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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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The Rise of Thatcherism in Britain, 1979-83: Part Two.   Leave a comment

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Above: Denis Healey in combatant mood

Labour’s ‘Civil War’ and the Creation of the SDP:

As a general election loomed, with Labour in visible disarray, Margaret Thatcher moved within a couple of months from being one of the least popular prime ministers ever to being an unassailable national heroine. This was the result of two ‘factors’, the struggle for power within the Labour Party, which (as I wrote about in the first part of this article) began with Callaghan’s decision to step down as its leader in the autumn of 1980, and the Falklands Crisis and War of 1982.

Labour’s Civil War began with constitutional arguments about whether MPs should be able to be sacked by their local constituency parties. It became nasty, personal, occasionally physical, and so disgusted those outside its ranks that the party almost disappeared as an effective organisation. Undoubtedly, there was widespread bitterness on the left of the party about what were considered to be the right-wing policies of the defeated Wilson-Callaghan government, and about the small number of party conference decisions which found their way into Labour’s manifesto at the May 1979 election. In this atmosphere, the left wanted to take power away from right-wing MPs and their leadership and carry out a revolution from below. They believed that if they could control the party manifesto, the leadership election and bring the MPs to heel, they could turn Labour into a radical socialist party which would then destroy Thatcher’s economics at the next general election.

At Labour’s October 1980 Blackpool Conference, the left succeeded in voting through resolutions calling for Britain to withdraw from the European Community, unilateral disarmament, the closing of US bases in Britain, no incomes policy and State control of the whole of British industry, plus the creation of a thousand peers to abolish the House of Lords. Britain would become a kind of North Sea Cuba. The Trotskyite Militant Tendency, which had infiltrated the Labour Party, believed in pushing socialist demands so far that the democratic system would collapse and a full-scale class war would follow. Tony Benn, who thought that their arguments are sensible and they make perfectly good rational points, saw Militant as no more than of a threat than the old Tribune group or the pre-war Independent Labour Party. He thought that the left would bring about a thoroughly decent socialist victory. In fact, thuggish intimidation in many local Labour parties by Militant supporters was driving moderate members away in droves. Many mainstream trade unionists went along with Militant, feeling let down by the Wilson and Callaghan governments. So too did those who were driven by single issues, such as nuclear disarmament.

Shrewd tactics and relentless campaigning enabled a small number of people to control enough local parties and union branches to have a disproportionate effect in Labour conference votes, where the huge, undemocratic block votes of the trades unions no longer backed the leadership. At the 1980 Conference, the left won almost every important vote, utterly undermining Callaghan, who quit as leader two weeks later. Since new leadership election rules would not be in place until a special conference the following January, Labour MPs had one final chance to elect their own leader. Michael Foot, the old radical and intellectual, was persuaded to stand.  Benn would stand no chance against him, especially since he had now allied himself with the Trotskyists who were attacking the MPs. But Foot was a great parliamentarian and was considered to be the only candidate who could beat Denis Healey, by now the villain of the piece for the Labour left.

Healey had already highlighted the fatal flaw in their strategy which was that if they did take over the Labour Party, the country wouldn’t vote for it. Activists, he told them, were different from the vast majority of the British people, for whom politics was something to think about once a year at most. His robust remarks about what would later be called ‘the loony left’ were hardly calculated to maximise his chances, despite his popularity in the country at the time. At any rate, he was eventually beaten by Foot by 139 votes to 129. Many believe that Foot was the man who saved the Labour Party since he was the only leader remotely acceptable to both the old guard and the Bennite insurgents. He took on the job out of a sense of duty, with his old-style platform oratory. He was always an unlikely figure to topple Margaret Thatcher, the ‘Iron Lady’. It was the last blast of romantic intellectual socialism against the free market.

At the special party conference, Labour’s rules were indeed changed to give the unions forty per cent of the votes for future Labour leaders, the activists in the constituencies thirty per cent, and the MPs only thirty per cent. Labour’s struggle now moved to its next and most decisive stage, with the left in an exuberant mood. It was decided that Benn must challenge Healey for the deputy leadership the following year. This would signal an irreversible move. A Foot-Benn Labour Party would be a fundamentally different one from a party in which Healey continued to have a strong voice. Both sides saw it as the final battle and ‘Benn for Deputy’ badges began to appear everywhere. Benn went campaigning around the country with verve and relentless energy. I heard him speak impressively at the Brangwyn Hall in Swansea, though his analysis of the problems in the British economy was far stronger than the solutions he proposed. At public meetings, Healey was booed and heckled and spat at. The intimidation of anyone who would not back Benn was getting worse, though Benn himself was apparently unaware of what was being said and done in his name. Neil Kinnock eventually decided that he would support neither Benn nor Healey, announcing his decision in Tribune. As education spokesman, he had been gradually moving away from the hard left, while continuing to support his neighbouring south Wales and fellow-Bevanite MP and now party leader, Michael Foot. Popular in the party, he was regarded with increasing suspicion by Tony Benn. But this open break with the left’s ‘champion’ shocked many of his friends. At the Brighton conference, Benn was narrowly beaten by Healey, by less than one per cent of the votes. Neil Kinnock and Arthur Scargill clashed angrily on television, and a young Jeremy Corbyn openly called for the mandatory deselection of Tribune MPs who had refused to back Benn.

