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The Pioneer English Socialist

By David Reynolds

A pioneer of English Socialism, a founder of the Independent Labour Party and a man credited by the Manchester Guardian with having had more influence on the Socialist movement in this country than Karl Marx may seem a rather odd standard-bearer of the British Right. But, in fact, Blatchford represented a patriotic and idealistic strand of the Labour Movement in Britain which was far sounder than either the materialistic Marxist cosmopolitanism or the cynical consumerist opportunism which were successively to eclipse it and then each other in the British Socialist movement.

Unlike most of the standard-bearers of the later Left Blatchford came of authentically working- class stock. Brought up by his widowed mother in Bradford and Halifax, he was forced by his family’s poverty to start work at the age of 11. Subsequently, he was apprenticed to the honest trade of brushmaking, before joining the Army, where he distinguished himself as a good soldier and a crack shot, rising to the rank of Sergeant. He was later to put this service with the 103rd Regiment, an ex-East India Company regiment known for that reason as the ‘Ramchunders’, to literary use. His collection of barrack-room tales, Tommy Atkins, has much in common with the similar, but better known offerings of Rudyard Kipling. After several years of military service, Blatchford worked for a while as a timekeeper on the Weaver Navigation at Knutsford, Cheshire, whilst contributing an increasing number of articles to sundry publications around the country. The journalistic talent thus manifested led to his being snapped up by Fleet Street. There he enjoyed a highly successful career culminating in a post as leader writer on the Sunday Chronicle at the then prodigious salary of £1,000 a year, making him one of the best paid journalists in the country, a position and income which he sacrificed to the struggle for his political ideals. Having decided by 1889 that he was a socialist, he was two years later asked by his employers to choose between openly expressing his views and keeping his job. He promptly resigned the latter.

Throwing himself full-time into the struggle for a socialism which, as we shall see, would scarcely delight the dwindling band of modern-day espousers of that label, Blatchford founded a weekly newspaper, The Clarion. Within twenty years of its foundation in 1891 this was to achieve a circulation of 83,000 and a position at the heart of a nationwide network of Clarion Clubs, Clarion Choirs, Clarion Cycling Clubs, Clarion Scouts, Clarion Holiday Camps and so on. He also wrote a number of books explaining his views, of which the two most significant bore the distinctly un-modern Labour (Old or New) titles of Merrie England (published 1894) and Britain for the British (1902). Over two million copies of these two works alone were sold in Britain before the First World War. They were generally credited with doing more to recruit for the infant Labour Party than the works of any other Socialist writer. As the Manchester Guardian put it “For every convert made by Das Kapital, there were a hundred made by Merrie England.”

These books were ostensibly both of the Left, but in fact of a very different stripe. Instead of the belief that men are essentially a product of their social environment, which has always been the hallmark of the Left, from Marx to Mandelson, Blatchford was ready to give heredity its place: “Men are made what they are by two forces, heredity and environment. Your intellect and character are at birth what your forefathers made them” (Merrie England, 1976 reprint, Journeyman Press, p.32). Blatchford also inveighed constantly against the “childish cosmopolitanism” of many of his fellow socialists, an inheritance none of the modern, even the ‘modernised’, Left has been ready to jettison. Blatchford himself was distinguished by what his friend and biographer A. Neil Lyons called “his simple, intense, straightforward patriotism” (A. Neil Lyons, Robert Blatchford: The Sketch of a Personality, An Estimate of Some Achievements, Clarion Press, London, 1910, p.9). During the Boer War, Lyons recounts (ibid., p.10) how Blatchford instructed “his daughter to play ‘God Save the Queen’ once a day to the glory of British arms”.

Later, Blatchford’s patriotism led him to warn against the dangers of German aggression and to proclaim (in the columns, hitherto seldom opened to avowed socialists, of the Daily Mail!) the need for Britain to maintain supremacy at sea. He also - as one might perhaps have expected from an author who would choose such an un-PC title as Britain for the British for one of his key political books - denounced foreign immigration into British cities, which was occurring on an increasing (if by present day standards modest!) scale before 1914. Writing in The Clarion, Blatchford protested at the influx of “poor, unshorn and unsavoury children of the Ghetto” into East London, describing their habits as “unclean”, “and their increase appalling”, whilst these alien immigrants’ “presence is often a menace and an injury to the English working classes” (one wonders what he would make of the same area of inner East London today!). He also made a number of decidedly politically incorrect references, notably in Merrie England, to “rich Jews”, references judiciously edited in more recent (1970s) editions of his works to “rich men”! In his latter years Blatchford was however unyielding in his detestation of Nazism and Hitler, whom he called “Sweeney Todd”, after the eighteenth century mass murderer .

