Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Another World Is Possible: Port Sunlight

Port Sunlight was somewhere I'd heard of, but had never been to, until I passed through in February 1997 whilst campaigning for the Labour Party in the Wirral South Byelection. As I was given my leaflets I was quickly briefed on how the election had been called after the death of Barry Porter, which was a little bit of a shock as that was my Dad's name and I was counting on him for a lift back from the station.

Seeing the leafy gardens and Ford Mondeos I remember thinking that's there's more chance of Tranmere Rover getting promoted to the Premiership than Labour getting an MP returned here.

But Labour did indeed win, overturning an 8000 Conservative majority to return Ben Chapman, the son of a farm worker, to Westminister, a sign that eighteen years of Conservative rule may be about to come to an end. Tranmere Rover were less lucky though, missing out on the promotion play-offs again.

But if Bebington is now about as posh as Merseyside gets, Port Sunlight at least has a more proletarian past. It was built by the ruthless capitalist, paternalistic philanthropist, arch Imperialist and connoisseur of the arts William Lever, one of the two Lever Brothers who made their fortune out of Sunlight soap, who built the place to house his workforce.

Port Sunlight has two claims to fame, that it is an example of an ideal community designed by a wealthy industrialist, and that it is styled in the manner of the Arts and Craft Movement.

Lever wasn't the first Capitalist had built a decent place for the great unwashed to live. Richard Arkwright had used the prospect of good housing to persuade families to move to Cromford to work in the first every mill over a century earlier, and Robert Owen had been carrying out an experiment in Utopian socialism in New Lanark for more than eighty years before work started at Port Sunlight.

However whilst Owen was experimenting with Utopian socialism up in Scotland, Lever was very much the Liberal.

It's easy to look back nostalgically at old Liberals like Lever. After all, they're so much nicer than the Neoliberals we have today. Today, Sunlight soap would be made in a sweat shop in Burma, with the Levers holed up in a tax haven on the other side of the world.

But there were always limits to the liberalism of people like Lever.

Yes, the great unwashed could be decently housed and guided to live more righteous lives, but their wages would increase by less than his wealth, and nobody had the right to stop Lever's brand of laissez faire capitalism spreading round the world.

There was also no local democracy here, or any attempt at communal living like in New Lanark. Instead Lever knew exactly how he wanted to clean up the Working Class who moved into his houses, and so he dictated exactly how they should live their lives.

George Orwell called in on his way to Wigan Pier in 1936. He liked the houses and the low rents, but was unhappy about the rules and regulations Lever set control his tenants, seemingly on the basis that it was slum dweller that made the slum. Orwell, knew that the pub was an imprtant part of Working Class life, and who wrote an essay on the perfect English pub, lamented the one "dismal sham-Tudor" pub provided.

Neither can we really claim that Port Sunlight is the best example of Arts and Crafts style housing in Britain. That's probably Blackwell in the Lake District for the real thing, or Wightwick Manor in Wolverhampton, a place which made Andrew Lloyd Weber cry, for an off-the-peg example.

However it is fairly unique in that it is Arts and Crafts houses for the ordinary man, which is actually a bit disappointing for a movement that aimed to improve the lives of the ordinary man.

The Arts and Crafts movement was inspired by the radical Conservative John Ruskin and the anarchic Socialist William Morris.  Both were
equally horrified by the shoddy goods that the Industrial Revolution was producing and the shoddy lives led by the industrial Working Class.

It's noble aim was to take on Adam Smith's division of labour, replace the wage slave with the skilled craftsman and give everyone beautifully designed and hand crafted objects.

Unfortunately these ideals could rarely be realised in real life. Objects could be beautiful or mass produced, handmade or cheap, but they couldn't be beautiful and cheap without either working with industry or working for industrialists. So at Port Sunlight we have one of the world's most successful Capitalists building houses in the style of a movement that opposed everything about the way he did business.

Since 1980 you haven't needed to work for soap factory to buy a house in Port Sunlight. House prices are about the national average, although a little higher than the Merseyside average, and all told the area appears to be for the moderately well off rather than stock brokers. Certainly the VWs
outnumber the Mercedes.

There are still rules and regulations if you live there, but there's nothing to stop soap dodgers like me turning up for a nosey round.

The village is centred round the war memorial, which stands opposite the Lady Lever art gallery. It may seem strange that the village is built around a memorial to a war that happened forty years after it was built, but apparently they were saving the
spot for a postumous cast of Lever himself.

Beyond the War Memorial is the Lady Lever Art Gallery, where Lord Lever showed off his art collection. I don't know what his employees made of it, but he was very keen to show them. It has really a great collection of work by those other rebels against the industrialised world - the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Like the Arts and Crafts people, the PRB had a mixed relationship with the Establishment they'd set out to rock.

Like Orwell, I want my idyllic cottages a less neat and my life a bit less controlled than Lord Lever would have liked.

All told Port Sunlight shows what's possible when philanthropy meets good design. There's no reason why our cities shouldn't be beautiful as well as useful, human sized rather than supersized.

Another world is possible.

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