Channel 4 viewers may have caught the gritty drama The Mill in recent weeks. Apparently it is based on accounts and records held by the Quarry Mill (now owned by the National Trust) of its workers, although one assumes its inevitably been spiced up for TV somewhat. I mean look at the mess on BBC the White Queen which is less historical drama and more mediaeval fantasy (i.e. about as historically accurate as Braveheart).
But I digress, the one thing The Mill does get right, is its portrayal of the sorts of working conditions many toiled under in the 1830’s, a time when even children were expected to put in over 12 hours a day worth of back breaking and often highly dangerous labour. And even adult workers faced working long hours for starvation wages. Many workers lived (when not working) in slum like conditions, two families to a room sort of thing. The series also shows who workers began to unite and get organised and lobby to see things changed, and of course the resistance of the upper classes to such changes.
Indeed the arguments against the Factory Acts or the 10 hour rule (with management saying, oh what’s wrong with a child working for 12 hrs? why they’ll be so fit and healthy after just 10, they’ll go off and do another night job with someone else and then never get any school or rest! :crazy:) sounds remarkably similar to the sort of spin that comes out these days, such as when, for example, its suggested the Starbucks & Amazon’s of this world actually pay some tax. Or that the rich pay a bit more (even just a one off payment from the $21 trillion cash pile they’ve stashed away). We’re led to believe that they will abandon their plush multi-million pound houses and billion pound a year turn-over businesses and flee abroad…and if you believe that then you probably also believe in this big jolly guy dressed in in red.
But going back to the Mill. The 1800’s wasn’t just a period which gave us the Industrial revolution, railways, industry, the labour movement and the middle classes but also it was the era that communism began to evolve. And when I say communism, I’m not talking about what comes out of David Miliband’s mouth (if he was around in 1830 he won’t have even been allowed to join a labour union on grounds of being too posh and right wing! ;D) but the Karl Marx (who was living in England at the time) workers of the world unite variety. Never mind taxing the rich a little bit, no take away everything they’ve got and put them on a train to Siberia sort of stuff.
Such notions (a belief that capitalism is institutionally corrupt and that democracy will always work in favour of those who can afford to buy elections) can strike the modern person, even those who are left wing leaning, as being a tad extreme. But seen through the prism of an oppressed worker in a British cotton mill or a downtrodden peasant farmer of the 1800’s or 1900’s it made perfect sense. It is really no big surprise that Russia was the first country in the world to go communist. The term serf for the working class of Russia has entered the dictionary as a word to describe extremes of social oppression.
Leaving Cert and A-level history papers often ask the question why did Russia become communist?. I’m tempted to reply like Dah!. Perhaps the real question is why didn’t Britain become communist?
And I would reply that what prevented the communist root taking seed in the UK was the actions of progressive reformers and politicians who sought to find a middle ground. Thanks to people such as Robert Peel, John Russell, Keir Hardie, Lloyd George, Gladstone and Attlee, gradually laws were brought in that protected workers rights, recognised trade unions, improved workers pay and living conditions (which ultimately led to the creation of what we now call the middle class), while at the same time effectively saving the capitalists from they’re greedy selves.
The rich were also made to first pay some tax (traditionally since feudal times the upper classes have never been expected to pay much, that’s the job of the workers and peasants!) but gradually more and more tax, in order to help meet the costs of an expanding welfare state.
Now the problem of course is that since Thatcher there’s been a gradual erosion of these hard won laws and freedoms. I mean where not far off the situation in the 1800’s when strikes were practically illegal…and of course as a consequence back then in lieu of a strike disgruntled workers often sabotaged production or burnt down their factory / bosses house….often with him still in it! (how long before this carry on happens again?).
Also in the UK, US and other Western countries the proportion of taxes paid by the top 1% peaked in the 1970’s, even thought since then many have seen their incomes skyrocket. Indeed many more of the very top earners pay no tax at all, as compared to previous generations.
And of course the Tories under Cameron have accelerated these trends, by cutting away yet more regulations, slashing benefits, tax cuts that benefit the wealthy and increasingly the privatisation of public services like the Royal Mail, NHS, Prisons and policing.
And there are some, notably libertarians who say we should go even further, getting rid of most if not all laws and taxes.
My response to that is to suggest they (and the Tories) read a history book. Because nine times out of ten you’ll find there was a perfectly good reason for said regulation being put in place or that social benefit being offered and thus good reasons to maintain it. Its equivalent to arguing that a building which hasn’t burnt down for decades doesn’t need a fire escape anymore, even though the last time it did catch fire, decades ago, the records show that everyone inside was burnt to a crisp.
In short, we tried unregulated turbo capitalism (then known as Lassie-faire) back in the Georgian & Victorian era and it didn’t work out so well. As anyone whose ever even read a Charles Dickens novel will know, Lassie-faire certainly did allow a small number of very greedy people to acquire (and then ultimately squander) vast fortunes, but it also led to enormous hardship and poverty for the majority (back then it was not unusual to have to step over dead bodies on the streets of London), actual famines within the UK (in Ireland and Scotland), violent crime rates that would make Baghdad look safe (back then the better off needed armed body guards or have a pistol handy whenever they went out and about) and nearly led to a communist revolution. Thus trying again is not recommended.
As for The Mill I’m still waiting for someone in it to say that line there’s trouble at ‘t Mill so they can do the Monty Python sketch, although I presume in this case the guys in red who burst in will be a bunch of Trade Unionists ;b.