Nevertheless, such patriotic views, together with his support for the British war effort after 1914, his bitter denunciation of the IRA’s 1916 Easter rebellion, and his hostility to the Bolsheviks in Russia (whom he publicly denounced - “if this is Socialism then I am not and never was a Socialist” - when many leading Labour figures later to be embarrassed by having done so were still hailing Lenin, Trotsky et al as socialist heroes) led to a growing breach between Blatchford and many of his erstwhile socialist comrades. Similar dissident views caused Blatchford’s contemporary, the avowed Marxist HM Hyndman, after supporting the Ulster Unionists in 1912 and the war effort after 1914, to split from the socialist party that he founded (which went on to become the Communist Party of Great Britain) and in April 1916 to found the National Socialist Party! Hyndman ended up supporting Allied military intervention against the Bolsheviks in Russia and being praised by the Tory Morning Post (28th November, 1918) as “a sound Patriot” who should represent Britain at the Versailles Peace Conference. Blatchford did not go quite that far, but he did join the Socialist National Defence Committee (which included amongst its number HG Wells) set up in April 1915 by one Victor Fisher, who had left Hyndman’s Socialist party in 1911 in protest at the take over of its national executive by one Zelda Kahan and other “comrades alien in blood and race”. The SNDC adopted Blatchford’s slogan ‘Britain for the British’ and denounced anti-war “pseudo-Socialists” as “aliens by birth, blood or sentiment”. Subsequently the SNDC became the British Workers’ Defence League and finally the National Democrats. Despite all this highly politically incorrect activity to-day’s Labour Party has not yet disavowed Blatchford as one of its founding heroes.

It is unlikely that ‘RB’ would be overly flattered by such an honour. Himself an expansive, likeable, life-loving extrovert, he became increasingly disillusioned with what by 1931 he was calling the “Puritans: narrow, bigoted, puffed up with sour cant” who had by then, he felt, taken over the Labour Party. He also observed that the Independent Labour Party which he had helped found had fallen into the hands of what he contemptuously styled “lily-livered Methodists”. Doubtless he would find such types still alive, well and thriving at the top of today’s New Labour!

Like its Old Labour predecessor (which was less shy about using the S-word), all this has really very little in common with the socialism of Robert Blatchford and his circle. Blatchford’s socialism would have rejected its successors’ ‘childish cosmopolitanism’ whether of the ‘proletarian internationalist’ or ‘good European’ variety. Blatchford’s socialism was essentially nationalist. Not merely ethnically - although, as we have seen, his newspaper The Clarion expressed views on immigration which would today have risked prosecution under race relations laws. But also economically.

Blatchford unwaveringly opposed international ‘Free Trade’, the orthodoxy of the liberalism of his day and now that of much of the soi-disant ‘Right’ which includes the present leadership of the Conservative Party (and of course also of ‘New Labour’). Blatchford’s view of this was expressed in Merrie England (op. cit. pp.2-3) thus: “The present national ideal is to become ‘The Workshop of the World’. That is to say, the British people are to manufacture goods for sale to foreign countries, and in return for those goods are to get more money than they could obtain by developing the resources of their own country for their own use. My ideal is that each individual should seek his advantage in co- operation with his fellows, and that the people should make the best of their own country before attempting to trade with other peoples.” These principled views, let it be remembered, were expressed when Free Trade could credibly be promoted as in Britain’s selfish interest by enabling British goods to flood foreign markets, rather than, as to-day, visibly merely opening the floodgates to the reverse! Blatchford’s espousal of economic autarky as vital to Britain’s national interest was even clearer in relation to agriculture. Addressing himself to his imaginary typical reader, Mr Smith, an Oldham factory worker, he argues thus (Merrie England p.14):

“But don’t you see, Mr. Smith, that if we lose our power to feed ourselves we destroy the advantages of our insular position? Don’t you see that if we destroy our agriculture we destroy our independence at a blow, and become a defenceless nation? Don’t you see that the people who depend on foreigners for their food are at the mercy of any ambitious statesman who chooses to make war on them?”

