mines.

Four million British subjects were thus put on the rack of hunger by a Cabinet of wealthy men. They even introduced a special new law, the Board of Guardians (Default) Bill, in an attempt to rule by hunger. Despite all these measures, the miners were able to exist for nearly seven months before being driven to accept the terms of the owners. This was a story of community struggle in the face of siege conditions. Aid for the miners came from the organised Labour and trade union movement, which raised tens of thousands of pounds. Russian trade unionists collected over a million pounds. Co-ops extended credit in the form of food vouchers, gave away free bread and made long-term loans. The funds of the Miners’ Federations and the MFGB proved hopelessly inadequate in supporting the ‘striking’ men.

Meanwhile, whilst the participants in round-table talks between the unions and management, convened by the chemical industrialist Sir Alfred Mond, were meant to reintroduce a spirit of goodwill into industrial relations, the Conservative government introduced a bill to prevent any future General Strike and attempted to sever the financial link between the unions and the Labour Party. This eventually became the 1927 Trade Disputes Act made it illegal for any strike to intend to coerce the government. It also became illegal for a worker in ‘essential employment’ to commit a breach of contract; in effect, this was a return to the old law of ‘master and servant’ which had been swept away by the Employers’ and Workmen’s Act of 1875.

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Unemployed miners getting coal from the Tredegar ‘patches’ in the late twenties.

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The memory of 1926 became seared into the culture and folklore of mining communities as epitomised in Idris Davies’ poem, Do you remember 1926? Certainly, it marked a fracture line in Labour history, as following the lock-out, many miners abandoned the industry and looked for work in the newer industries in the Midlands and South East of England. Hundreds of thousands joined the migrant stream out of the working-class communities of Wales, the North of England and central Scotland, often taking with them their cultural traditions and institutions (see the photo montage below).

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But whether they went into ‘exile’ or stayed at ‘home’, the miners were determined to use the memory of their defeat to fight back. W. P. Richardson of the Durham miners expressed their feelings:

The miners are on the bottom and have been compelled to accept dictated and unjust terms. The miners will rise again and will remember because they cannot forget. The victors of today will live to regret their unjust treatment of the miners.

Nevertheless, following its defeat at the hands of the people of Poplar, and in the spirit of class conciliation which followed the General Strike of 1926, both Conservative and Labour governments were naturally cautious in their interventions in the administration of unemployment benefit and poor relief. Although such interventions were subtle, and at times even reluctant, following on from the miners’ dispute, an alliance of the Baldwin Government, leading Civil Servants, together with advocates and adherents of the Social Service movement, had set into motion a cultural counter-revolution which was designed to re-establish their hegemony over industrial areas with large working-class populations. The wartime experience of directing labour resources, and production had given the Coalition ministers a sense of responsibility towards ex-servicemen and it had established several training centres for disabled veterans. The national Government also exercised a limited responsibility, through the Unemployment Grants Committee, together with local authorities, for public works through which the unemployed could be temporarily absorbed. Also, the wartime creation of the Ministry of Labour and a network of employment exchanges provided the means whereby a more adventurous policy could be pursued.

By the end of 1926, the training centres were turning their attention to the wider problem of unemployment, enabling the victims of industrial depression to acquire skills that would facilitate their re-entry into the labour market. Though this often meant resettlement in another area that was not the foremost purpose of the programme. In any case, the regional pattern of unemployment was only just beginning to emerge by the mid-twenties. The Director of the Birmingham Training Centre who went to Wales in 1926 to recruit members for his course was able to offer his audience very little, except lodgings at 18a week and one free meal a day. The weekly allowance of a trainee was just 23s, and training lasted six months. The real shift in Government policy came in 1927, with Neville Chamberlain invoking his powers as Minister for Health and Local Government to curb Poplarism, under the Bill he had introduced following the General Strike. Commissioners appointed by the Government replaced those local Boards of Guardians that were considered profligate in the administration of the Poor Law.

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The Lord Mayor’s fund for distressed miners report, published in ‘The Sphere’, 1929.

The Baldwin government’s second interventionist act was effected through the setting up of the Mansion House Fund in 1928, stemming from the joint appeal of the Lord Mayors of London, Newcastle and Cardiff for help in the relief of the distressed areas. This voluntary approach had, in fact, been initiated by Neville Chamberlain himself, who had written to the Lord Mayor of London in very direct terms:

Surely we cannot be satisfied to leave these unhappy people to go through the winter with only the barest necessities of life.

However, the Government itself acted in support of the voluntary effort rather than taking direct responsibility for it, and it is clear that the main objective of the action was to encourage transference away from the older industrial areas, especially through the provision of boots, clothing and train fare expenses. It was against this background that the Government then established the Industrial Transference Board the following January under the wing of the Ministry of Labour. Much of the initial funding for its work came from the Mansion House Fund. The operation of the Unemployment Grants Committee was carefully directed to conform to this strategy, under advice from the Industrial Transference Board:

As an essential condition for the growth of the will to move, nothing should be done which might tend to anchor men to their home district by holding out an illusory prospect of employment. We therefore reject as unsound policy, relief works in the depressed areas. Such schemes are temporary; at the end the situation is much as before, and the financial resources either at the Exchequer or of the Local Authorities have been drained to no permanent purpose. Grants of assistance such as those made by the Unemployment Grants Committee, which help to finance works carried out by the Local Authority in depressed areas, for the temporary employment of men in those areas, are a negation of the policy which ought in our opinion to be pursued.

As a result, the Government deliberately cut its grants for public works to the depressed areas and instead offered funds at a low rate of interest to prosperous areas on the condition that at least half the men employed on work projects would be drawn from the depressed areas. In August 1928, Baldwin himself made an appeal in the form of a circular, which was distributed throughout the prosperous areas. Every employer who could find work for DA men was asked to contact the nearest Labour Exchange, which would then send a representative to discuss the matter. However, Chamberlain expressed his disappointment over the results of this appeal later that year, and his officials became concerned that the cut-backs made in grants to local authorities for relief work in the depressed areas might lead to a serious level of disorder which would prove minatory to recent poor law policy. The following year, Winston Churchill took responsibility for drafting major sections of the Local Government Act, which reformed the Poor Law and brought about de-rating and a system of block grants. In a speech on the Bill in the Commons, he argued that it was…

… much better to bring industry back to the necessitous areas than to disperse their population, at enormous expense and waste, as if you were removing people from a plague-stricken or malarious region.

However, not for the last time, Churchill’s rhetorical turn of phrase was not appreciated by Chamberlain, who clearly saw in the Bill the means for the more careful management of local authorities, rather than as a means of equalising the effects of the low rateable values of these areas. Of course, Churchill was soon out of office, having held it for four years as Chancellor of the Exchequer, during which time he lowered pensionable age to sixty-five, introduced pensions for widows, and decreased the income-tax rate by ten per cent for the lowest earners among tax-payers.

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The Prince of Wales became the Patron of the National Council of Social Services in 1928, a body established to co-ordinate the charitable work of the various charitable organisations which had grown up throughout the decade to ‘dabble’ with the problems of unemployment. That year he made an extensive tour of the depressed areas in South Wales, Tyneside, Scotland and Lancashire, where (above) he is pictured shaking hands with a worker in Middleton. He met men who had already been unemployed for years and, visibly and sincerely shaken, is reported to have said:

Some of the things I see in these gloomy, poverty stricken areas made me almost ashamed to be an Englishman. … isn’t it awful that I can do nothing for them but make them smile.

As the parliamentary year ended, the Labour Party, and in particular its women MPs, could be forgiven for believing that they had much to look forward in the final year of the Twenties. Perhaps one of the changes the ‘flappers’ might have wished to see was a less patronising attitude from the press and their male colleagues than is displayed in the following report…

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(to be continued…)

 

 

Posted December 24, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Agriculture, Austerity, Britain, British history, Cartoons, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Commemoration, Economics, First World War, History, Integration, Journalism, Labour Party, liberalism, Marxism, Migration, Militancy, Narrative, nationalisation, Nonconformist Chapels, Reconciliation, Respectability, Scotland, Social Service, Socialist, south Wales, Trade Unionism, Transference, tyranny, Unemployment, Wales, Welsh language, Women's History, World War One

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‘Socialism’ & the Origins of the Labour Party in Britain, 1870-1900. Part Two – ‘Marxists’, ILP’ers & New Unionists.   Leave a comment

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Keir Hardie – The Harbinger of the Independent Labour Party, 1887-88:

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Keir Hardie, who was to play a major role in the political developments of the next three decades, was born into grinding poverty in 1856 in Lanarkshire, the illegitimate son of Mary Kerr, a farm servant who later married a ship’s carpenter named David Hardie. The first years of his life and his early career among the Ayrshire miners are the stuff of legend, but here we are concerned with how he became a Socialist and his contacts with Marxists in London. He had visited the capital with a miners’ delegation in 1887 and attended several meetings of the SDF, where he was introduced to Eleanor Marx, who in turn introduced him to Engels, who was, by then, critical of both the SDF and the Socialist League in Hardie’s hearing. In the end, he did not join the SDF as he had planned to do before arriving in London, and his reasons for his change of mind are instructive about the state of the Socialist movement in Britain at this time:

Born and reared as I had been in the country, the whole environment of the clubs, in which beer seemed to be the most dominant influence, and the tone of the speeches, which were full of denunciation of everything, including trade unionism, and containing little constructive thought, repelled me.

Hardie’s character and politics were not above and beyond the comprehension of the people from whom he had sprung. On the contrary, he was made of the same stuff as they were, with the same instincts, attitudes, the same religious turns of mind and phrase, the same inability to draw a line between politics and morality, or between logic and emotion. His views had already begun developing under the influence of Henry George, from Liberalism to Socialism; but these views were assimilated into his own life and experience, which was something the London Socialists could not share. As the leader and organiser of a trade union and a federation of unions, weak though these organisations were, Hardie was a valuable recruit to the Socialist cause, and his adhesion brought a less academic and more homely voice to the advocacy of independent labour policy. At the beginning of 1887, he had started a monthly magazine, the Miner, in which he addressed the men in his own blunt style, which contained all the aggressive spirit of economic discontent without any of the catchwords of Marxism:

Party be hanged! We are miners first and partisans next, at least if we follow the example of our “superiors” the landlords and their allies, we ought to be. …

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He was the harbinger of the New Unionists; and it was fitting that, although his career was to be primarily a political one, he should make his entry into national prominence as a trade union delegate. Already he had taken part in political work, as a Liberal; but now, in the autumn of 1887, he was adopted miners’ Parliamentary candidate for North Ayrshire, and in March 1888, when a vacancy occurred at Mid-Lanark, he was selected as miners’ candidate there, but the Liberal Party chose differently. His supporters encouraged him to stand as an independent and he accepted their nomination. The main principle that Hardie stood for, as an independent labour candidate, was the universal one that the working class must build up its own political strength, stand on its own feet and fight its own battles. This note of sturdy independence, which he struck repeatedly in the course of the by-election campaign, had not often been heard in the course of the preceding decade. He was supported by Champion from the SDF office in London, Tom Mann, Mahon, Donald and a host of other Socialists and Radicals who arrived in the constituency of their own accord. But though the canvassing and rallies were vigorous, there was little doubt about what the outcome would be. Hardie was at the bottom of the poll with 617 votes out of the total of seven thousand votes cast. The Liberal candidate was elected, leading the Conservative by nine hundred votes.

It was a disappointing result at the time, but in retrospect, it is seen as an important political turning-point. There and then, there was no reason to suppose that one or other party, Liberal or Conservative, would not allow itself to become the vehicle for labour representation by a gradual process. But the caucus system which operated within the Liberal Party meant that its choice of candidate was firmly in the control of its middle-class members. The failure of the working-class to break through this stranglehold had the concomitant effect that the Liberal Party’s grip on the working-class vote was clearly weakening in the mid-eighties. Yet its leaders still maintained that they served the interests of working people. Champion, for his part, claimed still more strongly his ambitious claim to be the organiser of the ‘National Labour Party’ and Hardie began the task of forming a Scottish Labour Party.

The Fabian Society & The Socialist Revival of 1889:

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The Fabians were also concerned in the task of formulating long-term Socialist policy for the country as a whole. In the autumn of 1888, they organised a series of lectures on The Basis and Prospects of Socialism which were edited by Bernard Shaw and published at the end of 1889, becoming the famous Fabian Essays in Socialism. They provided a distinctive sketch of the political programme of evolutionary Socialism, attracting immediate attention. The first edition at six shillings sold out rapidly and by early 1891, a total of 27,000 copies had been purchased. The seven Fabian essayists, all members of the Society’s Executive, offered a reasoned alternative to the revolutionary Socialist programme. In the first essay, Shaw rejected Marxian analysis of value in favour of a theory of Marginal Utility, asserting the social origin of wealth and reversing the conclusions of laissez-faire political economy from its own premises. In a second essay on the transition to Socialism, Shaw emphasised the importance of the advances towards democracy accomplished by such measures as the County Council Act of 1888. The extinction of private property could, he thought, be gradual, and each act of expropriation should be accompanied by compensation of the individual property-owner at the expense of all.

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Nearly all the Fabian essayists postulated a gradual, comparatively even and peaceful evolution of Socialism, which they regarded as already taking place by the extension of political democracy, national and local, and by the progress of ‘gas and water’ Socialism. They regarded the existing political parties, and especially the Liberal-Radicals, as open to permeation by Socialist ideas. Judged by the circumstances of their time, the most striking omission from their whole general thesis was their failure to recognise the significance of the trade unions and co-operative societies. As Sidney Webb (pictured above)  was later to discover, conclusions could be drawn from the working of these institutions which would dovetail with his general theory of the inevitability of gradualness. Arguing on historical grounds, Webb suggested that Socialism was already slowly winning the day: by Socialism, he meant the extension of public control, either by the State or the municipality.

Annie Besant looked forward to a decentralised society attaching special importance to municipal Socialism. One of the other essayists, Hubert Bland, however,  was hostile on the one hand towards Liberal-Radicalism and on the other towards the ‘catastrophic’ Socialism of the SDF and the Socialist League, but this did not lead him to accept Webb’s view that the extension of State control was necessarily an indication of advance towards Socialism. He could not agree that it was possible to effectively permeate the Radical Left: on the contrary, he predicted, Socialists could expect nothing but opposition from both main parties. His conclusion from this more thoroughly Marxian analysis was that there was a true cleavage being slowly driven through the body politic and that there was, therefore, a need for the formation of a definitively Socialist Party.

Bland’s view was important and, in some ways, future developments confirmed his ideas rather than those of the other essayists. He was certainly more in line with the Championite group, some of whose members were to play a leading role in the foundation of the Labour Party. Among his contemporary Fabian leaders, however, Bland was in a minority of one. The majority, judging national politics from a metropolitan perspective and assuming that the character of Liberalism was the same throughout the country, thought that their policy of permeation was the answer not only for the problems of London County Council but also for the broader sphere of Westminster politics. In the following decades, their association with the metropolitan Liberals was to be the source of great mistrust to the leaders of the growing independent labour movement outside the capital. Consequently, it was not for the immediate political tactics, but for their success in formulating a long-term evolutionary programme, that the Fabians were to be of importance in the eventual foundation of the Labour Party.

Labour Aristocrats, New Unionists & Socialist Internationals, 1889-1894:

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In 1874, the trade union membership recorded and represented at the Trades Union Congress had risen to 594,000; but by the end of that decade it had fallen to 381,000, and it was not until 1889 that the 1874 figure was exceeded. Union membership was almost entirely concentrated among more highly-skilled workers, for the first attempts to organise unskilled industrial workers had been killed off by the depression. The term ‘labour aristocracy’, which was used at the time by Marxists to describe the organised workers, is not inappropriate to point out the contrast between the privileges of their position and the weakness of the great mass of the less-skilled workers below them. Bowler-hatted craft unionists like those seen with their giant painted banner at the opening of the Woolwich Free Ferry in March 1889, shown in the photograph below, enjoyed a measure of respectability and a regular wage, the so-called unskilled lived a precarious existence. Balanced between poverty and absolute destitution, they were feared by the middle classes and despised by skilled and organised trade unionists. The Amalgamated Society of Engineers was the third-largest union in Britain by 1890. In 1897-98 it fought long, hard and unsuccessfully for an eight-hour day.

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In London alone, there were four thousand casual workers in the 1890s, and thousands were unemployed, homeless and destitute, a submerged population of outcasts who not only filled the workhouses and doss houses but slept in great numbers in the streets. Two of the SDF lantern slides (below) show differing aspects of homelessness, a picture of women spending the night on an embankment seat, taken at four in the morning, and a scene of men washing in a night shelter. The scene of women sleeping on the Embankment was would have been a common sight at the time. R. D. Blumenfeld, an American-born journalist who came to Britain in the 1880s, recorded, in his diary, his experience of a night on the Embankment on 24 December 1901:

I walked along the Embankment this morning at two o’ clock … Every bench from Blackfriars to Westminster Bridge was filled with shivering people, all huddled up – men, women and children. The Salvation Army people were out giving away hot broth, but even this was merely a temporary palliative against the bitter night. At Charing Cross we encountered a man with his wife and two tiny children. They had come to town from Reading to look for work. The man had lost his few shillings and they were stranded …

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Charitable institutions were unable to cope with the vast numbers that sought nightly access to their refuges and many of the outcast lacked even the few coppers required for common lodging houses and ‘dossers’. Others preferred the open streets to the casual ward where they ran the risk of being detained for three days against their will and there were hundreds who would chance exposure to the elements rather than submit to the workhouse. After Trafalgar Square was cleared on Bloody Sunday in 1887, the authorities finally banned the Square to the homeless. But the embankment, with its benches and bridges, continued to be used by mothers with babies in arms, children and old people, all spending the night insulated against the cold by old newspapers and sacks. The thousands who slept out were not for the most part alcoholics but honest, poor, unskilled and casual workers, subject to seasonal and trade fluctuations in employment. Salvation Army General Booth in Darkest London quotes a typical case of a Bethnal Green bootmaker, in hospital for three months. His wife also became ill and after three weeks their furniture was seized for rent due to the landlord. Subsequently, they were evicted. Too ill to work, everything pawned, including the tools of his trade, they became dispossessed outcasts. Not all the ‘dossers’ were out of work; many were simply homeless and earned such poor wages that renting rooms was beyond their means. Records from the Medland Hall refuge showed sailors, firemen, painters, bricklayers and shoemakers among those who sought shelter from the streets of the richest city in the world.