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This next phase was too much for those who were already planning to break away and form a new party. Roy Jenkins had already mooted the idea before the Bennite revolt, as he contemplated the state of the British party system from his offices in Brussels, where he was President of the European Commission. He argued that the Victorian two-party system was out-dated and that coalition government was not such a bad thing. It was time, he said, to strengthen the ‘radical centre’ and find a way through the economic challenges which accepted the free market but also took unemployment seriously. Although he was in touch with David Steel, the Liberal leader, and was close to Liberal thinking, he judged that only a new party would give British politics the new dimension it needed. He began holding lunches for his old friends on the right of the Labour Party, including Bill Rodgers, still a shadow cabinet member, and Shirley Williams, who had lost her seat but who remained one of the best-liked politicians in the country. At this stage, the public reaction from Labour MPs was discouraging. Williams herself had said that a new centre party would have no roots, no principles, no philosophy and no values. David Owen, the young doctor and former Foreign Secretary, who was now fighting against unilateral nuclear disarmament, said Labour moderates must stay in the party and fight even if it took ten or twenty years.

The Bennite revolt changed many minds, however. After the Wembley conference, at which Owen was booed for his views on defence, he, Jenkins, Williams and Rodgers issued the ‘Limehouse Declaration’, describing Wembley as ‘calamitous’ and calling for a new start in British politics. Two months later, this was formalised as the ‘Social Democratic Party’ (SDP) two months later, in March 1981. In total thirteen Labour MPs defected to it and many more might have done so had not Roy Hattersley and others fought very hard to persuade them not to. Within two weeks, twenty-four thousand messages of support had flooded in and peers, journalists, students, academics and others were keen to join. Public meetings were packed from Scotland to the south coast of England, and media coverage was extensive and positive. In September an electoral pact was agreed with the Liberal Party, and ‘the Alliance’ was formed.

After running the Labour Party close in the Warrington by-election, the SDP won their first seat when Shirley Williams took Crosby from the Conservatives in November, with nearly half the votes cast, followed by Jenkins winning Glasgow Hillhead from the Tories the following year. His victory allowed Jenkins to become the leader of the party in the Commons, but David Owen had always believed that leadership was more rightly his and feared that Jenkins was leading the SDP towards a merger with the Liberals. Owen saw himself still as a socialist, although of a new kind. By the early eighties, the Liberal Party was led by Steel, ‘the boy David’ who was looking for a route back from the Thorpe scandal to the centre ground. The alliance with the SDP provided this, but Owen was not alone in despising the Liberals and the eventual merger between the two parties was bitter and difficult. Nevertheless, the initial upsurge in the SDP’s support shook both the Labour Party and the Conservatives and by the early spring of 1982, the SDP and Liberals could look forward with some confidence to breaking the mould of British politics.

The Falklands ‘Escapade’:

One of the many ironies of the Thatcher story is that she was rescued from the political consequences of her monetarism by the blunders of her hated Foreign Policy. In the great economic storms of 1979-81, and on the European budget battle, she had simply charged ahead, ignoring all the flapping around her in pursuit of a single goal. In the South Atlantic, she would do exactly the same and with her good luck, she was vindicated. Militarily, it could so easily have all gone wrong, and the Falklands War could have been a terrible disaster, confirming the Argentinian dictatorship in power in the South Atlantic and ending Margaret Thatcher’s career after just one term as Prime Minister. Of all the gambles in modern British politics, the sending of a task force of ships from the shrunken and underfunded Royal Navy eight thousand miles away to take a group of islands by force was one of the most extreme.

On both sides, the conflict derived from colonial quarrels, dating back to 1833, when the scattering of islands had been declared a British colony. In Buenos Aires, a newly installed ‘junta’ under General Leopoldo Galtieri was heavily dependent on the Argentine navy, itself passionately keen on taking over the islands, known in Argentina as the Malvinas. The following year would see the 150th anniversary of ‘British ownership’ which the Argentines feared would be used to reassert the Falklands’ British future. The junta misread Whitehall’s lack of policy for lack of interest and concluded that an invasion would be easy, popular and impossible to reverse. In March an Argentine ship ‘tested the waters’ by landing on South Georgia, a small dependency south of the Falklands, disembarking scrap-metal dealers. Then on 1 April, the main invasion began, a landing by Argentine troops which had been carefully prepared for by local representatives of the national airline. In three hours it was all over, and the eighty British marines surrendered, having killed five Argentine troops and injured seventeen with no losses of their own. In London, there was mayhem. Thatcher had had a few hours’ warning of what was happening from the Defence Secretary, John Nott. Calling a hurried meeting in her Commons office, Sir John Leach gave her clarity and hope, when her ministers were as confused as she was. He told her he could assemble a task-force of destroyers, frigates and landing craft, led by Britain’s two remaining aircraft carriers. It could be ready to sail within forty-eight hours and the islands could be retaken by force. She told him to go ahead. Soon after, the Foreign Secretary, Peter Carrington, tended his resignation, accepting responsibility for the Foreign Office’s failings.

