Sunday, 30 December 2012

The Anti-Suffragist movement

The anti-suffragist movement aimed to resist any proposal to admit women to the parliamentary franchise and to Parliament but to maintain the principle of the representation of women on municipal and other bodies concerned with the domestic and social affairs of the community. The more active anti-suffragists were prepared to argue about their role in society, speak on public platforms, write articles and campaign for the causes which they believed allowed them to realise their potential for service and self-expression. As Violet Markham said in 1912:

We believe that men and women are different – not similar – beings, with talents that are complementary, not identical, and that they therefore ought to have different shares in the management of the State, that they severally compose. We do not depreciate by one jot or tittle women’s work and mission. We are concerned to find proper channels of expression for that work. We seek a fruitful diversity of political function, not a stultifying uniformity. [1]

The first meeting of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League took place on 21 July with Lady Jersey in the chair. [2] In addition to Mary Ward, its executive committee included Gertrude Bell, the writer and traveller, Ethel Bertha Harrison, a writer and reformer and Joseph Chamberlain’s daughter Beatrice, an active social worker. A small number of men were already actively involved in the League including John Massie and Heber Hart on its executive committee. The first issue of The Anti-Suffrage Review appeared in December 1908 that, especially when Mary Ward wrote for it, gave some intellectual respectability to the anti-suffragist cause. The organisation also included ultra-conservatives such as Lady Havesham and Frances Low who did not believe in Ward’s progressive social feminist view of ‘civic housekeeping’ but in maintaining the separate sphere ideology and resisted her desire for a ‘Forward Policy’. This linked anti-suffragism to calls for social reform, women’s participation in local government and to womanly self-development through the performance of womanly duties to God, family, nation and empire. It emphasised women’s service not women’s rights. [3] Difference between reformers and conservatives did not prevent them collaborating in a membership drive and publicity campaign that resulted in over eighty branches by July 1909.

Anti-Suffrage postcard, 1908

The rhetoric that informed both ‘anti’ and suffragist political argument was remarkably similar. Ward’s view of differentiated citizenship celebrated the distinctive roles of men and women in society while suffragists emphasised what men and women had in common. [4] Her reforming imagination, commitment to women’s service, and sympathetic literary depictions of friendships between women, the hallmarks of much of her fiction, lend weight to the argument that there is more common ground between suffragists and ‘antis’ than is sometimes supposed. [5] Suffragists and anti-suffragists shared beliefs in sexual difference but disagreed about the extent to which women should carry their particular gifts to the national arena. Suffragists believed that women should reshape national government through the vote, ends with which anti-suffragists disagreed. Millicent Fawcett always considered that Mary Ward was a social reformer whose forte was philanthropic work and that she had somehow wandered into the wrong camp on women’s suffrage.

The earliest achievements of the anti-suffragists were impressive. The Women’s Anti-Suffrage League expanded rapidly and developed a considerable number of branches throughout Britain. In December 1908, it had 2,000 members and by October 1909, around 10,000 members. By April 1910, there were 104 branches; and by April 1912, 235 branches. Analysis of the branch distribution shows that London and the southeast accounted for most of the anti-suffragist effort, 42 per cent of the total membership between 1908 and 1914. The League’s regional pattern of support paralleled Edwardian rural and suburban Conservatism and Brian Harrison argues that, despite its elitist leadership, it appealed widely to the conservative working-class. [6] The movement was weaker in the industrial north and in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. [7] By 1910, Scottish anti-suffragists had established their own affiliated anti-suffrage organisation, the Scottish National Anti-Suffrage League, presided over by the duchess of Montrose and in 1913 affiliated to the League as the Scottish League for Opposing Woman Suffrage. The annual council of the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage was told in 1914 that membership stood at ‘42,000 subscribing members and 15,000 adherents at the end of six years' work…a very good record which compares very favourably with the records of the associations organised by our opponents’. [8] This total included the members of the affiliated Scottish League for Opposing Woman Suffrage. Other records reveal that about five out of every six members of the League were female, and that branch leadership remained largely in the hands of women.

Charles Lane Vicary, Ye Anti Suffrage League, (Printed and Published by the Artists Suffrage League), 1908

In December 1908, male anti-suffragists launched a parallel and much less active Men’s Committee for Opposing Female Suffrage. Although it was skilled at fundraising, it failed to gain popular support. Dominated by the imperialist leadership of Lord Cromer and Lord Curzon, it was a collection of major public figures rather than a nationwide movement. Its supporters also included Rudyard Kipling, and A. V. Dicey but also newspaper editors such as Charles Moberly Bell, editor of The Times and John St Loe Strachey, editor of The Spectator. In a still largely deferential society, a great strength of the anti-suffragists was the list of great men who gave it support. Both groups were set up to be non-party organisations and had members from all parties even though Harrison maintains the Conservatives were the natural home of the anti-suffragists.

Within two years it was clear that both Leagues faced serious practical problems. The Women’s League had little parliamentary influence or sufficient campaign funds, while the Men’s League lacked active campaigners and female support. It was its success in raising a £20,000 anti-suffrage fighting fund that made the prospect of a merger enticing to the anti-suffrage women. They were eager to put their faith in complementary gender roles into practice though not at the cost of abandoning important priorities of the Women's League. In addition, both Leagues feared that a majority of MPs were now in favour of giving votes to women householders. Amalgamation was achieved after months of tortuous negotiation over the name of the new organisation, its constitutional gender balance and the continued endorsement by the Women's League of women's local government work within the objectives of the new, mixed-sex league. [9] In December 1910 the National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage was formally launched, with Lord Cromer as president, Lady Jersey as vice-president and an executive of seven men and seven women. [10]

Between 1911 and 1914, the League’s performance was disappointing, though its achievements were far from negligible.[11] Lord Cromer wanted to focus the campaign on Parliament but anti-suffrage interventions during by-elections proved ineffective and the League was notably unsuccessful in influencing the views of Parliament itself. A parliamentary committee of the League led by Mary Ward’s son Arnold, MP for Watford between 1910 and 1918, failed to rally a united opposition, even though growing militancy checked the advancing tide of parliamentary suffrage support. [12] In addition, the League’s leadership suffered from divisions exacerbated by Cromer’s difficulty in collaborating with independently-minded women. Supporters of the ‘forward policy’ attempted to press ahead with a positive agenda of local government work and womanly social action, initially organised under the auspices of a separate women’s Local Government Advancement Committee and publicised through the Anti-Suffrage Review. Despite opposition from the League’s male leaders, Mary Ward firmly believed in increasing the role of women in municipal affairs and that the League should do more than occupy itself with ‘opposition and denial’. Lord Cromer and Lord Curzon were hostile to such diversionary activity, a position reinforced by their growing awareness that the anti-suffrage women themselves were far from united behind such a programme. Their hostility was further aggravated by local government campaigning that cut across party politics and appeared to set women’s perceived social needs above those of the anti-suffrage movement.

Although local government work was gradually relegated from the League’s programme during 1911 and 1912, Ward’s backing of Dr Elizabeth Jevons as a candidate for a seat on the London County Council contributed directly to Cromer’s resignation in early 1912. He may have been right in his belief that any attempt to promote wider women’s issues would be politically divisive but his resignation was testimony to the problems he encountered in holding this particular line. He commented to Curzon that he did not have the ‘health, strength, youth and I may add, the temper to go on dealing with these infernal women’. [13] Efforts by the League’s leaders to impose masculine authority within their own headquarters proved equally counter-productive. Lucy Terry Lewis, the leading Women’s League administrator, refused to be upstaged by inferior male colleagues and drew support from fellow supporters of the ‘forward policy’. [14] Though she was driven from office shortly before Cromer’s resignation, male replacements proved ineffective and antagonised the leading women. Peace was only restored when Lord Curzon, Cromer’s successor as president, acknowledged the formidable skills of Gladys Pott, another woman administrator during 1913. [15]

The League could justifiably claim some success in holding a number of large-scale public meetings that demonstrated the harmonious collaboration of male and female opponents of the vote. The most famous, at the Albert Hall on 28 February 1912, attracted 20,000 ticket applications and an audience of over 9,000.[16] Violet Markham, a Liberal Unionist, imperialist and womanly social reformer, made an imposing defence of progressive anti-suffragism, alongside male speakers from both major parties. The marchioness of Tullibardine had almost equal success at a 6,000-strong meeting in Glasgow a few months later, though on that occasion the most striking speech was undoubtedly Lord Curzon’s resounding defence of the British Empire against the suffragist threat. [17] Despite these successes, the anti-suffragists proved less efficient than the suffragists. There is little evidence of working-class women taking part in the anti-suffrage movement though there is some evidence for tacit male working-class support. They also found it difficult to recruit younger middle-class women. Anti-Suffrage League meetings were drab and its press office less effective than either the WSPU and NUWSS. Nonetheless, the League did have most of the press on its side ensuring it communicated its message effectively.