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Elsewhere in the country, there were some anomalies in the divisions of workers into ‘skilled’ and ‘unskilled’: the Lancashire cotton workers, for example, even though comparatively unskilled, ranked with the ‘aristocracy’, while the Yorkshire woollen workers, probably owing to the greater diversity of their occupations, were almost devoid of organisation. Among the miners, too, the degree of trade unionism varied widely among men of comparable skill in different coalfields. The general labourers and workers in the sweated trades, many of them women, had no unions, and their miserable conditions were at once a cause and a result of their inability to defend themselves. At the bottom of the social heap were the casual labourers, thousands of whom fought daily for work at the gates of London’s docks. The following description of dockers waiting for ‘call on’ was written by Ben Tillett in a little pamphlet entitled A Dock Labourer’s Bitter Cry in July 1887:

There can be nothing ennobling in an atmosphere where we are huddled and herded together like cattle. There is nothing refining in the thought that to obtain employment we were driven into a shed, iron barred from end to end, outside of which a contractor or a foreman walks up and down with the air of a dealer in cattle market, picking and choosing from a crowd of men who in their eagerness to obtain employment, trample each other underfoot, and where they fight like beasts for the chance of a day’s work.

Tillett also told of how these men lived more by accident than design … picking over the rubbish heaps in search of anything eatable and of the furtive storing of refuse rice, the coolies had thrown away. The manager of the Millwall Docks gave evidence at an enquiry, of men who came to work without a scrap of work in their stomachs and gave up after an hour, their hunger not allowing them to continue. They were, said Tillett, Lazaruses who starve upon crumbs from the rich man’s table. On 12 August 1889, two members of Ben Tillett’s little union, the ‘Tea Operatives and General Labourers’ Association’ which had been formed by twelve men in the Oak Tavern off Hackney Road, met at Wroot’s Coffee House and came to Tillett with a demand that they should declare a strike at the South West India Dock. Though Tillett had campaigned for two years at the docks with evangelical fervour, the demand surprised him: Was it possible to strike with men who shivered with hunger and cold, bullied and intimidated by the petty tyrants who took a delight in the brutalities of the call on? The men left Tillett in no doubt as to the answer. Meetings were held under the windows of the dock offices and seethed with tumult. The demands included the raising of wages to sixpence an hour, The full round orb of the dockers’ tanner, as John Burns described it, eightpence an hour for overtime and a reduction in the number of ‘call-ons’, which kept hungry men hanging about the dock gates all day, often in the wet and cold awaiting the next chance to catch the foreman’s eye.

The strike spread rapidly throughout the docks, stevedores, boilermakers, coal heavers, ballast-men, lightermen, painters and carpenters all supporting the dock labourers. With only seven shillings and sixpence in his union funds. Tillett set about raising money to provide relief for the striking dockers and their families. Daily marches with banners and bands around the docks and to the City served to keep up morale, spread the news and keep money pouring into the jingling collecting boxes. From the strike committee headquarters at The Wade’s Arms, Ben Tillett, Tom Mann, Eleanor Marx, John Burns, Harry Orbell and Henry Champion planned the distribution of money. Champion had been expelled from the SDF in November 1888 and threw himself eagerly into leading the practical relief work among the strikers. He persuaded the strike committee to issue one shilling food tickets and got local tradesmen to honour them. Tom Mann took charge of the task and told in his memoirs of how he faced the first crowd of hungry dockers:

I put my back against one of the doorposts and stretched out my leg, with my foot on the opposite post, jamming myself in. I talked pleasantly to the men and passed each man in under my leg!

Tillett wrote of this event:

I can see Tom now, with his back against the door of Wroot’s Coffee House, keeping back a yelling, hungry mob, while Nash and Smith shivered in the pay room. 

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Eight relief centres were established in the East End of London, tickets being issued on production of a union card. This was not only a rational way of issuing relief but served to build the union, twenty thousand cards being issued for the twopenny membership fee. Contemporary reports tell of women and children feeding in the streets and the photograph above shows women with their meal tickets pinned to their hats and dresses, feeding their children outside one of the union centres. At the peak of the struggle, twenty-five thousand meal tickets a day were being issued by the union. Eventually, on 14 September 1889, a settlement favourable to the dockers was reached. The story of the strike for the ‘dockers’ tanner’ is legendary and the engravings from The Illustrated London News of 1889 and a few contemporary photographs of the strikers are familiar enough. However, the photograph from the SDF slide set, entitled women and children of dock strikers being fed in the street was not published until 1980. It is a rare relic from that epic fight which heralded the ‘new unionism’ and the organisation of the unskilled.

The Tea Operatives Union which began the strike with a few hundred members finished it with a few hundred thousand and the ground was prepared for the building of the great Dockers’ Union, ‘the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union of Great Britain and Ireland’. The photograph below shows victorious strikers, greeting the end of the strike, one of the most significant in the history of British trades unionism. The Socialists as a whole gained considerably in prestige from their association with the New Unionism which developed from the late 1880s onwards. The example of devoted leadership that they gave was only rarely spoilt by errors of judgement. As Champion himself recognised at the time, it was not for the purity of their Socialism that they were respected by the workers, but for their willingness to throw themselves into the day-to-day tasks of union organisation. But the political leaders at the dockside were careful not to take advantage of the strike to advance the Socialist cause. Hyndman had wanted John Burns to display a red flag during the dock strike, but Burns had refused because he knew it would be inappropriate to do so.

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John Burns resigned from the SDF after the strike but still regarded himself as a Socialist, and the movement could only gain from his popularity, and that of Thorne and Mann, who now occupied key positions in the New Unions. Furthermore, the principles of New Unionism were socialistic in tendency, basing their tactics on the principle of advancing the interests of the working class as a whole, which is clearly indicated by their willingness to accept all types of workers for membership. This brought the new unionists into sympathy with the basic conception of Socialism and made them favourable to the Socialist demand for an independent labour party in Parliament. The new unionists had nothing to lose and a world to gain by a policy of political action such as the Socialists were advocating. It soon became clear to them that the gains they made by industrial action were not easy to maintain. The success of the Championite Socialists in taking the lead in the formation of the new unions was largely due to the lukewarm attitude of the established ‘craft’ unions. The echoes of New Unionism were meanwhile resounding throughout the country, and struggles of less importance but sometimes greater intensity and bitterness were waged in provincial towns and ports. The letters of Engels reveal something of the intense excitement of the period, especially one he wrote to Sorge in December 1889:

The people are throwing themselves into the job in quite a different way, are leading far more colossal masses into the fight, are shaking society more deeply, are putting forward much more far-reaching demands: eight hour day, general federation of all organisations, complete solidarity. Thanks to ‘Tussy’ (Eleanor Marx) women’s branches have been formed for the first time – in the Gasworkers and General Labourers Union. Moreover, the people regard their immediate demands only as provisional although they themselves do not know as yet what final aim they are working for.

But this dim idea is strongly enough rooted to make them choose only openly declared Socialists as their leaders. Like everyone else they will have to learn by their experiences and the consequences of their own mistakes. But as, unlikethe old trade unions, they greet every suggestion of an identity of interest between Capital and Labour with scorn and ridicule, this will not take very long. …

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Engels’ optimism was based not only on the success of the Socialists in capturing the new unions in London but also on the successful reconstitution of the ‘International’ in the autumn of 1889. There had been two separate Socialist and Labour congresses held simultaneously in Paris: one was backed by the orthodox followers of Marx and Engels, and also attended by a number of British Socialists including William Morris and Keir Hardie; the other, summoned by French reformists opposed to the Engels group, was attended not only by the Fabians and by a number of the craft unionists, but also by Hyndman and other members of the SDF. It was due to Engels’ hostility that the SDF delegates were forced to consort with conservative trade-union leaders and the foreign reformists rather than with the Marxists.

Fortunately, however, for the sake of the future of the movement, the two congresses finally joined together to form the Second International. As a consequence, this was much more real as an organisation than its predecessor of two decades before, embracing strong parties from a variety of countries. One notable outcome of the foundation of the Second International was the decision to make a demonstration of labour solidarity on May Day, 1890. The London Socialists busied themselves with preparations for a great demonstration in Hyde Park on the first Sunday in May, the result being a remarkable display of the forces of New Unionism and its solidarity with the Socialism. The attendance was impressive, and Engels, who watched the scene from the top of a goods-van, was almost beside himself with enthusiasm. He proclaimed in the Vienna Arbeiter Zeitung:

On May 4th, 1890, the English working class joined up in the great international army. … The grand-children of the old Chartists are entering the line of battle. 

A German depiction of the famous phrase "Workers of the World Unite!" from Marx and Engel's Communist Manifesto (1848).

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But in his more sober moments, Engels was well aware of what he called the bourgeois respectability which has grown deep into the bones of the workers. Although the new unionists made an impact on the TUC in 1890, they were not sufficiently numerous to outvote the craft unions, most of whom retained their prejudices and patronising attitude towards the new arrivals. Meanwhile, the Socialist League in London was falling apart. Eleanor Marx, Aveling and Bax were feeling, as Hyndman had done, that Socialism should engage with the parliamentary system. The withdrawal of this ‘Parliamentary’ element caused the Socialist League to fall more and more into the hands of the Anarchists, who voted Morris out of his role as editor of The Commonweal at the 1890 conference.

016 (3)Morris himself became increasingly uncomfortable with their activities until in November 1890 he decided to cut his losses and withdraw from the League, together with the Hammersmith branch, which remained loyal to him. Without his funds and moderating influence, the League then disintegrated. Morris continued to work for Socialism, but at a reduced rate which was all his health permitted; he chaired meetings of what had become the Hammersmith Socialist Society and continued to speak at outdoor meetings. He still hoped for a united British Socialist Party, and negotiated, unsuccessfully, to bring that about in 1892. He was pleased with the election of three ‘Independent Labour’ MPs, regarding…

… this obvious move forward of the class feeling as full of real hope. 

The growth of the waterfront and related unions in the great seaports helped to change the geography of the trade union movement, although their strength ebbed and flowed spectacularly with the trade cycle. In 1891, on the crest of the cycle, officially recorded membership had penetrated deepest into Northumberland, Durham, industrial Lancashire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire, and into South Wales. It remained at a very low ebb across the Home Counties, southwest England, rural Wales and most of East Anglia, despite the rise of agricultural trade unions in the early 1870s. The same geographical pattern applied to the development of consumer co-operatives. By 1870, Yorkshire had 121 societies of varying sizes, and Lancashire had 112, followed by Durham (28), the Northamptonshire footwear district (21), Northumberland (18), and Cheshire and Derbyshire (17). At this stage, there were only six societies within a twelve-mile radius of central London.

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Wherever the Chartist legacy had been strong, and trade union commitment coexisted with hard-working, thrifty Nonconformity, co-operation took root.  Falling prices and rising working-class living standards in late Victorian times made it compatible with popular pleasures like football and seaside excursions, as more people could afford to save and spend, or to save in order to spend. Co-operation became a mass movement and by 1899, 1,531 co-operative societies in Britain had over 1.6 million members, and in heartlands like ‘cotton Lancashire’, practically every household included a ‘co-operator’. London, the great seaports and even the popular resorts were catching up with the older industrial centres by this time. Co-operatives and the trade unions rarely collaborated, except when local societies gave special support to strikers.  As a widely supported movement which drew in women as well as men, the Co-operative Movement, with its proto-feminist Women’s Guild, had an even bigger impact than the better-documented trade unions. The relaxation of draconian anti-union legislation in the 1870s and rising affluence among unskilled workers in the 1890s had enabled them to take part in the union movement, while co-operative societies encouraged ‘Self-help’ by dividing profits among their members. The geographical influence of the two movements is best understood if they are regarded as two sides of the same coin.

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The photograph above shows the Radcliffe Co-op in Lancashire, typical of the early co-operators and their belief in Robert Owen’s great discovery that the key to a better society was ‘unrestrained co-operation on the part of all members for every purpose of social life’. Founded in 1860, the Radcliffe co-operators looked to the established movement in Bury, Oldham and Ashton in for inspiration and advice. The Radcliffe Co-op flourished with reading rooms, educational classes, the Women’s Guild interwoven with the steady growth of baking, coal supply, housing, dairy produce and a growing number of branches.  

The Advent of the Independent Labour Party, 1893-95:

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Although aloof from the fray over these early years of the 1890s, the fact that Morris was known to be speaking not for one faction but for the interests of Socialism as a whole actually increased his influence.

At the beginning of 1893, the inaugural conference of the Independent Labour Party took place at the Bradford Labour Institute. The hall’s history was symbolic of working-class causes both religious and political to date. It had begun life as a Wesleyan Reform Chapel and had later been used by the Salvation Army. It was surrounded by the mills and warehouses on which the trade of Bradford depended. Against this backdrop, the opening of the conference presented like a scene from a novel depicting British political history.

William Morris was not there, but there were certainly many faces to be seen which belonged to characters who had already played major roles in labour politics including Mahon, Donald, and Aveling, Hardie, Tillett and Shaw. Hardie was elected to the chair, and he immediately faced difficulties over whether the two London Fabians should be admitted as delegates. Shaw was one of these, but the ‘permeation’ tactics of the Fabians were unpopular among the rank-and-file of independent labour, especially as it was widely known that they had no intention of abandoning their positions of influence inside the Liberal Party. On the night before the conference, Shaw had addressed a meeting of the provincial Fabian delegates and had suggested that the whole idea of immediately establishing an independent party was premature. Reports of his speech circulated overnight, so it was not surprising that the credentials of these two delegates were disputed and only approved by a margin of two votes. Thereafter, Shaw’s contribution to the discussions was of considerable value. The principal questions with which the conference had to deal were the choice of the party’s name, the drafting of its constitution and programme and the election of an executive. The choice of name was obvious to the English delegates, but the Scottish Labour Party colleagues the title of ‘Socialist Labour Party’. Joseph Burgess and Katherine Conway argued that the new party had to appeal to an electorate which has as yet no full understanding of Socialism. Ben Tillett supported this point, adding that:

He wished to capture the trade unionists of this country, a body of men well organised, who paid their money, and were Socialists at their work every day and not merely on the platform, who did not shout for blood-red revolution, and when it came to revolution, sneaked under the nearest bed.

Tillett followed up this attack on the Hyndmanites with a gratuitous one on the hare-brained chatterers and magpies of Continental revolutionists, a remark which offended Eduard Bernstein, the able London correspondent of the German Social-Democratic paper, who was later given the right to reply. The decision to leave the title as ‘Independent Labour Party’ reflected an awareness of the origins and roots of the party in the local labour unions and parties, some of which were not explicitly committed to Socialism. The primary object of these bodies was to build a Parliamentary party on the basis of a programme of labour reform, and the principal allies of this party were to be, not the existing Socialist societies, but the trade unions, whose leaders were in most cases still to be converted to the independent policy. In this decision the fundamental differences between the ILP and the earlier Socialist societies were revealed: the means of political action were regarded as of primary importance, and the theoretical approach gave way to the practical. But this did not mean that the party was not to be a Socialist party. The proposal to define its object as to secure the collective ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange was carried as a substantive motion by an almost unanimous vote. The conference was evidently strongly Socialist; this was confirmed when the programme came to be discussed and, with the help of Aveling and Shaw, the Marxist and the Fabian, it provided the new party with a concise and clear-cut programme without inconsistency or divergence from basic Socialist doctrine.

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The Bradford Conference had raised high hopes of the new Independent Labour Party, which was intended to rival the Liberals and Conservatives in the fight for Parliamentary power. But the reality of its position fell far short of what its supporters at first imagined was possible. The ILP was able to rely on many of the remnants of the Socialist League, especially in Yorkshire, but the SDF had strengthened itself at the expense of the League in London and had also rapidly extended its hold in Lancashire. In June 1893, the SDF claimed sixty-two branches, a total larger than ever before except for its temporary boom during the strikes of 1887; in August 1894, the official total was ninety-one. Although never as large as the ILP it was always a formidable competitor.

Champion manoeuvred his way back into the political limelight in association with Maltman Barry, described by one rival as that most Marxian of Tories and Toryest of Marxians, now openly boasting his connection with the Conservative Party, as its paid agent, in a letter to the Workman’s Times of September 1892, which made him a sinister influence to the purists of independent politics. The national press was overwhelmingly hostile to the ILP and anxious to misrepresent any indiscretion or sign of weakness, and the agents of both the ‘great’ parties were seeking to break down the policy of independence by offers of financial assistance or by promises designed to satisfy personal ambitions.

Fortunately for the ILP, despite its internal financial and organisational difficulties, political factors in the country were strengthening its position. Hardie’s vigorous propaganda, up and down the country as well as in Parliament was breaking through and stiffening the members’ attitude on the issue of strict independence. The political situation was one of which he could take advantage since the Liberal government were showing no signs of dealing with the relief of the unemployed or of accomplishing important reforms. The problem of unemployment was very severe, with distress on a national scale, and Hardie calculated, with good reason, that there were over a million out of work. Throughout the country, local ILPs took the initiative in forming distress committees to provide food and shelter for the needy and to press public bodies to assist by offering relief work. The SDF methods of organising demonstrations of the unemployed were revived, and many industrial towns echoed to the tramp of their marching feet and the pathetic sound of their song, The Starving Poor of Old England.