But Margaret Thatcher was confronted by a moral question which she could not duck, which was that many healthy young men were likely to die or be horribly injured in order to defend the ‘sovereignty’ of the Falkland Islanders. In the end, almost a thousand did die, one for every two islanders and many others were maimed and psychologically wrecked. She argued that the whole structure of national identity and international law were at stake. Michael Foot, who had been bellicose in parliament at first, harking back to the appeasement of fascism in the thirties, urged her to find a diplomatic answer. Later she insisted that she was vividly aware of the blood-price that was waiting and not all consumed by lust for conflict. Thatcher had believed that from the start that to cave in would finish her. The press, like the Conservative Party itself, were seething about the original diplomatic blunders. As it happened, the Argentine junta, even more belligerent, ensured that a serious deal was never properly put. They simply insisted that the British task-force be withdrawn from the entire area and that Argentine representatives should take part in any interim administration and that if talks failed Britain would simply lose sovereignty. The reality, though, was that their political position was even weaker than hers. She established a small war cabinet and the task-force, now up to twenty vessels strong was steadily reinforced. Eventually, it comprised more than a hundred ships and 25,000 men. The world was both transfixed and bemused.

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Above: Royal Marines march towards Port Stanley during the Falklands War.

The Empire struck back, and by the end of the month South Georgia was recaptured and a large number of Argentine prisoners taken: Thatcher urged questioning journalists outside Number Ten simply to ‘rejoice, rejoice!’ Then came one of the most controversial episodes in the short war. A British submarine, The Conqueror, was following the ageing but heavily armed cruiser, the Belgrano. The British task-force was exposed and feared a pincer movement, although the Belgrano was later found to have been outside an exclusion zone announced in London, and streaming away from the fleet. With her military commanders at Chequers, Thatcher authorised the submarine attack. The Belgrano was sunk, with the loss of 321 sailors. The Sun newspaper carried the headline ‘Gotcha!’ Soon afterwards, a British destroyer was hit by an Argentine Exocet missile and later sunk. Forty died.

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On 18 May 1982, the war cabinet agreed that landings on the Falklands should go ahead, despite lack of full air cover and worsening weather. By landing at the unexpected bay of San Carlos in low cloud, British troops got ashore in large numbers. Heavy Argentine air attacks, however, took a serious toll. Two frigates were badly damaged, another was sunk, then another, then a destroyer, then a container ship with vital supplies. Nevertheless, three thousand British troops secured a beach-head and began to fight their way inland. Over the next few weeks, they captured the settlements of Goose Green and Darwin, killing 250 Argentine soldiers and capturing 1,400 for the loss of twenty British lives. Colonel ‘H’ Jones became the first celebrated hero of the conflict when he died leading ‘2 Para’ against heavy Argentine fire. The battle then moved to the tiny capital, Port Stanley, or rather to the circle of hills around it where the Argentine army was dug in. Before the final assault on 8 June, two British landing ships, Sir Tristram and Sir Galahad were hit by missiles and the Welsh Guards suffered dreadful losses, many of the survivors being badly burned. Simon Weston was one of them. Out of his platoon of 30 men, 22 were killed. The Welsh Guards lost a total of 48 men killed and 97 wounded aboard the Sir Galahad. Weston survived with 46% burns, following which his face was barely recognisable. He later became a well-known spokesman and charity-worker for his fellow injured and disabled veterans. He recalled:

My first encounter with a really low point was when they wheeled me into the transit hospital at RAF Lyneham and I passed my mother in the corridor and she said to my gran, “Oh mam, look at that poor boy” and I cried out “Mam, it’s me!” As she recognised my voice her face turned to stone.

