Interpreting the Labour Party: Approaches to Labour Politics and History

By John Callaghan; Steven Fielding et al. | Go to book overview

7

Class and politics in the work of
Henry Pelling

Alastair J. Reid

In the ranks of that distinguished generation of post-war British academics who established labour history on a professional footing, Henry Pelling is generally regarded as worthy but rather dull. For he did not share the more colourful far-left political affiliations of figures such as Eric Hobsbawm and Edward Thompson. Indeed, when these Marxists were at the height of their influence in the late 1960s and 1970s, Pelling's careful history of the British Communist Party was frequently dismissed as Cold War propaganda. At that time his contributions to the history of the Labour Party were commonly pigeon-holed as scholarly but narrow, for they were seen as mere political history with no obvious wider implications for the analysis of society as a whole. As Jay Winter (1983: x) put it, albeit respectfully, in the Introduction to a collection of essays in Pelling's honour:

In place of what may be called the 'sixty years' march syndrome' of labour history,
Pelling quietly and authoritatively provided… a rigorous and accurate account of the
evolution of the institutions of the modern labour movement… In a sense, his polit-
ical histories have helped to fulfil the classic aim of historical scholarship: the replace-
ment of mythology or vague memory by painstakingly-researched and documented
historical analysis.

At the same time, many modern British political historians, increasingly interested in Labour's replacement of the Liberals as the main party of progress, were associating Henry Pelling's name with an interpretation of the rise of Labour based on broader social trends. Thus, in one popular survey, Paul Adelman (1972: 87) outlined the work of a school of historians who emphasised the extent to which the Liberals' political base had decayed before the outbreak of the First World War:

Pelling, for example, has emphasized repeatedly the enormous importance of increas-
ing trade union affiliations for future Labour development…Moreover, he stresses
the importance of those more general social and economic factors – growing difficul-
ties in basic industries like coal, for example, coupled with increasing geographical
unity on the one hand but deeper class divisions on the other – which were bound
eventually to play into the hands of the Labour Party.

-101-

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