William Morris: Labour's Lost Inspiration
Hayes, John, New Statesman (1996)
The status of the great craftsman and writer William Morris as a pivotal hero of the Labour movement was once taken for granted. Yet, today, the gallery dedicated to his life and work is under threat from Labour-led Waltham Forest Council, which plans to shorten the museum's opening hours. It even proposes that the former home of the author of News From Nowhere should be used as a wedding venue.
The news illustrates how far Labour has travelled from his ideals. Burdened by an obsession with the new, the party has little regard for a man who dedicated his life to the revival of traditional crafts. Morris's veneration of the past--of which he said, "it is living with us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make"--sits uneasily with Tony Blair's facile characterisation of Britain as a "young country".
Morris saw all arts and crafts as "man's expression of joy in labour", and his appreciation of practical skills has enduring resonance: the past few years have seen a great revival of interest in arts and crafts. Next Saturday evening, millions of Britons will watch Strictly Come Dancing--a programme about a variety of personalities acquiring the skill of ballroom dancing through instruction and practice.
Craftsmen such as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay are feted national icons. The popularity of programmes on architecture (David Dimbleby) and engineering (the late Fred Dibnah) demonstrate our national interest in Britain's built heritage.
Yet the government appears to have a limited vision of this kind of education. Courses in traditional crafts such as cabinet-making, upholstery and silver-smithing face closure despite demand from students and employers. One million places in adult learning have been lost in the past two years due to funding cuts.
Morris would be outraged. He knew that education is about crafting a nation in which we can be proud to live. Only by valuing practical learning can we create a society where people are inspired to acquire skills throughout their lives. …