Simon Weston cropped.jpg

Simon Weston in 2008

The Falklands Factor and the 1983 Election:

The trauma of the Falklands War broke across Britain, nowhere more strongly than in Wales. The impact on Wales was direct, in the disaster to the Welsh Guards at Bluff Cove and in anxieties over the Welsh communities in Patagonia in Argentina. Plaid Cymru was the only mainstream party to totally oppose the war from the beginning, and it evoked a strong response among artists in Wales. Students from the Welsh College and Drama in Cardiff staged a satirical drama on the war which won many plaudits. They portrayed the war as a mere butchery for a meaningless prize. Veteran Labour MP Tam Dalyell hounded the Prime Minister with parliamentary questions as he sought to prove that the sailors on the Belgrano had been killed to keep the war going, not for reasons of military necessity. One of the few memorable moments of the 1983 election campaign came when Mrs Thatcher was challenged on television about the incident by a woman who seemed a match for her. Among the Labour leadership, Denis Healey accused her of glorifying in slaughter and Neil Kinnock got into trouble when, responding to a heckler who said that at least Margaret Thatcher had guts, he replied that it was a pity that other people had had to leave theirs on Goose Green to prove it.  But there had also been those on the left who supported the war, together with Michael Foot, because of their opposition to the Argentine dictatorship, and there is little doubt that it gave a similar impetus to British patriotism across the political spectrum. It also bolstered a more narrow nationalism, jingoism and chauvinism both in the Conservative party and in the media.

For millions, the Falklands War seemed a complete anachronism, a Victorian gunboat war in a nuclear age, but for millions more still it served as a wholly unexpected and almost mythic symbol of rebirth. Margaret Thatcher herself lost no time in telling the whole country what she thought the war meant. It was more than simply a triumph of ‘freedom and democracy’ over Argentinian dictatorship. Speaking at Cheltenham racecourse in early July, she said:

We have ceased to be a nation in retreat. We have instead a newfound confidence, born in the economic battles at home and found true eight thousand miles away … Printing money is no more. Rightly this government has abjured it. Increasingly the nation won’t have it … That too is part of the Falklands factor. … Britain found herself again in the South Atlantic and will not look back from the victory she has won. 

Of course, the Falklands War fitted into Margaret Thatcher’s personal narrative and merged into a wider sense that confrontation was required in public life country’s politics. The Provisional IRA had assassinated Lord Mountbatten on his boat off the coast of Donegal in 1979 and the mainland bombing campaign went on with attacks on the Chelsea barracks, then Hyde Park bombings, when eight people were killed and fifty-three injured. In Northern Ireland itself, from the spring of 1981, a hideous IRA hunger-strike had been going on, leading to the death of Bobby Sands and nine others. Thatcher called Sands a convicted criminal who chose to take his own life. It was a choice, she added, that the PIRA did not allow to any of its victims. She was utterly determined not to flinch and was as rock-hard as the ruthless Irish republican enemies.

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Thatcher was now becoming a vividly divisive figure. On one side were those who felt they, at last, had their Boudicca, a warrior queen for hard times. On the other were those who saw her as a dangerous and bloodthirsty figure, driven by an inhumane worldview. To the cartoonists of the right-wing press, she was the embodiment of Britannia, surrounded by cringing ‘wets’. To others, she was simply mad, with a sharply curved vulture’s beak nose, staring eyes and rivets in her hair. Gender-confusion was rife. France’s President Mitterrand, who in fact had quite a good relationship with her, summed up the paradox better than any British observer when, after meeting her soon after his own election, he told one of his ministers, She has the eyes of Caligula but she has the mouth of Marilyn Monroe.

The Falklands War confirmed and underlined these opposing and paradoxical views of Thatcher. She encouraged the government’s think tank, the Central Policy Review Staff, to come up with a paper about the future of public spending. They came up with a manifesto which could be characterised as ‘Margaret Thatcher unconstrained’. They suggested ending state funding of higher education, extending student loans to replace grants, breaking the link between benefits and the cost of living, and replacing the National Health Service with a system of private health insurance, including charges for doctor’s visits and prescriptions. In effect, this represented the end of Attlee’s Welfare State. Although some of these ideas would become widely discussed much later, at the time the prospectus was regarded as ‘bonkers’ by most of those around her. The PM supported it but ministers who regarded it as, potentially, her worst mistake since coming to power, leaked the CPRS report to the press in order to kill it off. In this they were successful, but the whole episode was an early indication of how Thatcher’s charge-ahead politics could produce disasters as well as triumphs.

The electoral consequences of the Falklands War have been argued about ever since. The government had got inflation down and the economy was at last improving but the overall Conservative record in 1983 was not impressive. The most dramatic de-industrialisation of modern times, with hundreds of recently profitable businesses disappearing forever, had been caused in part by a very high pound boosted by Britain’s new status as an oil producer. Up to this point, unemployment had been seen as a price worth paying in order to control inflation, but the extent of de-manning required by 1983 had been underestimated. Howe’s economic squeeze, involving heavy tax increases and a reduction in public borrowing deflated the economy, reducing demand and employment. In the 1980s, two million manufacturing jobs disappeared, most of them by 1982. Given the shrinking of the country’s industrial base and unemployment at three million, a total tax burden of forty per cent of GDP and public spending at forty-four per cent, there were plenty of targets for competent Opposition politicians to take aim at. In an ordinary election, the state of the economy would have had the governing party in serious trouble, but this was no ordinary election.

