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2017-07 No1 Aurora Goddess of Dawn by Heidi Wastweet 2003

MONTHLY BLOG 79, 2017 – ANOTHER SUMMER OF LOVE?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Youth, youth: ‘it’s wasted on the young’, etc. But not this time. Having in my BLOG/78 (June 2017) chastised the young for not voting,1 it’s only right now to applaud their mass re-entry into electoral politics at the June 2017 General Election. It makes a huge difference across the board. And I’m not writing that purely as a Labour Party grass-root (though the majority of new young voters did vote Labour). I’m writing that because systemic non-participation of those who can potentially play a role is bad for the wider community, generating a simmering mood of distrust, cynicism, negativism and alienation. Are we ready for another summer of love, fifty years after 1967?
2017-07 No1 Aurora Goddess of Dawn by Heidi Wastweet 2003

Aurora Goddess of Dawn
© Heidi Wastweet (2003)

Of course, there is an electoral proviso. In 2017, youth turnout was 57 per cent among 18 to 19 year-olds, 59 per cent among 20 to 24 year-olds, and 64 per cent among 25 to 29 year-olds.2 All those figures marked significant increases over comparable levels in 2015, when turnout by those aged 18-24 was somewhere between 43-44 percent.3 Yet there is still room for more. And there was no doubt much regional variation, with especially high youth participation in constituencies with many students on the electoral roll, and lower participation elsewhere. But, hey, no complaints: it is a great development, from the point of view of a properly functioning democracy, full stop. And the return to the language of solidarity and love, after recent atrocities, is a splendid antidote to years of political emphasis upon atomised individuals.

Many of the young electors in their 20s who joined the Labour campaign in Battersea 2017 remind me of my own peer group in our 20s when we joined the Labour Party in the later 1960s.4 We too were full of energy and optimism. Also slightly naïve, in retrospect. But full of collective and individual confidence that we could resolve the problems of the world.5

In sociological terms, there are similarities too: lots of well educated activists, coming from middle-class backgrounds or from rising families, one generation up from the working class. However, one visible difference now, in London at any rate, is a welcome one: the ethnic composition of young Labour activists is much more relaxedly mixed than it was in our youth – reflecting long-term changes in the broader society – and changes among our friends and within our own families too.

What happened to the current of youth optimism and participation in the 1960s? It achieved quite a lot, especially in cultural, gender and ethnic politics. But it got diverted in the 1970s into a rampant individualism in lifestyles (‘tune in, drop out and do your own thing’) which eventually led to a form of anti-politics. Youth protests fizzled out. Moreover, the leftish youth politics of the 1960s triggered a militant counter-cultural resistance from the right, which fostered the successes in the 1980s of Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the USA. Their hostility to ‘the Sixties’ was, in its way, a compliment to the impact of youth culture. Their successful counter-attack, however, simultaneously revealed how vulnerable, divided, and disorganised the Sixties cultural moment was and remained. It lacked the capacity to organise and survive.

Will the current youth involvement also fade away and eventually become dissipated? It’s an obvious risk. It’s hard for a mass movement to remain radiantly optimistic all the time, especially when encountering defeats as well as victories. On the other hand, there’s no necessity for history to repeat itself. The anti-state, anti-regulation, laissez-faire nostrums of the hard political right are now in trouble. The time is ripe for a Zeitgeist shift, which is already happening.

Furthermore, the young electorate today has a lot of really practical issues upon which to focus: the cost of education; the lack of available housing; the degradation of work conditions in the gig-economy; the need to surmount ethnic, class and religious divisions; and so forth. Such issues should help to keep the political focus strongly upon the immediate and the practical. I hope that lots of youthful activists will stand for office, locally and nationally; and/or work in community and political organisations on the ground, to prevent the current surge of involvement from becoming atomised and dissipated.

Oh yes, and another thing: those who really want to achieve changes have to dig in for the long haul. It means getting into organisations and sticking with them. And that means working with the continuing ‘golden oldies’ from successive generations, who were once themselves optimistic youth. Let everyone, who wishes to be a youthful activist, be allowed to be one, without age discrimination.