With the outbreak of war, the League swiftly suspended all campaigning, devoting its resources to the war effort. [18] This proved difficult to maintain when patriotic suffragists grasped every opportunity to strengthen their cause through well-advertised war service. Though weakened by the departure of male supporters, the League continued to publish its journal and maintained a low level of anti-suffrage propaganda throughout the war. By 1916, some London branches were demanding a more active stance. During the following year the suffrage issue was again before parliament and women leaders were once again to the fore at the highest levels of the League. By this stage, many long-term supporters including Lord Curzon were prepared to bow to the inevitable. By contrast, Mary Ward, confident in the latent anti-suffragism of the silent majority of British women, was acting chairman as the Representation of the People Bill passed through parliament but her frantic last-minute attempts to check its progress failed. At a determinedly positive final meeting of the League in April 1918, Lady Jersey, Mary Ward, Gladys Pott and Beatrice Chamberlain emphasised the justice of their cause to a post-war future in which women would need to be educated to use their votes wisely. For them, the gendered values of British womanhood remained worthy of defence.


[1] Markham, Violet, Miss Violet Markham’s Great Speech at the Albert Hall, (National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage), 1912.

[2] Ibid, Bush, Julia, Women against the vote: female anti-suffragism in Britain, pp. 163-192.

[3] Bush, Julia, ‘British Women’s Anti-suffragism and the Forward Policy, 1908-14’, Women’s History Review, Vol. 11, (3), (2002), pp. 431-454.

[4] This position was evident in the 1889 Appeal and especially in Harrison Ethel B., The Freedom of Women: an argument against the proposed extension of the suffrage to women, (Watts & Co.), 1908.

[5] For the contradictions in Ward’s work see, Saunders, Valerie, Eve’s Renegades: Victorian Anti-Feminist Women Novelists, (Palgrave), 1997, and Sutton-Ramspeck, Beth, ‘Shot out of the Canon: Mary Ward and the claims of conflicting feminisms’, in Thompson, Nicola Diane, (ed.), Victorian Women Writers and the Woman Question, (Cambridge University Press), 1999, pp. 204-222.

[6] Ibid, Harrison, Brian, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain, pp. 140-141.

[7] For the regional impact of anti-suffragism see, ibid, Wallace, Ryland, The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Wales, 1868-1928, pp. 184-218, and ibid, Leheman, Leah, A Guid Cause: The Women’s Suffrage Movement in Scotland, pp. 70, 106, 192, 215.

[8] Anti-Suffrage Review, Vol. 69, (July 1914), p. 110.

[9] Ibid, Harrison, Brian, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain, pp.128-130.

[10] Owen, Roger, Lord Cromer: Victorian Imperialist, Edwardian Proconsul, (Oxford University Press), 2004, pp. 374-378, examines his anti-suffragist activities.

[11] Ibid, Sutherland, John, Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian, pp. 310-337, considers Mary Ward’s role between 1910 and the outbreak of war.

[12] Arnold Ward was dropped by the Conservative Party as their candidate in Watford for the 1918 General Election. His anti-suffragist credentials would have been a liability in the first election when women could vote.

[13] Cromer to Curzon, 8 February 1912, cit, ibid, Harrison, Brian, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain, p. 134.

[14] Ibid, Harrison, Brian, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain, pp.131-132.

[15] Ibid, Harrison, Brian, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain, p. 184.

[16] Ibid, p. 149.

[17] Ibid, pp. 43, 75.

[18] Ibid, Bush, Julia, Women against the vote: female anti-suffragism in Britain, pp. 257-287, examines the anti-suffragists during the War.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Shifting Sands

Whether the Coalition Government will survive until May 2015 has been one of the questions posed by political pundits since it was formed in 2010.  My gut feeling is that it will be that the relationship between the two unequal partners will change the closer we get to 2015 but that it will survive in some form or another.  Yesterday’s speech by Nick Clegg, a leader whose political star has now sunk so low that it is almost imperceptible, appeared to take the line that ‘if it wasn’t for the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives would have made even greater cuts to the welfare budget and to public services’.  He may well be right but it’s an incredibly weak argument to say you can thank us that things aren’t worse when the public think that they are bad enough already.  So vote Liberal Democrat because the others would be worse is hardly a recipe for electoral revival!! 

As for the Conservatives, well electorally in as bad a place and in the shire constituencies threatened by UKIP especially if it persists with David Cameron’s morally right but politically inept desire to introduce gay marriage.  Whatever the justifications for gay marriage as opposed to civil partnerships and there are many, it was not in the Conservative manifesto in 2010 and in the midst of economic crisis it appears to have little resonance with the public. I can’t see any electoral advantage to be gained by pursuing it at this time, not that politics should be all about electoral gain.    Prime Ministers do have to make decisions that the public may not like and their parties find unpalatable, that’s what leadership is all about.  The problem is that the ‘Westminster village’ is becoming increasingly divorced from the realities of people’s lived experience and with their political aspirations.  If you’ve lost your job, your benefits have been cut and the local government services you used have been closed, gay marriage really is an irrelevance.

There have been two seminal events in British politics in the past fifty years.  The Profumo Scandal in 1963 shattered what was left of the mystique of British government as the press circled the declining power of Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government.  The bank crisis and the MPs’ expenses scandal after 2008 reinforced the public’s view that politicians had little control over global crises and that their primary motivation appeared to be self-aggrandisement at the public’s expense.  That most MPs had acted honourably did not make up for the malfeasance of the minority.  The result is a ‘crisis of governance’ as states adopt policies that have little popular support justifying them as being ‘for the greater good’.  The chimera of representative government has been exposed and increasingly there are calls for a ‘new settlement’ between the people and the state in which the responsibilities of the people and the nature of the modern state are redefined. 

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Opposition to women’s suffrage

Organised opposition to women’s suffrage has almost as long a history as women’s suffrage. [1] A Parliamentary Committee for Maintaining the Integrity of the Franchise was formed in 1875 after the 1875 suffrage bill failed to pass its second reading and was in action when the bill was against debated in 1876 and 1878. The backbone of the Committee was a group of Conservative MPs led by E. P. Bouverie and including Lord Randolph Churchill. Some Liberal MPs became members and some peers. Little more is heard of the Committee after the 1878 bill was defeated and it is probable that it did not survive the election of a new parliament in March 1880. [2]

The first collective protest against suffragism occurred in 1889. [3] Encouraged by Frederic Harrison and James Knowles, editor of the Nineteenth Century, Mary Augusta Ward, the writer Mrs Humphry Ward published an article against demands for the extension of the suffrage to women, signed by 104 prominent women, prominent largely because their husbands were prominent. [4] More than 2,000 women from many parts of Britain signed an accompanying ‘female protest’, though they declined to form a continuous anti-suffrage campaign group. [5] Harrison suggests that this appeal had a considerable effect on decision makers and may have finally persuaded William Gladstone to reveal his opposition to women’s suffrage in 1892. The appeal did not result in the creation of an organisation to fight the growing popularity of the suffragist movement and the case against the vote was advanced largely through the journalistic and literary debate over gender roles during the 1890s, a reaction to the prominence of the ‘New Woman’ in fiction and growing concerns over Britain’s imperial future caused by fears of social and racial degeneracy.

