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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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.


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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British Society and Popular Culture, 1963-68: Part One – Protest & Politics.   Leave a comment

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Demographics and Reconfigurations:

The 1960s were dramatic years in Britain: demographic trends, especially the increase in the proportion of teenagers in the population, coincided with economic affluence and ideological experimentation to reconfigure social mores to a revolutionary extent. In 1964, under Harold Wilson, the Labour Party came into power, promising economic and social modernisation. In an attempt to tackle the problem of poverty, public expenditure on social services was expanded considerably, resulting in a small degree of redistribution of income. Economically, the main problems of the decade arose from the devaluation of the currency in 1967 and the increase in industrial action. This was the result of deeper issues in the economy, such as the decline of the manufacturing industry to less than one-third of the workforce. In contrast, employment in the service sector rose to over half of all workers. Young people were most affected by the changes of the 1960s. Education gained new prominence in government circles and student numbers soared. By 1966, seven new universities had opened (Sussex, East Anglia, Warwick, Essex, York, Lancaster and Kent). More importantly, students throughout the country were becoming increasingly radicalized as a response to a growing hostility towards what they perceived as the political and social complacency of the older generation. They staged protests on a range of issues, from dictatorial university decision-making to apartheid in South Africa, and the continuance of the Vietnam War.

Above: A Quaker ‘advertisement’ in the Times, February 1968.

Vietnam, Grosvenor Square and All That…

The latter conflict not only angered the young of Britain but also placed immense strain on relations between the US and British governments. Although the protests against the Vietnam War were less violent than those in the United States, partly because of more moderate policing in Britain, there were major demonstrations all over the country; the one which took place in London’s Grosvenor Square, home to the US Embassy, in 1968, involved a hundred thousand protesters. Like the world of pop, ‘protest’ was essentially an American import. When counter-cultural poets put on an evening of readings at the Albert Hall in 1965, alongside a British contingent which included Adrian Mitchell and Christopher Logue, the ‘show’ was dominated by the Greenwich Village guru, Allen Ginsberg. It was perhaps not surprising that the American influence was strongest in the anti-war movement. When the Vietnam Solidarity Committee organised three demonstrations outside the US embassy in London’s Grosvenor Square, the second of them particularly violent, they were copying the cause and the tactics used to much greater effect in the United States. The student sit-ins and occupations at Hornsey and Guildford Art Colleges and Warwick University were pale imitations of the serious unrest on US and French campuses. Hundreds of British students went over to Paris to join what they hoped would be a revolution in 1968, until de Gaulle, with the backing of an election victory, crushed it. This was on a scale like nothing seen in Britain, with nearly six hundred students arrested in fights with the police on a single day and ten million workers on strike across France.

Wilson & the ‘White Heat’ of Technological Revolution:


Andrew Marr has commented that the term ‘Modern Britain’ does not simply refer to the look and shape of the country – the motorways and mass car economy, the concrete, sometimes ‘brutalist’ architecture, the rock music and the high street chains. It also refers to the widespread belief in planning and management. It was a time of practical men, educated in grammar schools, sure of their intelligence. They rolled up their sleeves and took no-nonsense. They were determined to scrap the old and the fusty, whether that meant the huge Victorian railway network, the Edwardian, old Etonian establishment in Whitehall, terraced housing, censorship, prohibitions on homosexual behaviour and abortion. The country seemed to be suddenly full of bright men and women from lower-middle-class or upper-working-class families who were rising fast through business, universities and the professions who were inspired by Harold Wilson’s talk of a scientific and technological revolution that would transform Britain. In his speech to Labour’s 1963 conference, the most famous he ever made, Wilson pointed out that such a revolution would require wholesale social change:

The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or for outdated methods … those charged with the control of our affairs must be ready to think and speak in the language of our scientific age. … the formidable Soviet challenge in the education of scientists and technologists in Soviet industry (necessitates that) … we must use all the resources of democratic planning, all the latent and underdeveloped energies and skills of our people to ensure Britain’s standing in the world.