Battersea Labour provides a sterling example. Charlotte Despard (1844-1939) campaigned for many causes during her long lifetime, after becoming triggered into grass-roots activism at the age of 40. Among other things, she was a suffragette, a founder of Labour in Battersea, and an advocate of non-violent resistance, who influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King.6 Charlotte Despard’s last public engagement saw her addressing a mass anti-fascist rally in Trafalgar Square in June 1933. She was then a young old lady aged 89. Let’s hope that we all stay as committed and indefatigable as was Despard, so that Solidarity and Love last for more than a summer.

2017-07 No2 Despard in Trafalgar Square 1933

Charlotte Despard, at the age of 89, addressing an Anti-Fascist Rally in Trafalgar Square in June 1933: photo by James Jarché for the Daily Herald

1 P.J. Corfield, ‘Who Cares? Getting People to Vote’, Monthly BLOG/78 (June 2017)

2 Voters by Age from YouGov survey, as reported in The Independent, 14 June 2017: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/election-2017-labour-youth-vote-under-40s-jeremy-corbyn-yougov-poll-a7789151.html

3 From Ipsos/MORI survey, as reported by Intergenerational Foundation (2015): http://www.if.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/How-did-young-people-vote-at-the-2015-general-election.pdf

4 We appear in DVD Red Battersea: One Hundred Years of Labour, 1908-2008 (2008), directed by M. Marchant; scripted by P.J. Corfield. Available on YouTube: http://youtu.be/ahKt1XoI-II; and also via Battersea Labour Party website: http://www.battersealabour.co.uk/redbattersea

5 A. Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, c.1958-74 (Oxford, 1998); T. Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York, 1993); J.S. Baugess and A.A. Debolt (eds), Encyclopedia of the Sixties: A Decade of Culture and Counterculture (Oxford, 2012).

6 See P.J. Corfield, ‘Commemorating Battersea’s Charlotte Despard … in Battersea’, Battersea Matters, ed. J. Sheridan (Autumn, 2016), p. 11; M. Mulvihill, Charlotte Despard: A Biography (1989).

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Jeremy-Corbyn-with-bike

MONTHLY BLOG 57, RIDING THE TIDES OF HISTORY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

Having BLOG-speculated about the Labour Party transforming itself by changing its name,1 I am intrigued to find instead that the Labour Party is transforming itself by broadening its membership, with a massive grass-roots surge since the general election in May 2015. It’s one step towards marshalling a broad coalition of anti-Conservative forces. But this development brings with it some obvious risks, like the dangers of chronic divisions and organisational splits. It will require great skill and team leadership, and goodwill on all sides, to weld together those in the political centre-Left with all those further Left.

Riding the turbulent tides of history is not an easy task. Without the benefits of hindsight (which helps historians but is not available to immediate political commentators), people have to do the best they can and hope that the outcome vindicates them. This BLOG is about the current upheaval within the Labour Party, now that the initially unfancied outsider Jeremy Corbyn has won the leadership.

It must be both a strange and exhilarating experience for a back-bencher aged 66, now to be riding the tides of history. Corbyn has been an assiduous MP for Islington North since 1983 but has never been a minister or previously stood for high office in the Labour Party. Instead, he has focused his efforts upon left-wing lobby groups and public campaigns.2 He is famous for the number of times that he has defied the Labour Party whips in parliament. Now, however, he is articulating a set of attitudes within the Left which have been without a senior voice on mainstream platforms for many years. The result has been a great surge of enthusiasm for his campaign, which no other candidate for the leadership showed any sign of matching.

Here are three thoughts about the Corbyn phenomenon. First, he is articulating something of importance. The fulminations of his opponents within the Labour Party hierarchy make that clear. He is the man of the moment. For Corbyn, his views are not at all new. He is not announcing a conversion. But the novelty for his growing band of supporters comes from hearing such views articulated passionately at a time, after the disastrous 2015 election defeat, when there is widespread disillusionment with Labour’s centrist trimming and when there is a novel opportunity, with a Labour leadership contest not only without a clear centrist front-runner but also conducted under a new populist franchise.

