Votes for Women, Chastity for Men

Brian Harrison

  • Troublesome People: Enemies of War, 1916-1986 by Caroline Moorehead
    Hamish Hamilton, 344 pp, £14.95, April 1987, ISBN 0 241 12105 1
  • Sex and Suffrage in Britain, 1860-1914 by Susan Kingsley Kent
    Princeton, 295 pp, £22.00, June 1987, ISBN 0 691 05497 5
  • Women, Marriage and Politics, 1860-1914 by Pat Jalland
    Oxford, 366 pp, £19.50, November 1986, ISBN 0 19 822668 3
  • An Edwardian Mixed Doubles: The Bosanquets versus the Webbs. A Study in British Social Policy, 1890-1929 by A.M. McBriar
    Oxford, 407 pp, £35.00, July 1987, ISBN 0 19 820111 7

Social movements have been in vogue among British historians since the 1950s. This is partly because Labour’s agenda, strangely combining statist welfare and libertarian protest, has dominated the political and intellectual climate. But there is also a professional reason for these historiographical priorities. The reaction against the narrowness of the old political and constitutional history has never been complete: by choosing social movements as their theme, historians could simultaneously ride the old and respectable horse of political history and the new and fashionable one of sociology. Political history provided a secure chronological framework while they ventured forth into the vast unknowns of social class, religious denomination and regional culture. Edward Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class (1963) was a landmark here, and we now possess histories of feminism, pacifism, of the movements against slavery and cruelty to animals, and for free trade, family allowances, factory-hours and public health, to name only a few.

Yet almost at once there came rumblings from Cambridge. Maurice Cowling, John Vincent, Andrew Jones and others rightly emphasised the Victorian politician’s relative autonomy from popular pressure, and cleverly unveiled the feebleness of provincial and popular reformers when they tried to operate at Westminster or Whitehall. Since 1979 Thatcherite Conservatism has shown how politicians still retain this autonomy in a democratic society. Provided they are cautious and courageous, they can readily call the bluff of the over-mighty agitator whose perspectives are narrowed by moving only among his own kind. Time and again, the demonstrations and processions have turned out to be less representative of the rank and file (let alone of public opinion) than had earlier been thought. The publication of these four books – all concerned, directly or indirectly, with social movements – enables us to survey the opportunities and hazards of the genre.

Caroline Moorehead aims to portray ‘what modern pacifists are actually like’, and to bring out ‘their style, their diversity, their origins and their eloquence’. With much sympathy she emphasises the range of their reforming interests and their loneliness. Above all, she reminds us that moral courage is less common, because more difficult to sustain, than physical courage. She describes the terrible persecutions that conscientious objectors often had to face on their own. Their sufferings become all the more vivid when recollected in tranquillity by mild, ageing and patently humane people in their pebble-dashed, trimly-gardened terrace house in Sea-ford, or in their bow-fronted sitting-room in Croydon. She presents her informants with all the skills of the journalist and we see from her book how interviews can lend impact and immediacy to studies of recent social movements. Moorehead has also taken the trouble to visit many of the places she discusses – in Britain, Japan, West Germany and the United States – and her comparative approach often clarifies what is distinctive about the peace movement in particular national cultures: millenarian tendencies in America, for instance, or anti-Nazi complications in Germany. Hiroshima’s and Nagasaki’s victims played a unique role in a Japanese peace movement which encountered extraordinary governmental secrecy about the bomb’s effects.

All this should have made Troublesome People an outstanding success. Unfortunately the book illustrates the disintegrating tendency of ‘oral history’ when unaccompanied by a clear analytical framework. In its later chapters, Moorehead’s comparative analysis degenerates into a sort of travel diary, and her grasp of international relations and political sociology is not clear enough to set the experience of the individual pacifist firmly into context. There is a further difficulty. While sympathy is essential to effective historical writing, it can all too easily sacrifice proportion. Given the book’s stress on the awfulness of the weapons and on the reasoned independent-mindedness of their critics, the non-joining, by standing general public is implicitly presented as blankly hostile, stupid, uncomprehending, callous and even (through its agents) brutal. Take Moorehead’s approach to A.J.P Taylor’s breathtakingly naive rhetorical question at a CND meeting in 1958: ‘ “Is there anyone here who would do this to another human being?” Silence. “Then why are we making the damned thing?” Thunderous applause.’ Whatever happened at the meeting, the question begs for a rejoinder, yet Taylor gets off scot-free.

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