This blog was inspired by a tweet from Jack Monroe, written in the context of the rise of hate speech on twitter, particularly anti-semitism.
This is really a neat restatement of Marx’s great opening to the 18th Brumaire:
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.
History repeats itself, not because of some magic force, but because we are essentially historical creatures. In times of change or anxiety we look to the past for analogies to help understand what we should do, and we end up repeating ourselves. This is no less true of radicals as reactionaries, the far left and the far right. 21st Century US Neo-Conservatives dress themselves up as the Founding Fathers even though they are modern reactionaries not C18th radicals. UK middle class lefties dress up with antique trades union banners as if their struggles to find non-Israeli kumquats was somehow of a part with the fight for union recognition.
Jack isn’t the first person to use the same era for an analogy:
Piers really does mug himself badly here.
The idea that we are reliving the 1930s has become prevalent. The Credit Crunch is the Wall Street Crash, Austerity is the Great Depression, and David Cameron is foolish Calvin Coolidge. The rise of authoritarian and intolerant politics on the left and the right is comparable to the rise of fascism. The 10th anniversary of the collapse of Lehman’s has encouraged lots of such introspection
As you have probably spotted I am a bit cynical about this. We overuse Nazi Germany as a reference point for modern history, partly because that is all that is on the History Channel. “Nazi Yeast: The Story of Hitler’s Bread” is a particular favourite*. We are historical creatures, but our historical knowledge is poor, and our range of historical viewpoints is pretty limited, which is why we tend to re-live the crap bits over again.
It is pretty clear that modern day Durham isn’t 1930s Germany, or Russia, or Italy or Japan. It’s a daft analogy
But, a more interesting question would be – how much is modern Durham like 1930s Durham?
The economic history of Durham in the 1930s is predictably bleak. The County was dominated by mining. There was even a colliery at Aykley Heads where I live, among nearly 300 others
The population of the County was roughly the same as now – 520,000, of which 130,000 were employed in mining. This was a fall from the peak of 170,000 in 1913.
Output of coal in the County was in decline. As it declined so did pay and conditions for miners, despite a large and active Trades Union – the NUM. With falling pay and conditions there were strikes, national and local, which had a huge impact on output as the graph below shows.
As part of miners pay had an element based on how much they produced the swings in output meant erratic, and falling, wages.
This had a devastating impact on parts of the County where many settlements were built around pits and had no other employment. Despite the strength of the NUM in the County wages fell, and working conditions got tougher throughout the 1920s and 30s.
The depth of hardship was illustrated by the 1936 Jarrow Crusade led by Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson. Unemployment nationally was 10%, and families without work endured grinding poverty. In parts of the North East the unemployment rate was much higher – 0ver 50%
The combination of rising poverty and declining wages led to political radicalism.
There was certainly a far left presence in the County. Ramsey MacDonald, former Labour PM lost his Seaham seat in the 1935 General Election to Manny Shinwell, a far left candidate. Shinwell was a big supporter of the International Brigage in Spain, and some from Durham, particulary from areas like Chopwell, fought against the fascists in Spain.
The list of speakers at Durham Miners Gala’s in the 1920s and 30s has some familiar names – Ellen Wilkinson, Jennie Lee, Ramsey McDonald, and his nemesis Manny Shinwell. Clement Attlee’s first appearance at the Gala names him as Major Attlee. Saklatvala, the Asian Communist who was the left’s first non-white MP spoke a couple of times. Sadly it would be another 65 years before the Labour Party proper elected a non-white MP.
There are a few more unexpected names – Oswald Mosley was a popular draw as a Labour MP, and returned to speak, not at the Gala, but at Miners Halls as a fascist in the 30s.
This is Claypath in Durham. If you could turn around you would see a huge building site creating more student accommodation. The street used to be one of the best shopping streets in the North East, but fell into disrepair, and ended up all Pizza shops and takeaways.
Back in the bad old days of Durham Labour politics there were rumours of land deals, and at one point the Chief Executive of Durham city Council was questioned by the police, but no-one was ever charged. Jamal’s barbers used to be a cobbler, who chronicled the whole affair with notices in his window
This is the same shot taken in the 1930s. I think this is 1934. The same building was the BUF HQ for Durham.
The passage way to the right in those days led to the Bluecoat School, where my Grandfather was Headmaster after the war.