In the olden days, History scholarship candidates used to write essays debating the relative importance of the individual and the deep trends of history. The answer is always a key combination of both. People are the active agents who crystallise the trends; and key individuals, inside or outside formal organisations, are those who are able to seize and to personify the moment.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose historical philosophy firmly enshrined the importance of grand trends, was stirred by viewing in the flesh one of these significant ‘world-historical’ personages. It was at Jena, in mid-Germany, in October 1806. The French had decisively defeated the fabled might of the Prussian army. Hegel, who then resided in Jena, described in a letter how he witnessed a small hunched man ride by, seated on a grey horse. 3

2015-9 No1 Detaille Evening after Jena

Fig. 1: Captured Prussian flags being presented by French troops to the Emperor Napoleon after the Battle of Jena (1806), as depicted by Édouard Detaille in the late nineteenth century.

He was the victorious Napoleon, then aged 37. ‘It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it . . . this extraordinary man, whom it is impossible not to admire’, confessed the usually calm and reticent Hegel, an unknown scholar who was also aged 37. The small figure of Bonaparte was the incarnation of France’s post-revolutionary expansionism in both ideas and military force, which was routing traditional authority across Europe. Later, of course, Napoleon’s star waned decisively. Yet for a while he not only represented but moulded history, aided by his generals, his army, the dynamic energy unleashed by the French Revolution, and the disarray of France’s opponents.

Corbyn is no Napoleon. He seems personally too pleasant and downbeat in style; plus he rides a bicycle. In 2013 he explained to a local journalist his avoidance of seeking high office in the Labour Party on the grounds that ‘I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror’.4 Nonetheless, Corbyn is today the person of the moment on the British Left. He was the comrade who was bold enough to stand for the Labour leadership this time round. His bold, clear ideas have resonance after years of cautious compromise. And his casual unbuttoned persona makes him an attractive antidote to most of today’s overly tailored and straight-jacketed Westminster politicians. So it’s Corbyn’s time to benefit from the historical tides, and thus to have the chance also to mould events.

Jeremy-Corbyn-with-bike

Fig. 2: A casual Jeremy Corbyn, with bike and mug of tea.

Secondly, it is equally obvious that the tides can ebb as well as flow. The careers of Napoleon in exile, and of many other ‘world-historical’ figures in eclipse after their great days, stand eloquent testimony to that truth. People, who have held the levers of power, frequently find it difficult to realise when their ‘magical’ time has passed. Look at Tony Blair, now aged 62. He commanded the British political stage from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, when things began to go wrong for him. As a result, his appeal is now spent, as everyone but he appears to realise, to such an extent that his political interventions are now proving to be counterproductive. The best thing to do, if the tide has ebbed decisively, is to retire from the hotspot with dignity (ideally, finding good deeds to undertake, out of the limelight) and to wait for history to give its ultimate verdict.

But there is a third important reflection: a favourable tide gives a great opportunity if used constructively. It usually benefits best not just from a charismatic leader but also from a good set of long-term organisers on the team; enthusiastic and committed foot soldiers; an energising cause, well articulated; timely ideas; plus a tactical flexibility as well as a good strategic ability to wrong-foot all opponents. Another very helpful component is the support of an able successor, who comes from the next political generation but who is not a rival. As that list reveals, it takes a lot of favourable factors to ride the tides of history successfully, especially over the long term. Nonetheless, it can be done; and the attempt itself is exhilarating.

For any individual, to figure at the heart of history, successfully commanding the ‘Now’ of the present moment, is a great, almost dizzying, experience. It’s a sensation most commonly open to leaders or those vying for leadership positions. But it can happen excitingly for anyone ‘great or small’, in a spiritual or political sense, who believes that they have had a personal ‘call’ to action, as in a spiritual awakening or mission. A thrilling sense of being personally at the heart of history can (for example) get individuals to do amazing and abnormal things, like travelling to far off lands to fight in distant wars.

History’s grand trends often seem impersonal and remote. Yet they are simultaneously the product of countless actions and inactions by countless individuals and groups. So history is also close at hand and personal – not least for leaders who emerge to ride and maybe to redirect the tides. Stirring times.