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In some ways, however, this new Wilsonian Britain was already out of date by the mid-sixties. In any case, his vision, though sounding ‘modern’ was essentially that of an old-fashioned civil servant. By 1965, Britain was already becoming a more feminised, sexualized, rebellious and consumer-based society. The political classes were cut off from much of this cultural undercurrent by their age and consequent social conservatism. They looked and sounded what they were, people from a more formal time, typified by the shadow cabinet minister, Enoch Powell MP.

Education – The Binary Divide & Comprehensivisation:

By 1965, the post-war division of children into potential intellectuals, technical workers and ‘drones’ – gold, silver and lead – was thoroughly discredited. The fee-paying independent and ‘public’ schools still thrived, with around five per cent of the country’s children ‘creamed off’ through their exclusive portals. For the other ninety-five per cent, ever since 1944, state schooling was meant to be divided into three types of schools. In practice, however, this became a binary divide between grammar schools, taking roughly a quarter, offering traditional academic teaching, and the secondary modern schools, taking the remaining three-quarters of state-educated children, offering a technical and/or vocational curriculum. The grandest of the grammar schools were the 179 ‘direct grant’ schools, such as those in the King Edward’s Foundation in Birmingham, and the Manchester Grammar School. They were controlled independently of both central and local government, and their brighter children would be expected to go to the ‘better’ universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, from where they would enter the professions. Alongside them, also traditionalist in ethos but ‘maintained’ by the local authorities, were some 1,500 ordinary grammar schools, like George Dixon Grammar School in Birmingham, which the author attended from 1968.

The division was made on the basis of the selective state examination known as the ‘eleven plus’ after the age of the children who sat it. The children who ‘failed’ this examination were effectively condemned as ‘failures’ to attend what were effectively second-rate schools, often in buildings which reflected their lower status. As one writer observed in 1965, ‘modern’ had become a curious euphemism for ‘less clever’. Some of these schools were truly dreadful, sparsely staffed, crowded into unsuitable buildings and sitting almost no pupils for outside examinations before most were released for work at fifteen. At A Level, in 1964, the secondary moderns, with around seventy-two per cent of Britain’s children, had 318 candidates. The public schools, with five per cent, had 9,838. In addition, the selective system was divisive of friendships, families and communities. Many of those who were rejected at the eleven plus and sent to secondary moderns never got over the sense of rejection. The IQ tests were shown not to be nearly as reliable as first thought. Substantial minorities, up to sixty thousand children a year, were at the ‘wrong’ school and many were being transferred later, up or down. Different education authorities had widely different proportions of grammar school and secondary modern places; division by geography, not even by examination. A big expansion of teachers and buildings was needed to deal with the post-war baby boom children who were now reaching secondary school.


Desperately looking for money, education authorities snatched at the savings a simpler comprehensive system, such as that pioneered and developed in Coventry in the fifties, might produce. Socialists who had wanted greater equality, among whom Education Secretary Tony Crosland had long been prominent, were against the eleven plus on ideological grounds. But many articulate middle-class parents who would never have called themselves socialists were equally against it because their children had failed to get grammar school places. With all these pressures, education authorities had begun to move towards a one-school-for-all or comprehensive system during the Conservative years, Tory Councils as well as Labour ones. So when Crosland took over, the great schooling revolution, which has caused so much controversy ever since, was well under way. There were already comprehensives, not just in Coventry, but also on the Swedish model, and they were much admired for their huge scale, airy architecture and apparent modernity. Crosland hastened the demise of the grammar schools by requesting local authorities to go comprehensive. He did not say how many comprehensives must be opened nor how many grammar schools should be closed, but by making government money for new school building conditional on going comprehensive, the change was greatly accelerated.

