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CLARION REVIEW: HAROLD WILSON – Labour’s face of the ‘seventies.

In John Wilmot, Reviews on January 23, 2018 at 5:43 pm

wilsonbook“Harold Wilson” by Ben Pimlott, and published by Harper Collins – a review by John Wilmot for The Clarion.

Most of us (over a certain age of course) remember Harold Wilson. As Prime Minister, he helped to usher in a period of great change – before it was halted in its tracks by the arrival on the scene of Margaret Thatcher, of course.

This book by Ben Pimlott (a former warden of Goldsmiths College, London, and professor at Birkbeck College) is described as a “scholarly work”.  Which means in effect that it emerges as long and over- detailed. He spends one lengthy chapter on Wilson’s childhood, growing up near Huddersfield – and then carries on from there for over 700 pages.  But for those with staying power it’s well worth persisting.

A BRIEF OVERVIEW:

But, to put it into perspective, perhaps a brief overview of Wilson’s political career may be useful. He had studied at Oxford (first taking Modern History before transferring to Philosophy, Politics and Economics) and emerged with a first class honours degree.

He went on to enter Parliament in the 1945 General Election – a Labour landslide. He must have caught the eye of the new Prime Minister, Clement Atlee, as he was made President of the Board of Trade at the age of only 31 – to become the youngest member of the cabinet in the 20th Century.

Atlee’s pioneering government came and went, and Wilson finally rose to become leader of the Labour Party (following the death of Hugh Gaitskell) and from there went on to be Prime Minister on four separate occasions before bowing out of politics.

“MODERNISATION”:

His focus was on “modernisation”, coining the term, “the white heat of technological revolution”. He also did much to liberalise the law (still stuck largely in a pre-war mould) on censorship, divorce, abortion and homosexuality. He also legislated on discrimination against women and ethnic minorities – though it could be argued these days with less success. And he also created the Open University.

Other more controversial aspects of his Government(s) included the Vietnam War, in which Wilson attempted to walk a difficult tightrope. He did his best to maintain good relations with the USA whilst at the same time keeping Britain out of the conflict. He succeeded, but that did not prevent those of us who went on the march in protest against the war from chanting, “Where has Harold Wilson gone? Crawling to the Pentagon!”

STERLING CRISIS:

Another blip in Wilson’s premiership was the so-called “sterling crisis”, when an over-heated economy forced him to de-value the pound in November 1967. He also started Britain’s withdrawal from “east of Suez”, confirming the end of our role as an imperial power. He also applied to join the EEC (the European Economic Council – the predecessor to the EU), but Britain’s application on that occasion was unsuccessful.

In 1970, Wilson lost to Edward Heath, but made a return to power as head of a minority government in 1974. He managed to gain a slim majority (of 3) in the same year – which in a later election rose to 83.

What followed were the final years of Wilson’s premiership. In March 1976, at the age of just 60, he abruptly resigned to be succeeded by James Callaghan.

LAST YEARS:

So why did Wilson resign so suddenly?  According to Ben Pimlott, by 1974 he was ageing rapidly. “He no longer had the same energy… he took less exercise, drank more brandy, spoke at greater length… he looked older than his years.”

There seemed to be good reason to retire at sixty. Indeed, wrote Pimlott, his plan had been to retire at 56, four years earlier.  But it seemed the desire to beat Edward Heath in one last election made him postpone the decision.

Mary (his wife) it seemed was an important influence. “She wanted her husband out of politics. But it was Heath’s victory that stalled that. Wilson decided to put off his decision by a few years.

They talked it over during one of their holidays on the Scilly isles, and agreed on four more years.  Wilson was successful in beating Heath at the ensuing election, before handing the reins over to James Callaghan.

JOHN WILMOT.

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Clarion Review THE VICTORIAN SLUM (Documentary, BBC2) & ‘I, Daniel Blake’

In John Wilmot, Reviews on April 24, 2017 at 11:59 am

It’s refreshing to see a documentary on television devoted to the lives of working class people – particularly back at the end of the 1800s.

For this particular venture the BBC chose to select a group of today’s families and take them back in time to experience life in the worst slum dwellings of London’s East End, in order to re-live the experience of life on the edge.

In those days there were no social services. Those at the bottom of the heap survived as best they could. For those who couldn’t, there was starvation on the streets – or the dreaded Workhouse, where families were split up and inmates subjected to relentless and humiliating toil.