But it did not take very much to persuade the Fabians to turn around once more and reassert their alliance with the Liberals. The ILP, they were convinced, could not succeed without official trade-union support. It was in vain that Hardie attempted to explain to them the fighting attitude of the local ILP branches in the north of England. He took part, with Tom Mann, in an informal Fabian-ILP conference in January 1895, and also lectured to the Society in London, telling them:

To reach the masses of the people, something more than academic education and discussion on abstract propositions is necessary. The workers will only rally to a fighting policy.

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After Hardie’s lecture, Curran reminded those present that London is not England, a reminder that, for all their claims of intellectual superiority, they often seemed incapable of fully appreciating. In the 1895 General Election, although the ILP fielded twenty-eight candidates, polling 34,433 votes (1% of the total votes cast), and failed to get a single MP elected. Even Keir Hardie, standing again in West Ham, and his two colleagues lost their seats.

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‘Merrie England’ – Popularising Socialism in the Countryside, 1894-95:

Allied to the ILP in the North and Midlands, journals like The Clarion had a wide appeal because of its brilliant journalism. Robert Blatchford founded The Clarion as a weekly paper in the winter of 1891 to spread the message of Socialism. With a combination of wit, warmth and sound political argument the circulation soon reached forty thousand. It became more than a newspaper, it became a movement. Blatchford’s series of articles inviting John Smith, the typical working man, to join the ranks of the Socialists was published as Merrie England, and when issued as a book it sold twenty thousand copies at a shilling each. Wanting to reach out further he issued a penny edition issued in 1894 and sold three-quarters of a million copies in a year, giving a great lift to the circulation of the Clarion, sales of which reached sixty thousand. The features of Merrie England that made it so popular were its simplicity and directness of style, and its engaging enthusiasm for the ordinary pleasures of life that had been submerged by industrial civilisation, as the following extract from Blatchford’s writing demonstrates:

I would stop the smoke nuisance. … I would have towns rebuilt with wide streets, with detached houses, with gardens and fountains and avenues. … I would have public parks, public theatres, music halls, gymnasiums, football and cricket fields, public halls and public gardens for recreation and music and refreshment. …

015 (2)How could all this be done? Blatchford demonstrated that the working class, who were seven-eighths of the population, received little more than a third of the national income. He also argued, principally on the basis of an article by the Russian scientist Peter Kropotkin, that Great Britain and Ireland could be self-sufficient in agricultural production. The whole problem, therefore, he maintained, could be solved by nationalising the land, industry and commerce, and by limiting industrial production to the extent actually required for the supply of the people of Britain. Thus the doctrines of Marxian Socialism, as transmitted to Blatchford through the agency of Hyndman and the Fabians, were transformed into a policy of national autarky which, at the time it was propounded, could hardly be taken seriously by those who knew anything about Britain’s position in world trade. But the economic arguments in the book did not really matter. Blatchford was not equipped to deal with the practical problems of political administration. He was, however, in his element as a popular journalist who could stir the public imagination with his vivid writings.

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Blatchford found other ways, too, of exploiting the interest in Socialism. Clarion Clubs were formed, informally known as The Fellowship. These were followed by the Clarion Cycling Club, joining the new craze with spreading the gospel of Socialism to countryside villages. Blatchford’s supporters became known as ‘Clarionettes’ and in 1894 he founded the Clarion Scouts, bodies of young Socialist pioneers who were to spread their faith by such original methods as leaflet raids by bicyclists. These propagandising methods both improved the Clarion‘s circulation and spread the idea of Socialism in directions where it had not previously penetrated. He encouraged the formation of a Glee Club, a Camera Club and a Field Club, and for a time ran a special supplementary paper, the Scout, to support their activity. These were followed by numerous cycling clubs. One reason for the establishment of the Clarion Scouts had been to find a way of bringing Socialism to the agricultural areas. In 1895 a few Manchester Clarionettes borrowed a horse and van and set off for Tabley in Cheshire to camp with eight Clarion supporters. The idea of the Clarion vans was born, and, complete with beds and fitted with socialist literature the vans were mobile propaganda vehicles, touring for weeks at a time, until the last one, designed by Walter Crane (1845-1916), the great Socialist artist-craftsman and William Morris’ associate, was built and dedicated in the market square in Shrewsbury, photographed below, just months before the First World War began.

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Blatchford’s conception of Socialism was a policy of agricultural self-sufficiency and the 1895 ILP annual conference followed his lead by adopting a long and detailed list of agricultural reforms including nationalisation of land values and placed these prominently at the head of its programme. These policies aimed at catching the eye of the rural voter, but it was all to little avail: the general picture of the party’s activity in the first year of its existence remained one of great vigour in the industrial North of England, especially the woollen areas, with pockets of strength in parts of Scotland and the Midlands. ; but it remained weak in London and other southern towns, and completely absent from nearly all the rural areas. The ILP Directory, published in 1895 showed that out of the three hundred or so party branches listed, a hundred were in Yorkshire, mostly in the West Riding, over seventy in Lancashire and Cheshire, forty in Scotland, mostly in Glasgow and Strathclyde,  and thirty in the London area. Of the sixty remaining branches, most were in the Midlands and north-eastern counties of England, leaving Wales, Ireland and eastern England virtually without representation. It was primarily an industrial working-class party with a strong presence in particular localities in the textile towns and in the more scattered engineering districts of England. By replacing the cosmopolitan Socialism of the eighties with a national party, the ILP had merely succeeded in establishing itself as a provincial party by the mid-nineties.

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In 1896, Walter Crane had published Cartoons for the Cause, 1886-96, printed by the ‘Twentieth Century Press’ at Clerkenwell Green in London. As John Betjeman, the later poet laureate wrote in his foreword to its reprint in 1976, Crane’s cartoons are of historic interest as period pieces when high-minded Socialism was taken up by the followers of William Morris. Crane was prominent among them, the first Master of the Art Worker’s Guild, an ardent ‘Guild Socialist’ and Positivist. Betjeman also wrote that:

Crane was no William Blake but a brilliant decorative artist. … Walter learned the art of engraving on wood and stone. A hard life among the shabby-genteel of London opened his generous heart. He saw the twentieth century as a golden age ahead, with equal cash and opportunity for all. … 

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The designs which are shown here are taken from Crane’s ‘portfolio’ and were done from time to time over the decade from the summer of 1885 which, as Crane wrote in his preface, had been a period of remarkable progress in the knowledge and spread of Socialist ideas.  They served on different occasions the Socialist movement, appearing in various journals devoted to ‘the cause’, including Justice. The year of publication was marked by the International Socialist and Trade Union Congress in July when workers and Socialists from all parts of the world met in London. It was hoped, as Crane wrote, that the event would …

… be the means of strengthening the ties of international brotherhood, and consolidating those common interests of humanity which makes for Peace and social progress; as well as giving an immense stimulus to the great movement towards the new era, when, society renewed upon a sound economic basis, the earth shall be for man and the fullness thereof.

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Crane continued in the same millennarian spirit:

The possibilities of life on the earth under such a change of system – and it is only a change of system – are as yet but dimly and partially apprehended; but to anyone who can read the signs of the times everything points to the approach of such great economic changes as those indicated, and consciously or unconsciously we may be all, whether rich or poor, factors in their evolution …  

Rival Revolutionaries, 1896-1900:

Meanwhile, the Hyndman group continued to dominate the politics of the SDF, greeting with scorn and vituperation the slightest sign of deviation from an uncompromising hostility to all other parties. Ramsay Macdonald and the Fabian leaders were especially singled out for criticism. When, in 1895, George Lansbury, who stood for Walworth as an SDF Parliamentary candidate, ventured to speak in his manifesto of the transformation of society by peaceful means, he was severely taken to task by Hyndman for his apparent abandonment of what the latter saw as the true revolutionary attitude. Yet in spite of these defects, the SDF continued to provide a serious challenge to the ILP as the leading Socialist party. In 1898 it claimed a total of 137 branches, twice as many as it had in 1893, and roughly two-thirds of the ILP figure.

Since the 1895 General Election, it had gained ground at the expense of the ILP and its leaders were willing to support a merger with the ILP since they knew they would no longer be submerged. It was more overtly ‘Socialist’ both in its title and programme. Members of the Federation were expected to make a real attempt to master the theory of Marxism, and even Lansbury’s Bow and Bromley Socialists wearily struggled with ‘Das Kapital’ and Engels’ ‘Socialism, Utopian and Scientific’. This was far more than the ILP branches were prepared to do. Also, there were many who had joined the SDF because they were hostile to the ILP for a variety of reasons, not least because it was not sufficiently democratic, a criticism shared by Blatchford. It was for these reasons that William Morris rejoined the party a short time before his death in 1896. Morris had come to accept the need for political action but was suspicious of Hardie, dating from the days when the latter was closely associated with Champion. In 1894, a young member of the SDF heard Morris speaking for the party in Manchester:

The last time I saw Morris, he was speaking from a lorry pitched on a piece of waste land close to the Ship Canal. … It was a wild March Sunday morning, and he would not have been asked to speak out of doors, but he had expressed a desire to do so, and so there he was., talking with quiet strenuousness, drawing a laugh now and then from the undulating crowd, of working men mostly, who stood in the hollow and on the slopes before him. There would be quite two thousand of them. He wore a blue overcoat, but had laid aside his hat; and his grizzled hair blew in wisps and tumbles about his face. … In spite of the bitter cold of the morning, scarcely a man moved from the crowd; though there was comparatively little fire or fervour in the speech, and next to no allusion to any special topic of the hour. Many there were hearing and seeing the man for the first time; most of us were hearing from him for the last time; and we all looked and listened as though we knew it.

When Morris died two years later, aged sixty-two, the sense of loss which was felt by fellow Socialists was summed up by Robert Blatchford, the ILP’er and editor of The Clarion:

I cannot help feeling that it does not matter what goes into ‘the Clarion’ this week, because William Morris is dead. And what Socialist will care for any other news this week, beyond that one sad fact?  … He was our best man… It is true that much of his work still lives, and will live. But we have lost him, and, great as was his work, he himself was greater … Though his words fell like sword strokes, one always felt that the warrior was stronger than the sword. For Morris was not only a genius, he was a man. Strike him where you would, he rang true…

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Morris’ greatest contribution to the socialist movement was the inspiration he provided, as Blatchford suggested, more as a man than as a theorist. In fact, the future for British Socialism lay not in revolution, as Morris had thought, but in a gentler, reformist approach, specifically through the election to Parliament of the ILP candidates. Nevertheless, the Socialist League in its short life played a vital role in forming that party; its stronghold was in the north, not in London, and this is was from these roots that the party sprang, whereas the SDF was strongest in the south. Morris did, to some extent, succeed in educating the working classes in Socialism, even though the results were not exactly what he had hoped they would be. It is more difficult to assess his influence on Socialism and socialist thought in the longer term. Recent revaluations suggest that his contribution in this area may have been undervalued and that he was a more substantial political theorist than has been realised. The ‘Marxist’ historian E P Thompson suggests that Morris’ essential contribution to British Socialism was his stress on a moral and humane element, on the importance of community and fellowship, and that this was a necessary complement to the more cerebral Marxist economic analysis.

Poverty & Progress at the Turn of a New Century:

The final years of the century were a time of sharply rising industrial militancy and the ‘imperial issue’ of Ireland: Of all these issues around the world, the issue of Home Rule for Ireland was the one that  roused most interest, not simply because it was the closest to home and mixed with religious differences but also because it divided the Liberal Party as well as the workers. But it was the issue of poverty which began to attract men of social conscience, most notably the shipowners Charles Booth and the chocolate manufacturer Seebohm Rowntree, who began to investigate it, quantify it and to record its reality and extent in irrefutable detail for the first time. At the beginning of the 1890s, thirty per cent of London’ population fell on or below Booth’s ‘poverty line’, which increased to 68% in Southwark and 65% in Greenwich, and Rowntree’s figure for York in 1899 was not much lower than these. Cases of real want could no longer be dismissed as unrepresentative. So low or intermittent were earnings that many families had incomes which were below the level needed for the maintenance of physical health and strength even if excellent housekeepers had been available to ensure that not even a farthing was spent on non-essential items. Rowntree calculated that in York in 1899, almost ten per cent of the population (15.5% of all wage earners) lived in primary poverty, below the ‘poverty line’, and this figure was considered to be not untypical of other provincial towns.  It was small wonder, therefore, that just over a third of those who volunteered for military service between 1893 and 1902 were rejected on medical grounds, and fears of national physical deterioration began to alarm the more conservative elements in the country and allied them with those whose consciences had been stirred by the social investigators ‘arithmetic of woe’.

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Above: A Sunderland slum, c.1889: Squalor was all too often the fate of the industrial working class. By-laws regulated new building, but slums like these were to take another forty years to clear.

The growing urbanisation of the country which many thought was aggravating the problems of the poor also made it possible to deal with the worst social injustices. Towns provided an increasing range of free services and local government expenditure began to increase. Workmen’s trains and, from the 1890s, electric tramcars, together with the availability of cheap, second-hand bicycles, enabled wage-earners to escape from overcrowded town centres to the suburbs. And the spread of multiple shops such as Sainsbury’s and Lipton’s from the 1860s onwards was also an urban phenomenon, as were Saturday afternoon sporting events, excursions by train, and the music halls.

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The preference for smaller families, which became more marked among the middle classes in the later nineteenth century, was beginning to spread to the working classes, thus making the lives of married women considerably better, but this was a gradual change. The photo (right) shows the Gulliver family in c.1899, the children of an agricultural labourer and a domestic servant, on the steps of their cottage in Ufton, Warwickshire. A further seven siblings were added in the following decade. There were also the beginnings of greater employment opportunities for single women. The reforms of secondary education after 1870 led to new grammar schools offering scholarships to bright young people of both sexes, providing them with a better start in life than their parents had had. There was also more time for leisure. C Stella Davies recalled her memories of the Clarion Cycle Club at this time:

At the club-house, after a ride through the lanes of Cheshire or over the Derbyshire hills, we ate an enormous tea of ham, pickles, jam and cake of such solidity that we called it a “tram-stopper” … Washing-up followed, after which we cleared the tables away for either a meeting, a play or a concert, finishing the evening by dancing … By ten o’ clock we were shooting down Schools Hill, bunches of wild flowers tied to our handle-bars, apples in our pockets, the wind lifting our hair …

The State of the Socialist ‘Cause’ & Labour’s ‘Turning Point’:

The Socialists, whether in the Socialist League, the SDF or the ILP, were the only active political group who were interested in bringing an independent working-class political party into being. They alone could provide a programme which would make it distinct and separate from the existing parties. Without such a programme, as Engels realised, there could be no such party on a permanent basis, and every attempt to found one would fail. Even after the foundation of a Labour Party by the coming together of the trades unions with the socialist societies at the beginning of the twentieth century, its political independence remained in doubt until in 1918 it accepted a Socialist constitution. In addition, the Socialists possessed faith in the righteousness and ultimate victory of their cause which acted as a powerful driving force. This ‘faith’ was based, ultimately, on the analysis of society first presented by Marx and Engels in their Communist Manifesto of 1848 and elaborated in their subsequent writings. This analysis was modified by Hyndman and the Fabians and simplified for popular consumption by Morris, Blatchford and Hardie. To its working-class adherents, it gave a sense of purpose and pride in their class consciousness; to middle-class progressives, it afforded the consolation that they were working in harmony with contemporary social change.

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Socialism had the dynamic quality of a faith devoutly held which was capable of conquering social realities. It had this quality for the early members of the SDF, the Socialist League and the ILP. Just as now, it led them into making foolish statements, such as…

If Socialism were the law in England every worker would get at least four times his present wages for half his present work, or this country is capable of feeding more than treble her present population. 

But ‘the faith’ did not stand or fall by the publication of illusory and inaccurate figures: it depended much less on ‘reason’ than on deeper and simpler forces in human nature. G. B. Shaw summed this up in his 1897 article, The Illusions of Socialism, in which he wrote:

Socialism wins its disciples by presenting civilization as a popular melodrama, or as a Pilgrim’s Progress through suffering, trial, and combat against the powers of evil to the bar of poetic justice with paradise beyond.

It was this crusading zeal which drew attention to the Socialists in the eighties and enabled them to have an influence in British politics far beyond what their numbers justified. They made up in energy and enthusiasm for their lack of numbers: in spite of their eccentricities and discords, they formed a political élite.  When it came to fighting elections, speaking at street corners, canvassing and delivering manifestos, the man with the red tie was worth a score of his more easy-going trade-unionists, a fact that the union leaders were obliged to take into account in drawing up the terms of the alliance in 1900. Not all the Socialists, however, could claim to have made a valuable contribution to the formation of the new party. The SDF had originated in a labour revolt against the National Liberal Federation, yet in the course of a few years, it came to embody a sectarian exclusiveness and hostility to all save the adherents to its own narrow creed. Engels himself resented the way it had managed to reduce the Marxist theory of development to a rigid orthodoxy. Hyndman’s was a doctrinaire radicalism, full of echoes of Tom Paine and the Jacobins, but devoid of any astute revolutionary technique. It was primarily to defend his more collaborative strategy that Hardie fought tooth and nail against a merger with the SDF. His attitude was justified by the attitude of the SDF leadership at the critical moment of the formation of the new party and their decision to secede eighteen months later.