Organised anti-suffragism revived after 1900 especially after the House of Commons passed a suffragist resolution by a large majority in 1904. [6] Some parliamentary anti-suffragists were active and vocal supporters of organised anti-suffragism while others were more reluctant to fuel party divisions and confined their opposition to parliamentary debates and to the voting lobby. Within the Liberal Party, some members such as James Bryce, who had believed in organised opposition for twenty years, provided support for the ‘antis’ even when he was ambassador to Washington between 1907 and 1913. [7] Several MPs played an active role in the National League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage including John Massie, Rudolph Lehmann and Alexander MacCallum Scott. Asquith, as Chancellor of the Exchequer and then Prime Minister, could not become a member of the National League but he was undoubtedly supportive of its aims telling a deputation of anti-suffragists in Downing Street in 1910 that they were ‘preaching to the converted’. More Conservatives and Unionists supported anti-suffragism especially after 1906 when not in government and could be more forthright in their views. In addition to Lord Cromer and Lord Curzon, successive presidents of the National League who feared that women’s suffrage threatened the Empire, other front-bench politicians supported the League including Joseph and Austen Chamberlain, F. E. Smith and Walter Long in the Commons and Lord Lansdowne, Lords George Hamilton and Lord Northcote in the Lords.

Anti-suffragist cartoon, c1910

Women were also mobilising opposition with a number of women writing in The Times and The Spectator in 1905 and 1906 expressing their concern about the growing activity of the suffragists and suffragettes, arguing that it was time for the ‘antis’ to become active. They argued that there was a ‘silent majority’ that supported their views and later during 1908 produced an anti-suffrage petition containing 337,018 signatures. [8] The launch of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League in July 1908 largely through the efforts of Mary Ward who remained as intransigent in her opposition to women’s suffrage as she had been two decades earlier. [9] Her obstinacy cost her dear and is one of the reasons why Edwardians such as Lytton Strachey and H. G. Wells were so keen to abuse and posterity to forget her as a traitor to her sex. Although progressive in her thinking about women’s education and their potential in social reform and local government, Mary Ward was unwavering in her opposition to women’s suffrage. [10] She thought that for women to want to vote was somehow unseemly and instinctively associated the militancy of the WSPU with the Irish outrages that had terrified her in the 1880s. She could tolerate constitutionalist suffragists even if she disagreed with them, but as Sutherland commented, ‘suffragettes were hardly better than Fenians’. [11]


[1] Harrison, Brian, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain, (Croom Helm), 1978, should be complemented by ibid, Bush, Julia, Women against the vote: female anti-suffragism in Britain. See also, Faraut, Martine, ‘Women Resisting the Vote: a case of anti-feminism?’, Women’s History Review, Vol. 12, (2003), pp. 605-622.

[2] Ibid, Harrison, Brian, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain, pp. 115-116.

[3] Ibid, Bush, Julia, Women against the vote: female anti-suffragism in Britain, pp. 141-162, examines anti-suffragism after 1889.

[4] Ward, Mary A., ‘An Appeal Against Female Suffrage’, The Nineteenth Century, June 1889, pp. 781-788, and see also, Fawcett, Millicent Garrett, ‘The Appeal Against Women’s Suffrage: a Reply’, Nineteenth Century, July 1889, pp. 86-96.

[5] Joannou, Maroula, ‘Mary Augusta Ward (Mrs Humphry) and the Opposition to Women’s Suffrage’, Women’s History Review, Vol. 14, (2005), pp. 561-580. See also, Sutherland, John, Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian, (Oxford University Press), 1990, pp. 197-200, and ibid, Harrison, Brian, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain, pp. 252-253.

[6] Bush, Julia, ‘National League for Opposing Woman Suffrage (act. 1910-1918)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/theme/92492, accessed, 25 April 2012]

[7] Like his friend Frederic Harrison, Bryce was a radical by temperament but this did not prevent him strongly opposing women’s suffrage; see Bryce, James, The Hindrances to Good Citizenship, (Yale University Press), 1909, pp. 85, 90, 98, 175, 181, and Seaman Jr., John T., A Citizen of the World: The Life of James Bryce, (I. B. Tauris), 2006, pp. 96-97, 198-199.

[8] This was the largest petition on women’s suffrage since 1874 and the following year suffragists could only manage 288,736 signatures.

[9] Ibid, Sutherland, John, Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian, pp. 299-309, considers her role in 1908 and 1909.

[10] See, for instance, Ward, Humphry, Mrs, ‘Why I Do Not Believe In Woman Suffrage’, Ladies’ Home Journal, Vol. 27, (November 1908), pp. 21-22, ‘Women in Politics and the Vote’, The Times, 20 June 1910, and ‘Mrs Humphry Ward and the Suffrage’, The Times, 19 December 1911.

[11] Ibid, Sutherland, John, Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-eminent Edwardian, p. 200.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Why not give women the vote?

Not all women wanted the vote. Queen Victoria who felt quite capable of ruling an empire and yet opposed women’s suffrage referring to it as ‘this mad, wicked folly’. [1] Many women campaigners, such as Octavia Hill, were convinced that reforms in civil and social rights were of greater moment than political enfranchisement. Most national and regional newspapers, especially The Times were hostile to the women’s suffrage campaign especially after militant action began although this did encourage newspapers to print stories about the suffragettes, providing them with the ‘oxygen’ of publicity. There was a deep-seated fear of change particularly sharing power with women who had never been seen as men’s equals. Opposition to women’s suffrage was frequently instinctively hostile and blatantly prejudiced but much of it was also carefully considered and cogently argued. Throughout the Victorian and Edwardian period, it was deep-rooted and influential, organised and vocal and the ‘antis’ came from across the social and political spectrum and involved women as well as men.

For those who accepted the notion of ‘separate spheres’, and many still did in the 1880s, the role played by men was different (and should be different) from that played by women. [2] While the masculine public sphere was for men, the feminine domestic sphere was for women. [3] Bax went so far as to deny that any oppression of women had occurred at all:

The whole modern women’s movement is based, in a measure, at least, on an assumption which is absolutely unfounded -- to wit, that man has systematically oppressed woman in the past, that the natural tendency of evil-minded man is always to oppress women, or, to put in another way, that woman is the victim of man’s egotism.....[4]

Before the 1872 Ballot Act, voting was ‘open’, a public statement on the hustings and violence and harassment was common. [5] Many men believed that women as ‘the weaker sex’ would not be able to cope with the ‘hurly-burly’ of elections and should be kept out of the political arena. Their strength lay within the family providing support, inspiration and raising children. If the vote was given to women, it might cause political disagreements with their husbands and consequently accelerate the break-up of the family. In short, women were a civilising element in society. Forcing women into a public, political role would detract from their femininity or, as William Gladstone put it in 1892, ‘trespass upon their delicacy, their purity, their refinement, the elevation of their whole nature’. [6] Goldwin Smith, in a letter published in The Times, wrote that women’s real object was ‘nothing less than a sexual revolution…deposing the head of the family, forcing women into male employments, and breaking down…every barrier which Nature or custom has established.’ [7]

The ‘different biology and psychology’ argument was a widely held that women tended to be temperamental and prone to outbursts of emotion so how could such beings be trusted with the franchise? The militant tactics of the WSPU after 1905 reinforced this viewpoint. Anti-suffragists held a number of assumptions about female psychology and physiology. It was argued that women were physically and mentally weaker than men. They were more emotional, unable to grasp abstract questions and slow to make up their minds and that it would be a highly undesirable product of women’s suffrage if women came to shape policy. This was frequently reinforced by their lack of education and it was difficult for many people to believe that women were as capable as men of making intelligent choices as voters. For those who had to conserve their limited energies for the vital and debilitating business of childbearing, politics would simply be too great a strain. The medical profession in general supported these views with scientific authority despite being largely ignorant about female physiology in this period. Sir Almroth Wright, an eminent if eccentric medical practitioner, expressed this view, most notoriously, in the letter published in The Times in 1912 at the height of the suffragette violence that was reprinted the following year. [8] He attacked the suffragettes as frustrated spinsters venting their bitterness on men but he also claimed that women in general were prone to hysteria that made them inadequate to receive the vote. His attack on ‘militants’ as a justification for denying the vote to women was echoed by others. For instance, Harold Owen, wrote:

The fact, then, that Suffragism has been supported by the vehemence and disorderliness of a few woman is no commendation whatever of the vote being granted as an act of grace. Their earnestness is counter-balanced by the orderly earnestness of women who do not want woman to be enfranchised....[9]

This delicacy of nature and also of physique unfitted women formed the key, traditional military role of the citizen. It was claimed, ‘The voter, in giving a vote pledges himself to uphold the consequences of his vote at all costs ... women are physically incapable of this pledge.’ [10] Male suffrage was justified by the fact that men could be called upon to risk their lives for their country, a sacrifice that women would not be asked to make and as a result, did not deserve full citizenship. Some opponents of women’s suffrage pointed out that the maintenance of the British Empire required a large army and because women did not contribute to the defence of Empire, they should not have the vote. Lord Curzon, an ardent anti-suffragist and former Viceroy of India told Glasgow audiences in 1912 that, if women received the vote, the sub-continent would be lost to the Empire.

