Saturday, 24 October 2009

Comment: British Jobs, British Workers and Labour History

From LSHG Newsletter, Summer 2009

The recent industrial disputes which in part took the slogan ‘British jobs for British workers’ caused a lot
of debate on the left. Many felt that the way was opened for fascists to intervene in the labour
movement or that at the least the strikes were reactionary. Others on intervening found the situation much more complicated with a battle for ideas and strategies very much there to be joined.
An historical view was noticeably absent and might have provided some clarification as to why the
demands arose in the way that they did. It is difficult to argue that a dispute that has ‘British jobs’ and ‘British workers’ at its centre can really have anything to do with one of the basic principles of socialism - internationalism. But historically while internationalism in the British labour movement has never been in short supply from the Hands Off Russia campaign of 1918 to the Anti-Apartheid Movement, it has co-existed with less happy trends.
These might reasonably be labelled nationalistic or social-chauvinist trends. It is important to
understand that while such attitudes sit easily with the right of the labour movement much of the driving force for them has come from sections of the left.
Once we begin to understand that historically we can understand some of the complexities of the
recent strikes, organised not by fascists but by trade union shop stewards with many ideas of the left in
their heads, but some less progressive ideas as well.
Social-chauvinist attitudes can be linked to Britian’s imperial role from the 1850s and it is possible to find strong racist trends in the labour movement from this period, along with other trends that were internationalist and anything but racist. The two mixed in an uneasy combination in parts of the Social Democratic Federation but are best seen in the work of Robert Blatchford. It would be easy to say that Blatchford ended his political career as someone who supported the First World War and became a Tory. But he was over 60 at that point and had spent decades inspiring people with socialist ideas before then. Even so a reading of
some of his better known works such as Merrie England reveals a very partial view of socialism
compared for example to a contemporary comparison such as Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered
Philanthropists. It is very difficult indeed to find a discussion of internationalism in Blatchford in the sense of a socialist principle of workers’ solidarity. Blatchford’s Britain for the British [1902] talks of
‘Britain for the many not the few’ which has a curiously contemporary ring and supports a policy of protectionism against foreign trade which he sees as being something maintained for the profit of the rich. One can find references to ‘niggers’ and ‘coolies’ as examples of foreign labour not to be solidarised with but to warn as an example of where British workers might head. In Blatchford’s better known Merrie England there is not one mention of internationalism. Blatchford was not on the right of the labour movement however- he was explicitly a socialist.
That echo is to be found later. For example the programme of the Communist Party from 1951 The
British Road to Socialism while clearly internationalist, also had the focus on specifically British conditions.
It is a separate discussion and there may have been good reasons for doing this - for example to emphasise the point that the Russian experience of 1917 could not just be replicated exactly in Britain - it also allowed space for nationalism and for later campaigns, in the 1974 Referendum, against the European Economic Community not just because it was a bosses’ club but also because it undermined British sovereignty.
Keith Flett

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