PATCHY:

The finished documentary is somewhat patchy, with many sequences which, to me, seemed hardly relevant – whilst other factors gain no mention at all. The programme rightly made the point that the fate of those on the bottom rung of the social ladder often rested on trade cycles. In other words, as the country prospered there would be work available. During periods of slump in trade, they’d be laid off.

Many of those affected were self-employed tradesmen, trying to make a living from their slum dwellings – but still subjected to the trade cycles that came and went.  On top of that Britain’s industrial supremacy was being challenged  (by such countries as Germany and the USA) and the political establishment was divided between those who favoured protection and those who argued for free trade as a response to these challenges.

VOTES FOR WOMEN:

At a time when women didn’t have a vote, much is made of the suffragette movement. Although the campaign for the suffrage did impinge on working class women, it wasn’t so important in their lives as this series makes out. The suffragettes – particularly the wing of the movement led by the Pankhursts – was overwhelmingly middle class.

Another movement that did have more impact on working class lives was the rise of the co-operative movement.  From the cotton mills of Rochdale this was spreading rapidly across the country and was now becoming rooted in the East End.

Through the Co-op, working class families could buy wholesome food cheaply – and also benefit from the “dividend”. Contamination of food by shopkeepers who preyed on working class customers was widespread in those days.

WHAT, NO SOCIALISM?!

One glaring omission from this series was the rapid rise of Socialism and Socialist ideas, which were soon to transform the political landscape. As far as this programme was concerned, Voters were either Conservative or Liberal.

But during the time span covered by “The Victorian Slum” (which stretched through the Edwardian period almost to the First World War), we had the founding of the Fabian Society, and the Independent Labour Party, launched in 1893. Keir Hardie, leader of the ILP, was elected to Parliament, and William Morris became converted to Socialism, launching his own Socialist movement.  Here was a new movement based on a new set of ideas that was forcing itself on to the political scene, and into the minds and hearts of those in the East End of London, as elsewhere.

REPLACING THE SLUMS?

We also saw the first attempts to replace the slums with blocks of flats, by the newly formed London County Council (LCC). Initially these were a failure.  For various reasons, the slum dwellers failed to move on to the new accommodation on offer – and in fact much of the surrounding slum property remained until well into the 1930s. And it was left to Hitler, in the wartime blitz to destroy much of what was left.  But that of course was another story.

Despite its flaws this was an interesting series, giving an intimate view of what it was like to be poor in Victorian and Edwardian England. Other parts of the country, of course, shared similar experiences.  And, gradually, social reforms began to improve conditions.

There was the introduction of old age pensions (for example) when Lloyd George was Prime Minister. Then there was the first meagre payment for the unemployment. But, of course it wasn’t until after 1945 (during the Atlee Government) that the Welfare State as we came to know it, to care for people “from the cradle to the grave” came into being.

Looking back to the days of Victorian and Edwardian Britain it’s something we should cherish – whilst we’ve still got it.

JOHN WILMOT.


“I, DANIEL BLAKE”: Another masterpiece from Ken Loach

Ken Loach has long been the scourge of the Establishment, attacking today’s divided society for the callous inhumanity of those  who administrate it on behalf of those in control. And long after many film directors would have retired (to a life of light gardening, perhaps) he’s carried on.

We were able to see his latest work, I Daniel Blake, at a crowded performance at the Palace Cinema in Cinderford. The film waded into the attack practically from the first reel, pinpointing the inadequacies of the so-called “Welfare State”, and the callousness of its administration, with a clarity that must have left many in the audience seething with anger at the kind of society that we’ve created.

Daniel Blake is a carpenter in his late fifties. He lives in Newcastle, but a heart attack has left him without work, and he has to sign on.  He meets a young woman, Katie, with a young son and daughter. (They have arrived in Newcastle from down south and are strangers to the city), Daniel takes them under his wing.

BATTLING THE SYSTEM:

And here their battle with the system begins.  One of the many hoops that they’re expected to jump through is computer literacy.  And of course there are many who lack it… after all, how many of those stuck in such a position can afford a computer or have had access to one?

The hurdles to be faced to get any support from officials in the so-called “social security” offices with their “jobsworth” attitudes colour the whole system and those who show sympathy with the claimants become ground down.

LIFE AT THE BOTTOM:

Other aspects of a rotten system are highlighted. One young man on a zero hours contract finds himself forced into the black economy in order to survive.  And Katie is forced to join the queues at the local Food Bank when she goes to get food to feed herself and her children.  She gets supplies and sympathy, of course, but still finds the experience humiliating.