After the war, the Conservatives shot into a sudden and dramatic lead in the polls over the two Opposition groupings now ranged against them.  In the 1983 general election, the SDP and the Liberals took nearly a quarter of the popular vote, but the electoral system gave them just twenty-three MPs, only six of them from the SDP, a bitter harvest after the advances made in the by-elections of 1981-2. Labour was beaten into third place in the number of votes cast. This meant that the Conservatives won by a landslide, giving Mrs Thatcher a majority of 144 seats, a Tory buffer which kept them in power until 1997. It would be perverse to deny that the Falklands conflict was crucial, giving Thatcher a story to tell about herself and the country which was simple and vivid and made sense to millions. But there were other factors in play, ones which were present in the political undercurrents of 1981-2 and the divisions within the Labour Party in particular. For one thing, the Labour Party’s Manifesto at the 1983 Election, based on the left-wing Conference decisions of 1980-82, was later considered to be the longest suicide note in history.

The Political and Cultural Landscape of Wales:

In Wales, we had expected that the calamitous effect of the monetarist policies would produce a surge in support for Labour and that the effect of the Falklands factor would not weigh so heavily in the Tories’ favour as elsewhere in Britain. We were wrong. Moreover, we believed that the efforts we had made on the left-wing of the national movement in association with Welsh language activists, libertarian socialist groups, ecological, peace and women’s groups would bring dividends in electoral terms. But, in the Wales of 1983, these remained marginal movements as the country remained, for the most part, locked into the British two-party system. The General Election of 1983 exposed the myth that South Wales, in particular, was still some kind of ‘heartland of Labour’ and continued the trend of 1979 in relocating it within the South of the British political landscape. In Wales as a whole, the Labour vote fell by nearly ten per cent, exceeded only in East Anglia and the South-East of England, and level with London again. The Labour vote in Wales fell by over 178,000, the Tories by 24,000 (1.7 per cent), the great ‘victors’ being the Alliance, whose votes rocketed by over two hundred thousand. This surge did not, however, benefit the third parties in terms of seats, which simply transferred directly from Labour to Conservative.

The Conservatives, with a candidate of Ukranian descent and strong right-wing views, took the Cardiff West seat of George Thomas, the former Speaker, and swept most of Cardiff. They also took the marginal seat of Bridgend and pressed hard throughout the rural west, almost taking Carmarthen. Michael Foot visited the constituency and held a major rally, during which he spoke powerfully but almost fell of the stage. We canvassed hard on the council estates for the Labour MP, Dr Roger Thomas, managing to hold off both the Tories and Plaid Cymru, in what turned out to be Gwynfor Evans’ last election. Nevertheless, the Tories ended up with thirteen seats out of thirty-eight in Wales. Plaid Cymru, disappointed in the valleys, still managed to hold its green line across the north-west, holding Caernarfon and Merioneth and moving into second place, ahead of Labour, on Anglesey. The Alliance more than doubled the former Liberal poll, reaching twenty-three per cent in the popular vote, and coming second in nineteen out of the thirty-eight seats. But it won only two seats. Labour’s defeat seemed to be slithering into rout even though it retained more than half the seats, twenty in all. It held on by the skin of its teeth not only to Carmarthen but also to Wrexham, its former stronghold in the north-east. In the fourteen seats which covered its traditional base in the south, one fell to the Conservatives and six became three-way marginals. The SDP-Liberal Alliance came second in ten and, in the Rhondda won eight thousand votes without even campaigning. The remaining seven constituencies gave Labour over half of their votes. Of the old twenty thousand majority seats, only three remained: Rhondda, Merthyr Tydfil and Blaenau Gwent (Ebbw Vale). As Gwyn Williams commented:

They stand like Aneurin Bevan’s memorial stones on the Pound above Tredegar and they are beginning to look like the Stonehenge of Welsh politics.   

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Two other ‘events’ of cultural significance took place in Wales in 1983. The first demonstrates how the question of culture in Wales had become caught up with the arguments over language. The language became a badge, the possession of which by learners is a sign of good faith: I was one of them, though I never learnt how to write in Welsh. In 1979, however, I had managed, with the help of friends, to write a speech in ‘Cymraeg Byw’ (Colloquial Welsh) as ‘Cadeirydd’ (‘Chair’) of UCMC (NUS Wales), which I delivered at the National Eisteddfod in Caernarfon. I argued for English- speaking and Welsh-speaking students to come back together throughout Wales in order to defend the country, the University and their colleges, paid for by the ‘pennies’ of miners and quarrymen, from the cut-backs in education which the Tories were bringing in. I was not successful in persuading the Welsh-speaking students from Bangor, who had formed their own separate union in 1977, to form a federal union, like the one which existed in Aberystwyth. But what chance did we have when, four years later, the renowned poet R S Thomas, himself a learner of the language, fulminated at the Eisteddfod that the Welshman/ woman who did not try to speak Welsh was, in terms of Wales, an ‘un-person’. His fundamentalism as Dai Smith called it, demanded that reality, the chaos of uncertainty, be fenced in. R S Thomas, for all the brilliant wonder of his own poetry in English, had:

… turned Wales into ‘an analogy for most people’s experience of living in the twentieth century … a special, spare grammar and vocabulary in which certain statements can be made in no other language’. 

