Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - Ernest Jones (2003)

Miles Taylor, Ernest Jones: Chartism and the Romance of Politics 1819-1869 (Oxford University Press, 2003)
Written By: Keith Flett
Date: September 2003
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 19: Autumn 2003 

Why bother defending a now obscure English working-class leader who died aged 50 in 1869, in the year 2003? The reason is because until 2003 Ernest Jones has had no substantial biography of his life. This has changed with the publication of Miles Taylor's new biography

Ernest Jones, the last of the great Chartist leaders was born in Berlin on January 25 1819 and died in Manchester the day after his 50th birthday on January 26th 1869. Jones's family was upper middle class and comparatively well to do. Jones's original interest in poetry, the stage and the romantic tradition, earned him some money, from publication, but like the other great figure of late Chartism, GWM Reynolds, Jones faced financial ruin in the later 1840s. He was one of the 'uneasy class', whose loyalty to their own class origins was betrayed.

Miles Taylor summarises Jones' career thus: 'he was a lawyer who rose to prominence in the Chartist movement in 1848, kept the remnants of working-class protest alive during the 1850s and reappeared in the Parliamentary reform campaigns at the time of the second reform bill in 1866-7'.

Taylor has written a thorough biography. He has interesting and new things to say about Jones's imprisonment from 1848-1851, although his treatment is unsympathetic in the extreme. He has also uncovered some useful new information about Jones's work as a lawyer on the Northern Circuit in the 1860s. However a check on the balance of what Taylor leaves in and what he omits gives a clue as to how he sees Jones. Extensive coverage is given to the novels and poems, but there is rather less on Jones's political strategy. Key turning points in the 1850s, which must have effected Jones's thinking are either ignored altogether, such as the Preston lock-out, or dismissed with a brief reference, as is the case with the Labour Parliament.

Miles Taylor has a particular 'take' on Ernest Jones, as a poet and romantic figure, playing a role in the political stage, and embellishing the tale of his life story as an actor might. But he moves from an inaccurate stereotype of Jones as leader, which is a matter of debate, to inaccurate allegations about Jones, which need to be challenged. In his concluding page [258] Taylor says that Jones was a 'liar, a cheat, an anti-Semite, a racist bigot, an absent father and a neglectful husband'. Are the worst of these charges for a working-class leader- that of racism and anti-Semitism, borne out by detail in the book? They are not. Certainly Jones made the occasional, to modern eyes, anti-Semitic remark. Unfortunately for Taylor's case Marx was much harsher, and although Marx was making political points, like Jones he took on some of the routine, if deplorable, views of the Victorian Gentleman.

When it comes to racism Taylor can find but two pieces of evidence. First a poem in a collection that Jones, published in 1852, Rhymes of the Times. There is no question that there is a, single, use of racist language. Secondly in a private ditty that Jones wrote for a social occasion on the Northern barristers circuit in Manchester in 1867, following the Governor Eyre massacre in Jamaica. Taylor has done well to find the reference, but the ditty, while ill advised in the context, is not overtly racist. Against this must be balanced Jones' internationalism and his work to help political refugees.

Ultimately Miles Taylor seems to regard Ernest Jones as a Victorian precursor of Tony Blair. He notes [p258] that 'Jones simply learned the necessary lie at the heart of the modern democratic condition, that is, the need to avoid the truth, but to do so with the greatest possible conviction'. What Taylor seems unable to grasp is that political leaders do have to lead, which requires them to pursue goals and aims that may not entirely fit their individual biography. Even so, one rather doubts that Engels would have commented on Blair, as he did when Jones died that 'he was at bottom the only educated Englishman who was entirely on our side' or that Blair will ever serve two years in prison for sedition.

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