V.G. Kiernan

  • The Working Class in Modern British History: Essays in Honour of Henry Pelling edited by Jay Winter
    Cambridge, 315 pp, £25.00, February 1983, ISBN 0 521 23444 1
  • The Chartist Experience: Studies in Working-Class Radicalism and Culture, 1830-60 edited by James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson
    Macmillan, 392 pp, £16.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 333 32971 6
  • Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of 19th-Century Working Class Autobiography by David Vincent
    Methuen, 221 pp, £4.95, December 1982, ISBN 0 416 34670 7

Jay Winter’s introduction to the work in honour of Henry Pelling points to a shift that has been taking place in the writing of labour history – from concentration on militant strivings towards interest in the ordinary existence of working men and women. The first approach was pioneered by a number of Marxist scholars. Marxism has always been drawn to the more active phases of history, and its volcanic eruptions, the moments of revolution. But most of history has been far more static, even regressive, for reasons among which human nature must rank high, or what Peter Clarke in a scrutiny in this volume of the British ‘social-democratic’ tradition calls the ‘deadweight of social conservatism, in all classes’. Part One of the collection, though entitled ‘The Working Class in British Politics’, shows it in mainly passive roles – acted on, by its leaders or misleaders, more often than it acted. Part Two, ‘The Working Class in British Society’, is more faithful to its title.

Two essays in the first set are concerned with individual politicians, one seeking to shepherd labour towards the left, the other towards the right. Fred Reid writes of Keir Hardie as newspaper editor, convinced that ‘he, almost alone, stood firm for socialism’ in the ILP, and determined therefore to keep its organ, the Labour Leader, under his private control. Its style was coloured by the ‘new journalism’, one of whose tactics was to magnify editorial personalities. It may be surmised that this owed something to the Victorian theatre cult of the star actor-manager, or the pulpit cult of the star preacher like Spurgeon. Hardie’s insistence on his own policies and methods led to unseemly squabbles with the paper’s backers, and recent research seems to show him in no very creditable light. Paul Addison begins a commentary on Churchill’s career before 1914 by noting that it ‘depended in many respects on his relations with the urban working class’. His first constituency was Oldham. He was capable in those days, as Clarke reminds us, of commending ‘class struggle’ on British lines as good for both progress and stability: what he really stood for, Addison makes clear, was ‘a non-socialist and non-militant labour movement under the patronage of property-owners’. The time came when the flock ceased to follow docilely; after 1910 his demagogy proved unavailing in the face of a flare-up of trade-union determination, and he moved to the Admiralty. We may think of both Churchill and Lloyd George as turning away from social reformism to jingoism out of disappointment with labour’s lack of gratitude for small concessions and big speeches.

But no adequate political maturing accompanied the trade-union struggles, or was brought about by the cataclysm of 1914-1918. Another article, by Christopher Howard, details the Labour Party’s failure in the 1920s to expand local organisation and mass membership. It was the familiar story of small dedicated groups whose exertions ‘bore no little resemblance to the labours of Sisyphus’, and frustration fanned the wranglings that went on between them and the national leadership. Meanwhile the England fit for heroes to live in remained an ignis fatuus. After 1945 there was substantial change: a comparison by K.O. Morgan between the Wales of the first and second post-war eras illustrates this. There was change in the Empire, too, after 1945, but there likewise with serious gaps. Professor P.S. Gupta of Delhi reassesses the views put forward in his well-known book about Labour and the Empire, and those of other writers like Goldsworthy, in the light of archival material newly available. He has little to say of what working-men thought about the subject: in fact, they thought about it virtually not at all, so that ministers and their advisers had a free hand. Official strategy in the Third World was to come to terms with moderate nationalists, so as to prevent Communism from taking the lead. But in some areas, like Malaya and Kenya, it ‘succumbed to the pressure of vested interests whose objectives coincided with its own economic or military aims’. Military requirements and calculations figure prominently. It was decided, for instance, to humour South Africa as a useful ally against Communism; the Government ‘drifted into a position where fighting the Cold War was an end in itself regardless of the issues for which it was fought’. In many ways, we can now see, it was these Imperial and foreign entanglements that hampered and then halted the post-1945 venture in reform at home. Since then, Britain has lost its empire, but not its entanglements.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in