As for Daniel Blake, in desperation he resorts to painting slogans on the wall opposite the social security offices, declaring that he is a human being, not just a faceless number to be processed through a heartless system.  Inevitably he’s arrested.

His action gains him support from fellow victims of the system.  But of course his friends are powerless. As the film draws towards its end, he collapses and dies of a fatal heart attack. His funeral is packed, and here Katie  reads out his final statement  that he’d prepared to present at a hearing at the Social Security offices to which he’d been summoned (prior to having his allowance cut off).

The scruffy, hand-written piece of paper is a defiant defence of his own humanity – and of all those who had come to his funeral.

MIXED RESPONSES:

There have, of course been mixed responses to the film.  It’s only natural that  Ken Loach has  chosen a multi-pronged attack on the system.  And most of those who’ve flocked to the cinema to see the film have never shared the experiences of those like Daniel Blake, Katie and others at the mercy of the system.

As for Tories who raised their heads above the parapet, their response has been to condemn the film as false propaganda.  At best, it’s “exaggerated”. Iain Duncan Smith, for example, didn’t like it at all.

But simply on a human level it’s a moving account of those forced to suffer under an unfeeling system that has traduced what was once regarded as part of one of this country’s proudest achievements – the welfare State.

JOHN WILMOT

TRUMBO: WITCH HUNT – the black days of McCarthyism in the USA

In John Wilmot, Reviews on January 3, 2017 at 1:30 pm
Review: Trumbo DVD

The reality of purges, witch hunts, or whatever else you wish to call them is always ugly.  Whether we’re talking about Stalin’s show trials in the USSR in the ‘thirties,  or the purge of all those hauled up before the so-called “Un-American Activities Committee” in the USA of the 1950s, such attempts to purify and cast out “undesirable” elements from any society are based on organised intolerance or bigotry, and lead only to suffering – or (in the case  of Stalin’s show trials) worse.

The film, “Dalton Trumbo” covers the Hollywood screenwriter’s attempts to fight back against the the so-called “UnAmerican Activities Committee”.  He won out in the end, but it almost cost him his family, and the lives of many of his friends. It was an ugly intolerant period for those who were caught up in it.

ATTACK ON HOLLYWOOD:

Although far too many ordinary folk suffered from the bleak attentions of the McCarthyite period, the film industry centred around Hollywood suffered particularly. Actors were blacklisted, as were directors and screen writers such as Trumbo. Only “good” Americans, such as Ronald Reagan or John Wayne were able to flourish, under the baleful patronage of Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper.

Trumbo found himself one of the blacklisted “Hollywood Ten” who attempted to fight back. They lost, and Trumbo found himself serving time in prison. On his release he found that he was now  unable to gain work – certainly under his own name. He was forced to take work writing scripts for cheap “B Movies” to scrape a living. His family  begins to fall apart, and he‘s shunned by those who he thought had once been his friends.

Despite all this he did succeed in winning an Oscar for his script of the film “Roman Holiday” – though he had to write it using a false name. But his big breakthrough was the film “Spartacus”. Not only was this released under his name but it also won an Oscar.  It was    to be the beginning of the end of the Hollywood blacklist.

Others were also to suffer of course, including such actors as Edward G. Robinson, and to a lesser extent, Humphrey Bogard, and his wife Lauren Bacall.  Others escaped the net by moving abroad – or leaving the industry altogether.

One example was Sam Wanamaker, who was to settle in  Britain. He went on to become responsible for the re-recreation of Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, whilst his daughter, Zoe became a prominent character actor in UK  film and television. Hollywood’s loss was to be our gain!

JOHN WILMOT

REVIEW: A MASTER CLASS IN ALTERNATIVE ECONOMICS

In John Wilmot, Reviews on December 22, 2015 at 4:30 pm

The Global Minotaur, by Yanis Varoufakis – with a foreword by Paul Mason. Published by Zed Books.

