Rousing Rebels and Motivating Movements; Why the Establishment Controls the Historical Narrative

petermemeWhen I was 11 years of age I had a wonderful history teacher. We studied the Anglo-Saxons and he did his best to give us an idea of what it was like to live about 1,500 years ago.  It was compelling stuff but sadly it did not last. By age 14 I had given up on history, my early inspirational teacher being replaced by a boring and lifeless one who made us learn facts and dates by rote. It would be many years before I started to realise that to understand our present situation we need to understand where we have come from.  I also realised that the history I wanted to grasp was not the history taught in schools or on the TV and there were few monuments to the events I found significant. I learned quickly about the way in which the establishment controls the historical narrative. I wanted to understand the fight to be a free citizen, the struggle for liberty, the campaigns for equality and a fair wage. But the overwhelming narrative was about monarchs, wars, generals and empires. It was easy to find out why the Duke of Wellington was a hero of Waterloo, but not that he was despised in many places and physically attacked on the streets for his repressive attitude and support for the 1819 carnage in Manchester at the Peterloo Massacre.  Many people have heard of Abraham Lincoln, but far fewer of the Englishman William Wilberforce who fought a long and courageous campaign to abolish the British slave trade in 1807. So why the blatantly one sided treatment of history?

The Necessity of Controlling the Historical Narrative

It turns out that there are a number of reason. Firstly it goes against the still prevalent so-called Whiggish theory of history.  Briefly this says that the social history of first England and then Britain is one of gradually increasing liberty being handed by the government to the people at the point when they have developed the sophistication to handle the responsibility. ‘Don’t worry’, this narrative reads, as we are on a one-way journey to freedom.  The reality is very different. Freedoms have been fought for and won, not benevolently bequeathed us by a kindly establishment.  Here are just a few of the more prominent examples.  The Thirteenth Century Magna Carta was signed because the barons threatened (yet another) bloody civil war; the autocracy of kingship was ended in the Seventeeth Century as a result of an armed Revolution; the increased franchise and social developments of the nineteenth century took place because the government feared another revolution following the growth of popular movements such as Chartism.  But it was not a one way trip and freedoms could be taken away!

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Remembering Dora Marsden: Suffragette Anarchist

A few weeks ago I wrote a short post about Constance Markievicz, suffragette and the first woman to be elected to the House of Commons (though she never actually took her seat). But there are some people for whom the passion for change burns so strongly that it brings them into conflict even with the cause they espouse.  Such was the case with Dora Marsden who died today (13th December) in 1960.  Marsden operated from Manchester and occupied a position on the radical activist wing of the suffragette movement, frequently engaging in illegal activities. From 1909 she accepted a post in the Pankhursts Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) but her assertive campaigning style resulted in frequent conflict with the organization hierarchy.

Splitting with the WSPU in 1911 she pursued a  literary path, founding the Freewoman, the New FreeWoman and Egoist journals. She gave voice to many radical authors who challenged accepted notions of society such as the role of marriage. It would be fascinating to know how she would have viewed same-sex marriage! Another important radical thinker who must NOT be eclipsed by the establishment historical narrative.

Lady Astor MP in 1919; but who was Constance Markievicz?

On December 1st 1919 Lady Astor took her seat in the House of Commons having been elected three days earlier.  She is sometimes erroneously described as being the first woman to be elected to the Chamber.  But that accolade belongs to Constance Markievicz (née Gore-Booth), an Irish nationalist, socialist and suffragette who was elected almost a year earlier in December 1918. Markievicz, a Countess by marriage,  was in Holloway prison when elected but due to the Irish Republican tradition of abstention did not take her seat in Parliament on release.  The policy which remains to this day was a result of the entirely understandable principle of refusing to swear the oath of allegiance to the monarch.

The American-born Lady Astor herself was a colourful and controversial character. Ironically for an American she was a believer in British Imperialism and held religious prejudices – dissuading the employment of Jews and Catholics at The Observer newspaper which was owned by her husband Waldorf Astor. Flirting with groups with Nazi sympathies during the 1930s, Astor possessed a great gift of wit which she used effectively to put down male hecklers both on hustings and in the Commons.

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