Population ‘Inflow’ and ‘Rivers of Blood’:

Although the 1962 Commonwealth and Immigration Act was intended to reduce the inflow of Caribbeans and Asians into Britain, it had the opposite effects: fearful of losing the right of free entry, immigrants came to Britain in greater numbers. In the eighteen months before the restrictions were introduced in 1963, the volume of newcomers, 183,000, equalled the total for the previous five years. Harold Wilson was always a sincere anti-racist, but he did not try to repeal the 1962 Act with its controversial quota system. One of the new migrations that arrived to beat the 1963 quota system just before Wilson came to power came from a rural area of Pakistan threatened with flooding by a huge dam project. The poor farming villages from the Muslim north, particularly around Kashmir, were not an entrepreneurial environment. They began sending their men to earn money in the labour-starved textile mills of Bradford and the surrounding towns. Unlike the West Indians, the Pakistanis and Indians were more likely to send for their families soon after arrival in Britain. Soon there would be large, distinct Muslim communities clustered in areas of Bradford, Leicester and other manufacturing towns. Unlike the Caribbean communities, which were largely Christian, these new streams of migration were bringing people who were religiously separated from the white ‘Christians’ around them and cut off from the main forms of working-class entertainment, many of which involved the consumption of alcohol, from which they abstained. Muslim women were expected to remain in the domestic environment and ancient traditions of arranged marriages carried over from the subcontinent meant that there was almost no inter-marriage with the native population. To many of the ‘natives’ the ‘Pakis’ were less threatening than young Caribbean men, but they were also more alien.

Wilson had felt strongly enough about the racialist behaviour of the Tory campaign at Smethwick, to the west of Birmingham, in 1964, to publicly denounce its victor Peter Griffiths as a ‘parliamentary leper’. Smethwick had attracted a significant number of immigrants from Commonwealth countries, the largest ethnic group being Sikhs from the Punjab in India, and there were also many Windrush Caribbeans settled in the area. There was also a background of factory closures and a growing waiting list for local council housing. Griffiths ran a campaign critical of both the opposition and the government’s, immigration policies. The Conservatives were widely reported as using the slogan “if you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour” but the neo-Nazi British Movement, claimed that its members had produced the initial slogan as well as spread the poster and sticker campaign. However, Griffiths did not condemn the phrase and was quoted as saying “I should think that is a manifestation of popular feeling. I would not condemn anyone who said that.” The 1964 general election had involved a nationwide swing from the Conservatives to the Labour Party; which had resulted in the party gaining a narrow five seat majority. However, in Smethwick, as Conservative candidate, Peter Griffiths gained the seat and unseated the sitting Labour MP, Patrick Gordon Walker, who had served as Shadow Foreign Secretary for the eighteen months prior to the election. In these circumstances, the Smethwick campaign, already attracting national media coverage, and the result itself, stood out as clearly the result of racism.

Griffiths, in his maiden speech to the Commons, pointed out what he believed were the real problems his constituency faced, including factory closures and over 4,000 families awaiting council accommodation. But in  1965, Wilson’s new Home Secretary, Frank Soskice, tightened the quota system, cutting down on the number of dependents allowed in, and giving the Government the power to deport illegal immigrants. At the same time, it offered the first Race Relations Act as a ‘sweetener’. This outlawed the use of the ‘colour bar’ in public places and by potential landlords, and discrimination in public services, also banning incitement to racial hatred like that seen in the Smethwick campaign. At the time, it was largely seen as toothless, yet the combination of restrictions on immigration and the measures to better integrate the migrants already in Britain did form the basis for all subsequent policy.


When the author went to live there with his family from Nottingham in 1965, Birmingham’s booming postwar economy had not only attracted its ‘West Indian’ settlers from 1948 onwards, but had also ‘welcomed’ South Asians from Gujarat and Punjab in India, and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) both after the war and partition, and in increasing numbers from the early 1960s. The South Asian and West Indian populations were equal in size and concentrated in the inner city wards of the city and in west Birmingham, particularly Sparkbrook and Handsworth, as well as in Sandwell (see map above; then known as Smethwick and Warley). Labour shortages had developed in Birmingham as a result of an overall movement towards skilled and white-collar employment among the native population, which created vacancies in less attractive, poorly paid, unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in manufacturing, particularly in metal foundries and factories, and in the transport and healthcare sectors of the public services. These jobs were filled by newcomers from the Commonwealth.