1 See PJC BLOG/ 55 (July 2015) ‘Post-Election Meditations: Should the Labour Party Change its Name?’ and BLOG/ 56 (Aug. 2015), ‘More Post-Election Meditations: On Changing the Labour Party’s Name’.

2 For details see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeremy_Corbyn.

3 For G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) on Napoleon, see T. Pinkard, Hegel: A Biography (Cambridge, 2000), p. 228. See also J. McCarney, Hegel on History (London, 2000); and S. Houlgate, An Introduction to Hegel: Freedom, Truth and History (Oxford, 2005).

4 P. Gruner, ‘As He Reaches 30-Year Milestone, Islington North Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn Reflects on his Career in Politics’, Islington Tribune, 7 June 2013.

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BDFH6R VICTORIAN FACTORY - Cartoon satirising the sweat-shops where clothing was mass produced in conditions of great hardship.

MONTHLY BLOG 55, POST-ELECTION MEDITATIONS: SHOULD THE LABOUR PARTY CHANGE ITS NAME?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

Supporting the losing party in a general election campaign is not fun.1  But it does provide space for fresh thoughts. Mine are as follows.The Labour Party needs to update its name. It is now over one hundred years old. Its name is historic but not sacrosanct. The term ‘Labour’ has some excellent qualities: it evokes good honest toil (‘the labourer is worthy of his hire’), as opposed to idle feckless sponging. But as a socio-political marker, it doesn’t match the realities of life in Britain today.

The original name for ‘Labour’ sprang from an old binary division between ‘Capital’ and ‘Labour’. It worked well in a northern industrial mill town like (say) Preston.3  There, a few big capitalist bosses employed a massive industrial workforce of manual workers. Hence it was not unreasonable for the workers to view their interests as structurally different from those of their employers (even if in certain circumstances the two sides might share a common interest in keeping the industry afloat). The same division might also apply in smaller workshops too, where wages were kept particularly low. So the following Victorian cartoon of a clothing sweat-shop (illus.1) highlighted the murderous gulf between uncaring Capital and sweated Labour.

BDFH6R VICTORIAN FACTORY - Cartoon satirising the sweat-shops where clothing was mass produced in conditions of great hardship.

BDFH6R VICTORIAN FACTORY – Cartoon satirising the sweat-shops where clothing was mass produced in conditions of great hardship.

Illustration 1: satire of a Victorian Sweat-Shop, with an unmissable message.
Copyright © Pictorial Press Ltd

But, from the start, the model of a few big exploitative bosses versus many exploited workers did not apply in all circumstances. There were areas, like the Birmingham metalware district, where small and medium-sized workshops prevailed.4 Masters and men were much closer in their working relationships; and there was much more movement up and down the industrial ladder. And in all circumstances, there were enlightened employers, as well as exploitative ones.

As a result, the stark Labour/Capital divide was a myth as a universal state of affairs. Or, rather, it was a partial reality, generalised to stand proxy for a variegated whole.

Today, a deep binary chasm is even less convincing as an expression of how the entire British economy works. Neither ‘Capital’ nor ‘Labour’ has a pristine separateness. In practice, they are muddled and overlapping, just as class divisions are comparatively fuzzy today. Capital and Labour do appear in formal models of the economy as two fundamental resources;5  but such abstractions do not automatically map onto the day-to-day economic activity of individuals.

Take Capital: lots of people today have capital assets, whether in the form of real property or investments. They include most of the professional and commercial middle class and a number of manual workers from the working class, particularly those who purchased their former Council homes.6 Indeed, the extension of home ownership was precisely viewed by the Conservative Party as a strategy to blur any notional Capital/Labour divide. In practice, the right-to-buy policy is not quite working as the Conservatives envisaged. Growing numbers of former Council houses are being purchased on the open market, in the context of today’s acute housing shortage, and being converted back into properties for rent, only this time organised by private letting empires.7

Nonetheless, the general point holds good. Owners of capital in property and investments include not just big businessmen and the ‘idle rich’ who live on investment income – but also a huge swathe of people (both working and retired), including most of the middle-class and a section from working-class backgrounds.