This is an updated edition (brought out, I suspect with the Greek financial crisis in mind) of a book first published in 2011. The author is an economist of world repute. He has taught in numerous universities in the UK and became an MP for the Syriza party in Greece. On its rise to power he was appointed Minister of Finance.
When the crisis occurred, and the Government finally bowed to pressure from the IMF, Varoufakis parted company with his party – and the deal that was imposed over his head.
Now, any book on economics poses difficulties for the lay reader – and I’m no exception. There’s the terminology used by economists for a start. And this volume, by necessity, is quite dense.
But Yanis Varoufakis writes well, and has a lively turn of phrase which helps the reader over the difficult bits. He has been described as an “opponent of austerity”, which is true – but he’s more than this. He can also be described as a critic of capitalism, noting its lurches from boom to slump – a pattern that can be traced back to its birth when it replaced the old feudal order.
Some slumps, he suggests, are major, like those of 1929 and more recently that of 2008 – capable of turning the established order on its head. But he mentions other lesser slumps – such as that of 1847 in Britain. It ended the railway boom abruptly with  stocks and shares going into a nosedive, and a consequential collapse in a number of banks.
In 1873 there was a similar crisis in the USA, again caused by a stock market collapse in railway shares. This led to a six year depression.
THE WALL STREET CRASH:
Fast forward to the roaring ‘twenties and we see the great crash of 1929. By the end of the year, 40 billion dollars had been wiped out on Wall Street, and banks went to the wall. In America 2,293 of them closed permanently. The crisis went global, reaching Europe like a financial plague, affecting heavy industry and the financial markets alike. The “Gold Standard”, which was meant to regulate commerce and the relationship between currencies, collapsed. Despite the good intentions of the “New Deal” in the USA, it took the Second World War to lift the economy out of slump.
At the end of  the war came the Bretton Woods talks, with the USA now the dominant economic power. With the Gold Standard now dead in the water, American economists brought in a new plan to replace it with the US dollar. The “yankee dollar” was to become the currency on which the capitalist world relied. And so it was to remain until the economic collapse of 1971.
2008:
We remember the crash of 2008, of course. Much of the population of Europe and the USA are still feeling the effects. This was another collapse caused by bankers’ greed and lack of foresight. According to Varoufakis, it saw the banking industry go into damage control mode, “desperately trying to stem the popular demand for stringent regulation of their institutions.”
Their argument was that too much regulation would “stifle financial innovation”. As if this “innovation” hadn’t already caused enough damage!  Of course we’re all aware of who’s been responsible for the crash seven years ago. In popular parlance it was the “greedy bankers”, paying themselves massive bonuses regardless of whether the economy or their own part in it warranted these pay-outs.
In Britain of course the “damage control” (sic) worked. Banks continued to operate without the regulation needed to keep them in line, and the champagne continued to flow. A few heads rolled and then it was back to business as usual. Big bonuses are still paid out regardless. And the rest of us still have to put up with conditions of austerity introduced in order (ostensibly) to deal with a crash that we were in no way responsible for.
In his final chapter (“A world without the Minotaur”), the author decides to re-evaluate his position in order to put it to the test. This chapter is an addition to the first edition of the book, published a few years earlier. And here his analysis becomes complicated!
But just to summarise a few points:  the slump of 2008 resulted in a break in America’s pattern of trade deficits, which had relied on the USA absorbing the surplus production and capital from Europe and elsewhere. To put it simply, after 2008 this inflow of capital and goods slumped. Without this global flow of capital etc., profits could no longer be maintained. Once again it was the banks and financial institutions that went down like ninepins.
As for solutions to the problem, Varoufakis comes up with no simple formula. But he does suggest that neither of the responses put into place in Europe and the USA would work.  European countries opted for austerity – or in some cases had it forced upon them. America tried “quantitative easing”, which he says failed to have any positive effect (though, as I see it,  it had less damaging impact on people’s lives than “austerity”).
LACK OF SELF RESTRAINT:
In conclusion, he suggests that both governments and private capital had been guilty of a lack of self restraint in their dealings in the decade leading up to 2008.
Governments had failed to regulate financial institutions, whilst the banking and financial world had thrown caution (and sanity?) to the winds in its greed to make bigger and bigger profits.
But, as I see it, that is what it will always do unless it’s held in check. Meanwhile this book by Yanis Varoufakis is an interesting guide to both the development of a volatile capitalist system and the roots of its crises in the last century.
JOHN WILMOT

TV: “1864”- Danish drama, BBC4.

In John Wilmot on June 25, 2015 at 12:17 pm

Like many other viewers. I’ve become rather addicted to “Danish Noir” on the box – but this particular offering on BBC 4 was something a bit different. It looked at the background to the disastrous war between Denmark and Prussia over the disputed territory of Schleswich-Holstein to the south of the Danish mainland. The British Prime Minister at the time, Lord Palmerston, famously declared that only three men really understood what the conflict was all about – “the Prince Consort, who is dead, a German professor who’s gone mad, and I who’ve forgotten all about it.”

