A Strange Death

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Review of 'The Edwardians' by Roy Hattersley, Little Brown £25

Roy Hattersley may be best known to readers of Socialist Review as a former deputy leader of the Labour Party, or more recently as a critical commentator on New Labour in the columns of the Guardian. He is also a bestselling author, largely in the field of social history. When popular history is almost the exclusive preserve of the political right, a book by a left of centre figure like Hattersley on the Edwardian era must be broadly welcome.

Since Hattersley is an accomplished journalist, the book is written in an accessible style. That does not mean, however, that detail is skimped upon, particularly in chapters on some of Hattersley's longstanding interests such as education, or cricket and football as working class sports.

Hattersley's thesis is that the Edwardian period, from the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, has been largely ignored by historians. At the same time he claims it was the very period that laid the basis for the modern.

The Edwardian era, short as it was, saw the election of the first Labour MPs in 1906, major battles over the legal status of trade unions, a strike at the Taff Vale railway company in Wales, and tumultuous challenges around the vote for women and independence for Ireland. As Hattersley points out, it was also the period that saw the first appearance of the aeroplane and motor car. Elsewhere the 1902 Education Act abolished directly-elected school boards and created local education authorities. The first national social insurance (in effect social security) and employment schemes were introduced by a Liberal government that had replaced the Tories in 1906.

Hattersley's 'take' on the Edwardian episodes he covers is of interest, but not without a controversial edge. He praises the reforming Winston Churchill, for example, then a radical young Liberal politician, and puts into context his decision to send troops to fire on striking miners at Tonypandy in South Wales. Churchill was actually broadly sympathetic to trade unions at this stage in his career, Hattersley argues, and something of a reformer in terms of social legislation as well. Indeed Churchill actually managed to speak at a Rhondda miners' gala in South Wales in support of the eight-hour day.

His view of how change comes about also makes interesting reading in the context of New Labour a century on. He sees the trade unions as a key force for gradual social change, and has a role for Labour MPs pushing reform from the backbenches. But he tends to see pressure for reform and change coming from outside parliament and making its impact whatever the precise configuration of the government in office. For example, he welcomes the 1902 Education Act, a Tory measure which abolished the great radical principle of directly-elected school boards, because he believes the civil servants and ministers at work on the act had broadly progressive intentions.

It follows that Hattersley doesn't see the left as adding up to much. Left wing strategies, whether strikes, independent working class education, the fight for the vote for women or attempts at armed insurrection in Ireland, are all seen as in one way or another doomed to failure. For Hattersley the key remains exerting influence for parliamentary change, although even here there are twists. He is clearly less than happy about the drift of the Pankhursts' campaign for women's suffrage, and mentions Sylvia Pankhurst's decision to campaign on a broader working class basis with future Labour leader George Lansbury. He is also clearly in sympathy with the fight for Irish independence, and in particular the part played in this by Jim Larkin and the Irish transport union.

As a social historian Hattersley is not as engaging or as sharp a writer as Eric Hobsbawm, who has written about some of the same subjects down the years. Even so, as a thought provoking, left of centre introduction to a key period in British history the book is well worth a look.