John Beckett, the Jewish former Labour MP from Gateshead who had enthusiastically embraced the BUF spoke at a number of meetings at Cowen’s monument in Newcastle and then at Gateshead Town Hall in 1934, but on each occasion was met with angry crowds of opponents. His last visit ended with the BUF North East HQ in the Bigg Market (near the modern day Rupali restaurant) being trashed, the fascists beaten and having to rely on police protection. This was 2 years before Cable Street.
My Gran claimed that she has seen Mosley speak at a meeting in Hetton in the early 1930s, and recalled that he was a great orator. The assembled audience of miners, fresh from Sunday morning Chapel listened to him politely, with rapt attention, entranced by his rhetoric. Then they throw stones at him.
The BUF struggled to attract working class voters, but still had some respectability with more affluent voters. The most prominent North East fascist was Lord Armstrong, the boss of the Vickers armaments factory on the Tyne. He was involved in many civic groups such as Round Table and Rotary.
Active fascists were encouraged to greet each other with the familiar stiffed armed salute and the slogan PJ! Which stood for Perish Judah! Nigel Dodds, who wrote the definitive book about fascism in the North East, claims that some respectable shop keepers and businessmen in Durham followed Lord Armstrong’s lead and greeted each other like that on the streets of Durham. I struggled to find anyone to corroborate these claims with the County record office, and no-one is going to admit this after so many years.
Ultimately fascism was a lot more popular on Tyneside than anywhere else in the North East. When MI5 rounded up the BUF at the start of World War 2 a couple of ex-army officers from Newcastle were the only North-Easterners interned. Violent clashes like the ones on Tyneside and at Cable Street stopped their mobilising, while PG Wodehouse’s mockery undermined their credibility.
I don’t know how long the BUF had their recruiting office on Claypath, but it wasn’t long. The windows were smashed with pick axe handles and the fascists given a pretty rough treatment. They didn’t come back.
I must confess I take a perverse pleasure in uncovering the forgotten history of Durham’s crap fascists, and their short lived attempts at authoritarian politics.
While we shouldn’t be complacent we aren’t living through the 1930s again. Durham does have a problem with poverty and has a food bank for residents who are struggling to put food on the table. But this is nothing like the poverty in the pre-welfare state 1930s.
Politically we are in a different place too. The authoritarian rulers of the 1930s had rigid ideological doctrines which citizens had to follow to the letter or face persecution. Todays politicians can’t be bothered with anything as difficult as ideology, and change their views according to whatever twitter is in a fuss about.
The authoritarians of today share with their older equivalents is their preference for scapegoating minorities – Muslims, Jews, and their contempt for a rules based international order which impose responsibilities upon nation states. And the Daily Mail is as awful now as it was then.
There is still a feeling of relative decline. From the distance of Delhi or Tokyo the UK looks like an economy where lots of people with relatively modest qualifications and talents, working in moderately productive industries expect to earn salaries which would put them in the global top 10%. This hasn’t been sustainable in the UK since the end of the Empire, and we have filled that gap through EU membership and an over developed financial services sector. In the next few years we will have to find a way to live without these things, and for many people this means that relative decline will become absolute decline.
And as Jack Monroe points out.. an awful lot of hatred. The current Labour leadership seethes with hatred towards banks, bankers, the mainstream media, Zionists, and anyone on the left who doesn’t share their belief that. September 2015 was the year zero of politics. The right has it’s won animus against immigrants, single mums, muslims
Once upon a time in order to pursue such a hateful agenda you would need to control a lot of newspapers, or TV stations. Propaganda was expensive, labour intensive, particularly creating the kind of propaganda where people no longer care about the difference between truth and lies, only what suited
Social media has made propaganda, particularly hate filled propaganda cheaper and more accessible than ever. It doesn’t matter if it is true or not, because there will be something new to be angry about tomorrow, new conspiracy theory to revel in. The ability to buy data means that messages can be targeted more accurately even at small groups of people – dog whistle politics is commonplace across the right and the left
At the same time our faith in our democratic institutions has declined. Our Parliamentary democracy was strong enough to see of the challenge of authoritarian politics from the right and the left in the 1930s, while the rest of Europe wasn’t so lucky. Today our failure to update our institutions has left them less well equipped to meet current and future challenges.
I still believe that the British are unlikely to support an authoritarian take over. But we might be closer to a Putin style guided democracy than we think.
*OK, this isn’t a real History Channel documentary, but it is only a matter of time
This is the link for Nigel Todd’s book: