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

Monday, 3 June 2013

England 1913: World War or Class War?

Police attack strikers in Dublin, 1913
One hundred years ago this week Stravinsky's dissonant ballet of human sacrifice, The Rite of Spring, was causing a riot in Paris.

But Igor wasn't the only artist causing a storm. In 1907 Picasso had ripped up the rule book in art with Les Demoiselles d'Avignon; a picture of five carved up prostitutes from Barcelona. In Trieste James Joyce was getting ready to start on Ulysses and in Italy the Futurists, having had a lucky escape when they couldn't buy tickets to be on the Titanic, were moving forward.

Science too was casting out the old. Having twisted everyone's melon with Special Relativity in 1905, Einstein, working in Prague, then revealed that the entire universe was warped with his Theory of General Relativity. Meanwhile the other half of modern physics was taking shape as in Denmark Neils Bohr revealed his quantum model of the atom.

It was as if across the whole of Europe the arts and science had looked into the future and declared
Picasso, 1907
the liberal-bourgeois consensus of hereditary monarchies, global empires, laissez-faire capitalism and partially representative democracry and declared it dead on arrival.

Meanwhile in dear old Blighty we had the 'cowpat' school of pastoral music and Rupert Brooke was asking if there was honey still for tea.

And this is how history usually remembers the Edwardian era; one long Indian summer to round off the Victorian era. This was when Beatrix Potter put animals in frocks, Kenneth Graham placed the Greek god pan by a quiet English river and Rudyard Kipling claimed that England hadn't changed since the Romans had left.

But Albion did not seem nearly so quiet to those who lived through this time. This was a period of social and political revolution that, had the Great War not intervened, may have even tipped the country into civil war.

The reality of England in 1913 was a country where the Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition addressed a review of paramilitaries, the army threatened to mutiny, militant feminists blew up the Chancellor of the Exchequer's house and the army and the police battled striking dockers, miners and transport workers.

Lloyd George, 1909
It all started with the General Election of 1906, when Liberals swept back into power after a decade of Conservative rule. The Tories lost half their seats, but weren't too bothered as their control of the House of Lords would stop the Liberals doing anything too radical. However they reckoned without the new kid on the political block, Lloyd George, who as Chancellor of the Exchequer proposed a People's Budget in 1909 which aimed to tax booze, fags and land to fund welfare benefits. When the Lords opposed it, the Liberals went back to the country. Then they went back again.

Returned to government a third time by the popular vote they offered the Lords an ultimatum; pass the budget, or they'd lean on the new king to make several hundred compliant, new Lords. Faced with the prospect of their hallowed halls being invaded by an army of ennobled Liberals, the Lords gave in.

This left the Conservatives in an unusual position. Not only were they out of government, but for the first time they were also out of power. And judging by their subsequent actions, they were also out of their minds.

Across the 'snot green' in Ireland you see, things were coming to a head. The House of Lords imbroglio had brought on a general cynicism amongst the public, and the Liberals now relied on the Irish Nationalists to give them a majority in the Commons. This led to them returning to the issue that had brought down Gladstone; Home Rule for Ireland.

Edward Carson and the Ulster Volunteer Force, 1913
Tory leader Andrew Bonar Law appears to have seen them as a great way to embarrass the
government, and in April 1912 he attended a review of 100,000 'Ulster Volunteers', who marched past with dummy weapons and cannon. The Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition had attended a paramilitary rally.

Home Rule was really a last chance for democracy to sort out the problem of England's oldest colony. Militants were organising north and south. In January 1913 the Unionists got themselves properly organised as the Ulster Volunteer Force, and started trying to buy weapons from Germany. In November the Nationalists responded by forming the Irish Volunteers. Bonar was playing with fire.

Lloyd George and Winston Churchill, 1910
When everyone else appeared to be loosing their heads, one politician emerged as the surprising face of reason. Winston Churchill was at this time a Liberal, and a surprisingly likeable person. He helped draft the People's Budget, and set up National Insurance and Labour Exchanges. On Ulster he saw clearly that both Home Rule was unstoppable, and that if only the Unionist counties of Ulster would secede from the rest of Ireland, something approaching a compromise could be worked out. His reward for such wisdom was for his car to be attacked by a Protestant crowd and nearly overturned, causing his wife to have a miscarriage.

The Unionists instead continued their battle again the bill. In March 1914 the government decided that something needed to be done about the UVF, and ordered the army north.

When this news reach the Curragh barracks, the main Army base in Ireland, 61 officers said they would resign rather than carry out the orders. For the first time since the Civil War, the Army had decided to intervene in British politics. The implications for the government were clear; they could fight the Nationalists if they wanted to, but not the Unionists. It was the beginning of the end for Home Rule.

Landing the guns at Howth, 1914
The next month the Unionists landed 25000 German rifles and 5 million rounds of ammunition at Larne, in an operation run with military precision, without the authorities raising a finger. The Nationalist responded with a smaller, and rather more shambolic, mission of their own, landing a thousand antiquated rifles from the yacht of the author Erskine Childers at Howth. This time the authorities did act and, although they didn't intercept the weapons, soldiers killed four civilians when confronted by an angry crowd.

But even as Ireland spiralled towards war, the government was facing an insurgency closer to home.

Suffragette in Glossop, Derbyshire
In the middle of the nineteenth century the Chartists had come close to calling for votes for women, but the issue had faded with their cause. It revived in the new century. Led by a trio of Pankhursts, the Suffragettes broke windows, attacked country houses of politicians and then turned their subsequent imprisonment into a headache for the authorities by going on hunger strike.