The fact was, as George Lansbury understood better than Hyndman, that the British working class as a whole had no use for the concept of violent revolution, and that any leader who failed to recognise this could not expect to win widespread support. Economic grievances could temporarily arouse bitter discontent as they had done in the early period of the industrial revolution: the Norwich shoemakers who joined the Socialist League were, like the Chartist hand-loom weavers before them, making a protest against an industrial system which had no place for their craftsmanship. But fractures and dislocations of this kind were transitory events: a permanent political organisation of the working class needed to disavow the use of violence. Only those who recognised this could effectively move forward to the formation of a Labour Party. The Fabian Society performed the essential service of adapting Marxist theory to a form compatible with British constitutional practice, drawing heavily on indigenous radical and liberal ideas. But the Fabians had no direct involvement in the establishment of the Labour Representation Committee and were never ready to believe that the time was ripe for the creation of a new party. The failure of their policy of permeation, in which they had placed such high hopes, turned their complacency to depression, and by the end of the century, most of the members of the Society were beginning, like Shaw, to distrust existing democratic processes.

Apart from the early efforts of Engels and the Marx-Avelings, it is Champion and his associates who deserve the credit for devoting themselves to the formation of a Labour Party. From 1893 onwards, the ILP began to provide examples of the value of independence. It had the initial support of Engels, and Aveling helped to draw up its programme. Within the limits of constitutionalism, it seemed to be determined to fight its battles without compromise. It governed itself by means of a supreme annual conference, a democratic device inherited from the trades unions, but not at that time adopted by any political party. The ILP also showed that poor as it was, it could fight elections against both Liberals and Conservatives and yet secure polls that were no discredit to the cause. Yet it was clearly a party with a future; and, given the support of the trade unions, it was obvious that the future would be rich in Parliamentary success. The greatest achievement of Keir Hardie and his ILP lay in the capture of trade union support as early as 1900. In the same year, Pete Curran of the ILP Council addressed the Congress of the Second International, striking a self-confident tone about the state of the labour movement as a whole in his critique of imperialism at home and abroad:

Great efforts are now being made in England to convince the trade unionists that the colonial policy is in their interests … But the English trade unionists are not to be caught with those fine words … And if the jingoes rejoice in the fact that England has become a great country on which the sun never sets, then I say that in England there are thousands of homes on which the sun has never risen.

The whole strategy of the ILP from its foundation had been based on the conception of collaboration with trade unionists with the ultimate objective of tapping trade-union funds for the eventual attainment of Parliamentary power. Eventually, even William Morris had to accept that the purity of the Socialist Cause was worth nothing without the power to enact its policies and that this power could only be enacted through parliamentary means and pluralistic methods. That may be a lesson that its current adherents in the Labour Party need to learn afresh. Let’s hope it doesn’t take them a further thirty or forty years to do so; at least they are not building from scratch.

 

Sources:

Christine Poulson (2002), William Morris. Royston: Quantum Publishing.

John Gorman (1980), To Build Jerusalem: A Photographic Remembrance of British Working Class Life, 1875-1950. London: Scorpion Publications.

Henry Pelling (1965), Origins of the Labour Party. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Walter Crane (1896; 1976), Cartoons for the Cause, 1886-1896. London: Twentieth Century Press/ Journeyman Press.

Theo Barker (ed.) (1978), The Long March of Everyman, 1750-1960. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

John Walton et. al. (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British & Irish History. London: Penguin Books.

 

Posted December 9, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Austerity, Baptists, Britain, British history, Cartoons, Charity, Christian Faith, Christian Socialism, Christianity, Church, Co-operativism, Coalfields, Colonisation, Commemoration, Commonwealth, Conservative Party, democracy, Demography, East Anglia, Education, Egalitarianism, Empire, Factories, Family, Fertility, History, Home Counties, Ireland, Irish history & folklore, Labour Party, Leisure, liberal democracy, liberalism, Literature, Marriage, marriage 'bar', Marxism, Maternity, Methodism, Midlands, Militancy, Millenarianism, Monuments, Narrative, Nonconformist Chapels, Oxford, Population, populism, Poverty, Proletariat, Reconciliation, Recreation, Scotland, Socialist, south Wales, Trade Unionism, tyranny, Unemployment, United Kingdom, Utopianism, Victorian, Wales, West Midlands, William Morris

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‘Socialism’ and the Origins of the Labour Party in Britain, 1870-1900: Part One – Chartists, Radicals & Revolutionaries.   Leave a comment

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The British Labour Party, 1983-2019:

The British Labour Party published its manifesto for the forthcoming General Election in early December 2019. The Party itself claims that it represents its most radical offering to the British electorate ever. Certainly, it is the most left-wing programme to be put forward since the 1983 Election, at which the then leader, Michael Foot, was later accused by Gerald Kauffman of writing ‘the longest suicide note in history’. As a result, Margaret Thatcher won a landslide victory which led to her remaining in power for a further seven years, and the Tories until 1997. There were other factors, of course, not least among them the victory over Argentina in the Falklands Islands in 1982. I campaigned for Labour in Carmarthen in 1983 and, at least in that three-way marginal, Labour defeated both the Tories and Plaid Cymru. Michael Foot delivered a fiery, left-wing speech in the constituency and inspired us, students, to knock on doors in working-class areas of the town to secure their vote for the Labour candidate, Dr Roger Thomas. Across Wales and the UK, however, the Tories destroyed the Labour Party in a manner no-one could have anticipated. In 2019, are we now headed for a similar scale of defeat? Has the Corbyn-led leftward lurch finally brought the party to the end of the road? Or is there an underestimated level of support for radical, redistributive policies in today’s Britain which could yet bring in a government which, to invert the words of a former speaker and Labour MP, George Thomas, would seem to owe more to Marxism than Methodism? To understand these issues, we need to look back to the origins of the Labour Party, founded by, among others, my own grandparents.

In late 1946 a group of historians, friends and members of the Communist Party started regularly meeting in Marx’s House in London, picture here.

The Marx Memorial Library at 37a Clerkenwell Green, London, home to Walter Crane’s ‘Twentieth Century Press’ in the 1890s

Organising the Labourers, 1870-1879:

My great-grandparents were agricultural labourers and marched with Methodist lay-preacher Joseph Arch in the 1860s and 1870s to organise their fellow villagers into the Warwickshire Agricultural Labourers’ Union and then the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union in 1872. One of my great-great-uncles became one of its first local full-time officers. By 1875, NALU was fifty-eight thousand strong and organised into thirty-eight districts, despite fierce opposition from farmers, landlords, and parish priests. It was against this triple tyranny that the farm labourers struggled to build trade unionism in the countryside. Added to that was the sense of isolation, both at work and in the nature of village life. A labourer might work alone in fields from dawn till dusk, a life of unremitting toil unrelieved by holidays for a wage of twelve pounds a year. Even when working alongside his fellows he saw little of the world beyond his master’s farm, the primitive tied cottage in which he lived and a semblance of social life at the village pub. Nor did he share in the fruits of the earth on which he toiled; the harvester, like the one in the photograph below, who killed a rabbit bolting from the last of the corn could find himself before the local magistrate, invariably a farmer. It took a special kind of courage to stand with a few fellow-labourers and sing:

Ye tillers of the soil,

Assert your manhood then,

You get your living by hard toil,

Then all be union men.

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Meanwhile, the industrial advances of the middle-Victorian era eliminated the immediate risk of serious social discontent among the workers, and especially among their potential leaders, the skilled artisans and factory employees. The plight of the poor was made worse by the fact that many more of them lived in towns. In 1871, sixty-two per cent of the population of England and Wales was classed in the census as urban; by 1911 it would reach eighty per cent of a much larger total. Yet in a country like Britain, with a long-established aristocracy and a traditional class system, no very high degree of social fluidity could be attained even in the heyday of industrial capitalism. On the contrary, large-scale industry developed class solidarity among the workers which in the end facilitated effective political election in the interest of labour as a whole. By 1871 the Trades Union Congress had been established and accepted as the central parliament of labour, meeting annually, and its Parliamentary Committee was the recognised agent for applying pressure on behalf of the trades unions at the centre of government. By the Acts of 1871, the trade unions secured a legal status; in the same year, the engineers of north-east England revived the Nine Hours movement and won a strike for this object. In 1875, a Conservative government, showing itself as sensitive as the Liberals to the pressure of the unions in industrial matters, passed two acts which satisfied the unions in respect of breach of contract and picketing.

There were also a few local labour associations active in securing representation for working men on local authorities, and sometimes, as in Birmingham in the 1870s, they carried on their work without any understanding with an existing party. But on a national scale, it is not surprising that few labour leaders regarded the establishment of an entirely independent workers’ party as a practical possibility. Most of them accepted Gladstone’s leadership, for it had been he who had championed the cause of working-class suffrage in the previous decade, and on many issues of policy, the leaders of the artisans found themselves in alliance with the Liberals. The Liberal Party was not a monolithic structure: and the acceptance of the leadership of Gladstone on general questions did not necessarily mean that the labour interest need forego its special organisation. In the circumstances of the time, there was no reason why the Labour Representation League should not continue to exist among, and indeed to struggle against, the other elements of the Liberal Party. This struggle could and did continue at the constituency level. The failure of the League to maintain itself even on those terms indicates the unwillingness of the middle-class Liberals to see working men elected as their representatives. John Bright himself accused the League of disorganising the party unless what are called working-class representatives could be returned. Henry Broadbent, the Secretary of the League, in his rejoinder to this, admitted the failure of its policy:

Up to the present, the number of seats contested by labour candidates have been very few, and in some of these cases the seats sought to be won were those held by the Conservatives, and in many of those instances we singularly enough found large numbers of the middle class electors preferred voting for the Tories rather than support a working-class candidate. Surely, then, we are the aggrieved party. …

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Above & below: The Paris Commune of 1871.

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It was true that the policy of finding Liberal seats for labour candidates had few successes and many failures. At the 1874 election two miners were elected, Thomas Burt for Morpeth and Alexander McDonald for Stafford; but this was a miserable showing for an electorate, the majority of which now consisted of members of the working class. Nevertheless, there were signs of a developing sympathy among them for Socialism at the time of the Paris Commune of 1871 (depicted above). These were mainly to be found among the writings of the Republican movement which sprang up in the period 1871-74 when eighty-four Republican clubs were founded in Britain. But the disagreement among their leaders over the issue of ‘social revolution’ led to division and decline. Its Socialist doctrine was limited to a vague ‘Owenism’, for although Marx was living in London at this time, pursuing his research at the reading room of the British Museum (below), his works were little known in Britain. Nevertheless, Robert Owen’s thinking was not entirely without influence, as it was at this period that many trade unions took up schemes for co-operative production, buying collieries and engineering works in which to try out these ideas. In the years 1874 to 1880, while the Liberals were out of power, it was difficult for a labourist opposition to establish itself as distinct from that of the Liberals.

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By 1878, the Labour Representation League had ceased to attract any public attention and the more independent trade unions, mostly those most vulnerable to the severe trade depression of the late seventies, were killed off by the bad times. Arch’s Agricultural Labourers’ Union was especially hard hit and its membership rapidly declined. In 1881, Arch appeared in person before the Royal Commission on Agriculture, claiming that the only way to ensure higher wages for farm labourers was to reduce the numbers in ‘the market’ through emigration. His Union had aided the emigration of seven hundred thousand men, women and children over the previous nine years, together with the Canadian government. Similarly, the New Zealand government, anxious to overcome the disadvantages of the long, expensive and uncomfortable sea journeys of British emigrants, had offered, from 1873, free passages, especially to agricultural labourers and their families. With the backing of NALU, many families took up the offer, and between 1871 and 1880, the New Zealand government provided over a hundred thousand immigrants with assisted passages.

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This trade union participation in what became known as ‘Liberal Imperialism’ presented a serious challenge to the growth of Socialism in Britain. In general, millworkers and miners were absorbed in their economic struggle for better wages and conditions. This laid some of them open to the argument that faced with stiffening foreign competition and tariffs, Britain could only hold on to or improve its prosperity by having more and more colonies. This ‘bread-and-butter’ argument had a rational flavour, and it would seem that when trade was good most workers were prepared to give it a good hearing. When trading conditions were bad, and especially capital and labour were more at odds than usual, it usually fell into the background, and the instinctive assumptions and loyalties of the class struggle usually took its place. But what historians now refer to as the ‘Great Depression’, far from encouraging that growth and the break-up of the Liberal Party, actually discouraged working-class militancy and destroyed the more ‘advanced’ and independent elements among the working classes in both the agricultural and industrial areas of the Midlands and South of England.

Most of the time, the working classes were simply shut in their own world and its own affairs, including trade union and co-operative activities, the club-life of the public house, the football ground and the chapel, to be either enthusiastic or antagonistic towards imperialism. It never became for them what it was for those higher up; a definite creed, philosophy of life, a mission. But if a long-sustained effort to indoctrinate them with jingoism was rewarded with acquiescence rather than with wholehearted assent, this meant equally that socialist or labour leaders who tried to transform indifference into anti-imperialism met with even smaller success. Some trade union and Socialist spokesmen were reviving an opposition to the empire that had been voiced by Ernest Jones the Chartist, the spirited attacks on it by intellectuals and radical groups fell on deaf working-class ears. Writing to Kautsky in September 1882, Engels commented on working-class attitudes to the empire in response to a question from his continental ‘comrade’:

You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: the same as what the bourgeois think. There is no workers’ party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England’s monopoly of the world market and the colonies.

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Neither could Owenite Socialism, identified with Utopian experiments and lacking any systematic economic theory, provide a basis for a practical political programme. Writing in 1881, Engels felt bound to admit that the working class of Britain had become the tail of the great Liberal Party. The new orientation of economic thought was influenced not only by the impact of the depression but also by long-term changes in the structure of industry which earlier economists had not predicted. The family firms were being replaced by more impersonal limited companies, in which ownership was divorced from managerial skill and from direct contact with labour. As a result, the opportunities for social advancement were curtailed and the workers’ class solidarity was increased. This did not happen uniformly in all industries, and by the mid-eighties, it was common only in iron, shipbuilding and heavy engineering. But the tendency was the same everywhere, and it seemed very possible that it might lead to the substitution of monopoly for competition in the end, as Marx had forecast. But though he had been living in London since 1849, Marx was virtually unknown at this time, even by Liberal Radicals. His major works were written in German and had not been translated into English, and they were more concerned with events on the continent. Engels was better known as a critic of the industrial system in England.

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Engels in a photograph taken in the 1870s

In the earlier years of the Victorian period, there had always been those intellectuals who maintained that the existing industrial system was unjust or ugly or both. The most notable of those who took this view were Carlyle and Ruskin, both of whom were popular in the later nineteenth century. Ruskin had founded a Utopian experiment, St George’s Guild, and bought a farm where a little group of Sheffield Socialists attempted without success to set up a self-sufficient community. His essays on political economy, Unto this Last (1860), and his letters to working men, known as Fors Clavigera (1871-84), did much to encourage the growing spirit of collectivism. They revived, in simple and impressive language, many of the criticisms of classical economics which had first been voiced by the ‘Ricardian Socialists’ of the 1820s. Not that Ruskin had read the works of these writers, who were completely forgotten in this period except for the occasional footnote in Marx. Ruskin was the great amateur of political economy, but influential for all that. It was not without reason that Keir Hardie and many other labour leaders regarded Carlyle and Ruskin as more important in shaping their political views than any writers more fully versed in the abstractions of economic theory.

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It would be difficult to argue that any of the British labour leaders at the end of the nineteenth century, except for a very few Marxists, were able to build their political views upon a reasoned philosophical basis. The British Socialists at this time were a small and scattered minority. The London Commonwealth Club, which John Hales had represented at the Ghent Socialist Congress of 1877, seems to have died out before the end of the decade. Hales led the opposition to Marx and Engels in the British Section of the First Socialist International (pictured below) and tried to revive the Club by founding the International Labour Union in 1877-8 but this, too, was a very short-lived organisation, despite attracting the support of several leading ‘advanced radicals’. What interest there was in Socialism sprang very largely from the success of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which in 1877 had polled nearly half a million votes and had won thirteen seats in the Reichstag.

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Engels speaking to the Congress of the First International in the Hague in 1872.

In 1879, an old Chartist, John Sketchley of Birmingham, published a pamphlet entitled The Principles of Social Democracy which sought to show, based on the German SPD, what the programme of a similar party in Britain might be. In Birmingham, Sketchley tried to organise a Midland Social Democratic Association, linking to the city’s working-class politics of the early 1870s. Other Socialist propagandists of the time were Henry Travis, a doctor, who published occasional pamphlets on Owenism, and a young journalist, Ernest Belfort Bax, who knew Germany well, had read Marx’s Das Kapital in the original and had written articles on Marxism in the monthly magazine, Modern Thought in 1879. Also, in 1880, the Rose Street club of German exiles expanded rapidly due to the influx of refugees from the regressive legislation in Germany and Austria, developing an English section although it continued to publish only in German. When the Russian scientist and socialist Peter Kropotkin visited England to lecture on Socialism in 1881, he found himself addressing ‘ridiculously small audiences’. Two years later, Marx’s death in London would have passed unnoticed by The Times had its Paris correspondent not sent a paragraph on his European reputation.

