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

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The British Labour Party, 1983-2019:

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

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

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

Organising the Labourers, 1870-1879:

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

Ye tillers of the soil,

Assert your manhood then,

You get your living by hard toil,

Then all be union men.

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

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

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

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Above & below: The Paris Commune of 1871.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Engels in a photograph taken in the 1870s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Educators, Agitators & Trades Unionists, 1885-89:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

( … to be continued…)

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What a year that was: Britain & the World in 1947: Part I.   Leave a comment

The deep nostalgic vision of Empire was dented in 1947. The King ceased to be Emperor. The jewel in the imperial crown, India, was moving towards independence long before the war. Gandhi’s brilliant insight that through non-violence the British could be embarrassed out of India more effectively than they could be shot out, had paid off handsomely during the war years.

London was dragged to the negotiating table despite the attempts by Churchill and others to scupper every deal from the thirties to the late forties. The war delayed independence but showed how much goodwill there was on the subcontinent, if Britain was wise enough to withdraw gracefully.  During the conflict some two million Indians fought on Britain’s side or served in her forces directly, their contributions being particularly strong in the campaigns in North Africa, against the Italians and the Germans. Gandhi himself was sentimentally fond of Britain and kept a photo of his old school, Harrow, in his cell.

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As soon as Attlee’s government took power, it organised talks on British withdrawal from India. Anti-imperialism had been a genuine strand in Labour thinking since the party’s formation, but there were now other motives behind the determination to pull out of the sub-continent. There was gratitude for Indian support throughout the war, especially in North Africa and in Iraq. Attlee thought that a rapid handover to ensure a united, independent India with both Muslims and Hindus sharing power in one vast state connected by trade and military alliance with Britain. This would also act as a major anti-Communist bulwark in Asia, to stem both Russian and Chinese expansionism. He passed the job of overseeing the transition to Lord Louis Mountbatten, who had been supreme commander in south-east Asia, and as such had organised the reconquest of Burma.

The partitioning of the sub-continent had become almost inevitable by 1947. Muslims would not accept overall Hindu domination, and yet across most of India the Hindus or Sikhs were in the majority. British India was duly split into Muslim-dominated Pakistan and Hindu India. The border line was drawn up by a British lawyer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, and kept secret until after the handover of power. Mountbatten then announced, to widespread shock, that independence would take place ten months earlier than planned, on 15 August 1947. Churchill was so appalled by this that his former Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, had to keep him away from the chamber of the Commons. While the speed of the British was a political necessity, the consequences were appalling. According to some counts, a million people died as Muslims and Hindus caught on the wrong side of the border fled their homes. Sikhs rose up against Muslims in the Punjab, Muslims drove out Hindus, as it became apparent that central authority had simply held older religious and ethnic rivalries at bay. Some 55,000 British civilians returned home, as their political masters’ scheme to hand over to a united state as a strong military ally, fell apart in chaos and killing.

The demarcation between India and Pakistan continued to be deeply  unsatisfactory, as it could not have been otherwise after two centuries during which the ‘natural’ divisions between India’s peoples had been obscured and cushioned and allowed in some places to run into each other under the vast, protective and essentially artificial blanket of the old raj. For months after the devolution of power there were massive, panic-stricken and bloody adjustments to the new gravity: wholesale exchanges of population east and west between the borders of the new states, running into millions, rioting in Delhi and elsewhere which killed more than half a million; almost immediately a war broke out between India and Pakistan which the United Nations had to step in and settle; and running disputes over contentious territories to the present day. Pakistan in the awkward bisected shape which 1947 had put it in survived for only twenty-five years. It was all something of a shambles.

Labour ministers were far less enthusiastic about dismantling the Empire in Africa. Herbert Morrison, deputy leader, agreed: He said that to give the African colonies their freedom would be like giving a child of ten a latch-key, a bank-account and a shotgun. Attlee himself speculated about creating a British African army, and the Colonial Office described Africa as the core of Britain’s new world position, from where she could draw economic and military strength. For a while it seemed like the Raj would be transplanted, in fragmented form, in Africa.

