Yesterday, the Member of Parliament for Falkirk Eric Joyce addressed the House of Commons to apologise for his conduct and to announce that he was resigning from the Labour Party. As was widely reported, on 22 February he started a fight in the Strangers’ Bar at the Commons. Last week he pleaded guilty to four counts of assault at Westminster magistrates court.
Clearly such behaviour is not acceptable from a public official, or anybody else for that matter. But the coverage that the incident received in the press and the radio phone-ins did strike me as being particularly indignant. Some commentators insisted that the Palace of Westminster should not provide food and alcohol that is subsidised by the taxpayer (which, given the antisocial hours of parliamentary sittings, seems fair enough to me). In living up to the stereotype of a hard-drinking Scottish Labour MP, Joyce has doubtless provided material for comedy panel shows for years to come.
Perhaps I was less shocked because, as an historian of British politics, I have seen it all before. In Britain, we almost expect our politicians to be bruisers. We fondly remember John Prescott’s punch or George Galloway’s roistering performance in front of the American Senate. The nature of electoral politics in Britain means that candidates are expected to get down-and-dirty on the streets, and to come face to face with irreverent or angry constituents. This has its origins in the carnival street culture of elections in the eighteenth century, memorably caricatured by Hogarth. Well-to-do candidates may not have enjoyed the rowdy canvasses, drunken riots and heckling crowds, but at the time it was widely seen as a good thing – an opportunity for them to demonstrate their masculine character and public spirit. In 1828, the candidate Edward Sugden commended Weymouth’s electoral violence as a manly game: ‘I love to see a collision of the people, it evinces that independence that is so dear to an Englishman.’
This aggressive masculine culture arguably permeates parliament itself. Unlike most countries, whose elected assemblies usually have a semicircular layout, the two banks of seating the Commons contribute to its gladiatorial atmosphere. For centuries, visitors from abroad have combined reverence for this cradle of democracy with shock at the rowdy conduct of its members. It is difficult to imagine the presidents of America or France submitting to the weekly indignity of Prime Minister’s Questions – but we should also celebrate the fact that our leaders are called to account and required to think on their feet.
An article by Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail today summed up this ambivalence. While poking fun at the humbled Joyce, he also commended his behaviour in distinctly Victorian terms. ‘Eric Joyce did not snivel,’ when he delivered his Commons apology, ‘but took his dilemma like a man.’ Letts also wondered whether there was ‘something invigorating’ about his behaviour: ‘Is he at least not more interesting than scores of tepid, timid bores who sit on the green benches?’
This is not to condone what Joyce did in the Strangers’ Bar. But before we rush to condemn him, we should perhaps reflect upon what sort of MPs, and what sort of political culture, we want modern Britain to have.
Last night the protesters occupying the area outside St Paul’s Cathedral were unceremoniously removed by a squad of bailiffs and police. As I tuned into BBC Radio Five Live’s phone-in there were queues of people ringing in to say good riddance and to condemn them for making such a mess of one of London’s most famous tourist attractions. Despite the best efforts of one representative of the Occupy movement there was little or no discussion of why they were there in the first place. Instead there was just a string of tired complaints about a rabble of misguided, workshy, rent-a-mob malcontents who had nothing to bring to society.
To some extent I blame the media for this: a radio phone-in is hardly the best vehicle for an informed debate about the intricacies of the global economic system, but they could at least try. When the belaboured occupy representative was attempting to explain that there is an alternative to rampant unrestrained global capitalism, he was continually challenged and told that his ideas had already failed in Soviet Russia. This is such an outdated and misrepresentative view it beggars belief that it is still trotted out. I encountered it in the 1980s when supporters of Thatcherism routinely invited me to ‘go and live in Russia or China if you don’t like it here’.
I visited the protest at St Paul’s and when I was in the US I visited Occupy Philly. On both occasions I met interested, earnest and dedicated people – many of them young – who believed passionately in what they were doing. They had hope, they wanted to change the world, and they were doing something constructive about an economic and social system they believed was unfair. Yes there were a few of hippies there; yes, in Philly at least, there was the whiff of marijuana in the air, and some people could have washed more often, but they were doing something. More importantly to me – as a historian – was they were continuing a tradition of social protest that has very deep roots in British culture and society.
In the eighteenth century Britons protested about the price of wheat and bread, against the imposition of toll roads, at the enclosure of common land or at forced enlistment in to the armed forces. They rioted in London against attempts to overturn the laws prevented Catholics from holding public office and routinely demonstrated for or against individuals standing for parliament. The nineteenth century saw peaceful mass demonstrations in support of parliamentary reform and more violent and individual acts of social protest against the introduction of those new technologies in agriculture and manufactory which had adversely affected wages and employment. Real political protest emerged in the Chartist movement that set down a list of demands that challenged the inequality of early Victorian society. Agitation for political rights, including Women’s suffrage, continued throughout the century and into the twentieth and eventually forced those in power to make concessions to the mass of working people after the First World War.
