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.

In Part Two Paul Johnson writes of working-class borrowings and savings between 1870 and 1939. Pawnshop loans were in perpetual demand. Thrift, to the surprise of observers, was oftener a provision for burial than for sickness, and funeral spending was often curiously lavish. So is an Indian family’s spending on its marriages: British preoccupation with death hints at a more sombre acquaintance with life, but a decent coffin, like an extravagant Indian wedding, was a claim to respectable standing. As Johnson says, along with some community of class feeling there was a keen desire for ‘as high a position as possible within the working-class hierarchy of status’. Despite all the poverty, a long-term improvement in living standards was taking place from about 1850. Jay Winter – a demographer – emphasises this in a statistical study of infant mortality between 1920 and 1950: ‘the complex web of relations’ between this and economic fluctuations requires a longer perspective than that of any single slump, even the worst. What kind of further improvement workers were looking for is considered by José Harris in the light of local inquiries for a survey commissioned by Beveridge and carried out by G.D.H. Cole in 1941-42. It seems that the man in the street’s hopes were less ambitious than the Beveridge Plan which followed: there is no evidence that ‘grass-roots opinion was harbouring any wider vision of more far-reaching social revolution’. If any such revolution took place, as a result of the war, it was on the whole superficial. Arthur Marwick’s ‘Images of the Working Class since 1930’ may suggest some explanations. One source he draws on is the post-1945 cinema, which dropped much of the ‘discretion and reticence’ previously shown on matters of class.

If the British working class has not seriously tried to establish socialism, it did paradoxically try in an earlier era, of transition from pre-industrial to factory life, to establish political democracy. The new set of studies of Chartism is well spread out over both the history and the geography of the movement, from its opening years in south-east Lancashire to London about 1840 and Halifax down to 1958. It is based largely on local research, into problems not exclusively local but lending themselves to regional investigation, and should help, as the editors hope, towards a ‘newer, more flexible picture of Chartism’. First comes a long examination by G. Stedman Jones of ‘The Language of Chartism’. He insists that nervous contemporaries gave a wrong lead to historians by regarding Chartism not as the political programme it professed to be but as essentially social discontent, ‘novel and threatening’. In reality, its polemic was always constitutional; deriving from a radical tradition older than any working-class consciousness, it drew its dividing-line not between capital and labour but between ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ classes, and explained social ills as the consequence of the monopoly of state power by a parasitic aristocracy.

There may be some one-sidedness in this way of looking at it, but other contributions supply a good deal to trim the balance. It is a mistaken though still lingering idea, Robert Sykes writes, that Chartism and trade-unionism had only marginal connections: they were in close touch in Lancashire throughout the early Chartist years. Chartists there were workers as well, a cross-section of ‘skilled but insecure artisans and factory workers’, the two categories facing many similar hardships. The London Democratic Association, Jennifer Bennett’s theme, was recruited predominantly from small or domestic workshops, an artisanate clinging to its independence. They and their spokesmen, like Harney, wanted the Charter, but not it alone: a conviction was growing on them that no political change by itself could cure the maladies of the time. Towards the end, Kate Tiller shows of Halifax, Chartist ideals and trade-union activities were diverging more widely, yet for twenty years after their own crusade ended Chartists continued to provide leadership to the working class. Interactions between them and a special kind of workers, the Irish, have been a controversial question: Dorothy Thompson’s discussion of it is illuminating. Her conclusion is that ethnic discords had less weight than the sense of common grievances, and that ‘there was a very considerable Irish presence in the Chartist Movement.’ Irishmen and many other Chartists were often regarded as desperadoes, spoiling for a fight, but it would appear that there was not much readiness anywhere for an armed rising. Agitators in many times and climes have had to learn the difference between an excited crowd’s applause for bellicose sentiments, and willingness to take up arms in good earnest. There were disturbances in the Potteries in 1842, but Robert Fyson’s picture of them is of anarchical looting and destruction, ‘twenty-four hours of a desperate saturnalia’ by destitute men and women, who could offer no resistance when the enemy came on the scene.

While Chartism was quite able to work side by side with trade-unionism, its search for a united front or populist alliance with a progressive middle class was frequently renewed but never with wide success. Birmingham, with its Political Union, was one of the more promising localities. Clive Behagg rejects the long-accepted account of concord being favoured by a small-unit industrial structure: big business took a prominent hand in the Union. This may of course make it less surprising that collaboration did not go further; at any rate, it was limited as well as exceptional. O’Connor was still hankering for a partnership of classes in 1848, but as John Belchem says, writing (in somewhat eccentric English) of the fateful year, middle-class opinion was firmly behind the government and its repressive tactics. We may credit revolutionary happenings abroad with a decisive influence: by inspiring Chartists with fresh confidence, and throwing the propertied into panic, they pushed the two classes further apart. Chartism was defeated, but within its limits it was a remarkable achievement in organisation, under manifold difficulties. It was Britain’s, and Europe’s, first truly democratic party. Eileen Yeo contributes a valuable description of how it ran its affairs, with an anxious care to keep its few paid officials from losing touch with the rank and file, by enforcing ‘accountable delegacy’. There was an egalitarian spirit here, she observes, which went beyond the letter of the Charter’s six points.

In Britain the working class was cut off earlier than elsewhere from old rustic culture, blighted by agrarian capitalism before factories sprouted, and cut off longer than others from ‘standard’ or ‘official’ culture because of the protracted interval before state education came in. Hence a dearth of intellectual or imaginative stimulus, which must have had a depressing effect on its progress. A scattering of individuals had the energy to shake this off, and by painful effort acquire a share in the national store of literature and knowledge. An impressive number of them published records of their lives, in ruder or more polished form. For labour historians, David Vincent says, the 142 autobiographies of 1790 to 1850 that he explores, some of them unearthed by his own researches, represent material that has been unaccountably neglected.