Back in the mother country, in the summer of 1947 work began in deepest secret of to build a plutonium-producing plant at Windscale, a little on the coast of Cumbria. At the same time, the government sought to rescue Britain’s position as a major world power by having a nuclear bomb designed under the guidance of one of the British scientists who had been at Los Alamos, William Penney.

In the years immediately after the war Britain contained about ten million fewer inhabitants than it has today. The thirties had seen a fall in the birthrate and there was much official worry about another natural shrinkage. In William Beveridge’s war-time report launching the modern welfare state, he had suggested that a bit of fast breeding was needed, or with its present rate of reproduction, the British race cannot continue. To his generation, the British race meant the white natives of the British Isles. Before the war, 95 per cent of the population had been born in Britain, and the other five per cent was made up of the white British whose parents had been serving in the Empire in India, Africa or the Middle East when they were born. There were black and Asian people in Britain, but very few. In the thirties the Indian community numbered about eight thousand, and there were a few Indian restaurants and grocery stores in the biggest cities.

During the war, Irish people came over to Britain to fill the labour shortage left by mobilization. Immigration continued at a rate of thirty to sixty thousand per year through the forties. The cabinet committees excluded them from debates about immigration as they were considered to be effectively indigenous. There were more ‘exotic’ groups by the end of the war, like the 120,000 Poles who had fled both the Soviets and the Nazis, many of them serving in the British forces, most famously as pilots. Most chose to stay and 65,000 found work in coal-mining and factory work.

It would be wrong to portray Britain in the forties as relaxed about race. Despite the refugees who had come to Britain in large numbers since 1938 and the widespread revelation of the horrors of the concentration camps, anti-Semitism was still evident throughout British society. It was no longer the ‘property’ of the aristocratic establishment of the 1930s who had promoted the policy of appeasement, or of Mosley’s Blackshirts who had eventually been disbanded and interred by the wartime government.  in the five years before the war, sixty thousand  Jews from Germany and central-eastern Europe arrived in Britain, many of them highly qualified, helping to transform the scientific, musical and intellectual life of forties Britain. In their invasion plans for 1940, the German SS reckoned the Jewish population to be above 300,000, and hugely influential. After the war, the assumption that ‘they’ dodged queues or somehow got the best of scarce and rationed goods, erupts from diaries and letters as well as anecdotes from the time. After Jewish attacks on British servicemen in Palestine in 1947, there were anti-Jewish demonstrations in several British cities, including attacks on shops and even the burning of a synagogue, mimicking the actions of the Nazis in the late 1930s. More widely, trade unions were quick to express hostility to outsiders coming to take British jobs – whether European Jews or Gentiles; Poles, Czechs, Irish or Maltese. Belief that people belonged to different genetic ‘races’ was underpinned by the government continually referring to the central importance of the British race and, by implication, to a largely unquestioned belief in its superiority to all other ‘races’. Today’s post-modern multicultural Britain would leave a visitor from immediate post-war, post-medieval Britain totally bewildered.

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Yet in the 1930s some parts of England, especially its cities and industrial conurbations, had already become quite mixed in terms of their white populations. In Coventry, for example, the proportion of migrants rose to 40% of the local population in 1935, the majority of newcomers coming from other UK regions than the Midlands. This continued during and after the war, so that immigrants from outside the UK made up just under two per cent of the local population. Of these, 1,046 were Poles, 953 were Ukrainian, and the third significant workers were the 1,100 unskilled textile workers recruited during the war who had stayed on and settled.

The small wartime Indian community expanded to an estimated four thousand by 1954. They soon ‘colonised’ some of the more rundown housing stock in the Foleshill Road area to the north of the city. Like other migrants in Coventry the Indians were anxious to protect their own identity and cultures. However, the ‘coloured’ minority represented less than 1.5 per cent of the city’s population and coloured workers were never a threat to the jobs of those employed in local engineering factories. Nevertheless, by the late 1940s Coventry had become predominantly a city of newcomers. Estimates were given that only thirty to thirty-five per cent of the city’s population of 258,000 had been born in the city, though it needs to be borne in mind that some ‘new’ areas like Walsgrave-on-Sowe were, in fact, as in Oxford, which had been incorporated from rural areas, still retaining something of their village characteristics. Nevertheless, they were incorporated because they had also outgrown their status as villages, also having their share of British ‘foreigners’. The birthplace information for the 1951 Census reveals that over 97,000 of the population were born outside the West Midlands and that, of these, 32,000 were from the industrial areas of south Wales, the North West of England and Northern England.