The film’s director suggests that it arose as a pernicious example of national hubris – the kind reflected in such phrases as “our manifest destiny”, or “God’s chosen people”. Denmark had chosen to go to war on a wave of nationalist fervour, to claim a victory that it was thought would have made Denmark great again.

Both sides it seems were unprepared for what was to come. A Danish army captain leads his detachment towards the front, only to die of old age as they head south. On the Prussian side, the General in charge is also in his dotage, buoyed up with memories of his part in the war against Napoleon some fifty years previously.  As he leads his men he can’t even remember who they are fighting against.

The central characters are two young brothers who are swept up in the country’s patriotic fervour, and volunteer for the conflict – leaving behind the girl that they both love.

They believe, like most others in Denmark, that they will sweep all before them and give the Prussians a bloody nose (a dissenting voice incidentally is shown in a cameo role for Hans Christian Anderson, who doesn’t really understand what it’s all about).

Needless to say, it doesn’t go well for the Danes. Outnumbered and eventually outmanoeuvred, by the Prussian forces they are forced into ignominious retreat, which finally ends in crushing defeat and the loss of one third of their territory  They are forced to accept that there is no “manifest destiny” involved and the voices of nationalism fall silent.

It’s perhaps no wonder that few outside of Denmark remember the conflict. In 1864 the American civil war was reaching a climax, and for us in Britain the events in the conflict between north and south were rather more central to our interests. But its long term impact was the unification of Germany, the rise of strident nationalism in that country, and two blood-stained world wars. Meanwhile in Denmark, controversies over their war with Prussia and the German Confederation remain a sore point for many.

Incidentally, there’s also a book been published on the war, also titled “1864” (written by Tom Buk-Swienty and published by Profile Books price £8.99)

JOHN WILMOT

the threat to our future: BETTER OFF WITH TTIP? BETTER OFF WITHOUT!

In John Wilmot on June 25, 2015 at 12:04 pm

They like to keep it a secret, but the looming menace of TTIP (short for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership) poses a threat to us all.

It’s a concept first unveiled by the American administration back in 2013. This so-called “free trade” deal sounds harmless enough – until you read the small print of course. And those backing it want to keep this as small as possible.

It may “free up” trade, as its supporters claim, but who will benefit? In fact it’s a cunning plan to shift power to transnational capital, freeing up the markets for globalised capitalism (much of it American based of course). The instigators of TTIP want to spread this octopus-like “partnership” first through Canada and then Europe.

WE HAVE BEEN WARNED:

According to Mark Dearn of the charity “War on Want” “TTIP ushers in a massive shift of power to transnational capital. This will lead to job losses, the privatisation of our public services (and the blocking of any attempts at re-nationalisation), the erosion of social health and environmental protections and the eradication of equality before the law through a system of corporate courts for suing states.” (From the Morning Star, April 18th).

When it comes to negotiating the deal, this is in the hands of the EU, acting on behalf of its 28 member states. But as far as we’re concerned in the UK, David Cameron has already given it an enthusiastic welcome. And even the Liberal Democrats (before they were slaughtered in the election) greeted it warmly, claiming that it leave Britain £10 billion a year better off.

The reality will be very, very different. There will be those who’ll get even richer from its implementation, of course, but for ordinary workers, our social services and our social infrastructure, the impact could be dire. Perhaps it’s no wonder that it’s received so little coverage in the mass media. There have been no documentaries on TV or radio, and nothing much in the mass circulation newspapers, leaving any coverage of what’s at stake to what’s become known as “social media”.

Already in Canada there has been repeated legal action to prevent the passing of moratoriums on fracking or revoking patents on drugs with unproven benefits.

But in Europe, the fightback is beginning.  There have been mass petitions (gaining some 1.65 million signatures at the last count), and demonstrators have taken to the streets in protest. Again, there has been little coverage in the UK media.

As Mark Dearn of “War on Want” says,  “we are fighting to retain some control over the fundamentals of our own lives: what we eat, whether corporations can control and profit from our education, healthcare… our working conditions and the ability of democratic government to enact social, health and environmental legislation without the sanction of litigation in corporate courts.”

