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I’ve spent my spare time over the past weeks buried in libraries doing thesis-specific research, and I’m afraid deciphering manuscripts and correspondence in frankly the worst handwriting I’ve ever seen has been getting in the way of properly reading the papers – but when the radio starts spouting unabashedly Victorian rhetoric it’s hard not to take notice.

The occasion was a panel discussion on the Tories’ proposed changes to strike legislation, which include, amongst many other things, a 50% turnout threshold for strike action, and have been described by the Guardian as ‘the biggest crackdown on strikes since Margaret Thatcher’s era’.

Plenty of commentators have pointed out the hypocrisy of these plans, particularly considering that a similar threshold does not apply to Westminster elections and that Tory MPs have benefited considerably from this. What concerns me here, because it seems a further indication of an ideological push backwards, is the rhetoric that has been used to defend these measures, and which has been heard regularly on the subject of recent strike action.

In Rebellious Structures: Women writers and the crisis of the novel, 1880-1900 Gerd Bjørhovde explains the ‘New Unionism’ of the late nineteenth century. One of its most important features, she states,

‘… was the growing acceptance of the strike weapon as a fair and justified means of fighting for the claims of the working class. Up to the 1880s there had been a widespread tendency to regard strikes as something taken recourse to by madmen, desperadoes or outcasts only, – how widespread is evidenced by the virtually unanimous hostility to strikes in almost all Victorian literature, from e.g. Harriet Martineau to Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell.’ (1987: 64)

This reference to ‘madmen, desperadoes or outcasts’ reflects the same ideology that underpins the representation of the strike action that has taken place this and last year. My own workplace threatened up to the last moment to deduct a full day’s pay for workers who participated in the series of two-hour strikes called by UCU this winter, couching its threats in laments about how ‘regrettable’ was the union’s decision to strike. The defence for the proposed restrictions to picketing is that ‘The Conservatives claim they want to “better protect those who want to come to work”’.


A Fair Pay in HE picket this year

This notion of a strike as the brainchild of a band of trigger-happy ringleaders, dragging a handful of unfortunate workers down with them and bullying those who resist into compliance, is too reminiscent of Disraeli’s Dandy Mick gleefully anticipating ‘a good strike’. This kind of rhetoric embraces or discards at will the fact that nobody simply wants to strike: it suggests that of course ‘good’ workers understand the harm done by disrupting the system, but conveniently ignores the sacrifice made by workers who decide to relinquish their wages for a time in order to achieve a fairer pay deal in the long term. A strike is a weapon no worker will use lightly, as it relies on foregoing the wages on which they rely – but the rhetoric used to discredit strikes and strikers cannot accommodate this in its narrative of bullies and victims.

This victim narrative echoes the treatment of strikes in industrial fiction from the 1830s and 40s. Novels like Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton and North and South take upon themselves the task of explaining class relations in factory districts to the middle-class reader. Gaskell’s texts are generally considered among the more progressive novels by middle-class writers of the period (Mary Barton was taken as a personal affront by the mill-owning classes in Manchester, where Gaskell lived), as they express a degree of sympathy towards even the strike leaders – but they can only achieve this by painting the strikers as misguided victims. Nicholas Visser quotes a contemporary review of Mary Barton, in which,


Margaret Hale puts herself between the factory owner Thornton and the striking mob

‘Pursuing the question “why working men turn Chartists and Communists”, the reviewer asks: “Do they want to know why? Then let them read Mary Barton. Do they want to know why poor men [… ] learn to hate law and order, Queens, Lords and Commons [… ] to hate the rich, in short? Then let them read Mary Barton. Do they want to know what can madden brave, honest, industrious North-country hearts, into self-imposed suicidal strikes, into conspiracy, vitriol-throwing, and midnight murder? Then let them read Mary Barton.”’ (The Modern Language Review, 89.3, 1994: 306)

John Barton, the trade unionist protagonist of the novel, is ‘maddened’ with grief and opium by the time he gets fully involved in union politics. His foil is the working-class autodidact Job Legh, into whose mouth Gaskell puts objections to the overturning of the system to illustrate her acknowledgment of the existence of ‘sensible’ workers, who may be approached in order to achieve an amelioration of the existing system by mutual consent of ‘masters and men’. In the more socially conforming version of this narrative, North and South, published five years later, the union leader is a bright but misguided workman seeking change through unionism but repeatedly begged by his dying daughter not to get involved. In order to allow for Nicholas Higgins’s rehabilitation in a revised micro-system based on greater communication and collaboration between the classes, the foil here is the starving workman Boucher who, having a large family and many mouths to feed, has not saved up and cannot survive through the strike, which causes him to join an angry mob which storms the house of the factory owner who has brought strike breakers from Ireland. The middle-class heroine, Margaret Hale, cast as mediator between the classes, is able to look at Boucher and his ilk with a degree of understanding pity, but this translates only into a wish that the workers would not disadvantage themselves in such a foolish and pointless way. A startlingly similar kind of regret, though sans sympathy, was the chosen tone of the bulletin from our HR department re: the two-hour strikes in January.


Appeal for the Dock Labourers’ Strike Relief Fund: ‘The men MUST win, or so much the worse for all of us’

By the 1880s, as Bjørhovde points out, workers had won significant victories such as the Matchwomen’s Strike of 1888 which ran directly counter to the portrayal of strikers as passive victims bullied into measures damaging mostly to themselves. The current rhetoric of the government and the right-wing press, then, hails further back than this. Close parallels can be found in a text from 1833, published at the dawn of the era of the British ‘mill’, predating Chartism. Peter Gaskell, in The Manufacturing Population of England, mixes contemporary notions of political economy with a moralising didacticism which suggests that the joining together of workers to defend their position is selfish and harmful to all of society, but most of all to themselves. He claims,

‘The total want of confidence which at present marks the relations of the master-manufacturer and his hands, and the feelings of deep hatred which are too prevalent amongst them, have been brought about chiefly by unadvised combinations on both sides.’ (296)

The entire chapter on ‘combinations’ of workers is eerily reminiscent of the current government’s suggestions that we all face up bravely to the economic crisis by collectively ‘tightening our belts’ – in which figure of speech is apparently included allowing oneself to be evicted and to become dependent on food banks for survival. Preaching his own doctrine of political economy as undeniable fact, Gaskell states,

‘Labour being the poor man’s sole possession, his property – deserves an equal portion of legislative protection, with property of any other kind; and in return it should be content to be placed under the same restraints and regulations, which are placed for the benefit of all parties upon other kinds of property.’ (292)

The current rhetoric in fact takes this one step further, as under Gaskell’s system, at least in theory (in nineteenth-century working communities such as factory and quarry towns, blacklisting of workers to prevent their working for other employers when they had walked away from a job was a very common practice), the worker is free to withdraw their labour if they consider the remuneration offered to be insufficient. Recently, we have seen pay and conditions altered before contracts have expired, and workers depicted as selfish and morally reprehensible for protesting against these breaches of contract on their employers’ part.

Thatcher advocated a return to ‘Victorian values’. It seems the current government wants to reduce us to a pre-Victorian status-quo.


The title of this post refers to a passage in The Provost by John Galt [1822], quoted by Visser (290).

With thanks to Luke of Marxism and the Problematic of Desire for his thoughts and corrections.