Rising Like Lions: Between the early-Nineteenth and late-Twentieth Century, wielding their two “unvanquishable” weapons: trade unionism and the franchise; working people lifted their incomes; improved their housing; obtained an education for their children; and secured ready access to medical advice and care. In the space of little more than a century, working people had secured for themselves both a standard of living and a degree of political power unparalleled in human history. How were these lions turned into lambs?
A FEW NIGHTS AGO, I watched “The Real Mill” on Sky’s History Channel. Fronted by the ubiquitous Tony Robinson, the series investigates the historical background to “The Mill” – a docudrama set in early-Nineteenth Century Cheshire. What struck me most forcefully in the programme was the way in which the factory workers of the period fought back against the oppressive conditions of their working lives.
Bear in mind that these were men, women and (in alarming numbers) children, who had just spent at least 12 hours operating the relentless (and often lethal) machinery of the new “manufactories” – as their workplaces were called. And yet, overcoming their fatigue, they found time to read and write pamphlets; gather together to hear speeches; and march in their tens-of-thousands to great outdoor rallies.
None of them could vote. Even after the passage of the momentous Representation of the People Act, in 1832, only one in five of the adult male population were free to participate in parliamentary elections. The remaining four-fifths of adult males – and all adult women – continued to be excluded from the franchise.
It would require another century of struggle by the working men and women of Great Britain before universal franchise was finally achieved. (Roughly one third of the British soldiers who fought and died in the trenches of World War I were not entitled to vote for the Members of Parliament who sent them there.)
Also worth bearing in mind is the fact that, prior to 1824, it was illegal to form and/or belong to a trade union. Even after the repeal of these “Combination Acts”, trade unionism remained a risky business – as the 1834 “transportation” to Australia of the so-called “Tolpuddle Martyrs” attests. It was not until the passage of the Conspiracy and Protection of Property Act 1875 that the crucial right to mount a trade union picket was legally recognised.
So, what’s wrong with the working people of the early-Twenty-First Century? Like the mill-workers of two centuries ago, many of them are working long hours for scandalously low wages. Many of their employers utilise exactly the same employment strategies (sub-contracting, piece-work) that the mill-owners of the industrial revolution devised to depress the price of labour.
In sharp contrast to Nineteenth Century workers, however, the working people of today possess both the right to vote and the right to form trade unions, go on strike and picket their workplaces. The two decisive achievements of the working class’s long struggle for freedom and prosperity are both intact and available. How is it that these two mighty swords have rusted in their scabbards?
It was the romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelly, writing in the same period as “The Mill”, who in his incendiary poem, “The Masque of Anarchy”, incited the oppressed peoples of the British Isles to:
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!
It was sentiments such as these which inspired the aristocrats and mill-owners of Britain (and many other countries) to resist extending the franchise to their tenants and workers for as long as they possibly could. If nothing else, the masters could count. Give an overwhelming majority of the population the right to vote, and very soon the laws of the land will reflect the needs and aspirations of an overwhelming majority of the population!
And so it proved – right up until the final quarter of the Twentieth Century. Wielding their two “unvanquishable” weapons: trade unionism and the franchise; working people lifted their incomes; improved their housing; obtained an education for their children; and secured ready access to medical advice and care. In the space of little more than a century, working people had secured for themselves both a standard of living and a degree of political power unparalleled in human history.
And then, quite suddenly, workers found themselves going backwards. In the late-1970s, the masters, fearing the “lions” were about to devour them entirely, launched a fierce counter-attack. Their behaviour, at least, was understandable. Less so, was the lions’ willingness to be restrained. The masters’ relentless propaganda: in which lions were portrayed as dangerous and selfish creatures which, for the public’s safety, simply had to be caged; proved to be astonishingly persuasive – not least to the lions themselves.
The legal restraints of Maggie Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Roger Douglas, Ruth Richardson and Bill Birch did not fall upon the working-class lions of the democratic West like dew while they slept. With a handful of honourable exceptions, like the British miners, the trade unions entered their masters’ cages voluntarily. An electorally decisive fraction of the working-class continues to vote for their chains.
Those Nineteenth Century mill-workers, marching beneath banners demanding trade union rights and the vote, would be appalled.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 29 November 2016.