JOHN WILMOT

THE WORKHOUSE: How to penalise the poor

In John Wilmot on March 5, 2015 at 8:17 pm

The Victorians, it seems had their own way of dealing with poverty. It was known as the workhouse, brought in under the New Poor Law in the 1840s, and immortalised by Charles Dickens in his novel Oliver Twist.

Poverty, of course, has long been with us. But for some decades  before the New Poor Law came into being, it had been dealt with through the granting of “out relief”, paid out by the Parish to those unable to provide for themselves or their families.

INDUSTRIALISATION:

But the 19th Century was a time of sweeping change. Industrialisation and the introduction of the factory system was undermining old patterns of employment. Whole swathes of the population found that  their jobs were cut from under them. And the cost of administering “out relief” rose sharply.

But in his book, “A People’s History of England”, historian A.L. Morton suggests that there was another reason for the setting up the workhouse system.  Effectively, he said, those thrown out of work “were offered a choice between the factory and the workhouse.”  Industrialism needed a workforce – and the harsh conditions laid down by the workhouse system ensured that workers were in plentiful supply.

PENALISING POVERTY:

The new Poor Law Commissioners appointed stated that inmates of the new workhouses must be “subjected to such courses of labour and discipline as will repel the indolent and vicious.” Within the walls of the workhouse,  families were broken up, food was meagre and hard grinding work was the order of the day.

THE POOR LAW COMMISSIONERS:

Poor Law Commissioners were appointed to administer the new system (thus making sure that there was no longer even a vestige of democratic control), headed by their secretary, Edwin Chadwick. Morton comments that “they became for a whole decade the most detested men in Britain.”

Opposition to the workhouse system was particularly strong in the north of England. In some towns they were stormed by angry mobs and even burned down. In the West Yorkshire town of Todmorden it took thirty years for the workhouse to be built.

THE WORKHOUSE IN THE FOREST OF DEAN:

An illuminating talk on the workhouse system in the Forest of Dean was given last month  by Cecile Hunt at a meeting of the Local History Society.

There were some special circumstances that  applied in the Forest. As much of it at the time was Crown land, the pattern of parishes didn’t always exist. Consequently, two workhouses were built to house “paupers” within the Forest. One was built at Westbury, and the workhouses at Chepstow and Monmouth took inmates from the west of the Dean, whilst the second within the Dean was at Newent. Schools were, at first, attached  but these were often ineffective.  The children were often orphans, or were placed in the workhouse by parents who just couldn’t feed or look after them.

Both the conditions and the food were invariably poor.  Patterns of work were strictly regulated and inmates were given bread and gruel for breakfast and soup for dinner alternating with small amounts of meat.

The men worked some ten hours a day, often picking oakum, stone breaking or bone crushing.  Such work was inevitably hard, pointless, manual labour. At Westbury Union, a contract for stone breaking was carried out. Meanwhile, women inmates had to carry out domestic work.

The guardians of the workhouses lasted until 1930, and the name “workhouse” itself was subsequently dropped for something more euphemistic. The institution in Westbury, for example, eventually became Westbury House, and then morphed into homes for the elderly.

Today few signs of the old workhouse buildings remain, either in Westbury or Newnham. Few would wish to be reminded of them. The site of the workhouse in Westbury, for example, is now occupied by new housing.

“VICTORIAN VALUES”?

The workhouse system could be seen as part of those “Victorian values” extolled by Margaret Thatcher. Certainly it was the Victorians (or some of them) who came up with the differentiation between the “deserving and undeserving poor” – a distinction that many who should know better still hold today. Remember Osborne’s distinction between “strivers and slackers”?

JOHN WILMOT

REVIEW: Coal On One Hand, Men On The Other: The Forest of Dean Miners’ Association and the First World War 1910-1920.

In John Wilmot, Reviews on January 30, 2015 at 1:08 pm

 THE FOREST MINERS AND THE FIRST WORLD WAR

Written by Ian Wright, and published by the Bristol Radical History Group, 2014 

When the First World War broke out in the summer of 1914, mining was an important (indeed arguably the most important) industry in the Forest of Dean. Some 6,000 were employed down the pits, plus of course the Dean’s freeminers.

There was also a strong sense of militancy amongst the miners – and a high level of opposition both to the war and to the demands made on those who hewed the coal. But back then they lacked any central union organisation. What did exist was a loose federation grouped together under the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (MFGB).

In the Forest, most (though not all) miners belonged to the Forest of Dean Miners’ Association (FDMA). But whilst there was an obvious level of collaboration, the federal structure did not necessarily guarantee solidarity with miners elsewhere in the country.