In the 1880s Trafalgar Square and several of London’s parks were frequently occupied by hundreds of homeless people. During the day their supporters made speeches to those gathered under Nelson’s Column. At night the police moved in and tried to clear the great unwashed away. But they returned and some set up camps and tree houses in the parks and around the Square. Local residents grumbled and wrote angry letters to The Times and the chief of police. One enterprising copper took it upon himself to drench the benches in cold water to put off anyone inclined to sleep on them. His superiors fretted and wondered whether clearing public spaces of the needy and unemployed would simply make the police even more unpopular amongst the lower orders. The protests and occupations came to a head and eventually ended in 1887 when Sir Charles Warren’s attempt to ban demonstrations in London backfired and the mob fought pitched battles with the boys in blue: several heads were cracked and at least one innocent bystander died under the hooves of a police horse.
The occupiers of the 1880s were far from an organised political movement although a plethora of socialists, anti-free traders, Irish nationalists and anti-alienists all tried to co-opt them to their causes. They, and many liberal minded Victorians, realised that there was something wrong in society. Late Victorian Britain was far from an equal society; the rich were getting richer and the poor were living in ever more desperate and degraded conditions. The occupation of Trafalgar Square – that symbol of the mighty all conquering British Empire – was an uncoordinated attempt and shaking the complacency of the Victorian ruling classes. It may not have achieved much but when you have no power, economically or politically, what else can you do but make seemingly futile gestures?
I’m not suggesting the Occupy movement’s actions have been futile – far from it. But alongside the Uncut movement, the student campaign against tuition fees and the anti-globalisation demonstrations across the world they form part of a widespread challenge to the consensus position that unrestricted global capitalism in the form we have now is the only economic system that can succeed in the modern world. So I say more power to their tents and sleeping bags, good for them and thank you for standing up to the multinationals and corporations and the government and for offering an alternative perspective. In a modern Britain where party politics has become so debased and people feel almost as disenfranchised as those that campaigned for the vote 200 years ago we need social protestors like Occupy to remind us (and those that rule us) just whose World this is.
For information on the Occupy movement’s economic ideas visit http://occupylsx.org/?page_id=2855
If you want to read more about the occupation of Trafalgar Square in the 1880s then follow this link to my book London’s Shadows http://www.continuumbooks.com/books/detail.aspx?BookId=132307&SearchType=Basic
The Guardian newspaper recently published a fascinating article that considers the part that poverty played in the recent riots in English towns (‘England riots: suspects mapped and poverty mapped’, Simon Rogers 6th December 2011 http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2011/aug/16/riots-poverty-map-suspects). It looks at the use of the Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IoD) – a device used by government and others to allocate funding or target initiatives to deprived areas. The Index uses six measures to determine the levels of deprivation in any given area. These include: comparative data on employment, income, population density and calculates a set of averages relative to national statistics. It sounds pretty complicated and for someone like me, who struggled with maths at school, it makes my head hurt. However, it is very interesting both in thinking about the relationship between poverty (however we might define it) and criminality or anti-social behaviour, and because it uses a technique first pioneered in the 1880s.
In 1885 the leader of the Social Democratic Federation, Henry Hyndman, claimed that twenty-five percent of London’s population was living in extreme poverty. His socialists were agitating for revolution and this condemnation of Victorian society came at a time of economic depression, unemployment and wave upon wave of concern about criminality, immigration and the state of the poor. One individual, Charles Booth (a successful businessman from Liverpool), decided to see what truth there was behind Hyndman’s wild accusations. In 1886 he began an investigation into the lives and living conditions of the capital’s that was published as ‘The Life and Labour of the People in London’.
Booth and his army of investigators (including the prominent female social reformers Beatrice Webb and Clara Collet) visited homes across London and asked a series of questions about the economic circumstances of the households. They looked at three indicators: poverty, industry and religion and they made special studies of the Jewish population, educational provision and certain trades that were associated with poverty. Booth then used the data he had collected to create poverty maps of the Victorian capital (which he updated in the late 1890s with information gleaned from new information gathered by researchers who accompanied policemen on their patrols around the city).