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Thomas’ conversion to Welsh language fundamentalism had come rather late in life. In the sixties and seventies, he had remarked that he was rather tired of the themes about nationalism and the decay of the rural structure of Wales and that whereas he used to propagandise on behalf of Welsh Country Life and … the Welsh identity, he felt that he’d wrung that dishcloth dry. In May 1983, the Western Mail had welcomed the poet to Cardiff on the occasion of his seventieth birthday to Cardiff, describing him as a man whose genius found expression in the search for the ancient simplicities of rural Wales. R Gerallt Jones, introducing an evening of celebration at the Sherman Theatre in the capital some days later, acclaimed Thomas as the poet who has expressed the national identity of the Welshman. As Tony Bianchi showed in 1986, Thomas’ work has been used  – within the context of a wide range of prescriptive notions concerning the “Welsh heritage” – to condemn most of the Welsh to a marginal existence in which they are permitted only a vicarious identity. That’s what makes R S Thomas’ statement at the 1983 National Eisteddfod so surprising and intriguing.

The second cultural ‘event’ was the publication of an impressionistic but learned survey of Welsh history by the distinguished Welsh novelist Emyr Humphrys. The Taliesin Tradition took as its theme the survival of a continuous Welsh tradition in the face of all contrary odds. He ascribed this to a ‘poetic tradition’ which had invested the native language with the power and authority to sustain ‘national being’. In order to explain the unfolding of Welsh history, however, he welcomes the blurring of history and myth:

The manufacture and proliferation of myth must always be a major creative activity among a people with unnaturally high expectations reduced by historic necessity … In Wales history and myth have always mingled and both have been of equal importance in the struggle for survival. 

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For ‘organic nationalists’, like R S Thomas and Emyr Humphrys, history must not only mingle with myth but also have its disciplines submitted to the needs of the nation. Dai Smith pointed out that while this provided for acceptable politics for some, it is not good history. The verbal dexterity which it requires, Dai Smith claimed, obscures the reality of Welsh life, by emphasising the myths of ‘the murder of the Welsh language’, and the ‘kowtowing to ‘Britishness’ at the expense of ‘Welshness’. On this theme, Gwyn Williams (below) wrote:

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Ahead, a country which largely lives by the British state, whose input into it is ten per cent of its gross product, faces a major reconstruction of its public sector … a country whose young people are being dumped like in town and country faces the prospect of a large and growing population which will be considered redundant in a state which is already considering a major reduction in the financial burden of welfare.

Small wonder that some, looking ahead, see nothing but a nightmare vision of a depersonalised Wales which has shrivelled up to a Costa Bureaucratica  in the south and a Costa Geriatrica in the north; in between, sheep, holiday homes burning merrily away and fifty folk museums where there used to be communities.

… What seems to be clear is that a majority of the inhabitants of Wales are choosing a British identity which seems to require the elimination of a Welsh one.

As it happened, Dai Smith was right. The idea that ‘Britishness’ and ‘Welshness’ were mutually exclusive was indeed a myth, and both were able to survive as dual identities into the later eighties and beyond.

Ghost Town – The Case of Coventry, 1979-83:

By the late 1970s, the British motor industry had reached an historic crossroads. Entry into the EEC had coincided with an unusually weak range of British products. Models were either outdated or bedevilled by quality and reliability problems. European manufacturers soon captured nearly forty per cent of the home market. The choice facing British manufacturers was varied. Those companies owned by American parents integrated their UK operations with their European counterparts. Ford and General Motors are two successful examples of this strategy. Unfortunately for Coventry, the Chrysler Corporation was experiencing problems in many parts of their ’empire’ and did not possess the resources necessary for the establishment of a high-volume European operation. British-owned Leyland faced a more complex situation. The company produced both high-volume and specialist products. The Cowley and Longbridge plants which produced high-volume products badly needed investment to keep up with the European companies and the American subsidiaries. The specialist producers, Jaguar, Rover and Triumph, also required a large injection of capital in order to meet the growing competition from such companies as Audi, BMW, Alfa Romeo and the Scandinavian manufacturers. The various schemes devised by Ryder and the National Enterprise Board underlined Leyland’s commitment to the large and medium volume plants. The announcement of the collaborative agreement with Honda in 1979 to produce a new Japanese designed quality saloon at Canley was seen by many as an end to uncertainty over Leyland’s long-term commitment to Coventry.

