Archive for the ‘ILP’ Tag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fabian Society & The Socialist Revival of 1889:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tillett wrote of this event:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Crane continued in the same millennarian spirit:

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

Rival Revolutionaries, 1896-1900:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poverty & Progress at the Turn of a New Century:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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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.

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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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