These ‘newcomers’ were divided roughly equally between the three ‘depressed districts’, each one contributing more than the 10,034 from London and the South East and the 9,993 from Ireland. There had been only 2,057 Irish in Coventry in 1931, but this number expanded rapidly during the building boom of the 1930s and the post-war reconstruction of the blitzed city centre. The streets surrounding St Osburg’s and St Mary’s churches had a distinctively Irish atmosphere. These two inner-city areas were well supplied with lodging houses and multi-tenanted buildings, whilst their proximity to Roman Catholic churches, increasing to six in number by 1939, made them an ideal port of call for itinerant building workers or those ‘after a start’ in local factories. The Irish also began to settle more permanently in the post-war period, forming a more permanent community. The expansion of Catholicism illustrates both the Irish determination to retain their religious identity and the establishment of Ukrainian and Polish congregations at separate churches. Three already large chapels in the city centre developed a distinctive Welsh identity, attracting large numbers of migrants who first arrived in the city during and following the miners’ lock-out of 1926, now forming the largest ethnic minority.

Although the Ministry of Labour insurance book exchanges highlighted a dearth of migrants from the coalfields to Coventry other than from Wales before 1940, the war had apparently increased the Geordie’s willingness to move while Coventry’s high engineering wages helped to keep him in the city once he had arrived. Early studies also suggest that, in this period, almost as many people were leaving the city as were moving in. Reports suggest that this was not simply due to failures to find suitable accommodation or work, but due to a more general failure of integration. Besides overt racial prejudice, Coventrians were reputed to be anything but welcoming to newcomers generally. Friendship and social networks typically followed regional and ethnic lines. Clubs, pubs and religious institutions often catered for particular migrant groups. The reputation of Coventry as an immigrant city since the early twentieth century mitigated against some of the standoffishness of the indigenous population. New immigrants therefore felt encouraged to socialize inside their own regional or ethnic networks, rather than establishing neighbourhood friendships.

At the same time, there were many among the migrants became overtly involved in public life. It is apparent that the political attitudes of those living in Coventry’s new housing estates were conditioned, in part at least, by their mythologized memories of the depression years elsewhere, especially as they were predominantly from older industrial areas such as the coalfields, iron and steel-producing areas, or desolate shipbuilding towns of south Wales and the north-east of England, being joined now by tens of thousands more relocating from Lancashire’s declining textile towns. It is therefore not insignificant that when the government’s housing policy came under attack in 1947, Tredegar-born Aneurin Bevan should choose to defend it in Coventry. He issued a challenge to Anthony Eden to debate the issue and was given a great reception from the people of Coventry, in particular from members of the Welsh Community, many of whom knew him in their native valleys. The growth of Coventry’s own distinct brand of municipal socialism from 1937 onwards can be seen, like Bevan’s own work, as a practical expression of an ideological impetus to reform, progress and planning which arose out of the determination of both leaders and led to obtain better living conditions to those which many had been forced to endure for much of the inter-war period.

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Above: On the line in Cowley, in 1946