Or take Labour: lots of people work hard for their living but are not sociologically classified as manual workers. People from middle-class occupations, whether commercial or professional, are workers who do not define themselves across-the-board as Labour. Most don’t, chiefly because they also own Capital.

It’s true that, historically and still currently, significant numbers of middle-class professionals do broadly identify with the Labour Party, especially if they come from the liberal professions (teachers, doctors, some lawyers). The early Labour Party tried to accommodate these activists into the Labour/Capital divide by classifying the Labour membership in Clause 4 as ‘workers by hand or by brain’. But that is not a very happy distinction. ‘Workers by hand’ could be taken to imply, condescendingly, that manual workers don’t really think. And ‘workers by brain’ doesn’t really appeal as a self-definition across the large and amorphous middle class. For example, plenty of shopkeepers do think but wouldn’t define themselves as ‘brainworkers’.

Anyway, it’s not just the middle classes who don’t identify with Labour as a social category. As a literal label, it has many other blank areas. It does not cover substantial swathes of the non-working population (the retired; the out-of-work); or the intermittently employed (casual workers); or the non-gainfully employed (interns).

Remember that, in 2011, only 9% of the workforce in England and Wales was employed in the manufacturing sector (down from 36% in 1841).8  That figure included many in large factories (some harmonious, some confrontational) but also many in small intimate workshops, where cooperation is stressed.

And remember too that, in 2011, a massive majority of the workforce – 81% (up from 33% in 1841) – was engaged in the service sector. That contains a great variety of occupations and workplace situations. It also employs 92% of all women in work. Many service industry jobs are specifically organised around a principle of cooperation and conciliation. Where they provide commercial services, the mantra has it that clients are ‘always right’ (even if they aren’t). As a result, the service sector favours an ethos of caring ‘service’ rather than one of binary conflict.

Furthermore, another fast-growing group today straddles the Capital/Labour divide by definition. These are the self-employed. They are simultaneously their own boss and their own workforce. Either way, these people again are not unambiguously Labour, even though many work very hard and often struggle.

So the name of Labour is tricky for a political party seeking a democratic majority. It alienates many of the middle classes. It doesn’t talk meaningfully to the self-employed. And it is not even a clear identifier for all the working class. But Labour’s language still pretends that factory workers are the norm. The problems within this terminology probably accounts for the subliminal note of unease in the speeches of the predominantly middle-class activists among the Labour leadership. They sound as though they are not sure whom they are addressing – and on whose behalf they are speaking. In the 2015 election campaign, ‘hard-working families’ was used to give Labour a human embodiment. Yet, since the phrase appeared to exclude all single people, childless couples, unemployed people, and pensioners, it didn’t really help.

These points are not intended to deny that plenty of things are very wrong in today’s society. They are. Economic exploitation has not disappeared. And new problems have emerged. In a world where Labour and Capital are interlocked, there’s a massively good case for promoting greater equality and social cooperation.9  Everyone will benefit from that. But today’s task can only be done by using today’s language. Labour needs a name which embraces all the people.10

1 See PJC, ‘Post-Election Special: On Losing?’ Monthly BLOG/54 (June 2015).

2 Personal: I was reared in a Labour household; cut my political teeth as a Labour canvasser in my mid-teens; was a Labour Councillor in my late 20s; have held many local Labour Party posts; currently, one of organisers of Battersea Labour Party; and don’t intend to stop.

3 The urban model for Charles Dickens’s Coketown in his Hard Times (1854).

4 See e.g. D. Smith, Conflict and Compromise: Class Formation in English Society, 1830-1914 – A Comparative Study of Birmingham and Sheffield (1982).

5 Classic resources for economic production are capital; land; and labour; to which a fourth factor of entrepreneurship is sometimes added.

6 Future research will show what percentage of former tenants who purchased Council properties at a discount remained as property-owners over the long term (whether retaining the original properties or trading up) and what percentage sold their properties and exited the property market. For accusations that some poor tenants are being fraudulently ‘gifted’ with funds to purchase their properties at a discount and then to sell on immediately to private speculators, see Claire Ellicott report in Daily Mail online, 12 Jan. 2015.