The maps ( http://booth.lse.ac.uk/) are colour coded, just as the maps used by our modern government are. Booth coloured the most affluent areas yellow; commercial streets were red while the most impoverished districts were easily identifiable by swathes of blue and black. Black streets represented the ‘lowest class: vicious, semi-criminal’ while dark blue was ‘very poor, casual. Chronic want’. Thereafter it went on a sliding scale upwards through light blue, purple, pink, and red to yellow. I use the maps in class with students and it is fascinating to pore over them and see how London has (or hasn’t) changed in the last 120 or so years.
What Booth found was that the extent of poverty was actually worse than the socialists had claimed and this prompted reformers and housing organisations to target particular hotspots. There were genuine concerns about the conditions that some people were living in and a wider fear about the dangers posed by poverty and crime. So it is interesting for me to see that similar investigations are being used to explore the relationship between current levels of relative poverty and the outbreaks of violence and looting we witnessed in the summer of 2011. It is also interesting to compare Booth’s poverty maps with those produced today. Today Spitalfields and Bangaltown in Tower Hamlets is ranked 521 out of 32,482 in the country, meaning that it is one of the most deprived areas in Britain. It is accordingly coloured red on the IoD map. In 1889 it was also amongst the worst areas in London and many streets are dark blue or black on Booth’s map. If takes a wider overview the east side of London was darker in colour in the 1880s when compared with the brightness of the west. Today the situation is little altered, great swathes of red and dark orange characterise the deprived areas of Hackney, Tottenham and the east end while Highgate, Finchley and the west end are shades of blue (representing wealth).
Looking at The Guardian’s analysis of the rioters it shows that the rioters and the offences they committed can be located in the poorer areas of the capital (and indeed elsewhere). Alex Singleton (a lecturer in urban planning at Liverpool University) agreed that riots have multiple causes but notes that ‘if events such as this are to be mitigated in the future, the prevailing conditions and constraints effecting people living in areas must form part of the discussion. A “broken society” happens somewhere, and geography matters’ (The Guardian 6 December 2011). Charles Booth would surely agree.
For the historian looking backwards the maps also reveal the extent to which poverty and geography are linked and show how difficult it can be for individuals to escape from the environment in which they are born. I am constantly impressed by the students that find their way to this institution, many of whom are the very first members of their families to do so, and many of whom come from areas that can be described as deprived. They often tell me they want to make a better future for themselves by coming to university. For those left behind however the situation looks bleak; poverty in 2011 is not the same as poverty in 1888, but the deprivation indicators and the recent riots demonstrate that we ignore these statistics at our peril.
I am a historian and I study men. This might not seem like a terribly surprising statement, since historians have traditionally studied men, and particular sorts of men – the ‘great men’ of history and their deeds in parliament, the battlefield or the workplace. This is partly a reflection that the sources historians use are heavily weighted towards men, being written by them and about them; but it also reflected the priorities of a profession that was, until relatively recently, dominated by them.
It is this assumption that the new women’s history sought to challenge, nearly half a century ago now. Women’s history is a wonderfully rich field and I enjoy teaching HIS1004 ‘Introduction to Women’s History’ to students here at Northampton, as it is a module that really challenges their assumptions about the past. The history of women and gender is very satisfying to teach, as it is always a subject that students (both female and male!) can relate to, and will have strong views about.
So why should gender historians study men? The ‘history of masculinity’ has been a huge growth area in historical studies over the last two decades or so, thinking about what it means to be a man, and how this has changed over time. The first historians of masculinity tended to focus on the ‘private’ aspects of male experience, such as family and relationships. For example, the notion that the Victorian father could be emotionally invested in the lives of his children, was a challenge to our usual stereotype of the stern, distant patriarch.
My early work on masculinity tried to think about the other, ‘public’ side of the picture, by thinking about how ideas about men informed the history of political rights and participation. My first book, The Independent Man: Citizenship and Gender Politics in Georgian England http://www.manchesteruniversitypress.co.uk/catalogue/book.asp?id=1375 is shortly being republished in paperback. This book argued that the ‘public’ and the ‘private’ were never truly separate: indeed, when political rights were extended to more men over the course of the nineteenth century, the qualifications for citizenship were often discussed in terms of their ‘private’ virtues, as fathers, husbands and respectable householders. This argument was, in turn, used to exclude women and certain other men from official politics.
When I used to write about fatherhood, it was mostly in terms of how it was talked about within these political debates. But over the course of a career, an academic’s relationship with their work can change. One big change for me personally is that I have recently become a father myself. I have realised that there is a lot more to being a father than how it is discussed in Hansard… And I suspect that my ongoing research will pay more attention to the emotional, physical and psychological aspects of gender as a result. It will certainly inform the way that I teach HIS1004 from now on!
- Damian Pickard
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