The logic of their case was that women could properly be entrusted with municipal affairs, while imperial matters were outside their ‘sphere’; but the two doctrines did not combine very happily together. They [the anti-suffragists] had some trouble with their own members, particularly with the imposing array of Peers who were their vice-presidents, since these gentlemen objected just as strongly to the presence of women on borough councils as anywhere else (outside the home); and the spectacle of their troubles was a constantly recurring delight to their opponents... [11]

A further variant was the idea that, since women could not physically enforce the laws they made, men might simply refuse to accept them leading to a breakdown in law and order.

There were also fears about the practical results of enfranchising women. If adult suffrage were granted, there would be about 1.5 million more women voters than men. Government would reflect female views and as women were ‘less virile’ than men were it would result in Britain and the Empire being weakened. To concede even a limited vote would lead eventually to complete suffrage and a female majority that might well push anti-male policies. The eminent jurist A. V. Dicey warned that since women constituted the majority of voters they would be in a position to force Parliament into adopting policies opposed by the male minority.[12] There were also concerns that women would use their new political power to improve their position in the labour force or that they would neglect their domestic duties.

Some opponents of women’s suffrage suggested that the majority of women did not want the vote or at least, did not care whether they had it. This claim was plausible despite the suffragists’ best efforts to disprove it. The Anti-Suffrage League argued that the vote was overvalued. Even though some men had the vote, there was still plenty of poverty, unemployment and low wages. They maintained that it must not be assumed that female suffrage would solve all the problems of women. This view was reinforced by the argument that women themselves did not really want the vote. Suffragists, they claimed, were an unrepresentative and small, if vocal minority and their campaign for ‘their own emancipation’ was watched by most women with what in 1892 Asquith, who had long opposed women’s suffrage, called ‘languid and imperturbable indifference’. [13] Two further and somewhat contradictory arguments were put forward. There was the argument that women were already represented in Parliament by the men in their family. In addition, women already exercised some control over political decision making since leading politicians listened to the views of their wives, mothers and other female acquaintances. Also, since women were incapable of making decisions and would do what the men in the family told them to do, if they had the vote it would lead to some men, in effect, having several votes more than others.

Above all, the anti-suffragists drew strength from the fact that their membership was not exclusively male. Anti-democratic and hostile to the labour and feminist movements of their day which they saw as a threat to marriage and motherhood, they were ridiculed as absurd by supporters of the parliamentary vote for women. Many women, including some who enjoyed a prominent public role such as Octavia Hill, Florence Nightingale and at one time Beatrice Webb, refused to support women’s suffrage although they were often enthusiastic about local government and the need for social action by women to improve the conditions of the poor. For them, involvement in local government was a ‘proper channel’ for ‘womanly’ influence and involved action in areas such as education and the Poor Law, areas of ‘home concerns’ or the upkeep of towns or ‘civic housekeeping’. Mary Ward called women’s civic duties the ‘enlarged housekeeping of the nation’ arguing that their domestic skills were need not just in the private sphere but in the public sphere as well. Bush suggests that the anti-suffrage women leaders were divided into three loose and overlapping groupings, the maternal reformers, the women writers and the imperialist ladies.[14] Although there was a diversity of view, most of the leading women drew their enthusiasm from deeply rooted convictions about womanhood, the nation and empire. It was almost universally assumed that differences between the sexes were natural, and that any major departure from women’s role as wives and mothers would bring social chaos to Britain and the Empire. [15] Their anti-suffragism was social rather than political and reflected the continuing development of their role as women in improving nation and empire. Theirs was a view of citizenship that saw women’s mission as essential to the proper development of the country and in that benign moral vision, the parliamentary vote had no place.

Many of the anti-suffragist arguments represented self-serving pleas by the traditional male elite anxious to preserve its position and authority. On the other hand, there is a danger in dismissing the entire anti-suffragist case simply because today we take it for granted that women should have the vote. From the view of the main women’s middle- and upper-class non-political organisations the anti-suffragist claims were far from absurd and reflected mainstream female opinion on desirable gender roles and on women’s positive role in national life. [16] Large women’s organisations such as the Mothers’ Union were not suffrage organisations and even the Women’s Co-operative Guild with 30,000 members did not adopt women’s suffrage until 1900. Anti-suffragist ballots to test public opinion on women’s suffrage suggested that those opposed to votes for women outnumbered suffragists by two to one. [17] Historians need to explain when and why certain parts of the anti-suffragist case lost their force. In the 1870s and 1880s, it is not obvious that most women were enthusiastic about the vote. Suffrage societies were small pressure groups until well into the first decade of the twentieth century and shared similar beliefs with anti-suffragists about their social mission to strengthen the family both at home and in the empire through their participation in social activism.


[1] Queen Victoria to Sir Theodore Martin, 29 May 1870, cit, ibid, Rover. Constance, Women’s Suffrage and Party Politics, 1866-1914, p. 34.

[2] Hart, Heber L., Women’s Suffrage and National Danger: A Plea for the Ascendency of Man, (Alexander and Shepheard), 1889, pp. 89-188..

[3] Delap, Lucy, and Heilmann, Ann, (eds.), Anti-feminism in Edwardian literature, 6 Vols. (Thoemmes Continuum), 2006, Heilmann, Ann, and Sanders, Valerie, ‘The rebel, the lady and the ‘anti’: Femininity, anti-feminism, and the Victorian woman writer’, Women’s Studies International Forum, Vol. 29, (2006), pp. 289-300.

[4] Bax, E. Belfont, The Fraud of Feminism, , (Grant Richards Ltd.), 1913, pp. 173-174.

[5] Kinzer, Bruce, The Ballot Question in Nineteenth-Century English Politics, (Garland), 1982.

[6] Gladstone to Samuel Smith MP, 11 April 1892, Matthew, H. C. G., (ed.), The Gladstone Diaries, Vol. 13, 1892-1896, (Oxford University Press), 1994, p. 19.

[7] The Times, 26 May 1896.

[8] Wright, A. E., ‘Militant Hysteria’, The Times, 28 March 1912, reprinted in Wright, Sir Almroth E, The Unexpurgated Case against Woman Suffrage, (Constable and Company Ltd.), 1913, pp. 77-86

[9] Owen, Harold, Woman Adrift. The Menace of Suffragism, (Stanley Paul), 1912, pp. 138-139.

[10] NUWSS, Anti-Suffrage Arguments, (Templar Printing Works), 1913, a poster.

[11] Ibid, Strachey, Ray, The Cause, 1928, pp. 319-320.

[12] Dicey, A. V., Letters to a Friend on Votes for Women, (John Murray), 1909, pp. 69-70.

[13] Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 27 April 1892, Vol. 3, c1510.

[14] Bush, Julia, Edwardian Ladies and Imperial Power, (Leicester University Press), 2000, pp. 170-192.

[15] Bush, Julia, Women against the vote: Female Anti-Suffragism in Britain, (Oxford University Press), 2007, pp. 23-139.

[16] Ibid, p. 4.

