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  • Writer's pictureD. Hunter

Haven't we been here before? Working class experience in times of national crisis

Updated: May 29, 2020

Amy Todd

As a history buff, someone who spent most weekends at a (free) museum of some sort and loved watching corny history documentaries,I came to the field of ‘history’ with passion, since bridled by a format approved by a Masters degree. But somehow after a foray in drama, FE teaching, bar work (edit: thanks The Old Nuns Head) here I am; after last studying history at age 13, doing an MA in Public History at Birkbeck in the evening whilst working full-time. As someone from a working class background from a rather nondescript northern village near the steel-making town of Scunthorpe, finding the interesting, important and hidden stories from working class history were very important to me and my growing class consciousness.

Whilst in lockdown, where I am lucky enough to work full-time from home, I've been trying to fit in my studies, but have been largely reading books which are much less tangibly linked. In the current climate of the COVID-19 pandemic it is hard to read about the working class experience; especially at times of national crisis in history without linking this to invaluable voluntary efforts, inadequacies of British government in these times and the undoubtedly shitty end of the stick which the working classes face/d. The Rise and Fall of the Working Class Selina Todd’s book (no relation and I would certainly resent the link to someone with such troubling views of gender identity but otherwise is a good read) does a good job of showing us these issues in the view of WW2, for example. Here again we see an underpaid ‘low-skilled’ and a voluntary workforce (think mutual aid groups, NHS volunteers), exploited, depended on and manipulated to do the governments work, many times for free, in the name of ‘stepping up’. Work that working class people rely on. And who is doing this ‘stepping up’? In WW2, it was certainly not the middle and upper classes stepping up to help those in need. The women who after the conscription of female labour were alleviated from conscripted work in factories if they undertook often unrecorded ‘voluntary work’ to keep their noses clean - politicians looked the other way, they didn’t mean those women. Throughout history we consistently see the demand on working class people to step up for the national effort through a warped sense of patriotism to ‘keep calm and carry on’. I am reminded of the time my Nana talked about her mother taking in an evacuee from Hull in the war, my Nana grew up in a rented house a few houses away from the house her parents rented and brought their children up in, in a small rural village in Lincolnshire. They certainly didn’t have money to spare, my great-grandfather made a living as a jack-of-all-trades sort of bloke - but you can bet they took in a wanting child from the city. How many of the middle-upper classes did ‘the right thing’? Statistics paint a picture that unfortunately did not shock me, a Liverpool survey denounced them as ‘shirking their responsibilities’ when it came to housing evacuees with many Mass Observance writings showing wealthier families not willing to house ‘dirty’ working class children. The government depended on and manipulated the working classes' good nature. Like in WW2, we can see today the sacrifice being made by many is not equal. I wonder if there was ever a back-up plan for the evacuee effort? A state-funded, organised and paid labourforce to do this crucial work in times of vulnerable children needing safety? Democracy and free-speech these have nowadays become part of the lazy rhetorical canon when wanting to do the bidding of neo-facists and the Tory party (consciously or not). Well I want my bit, democracy isn’t just about voting it's about ‘the right to work, the right to live’. Now now, blitz spirit, not the time for politics.

Key-workers, front line workers, clapped every week for their brave work. War workers too were praised for their tireless efforts to keep the country running, which must have been nice as the lumpen mass probably had enough of being ‘caricatured as the enemies of the state’ after calling for better wages and working conditions in the General Strike, the lazy lot. Today we see a few campaigns for better pay and working conditions for nurses and care staff but not much political clout or action in the government. During wartime there were many successes in the advancement of working pay and conditions due to strike, such as the Smethwick works in 1941 who campaigned and won the case that all women shouldn’t be classed outright and paid accordingly as ‘semi-skilled’ because of their gender. Later the 50’s led to national highs of employment, housing provision, welfare and reform led by a Labour government. What hope do we have today of similar circumstances when teachers are decried in the national newspapers as lazy for not wanting to harm public health by allowing children to go back to school at a time when over 600 people per day are dying of coronavirus?

And now Christine Kinealy’s (mind-blowingly excellent) ‘A Death-Dealing Famine’ on the Irish Famine, where the unprecedented circumstances of the potato famine left the press to suggest the inadequacies and failing of government relief should be seen in a ‘sympathetic light’ and the demands of a starving working class population were put aside for more important demands of the commercial sector. Que Boris Johnson praisers. The introduction of the Poor Law in Ireland (workhouses) as a system of relief which could perhaps offer some relief pre-famine in normal circumstances but not in a national crisis where Ireland’s population was nearly halved through starvation or emigration, focused on the responsibility of the individual. The lacklustre work ethic ideology of the ‘undeserving poor’ is an unfortunate reality that nearly 200 years on, we still seem to battle against. Like today, voluntary efforts led the way, the Quakers took a lead in the introduction of soup kitchens and organising mutual aid efforts, one which provided so valuable when they stopped due their voluntary workforce being exhausted, they were offered a monetary stipend from the government under the table to carry on (they couldn’t be seen to be spending hard earned British taxpayers money being spent on lazy population that were in this situation simply because they were not hard working enough). In other efforts of relief, Board of Works officials had the thankless task of organising the workforce of public works to magic up employment and tasks such as laying roads that lead to nowhere for the sake of it (see famine roads in Skibbereen). This was paid for by a loan to Ireland from the British government of which they of course, had to pay back, no magic money tree here. These Officials were led down the nightmarish warren of British bureaucracy and ended up paying the workforce out of their own pockets before reimbursement from the government due to delayed payments so as not to see people dying at their feet of hunger. Yet here we are in 2020, seeing care home workers plead with government officials for the provisions they need to work safely, and being fed by voluntary donations by the community. ‘Benefit scum’ culture prevails, scapegoating the working classes has always been an easy win and reliance on working classes to ‘step up’ never changes.

It’s not the time for politics, I have been told many times on my facebook feed. But shouldn’t my taxes be used in times of national crisis for such measures as supporting the vulnerable by delivery of medications or delivery of PPE to front-line workers like my care-home worker mother? Will the state reimburse or fund these voluntary efforts as they certainly are not providing them themselves and isn’t that exactly the kind of political conversation we should be having? Why then do I feel like a lefty, radical, dissenting voice? And so I look to history for evidence/ vindication(?), a tool I can use to challenge and exercise my views, and so refreshing it has been against a background of clapping allyship, lack of reform and censored political outpourings.

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