CROSSCURRENTS:

In this booklet Ian Wright has done a good job in piecing together the events of the war, and how these affected the miners of the Forest of Dean.  Coal was vital both to the war effort and to keep the country running, and consequently mining was a reserved occupation – ostensibly exempt from conscription when this was introduced in 1916. But this did not prevent several hundred miners from volunteering for the armed forces in the early years of the conflict.

To try to keep up coal production in the pits, inexperienced men had to be recruited to work underground. Meanwhile, whilst there were strong anti-war sentiments amongst the miners, their agent in the FDMA,  Henry Rowlinson,  was a strong supporter of the war – as was the Forest’s Liberal MP, Henry Webb (himself a coal mine owner).  Indeed, in many ways they worked together to try to sustain the dwindling support for the conflict.

GROWING OPPOSITION:

But as the casualties of war increased, so did opposition to the slaughter. Meanwhile calls on the miners to increase production intensified. And the ideals of Socialism began to permeate the Forest – so much so that by 1918, the constituency was able to elect its first Labour MP, and the Liberal stranglehold on the Dean came to an end.

All in all it was a toxic brew as far as the Forest’s establishment was concerned.  Strikes were outlawed – though this did not prevent stoppages from taking place, particularly in the South Wales coalfield.

THE “COMB OUT”:

One issue that caused a degree of controversy was that of “combing out”.  In other words, removal of men from the pits, to fight at the front. In April 1917, the MFGB was called to a meeting with the military authorities, to assist in the direct conscription of 21,000 miners – with some 140 from the pits in the Forest of Dean. By August opposition to the “comb out” had grown and resolutions were passed condemning the scheme.

By this time, Rowlinson’s authority was on the wane, and by the end of the year he was forced to leave his post as agent for the FDMA.

Ian Wright’s booklet is extremely well researched (with copious footnotes), and it’s not possible to do it justice in a brief review. He carries his account up to 1920 – the immediate aftermath of the war – with a description of the new order of things emerging in the Forest. The miners now had a new leadership, and a fresh sense of militancy. By 1919 there was also an eruption of mutinies and strikes within the British military. The world was changing in those immediate post-war years.

Many of the leaders of the Forest of Dean Miners Association were blacklisted following the miners’ strike of 1926.  But the radical spirit that had grown since 1914 was to remain.

JOHN WILMOT.

REVIEWS: ‘Writings Against the First World War’ & Harveys ‘lost’ novel

In A.Graham, John Wilmot, Reviews on November 11, 2014 at 12:29 pm

“Not Our War: Writings Against the First World War”, edited by AW Zurbrugg. Published by Merlin Press, 2014.
{review by John Wilmot}

The First World War was noted – certainly during that first year of conflict before war-weariness set in – for an upsurge of patriotic excitement and flag waving that, in same cases went beyond mere fervour, often approaching something akin to hysteria. How else could one explain the burning and looting of German shops and property when hostility commenced?

But there was an anti-war movement that stood firm and declared that it was “Not Our War”. This book consists of a range of anti-war writings and declarations. It’s only natural that the majority should come from the Socialist or Anarchist left, or the pacifist movement. Many take the form of lengthy manifestos, from the pens of such committed individuals as Lenin or Keir Hardie. Others though are brief calls from the heart.

The war, of course, split the Socialist movement. Many Labour leaders (no doubt after some soul searching) across Europe chose to support the war, weakening any chances of international solidarity.

But there were many, many, more across the theatre of conflict who maintained their anti-war stance – even in Germany. Eventually, as the carnage took its toll, the unrest in Russia led to the uprising that put Lenin and the Bolsheviks in power in 1917. And, of course, the Easter rising in Dublin in 1916 grew out of Ireland’s anti-war movement and the conditions created by the war. Meanwhile, there were strikes and mutinies across the board.

The quotes are divided into sections which are prefaced by commentaries to introduce each of them. These help to explain the context in which these defiant declarations by those opposing the madness of the conflict were being made. They are, in so many cases, cries of opposition to those who created and fuelled what was essentially an imperialist war.

John Wilmot.

WILL HARVEY’S LOST NOVEL

Forest of Dean poet, F.W. Harvey wrote only one novel, and that was never published in his lifetime.

But then the neglected manuscript came to light, and finally it’s appeared in print – under the title The Lost Novel of F.W. Harvey (published by The History Press, price £12.99).