Whatever the eventual problems thrown up by the mutual sense of alienation between natives and immigrants, Britain’s fragile new consensus and ‘truce’ on race relations of 1964-65 was about to be broken by another form of racial discrimination, this time executed by Africans, mainly the Kikuyu people of Kenya. After the decisive terror and counter-terror of the Mau Mau campaign, Kenya had won its independence under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta in 1963 and initially thrived as a relatively tolerant market economy. Alongside the majority of Africans, however, and the forty thousand whites who stayed after independence, there were some 185,000 Asians in Kenya. They had mostly arrived during British rule and were mostly better-off than the local Kikuyu, well established as doctors, civil servants, traders business people and police. They also had full British passports and therefore an absolute right of entry to Britain, which had been confirmed by meetings of Tory ministers before independence. When Kenyatta gave them the choice of surrendering their British passports and gaining full Kenyan nationality or becoming foreigners, dependent on work permits, most of them chose to keep their British nationality. In the generally unfriendly and sometimes menacing atmosphere of Kenya in the mid-sixties, this seemed the sensible option. Certainly, there was no indication from London that their rights to entry would be taken away.

Thus, the 1968 Immigration Act was specifically targeted at restricting Kenyan Asians with British passports. As conditions grew worse for them in Kenya, many of them decided to seek refuge in the ‘mother country’ of the Empire which had settled them in the first place. Through 1967 they were coming in by plane at the rate of about a thousand per month. The newspapers began to depict the influx on their front pages and the television news, by now watched in most homes, showed great queues waiting for British passports and flights. It was at this point that Conservative MP Enoch Powell, in an early warning shot, said that half a million East African Asians could eventually enter which was ‘quite monstrous’. He called for an end to work permits and a complete ban on dependants coming to Britain. Other prominent Tories, like Ian Macleod, argued that the Kenyan Asians could not be left stateless and that the British Government had to keep its promise to them. The Labour government was also split on the issue, with the liberals, led by Roy Jenkins, believing that only Kenyatta could halt the migration by being persuaded to offer better treatment. The new Home Secretary, Jim Callaghan, on the other hand, was determined to respond to the concerns of Labour voters about the unchecked migration.

By the end of 1967, the numbers arriving per month had doubled to two thousand. In February, Callaghan decided to act. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act effectively slammed the door while leaving a ‘cat flap’ open for a very small annual quota, leaving some twenty thousand people ‘stranded’ and stateless in a country which no longer wanted them. The bill was rushed through in the spring of 1968 and has been described as among the most divisive and controversial decisions ever taken by any British government. Some MPs viewed it as the most shameful piece of legislation ever enacted by Parliament, the ultimate appeasement of racist hysteria. The government responded with a tougher anti-discrimination bill in the same year. For many others, however, the passing of the act was the moment when the political élite, in the shape of Jim Callaghan, finally woke up and listened to their working-class workers. Polls of the public showed that 72% supported the act. Never again would the idea of free access to Britain be seriously entertained by mainstream politicians. This was the backcloth to the notorious ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech made in Birmingham by Enoch Powell, in which he prophesied violent racial war if immigration continued.

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Powell had argued that the passport guarantee was never valid in the first place. Despite his unorthodox views, Powell was still a member of Edward Heath’s shadow cabinet which had just agreed to back Labour’s Race Relations Bill. But Powell had gone uncharacteristically quiet, apparently telling a local friend, I’m going to make a speech at the weekend and it’s going to go up “fizz” like a rocket, but whereas all rockets fall to earth, this one is going to stay up. The ‘friend’, Clem Jones, the editor of Powell’s local newspaper, The Wolverhampton Express and Star, had advised him to time the speech for the early evening television bulletins, and not to distribute it generally beforehand. He came to regret the advice. In a small room at the Midland Hotel on 20th April 1968, three weeks after the act had been passed and the planes carrying would-be Kenyan Asian immigrants had been turned around, Powell quoted a Wolverhampton constituent, a middle-aged working man, who told him that if he had the money, he would leave the country because, in fifteen or twenty years time, the black man will have the whip hand over the white man. Powell continued by asking rhetorically how he dared say such a horrible thing, stirring up trouble and inflaming feelings:

The answer is I do not have the right not to do so. Here is a decent, ordinary fellow-Englishman, who in broad daylight in my own town says to me, his Member of Parliament, that this country will not be worth living in for his children. I simply do not have the right to shrug my shoulders and think about something else. What he is saying, thousands and hundreds of thousands are saying and thinking … ‘Those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first make mad.’ We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual flow of some fifty thousand dependants, who are for the most part the material growth of the immigrant-descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping its own its own funeral pyre. … 

 … As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see “the river Tiber foaming with much blood”.

He also made various accusations, made by other constituents, that they had been persecuted by ‘Negroes’, having excrement posted through their letter-boxes and being followed to the shops by children, charming wide-grinning pickaninnies chanting “Racialist.” If Britain did not begin a policy of voluntary repatriation, it would soon face the kind of race riots that were disfiguring America. Powell claimed that he was merely restating Tory policy. But the language used and his own careful preparation suggests it was both a call to arms and by a politician who believed he was fighting for white English nationhood, and a deliberate provocation aimed at Powell’s enemy, Heath. After horrified consultations when he and other leading Tories had seen extracts of the speech on the television news, Heath promptly ordered Powell to phone him, and summarily sacked him. Heath announced that he found the speech racialist in tone and liable to exacerbate racial tensions. As Parliament returned three days after the speech, a thousand London dockers marched to Westminster in Powell’s support, carrying ‘Enoch is right’ placards; by the following day, he had received twenty thousand letters, almost all in support of his speech, with tens of thousands still to come. Smithfield meat porters and Heathrow airport workers also demonstrated in his support. Powell also received death threats and needed full-time police protection for a while; numerous marches were held against him and he found it difficult to make speeches at or near university campuses. Asked whether he was a racialist by the Daily Mail, he replied:

We are all racialists. Do I object to one coloured person in this country? No. To a hundred? No. To a million? A query. To five million? Definitely.

Did most people in 1968 agree with him, as Andrew Marr has suggested? It’s important to point out that, until he made this speech, Powell had been a Tory ‘insider’, though seen as something of a maverick, and a trusted member of Edward Heath’s shadow cabinet. He had rejected the consumer society growing around him in favour of what he saw as a ‘higher vision’. This was a romantic dream of an older, tougher, swashbuckling Britain, freed of continental and imperial (now ‘commonwealth’) entanglements, populated by ingenious, hard-working white people rather like himself. For this to become a reality, Britain would need to become a self-sufficient island, which ran entirely against the great forces of the time. His view was fundamentally nostalgic, harking back to the energetic Victorians and Edwardians. He drew sustenance from the people around him, who seemed to be excluded from mainstream politics. He argued that his Wolverhampton constituents had had immigration imposed on them without being asked and against their will.

But viewed from Fleet Street or the pulpits of broadcasting, he was seen as an irrelevance, marching off into the wilderness. In reality, although immigration was changing small patches of the country, mostly in west London, west Birmingham and the Black Country, it had, by 1968, barely impinged as an issue in people’s lives. That was why, at that time, it was relatively easy for the press and media to marginalize Powell and his acolytes in the Tory Party. He was expelled from the shadow cabinet for his anti-immigration speech, not so much for its racialist content, which was mainly given in reported speech, but for suggesting that the race relations legislation was merely throwing a match on gunpowder. This statement was a clear breach of shadow cabinet collective responsibility. Besides, the legislation controlling immigration and regulating race relations had already been passed, so it is difficult to see what Powell had hoped to gain from the speech, apart from embarrassing his nemesis, Ted Heath.