The change of government in 1979 soon quashed the cautious optimism that had been present in the local car industry. The Conservative economic strategy of high-interest rates overvalued the pound, particularly in the USA, the major market for Coventry’s specialist cars. Demand for Coventry models declined rapidly and Leyland management embarked upon a new rationalisation plan. The company’s production was to be concentrated into two plants, at Cowley and Longbridge. Triumph production was transferred to Cowley along with the Rover models produced at Solihull. The Courthouse Green engine plant in Coventry was closed and three of the city’s other car-manufacturing concerns – Alvis, Climax and Jaguar – were sold off to private buyers. Only Jaguar survived the recession. In the first three years of the Thatcher government, the number of Leyland employees in Coventry fell from twenty-seven thousand to just eight thousand. One writer described the effects of Conservative policy on manufacturing industry in these years as turning a process of gentle decline into quickening collapse. The city’s top fifteen manufacturing companies shed thirty-one thousand workers between 1979 and 1982. Well-known names at the base of the pyramid of Coventry’s economic life – Herbert’s, Triumph Motors and Renold’s – simply disappeared.

Even in 1979, before the change in government, unemployment in Coventry stood at just five per cent, exactly the same level as in the early seventies. There was a noticeable rise in youth unemployment towards the end of the decade, but this, as we have seen, was part of a national problem caused mainly by demographic factors. Neither was the election of the Tory government seen as a harbinger of hard times to come. Coventry had prospered reasonably well during previous Tory administrations and even enjoyed boom conditions as a result of the policies of Anthony Barber, Heath’s Chancellor of the Exchequer. Heath had ridden to the rescue of Rolls-Royce when it needed government assistance. Unfortunately, the economic brakes were applied too rapidly for the car industry and monetarist policy quickly cut into it. Redundancy lists and closure notices in the local press became as depressingly regular as the obituary column. The biggest surprise, however, was the lack of protest from the local Labour movement. It was as if all the ominous prophecies of the anti-union editorials which had regularly appeared in the Coventry Evening Telegraph during the industrial unrest of the previous decades were finally being fulfilled.

In any case, it was difficult to devise defensive industrial strategies. Michael Edwardes’ new tough industrial relations programme at British Leyland had seen the removal of Derek Robinson,  ‘Red Robbo’, the strongest motor factory union leader from Longbridge. He also demonstrated, at Speke in Liverpool, that he could and would close factories in the face of trade union opposition. Factory occupations, used to such effect by continental trades unionists had, thanks to the Meriden Triumph Motorcycle fiasco, no chance of local success. The opposition to closures was also undoubtedly diminished by redundancy payments which in many cases cushioned families from the still unrealised effects of the recession. Young people, especially school- leavers, were the real victims. Coventry’s much-prized craft apprenticeships all but vanished, with only ninety-five apprentices commencing training in 1981. In 1982, only sixteen per cent of sixteen-year-old school leavers found employment. The early 1980s were barren years for Coventry’s youth. Even the success of the local pop group, The Specials’, brought little relief, though for a brief moment the band’s song Ghost Town was a national success, giving vent to the plight of young people throughout the manufacturing towns of the Midlands and the North of England, not to mention Wales. The sombre comparison in the lyrics of boom time and recession express an experience that was felt more sharply in Coventry than elsewhere.

For the first time in over a century, Coventry became a net exporter of labour, but unemployment levels still remained stubbornly high. The main loss was mainly among the young skilled and technical management sectors, people who the city could ill afford to lose. Little research and development work was taking place in local industry. Talbot’s research department at Whitley including much key personnel, for example, was removed to Paris in 1983. The Conservatives promised in 1979 that a restructuring of the economy would be followed by increased investment and employment opportunities, but by 1983 there were very few signs of that promise being fulfilled. Coventry’s peculiar dependence on manufacturing and its historically weak tertiary sector has meant that the city was, at that time, a poor location for the so-called ‘high tech’ industries. As a local historian concluded at that time:

Coventry in the mid 1980s displays none of the confidence in the future that was so apparent in the immediate post-war years. . The city, which for decades was the natural habitat of the affluent industrial worker is finding it difficult to adjust to a situation where the local authority and university rank among the largest employers. Coventry’s self-image of progressiveness and modernity has all but vanished. The citizens now largely identify themselves and their environment as part of a depressed Britain. 

This was a sad contrast to the vibrant city of full employment in which my mother had grown up in the thirties and forties and where she had met and married my father in the early fifties. By the time I returned there as a teacher, from a former mill town in Lancashire in 1986 which had recovered from its own decline in the sixties and seventies, Coventry was also beginning to recover, but the shiny new comprehensive schools built thirty years before were already beginning to merge and close due to these years of recession, unemployment and outward migration.

Revolution or retro-capitalism?