In many ways it’s a strange novel. It’s semi-autobiographical, taking us through the hero’s childhood with his parents and brother Eric, on to the trenches of the First World War, serving in the Gloucestershire Regiment.

The harsh reality of the conflict has its effect on the young hero. But here the action becomes somewhat surreal. He meets up with a young gypsy girl who disguises herself as a fellow soldier. They are both captured – but after they escape from captivity in a German prison of war camp they head for the Dutch border and freedom, falling in love on the journey – until she leaves him to travel the roads alone again.

Altogether, it’s a bit of a curiosity. There are sections that are lucid and well written, but it becomes increasingly difficult to swallow. And though it does draw strongly on the writer’s own life, the chronology is distorted – and the gypsy lover is wholly fictional (one might almost suggest that she’s a myth).

Will Harvey was taken prisoner during the war – but he never escaped, engaging himself instead in helping to produce a PoW newspaper. Incidentally, the book has also been turned into a play, Will Harvey’s War, which was performed at the Everyman theatre, Cheltenham, at the beginning of August. It possibly came over better on the stage than it does as a book, despite the minimalist stage settings.

Incidentally, the book was turned down by a number of publishers before Harvey gave up on it and buried the manuscript in a desk draw. But it remains an interesting curiosity.

AG

RE-DRAWING THE MIDDLE EAST: And re-visiting the film “Lawrence of Arabia”

In John Wilmot on September 3, 2014 at 8:38 pm

Recently I’ve been re-watching the classic 1960s film, Lawrence of Arabia.

It was much acclaimed at the time, winning a clutch of awards. It was directed by David Lean but backed by American money through Sam Spiegel at Columbia studios – and the US influence does tend to show through.

Much of it follows the heroic (and sometimes manic) actions of T.E. Lawrence (played by Peter O’Toole) attempting to unite the Arab tribes against the Turks during the First World War. Thus much of the action takes place in the scorching heat of the desert as the various tribes quarrel, unite, and then go on to score stirring victories over a disintegrating Turkish army. They manage to gain control of  Damascus just ahead of the British forces led by General Allenby.

But here Lawrence’s dream of creating an independent Arab state falls apart, as the various tribes once again quarrel amongst themselves, divide the loot, and leave the city.

ARTIFICIAL BOUNDARIES:

And we become aware of a sub plot to all this action. The major players had no intention of allowing the emergence of an independent Arab nation. Instead they had plans to divide the Middle East amongst themselves.

France was to be given what became Syria (further subdivided into Syria and Lebanon), whilst Britain would take control of Iraq.  And so, as they say, it came to pass.

The Middle East and much of North Africa was to be carved up between the European nations. France had much of Morocco plus of course Algeria, and now added Syria to its portfolio. Italy had already seized control of Libya in 1912 and it was to be administered as an Italian colony until 1943.  Meanwhile, Britain added Iraq and what was then known as Transjordan to its “sphere of influence” – that already included Egypt.

“A HOME FOR THE JEWS”:

It was of course a case of the imperial powers sharing out the booty. And, to complicate matters even further, under the “Balfour declaration” we also promised a “home for the Jews” in “the land known as Palestine”.

The declaration was contained in a letter sent by James Balfour, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, to Lord Rothschild in November 1917.

True, the declaration stipulated that respect should be paid to “the existing inhabitants” of Palestine. And, at the time, it was not intended that it should become effectively a Jewish state. But what the letter succeeded in doing was to spread both hope and mistrust amongst Arabs and Jews alike.

Meanwhile, Britain was given the mandate to govern Palestine by the League of Nations (fore-runner of the UN) which it fulfilled until the late 1940s.

The territory was handed back to the United Nations, which decided on partition as a solution to an increasingly intractable problem. The rest, as they say, is history.

A BITTER CONCLUSION:

The Arab nationalism that T.E. Lawrence had bought into so avidly endured until perhaps the 1950s. The notion that a better world, for all Arabs, could be built has now fragmented and sadly has been replaced by a divisive, sectarian, religious fervour that is tearing parts of the Middle East apart..  That sense of Arab identity still exists on paper in the form of the Arab League, but in recent conflicts it has proved to be powerless.

And maybe we can trace much of the conflict back to divisions created by the European powers at the end of the Firs World War. It’s said that we can learn from history (if we’re prepared to do so) – but sadly we can never wind back the clock.

by JOHN WILMOT