Those who knew Powell best claimed that he was not a racialist. The local newspaper editor, Clem Jones, thought that Enoch’s anti-immigration stance was not ideologically-motivated, but had simply been influenced by the anger of white Wolverhampton people who felt they were being crowded out; even in Powell’s own street of good, solid, Victorian houses, next door went sort of coloured and then another and then another house, and he saw the value of his own house go down. But, Jones added, Powell always worked hard as an MP for all his constituents, mixing with them regardless of colour:

We quite often used to go out for a meal, as a family, to a couple of Indian restaurants, and he was on extremely amiable terms with everybody there, ‘cos having been in India and his wife brought up in India, they liked that kind of food.

On the numbers migrating to Britain, however, Powell’s predicted figures were not totally inaccurate. Just before his 1968 speech, he had suggested that by the end of the century, the number of black and Asian immigrants and their descendants would number between five and seven million, about a tenth of the population. According to the 2001 census, 4.7 million people identified as black or Asian, equivalent to 7.9 per cent of the total population. Immigrants were and are, of course, far more strongly represented in percentage terms in The English cities. Powell may have helped British society by speaking out on an issue which, until then, had remained taboo. However, the language of his discourse still seems quite inflammatory and provocative, even fifty years later, so much so that even historians hesitate to quote them. His words also helped to make the extreme right Nazis of the National Front more acceptable. Furthermore, his core prediction of major civil unrest was not fulfilled, despite riots and street crime linked to disaffected youths from Caribbean immigrant communities in the 1980s. So, in the end, Enoch was not right, though he had a point.

Trains, Planes and Motor Cars:


By the 1960s, British road transport had eclipsed railways as the dominant carrier of freight. In 1958 Britain had gained its first stretch of dedicated, high-speed, limited-access motorway, and by the early 1960s, traffic flow had been eased by a total of a hundred miles (160k) of a three-lane motorway into London (the M1, pictured above). In 1963 there were double the number of cars on the road than there had been in 1953. Motorways allowed fast, convenient commercial and social travel, household incomes were rising, and the real cost of private motoring was falling. Workplace, retail and residential decentralisation encouraged the desertion of trains and a dependence on cars. That dependency was set down between 1958 and 1968. By the mid-sixties, there were brighter-coloured cars on the roads, most notably the Austin Mini, but much of the traffic was still the boxy black, cream or toffee-coloured traffic of the fifties. The great working-class prosperity of the Midlands was based on the last fat years of the manufacture of cars, as well as other goods.


The map above shows what Britain’s transport network looked like by the early seventies. The start of Britain’s largest-ever road-building programme in the 1960s coincided with a more rapid decline in the railways. Roughly half of Britain’s branch-lines and stations had become uneconomic and its assets were therefore reduced. By 1970, the loss of rolling stock, locomotives, workforce, two thousand stations, 280 lines and 250 services meant that the railway network in Britain had been reduced to half of the length it had been in 1900. By the mid-sixties, flight frequencies and passenger loads on intercity air routes were also increasing vigorously. Nonetheless, rail passenger mileage remained stable for most of the second half of the century as rising oil and fuel prices put a ‘brake’ on motor vehicle use in the 1970s. Plans to triple the 660 miles of motorway in use by 1970 were also frustrated by a combination of the resulting economic recession, leading to cutbacks in public expenditure, and environmental protest.

(To be continued… for sources, see part two).

Posted July 17, 2018 by TeamBritanniaHu in Affluence, Anti-racism, Birmingham, Black Country, Britain, British history, Britons, Caribbean, Church, Civilization, Colonisation, Commonwealth, Coventry, decolonisation, democracy, Demography, Discourse Analysis, Edward VIII, Empire, English Language, Family, History, homosexuality, Immigration, Imperialism, India, Integration, manufacturing, Marriage, marriage 'bar', Midlands, Migration, Militancy, morality, Population, Poverty, Racism, Respectability, Revolution, Technology, Victorian, West Midlands

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