[17] Ibid, p. 5, results were summarised in The Anti-Suffrage Handbook, (National Press Agency), 1912.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Further causes of E. P. Thompson

Edward Thompson’s conceptualisation of experience is an important theoretical contribution in understanding history and in particular, the formation of class consciousness.[1] While the historical writing of Marx and Engels was generally subtle, the way they summarised the relationship between social being and consciousness was often crude or incomplete.  In practice, experience of the relations of production is continuous and its impact on consciousness on-going. But this does not mean it is predetermined since a specific form of exploitation does not automatically lead to a predetermined class consciousness. The working class is neither automatically revolutionary as a result of its position nor a helpless victim of the ideological dominance of its ruling class. ‘No ideology is wholly absorbed by its adherents: it breaks down in practice in a thousand ways under the criticism of impulse and of experience,’ Thompson observed.[2] At the same time, he vigorously rejected the notion that consciousness is independent of economics, posing the dialogue between social being and social consciousness as central to the historical process.[3]

Of all Thompson’s propositions, this is probably his most controversial. Critics commonly see Thompson collapsing both relations of production and actual consciousness into ‘experience’. It is forced to explain too much and its mediating role is consequently lost.[4]  Thompson may emphasise the experience of work and exploitation, of dealing with employers and merchants, but keeps distinct the real relations that generate the experience, for instance in his description of the reasons for child labour in the textile mills, of the forms of labour in cottage industry and also in his discussion of the way gluts were created to break the weavers’ resistance to price variation. Thompson also clearly distinguishes between experience and consciousness pointing out that the experience of workplace, friendly society and trade union solidarity invaded the chapel and affected workers’ religious ideas.

Perry Anderson argues that Thompson assumes that experience leads to actual (i.e. correct) knowledge, yet Thompson repeatedly points to the limits of experience--not only the farmers and sailors dealing mystified by kingship,[5] but the Methodism of the repressed English working class, and the way outworkers and artisans persisted with petitioning Parliament in spite of their’s and others’ experiences. Anderson also argues that experience is implicitly presented as the causal mechanism of history as a result of Thompson comparing it to Mendel’s genetics.[6] Yet Thompson rejected the idea of there being a causal mechanism or ‘motor’ to history.[7]

Thompson’s account of the weavers illustrates the way he combines a changed economic environment, consciousness, experience and class struggle to explain the destruction of a traditional artisan culture and the eventual development of a distinctive working class. These cottage industry artisans initially benefited from the industrial revolution as more and cheaper yarn led to a massive expansion in weaving. But this expansion soon saw them lose economic independence to the great clothiers who came to employ them, and who used this expansion to cut wages. This in turn drove each weaver to increase their own production, leading in turn to more savage wage cutting. The weavers fought this in the terms of their existing organisations and traditions. They petitioned parliament to legislate minimum wages, and its refusal led them responded with a massive strike, which was brutally suppressed. Among employers, magistrates and clergy, the conviction grew that poverty was essential to make people work hard and the experience of impoverishing the weavers may well have confirmed something which began as prejudice. Faced with a transformed industry and repression, their traditional craft unionism, with its emphasis on controlling the standards, prices, customs and even personnel of the trade, collapsed. The destruction of their industry by the power loom, from 1820, was the final step. Desperate poverty combined with the experience of parliamentary hostility and bloody repression to turn them from Church and King loyalism to machine breaking, mobilisation at Peterloo, Owenism and physical force Chartism. From proud participants in a narrow craft, they became an important part of a wider class with a common agenda for change and elements of a common consciousness.

There were others who were beginning to think and act in class ways, and one of the most important reasons was the existence and growth of an often illegal, radical press. The class struggle for a free press, free of taxes that make newspapers unaffordable to working men and women, is one of the most heroic episodes in the making of the English working class. Thompson’s emphasis on common experience in the formation of class is important, but it was the radical press that made England’s labourers aware that they shared a common situation with so many others. This is magnificently highlighted in Thompson’s short essay on William Cobbett’s journalism.[8]  Cobbett’s writing was very different from that of the essayist Hazlitt or the popular theorist Paine. His style was intimate, personal, immediate and concrete. Over more than two decades, his political articles appealed to experiences common to England’s labourers to make his points and to show in concrete terms that each individual’s situation was shared by others. His ‘extraordinary sureness of instinct...disclosed the real nature of changing relationships of production,’ Thompson wrote.[9] The ‘touchstone of his social criticism was the condition of the labouring man,’ a profoundly radical outlook, which, could lead, Thompson argues, ‘close to revolutionary conclusions.’[10] His writing ‘led outwards from the evidence of his senses to his general conclusions,’ an approach that was later to become a more conscious part of the revolutionary tradition. When Lenin discussed the Bolsheviks’ new newspaper Pravda in 1912, he observed that the many reports, written by workers themselves, about their lives, the abuses they faced, their opinions and how they were organising, were the raw material of experience from which wider political conclusions could be drawn.[11]  Alongside Cobbett there were a series of papers, writers and groups seeking ‘to render into theory the twin experiences...of the Industrial Revolution, and...popular Radicalism insurgent and in defeat.’[12] There were intense debates over Bentham, Malthus and Robert Owen, all educating a dispersed layer of working class activists who would help create the class consciousness and organise the struggles that would make ‘the working class presence...the most significant factor in British political life’ in 1832. ‘The experiences of the previous quarter-century had prepared men’s minds for what they now could read.’[13]

After writing The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson went backwards to the eighteenth century to study class relations: the nature of the part customary, part market economy, the struggles to defend it from deeper commercialisation, and the culture of the working classes. Most significantly, he presented these struggles as he had earlier presented Luddism, as rational and thought-out, not as the mindless conservatism of the ignorant. He was studying (and writing about) the class struggles that were ultimately to produce the decisive shifts of the 1790s.  He presents eighteenth century England as a society in which money has become of primary importance in economics and in political power, while for large numbers of lower gentry, yeomen, farming tenants and poor labourers, residual common use rights and community traditions remained of major importance, in their survival and their cultural life. The attack on these rights and the enclosure of the commons met sustained resistance, and obliged ‘agricultural improvers’ to develop an ideology to justify their theft: property no longer implied social obligations, but increasingly gave absolute rights to the possessor; the commons were ‘a hindrance to Industry, and...Nurseries of Idleness and Insolence’.[14] ‘Custom Law and Common Right’ describes some of the resistance (as indeed does Whigs and Hunters) from those poorer villagers who found their rights expropriated. Thompson sees in the prolonged process of enclosure, stretching well over a century, a measure of the tenacity (and also the localism) of that struggle. The law shifted its focus from the protection of the person to protecting property. The divisions between the classes grew.

The same process--the class struggle against paternalism and to impose commodification--was seen in food, as the marketing and consumption of grain was gradually separated from the community in which it had been grown. In ‘The Moral Economy of the Crowd’, Thompson describes this tension coming to a head in times of dearth, when villages expected ‘their’ grain to be available to feed them. He poses the organised food riot, when a community mobilised to use its force of numbers to impose an affordable price, as one of the characteristic forms of class struggle through the century.  In ‘Patricians and Plebs’, he describes the changing relationship between labourer and employer, as the old system of paternalist control over the whole life of the labourer was eroded. Marx wrote of the bourgeoisie putting ‘an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations’, leaving behind nothing more than a cash relationship.[15] In ‘Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism’, he addresses the process by which employers of labour attempted to gain more production from employees. Work shifted from being task oriented to time oriented. The most interesting aspect is the description of employers experimenting with different forms of hire--day labour, by the hour--until they came up with the most profitable mix.

In these essays and in Whigs and Hunters as well, Thompson is studying the transition to capitalism. As he reminded us, the people he writes about did not see themselves as ‘transitional to anything’. They were incrementally changing and adapting: the law, relations with the labourers, the market system, property, even ideas of what was morally right. Thompson brings out the extent to which these changes were fought over. ‘The death of the old moral economy of provision was as long-drawn-out as the death of paternalist intervention in industry and trade,’ he wrote.[16] The relations of production of capitalism did not spring to life out of the steam engine or the mill; they were created gradually because they were resisted bitterly, and had to be fought for and imposed.  Nevertheless, there is a problem with Thompson’s narrative of class struggle: it is incomplete. We never find out why the differences involved between the classes cannot be settled by a greater measure of compromise, why the employers feel the need to push things so far, why the government feels confident it can engage in brutal repression. The economic imperatives facing the English working class are meticulously examined; not so the economic strengths of, or pressures facing, their employers, landowners and merchants.[17] This flies in the face of Thompson’s insistence on the mutuality of class. Why did Walpole and the Whigs face so little ruling class opposition to the substantial risk of passing the ‘Black Act’? Why did they prosecute the enclosures so slowly, while the tearing up of minimum wages is done abruptly? Were there not economic as well as ‘political’ reasons for the gradual rapprochement between manufacturers and the landowners and government which began in the 1790s and which so decisively shaped the circumstances in which the working class was ‘made’?  He is vague, too, about the nature of ruling class appropriation in Whigs and Hunters when he declares that it was ‘not clear what these [Whig] fortunes of thousands per annum rest upon’.[18] Even Bryan Palmer finds one discussion of ‘exploitation’ an ‘evasion’.[19] It is his failure to engage with the (changing) economic structure of production that makes ‘Patricians and Plebs’ one of his vaguer and less satisfactory articles.