Liberal Hegemony & the Birth of Socialism, 1880-84:

Clearly, at the time of the General Election in 1880, Socialism in Britain was as yet a movement without indigenous strength. Until the early 1880s, there had been no organised working-class support for major democratic reform since the death of the Chartist movement in the late 1840s. The mid-Victorian period was generally one of prosperity, rising wages and full employment, at least for ‘skilled’ workers. The Reform Act of 1867, which extended the franchise to most of the adult male population, was a move towards democratic reform through legislation. At the same time, British socialism acquired some new ideas from refugees who had fled from persecution under autocratic continental governments in the 1870s. The hold of the Liberal Party over the working-class vote was shown to be stronger than ever. Only three working men were returned at the 1880 Election, all of them as Liberals: Henry Broadhurst, Secretary of the TUC, joined Thomas Burt and Alexander McDonald at Westminster. The election showed the strength of Joseph Chamberlain’s new Radical pressure group, the National Liberal Foundation, which dominated the constituency parties to the advantage of the middle-classes and the alarm of labour leaders. The Liberals had a clear majority of seventy-two seats in the new House of Commons. In late 1880 a new weekly paper, the Radical, was established in London ostensibly in opposition to the new Liberal government’s policy of applying coercion in Ireland. However, the leading article in the first issue deplored the small number of labour representatives in Parliament.

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The protagonists of this alliance of Radicals and Irish included Helen Taylor, the stepdaughter of John Stuart Mill, T. P. O’Connor and former Chartists. There followed a proposal for a more permanent organisation of ‘advanced’ Radicals, an idea which seems to have originated with H. M. Hyndman, a Tory Radical who was defeated at Marylebone in the 1880 election, and H. A. M. Butler-Johnstone, MP for Canterbury for many years before resigning over differences with the Tory Party in 1878. He stood as an independent in the 1880 election but was defeated. The views of these two men on ‘the Eastern Question’ provided an unlikely link with Karl Marx, whose advice they sought. In response to their invitation, delegates from various London clubs and associations met at the headquarters of the Social Democrats in Rose Street in an attempt to unite, if possible, all societies willing to adopt Radical programme with a powerful Democratic party. The meeting urged…

… the necessity of the formation of a New Party, the grand object of which should be the direct representation of labour. In addition to Parliamentary reform, the new party would, of course, have to deal with the question of improvement in the social condition of the people. 

A resolution was passed without opposition in favour of an attempt to establish ‘a labour party’, and a committee of nine was appointed to draft a programme. These included liberal trades unionists, social democrats, working-class Radicals, together with Hyndman and Butler-Johnstone. The foundation conference took place in June 1881, and a long advertisement in the Radical invited delegates from advanced political organisations, trade societies and clubs throughout the country. The advertisement advocated a social and political programme which shall unite the great body of the people, quite irrespective of party. The programme was to include attention to labour interests, economy, constitutional reform, the end of coercion in Ireland, and full publicity for the discussion of imperial and foreign affairs. Hyndman’s hand can be detected in the composition of this statement and it is evident that he played an active part in the shaping of the new party. When the conference took place, it was decided that the ‘party’ should rather be called the ‘Democratic Federation’, perhaps in a deliberate attempt to copy and rival Chamberlain’s National Liberal Federation which had proved all too successful in establishing middle-class hegemony over the constituency caucuses.

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Writing to Bernstein in May 1881, Engels had already decided, however, that the Federation was quite without significance because it could only arouse interest on the Irish question. Hyndman’s conversion to Marxian Socialism had taken place on a trip to America the previous year when he read a copy of the French version of Marx’s Kapital given him by Butler-Johnstone. In January 1881 he had published an article in the influential monthly, the Nineteenth Century, which he entitled The Dawn of a Revolutionary Epoch. In June, at the inaugural conference of the Democratic Federation, he distributed to all the delegates a little book he had written called England for All, in which he expounded the views of Marx without mentioning his name. This annoyed Marx and their relations became strained. Marx wrote to his friend Sorge of his irritation with Hyndman’s publication:

It pretends to be written as an exposition of the programme of the ‘Democratic Federation’ – a recently formed association of different English and Scottish radical societies, half bourgeois, half proletarian. The chapters on Labour and Capital are simply literal extracts from … ‘Das Kapital’, but the fellow mentions neither the book nor its author … As to myself, the fellow wrote stupid letters of excuse, for instance, that “the English don’t like to be taught by foreigners”, that “my name was so much detested”, etc. For all that, his little book, so far as it pilfers ‘Das Kapital’ makes good propoganda, although the man is a weak vessel, and very far from having even the patience – the first condition of learning anything – to study a matter thoroughly.

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Above: The last photograph of Marx, taken in the spring of 1882 in Algeria.

In this way, Hyndman lost his brief friendship with Karl Marx and, as a result, that of Friedrich Engels as well. Marx died in 1883, but Engels lived on in London until 1895, aspiring to direct the Socialist movement from behind the scenes. His hostility to Hyndman was to have serious consequences for the movement. Marx and Engels were not, themselves, easy people to get on with, and they were sometimes poor judges of character. Hyndman nicknamed Engels the Grand Lama of the Regents Park Road, a reference to his self-imposed seclusion in his house there, and Engels spoke of Hyndman as an arch-Conservative and extremely chauvinistic but not stupid careerist, who behaved pretty shabbily to Marx, and for that reason was dropped by us personally. Hyndman was by no means a careerist, as his subsequent unrewarding toil in the Socialist movement was to show: Marx himself was perhaps closer to the truth when he described him as self-satisfied and garrulous. Bernard Shaw classified him …

… with the free-thinking English gentlemen-republicans of the last half of the nineteenth century: with Dilke, Burton Auberon Herbert, Wilfred Seawen Blunt, Laurence Oliphant: great globe-trotters, writers, ‘frondeurs’, brilliant and accomplished cosmopolitans so far as their various abilities permitted, all more interested in the world than in themselves, and in themselves than in official decorations; consequently unpurchasable, their price being too high for any modern commercial Government to pay.      

Hyndman’s Conservative origins and leanings made him suspect to many of the Radicals, who mostly preferred the Liberals if they had to choose between the parties. In his Marylebone election address, he had declared his opposition to disestablishment and Irish Home Rule and this was not forgotten by his contemporaries. Following his ‘conversion’ to Marxian thinking, and under its influence, he soon gave up these views, but he was still sufficiently conservative in his leanings to arrange a meeting with Disraeli, now the Earl of Beaconsfield, at which he poured forth his views, apparently in the hope that the Tory Party might adopt them. Disraeli listened patiently and politely but told him that private property which you hope to communise and vested interests which you openly threaten, have a great many to speak up for them still. Despite this rebuttal, Hyndman always hated the Liberals more than the Tories, a feature which was to distinguish his politics from those of many of the other British Socialists. The Democratic Federation’s intransigent opposition to the Liberal Party became unpalatable to many of its early members. Its vigorous support for a Land League candidate against the Liberal nominee at a by-election in Tyrone in the autumn of 1881, at which it issued a denunciation of ‘capitalist radicalism’ in a special manifesto, led to the defection of all the Radical clubs and its original membership contracted. As Socialism began to spread, however, Hyndman was able to convert it into an openly Socialist body at the annual conference in 1883. The Federation now adopted his declaration of principles, Socialism Made Plain, but it did not change its name until the following year when it became the Social Democratic Federation.

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The new recruits to Socialism who joined Hyndman in running the Federation, several young public school men, included H. H. Champion and R. P. B. Frost, who had been contemporaries at Marlborough and held office in the newly founded Land Reform Union, which publicised the views of Henry George in Britain. A more notable convert was William Morris, already a radical writer and artist with a distinguished reputation and an honorary fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford. Morris had been active in the Eastern Question Association, which had brought him into contact with Liberal labour leaders a few years before, so his attitude to this question was Gladstonian, the opposite to that of Marx and Hyndman. But he had not been active in the land agitation, and it was Ruskin rather than George who seems to have been his introduction to Socialism. Therefore, as the working-class Radicals left the Federation, the middle-class Socialists came in. Paradoxically, however, by November 1882, Morris had decided that no really far-reaching reforms would be carried out by a party under middle-class control. He wrote:

Radicalism is on the wrong line … and will never develop into anything more than Radicalism … it is made by the middle classes and will always be under the control of rich capitalists: they will have no objection to its political development if they think they can stop it there: but as to real social changes, they will not allow them if they can help it.

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So it was that on 13 January 1883 he committed himself to socialism by joining the Democratic Federation. Becoming a Socialist at the age of forty-nine was not a step which he took lightly. During the winter of 1882-83, he attended a series of lectures, intended as an introduction to Socialism, organised by the Federation. Immediately after joining, he read Das Kapital in French, as it had not then been translated into English. Marx died two months after Morris joined the Federation, and Morris therefore never met him. Nevertheless, Morris regarded himself as a communist and his adoption of the socialist cause was, at first, based on an instinctive response to what he felt to be injustices of capitalism. In Marx’s account of the alienation of the worker in an industrial society, and of his liberation through the class struggle, he found a theoretical base to underpin these instincts. He summed up his position in a letter to C. E. Maurice in July 1883:

In looking into matters social and political I have but one rule, that in thinking of the condition of any body of men I should ask myself, ‘How could you bear it yourself? What would you feel if you were poor against the system under which you live?’ … the answer to it has more and more made me ashamed of my own position, and more and more made me feel that if I had not been born rich or well-to-do I should have found my position unendurable, and should have been a mere rebel against what would have seemed to me a system of robbery and injustice. … this … is a matter of religion to me: the contrasts of rich and poor … ought not to be endured by either rich or poor. … such a system can only be destroyed, it seems to me, by the united discontent of numbers; isolated acts of a few persons in the middle and upper classes seeming to me … quite powerless against it: in other words the antagonism of classes, which the system has bred, is the natural necessary instrument of its destruction. … I am quite sure that the change which will overthrow our present system will come sooner or later: on the middle classes to a great extent it depends whether it will come peacefully or violently.

Early on, Morris had understood that there were serious ideological, strategic and tactical divisions within the Federation, not to mention clashes of personality. Morris wrote about these divisions in his letter to Georgiana Burne-Jones in August 1883:

Small as our body is, we are not without dissensions in it. Some of the more ardent members look upon Hyndman as too opportunist, and there is truth in that; he is sanguine of speedy change happening somehow and is inclined to intrigue and the making of a party. … I … think the aim of Socialists should be the founding of a religion, towards which end compromise is no use, and we only want to have those with us who will be with us to the end.

These millenarian beliefs also had an impact on Morris ‘inner’ struggles with his own conscience. The contradiction between his socialist views and his position as a wealthy, middle-class businessman was from the first pointed out by his critics. His workers do not appear to have been disturbed by this apparent inconsistency, however, because Morris treated them with respect as fellow workers and paid them more than average wages. In any case, he felt (perhaps all too conveniently for him personally) that individual tinkering with the system, in the form of profit-sharing, was useless – it must be overthrown in its entirety. He regarded revolution, whether violent or not, as a historical necessity which would certainly come in his lifetime. Nevertheless, in 1884 he calculated that every worker in his employment should receive an extra sixteen pounds a year. He also introduced a form of profit-sharing for his ‘core’ employees, though the Firm overall remained a standard limited company.

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Marx’s grave in Highgate cemetery; photographed c. 1895.

In 1884, the Federation became the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and seemed to have every hope of rapid progress. Though not strong in numbers, the SDF had important footholds in the Land Reform Union and the National Secular Society, and it had both weekly and monthly journals in addition to the services of some able men and women, including William Morris and Annie Besant. When, in March 1884, it organised a procession to the grave of Marx in Highgate cemetery on the first anniversary of his death, those who took part amounted, according to Morris, to over a thousand, with another two or three thousand onlookers. This was, at least, a beginning, Morris thought. Once convinced of the rightness of Socialism, Morris threw himself into the work of the Federation, not allowing himself to be deterred by his instinctive dislike and distrust of Hyndman. Morris resolved to tolerate the leader of the Federation because of his genuine belief in Socialism. Unlike Morris, he had met Marx and, like Morris, had converted to Socialism after reading Das Kapital. Morris told his business manager that as he is trying to do what I think ought to be done, I feel that everyone who has similar ideas ought to help him. 

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Marx (standing with Engels) with his daughters (seated), Jenny, Eleanor & Laura, c. 1867

The Social Democratic Federation aimed to educate the working class and to organise them for the socialist revolution which members of the Federation believed to be imminent. In his book, The Historical Basis of Socialism in Britain (1883), Hyndman had implied that the time would be ripe in 1889, the centenary of the French Revolution. It was, however, the disagreement about the means of achieving Socialism that brought the clashes of personality into prominence. Hyndman had captured the Democratic Federation for Socialism, and he expected to go on dominating it and leading it along the line of policy which he favoured. But he did not find favour in all quarters: Marx and Engels never regarded him as a genuine Socialist by their standards, and although Marx’s daughter, Eleanor, was a member of the SDF, both she and her partner, the scientist Edward Aveling (of whom G. B. Shaw, scarcely exaggerating said, he seduced every woman he met, and borrowed from every man) regarded Hyndman with suspicion. Indeed, he was dictatorial, devious and vain; what Morris had identified as Hyndman’s genuine belief in Socialism was now more obviously accompanied by his desire to use the Federation as a vehicle for his parliamentary ambition. He wanted it to become a conventional political party, campaigning for reforms and, as soon as possible, putting up candidates for local and parliamentary elections.

William Morris resented Hyndman’s domineering ways and eventually decided that he could no longer tolerate him. At the SDF conference in June 1884, it was decided not to put up parliamentary candidates and Hyndman was displaced as president; instead, members of the executive took turns to act as chairman. Nevertheless, as Morris recognised, Hyndman was determined to be master, and though Morris did not oppose getting members into parliament once the Federation had a strong enough base, he did not feel that it should be their aim at all costs, as Hyndman did. In particular, Morris was very much opposed to sordid electioneering and to gaining concessions by doing deals with other parties. Along with others in the SDF, he felt that their principal aim should be the preparation of the working classes for their part in the coming revolution: Education towards Revolution seems to me to express in three words what our policy should be. 

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Despite Morris’ efforts to act as a mediator in the intrigue and in-fighting with the Hyndmanites, the crisis came in December 1884. The split took place on 27 December, when ten members of the Executive Council resigned, denouncing what in a signed statement they called the attempt to substitute arbitrary rule therein for fraternal co-operation. The signatories included Morris himself, Eleanor Marx and Aveling, More congenial to Morris was Belfort Bax, a journalist, musician and philosopher, who was a confidant of Engels with whom Morris later collaborated in writing Socialism, its Growth and Outcome (1893). The remaining nine members, led by Hyndman, remained in control of the remnants of the SDF. On the day of the split, and even before the critical Council meeting took place, Morris received an ex-cathedra summons to visit Engels, who gave him his advice on the way to organise a new organisation. Next day Morris acquired headquarters for it: as it had the support of the two leagues of London and Scotland, the new ‘party’ was called The Socialist League. The League began to publish a new journal, Commonweal which in Morris’ hands was a paper of real literary merit. Morris much regretted the split, realising that it had seriously weakened the socialist cause, and hoped that before long the British Socialists might be reunited in one party. Indeed, in his last years, he himself did rejoin the SDF. The two associations managed to stay on reasonably amicable terms. Nevertheless, writing in the Commonweal in 1890, Morris bitterly described the Federation as composed in the early days of …

… a few working men, less successful even in the wretched life of labour than their fellows: a sprinkling of the intellectual proletariat … one or two outsiders in the game political, a few refugees from the bureaucratic tyranny of foreign governments; and here and there an unpractical, half-cracked artist or author.

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Educators, Agitators & Trades Unionists, 1885-89:

But in spite of Morris’s great activity up and down the country, the League did not displace the SDF and after six months it still had only two affiliated bodies and eight branches with 230 members. When Morris resigned from the SDF, its membership amounted to no more than five hundred. Morris became depressed about this, as he wrote to Mrs Burne-Jones in May 1885:

I am in low spirits about the prospects of our ‘party’, if I can dignify a little knot of men by such a word. … You see we are such a few, and hard as we work we don’t seem to pick up people to take over our places when we demit. … I have no more faith than a grain of mustard seed in the future history of ‘civilisation’, which I know now is doomed to destruction, and probably before long … and how often it consoles me to think of barbarism once more flooding the world, and real feelings and passions, however rudimentary, taking the place of our wretched hypocrisies. … 

This letter explains very clearly the nature of Morris’s views on the character of the future Socialist revolution. Like Hyndman, he believed in a coming catastrophe and even looked forward to it with millenarian enthusiasm, though he did not, like Hyndman, regard himself as marked out for revolutionary leadership. Rather, he believed that the immediate role of the Socialist was to educate people for the great inevitable change which could bring back the simpler, sounder society of medieval times when craftsmen took pride in their work and when there was no capitalist exploitation or industrial ugliness. In this thinking, he was clearly influenced by Ruskin, shaping a criticism of contemporary that was to form the basis of Syndicalism and Guild Socialism in the early twentieth century. Morris disagreed with those who favoured efforts to get Socialists elected onto public bodies, including Parliament because he thought that this would encourage careerists and threaten the purity of the Socialist ideal with the corruption and compromise inevitably involved in politics. But even his own Socialist League divided on this issue, a division which hastened its collapse at the end of the decade. Morris was a fully convinced Socialist, and though he did not know much about Marxian economics, he was quite prepared to take them on trust. His attitude is well illustrated by his answer to a Hyndmanite questioner who asked, Does Comrade Morris accept Marx’s Theory of Value? He replied bluntly:

To speak frankly, I do not know what Marx’s Theory of Value is, and I’m damned if I want to know. Truth to say, my friends, I have tried to understand  Marx’s theory, but political economy is not my line, and much of it appears to me to be dreary rubbish. But I am, I hope, a Socialist none the less. It is enough political economy for me to know that the idle rich class is rich and the working class is poor, and that the rich are rich because they rob the poor. …

In retrospect, Morris’ fine literary and artistic gifts make him, for many, the most attractive personality among the early British Socialists. But to contemporaries, especially among the working class, his opposition to Parliamentary action was unpopular. The SDF, by contrast, seemed more practical than the Socialist League, and better organised as a party. Morris saw his role as that of a propagandist, educating the working classes in socialist theory. As he explained in an interview with the Liberal newspaper, Daily News, in January 1885,

the discontented must know what they are aiming at when they overthrow the old order of things. My belief is that the old order can only be overthrown by force, and for that reason it is all the more important than the revolution … should not be an ignorant, but an educated revolution.

