English Socialism - Regional Accent?

By Salveson, Paul | Soundings, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

English Socialism - Regional Accent?


Salveson, Paul, Soundings


Drawing on the many rich traditions that still exist within the regions and nations of Britain is a potential pathway to a renewed socialism nationally.

One of the most important fissures in the history of British socialism has been between its centralist and decentralist traditions, which cut across both the 'Marxist left' and 'social democratic right' (a more traditional counter-position, but one which is less salient for the purposes of my argument here). The decentralist tradition has its origins in the Painite radicalism of the late eighteenth century, and runs through Chartism, radical Liberalism, anarchism and the Co-operative movement; it has always sat uneasily within the Labour Party, but today it represents its best chance of re-emerging as a popular democratic force. To embrace this tradition, as well as other elements of the values-driven socialism which emerged across industrial Britain in the 189Os, requires a qualitative leap away from both the neoliberalism of Blair and the engrained authoritarianism of much of the left. The rich socialist traditions that still exist within the regions and nations of Britain offer an invaluable resource for those of us who want to embark on such a project.

North and South: A different kind of socialism

The roots of modern British socialism lie in the factories, railway depots and mines of Northern England, South Wales and the central belt of Scotland. The influence of the 'great men' - Fabians and middle-class individuals such as H. M. Hyndman and William Morris - has frequently been greatly exaggerated in accounts of the development of the left, and this ahs been to the detriment of more local and regional influences.

The Independent Labour Party was established in Bradford in 1893, and formed the political basis of the modern Labour Party. The choice of location was not accidental: the majority of delegates at the founding conference came from organisations based in Yorkshire and Lancashire. The ILP was a child of the industrial North. As E. P Thompson has argued, fulminating against London-centric history:

the ILP grew from the bottom up; its birthplaces were in those shadowy parts known as 'the provinces' ... Its first council seat was won in the Coinè Valley; its first authentic parliamentary challenges came in Bradford and Halifax: its first conference showed an enormous preponderance of strength in the North of England.1

In the years before the First World War, the difference between a 'Northern' ethical socialism that placed most stress on moral values, and the more Marxist-inclined London-based politics of the Social Democratic Federation, were apparent to several commentators. In f895, Robert Blatchford, that flawed genius of socialist proselytising, wrote:

... if you asked a London Socialist for the origin of the new movement he would refer you to Karl Marx and other German Socialists. But so far as our Northern people are concerned I am convinced that beyond the mere outline of State Socialism Karl Marx and his countrymen have had but little influence. No; the new movement here, the new religion, which is Socialism, and something more than Socialism, is the result of the labours of Darwin, Carlyle, Ruskin, Dickens, Thoreau and Walt Whitman.2

Martin Pugh corroborates this sense of difference, noting the immense variations in local political culture in the nineteenth century:

The inevitable result was a patchy geographical advance during Labour's early history and a movement that acquired pronounced local and regional characteristics . . . Labour was not the same party in London as it was in Yorkshire . . . 3

Does any of this matter? I would argue it does. If socialism is to regain popularity, part of its appeal must lie in its being part of the fabric of locality, region and nation. There is much in our socialist heritage which - though almost buried - has relevance to modern-day politics, not least its stress on culture, Values' and the importance of place. …

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