Thompson’s stance also leads to a somewhat schizophrenic attitude to historical materialism itself. So much of Thompson’s polemic is directed against structuralism that he never gives us more than a truncated picture of what he actually sees as the relationship between the economic and ‘cultural’. The result in The Making of the English Working Class, argues Sewell, is that he assumes economic determinism ‘as a kind of unconscious rhetorical backdrop against which specific empirical accounts of working-class experience, agency and consciousness are placed,’ and that economic developments provide ‘a kind of hidden dynamo [that] propels the narrative in a certain direction.’[20]  The result is to make the economic changes appear ‘given’, inevitable, perhaps even natural--the opposite of Thompson’s intention. The flip side of his refusal to ‘privilege’ economics can be seen in Whigs and Hunters where we find him embracing the rule of law as ‘a cultural achievement of universal significance’ and ‘an unqualified human good.’[21] This comes at the end of his book, in a final, abstractly argued, ‘theoretical’ essay, which manages to contradict the evidence of the previous 238 pages. Instead of reifying the forces of production, he reifies the law.

Edward Thompson’s achievement impacted on the ways people study and think about history and historical change. He set out to show that the exploited and oppressed were makers of history through the class struggles they waged. By insisting on the need for concrete analysis of social forces, he underlined that nothing in history was inevitable, and that human society was created out of class struggle. In doing so, he challenged the view that capitalism developed peacefully in Britain and showed that the most fundamental of economic relations were themselves experimented with, and resisted, and made by people and over a long period of time. Wage labour and the alienation of what workers produce may seem ‘normal’ in western societies today; they did not in England in the eighteenth century. By focusing on experience he developed ‘an ability to reveal the logic of production relations...as an operative principle visible in the daily transactions of social life.’[22]


[1] See Ellen Meiksins Wood ‘The Politics of Theory and the Concept of Class: E.P. Thompson and His Critics’ in Studies in Political Economy: a socialist review, No 9, (Fall 1982), pp. 62, 58

[2] E. P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1968, p. 431.

[3] For example, criticising Althusser for ignoring it, E. P. Thompson The Poverty of Theory and other essays, Merlin Press, London, 1978, p. 201. See also E. P. Thompson The Poverty of Theory and other essays, Merlin Press, London, 1978, pp. 224-225, and ‘The Peculiarities of the English’ in E. P. Thompson The Poverty of Theory and other essays, Merlin Press, London, 1978, p. 79 where he describes ‘dialectical intercourse between social being and social consciousness’ as being ‘at the heart of any comprehension of the historical process within the Marxist tradition.’

[4] William H, Sewell, ‘How Classes are Made: Critical Reflections on E. P. Thompson’s Theory of Working-class Formation’ in Harvey J Kaye, and Keith McClelland (eds.), E P Thompson: Critical Perspectives, Polity Press, London, 1990, p. 60, Anderson and Johnson make similar points; Wood disagrees, see Ellen Meiksins Wood ‘The Politics of Theory and the Concept of Class: E.P. Thompson and His Critics’ in Studies in Political Economy: a socialist review, No 9, (Fall 1982), p. 58.

[5] Thompson’s example, E. P. Thompson The Poverty of Theory and other essays, Merlin Press, London, 1978, p. 199.

[6] Perry Anderson Arguments within English Marxism, Verso, London, 1980, pp. 25-27, 28-29 and 79-83.

[7] E. P. Thompson The Poverty of Theory and other essays, Merlin Press, London, 1978, pp. 295-300.

[8] E. P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1968, pp. 820-837.

[9] Ibid, p. 834.

[10] Ibid, pp. 835-836.

[11] Lenin, VI, ‘The Workers and Pravda’ in Collected Works, Vol. 18, April 1912-March 1913, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1963, p. 300.

[12] E. P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1968, p. 781.

[13] Ibid, p. 806.

[14] Cit, E. P. Thompson Customs in Common, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1993, p. 165.

[15] In the Communist Manifesto, see Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, edited and introduced by Lewis S. Feuer, Collins, New York, 1969, p. 51.

[16] E. P. Thompson Customs in Common, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1993, p. 253.

[17] This point is in part made by Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘Falling Through the Cracks: E.P. Thompson and the Debate on Base and Superstructure: in Harvey J Kaye, and Keith McClelland (eds.), E P Thompson: Critical Perspectives, Polity Press, London, 1990, pp. 125-152, p. 136.

[18] E.P. Thompson Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1990, p. 245.

[19] Bryan D Palmer The Making of E. P. Thompson: Marxism, Humanism, and History, New Hogtown Press, Toronto, 1981, p. 124, footnote 4. The article is Thompson, E.P., ‘Eighteenth-century English society: class struggle without class?’, Social History, vol. 3, (2), (1978), pp. 133-165.

[20] William H Sewell, ‘How Classes are Made: Critical Reflections on E.P. Thompson’s Theory of Working-class Formation’ in Harvey J Kaye, and Keith McClelland (eds.), E P Thompson: Critical Perspectives, Polity Press, London, 1990, p. 57. Wood makes a similar point, in Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘Falling Through the Cracks: E.P. Thompson and the Debate on Base and Superstructure: in Harvey J Kaye, and Keith McClelland (eds.), E P Thompson: Critical Perspectives, Polity Press, London, 1990, p. 135.

[21] E.P. Thompson Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1990, pp. 265, 266.

[22] Ellen Meiksins Wood, ‘Falling Through the Cracks: E.P. Thompson and the Debate on Base and Superstructure: in Harvey J Kaye, and Keith McClelland (eds.), E P Thompson: Critical Perspectives, Polity Press, London, 1990, p. 142.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Making planning easier or how to circumvent democracy?

We’re in a war or at least the economic equivalent of one, according to the Prime Minister.  He cites the Second World War when ‘normal rules were circumvented’ and everything was thrown at the one aim of defeating Nazism.  So his plan is that ministers will cut down on the ‘time-wasting’ he sees as legally challenging government policy.  The legal right to a judicial review of decisions, especially for major infrastructure projects has, he maintains, grown out of control and needs to be scaled back largely because it either delays or prevents things getting done.  So his plan is to reduce the three month limit in which people can apply for judicial review and charge more for reviews to prevent objectors bringing ‘hopeless cases’ to review.
The Prime Minister may be right to raise this issue given the burgeoning number of applications for judicial review: in 1975, there were 160 but by 2011 this had increased to more than 11,000 but three quarters of these were in immigration and asylum cases anyway.  The critical question is whether this increase in judicial review  has contributed to the government being ‘too slow in getting stuff done’ whether he is right that  ‘Consultations, impact assessments, audits, reviews, stakeholder management, securing professional buy-in, complying with EU procurement rules, assessing sector feedback--this is not how we became one of the most powerful, prosperous nations on earth’ .  There is an important balance in a democratic society between the need for any government to govern and the right of people to object to the policies that the government is pursuing and the Prime Minister is suggesting that the balance has shifted too far towards the right to object. 
All of this is to do with how best to stimulate the economy—the war that Cameron says we must win if we are to retain our economic global influence and prevent Britain sleepwalking into EU exit.  This may well be how the war looks from the bunkers of the generals but what about the cannon-fodder that appears to be the rest of us?  Stimulating the economy by making it easier for business to do things may well have a beneficial effect on the rank-and-file by providing much needed employment and hence taxation to address the country’s deficit but at what cost?  If you take two areas of policy—the need for additional airport space and the question of nuclear power as a means of addressing energy security—both are issues that will be vigorously contested but are also questions that need quick resolution largely because of the length of time they will take to implement.  These are projects of national importance so should a small number of objectors (small that is relative to the nation’s population) be allowed to hold things up?  David Cameron would argue that they should not: they should have to right to object but once their objections have been heard (and presumably rejected) the projects should go ahead.  I suspect that nationally there would be few objections to this stance; people are concerned about energy security especially where it relates to rising fuel prices and large infrastructure projects would create jobs especially if they were situated in areas of endemic unemployment.  The question in a democracy is when is it acceptable to run rough-shod over the views of the minority for the benefit of the majority and who decides?  The answer, of course, is precisely those institutions and processes that the Prime Minister thinks should be truncated. 
It would be much easier if Britain was not a democracy.  The government could decide policy and implement it whether people agreed or not.  But then we would not be a democratic society in which the right to be heard and to object to policies you disagree with is fundamental.  Democracy can be annoying, often inefficient and certainly from the political classes’ point of view frustrating but that’s the point of it!

Friday, 16 November 2012

Legitimacy, authority and elections

That the turnout for the election of police and crime commissioners is so low is hardly a surprise.  It has been talked up by the government over the past few weeks though I suspect that there was the hope that the figure would get over 20 per cent.  Early indications are that the government will not even achieve this and the blame game has already begun.  Apparently it was the media’s fault—insufficient coverage and a failure to get across what the elections were about.  Absolute nonsense…in my authority we received mailshots from all candidates and anyway there was widespread and effective coverage on the BBC website and through local television and radio.  The government may be right that in the next elections (to be held in May not on a dank November day) there may be an increased participation by the electorate as it gets to see what the police commissioners can do.  However, attempts to portray this as a victory for democracy are decidedly misplaced.  Those elected may have legitimacy but their authority to act is seriously compromised.  How could a police commissioner elected on less than ten per cent of the vote sack a chief constable or have the authority to push through unpopular changes? 

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Why so few people used their votes is not difficult to explain.  The number of people voting in national and local elections has been declining since the 1950s though this has accelerated in recent decades.  The responsibility of individuals to vote appears to have gone out of fashion.  There are two main reasons for this.  First, as all political parties have become centrist in their aspirations so the differences between them have lessened: what people say is that it doesn’t matter who you elect, you get the same thing.  While this may not be true, it is increasingly how people view political parties and the non-ideological focus of much politics means that political parties often do not differ on the principle merely the details.  Secondly, there is an intense mistrust of politicians that predated the MPs’ expenses scandal but was intensified by it.  We simply do not trust politicians who say or promise one thing and then do another and generally fail to justify why to people’s satisfaction.  This is not helped when politicians make decisions that the public regard as simply unfair.  Take, for instance, the reduction of the upper level of income tax from 50p.  Although this may have made sound economic sense, in the minds of those on lower incomes it appeared simply to  advantage the richer at the expense of the poorer shattering any belief people ever had (if they ever did) in the notion of everyone being in this together and has proved a public relations disaster.

It may be true that turnout for elections for police commissioners will improve once the innovation is bedded in but I have my doubts.  Despite the protestations that the new positions are non-partisan and that those elected will act on behalf of the whole community (which they must if they want to be re-elected), there are grave concerns about how far their election will result in an even more politicised approach to policing.  It remains to be seen whether this will be the case but it does reflect an intense suspicion of constitutional change in this country and rightfully so.  Constitutional change is frequently introduced by political parties to advantage their own position at the expense of other political parties and often at the expense of the electorate.  Yet the one issue on which there would be widespread public involvement—a referendum of the European Union—has been denied by successive governments for reasons that are often specious and almost always politically motivated.  There is a growing chasm between the political classes and the public across Britain that these elections have served to heighten and a belief that politicians, of whatever hue, are only ever willing to allow people to vote on issues that they known they will win or that they are not too committed to and are prepared to lose simply to show that they do listen to the people.  In democracies, election provides those elected with legitimacy, a mandate to act but low turnout removed the authority they need to carry out that mandate.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

The causes of E. P. Thompson

The ‘mature’ political and historical career of Edward Thompson began in 1956, when he launched a public, and at times bitter, struggle against Stalinism in politics, in Marxist theory and in history. ‘I commenced to reason in my thirty-third year,’ he wrote of that turning point.[1] In politics, Thompson set out to construct a libertarian, humanist communism, and to involve himself in a series of struggles, most notably against the spread of nuclear weapons. In history and theory, he challenged the tendency of both Stalinism and bourgeois sociology to reify human relations,[2] and fought to ‘restore to Marxism its commitment to the concrete struggles of actual men and women’,[3] as against the Stalinist tendency to treat people as the stupid instruments of the forces of production.

This project led Thompson to re-examine the process of historical causation. In his histories, he looked at the process by which the English working class was formed (and formed itself) as a class, and then went backwards to look at various aspects of the development of capitalism in the eighteenth century, and the plebeian resistance to it. In his theoretical writing, Thompson began by rejecting Marx’s notion of base and superstructure as ‘a bad and dangerous model, since Stalin used it not as an image of men changing in society, but as a mechanical model, operating semi-automatically and independently of conscious human agency.’[4] He launched his polemics against Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn for their schematic approach to English history and their dismissal of the radical traditions of the English working class, and against the anti-humanist structuralism of their intellectual mentor, Louis Althusser.[5] For much of his career, Thompson wrote as a Marxist and a revolutionary opponent of capitalism. Anderson, Nairn and some other Marxists arguedthat Thompson’s theory and his history was ‘culturalist’, anti-theoretical and built around a subjective redefinition of categories such as class.[6]

For Thompson, history was the history of class struggle, and the class struggle in its various forms was overwhelmingly the subject of his histories.[7] Society changed because class struggle took place and changed it, not always for the better. The theme running through The Making of the English Working Class is the way a distinctively working class movement, built upon organisations of mutual aid and with a new and distinctive class consciousness, emerged from political and economic struggles between 1790 and 1832. The essays making up Customs in Common look at the growing polarisation between patricians and plebs, the fights over enclosure of the common lands, the attempts to enforce the imperatives of the commercial grain market against those who insisted on feeding the local community in times of dearth, and the gradual imposition of a time-conscious work discipline on rural labourers and factory workers.

These class struggles are driven in considerable part by conflicting material interest. In searching for the reasons behind the sudden declaration of fifty new capital offences in England in 1723, Thompson finds an eruption of ‘class war’ in the forests of East Berkshire and Hampshire. He therefore begins Whigs and Hunters by teasing out the rival claims for the use of forest resources between the declining gentry and yeoman class of the long-established forest communities, and the newly rich landowners and lords (temporal and ecclesiastical) who asserted their right to graze their deer unimpeded in ‘their’ forests. Also involved was a struggle over the legal and ideological bases of economic life as ‘non-monetary use rights were being reified into capitalist property rights’[8]. The long tradition of communal access to the forests, regulated by local forest courts was being overturned by those who benefited from the new commercial approach that saw property (including the forest) as private, to be ruthlessly used in personal self-advancement. This was an attitude shared by the new-rich landowners and the forest officials they appointed, who set out to monopolise the forest for themselves. [9]

The significance of this method is that it really does put human beings at the centre of ‘making history’. Social development is shaped by the outcome of these struggles, and this is never predetermined. Instead, the result of any conflict is influenced by a range of factors: the economic ‘weight’ and political strength of the rival classes, their internal solidarity, the cohesion provided by commonly held ideas, the strength of their leadership and their ability to make common cause with other classes or elements in society or alternatively the degree to which they are internally divided, enervated by traditions of deference, badly led or isolated. For Thompson, the history of actual class struggles can neither be unravelled nor understood without concrete analysis, and attempts to short-circuit this ‘end up by explaining nothing.’[10] Thus we find him insisting that ‘every real historical situation’ arises ‘from a particular equilibrium of forces,’[11] and that concrete analysis of the various competing forces, and the particular equilibrium of forces at key moments, play a major role in his histories.

