Ross McKibbin and the Rise of Labour

W.G. Runciman

  • The Ideologies of Class: Social Relations in Britain 1880-1950 by Ross McKibbin
    Oxford, 308 pp, £35.00, April 1990, ISBN 0 19 822160 6

In 1984, Ross McKibbin published an article in the English Historical Review called ‘Why was there no Marxism in Great Britain?’ His choice of title was a deliberate invocation of the celebrated essay which Werner Sombart published in 1906 under the title Why is there no socialism in the United States? It does not, of course, mean literally what it says. There was, and still is, a far from total lack of Marxism in Great Britain. But it has been confined almost exclusively to the chattering rather than the working classes. The creed which was supposed both to explain and to accelerate the impending demise of the capitalist system failed to convince, or even to interest, the overwhelming majority of those who should have had most to gain from taking it seriously. How, therefore, was it that the country which before 1914 seemed ideally suited to produce a working-class political party committed to socialism failed to do so?

McKibbin’s answer, roughly speaking, is that the British working class had both a high degree of autonomy within the accepted institutions of Late Victorian and Edwardian society and a strong economic interest in free trade and the independence of the market from ‘politics’. These general propositions are buttressed by a number of ancillary arguments, including the disparate character of the non-unionised work-force, particularly in the burgeoning service sector, and the legitimacy which future working-class leaders accorded to the rituals and conventions of the parliamentary system. It was not that the British working class was, as sometimes alleged, either deferential or apathetic. On the contrary, it was because it had its own vigorous tradition of independent associations, habits and pastimes which were no more revolutionary than they were bourgeois that its leaders had neither the scope nor the incentive to try to create a mass party permeated, like the German Social Democratic party, by the culture of socialism. Meanwhile the upper-middle classes were content to see their rights and privileges as employers eroded to the benefit of the trade unions provided that their own comfort and status were not too seriously undermined. The nation was at the same time ‘highly cohesive but poorly integrated’, and the Labour Party was ‘not free to choose between Marxism and reformism but only between varieties of reformism’.

This article, to which a brief synopsis cannot do full justice, is now reprinted by McKibbin as the first of a set of nine, of which all but the last have been published before. They do not present a sequential argument, but they all relate in one way or another to the general topic of the location and functions of working-class culture within British society between the 1880s and the 1950s. All have something original and stimulating to say, whether about the intellectualism of working-class gamblers, the inability of the Liberal Party to mobilise the enlarged working-class electorate of the Twenties, the domestic bias of middle-class observers of the Edwardian working class, or the inevitability of the second Labour government’s failure to do as much for the welfare of the working class as the conventional wisdom alleges that it should have. But from the perspective of the issues raised in the opening paper, the most interesting of the rest is the last one, on the reasons for the electoral dominance of the Conservative Party in the inter-war years, together with a nine-page ‘Conclusion’ in the course of which McKibbin advances a number of admirably contentious propositions each of which is worth a review, if not a PhD dissertation, to itself: ‘In a way, the “non-political” nature of a culture which would compete with formal politics was the price paid for a culture which was developed enough to create working-class organisations in the first place’; ‘It is arguable that Ramsay MacDonald’s behaviour in 1931 is largely to be explained by this – that he associated the attitudes of the trade unions during the crisis with the kind of working-class behaviour that he had always despised’; and, more generally, ‘Britain before 1914 was no paradise for the working class, nor indeed after it, but the state’s anxiety to entrench a non-authoritarian social stability had the effect of relatively strengthening the working class at the expense of everyone else.’

Contentious as these formulations undoubtedly are, McKibbin is, in this reviewer’s opinion, basically right within the terms of the problem as he poses it. Contemporary participants and latterday commentators have been much too prone to assume that the ‘rise of labour’ involves a struggle from which the working class has to emerge as either winner or loser against the employers and the state. On one familiar view, therefore, the story is one of a militant vanguard thwarted by the reluctance of its apathetic or deluded followers to seize the victory to which their collective strength entitles them, while on another it is a story of a cunning and flexible ruling class willing to alternate as necessary between force and guile in order to maintain its hegemonic position. Both these views have something to them, and they are in any case not incompatible with one another. But for reasons which McKibbin effectively deploys, any presumption that what is good for the working class is bad for the state, and vice versa, should be heavily qualified from the start. Before as well as after 1914, intervention by the state was often on behalf of the working class and against the employers; and there have been many members of the working class who have combined intransigence towards their employers with support for a party which refuses ideological legitimacy to organised labour as a political force. The result is that nobody wins – or, if you prefer, nobody loses.

The concluding essay, while mainly addressing the startling electoral success of the Conservatives between the wars, takes up both the themes of ‘Why was there no Marxism in Great Britain?’ and those of the essay (co-authored with Colin Matthew and John Kay) on the effects of the enlargement of the franchise after 1918 on the Labour Party’s share of the vote. If, as McKibbin believes but other historians and psephologists dispute, the enlargement of the electorate did significantly help the Labour Party, it becomes all the more necessary to explain why the Conservatives remained so powerful, electorally speaking. How can it be that if, between 1923 and 1935, all voters who did not vote either Conservative or Labour had been made to choose one or the other, the Conservative Party would almost certainly have won a majority of preferences even in the elections of 1923 and 1929 which it in fact lost? The problem becomes still more intractable if, with McKibbin, we reject the argument that for the English, at any rate, voting Conservative is ‘normal’, and voting Labour ‘deviant’ – an argument which founders on the simple reminder that voting against the Conservatives was no more ‘deviant’ before 1914 than after 1945. The failure of the Liberals after 1918 has been exhaustively studied, as has the success of the Labour Party in replacing them as the alternative party of government. But this leaves all the more to say about the Conservatives. 1931, as everyone can agree, was a special case. But why did they also do as well as they did in 1923, 1924, 1929 and 1935?

McKibbin argues that the key is to be found in the combination of a deliberately deflationary economic policy and a supporting ideology which was not so much anti-working class as anti-trade union working class. Conservatism was therefore able not only to unite the anti-union middle class and the non-union working class, but to tap the anti-‘scrounger’ mentality widespread among both. Moreover, the well-known preponderance of Conservative support among the newly-enfranchised female electorate can, on McKibbin’s analysis, be explained by their natural hostility to the sectional, collectivist and overwhelmingly masculine world of the organised working class. Deflationary economic policies did not directly generate the electoral support the Conservatives needed, since the direct beneficiaries were too few in number. But they directly reinforced the conception of aggressive trade union demands as greedy, of large-scale government expenditure financed by borrowing as imprudent, and of better-paid workers who spent what they earned as profligate. The Conservatives thus became the party of the ‘public’ – or rather, of those various sections of it who felt disapproving, or fearful, or both, of the organised working class. All this was changed only by the Second World War, when ‘it became increasingly difficult for the Conservative Party to present itself as the party of civil society against the working class, either on prudential grounds or grounds of pure numbers. It is not surprising, therefore, that Labour won the 1945 Election.’

This argument is by no means the least contentious in the volume, and no doubt it will provoke at least as many rejoinders as any of the others. But that is all the more reason for reading it. Because this is a volume of essays about, not a full-length treatment of, its subtitle, it can be fairly charged with neglecting topics of which a full-length treatment would have to take proper account. There is little or nothing about changes in industrial relations at the actual work-places of the working class, or about the provenance, outlook and formal and informal powers of the growing number of civil servants who in practice constituted the ‘state’ as the working class experienced it, or – perhaps most important of all – about the steadily continuing increase in rates of individual social mobility, both inter- and intra-generational, out of the working class into the middle. But this is not a criticism of these essays as they stand. They are uniformly excellent, and should be read by anybody who is interested in the history, sociology or politics of Britain in the 20th century.