By the summer of 1886, the Socialist League’s membership had risen to seven hundred. Morris’ political work took two forms, writing and public speaking. He was well aware of his deficiencies as a speaker, particularly before a working-class audience, with whom he found it a great drawback that I can’t speak roughly to them and unaffectedly. He candidly commented to Georgiana Burne-Jones that this revealed the great class gulf that lay between him and them. He regarded writing lectures as a laborious chore. He lectured 120 times between 1885 and 1886, touring East Anglia, Yorkshire, Lancashire and Scotland, also travelling to Dublin. In addition, he played a full part in the Socialist League’s campaign of open-air speaking on Sunday mornings. Despite the failures in his delivery and his tendency to speak over the heads of his audience, his sincerity was impressive; so was the simple fact that such a famous man was prepared to devote so much time to speaking on street corners or visiting the East End to address sometimes no more than a handful of workers.

A  severe trade depression in the mid-1880s brought high unemployment and a receptive audience. Attempts by the police to suppress socialist speakers addressing crowds in public places created a good deal of unrest and further publicity for the socialist cause. It united the disparate radical and socialist groups in opposition to the police. The Socialist League offered support to the SDF after charges of obstruction were brought against its speakers in the summer of 1885. In September, Morris himself was arrested and brought before a magistrate, accused of striking a policeman and breaking the strap on his helmet during an uproar in court after a socialist speaker had been sentenced to two months’ hard labour, having been found guilty of obstruction. Morris denied the charge, and when questioned about his identity, replied, I am an artistic and literary man, pretty well known, I think, throughout Europe. He was allowed to go free. His arrest was the best possible publicity for the Socialist League, was reported as far afield as the United States and rallied supporters to the cause of free speech. But the contrast between the court’s treatment of Morris and of his working-class comrades was highlighted both on this occasion and in the following August, when Morris and two others, both working men, were arrested for obstruction. Morris was fined only a shilling because, as the judge explained, as a gentleman, he would at once see, when it was pointed out to him, that such meetings were a nuisance, and would desist in taking part in them. His two working-class accomplices, however, were both fined twenty pounds and bound over to keep the peace for twelve months. Unable to pay, they were sent to prison for two months.

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There was a further division in the mid-eighties among the early Socialists, between those who were for placing economic problems in the prime place, and those who favoured subordinating them to ethical concerns. The former founded, early in 1884, a separate society which they called the Fabian Society, taking the name from the Roman general ‘Fabius’ who waited patiently for his opportunity to strike against Hannibal. Apart from the fact that they were Socialists, it is difficult to determine what the Fabians’ views actually were. Right from the start, the Society was opposed to the revolutionary views of the SDF; while Bernard Shaw, who attended his first meeting in May 1884 and was elected to membership in September, later declared that the constitutionalism which now distinguishes us as being as alien at those early meetings as it was at those of the SDF or the Socialist League. Although most of its early members were constitutionalists, some were revolutionaries and even anarchists. The Fabian Society was not committed to ‘constitutionalism’ at first, only to ‘caution’, which nevertheless was an implied criticism of the tactics of the SDF. It’s clear that, in some quarters, Fabian Socialism became something of a fashion of the middle-class ‘drawing-room’ which kept out nearly all the proletarians in favour of a very miscellaneous audience.

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The first Fabian Tract, issued in April 1884, entitled Why are the Many Poor? simply stated the extent of wealth and poverty but offered no remedy. The second tract, issued in September, was drawn up by Shaw in his most scintillating style and advocated Land Nationalisation, State competition in industries, the abolition of gender inequalities and of all types of privilege. It concluded with the rather stark observation that we had rather face a Civil War than another century of suffering as the present one has been. At this time Shaw was an aspiring novelist, so far unknown. His political interests had first been aroused by Henry George, whom he heard speak in London in 1884:

He struck me dumb and shunted me from barren agnostic controversy to economics. I read his ‘Progress and Poverty’, and wet to a meeting of Hyndman’s Marxist Democratic Federation, where I rose and protested against its drawing a red herring across the trail blazed by George. I was contemptuously dismissed as a novice who had not read the great frst volume of Marx’s ‘Capital’.

I promptly read it, and returned to announce my complete conversion to it. Immediately contempt changed to awe, for Hyndman’s disciples had not read the book themselves, it being then accessible only in Deville’s French version in the British Museum reading room, my daily resort.

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The reading room of the British Museum, used by both Marx and then by G. B. Shaw,

the former when writing Das Kapital, the second when reading it.

In 1884-5, Shaw was prepared, in his enthusiasm for Marx, to defend him against all comers. But even then, so far as a revolution by violence was concerned, Shaw was beginning to have doubts, and by February 1885 he was urging the middle-classes to join the Socialist movement to counteract the influence of a mob of desperate sufferers abandoned to the leadership of exasperated sentimentalists and fanatical theorists.  this precept, he brought into the Fabian Society his friend Sidney Webb, a clerk in the Foreign Office, who was a disciple of John Stuart Mill. He had, at Shaw’s suggestion, read Marx, but had not been converted to Marxian Socialism. Shortly afterwards, Annie Besant, who had a long record of Radical agitation, also joined the Fabian Society, and under these new and able recruits, it developed a distinctive constitutionalist strategy within British Socialism.

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The 1884 extensions of the electorate spelt the end of the already moribund principle of government non-intervention in the economic sphere. As soon as the control of elections passed out of the hands of those who paid income tax, the age-old doctrine of laissez-faire was dead. But it was a far greater leap to Socialism in the stricter sense of either the ‘Marxists’ or of the Fabians, who were more eclectic in their reading of political economy. In 1885, the Socialists were not an electoral force at all, since it was impossible for a body like the SDF, with just a few thousand members, to fight a Parliamentary election, unless those members were al concentrated into one constituency. Despite having never fought an election, however, they were determined to do so. First of all, in October it put up four candidates for the London district school boards. All were unsuccessful, but the system of cumulative voting to some extent concealed the severity of their defeat. Then its leaders began to plan the Parliamentary campaign, but the difficulty was their lack of finance. Desperate to find a new source of funding for the Federation ahead of the General Election, they approached the Liberal Party in the guise of Joseph Chamberlain who was trying to rally the agricultural labourers, miners and the Nonconformists, without alienating the industrialists. They hoped that if they promised him their support, Chamberlain would give them a seat to contest in the Birmingham area: but though he met the Socialist leaders, he rejected their proposals.

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In 1883, one of Hyndman’s young recruits, H. H. Champion had become the secretary of the Social Democratic Federation, having similar political attitudes to those of Hyndman as a ‘Tory Socialist’. Then, in 1885, Champion received an offer of funds through a former Marxist and member of the First International who was then working as a Conservative agent. The money was offered for two candidatures in London, which the contributors no doubt thought would split the Liberal vote. Accordingly, two working-men members were put up, J. E. Williams for Hampstead and John Fielding for Kennington. Neither was a working-class constituency, and the candidates got only fifty-nine votes between them. Another SDF candidate, John Burns, an unemployed engineer, stood in Nottingham, however, where he polled 598 votes. The reaction to the London candidature fiasco was immediate and furious. Outside the party, the result of the so-called ‘Tory Gold’ scandal was that there was almost universal condemnation of the SDF, and even the Fabian Society passed a resolution expressing strong disapproval. J. Hunter Watts, who, as treasurer of the SDF, had been left in the dark by Hyndman and Champion, and a member of the Executive Council denounced the two leaders for ‘irresponsibility’ and for trying to run the Federation in military-style. Another schism took place in the Federation, with a new body called the ‘Socialist Union’ being set up, one of whose ‘bright sparks’ was a young Scotsman named James Ramsay Macdonald, who had picked up Socialist ideas in Bristol before settling in London. Both the Bristol and Nottingham SDF branches came over to the Socialist Union, and new affiliates were formed at Carlisle and Manchester. But there was little demand for a fresh Socialist organisation and, lacking wealthy backers, it did not last long.

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In 1886-87, the SDF had been organising demonstrations of the poor and unemployed in Trafalgar Square and elsewhere in London and the south-east, resulting in their leaders’ arrests. In 1887, Engels was also encouraging Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling in their agitation in East London. Morris continued to embarrass the authorities and the police who did not know how to deal with him at demonstrations and were reluctant to arrest him. Well aware of this, Morris tried to be present as often as possible when there was liable to be trouble with the police, who were often brutal in their treatment of working-class agitators. Even in loyal London, the Jubilee year saw, on 13 November 1887, ‘Bloody Sunday’ – as it became known – when troops were used to clear Trafalgar Square while other British troops were ‘pacifying’ Upper Burma.  A meeting which had first been called to protest against Coercion in Ireland became a huge demonstration in defence of free speech in Trafalgar Square, attracting support from all radical and socialist organisations. Processions attempting to enter the square in defiance of an official ban were broken up by police charges in which two of the demonstrators were killed and two hundred hospitalised. The following Sunday a young worker, Alfred Linnell, died after being ridden down by a mounted policeman in Northumberland Avenue, one of the streets leading into Trafalgar Square. His death became the focus for popular outrage, and the procession at his funeral on 16 December was the largest in London since the death of Wellington in 1852. Morris was one of the pallbearers and made an emotive speech at the graveside. The funeral concluded with a song specially composed by him for the occasion which was sold to benefit Linnell’s orphans as a broadsheet, with a design by Walter Crane (see part two).

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Morris continued to write extensively for the cause, especially in The Commonweal, the journal of the Socialist League which became a weekly in May 1886, with Morris as sole editor. He also financed the paper and was one of its principal contributors. Two of his major later works, The Dream of John Ball and News from Nowhere (1890) were published in the journal in serial form. In the latter, Morris looked to the future for hope. This utopian novel is perhaps the most accessible of Morris’ writings for the modern reader. In it, the narrator falls asleep in Hammersmith and wakes up in the future. In 1952, a revolution has taken place and the narrator finds an ideal society in which people work for pleasure, mechanisation and private property have been abolished, and there is no money. There is equality of class and sex, and there are no cities; people live in smaller rural communities, working on the land and at hand-crafts in harmony with the natural world. By the time he wrote this, Morris had come to realise that the hoped-for revolution was further away than he thought.

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The Socialist League lingered on, consisting not only of anarchists but also of the Marx-Engels clique who while not hostile to Parliamentary methods, did not rule out the possibility of violent revolution. Engels, a shrewd political strategist, had already put on record for British readers his view of how the Socialists could win power in Britain. In his articles for Shipton’s Labour Standard (1881), he had advised them to build up a labour party which, provided that from the start it was independent of the parties of the ruling class, he believed would gradually become more and more Socialist as time went on. He now drew fresh inspiration from the example of the American United Labour Parties, considering that there was an immediate question of forming an English Labour Party with an independent class programme. Writing to Bernstein in May 1887, Engels claimed that the Radical clubs were…

… aroused by the American example and consequently were now seriously thinking of creating an independent labour party.

This policy had begun to attract other members of the League: among these, whom Engels called ‘our people’, occur the names of young men active in the Socialist League, including J. L. Mahon who, temporarily resident in Newcastle, wrote to Engels in June advocating an amalgamation of the various little organisations in one broad definite political platform. They had been largely responsible for the establishment, early in 1887, of a North of England Socialist Federation among the Northumberland miners, another indication of a real attempt to bring Socialism to the working class. This was built up jointly by SDF and League agitators in the course of the Great Miners’ Strike of 1887. Although the nearest attempt yet made to create a mass movement, it was a transient success, for with the settlement of the strike its branches, numbering twenty-four at the peak, rapidly faded away. Yet the published aims of the North of England Federation were an indication of the way young Socialists were thinking. There were four, but it was the second point which caused most controversy within the League:

Striving to conquer political power by promoting the election of Socialists to Parliament, local governments, school boards, and other administrative bodies.

016 (3)Morris was sceptical of the practicability of this aim and expressed the hope that our friends will see the futility of sending (or trying to send) Socialists or anyone else to Parliament before they have learned it by long and bitter experience. But Morris could not escape the implications of this clash of opinions within the League: as early as March 1887, he noted in his diary, Whatever happens, I fear that as an organisation we shall come to nothing, though personal feeling may hold us together. The issue was raised at the annual conference that year, and, on being defeated, most of the supporters of Parliamentary action retired from active participation in the running of the League. After the annual conference of the following year, 1888, when they were again defeated, their point of view was explicitly repudiated in a statement by the Council of the League, and they took no further part in its work. The Bloomsbury branch, which included the Marx-Avelings and several German Marxists, left and transformed itself into the independent Bloomsbury Socialist Society. Meanwhile, Mahon and his friends seceded and formed a ‘Labour Union’ which aimed at providing a national platform. It published a document pointing to what the Irish Party have achieved by a similar course of action, which attracted the signature of a Scottish miner, James Keir Hardie (see part two) among other sponsors, but it, too, petered out after a few years as a working-class group in Hoxton (in Hackney). Morris, meanwhile, often despaired at the apathy of the men he was trying to convert, though he also understood and sympathised with their demoralisation:

If I were to spend ten hours a day at work I despised and hated, I should spend my leisure, I hope, in political agitation, but, I fear, in drinking …

( … to be continued…)

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October-December 1939: The Not-so-Phoney War at Sea & in Poland and Finland.   Leave a comment

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Above: HMS Royal Oak at anchor in 1937

The Royal Oak & the Graf Spee; Orkney to Montevideo:

Eighty years ago, On 14 October 1939, HMS Royal Oak was anchored at Scapa Flow in Orkney, Scotland, when she was torpedoed by Lieutenant-Commander Günther Prien’s submarine U-47. It got through a fifty-foot gap in the defences of Scapa Flow and fired seven torpedoes at the 29,000-ton battleship, of which three hit the ship, capsizing it. After the sinking of HMS Courageous the previous month, this was an almost equally spectacular symbolic success for the Kriegsmarine. Of Royal Oaks complement of 1,234 men and boys, 835 were killed, 810 in only thirteen minutes that night, the others dying later of their wounds.  While the loss of the outdated ship, the first of the five Royal Navy battleships and battlecruisers sunk in the Second World War, did little to affect the numerical superiority enjoyed by the British navy and its Allies, the sinking had a considerable effect on wartime morale. The raid made an immediate celebrity and war hero out of Günther Prien, who became the first German submarine officer to be awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. Before the sinking of Royal Oak, the Royal Navy had considered the naval base at Scapa Flow impregnable to submarine attack, and U-47s raid demonstrated that the German Navy was capable of bringing the war to British home waters. The shock resulted in rapid changes to dockland security and the construction of the Churchill Barriers around Scapa Flow.

002 (2)One task of the U-boats was to place magnetic mines in the sea-lanes around the British Isles; this could be done by low-flying Heinkel He-IIIS and by E-boats (motor torpedo boats, shown in the painting on the right) and destroyers. Lacking a large surface fleet, the German Navy used small vessels for fast hit-and-run attacks.

By the end of November, these had sunk twenty-nine British ships, including the destroyer HMS Gipsy and had also put the brand-new cruiser HMS Belfast out of action for three years. Through the immense bravery of bomb-disposal experts Lieutenant-Commanders R C Lewis and J. G. D. Ouvry, who removed the two detonators, one of which was ticking audibly, from a mine spotted in the Thames Estuary, the secrets of the steel-hull activated device were discovered. Within a month, Admiralty scientists had discovered ways of counteracting the mines by fitting electric cables around ships’ hulls, to create a negative magnetic, or ‘degaussed’ field. Soon afterwards a means of blowing up the mines, using wooden-hulled trawlers towing buoyant electrical cables, was also invented.

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The map above shows the early stages of the Battle of the Atlantic, from 1939 to 1941, with the green line showing the areas of severe U-boat impact. While in the U-boat Germany had deployed a potentially war-winning weapon and it also had three purpose-built ‘pocket-battleship’ commerce raiders and two powerful modern battleships, the Bismarck and the Tirpitz, launched early in the war, there were always too few to challenge the Royal Navy directly. Instead, as in the First World War, Germany was once again made use of its limited naval resources to attack Britain’s sea communications. Its formidable capital ships were used as raiders against British commerce. Tracking down and destroying these threats severely stretched British resources. It was the spotting, disabling and forced scuttling of the German pocket battleship the Admiral Graf Spee that was the RN’s greatest victory during the so-called Phoney War. Operating off South American coast, Captain Hans Lansdorff’s ship had enjoyed considerable success at the beginning of the war, sinking ten ships totalling more than fifty thousand tons. The term ‘pocket’ battleship is somewhat misleading, however, since although a limit of ten thousand tons had been imposed on German warships by the Treaty of Versailles, once the Graf Spee was loaded up with her six eight-inch, eight 5.9-inch and six 4.1-inch guns, as well as ammunition and stores, she weighed more than half as much again.

In the Battle of the River Plate on 13 December, off the coast of Uruguay, the German ship took on the eight-inch guns of the cruiser HMS Exeter, along with the six-inch guns of the light cruisers HMS Ajax and the New Zealander-crewed HMS Achilles, badly damaging the first two ships. However, she was eventually outfought by the three British cruisers and was forced into the harbour of Montevideo, capital of neutral Uruguay, on 15 December by the pounding she had received. Langsdorff then magnanimously released the Allied sailors he captured from ships he had sunk, who reported they had been well-treated. Then, mistakenly trusting to BBC radio broadcasts about the imminent arrival of the aircraft carrier HMS Ark Royal and the battlecruiser HMS Renown, and unable to hire a small plane to see whether this was in fact so, Langsdorff then sailed the Graf Spee to the entrance of Montevideo  harbour just before dusk on Sunday, 17 December and scuttled her. The explosions were watched by over twenty thousand spectators on the shore and heard on the radio by millions around the world. In fact, only the cruiser HMS Cumberland had managed to reach Montevideo; the BBC had patriotically participated in releasing a giant ‘fake news’ story. Five days later, Langsdorff shot himself.