Coventry was not the only new industry town where immigrants from the south Wales valleys made a political impact and rose to positions of public prominence as councillors through their determination to improve conditions for their fellow workers in their new environments. A string of former Welsh miners turned car-workers, militants who became moderates, won seats on councils in Oxford, for the Cowley and Headington wards in the east of the city. Frank Pakenham, Patrick Gordon-Walker, Philip Noel-Baker, Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman were among those of this first generation of Labour leaders to come to power as a result of rubbing shoulders with those whom one Coventry Conservative councillor had referred to, in 1938, as the sweepings of Great Britain. In Birmingham, William Tegfryn Bowen, born in the Rhondda in 1902, became a real ‘Dick Whittington’ in the making. After working as a collier from the age of fourteen until the General Strike of 1926, he moved to Birmingham and studied economics, social services and philosophy for a year before entering employment with the Austin Motor Company. In 1929 he became a trade union official and led a strike against the introduction of the Bedaux system in defiance of more senior officials. He was victimized for doing so and endured various spells of unemployment and odd jobs. He became a city councilor in 1941, an alderman in 1945 and in 1946 became both the Chairman of the Health Committee, Bevan’s right hand man in the second city. Later, on becoming Lord Mayor of Birmingham in 1952, Bowen was asked to account for the Labour hold on city which, under the Chamberlain dynasty,  had been considered a conservative ‘fiefdom’. His answer referred to the large influx from other areas, with a different political outlook.

One of the former Welsh miners who became a car worker and foreman at the Pressed Steel Works in Cowley also claimed, we changed their attitude. This role in municipal affairs in England attracted the early attention of leading politicians in London too. As early as November 1935 Herbert Morrison, then Chairman of London County Council, spoke at a meeting in support of Labour’s successful parliamentary candidate for Coventry, Philip Noel-Baker. In his speech, he contrasted the failures of government ministers with the successes of a new breed of working class politicians, remarking that the Chairman of the London Public Assistance Committee was a common workman, formerly a South Wales miner, yet… better than all the Oliver Stanleys in the Tory Party. 

Interviewed for a post-war social survey, Coventrian women often repeated a stereotype of Welsh women, as well as Scots and ‘Geordie’ women, that they were unemancipated compared with themselves. The related charge that Welsh women were ‘highly sexed’ was one which was first made in a 1942 book by an American writer, Eli Ginzberg. Statistical studies found no correlation between migrant women and rates of fertility, though there is some anecdotal evidence relating to the ‘moral’ consequences of overcrowding among immigrants in Coventry. The Employment Exchange officer, Philip Handley, gave anecdotes to the Civic Aid Society in 1937 of three recent cases in which the husband had gone on night shifts and the lodger had run away with his wife. Social Service agencies in both Oxford and Coventry were continuously sensitive to charges that migration led to greater immorality.

In Coventry, the marked tendency of Welsh women to select their own countrywomen as friends rather than their immediate neighbours was noted in the University of Birmingham’s Survey conducted at this time. So, too, were the continuing stereotypical ‘mirror’ attitudes towards the immigrants. Interestingly, as well as being accused of being ‘clannish’, ‘all out for themselves’ and ‘rootless’, they were also said to be ‘thrusting’, trying always to get on committees and councils and to ‘run the town’, thereby showing a lack of respect for the true Coventrians. By this time, however, it was very difficult to tell who the latter were anyway. In Oxford, more so than in Coventry, the paradoxes of the stereotyping led to the Welsh becoming even more ‘clannish’ in their attempts to re-establish themselves in a hostile environment; the more they relied upon familial and institutional networks as a means of mutual support and encouragement, the greater the was their contribution to the social and cultural life of the cities and the greater their integration into full citizenship. In finding their inner strengths in collective action and solidarity, they found the means to overcome a plethora of prejudice. They were able to define, develop, articulate and promote a self-image of ‘respectability’ which could counter the one of ‘rawness’ which was so often reflected on them. For example, a Coventry Welsh Rugby Club, originally founded in May 1939, became the cradle for the City of Coventry Rugby Club after the war, with many of the latter’s post-war players being nurtured by the Welsh Club. In Oxford, Cowley FC nurtured various Welsh players who went on to play for Oxford City and then West Bromwich Albion. One of them was Eddie Wilcox, the youngest son of the Wilcox family who had moved, like many other families, to Oxford from the Garw Valley. He became ‘wing half’ for ‘the Baggies’ at the age of twenty-one. J M Mogey’s post-war study of Oxford reveals that the tendency for the immigrants to be more actively involved in autonomous and collective forms of working class culture than their Oxford fellows was a major feature of the social and institutional life of the city in this era. The origins of the active leaders in the establishment of the community centre were in Scotland, Wales, or London, rather than in Oxford itself or its surrounding villages. Whilst Oxford people might continue to resent this domination by ‘foreigners’, they themselves did little to redress the imbalance. In both cities, Welsh Male Voice Choirs had been established early in the interwar period and, alongside the chapels, continued to maintain a distinctive contribution to cultural life in the post-war years. I have written more extensively about these in other articles.