Thatcher’s government of 1979-83 was not the return of ‘Victorian Val’, a revival of Gladstonian liberalism, nor even of the Palmerstonian gunboat imperialism which it sometimes resembled in its rhetoric. It was more of a reversion to the hard-faced empire of the 1920s when war socialism was energetically dismantled, leaving industries that could survive and profit to do so and those which couldn’t to go to the wall. As in the twenties, resistance to brutal rationalisation through closure or sell-off of uneconomic enterprises, or by wage or job reductions, was eventually to be met by determined opposition in the confrontation of 1984-5 between Thatcher and the NUM, led by Arthur Scargill, a battle comprehensively won by the PM.

The trouble with this ‘retro-capitalism’ masquerading as innovation was that sixty years after the policy had first been implemented, the regions that were the weaker species in this Darwinian competition were not just suffering from influenza, but prostrate with pneumonia. They were now being told to drop dead. These included South Wales, Lancashire, the West Riding, Tyneside and Clydeside. Those regions which had risen to extraordinary prosperity as part of the British imperial enterprise were now, finally, being written off as disposable assets in a sale. What interest would the Welsh and Scots, in particular, have in remaining part of Great Britain plc? They were also now being joined by those same manufacturing areas which had provided respite for millions of migrants from the older industrial areas in the thirties, centres such as Coventry. The euphoria felt by the Conservatives following their unexpected second victory in 1983 disguised the fact that their majority was built at the price of perpetuating a deep rift in Britain’s social geography. Not since Edward I in the thirteenth century had a triumphant England imposed its rule on the other nations of Britain.

Thatcher’s constituency was not, however, to be found among the engineers of ‘Middle England’ or even the Lincolnshire grocers from whom she hailed, who might have voted for Ted Heath’s ‘Third Way’ Tories. It was overwhelmingly to be found among the well-off middle and professional classes in the south of England, in the Home Counties, or the ‘golden circle’ commuter areas. The distressed northern zones of derelict factories, pits, ports and decrepit terraced houses were left to rot and rust. The solution of her governments, in so far as they had one, was to let the employment market and good old Gladstonian principles of ‘bootstrap’ self-help take care of the problem. People living in areas of massive redundancy amidst collapsing industries ought simply to ‘retrain’ for work in the up-and-coming industries of the future or, in Norman Tebbitt’s famous phrase, “get on their bikes” like their grandfathers had done and move to places such as Milton Keynes, Basingstoke or Cambridge where those opportunities were now clustered. But this vision of ex-welders, or even assembly workers, lining up to use computers was not helped by the absence of such publicly funded retraining. And even if it was available, there was no guarantee of a job at the end of it, no apprenticeship system. The whole point of the computer revolution in industry was to save, not to expand labour. The new jobs it created could, and would be taken by the sons and daughters of the industrial workers of the early eighties, but not by those workers themselves.

Finally, the kick-up-the-rear-end effect of the eighties’ Thatcher counter-revolution ran into something that she could do little about; the Coronation Street syndrome. Like the residents of the mythical TV soap opera, millions in the old British industrial economy had a deeply ingrained loyalty to the place where they had grown up, gone to school, got married and had their kids; to their extended family with older generations, to their pub, their parks and hills, to their football or rugby club. In that sense, at least, the post-war social revolution and welfare state had helped to maintain and even develop towns and cities that, for all their ups and downs, their poverty and pain, were real communities. Fewer people were willing to give up on these places than had been the case fifty years earlier, and certainly not on cities like Liverpool, Leeds, Nottingham, Derby and Coventry. But not everything the Thatcher government did was out of tune with social ‘harmony’. The sale of council-houses created an owner-occupier class which corresponded to the long passion of the British to be kings and queens of their own little castles. Nationalised industries were failing to take advantage of enterprise and innovation. But many of these more popular reforms were to come after her confrontation with the miners and especially in her third term.

Sources:

Gwyn A Williams (1985), When Was Wales? A History of the Welsh. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Dai Smith (1984), Wales! Wales?  Hemel Hempstead: George Allen & Unwin.

Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (1984), Life & Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: University of Warwick Cryfield Press.

Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain III, 1776-2000: The Fate of Empire.  London: BBC Worldwide.

Andrew Marr (2008), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Posted September 26, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Britain, British history, Cartoons, Castles, Coalfields, Colonisation, Conquest, Conservative Party, Coventry, decolonisation, democracy, Demography, devolution, Empire, Europe, European Economic Community, Factories, Falklands, History, Immigration, Imperialism, Labour Party, manufacturing, Marxism, Methodism, Midlands, Migration, Militancy, monetarism, Monuments, Mythology, Narrative, National Health Service (NHS), nationalisation, nationalism, Nationality, Nonconformist Chapels, Population, Revolution, south Wales, terrorism, Thatcherism, Trade Unionism, Unemployment, Victorian, Wales, Welfare State, Welsh language, West Midlands, World War Two

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