Back to Europe: Poland, the Baltic States & Finland:

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Meanwhile, in Poland, by 5 October, resistance to the Nazi-Soviet Pact forces had ended; 217,000 Polish soldiers taken captive by Soviets, 619,000 by Germans; up to 100,000 escaped via Lithuania, Hungary and Romania to join Free Polish forces under General Wladyslaw Sikorski, Prime Minister in exile in Angers, France. Seventy thousand Polish soldiers and twenty-five thousand civilians had been killed, and 130,000 soldiers lay wounded. A hundred thousand Poles in the Russian ‘sector’ were arrested by the NKVD and sent to concentration camps, from which hardly any returned. Adolf Hitler travelled to Warsaw by special train to visit victorious troops. Then, on 10 October, Admiral Erich Raeder urged Hitler to consider invading Norway as a way of protecting the transportation of iron ore from northern Sweden to Germany and establishing U-boat stations along the fjords, especially at Trondheim. Hitler ordered the OKW to start planning for an invasion in January 1940. At that point, Hitler did not want to divert troops from the attack he was planning in the west and was persuaded to do so only by signs that the Allies were planning to invade Norway themselves, possibly using aid for Finland as a cloak for their actions.

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Who was Hereward? Outlaw Legends and the Myth of the ‘Norman Yoke’.   4 comments

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Above: An illustration by Henry Courtney Selous for Charles Kingsley’s 1865 novel, depicting his attack upon Normans on discovering the loss of his family and lands.

The comic-strip, super-hero and ‘super-villain’ version of the events of the Norman Conquest is an important part of British mythology, but it does not match much of the written record, let alone the architectural and archaeological evidence spanning the early middle ages, from the reign of William I to that of Edward I. The legendary story begins with the Norman’s tireless, heroic and ultimately cataclysmic cavalry charges on the Saxon shield wall at Senlac Hill, near Hastings, followed by their terrorising, or harrying of the north with fire and sword. The Saxons and Danes had captured York, pulling down the castle and seizing all the treasure in it. According to a contemporary chronicle, they killed hundreds of Normans and took many of them to their ships. William’s vengeance was swift and merciless, as recorded in his own words:

I fell on the English of the northern shires like a ravaging lion. I ordered that all their homes, tools, goods and corn be burnt. Large herds of cattle and pack-animals were butchered wherever found. I took revenge on many of the English by making them die cruelly of hunger.

The narrative continues with the Norman’s ruthless mopping up the resistance by Hereward the Wake in the soggy Fens of East Anglia, and It ends with the conquest of Wales two hundred years later. But history is usually written by the victors, and it is all too easily to underestimate the precarious hold which William and his few thousand men held over the combined Danish and Saxon insurgents during the first five years of their rule. It was their accompanying land-grab and their tight system of feudal dues, later mythologised by the conquered Anglo-Saxons as ‘the Norman Yoke’, which enabled them to impose control, though this too was resisted by the thanes, among them Hereward in East Anglia.

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A King’s Thegn was one of the nobles who served King Edward the Confessor, carrying out his orders and seeing to it that others obeyed the King. Had it not been for the Conquest, Hereward would have become a King’s Thegn after his father Asketil’s death. One of his uncles was Abbot Brand of Peterborough, and all five uncles were all sons of a rich merchant, Toki of Lincoln. In 1063, Abbot Osketil of Crowland had begun the building of a new Abbey Church, for which he needed to raise plenty of money. One way of doing so was to rent out the Abbey lands to local lords who would pay an annual sum to the monastery, and one of those who agreed to do so was a young man of eighteen named Hereward Askeltison. As the son of a wealthy local Thegn in the service of King Edward, the Abbot thought that he would be a reliable tenant. Hereward agreed to rent a farm at Rippingale near Bourne in Lincolnshire for an annual rent to be agreed with the Abbot at the beginning of each year. At the end of the first year, Hereward and the Abbot quarrelled over the rent. The Abbot also complained to his father, who mentioned the matter to the King. Hereward had already upset many of the local people of South Lincolnshire, causing disturbances and earning himself a reputation as a trouble-maker.

Hereward the Exile:

King Edward gave the young man five days in which to leave the Kingdom or face worse penalties. Thus Hereward was already a disgraced ‘outlaw’ before the Conquest, forced into exile by his own father and king. It was said that he escaped to Northumbria, as far away from Winchester, then still Edward’s capital, as he could get. Whichever route he took, at some point he boarded a ship to Flanders and was shipwrecked on the coast of Guines, between Boulogne and Calais. In order to earn a living, he began a career as a mercenary soldier. After winning a duel with a Breton knight, he married a noble lady from St. Omer, Turfrida. At this time, an early form of Tournament was becoming popular in France and Flanders, in which groups of men, sometimes on foot and increasingly on horseback, fought each other in front of large crowds. Hereward fought at Poitiers and Bruges, winning a reputation as a tough and skilled competitor. This was how he met and fell in love with Turfrida.

Hearing that Lietberg, Bishop and Count of Cambrai needed soldiers, Hereward joined his army and became one of the twelve knights who formed his bodyguard. He took part in small wars in the area between lords such as Baldwin II of Hainault, a grandson of the Count of Flanders, and Arnulf the Viscount of Picquigny. Hereward was noticed by Baldwin II’s uncle, Robert the Frisian. Robert was planning a campaign on behalf of his father, Count Baldwin V, who had decided to capture the area then called Scaldemariland, comprising the islands at the mouth of the River Scheldt. He took forty ships with an army under his personal command, with Hereward as commander of the mercenary soldiers. Hereward also had to train the younger, newly knighted men. Fierce fighting followed the attack and at the first the islanders resisted so stubbornly that Robert had to fall back and call for reinforcements.

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The islanders boasted later that they had captured their enemy’s battle standard or ‘Colours’, which was considered a great achievement. The Count’s son then launched a stronger attack against the islands because the whole area had risen up against him. He was attacked from all sides, from the islands and from the sea. The invaders on the island of Walcheren, attacking its defences, and Hereward, in what became his trademark in war, suggested setting fire to the enemy wagons. He led a force of three hundred men ahead of the main army and they killed many hundreds of men. He then took a great the high ground with a force of a thousand knights and six hundred foot-soldiers, following this by attacking the enemy in the rear, killing the rearguard. That was too much for the islanders who sued for peace, being forced to pay double what the Count had originally demanded in tribute. Hereward and his men were allowed to keep all the plunder they had seized during the fighting. He used part of his share to buy two fine horses, calling his favourite one ‘Swallow’.

Return to England:

Just as his success was being celebrated, Count Baldwin V died and was succeeded by his elder son, also called Baldwin, much to the displeasure of the younger brother, Robert the Frisian. That brought an end to Robert’s Scaldermariland campaign, and of Hereward’s role as a mercenary commander, but his successes had made him quite rich by that time. This was when he heard that England had been conquered by the Normans and, leaving his wife in the care of his two cousins, Siward the Red and Siward the Blond, he decided to return to England to find out what had become of his family. Once there, he found out that both his father, Asketil, and his grandfather Toki had been killed in the fighting, in addition to his younger brother, Toli, so he decided to join those Saxons known by the Normans as ‘Wildmen of the Woods’ who were resisting the invasion. Although the English had at first been prepared to accept William’s rule, they had become increasingly rebellious due to the behaviour of the ‘robber’ barons and their knights. There had been widespread looting and the lands of the thanes who had been killed in the three battles of 1066 had been simply handed over to the Norman barons without any compensation to their Saxon holders. Those left in charge of the kingdom when William returned to Normandy after his coronation as King did nothing to control their men.

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The rebels had taken refuge in woods, marshes and river valleys and Hereward, who had been born in South Lincolnshire, now returned to the area he knew best, the Fens. He first visited his uncle, Brand the Monk, who had succeeded Leofric as Abbot of Peterborough. The Abbot had returned ‘sick at heart’ from the Battle of Hastings and died of his wounds. Brand had angered King William by paying homage to the boy Prince of Wessex, Edgar Aetheling (the Saxon heir latterly recognised by Edward the Confessor), who was proclaimed king by the Witenagemot following Harold’s death and before William reached London and was crowned on Christmas Day 1066. William made him pay a fine of forty marks for this, a huge sum of money in those days, perhaps equivalent to a thousand pounds in today’s money. Hereward had held some of his lands as protector of Peterborough and now renewed his promise to protect the Abbey. But he also found that all his lands, together with those of his father and grandfather, stretching across more than seven shires, had been expropriated. His own lands had been given to a Breton knight called Ogier and several great Norman lords had shared out his family lands, including Bishop Remigius of Dorchester, who had moved his ‘seat’ to Lincoln, where he was building a new Cathedral on land that had once belonged to Hereward’s grandfather, Toki. Others who had helped themselves to his family’s land included Ivo Taillebois, the Sheriff of Lincolnshire, William de Warenne, later Earl of Surrey and a Flanders knight, brother-in-law of de Warenne, Frederick Oosterzele-Scheldewineke, whom Hereward waylaid and killed in Flanders, signalling a start to his rebellion.

The Norman land-grab – Domesday evidence:

The rebellion in East Anglia and Northumbria took place against the backcloth of the Norman land-grab as evidenced in the Domesday Survey of 1086. In Suffolk, Coppinger’s 1905 book chronicling the manorial records helps us to piece together something of the history of each manor, including those that belonged to Hereward’s kinsmen before the Conquest. We find that in pre-Conquest times, the village of Aspall in the west of the county had two small manors, one held by Brictmar in the time of Edward the Confessor, a freeman under commendation to Edric. He held thirty acres, which at Domesday was held by Robert Malet as the tenant of his mother. She was the widow of William Malet, a baronial tenant-in-chief, who accompanied the Conqueror from Normandy and was one of the few Norman barons proven to be present at Hastings, taking care of Harold’s body after the battle, on William’s command. Legend has it that his William Malet’s mother was English and that he was the uncle of King Harold’s wife Edith, the claim being that he had a sister Aelgifu who married Aelfgar, Earl of Mercia, the father of Edith. Despite his obviously divided loyalties, William of Normandy rewarded Malet’s faithfulness. He was soon appointed High Sheriff of Norfolk and Suffolk, and given the great honour of Eye (Priory), with lands in Suffolk and several other shires. It was, in fact, the largest lordship in East Anglia. He built a motte and bailey at Eye and started a market there. He died in 1071, probably in trying to crush the rebellion of Hereward the Wake, and on his death was one of the twelve greatest landholders in England. His son Robert later became a close advisor to Henry I, and at the time of The Domesday Survey, held 221 manors in Suffolk alone.

William de Goulafriere, who had also accompanied the Conqueror from Normandy, also held three acres in Aspall, valued at fifteen shillings. The nearby large village of Debenham consisted of three Saxon manors, the first held by Edric, a Saxon freeman under commendation to William Malet, with sixteen bordars, twelve ploughteams in demesne and three belonging to the freemen, four acres of meadow, wood enough to support sixty hogs, a rouncy (a cart-horse), four beasts, forty hogs, thirty sheep and forty goats. At the time of Domesday, the manor was held by William de Goulafriere, as sub-tenant to Robert Malet. There were one and a half ploughteams belonging to the freemen, woodland for forty hogs, of which there were twenty, together with six ‘beasts’ (oxen), forty-five sheep and twenty-eight goats. The value of the whole estate had declined from sixty shillings to fifty shillings at the time of Domesday, which shows that the Conquest could well have had a negative effect on the wealthier Saxon manors, possibly due to the amount of woodland which was cut down for building castles. William de Goulafriere also held over the freemen on Malet’s other holding of thirty-six acres, the value of which had declined from ten shillings to six by Domesday. This suggested that he managed the Saxon freemen for Malet, perhaps as an intermediary who understood them better and who respected him as a farmer. He also held Malet’s sixth estate of ten acres, which had half a ploughteam and was valued at two shillings. Winston, an outlying manor of Debenham appears, like the other, larger neighbouring Malet estates, to have had a very independent status as a manor, because it was held in the time of the Confessor by the Abbot of Ely, in demesne.

Like Stigand, Abbot Thurstan was a Saxon, appointed by Harold but, unlike Stigand, he was also honest and hard-working, so William did not replace him, even when he (famously) gave Hereward the Wake sanctuary from William’s soldiers in 1071, helping him to establish his hideout in the Fens. From this base, Hereward began harassing the Normans, killing and robbing them, so that King William himself was forced to offer him a truce after the outlaw thane had almost captured and killed another of his tenants-in-chief, William de Warenne. Hereward then decided to return to Flanders for Turfrida, to bring her back to England with him and also to recruit some of the mercenaries who had fought with him in Scaldemariland. While there he received messages from Abbot Thurstan telling him that his uncle, Brand, was dead and that the sons of Swein Esthrison, King of Denmark, had arrived in the Fens with a raiding army and might be persuaded to support a rising against the Normans. He was also told that King William had appointed a ‘strict French Abbot’ as Abbot of Peterborough, Thurold of Malmesbury, who was on his way to the abbey with an army of Normans from Stamford in Lincolnshire. William was said to have chosen him for his warlike disposition with the clear intention of setting him on Hereward.

Hereward’s ‘Attack’ on Peterborough:

Hereward quickly mustered his men and returned to England, arranging a meeting with the Danes at which he talked them into helping him to upset the Conqueror’s plan by seizing all the treasures of Peterborough to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Normans. Assembling his combined forces of English, Danish and former mercenaries, Hereward advanced to take control of Peterborough, crossing the Fens in large, flat-bottomed boats, using the Wellstream near Outwell, and seeking to gain entry by way of the Bolhythe Gate south of the Abbey. At first, they were resisted by the townsfolk and the monks, who had heard that Hereward and his band of outlaws, including Danes, intended to rob the monastery of its treasures, rather than saving them from the Normans. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, written at Peterborough, records how…

… in the morning all the outlaws came with many boats and attacked the monastery. The monks fought to keep them out.

They therefore failed to gain entry, but when his men set fire to the gate and the buildings outside the walls, he and his men, including the Danes, were able to break in. Once inside, they set about collecting everything movable of value they could lay their hands on. They tried to remove the Great Crucifix, laden with gold and precious stones, hanging at the entrance to the High Altar, but they could only take the crown from the head of Christ’s figure. Elsewhere they were more successful, taking eleven decorated boxes containing the relics of saints, encrusted with gold, silver and precious stones, twelve jewelled crosses and many other objects of gold and silver, books with jewelled covers, and the huge altar hanging, also embroidered in precious metals and jewels. They stripped the abbey of most of its precious possessions, including an ancient ‘relic’, the arm of St Oswald. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claimed that the outlaws then burnt down the monastery:

Then the rebels set fire to it, and burnt down all the monks’ houses except one, and the whole town… they took so much gold and so many treasures – money, clothes and books – that no one could add them up. They said they did it out of support for the monastery.

They left the area around the monastery, devastated by fire, on hearing that Abbot Thurold and his men were on their way from Stamford. Several senior monks went with them, and none were harmed. Despite the fire, no serious damage was done, and Thurold was able to resume church services within a week of his arrival. However, the Danes held on to the greater portion of the ‘booty’ and refused to assist in further resistance to the Normans. King Swein ordered them to return to Denmark, leaving Hereward and his men to face King William’s wrath. On the journey home, however, they ran into a storm which wrecked most of their ships with the loss of both men and treasure. Hereward and his men returned to their refuge at Ely and held out for several months against all the efforts of the Norman barons, aided by Abbot Thurold, to dislodge them. Hereward’s forces continued to harry the Normans at every opportunity, eve, on one occasion, surrounding Thurold and a company of men, only releasing them on payment of hundreds of pounds ransom, equivalent to thousands in today’s money.

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Ely – Iconic Isle & Impregnable English Stronghold:

At Ely, Hereward became a magnet for rebel Englishmen and Danes, since he himself was of Danish descent. Following his initial disappointment with the Danes who helped him to ‘sack’ Peterborough, he made all those who joined him swear on the tomb of Etheldreda (see the picture below from the Cathedral nave) that they would stick together against the Normans. The Abbey, sixteen miles north of Cambridge, had been founded as a monastery in 673 by St Etheldreda. Destroyed by the Danes in 870, part of it was still standing in King Edward’s reign, though the present building was begun in 1083, after the events described here. Many of Hereward’s supporters who gathered there were his relatives from Lincolnshire, but he was also joined by another Dane, called Thorkell of Harringworth, who had lost his lands in Northamptonshire. Others included the rich landowner Siward of Maldon in Essex, Rahere ‘the Heron’ from Wroxham on the Bure in the Norfolk Broads, Brother Siward of the Abbey of Bury St Edmunds and Reginald, Hereward’s standard-bearer. They carried out a series of raids against the Normans, pillaging far and wide and sometimes suffering heavy losses themselves. They reassured many people that all was not yet lost. For a time, William did nothing, leaving the task of dealing with Hereward to the local barons such as William de Warenne from Castle Acre, William Malet from Eye in Suffolk and Richard fitzGilbert from Clare. But following the rising in the North in 1069 in support of Edgar Aetheling, the last Saxon heir to the thrones of Wessex and England, the Conqueror changed his mind.