His trade protectionist views led Blatchford to say that he felt he had more in common with those contemporary Conservatives like Joseph Chamberlain who shared such views than with Liberals like Gladstone or Lloyd George. This was in contrast to other leaders of the infant Labour movement like Keir Hardie (whom Blatchford personally despised) who sought to cosy up to free-market liberals (which, of course, it could be argued their successor Labour leadership has to-day become). Blatchford’s opposition to capitalism was also inspired by motives very different from those which actuated many on the Left. He had no truck with the Marxist politics of class war. His friend and biographer, AN Lyons, stated (op. cit. p.111) “I believe it to be a fact that ‘RB’ has not read Das Kapital,” citing instead as influences on his thought rather such somewhat un-Leftist thinkers as “Plato, Carlyle, Darwin”(ibid. p.157). Whilst Blatchford himself in his autobiography stated: “it is a shock when one joins a crusade for the Holy Grail and is offered the class war.” He believed that his socialism should reach out to the middle classes which the Marxists so despised, arguing in 1899 for example that “ a (socialist) ‘Mission to the Middle Classes’ would do more good in twelve months than twelve years of vain work among the ignorant”. Blatchford despised the materialistic envy of the Marxist class warriors and the materialistic greed of the capitalist market sharks equally. He held fast to a higher vision, a nobler ideal. As his biographer, Laurence Thompson, observes (Robert Blatchford: Portrait of an Englishman, Victor Gollancz, London, 1951, p.9): “Blatchford’s Socialism was (William) Morris’s Socialism, which was not the Fabian plan for tidying and controlling industrialism but a revolt against industrialism, a desire to sweep away the ugliness and cruelty which sprang from industrialism, and daily widened the gap between master and man”. “Blatchford’s Merrie England”, Thompson goes on (ibid. p.113), “was to be a breaking down into small things which a man could understand and control, not a building up into great ones beyond his interest and knowledge: a loose federation of self- contained communes governed from the centre as little as possible”. A vision antithetical, certainly, to the State-centralist Stalinist ‘Socialism’ of Plan enforced by Gulag which long lurked at the heart of much of subsequent Leftism. But one no more compatible with the market-worshipping fetish of crass consumerism and global corporatist greed which today is espoused by much of the self-styled Right. Blatchford’s vision - as the name under which it was proclaimed, Merrie England, itself shows - was no global cosmopolitan nightmare but a dream rooted in the traditions and soil of his native land. A vision whose flavour is perhaps best captured by the Shire of the Hobbits in the books of JRR Tolkien, a writer both himself proudly and quintessentially English and whom the sounder elements of the Right have long embraced as a kindred spirit.

Like Tolkien, Blatchford also anticipated modern revulsion at the filth, pollution and artificiality of rampant industrialism, in sharp contrast to many of his contemporaries on the Left like Lenin, Stalin and Ramsay MacDonald, who could not wait to create more of it. In Merrie England he argued “The farther we get from nature - the more artificial our lives become - the worse is our health....And let me ask you, is any carpet so beautiful or so pleasant as a carpet of grass and daisies? Is the fifth rate music you play upon your cheap pianos” (fortunately for him RB never lived to hear the juke box and the disco!) “as sweet as the songs of the gushing streams and joyous birds? And does a week at a spoiled and vulgar watering place” (RB never got to see modern Ibiza either!) “repay you for fifty-one weeks toil and smother in a hideous and stinking town”. He also perhaps saw more deeply than many on all sides of the political spectrum when he observed: “What the people want is food and clothing and shelter and leisure, not work. Work is a means, and not an end. Men work to live, they do not live to work.” Sentiments professedly alien to both Comrade Stakhanov and many a modern corporate cog - but worth thinking on, nevertheless.

Finally, Blatchford championed an institution denounced by the feminism of the Left even as it is corrupted and corroded by the consumerism of the Right - the family. “Is there any community as united and as effective as a family? The family is the soundest, the strongest, and the happiest kind of society, and next to that is the tribe of families”.