Over the previous century, India had been regarded as the keystone of the British empire; the raison d’être of much of the rest of it, including Egypt, east Africa and the Transvaal, which were supposed to secure Britain’s sea-lanes to the sub-continent. With India gone the rationale for the rest of the Empire might seem to have gone: but some did not see it that way. Traumatic though it may have been, the transfer of power to India and Pakistan was not necessarily the beginning of the end, for the empire’s rationale in recent decades had changed quite considerably from what it had been in the nineteenth century, and could now accommodate what earlier might have seemed like the removal of its heart. In addition, the ‘inevitability’ of general decolonisation did not seem as inevitable then as it seems in retrospect. Of course, in 1947 the imperialists saw the ‘danger signs’, but not necessarily the death-knell of Empire.

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The Bevin Boys leaving St Pancras in 1944 for training as miners – mixed messages?

At ‘home’, patriotic pride cemented  a sense of being one people, one race, with one common history and fate. But, besides the divisions between ‘natives’, immigrants and internal, long-distance migrants, there were also profound barriers between classes. Estimates suggest that about sixty per cent of the nation was composed of the traditional working class – factory workers, agricultural labourers, navvies, riveters, miners, fishermen, servants and laundry workers. War aside, most would spend all their lives in their home cities, towns or villages, unless they were long-distance migrants from industrial Wales, Scotland, and the north and north-west of England to the Midlands and Home Counties of England. The war had softened class distinctions a little and produced the first rumblings of a coming cultural revolution, as men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds found themselves jumbled together in the services, and lower middle-class or even upper working-class officers found themselves ordering well-spoken ‘toffs’ around. The ‘Blimps’ – the older, more pompous upper-class senior officers of World War One ‘infamy’ became the butt of popular humour in the forces, a symbol of a Britain which was dying, if not already dead. On the ‘Home Front’, middle-class women worked in factories, public schoolboys went down the mines as ‘Bevin boys’ (supervised in Coventry by my collier-grandfather), and many working-class women had their first experiences of life away from the sink and the street.

With severe skill shortages and a national drive for exports, wages rose after the war, especially in the engineering factories in and around Coventry. The trades unions became powerful and self-confident, organising production in gangs almost independently from management. In other European countries, however, trade unions became fiercely political, but not so in Britain, where they remained more focused on the immediate cash-and-hours agenda of its members. This didn’t mean they were quiet, however, as many younger shop stewards had taken control from the older organisers who had crossed the line into management, especially in the newly nationalised coal industry, which came into being on 1 January 1947.

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For Labour MPs, nationalising the coal industry was what they were in parliament for, as well as sweet revenge for 1926 and all that. The job was given to one of the government’s older and more ideological members: Manny Shinwell  had been a tailor’s boy in London’s East End before moving to Glasgow and emerging as a moving force on ‘Red Clydeside’.He was a stirring speaker and veteran MP but when handed the task of nationalising coal and electricity, he found there were almost no plans or blueprint to help him, except for a single Labour pamphlet written in Welsh. Shinwell managed the job by the day, but this timing was catastrophic, since the freezing weather stopped the coal being moved and the power stations began to fail. Added to this, many mines operated under Victorian conditions by families which had owned them for decades, simply needed to be closed. In other parts of the coalfields, new mines needed to be sunk for, by 1947, Britain was producing a lot less coal than before the war. Modern cutting and winding gear was desperately needed everywhere. So was a better relationship between managers and miners to end the history of strikes and lock-outs, bred of mistrust. The miners got new contracts and a five-day week but the first major strikes spread within months of nationalisation. Over time, however, relations between the miners and the managers improved as former colliers became overseers and inspectors, and investment did occur. But the naive idea that simply taking an industry into public ownership would improve it was punctured early.  Yet there was still a broad assumption by government and workers alike that the future of industry in general would be like the past, only more so – more cars and ships, more coal, more foundries and factories.