7 As reported in many newspapers and trade journals – e.g. ‘Right to Buy turns Ex-Council Homes into Buy-to-Let Goldmine’, Letting Agent Today (24 July 2012); ‘Private Landlords Cash in on Right to Buy’, The Observer (12 July 2014).

8 All statistics from Britain’s Office of National Statistics, based upon 2011 census returns for England and Wales: see http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/census/2011-census-analysis/170-years-of-industry/170-years-of-industrial-changeponent.html

9 R. Wilkinson and K. Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always do Better (2009); A.B. Atkinson, Inequality: What Can be Done? (Cambridge, Mass., 2015).

10 Institutional inertia makes change difficult but I believe that a new name or a modification of Labour’s old name (not New Labour!) can emerge from debates within the movement.

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MONTHLY BLOG 23, WHY DO POLITICIANS UNDERVALUE HISTORY IN SCHOOLS ?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2012)

Isn’t it shocking that, in the UK, school-children can give up the study of History at the age of 14? Across Europe today, only Albania (it is claimed) shares that ignoble distinction with Britain. A strange pairing. Who knows? Perhaps the powers-that-be in both countries believe that their national histories are so culturally all-pervasive that children will learn them by osmosis. Perhaps Britons in particular are expected to imbibe with their mother’s milk the correct translation of Magna Carta?

Despite my unease at David Cameron’s embarrassing displays of historical ignorance, my complaint is not a party political one. As a Labour supporter, I’ve long been angry with successive Labour Education Ministers between 1997 and 2010, who have presided uncaringly over the long-running under-valuing of History. (Their lack of enthusiasm contrasts with continuing student demand, which indeed is currently booming).

For critics, the subject is thought to focus myopically upon dates, and upon kings, queens and battles. Students are believed to find the subject ‘boring’; ‘irrelevant’; ‘useless’. How can learning about the ‘dead past’ prepare them for the bright future?

New Labour, born out of discontent with Old Labour, was too easily tempted into fetishing ‘the new’. For a while, the party campaigned under a vacuous slogan, which urged: ‘The future, not the past’. Very unhistorical; completely unrealistic. It’s like saying ‘Watch the next wave, forget about the tides’. Yet time’s seamless flow means that the future always emerges from the past, into which today’s present immediately settles.

It seems that the undervaluing of studying the past stems from a glib utilitarianism. Knowledge is sub-divided into many little pieces, which are then termed economically ‘useful’ or the reverse. Charles Clarke as Labour Education Minister in 2003 summed up this viewpoint. He was reported as finding the study of Britain’s early history to be purely ‘ornamental’ and unworthy of state support. In fact, he quickly issued a clarification. It transpired that it was the ‘medieval’ ideal of the university as a community of scholars that Clarke considered to be obsolescent, not the study of pre-Tudor history as such.1

Yet this clarification made things worse, not better. Clarke had no sympathy for the value of open-ended learning, either for individuals or for society at large. The very idea of scholars studying to expand and transmit knowledge – let alone doing so in a community – was anathema. Clarke declared that Britain’s education system should be designed chiefly to contribute to the British economy. It was not just History, he implied, but all ‘unproductive’ subjects that should be shunned.

The well-documented reality that Britain’s Universities have an immensely positive impact upon the British economy2 was lost in the simplistic attempt to subdivide knowledge into its ‘useful’ and ‘useless’ components.

By the way, it’s this sceptical attitude which has pressurised the Universities, much against their better judgement, into the current Research Excellence Framework’s insistence on rating the economic impact of academic research. An applied engineer’s treatise on How to build a Bridge becomes obviously ‘useful’. But a pure mathematician’s proof of a new theorem seems ‘pointless’.

How does contempt for learning originate in a political party whose leaders today are all graduates? It seems to stem from an imaginary workerism. Politicians without ‘real’ working-class roots invoke a plebeian caricature, as a sort of consolation – or covert apology. Give us the machine-tools, and leave effete book-learning for the toffs! They can waste their time, chatting about ancient Greece but we can build a locomotive.
'Crewe WorksÕ, LMS poster, 1937.