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Many of the commoners followed their thanes, often in open rebellion, and even to the point of civil war. William responded by resorting to terror tactics in his well-known ‘harrying of the North’. Two of the last surviving Saxon Earls from King Edward’s time, the brothers Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria, soon lost all faith in the new Norman king. They feared that as part of his revenge for the rising, which caused William to burn and destroy large tracts of Yorkshire and Durham, they too would be imprisoned. They escaped from their ‘house arrest’ at the King’s court and hid out for six months in the woods and fields, evading recapture. Hoping to find a ship to flee to Flanders, they arrived at Ely, accompanied by other Saxon nobles and their household troops. These included Bishop Athelwine of Durham and two of Edwin and Morcar’s relatives, Godric of Corby and Tostig of Daventry. They all met up in the Fens near Wisbech and persuaded Hereward to allow them to spend the winter at Ely. They had returned south after the rising when Prince Eadgar and Maerleswein, the English sheriff of Lincolnshire and their supporters, had sought refuge with King Malcolm Canmore of Scotland, who had married Eadgar’s sister, Margaret of Wessex, following the family’s flight from the Norman court and their shipwreck at the mouth of the Forth.

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So the remnant of the rebellion against William was now gathered in one place and William could not resist the opportunity to destroy it once and for all. But it was not going to be easy to deal with them since Ely was an island surrounded by the Fens and almost impregnable. The rivers and the deep, almost bottomless meres combined with the marshes surrounding the Isle made it a tremendous obstacle to any army, especially one like the Norman army, whose strength was in its heavy cavalry. Any attempt at the waterborne assault could be easily repelled. The available ways onto the Isle from Earith, Soham or Downham were well known, difficult and easily defended. The rebel defenders had built ramparts of peat surmounted by strong fences from which javelins and other missiles could be launched. King William also realised that a large fighting force within these defences, well stocked with food and water, could hold out almost indefinitely and, commanded by Hereward, a soldier of proven ability, a headlong ground attack was unlikely to succeed without heavy losses.

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William’s Attempts to Lay Siege to the Isle:

Hence, the King decided to mobilise both ground and naval forces on a large scale. The chronicles of the time record how he set his ships to blockade the Isle from the ‘seaward’ or northern side and set a siege on the landward side. The various accounts of the attack are confused, but what took place is clear enough. King William gathered his élite troops and commanders together at the castle in Cambridge and planned an assault which meant crossing the fen at its narrowest point by strengthening the existing causeway. This was a very old track called the Mare’s Way, running from Willingham to an Iron Age earthwork called Belsar’s Hill. There he quickly set up camp, building a palisade along the rampart of the old fort. He then forced all the local people to provide him with materials with which he continued to reinforce the causeway, building a bridge which would enable his army to cross the Old West River onto the Isle.

William also set up an advance post at ‘Devil’s Dyke’, near Reach, and some of his men attempted to cross the West River below where it was joined by the River Cam. In the meantime, Hereward carried out scouting forays, building up stocks of food and weapons, killing or wounding any parties of Normans found away from their base. He fortified the weak spots on the dykes with walls of peat and easily repulsed the Normans, counter-attacking at Reach. He led a small raiding party of seven men against the outpost and killed all the guards there, except for one Richard, son of Osbert, who was the last man standing, while none of the seven attackers was killed. Richard later reported on the action to the King’s War Council, and of how Hereward had gone on to burn down the nearby village of Burwell before retreating as reinforcements were brought up. William moved his troops to a point on the West River not far from the modern hamlet of Aldreth, some way to the east, where the fen was narrower than elsewhere. There he set about building a floating structure loosely described as a bridge supported by sheepskins filled with air, which may have been sabotaged by its local peasant builders. There was a suggestion that the bags were partly filled with sand so that they would gradually sink.

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As soon as it appeared to be ready, and before the defenders could react, a large number of knights and men-at-arms rushed onto the bridge, eager to be the first on the Isle with its promise of rich plunder. The whole construction was so unstable that it collapsed, throwing all the men on it into the river and the surrounding swamp so that they all, save one, drowned. Some hundreds, at least, perished, and William retreated in despair to the former royal manor of Brampton, near Huntingdon, while Hereward, entertaining the sole survivor of the disaster, Deda the knight. He was well looked after and invited to dine in the refectory of Ely monastery, along with Abbot Thurstan, his monks and the various noblemen supporting Hereward. They feasted at great wooden trestle tables in the hall with their arms and armour stacked against the walls, ready for use in action. Their shields hung on the walls behind their seats, marking their places. Deda was therefore allowed to believe that the defenders were well supplied with food from the abbey lands, including its famous eels, as well as fresh water from its wells, and wine from its vineyards. He was then set free so that he could report all this to King William. Deda did exactly that at a meeting of the King’s council, in which he told William all about the Isle of Ely:

Around it are great meres and fens, like a strong wall. In this isle there are many tame cattle, and huge numbers of wild animals; stags, roes, foats and hares… But what am I to say of the kinds of fishes and fowls, both those that fly and those that swim? … I have seen a hundred – no, even three hundred – taken at once – sometimes by bird-lime, sometimes in nets or snares.

Deda’s information almost persuaded William to give up his attack on Ely. But Ivo Taillebois, in a dramatic speech, persuaded the king that he would never live down such an ignominious retreat. This argument won the day, and work began on a new portable bridge guarded by two tall wooden siege towers. These were mounted on huge platforms on wheels and could be used to fire missiles at the opposite bank of the river to drive back the defenders. Hereward, however, had had Deda followed, enabling him to locate the king’s camp at Brampton. Hereward hid his horse Swallow nearby, disguised himself as a seller of pots and oil lamps and infiltrated the camp. He listened carefully to all that was said about the king’s plans, including one to employ a witch to curse the Islanders using a giant eel from the swamp to cast her spells. But then he was identified as the ‘notorious’ outlaw by one of the King’s men and was forced to make a dramatic escape into the marshes where he found his horse and rode back to Ely via Sutton and Witchford, leaving one Norman dead and several others wounded back at the camp.

Meanwhile, the king’s orders were being quickly carried out. He commandeered all the available boats from Cottingham and the surrounding areas so that more men and materials and men could be brought in over the flooded landscape. Great tree trunks were laid down and covered with sticks and stones to form a platform over the marsh on which the siege towers could be erected, and catapults for hurling stones were placed on the towers. But Hereward’s men had disguised themselves as labourers and mingled with the Saxon workmen. When they threw off their disguises to reveal their armour and weapons, their enemies were thrown into confusion and they were able to set fire reeds and willows of the fen as well as to the piles of wood around the siege towers, calling upon God, in English, to come to their aid. The whole structure and towers caught fire and the Normans fled in terror from the roaring flames and choking smoke. The fire spread across the fens for half a kilometre into the swamp of reeds, whipped up by the wind, with the peat below the water level also burning. The soldiers fled headlong into this in order to escape the raging flames, the noise of the crackling willows and the billowing smoke driving them mad with fear. The peat fires would have been almost impossible to extinguish, travelling underground and even underwater and erupting in explosions of steam clouds. Men trying to cross the swamp fell waist deep into burning peat. Hereward and his men, familiar with the perils of the marsh, pursued the fleeing Normans, killing many trapped by the flames, then retreating once more to the Isle.

King William Raises the Stakes:

King William, enraged by his defeat and horror-stricken with his losses, sought his immediate revenge by seizing all the lands of the abbey of Ely, distributed over a wide area, that he could lay his hands on and distributing them among his barons. News of this was carefully leaked to Abbot Thurstan and his monks, who began to have second thoughts about continuing to resist in case they lost everything. William also let it be known that Earl Morcar and other thanes would be treated leniently if they surrendered, but mercilessly if they continued their resistance. Earl Edwin decided to leave his brother and make his way to Scotland to join the Wessex resistance there. On the way, he was betrayed by three of his own men to a squadron of Norman knights. Caught in the open between a river and the sea, he was slaughtered. His betrayers took his head to King William, expecting a reward, but were themselves executed.

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Abbot Thurstan then contacted the King and offered to reveal how he could gain safe passage onto the Isle from another direction. William accepted his offer and made his way across Avering Mere by boat to a spot near the village of Little Thetford, a short distance from the town of Ely, where the river was placid and easily crossed. William took the Abbot’s advice, but it wasn’t an easy journey. His army had to take a winding march through the marshes to the mere, along a path revealed to the King by the monks. The men lost sight of each other in the eerie silence of the marsh and sometimes found themselves walking over the bodies of men and horses that had perished in the fire in the swamp. They also had to cross the many tributaries and streams running through the fens, wading through deep waters almost up to the level of their helmets and all the time harassed by attacks from the Fenlanders. King William commandeered all available flat-bottomed fenland boats, ancestors of the modern punt, to transport horses and catapults as well as materials to build yet another bridge. He had given up the idea of crossing near Aldreth because of the fires still raging in the marshes there.

The Final Norman Attack along Akeman Street:

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Eventually, William reached the area which Thurstan had described to him, near Little Thetford, bringing up the boats carrying the catapults and setting them up on the river bank. From there he began to bombard the defenders. At first, this caused the unstable ground to shake, threatening the attackers with drowning. But the Conqueror’s ‘engineers’ constructed a pontoon bridge over a number of the flat-bottomed boats lashed together and covered in willow branches, reeds and rushes. His bombardment had succeeded in softening up the Resistance and he was able to lead his men across the rapidly improvised pontoon bridge onto the Isle, driving back the remaining defenders with his horsemen. He then swept forward in a ‘pincer’ movement, one wing advancing directly towards Ely along the old Roman road, Akeman Street, while the other swept round through Witchford, where he accepted the surrender of Morcar and the nobles. However, they had left this too late and Morcar, Siward Barn and Bishop Aethelwine were imprisoned. The bishop died shortly afterwards, Morcar remained a prisoner for life and Siward Barn was only released after William’s death. He went int exile in Constantinople where he was said to have joined the Emperor’s Varangian Guard. The other leaders of the Resistance were severely dealt with; some were blinded, others lost hands or feet. The ordinary rank and file were released unharmed.

Hereward had been absent from Ely during the final Norman attack, leading another raiding party with his closest allies. On returning from this, he found that Morcar and the other nobles had surrendered and the King was already at Witchford. In his rage and despair, he threatened to burn down the town but was persuaded by Alwin, son of Sheriff Ordgar, that it was too late to recover the Isle and the Abbey. He and his allies then escaped through the Fens to take refuge in the Bruneswald, the great forest along the Fen edge in Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire. There, for some months, he carried on his guerrilla campaign against the Norman King. Nothing very definite is known about his ultimate fate. There are two conflicting narratives, one of which was that he was captured by William’s forces of the seven shires in the Bruneswald, only for him to escape in the company of his gaoler, Robert of Harpole, who then persuaded the King to pardon him in exchange for him entering his king’s service. In that narrative, Hereward agreed and was given back some of his lands. He then lived out his life in retirement and was buried at Crowland next to his first wife, Turfrida, who had become a nun there. However, this narrative rests on two false clues. According to the Domesday Book, there was another thane named Hereward, the son of Earl Leofric and Lady Godiva, who held lands in Warwickshire in the service of the Bishop of Worcester and the Count of Mortain. Later chroniclers confused this Hereward with the Fenland outlaw. In addition, a later English rebel, Earl Waltheof of Northumbria, beheaded in 1075 for taking part in a revolt against King William, was also buried at Crowland. So some details of this narrative may be based on cases of mistaken identity.

The alternative narrative, written up in the twelfth century by the poet Geoffrey Gaimar also claims that Hereward was reconciled with William and went with him to the war in Maine where he made another fortune out of booty captured in the war. On his way home, he was ambushed by two dozen Norman knights seeking revenge against him, and died fighting single-handedly against overwhelming odds, killing about half of his assailants. Here, the poet is probably giving his hero a hero’s death within the literary conventions of the time. Peter Rex has argued that the most likely ‘denouement’ is that, after seeing out the winter of 1071 in the Bruneswald, Hereward decided that it was too dangerous for him to remain in England, so that he and his close allies and men slipped away by sea to the Continent. Once there, he probably became a mercenary once more, and either died in battle or lived to return to England in the reign of William Rufus, perhaps living quietly in Norfolk into old age and being buried in Crowland. The evidence for this comes from two East Anglian families, at Terrington near Kings Lynn and Great Barton near Bury St Edmunds, who both claim descent from him.

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The Primary Sources – The Abbey, the Man & the Myth:

The authentic primary evidence we have for the real Hereward comes mainly from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Liber Eliensis. His exile and his lands are also documented in the Domesday Book of 1086. His raid on Peterborough is related by Hugh Candidus in his History of Peterborough Abbey, written in the mid-twelfth century and in the Peterborough version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, copied there in circa 1120. His other adventures are narrated in the Gesta Herewardi; the Book of the Exploits of Hereward, written partly by Leofric the deacon, who claimed to be Hereward’s chaplain, and partly by the monk Richard of Ely, who wrote Book Two of the Liber Eliensis. Both this latter text and the Gesta are based on earlier texts written before 1109 when the Abbacy became a Bishopric, drawing on the first-hand accounts of both the monks of Ely and the Norman soldiers. The epithet ‘the Wake’ which some linguists have claimed to be a synonym of ‘the Alert’ or ‘the Watchful’  was the result of a dubious claim of descent by a lesser Norman noble family named ‘Wake’, who were concerned to enhance their reputation after being given lands in Lincolnshire under King Henry I, whose own legitimacy as king was enhanced by his marriage into the Wessex Royal family.  But neither the Wakes nor the fitzGilberts, the family into which they married, had any connection with Hereward’s family.  In fact, Richard fitzGibbon was one of the Norman knights who fought Hereward’s men at the siege of Ely.

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Ely Cathedral today, with the Abbey’s Great Hall at the end of the North Transept (left).

Although the Abbey was fined heavily for its role in the resistance, and its lands were confiscated, it was only after Thurstan’s death that William appointed a Norman monk in his place. Perhaps William was also mindful of the powerful symbolism of Ely to the Saxons. Then, following the return of its manors in 1081, Simeon was made Abbot, an old but very wise and able churchman, who was related both to William and to Stigand’s successor as Bishop of Winchester. The Abbey’s land in Winston in Suffolk, referred to above, consisted of forty acres, six villeins, four bordars, two ploughteams in demesne and three belonging to freemen, as well as six acres of meadow and woodland for a hundred hogs. There was a church with eight acres, two rouncies, four beasts, twenty hogs and fifty sheep. It was valued at four pounds. At Domesday, the manor of Winston was still held by Abbot Simeon, but with only one ploughteam in demesne and woodland for sixty hogs. Its value had increased to four pounds, ten shillings, and was the only manor showing evidence of becoming wealthier. This prosperity, we are told, had come from additional freemen working the thirty acres of the Abbot’s land. On the elderly abbot’s reinstatement to Ely, William de Goulafriere (who had held the confiscated lands in the meantime) helped the elderly abbot, who was taken up with restoring the Abbey and its treasures, by recruiting and managing the additional freemen from other manors where he had an interest, such as Debenham. It may also be that the unbroken and consolidated tenure of these forty acres in the hands of the Abbots of Ely, together with de Goulafriere, was a major factor in their continued productivity and value, despite a reduction in woodland similar to that in other villages.

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From a ‘See Britain by train’ poster in the National Railway Museum captioned  ‘Where Hereward the Wake made his last stand, Ely Cathedral, rises in majesty.’

Hereward Asketilson, as he should properly be known, became an iconic figure for all those Anglo-Saxons and Danes who resisted the tyranny of the Conqueror, his barons and their ‘Norman Yoke’. As an ‘outlaw’, he no doubt inspired the later legends of outlaws throughout the English countryside in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Gradually, a powerful myth of the ‘freeborn Englishman’ took hold, to be revived at various points of conflict in national and regional history. The initial conquest of England did not end at the Battle of Hastings, but took more than five years to accomplish. The Plantagenet’s attempts to extend the conquest into the other countries and territories of the British Isles over the course of the following two centuries also met with considerable resistance, and were only partially successful. However, in England, by the end of the twelfth century, there was a mixing and melding of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman cultures in which ‘Englishness’ predominated, and not just in the continued use of Saxon tongues. The author of one of the earliest school textbooks, written in Latin in about 1180, made the observation that:

… now that the English and Normans have lived so long together, and have become so mixed together (I speak of freemen only) that we can hardly these days tell apart an Englishman and Norman. 

The monk William of Malmesbury also commented on the extent to which the powerful Norman élite was assimilated by the general Saxon population:

The English at that time (before 1066) wore short clothes reaching to the mid-knee; they had their hair cut very short, their beards shaven off, their arms laden with gold bracelets, their skins covered with punctuated designs (tattoos); they tended to eat until they were stuffed full and drink until they were sick. These last habits they gave to their conquerors; the rest they shared with them.

Secondary Sources:

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Published by the Ely Society, 2012.

The cover picture was supplied by Grantanbrycg, the Cambridge branch of

Regia Angolorum, http://www.regia.org

 

Catherine Hills (1986), Blood of the British. London: Guild Publishing.

William Anderson (1983), Holy Places of the British Isles. London: Ebury Press.

 

Posted June 3, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in Agriculture, Anglo-Saxons, Archaeology, Assimilation, Britain, British history, Calais, Cartoons, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civilization, Compromise, Conquest, Dark Ages, East Anglia, Education, English Language, Ethnicity, Europe, Family, Flanders, Footpaths, France, guerilla warfare, History, Integration, Linguistics, Medieval, Memorial, Mercia, Midlands, Monarchy, Monuments, Mythology, Narrative, Nationality, Norfolk, Normans, Old English, Papacy, Plantagenets, Population, Reconciliation, Saxons, Scotland, Suffolk, terror, tyranny, West Midlands

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