In Whigs and Hunters, this is evident at many levels. A localised rebellion gave rise to a turning point in English law because the king’s deer were involved, because Walpole, a new Prime Minister was eager to consolidate his power, because the authority of the government was undermined at a moment when it had become tenuous as a result of the collapse of the South Sea Bubble. Thompson also speculated that it was the collapse of the Bubble that had impoverished many of the forest gentry and made desperate their struggle to defend traditional usages. On another plane, the ‘Black Act’ crystallised the prior development of a ‘Whig state of mind’ that saw defence of property as the highest duty of the state, to the point where human life itself had been severely devalued. So when the immediate crisis in the forests passed, the 1723 ‘Black’ Act was entrenched in English law, its already wide scope extended. At another level again, the skilful politician Walpole used or manufactured Jacobite conspiracies with links to the Blacks to bind Parliament and the ruling class more firmly behind his new laws.[12] Thus a turning point in legal history arose from both the prior development of capitalist relations, and the particular conjunction of economic and political circumstances and the way people fought out their rival claims. This ‘victory’ for England’s capitalists became an element in shaping the future, as it was then used for another hundred years to terrorise those who lacked sufficient respect for property.[13]

However, a focus on class struggle by itself is not enough to ensure that the making of history is understood as the work of ‘men’ (to paraphrase Marx). The combination of Weberian sociology, Second International Marxism and Stalinism had transformed class into a static sociological structure into which people were duly slotted according to occupation, which then obediently produced (in the ‘Marxist’ variant) class struggle. The efforts of ordinary men and women to understand and change their world are written out of such an approach. Thompson set out to write them back in; indeed to put them at the centre of our understanding of class and class struggle. He did this in The Making of the English Working Class. He began with a short, but very pointed polemic against those who saw class as a ‘thing’, a static ‘structure’, defined by relations of production, arguing instead that class could only really be understood as a relationship between people that becomes apparent to them over time as they find themselves engaged in struggle alongside other people with whom they begin to feel, and then understand, an identity of interests as against others.

The making of the English working class involved, for Thompson, the transformation of a disparate layer of wage earning artisans and labourers, who identified predominantly with their separate trades and the struggle against the landed interest, into a class, singular, involving widespread identification of a common class interest, in open conflict with its symbiotic rival, the class of (especially manufacturing) employers, and the government. There are, in fact, a number of transformations or ‘makings’ involved here. There are new forms of class struggle; the strike, trade union, and radical press which tend to replace the ‘food riot’ and other plebeian mass actions. There is a profound ideological shift, from the radical constitutionalism of the 1790s, the retreat into Methodism, and then Owenism and quasi socialist political economy. Dramatically changed too are class alignments, the methods and scale of production, economic relations, the size and nature of the new factory labour force, and finally the depth of class divisions. A modest revolutionary current centred on London artisans in the 1790s is transformed, by 1830, through repression, exploitation and struggle, into a widespread determination across the broad working class to overthrow the existing order. Much of Thompson’s book is aimed at explaining and documenting the growth in revolutionary temper of the English working class.

The overall transformation of class relations was only in modest part a product of changed methods of production and changed economic relations. One of the central arguments of The Making of the English Working Class is the role played by the growing rapprochement between the landed gentry and manufacturers after the hostilities of 1792, when many manufacturers supported the reform agitation. These two classes were pushed together by their mutual ‘counter-revolutionary panic’ in the face of the French revolution and its English echoes, and, Thompson argues, this in turn expressed itself in every aspect of social life. The Combination Acts of 1799-1800 repressed both Jacobin conspiracies and trade union attempts to raise wages, further cementing the ruling class alliance and the alienation of working people from both their economic and political rulers. Napoleon’s self-installation as emperor saw former Jacobin-baiters appealing to English Jacobins to support the new war against France as lovers of liberty.[14]

The repeal of most paternalist legislation, one of the main hegemonic mechanisms of gentry ‘leadership’, allowed free rein to the employers, and again profoundly alienated wide layers of the working class. Thompson sees the class struggles of Luddism as one of the results.[15] And the challenge of Luddism, the inability of the magistrates and armed forces to penetrate and destroy Luddism, and the successful armed defence of the Rawfolds factory by the mill owner, further illustrated their mutual dependence and cemented a growing partnership. ‘But what brought emotional reconciliation to the properties classes brought profounder antagonism between them and the working classes.’[16] The old means of resistance, for example, the defence of traditional use rights and customary prices, the petitioning of parliament, had become anachronistic. Trade unionism was the one working class response which survived and flourished because in the environment of the factory and workplace community it was just possible to sustain and protect illegal unions whereas insurrectionary conspiracies culminated in the disastrous Pentridge rising of 1817. Friendly societies also emerged ‘in response to certain common experiences,’[17] and in turn stimulated trade unionism. In trade union politics, William Sewell sees a dual transformation. Collectivism was generalised from narrow individual trade union solidarity to all workers; while in the radical republican tradition, which had established roots amongst London artisans in the 1790s, the central role of private property was challenged in favour of collective aims. The result was a view of political rights being due to those who laboured, rather than those who owned property. These new ideas proved to be ‘remarkably durable’.[18] The English working class was in considerable part made by, and in response to, the united ruling class offensive it faced.

A critical element in Thompson’s account, and in all his history, is the part played by human experience. He rejected the idea that social being determined consciousness as mechanical and false, and instead posed a more mediated, though still materially based relationship.

Changes take place within social being, which give rise to changed experience: and this experience is determining, in the sense that it exerts pressures upon existent social consciousness, proposes new questions... [it] walks in without knocking at the door, and announces deaths, crises of subsistence, trench warfare, unemployment, inflation, genocide. People starve: their survivors think in new ways about the market. People are imprisoned: in prison they meditate in new ways about the law. In the face of such general experiences old conceptual systems may crumble and new problematics insist upon their presence.[19]


[1] E.P. Thompson The Poverty of Theory and other essays, Merlin Press, London, 1978, p. 1.

[2] Ibid, p. 271.

[3] David McNally, ‘E. P. Thompson: class struggle and historical materialism’ in International Socialism (London), No 61, (Winter 1993), p. 76.

[4] Cit, Harvey Kaye, The British Marxist Historians: An Introductory Analysis, Polity Press, London, 1984, p. 172.

[5] These were ‘The Peculiarities of the English’ and ‘The Poverty of Theory’, both published in E. P. Thompson The Poverty of Theory and other essays, Merlin Press, London, 1978.

[6] Tom Nairn quoted in Ellen Meiksins Wood ‘The Politics of Theory and the Concept of Class: E. P. Thompson and His Critics’ in Studies in Political Economy: a socialist review, No 9, (Fall 1982), p. 46.

[7] This is also the theme of Harvey Kaye’s analysis; see Harvey Kaye, The British Marxist Historians: An Introductory Analysis, Polity Press, London, 1984, p. 173.

[8] E. P. Thompson Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1990, p. 244.

[9] The criticism of culturalism is rejected by, among others, Keith McClelland, William Sewell, Ellen Meiksens Wood, Harvey Kaye and Bryan Palmer

[10] E.  P. Thompson, ‘The Peculiarities of the English’ in EP Thompson The Poverty of Theory and other essays, Merlin Press, London, 1978, p. 48.

[11] Ibid, p. 45, ‘Patricians and Plebs’ in E. P. Thompson Customs in Common, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1993, p. 93.

[12] This analysis is spelled out in the Chapter, ‘The Politics of the Black Act’, E.P. Thompson Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1990, pp. 190-218. See also the brief discussion of ‘causation’ on p. 214.

[13] Ibid, pp. 245, 255.

[14] E. P. Thompson The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1968, pp. 495-6.

[15] Ibid, pp. 600-601.

[16] Ibid, pp. 613-614.

[17] Ibid, p. 462.

[18] William H Sewell, ‘How Classes are Made: Critical Reflections on E.P. Thompson’s Theory of Working-class Formation’ in Harvey J Kaye, and Keith McClelland (eds.), E P Thompson: Critical Perspectives, Polity Press, London, 1990, pp. 70-71.

[19] E. P. Thompson The Poverty of Theory and other essays, Merlin Press, London, 1978, pp. 200-201.