Illustration 1: The male world of skilled railway engineering, proudly displayed in a 1937 poster from Crewe © National Railway Museum, 2012

Such attitudes, however, betray the earnest commitment of the historic Labour movement to the value of learning. From the Chartists in the 1830s, the Mechanics Institutes, the Workers Educational Society, the trade unions’ educational programmes, the great tradition of working-class autodidacts, the campaigns for improved public education, up to and including Labour’s creation of the Open University in the 1960s, all have worked to extend education to the masses.
2012-10 Marsden (Yks) Mechanics Institute 1860

Illustration 2: Mechanics Institutes, like this 1860 edifice from the textile mill-town of Marsden, West Yorkshire, offered education to Britain’s unschooled workers. While not all had the time or will to respond, the principle of adult education was launched. In Marsden this fine landmark building was saved from demolition by local protest in the 1980s and reopened, after restoration, in 1991. © English Heritage 2012

No doubt, educational drives require constant renewal. In Britain from 1870 onwards, the state joined in, initially legislating for compulsory education for all children to the age of 10. And globally, similar long-term campaigns are working slowly, as education reforms do, to banish all illiteracy and to extend and deepen learning for all. It’s a noble cause, needed today as much as ever.

Knowledge meanwhile has its own seamless flow. It doesn’t always advance straightforwardly. At times, apparently fruitful lines of enquiry have turned out to be erroneous or even completely dead ends. Many eighteenth-century scientists, like the pioneer Joseph Priestley, wrongly believed in the theory of ‘phlogiston’ (the fire-principle) to explain the chemistry of combustion and oxidisation. Nonetheless from the welter of speculation and experimentation came major discoveries in the identification of oxygen and hydrogen.3  Today, it may possibly be that super-string theory, which holds sway in particle physics, is leading into another blind alley.4  But, either way, it won’t be politicians who decide. It’s the hurly burly of research cross-tested by speculation, experiment, debate, and continuing research that will adjudicate.

There’s an interesting parallel for History in the long-running debates about the usefulness of knowledge within mathematics. The ‘applied’ side of the subject is easy to defend, as constituting the language of science. ‘Pure’ maths’ on the other hand …? But divisions between the abstract and the applied are never static. Some initially abstruse mathematical formulations have had major applications in later generations. For example, the elegant beauty of Number Theory, originally considered as the height of abstraction, did not stop it from being later used for deciphering codes, in public-key cryptography.5

On the other hand, proof of the infinity of primes has (as yet) no practical application. Does that mean that this speculative field of study should be halted, as ‘useless’? Of course not.

My argument, in pursuing the ‘usefulness’ debates, seems to be drifting away from History. But not really. The mind-set that deplores the ‘useless’ Humanities would also reject the abstraction of the ‘pure’ sciences. But try building a functioning steam locomotive, without any knowledge of history or of formalised mathematics or of the science of mechanised motion, let alone the technology of iron and steel production. It couldn’t be done today. And we know from history that our ever-inventive ancestors didn’t do it in the Stone Age either.

1 Charles Clarke reported in The Guardian, 9 May 2003, with clarification in later edition on same date.

2 The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) commissioned an independent report, which calculated that Britain’s Universities contributed at least £3.3bn to UK businesses in the 2010-11 academic year, as part of a much wider economic impact, both direct and indirect: see www.hefce/news/newsarchive 23 July 2012.

3 J.B. Conant (ed.), The Overthrow of Phlogiston Theory: The Chemical Revolution of 1775-89 (Cambridge, Mass., 1950).

4 For criticisms, see L. Smolin, The Trouble with Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next (New York, 2006); and P. Woit, Not Even Wrong: The Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law (2006).

5 See the debates after G.H. Hardy’s case for abstract mathematics in his A Mathematician’s Apology (1940): see ‘Pure Mathematics’ in www.wikipedia.

  • My November Blog will discuss the relevance of History not only for economics but also for civics.
  • And my December Blog will consider how to ensure that all students study History to the age of 16.

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