The classes which would do better were the middle classes, a fast growing minority. Government bureaucracy had grown rapidly during the war, and was continuing to do so. Labour’s Welfare State required, in addition to more professionals, hundreds of thousands of new white-collar jobs  administering national insurance, teaching, and running the new National Health Service, about to be born.

The problem for the old ruling classes was whether the arrival of a socialist government was a brief and unwelcome interruption, which could be st out, or whether it was the beginning of a calm but implacable revolution. The immediate post-war period with its high taxation was a final blow for many landowners. Great country houses had to be passed over to the National Trust. It was hardly a revolutionary seizure of estates, yet to some it felt that way. Tradition was being nationalised. In 1947 the magazine Country Life protested bitterly that the aristocratic families had been responsible for civilisation in Britain:

It has been one of the services of those currently termed the privileged class, to whom, with strange absence of elementary good manners, it is the fashion not to say so much as a thank you when appropriating that which they have contributed to England.

Evelyn Waugh, an arriviste rather than a proper toff, sitting in his fine house in the Gloucestershire village of Stinchcombe, considered fleeing to Ireland:

The certainty that England as a great power is done for, that the loss of possessions, the claim of the English proletariat to be a privileged race, sloth and envy, must produce increasing poverty… this time the cutting down will start at the top until only a proletariat and a bureaucracy survive.

A day later, however, he was having second thoughts:

What is there to worry me here in Stinchcombe? I have a beautiful house furnished exactly to my taste; servants enough, wine in the cellar. The villagers are friendly and respectful; neighbours leave me alone. I send my children to the schools I please. Apart from taxation and rationing, government interference is negligible.

Yet he smelt the reek of the Displaced Persons’ Camp in the English air, and he was not alone in this. Noel Coward said that, immediately after Labour’s 1945 victory, I always felt that England would be bloody uncomfortable in the immediate post-war period, and it is now almost a certainty. These fears had some substance in reality, but the changes in atmosphere had very little to do with Attlee and Bevan.The old British class system, though it still retained a feudal air, much exploited by novelists and screen-writers, depended in practice on the Empire and a global authority that Britain was about to forfeit. Nevertheless, there was a sense of grievance and abandonment which hung about the political Right in Britain for decades.

Initially, it was unclear how well the monarchy would fare in postwar Britain. The leading members of the family were popular and Labour ministers were careful never to express any republicanism in public, and there is little sign of it in their private diaries either, though there were many Labour MPs pressing for a less expensive, stripped-down, more contemporary monarchy, along Scandinavian lines. Difficult negotiations took place over the amounts of money provided by cash-strapped taxpayers. Yet the Windsors triumphed again, with an exuberant display which cheered up many of their tired, drab subjects. The wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth II and the then Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in 1947 was planned as a public spectacle.   Royal weddings had not been so well organised in the past, and this was an explosion of colour and pageantry in a Britain that had seen little of either for ten years, a nostalgic return to luxury: Presents ranging from racehorses were publicly displayed, grand cakes made and a wedding dress of ivory clinging silk by Norman Hartnell.

There had been interesting arguments before the wedding about patriotism and Philip’s essential Britishness. The nephew of Lord Mountbatten was sold to the public as thoroughly English by upbringing despite his being an exiled Greek prince, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, and having many German relatives. In the event, Philip’s three surviving sisters were not invited to the wedding, all of them being married to Germans. The wedding was a radio event, still, rather than a television one, though the newsreel film of it packed out cinemas throughout the world, including in devastated Berlin. In lavishness and optimism, it was an act of British propaganda and celebration for bleak times, sending out the message that despite everything Britain was back. The wedding reminded the club of European royalty how few of them had survived as rulers into the postwar world. Dusty uniforms and slightly dirty tiaras worn by exiles were much in evidence: the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret remarked that people who had been starving in little garrets all over Europe suddenly reappeared.