With the views we have seen above it is perhaps hardly surprising that Blatchford’s friend and admirer, AN Lyons, in his almost hagiographic biography of Blatchford published by RB’s own Clarion Press in 1910 argued that he was “in essential matters of the spirit, an ardent and irrevocable Tory - that which is called ‘a Tory of the old school’” (Lyons, op. cit. p10). Blatchford’s friend and fellow- Socialist Lyons went on to argue that “he is essentially - that is to say spiritually - a Tory. I stand by that declaration even at the risk of having to convince Mr Blatchford himself, by banging a table, of the truth of it.” (ibid. p.186). It is worth quoting Lyons’s argument on this point at some length, since it says as much about Toryism - as it once was and perhaps ought to be again - as about Blatchford: “It has always seemed to me that Toryism is not so much a political condition as it is an emotional state. There is always this difference between the Tory and the so-called Liberal: the Tory is a spiritualist, seeking, sometimes consciously, sometimes as the result of sheer instinct, to defend and preserve those things which are familiar to him and which he reveres by virtue of association, tradition, and sentiment. Your ‘Liberal’ on the other hand, trades in flour, and cannot for the life of him understand why sentiment should be mixed up with questions of business - i.e. government....The important thing is that one deals in sentiment and the other in flour. It is pure sentiment - class sentiment - which inspires the squire of my parish (a retiring, gentlemanly, ignorant man) to stand up in schoolrooms and get very red and awkward in defence of Christianity, the rights of property, beer etc. And I contend that it is an exactly similar sentiment which is voiced by Mr Blatchford. The two men think along identical lines to opposite ends...Both men are passionately in earnest, both men are sentimentalists, devotedly attached to the traditions of their class. Both men, as it were, are fighting about poems. One man’s poem is Tennyson’s Princess; the other man stands for The Cottar’s Saturday Night. There is persistent divergence about the poems, but none at all concerning poetry. Neither man cares tuppence for the flour trade.

“Between these men there stand two other men - the flour-dealer, already introduced to your notice and - the Revolutionary, the rebel: he who has revolted with sword and Blue Book; he whose quarrel is not with a class or with a system, but with all classes and all systems; he whose mission is not so much to despoil the squire and exalt that gentleman’s shepherd as to gently eliminate all squires and all shepherds, and set gods in their places. It is not for me (thank you) to judge between these men and the impulses which they represent. I desire merely to present them as I see them, and incidentally to present my reasons for calling ‘RB’ a Tory. But it is for me to point out that sentiment is a far stronger thing than reason. When Mr Blatchford and the squire have arrived at the respective ends of their single line, there will be nothing for either gentleman to do but walk back until he bumps the other...Whatever happens, there will be either a sudden collision or gradual fusion of all impulses collected on the line of sentiment. The revolutionary and the flour-dealer will have to do gymnastics on their own line. But it is a short line, and carries a light weight as compared to the other. It seems to me that ‘RB’ and the squire, when they do join up and have agreed to sing in a common metre, will have it all their own way.” The more so, perhaps, today, when New Labour, Liberal Democrat and at least the top of the Tory Party are all dealing in flour, and the poetry of the squire and the socialist is - for now - silent. Or sleeping. Waiting to be awakened.

That strand in the early British socialist movement in which Blatchford was a leading figure has sunk without trace in the modern Left, at least in the West. But if the Left has turned its back on Blatchford perhaps the Right can learn from him instead. The Left may have left its dream of a new and better society behind in the rusting ruins of Marxism and retreated to a sterile and embittered puritanical political correctness - which if they were alive to see it would undoubtedly baffle and annoy not only Blatchford but many other early socialists. But as the market to which the Right sold the earth minces nations and the consumerism, selfishness and greed that it has spawned corrupts culture and fragments families amid a sea of anomie and disorder, can the Right take any joy in a bitter and empty triumph? A triumph which has merely enthroned in government across the West politically correct ex- Leftists, who have proved better at marketing marketism and themselves as its born-again champions, than a Right which has sold itself to the flour-dealers can ever be. Perhaps we need to join up the squire and the socialist patriot and sing together to the soul of our nation. If so, Robert Blatchford’s work will not have been in vain.

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