A man must think very well of himself, Jane Austen’s reluctant diner-out complains, to invite others to leave their comfortable firesides on cold winter nights. One is often inclined to take the same view of people who want us to read their life-stories. But if any sort of folk ever earned a right to bring themselves before the world, it is these humble members of the republic of letters. They had two precedents, the spiritual diaries and records of Puritan and later times, and ‘a widespread pattern of oral reminiscence’. Their recollections overflow with miseries and privations under which a multitude of others must have sunk without trace. They made things worse for themselves by having far too many children, whose frequent deaths were sometimes felt as a relief. Family life was unromantic; the writers – very few of them women – have little to say about it in any emotional vein, not looking on it as germane to their purpose of tracing ‘the development of their moral and intellectual personality’, and not thinking of wives as partners in the quest.

Vincent remarks that examples of ‘upward mobility’ such as delighted Samuel Smiles were rare: for one reason, because the grammar schools, which had furnished a ladder, were now less easy of access. There was some compensation in the ‘significant area of initiative in the field of schooling’ that was left to the working class. Self-taught men, or disabled workers able more or less to read and write, could set up as teachers. (Parents, too, might exercise initiative: in a Scots mining village a succession of dominies was expelled with showers of stones.) More books were becoming available in the 1830s, the decade to which many writers looked back as a watershed. Inevitably ‘soaring ambition and undisciplined eclecticism’ often meant muddle, and waste of scanty time. All the same, they persevered to the end of their lives: they and others like them came to form ‘a sort of working-class intelligentsia’.

Their situation was ambiguous. On the one hand, the duty lay on them of ‘defining the ideology of the nascent working class’; on the other, their qualities of sober self-discipline and rationality were more in harmony with middle-class values than with average feckless working-class behaviour. Thanks to this, their social superiors, alarmed at first by any sort of proletarian literacy, could see a chance to guide it in harmless directions. Chapter Seven is concerned with these fears and hopes, and the work of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and of Henry Brougham in particular. Their attempt to indoctrinate the toilers with middle-class notions bore only scanty fruit. To the great majority of workers book-learning, from whatever corner of the compass, made no appeal. Self-taught individuals, for their part, often had a strong attachment to their class, and aspirations for its betterment. They joined in what they thought of as a ‘struggle for political freedom’ carried on since the 1790s. They cherished ‘a working-class version of the Enlightenment, in which they would be the new philosophes’.

No doubt their learning made them at times conceited and opinionated; and we may recall Marx’s low estimate of the autodidact. Nevertheless, the impression left by these autobiographies, Vincent assures us, is one of ‘affirmative, constructive’ energy. Their authors were ‘convinced that book knowledge could be used to transform the quality of their own lives and that of their class as a whole.’ It may be permissible to go further, and conjecture that the phenomenon of a working class harnessing itself to a political reform project was due to the presence of this working-class intelligentsia, to which constitutional theory was more congenial than simple pursuit of bread and butter. It was a small minority. But a movement belongs to those who are prepared to work steadily for it. Chartism was kept going, through good and ill hap, by groups of local enthusiasts: mass backing swelled when economic conditions were harsher than usual, and shrivelled when they improved, as automatically as any vegetable process of growth and decay.

James Epstein’s article in the volume on Chartism, about the movement in Nottingham, reinforces some of Vincent’s findings. Chartists set great store by the spread of education among the workers; one obvious ground for advocating it was that everyone must know how to use his vote when he got it. They saw at the same time the need to reject bourgeois hegemony. ‘The cultural sphere was one of vital class self-definition and continual conflict.’ Vast pains were expended on the planning of processions or gatherings, the preparing of banners, erection of festive arches. It would be incredible that so much could be accomplished by a race of beings as degraded as the proletariat depicted by Engels, if there had not been within it an élite, struggling up out of the pit. But if it was this élite that steered social discontent into a political channel, the defeat of Chartism left the working mass interested only in narrow trade-union economism, and perhaps left it with an indelible prejudice against its intellectuals, or intellectualism in any guise. In an analysis in the Pelling collection of three books by the engineering worker Thomas Wright, about 1870, Alastair Reid is sceptical of the ‘labour aristocracy’ hypothesis: differentials between skilled workers and others in wages and status were not, he believes, very significant. More real and harmful, we may surmise, was the gulf, psychological or genetic in origin, between lettered and unlettered. Wright thought of the ‘educated working man’ like himself as a rare ‘accidental being’, whose mates were ready to make use of him but often considered him a stuck-up prig. Reid’s essay is followed by one by Chushichi Tzuzuki on the National Council of Labour Colleges, which set out to impart Marxist education to the working class, but succumbed before long to humdrum TUC tutelage.

One other Pelling essay, by Ross McKibbin, is on ‘Work and Hobbies in Britain, 1880-1950’. It quotes commentators who were viewing Britain, already in the first years of this century, as ‘a nation at play’, caring for nothing more than sport. Britons may proudly claim to have invented most of the outdoor games adopted with such ardour by the modern world. They also invented industrialism, but only half-heartedly, as it were in a fit of absence of mind. Today Britain has a plethora of financial manipulators with ambitions of villas on the Riviera: it has no genuine class of entrepreneurs, nor – partly in consequence – a work-force revelling in work, like the German or Japanese. McKibbin remarks that state schools have not got far with their task of introducing the working class to ‘official culture’, but that many of its own amusements and hobbies, often keenly competitive, have required a similar degree of ‘accuracy, knowledge, discipline and skill’. Perhaps in the end it will turn out that this odd country’s mission is to lead the Western world into a post-industrial age of leisure, and, more gradually, conservation.