(to be continued)

What is Christian Socialism? Part Two.   1 comment

 

Working Class Politics in Britain Between the Wars:             

My grandmother was a ribbon-weaver, a fifth generation Baptist, who was a deacon in her village chapel. She was a founding and active life-long member of the Labour Party in Coventry from the early 1920s. My grandfather was a staunch member of the Miners’ Federation (later the NUM), from 1918, a self-taught man who died of pneumoconiosis, aged eighty-two. He had once lost his job underground for defending a fellow collier from a bullying foreman. The fight of my grandparents against injustice left a strong impression on me. In the 1980s, while reading and researching for my doctorate on the migration of south Wales miners to the Midlands of England between the wars, I also became aware of the contribution of Welsh nonconformists to the development of Christian Socialist values and the Labour Party in cities like Birmingham, Coventry and even Oxford. They took on and finally defeated the ‘establishment’ patriarchs (like the fellow nonconformist Chamberlains) in these cities. This was due largely to the influx of workers from those areas which had already become Labour strongholds, during the ‘Depression’ years. I interviewed many of these workers, ex-miners who became car-workers. They told me of the important roles played by chapels, choirs and sporting teams, as well as trade unions and social clubs, in this transformation of working class culture and politics in the ‘new industry areas’.

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19 November 1940; the remains of Coventry Cathedral following the Blitz on the city

Some of these newcomers to Coventry were among the convinced and articulate group of Christian Socialists with strong pacifist convictions which Rev Howard Ingli James’ ministry at Queen’s Road Baptist Church in the city centre produced in the late 1930s and 1940s. For them, as for Rev. James himself, their experience of the ‘two Britains’ of the inter-war period resonated in their post-war visions of a more just and equal society. James articulated this impetus to social reform in his 1950 book, Communism and the Christian Faith. In it, he acknowledged his indebtedness to his congregation, who helped to give him a new vision of what a Christian community in a busy industrial city might be and do. He then went on to describe the means by which he came to his vision of Christian Socialism:

The depression of 1929-33 left a profound mark on my mind. All around me I saw the bitter struggle of the unemployed… I also realised that the world contained an abundance of the necessities of life which the system denied to the people.

However, these ideas were all vague, and I played no actual part in the struggles of the unemployed. At the end of 1934, I read my first copy of ‘the Daily Worker’. What I read filled the gaps in my political development…

Though recognising that, empirically, both Marxism and Christian Socialism derived their inspiration from the same root he found them incompatible:

Probably the most powerful weapon ever put into the hands of the British Marxists was the prolonged period of widespread unemployment between the wars. Those who wonder why ten thousand electors voted Communist in the Rhondda Valley in 1945, should reflect on the plight of the valley during that period, when streets of empty shops testified to its bitter poverty, when every male member of many a church was unemployed, when thousands of eager youngsters were compelled to seek employment far from home. The memory of what happened to Merthyr, to Jarrow, to many a small town in Lancashire during these years is still the most powerful weapon the Marxist propagandist can use. Conversely, the most convincing argument against Marxism would be a demonstration that we can build a relatively just society in which every citizen is assured of useful employment and a decent livelihood, without infringing on the rights of the individual and without resorting to violence… we must show how it might be done.

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In his writing, Ingli James was not only giving expression to a vision which he shared with many of his congregation at Queen’s Road. He was also distilling the essence of the experience of a significant section of the British working class between the wars.

The migrating millions from the depressed areas, and in particular those from the coalfield valleys of South Wales showed that they were not prepared to be treated as mere pawns of the economic and political system which had displaced them. Instead, they made significant and diverse contributions to the economic, political, social, cultural and religious life of the ‘new industry towns’. They were present in churches, chapels, football matches and in the city councils, indeed in all walks of life. Their collective memory of the depression years had become a powerful motive force throughout industrial Britain long before 1945, but it finally found its fullest expression in the landslide election victory of the Labour Party in that year, and in the subsequent achievements of the governments of 1945-51.

011Aneurin Bevan inspecting the National Health Service, 1948.

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