The movement was strangely fractured. Emmeline, the matriarch of the clan, led from the front; in and out of prison, surviving hunger strikes and the horrors of the feeding tube. Daughter Christabel was in Paris, the figurehead of the movement, whilst her sister Sylvia was in the East End.

But all was not well in the Pankhurst family. Sylvia's dealing with Working Class women, socialist men, and even democrac,y drew her mother's scorn. Emmeline only wanted "picked women" who would "march in step like an army".

The Derby, 1913
At the forefront of that army was Emily Davidson. Census night of 1911 saw her hiding in a broom cupboard in the Palace of Westminster, so that one woman at least could claim to be in Parliament.

However most of her activities were a lot spikier than that. People's Budget not withstanding, Lloyd George was in her sights. She attacked a man in the street who looked like him and blew up a house that was being built for him.

The week after the Rite of Spring debuted, she became the movement's own blood sacrifice, as she died beneath the hooves of the King's horse at the Derby, apparently whilst trying to attach a Suffragette flag to it.

Churchill was once again the unlikely voice of reason, suggesting a referendum on the issue, but he was ignored. Instead the government relied on the police and, ultimately, the feeding tube to try to keep a lid on the issue.

But whilst the Suffragettes were certainly a nuisance to the government, they were not about to bring the country to its knees. The Trade Unions though, might just do so.

An abridged version of socialist history has a steady march to equality and justice, but the truth was that progress was much more uneven. In the first half of the nineteenth century it appeared on several occasions that the country was heading for revolution, with the last great panic being over Chartism in 1848, when future Prime Minister William Gladstone was to be found, next to his fellow Liberals, with a billy club in his hand as a Special Constable, awaiting the marchers who were descending on the Capital.

Since then the Unions had become the moderate wing of socialism, and the Labour Party which they formed, although far too radical for the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst, only advocating a gradual and constitutional move towards liberty.

That changed with the new century as Syndicalist ideas crossed the Channel from France. It was never clear if Syndicalism was seen as an end or just a means. Did these strikers see themselves as vanguards of the socialist revolution, or did they just want a pay rise? For the young radicals who led the movement it was clearly the former, but for the workers who followed them, most either non-unionised or acting in defiance of the union leadership, it was probably the latter, a way of arresting the fall in wages relative to their social superiors.

The Liberals had been good to the Working Class in many ways, introducing pensions, National
Strikers in Liverpool, 1911
Insurance and the Labour Exchange. But Liberalism never went further than providing a safety net for the worker, and would never advocate that he or she should ever aspire to the wealth or lifestyle of the Middle Classes.

So the workers took to Syndicalism and strikes paralysed industry after industry, city after city. Riots started, police reinforcement's were sent in and so was the army.

Churchill again stood out as a voice of sanity, lambasting Welsh mine owners who complained the police weren't cracking enough skulls, and even holding back the army on occasion, but he was now at the Admiralty and too busy building Dreadnoughts to fight the Germans to sort out industrial relations. However, whilst he may have stopped the Welsh mine owners using the Metropolitan police as their own private army, he also switched his battleships from running on Welsh coal and on to Persian oil, in a move the consequences of which we are still living with today.

Rally in Dublin, 1913
The government's main weapon against the Syndicalists was not in the end the army, but a civil servant called George Askwith, who negotiated amicable endings to disputes and prevented regional stoppages becoming General Strikes. The Germans also lent a hand too, racking up the international tension by sending a gunboat to Morocco and thus making striking dockers look unpatriotic.

But for the Syndicalists these strikes were only the preliminary skirmishes. Already they had crossed the Irish sea and made links, via James Connolly, with the Irish Nationalists. Although the workers remained divided, and a strike in Dublin came to an abrupt end when pickets tried to shut down a laundry run by nuns and incurred the wrath of the Catholic Church, the government had realised it faced the nightmare prospect of a Nationalist uprising in Ireland being backed by strike action on the mainland.

For the Syndicalists the next stage was a General Strike, and come 1914 the new and radical leaders of the major Trade Unions were already pencilling in September or October as the date.

Ulster Volunteer Force, 1913
So that was Britain on the eve of war, with the Unionist in Ireland preparing armed conflict against their own government, the army prepared to mutiny rather than fight them, the Suffragettes taking on the establishment wherever they could and the Trade Unions preparing to bring the entire country to a halt.

How it would have ended had not a man called Archie Duke shot and ostrich because he was hungry (as Baldrick said) we don't know.

Instead the war changed everything. The Prime Minister and leader of the Unionists had a quiet word, and Home Rule was shelved. The Suffragettes threw in the towel and Christabel Pankhurst went around handing out white feathers to any man she found out of uniform; including wounded soldiers and troops on leave, whilst calling for all Germans to be interned. Workers solidarity collapsed too. In both Germany and Britain the Trade Unions supported the war and the Working Class of both sides took up arms and massacred each other in industrial quantities. The poets and the composers also went off to war, and mostly didn't return.

General Strike, 1928
There was an eventually General Strike, but it was a lack lustre affair. The workers followed their leaders out on strike with the same loyalty, but no more enthusiasm, than they had followed their social superiors over the top on the Somme and Churchill, now apparently cured of his liberalism, sent out armoured cars to meet them.

The world had entered an Age of Extremes, in which the old enemies of the workers seemed almost like friends compared to the new enemies.

And so the English Establishment limps on. Still running the country, still making a hash of things, but still surviving.