A time of dreamers and drugs ― how English social democracy was made

The Making of English Social Democracy
By Peter Cockcroft.
Australian Ebook Publisher
Kindle edition
236 pages, $1.05

It may seem a strange ask to encourage socialists to examine the politics of late Victorian Britain when there is so much else to be done. But Peter Cockcroft makes a significant case that understanding this aspect of the past can help us to make some sense of where we are now.

The author argues that in the English-speaking world, variants of social democracy held a hegemonic position for the first three quarters of the 20th century. They were then supplanted by neoliberalism ― by Margaret Thatcher in Britain, Ronald Reagan in the US and in Australia, ironically, by the Hawke-Keating Labor governments.

And while there is a yawning gap between the politics of socialism and the balancing-act politics of social democracy, many of the campaigns of the left today are in defence of social democratic policies and structures. This is the case in areas such as education, health, and industrial and financial regulation.

This book argues that the well-spring of ideas that held sway for so many decades lies in the last third of the 19th century. This is big history, seeking to cover philosophy, politics and economics, along with shifts in parliamentary power and movements in the factories, fields and streets.

For philosophers, the fracturing of liberalism and the growing intellectual challenges to the rights of landlords and factory owners, starting with TH Green and continued by the heirs of John Stuart Mill, provided crucial ammunition to the growing socialist movements.

Tied to this was the growth in the franchise and the fact that all political parties were starting to look over their shoulders at the reactions of a burgeoning electorate.

Cockcroft makes extensive use of English socialist writer Paul Foot's excellent The Vote: How It Was Won and How It Was Undermined to support the case that more workers ― admittedly only males ― got the vote because they were prepared to fight for it.

This was not the only arena where working people made gains. From a situation where trade unions were the preserve of an “aristocracy of labour”, union membership surged by 80% between 1888 and 1890 as labourers began to organise.

Co-ops doubled their membership during the 1880s and by the end of the decade, the working class was ready to form the first avowed party of labour, led by a quartet of socialists.

There are vivid events aplenty as the movement pressed forward. The great demonstrations in Hyde Park; British Liberal prime minister William Gladstone's barnstorming campaigns addressing tens of thousands of people, sometimes at several public meetings in the one day; the Pall Mall riot; and the revenge of the ruling class on Bloody Sunday all get an airing.

This is far from being an academic text. The author takes excursions into the growth of football, the vivid sex lives of many of the main players and, drawing on Wollongong-based socialist writer John Rainford's work, the fact that so much of the population was either drunk or stoned most of the time.

Cockcroft writes: “Godfrey's Cordial, containing opium, water and treacle, was sold to stop babies crying. It sometimes stopped them breathing.” He makes the case that these were the times of “drugs, sex and Gilbert and Sullivan”.

Cockcroft notes that the trends were not all progressive. In the last decades of the 19th century, most parties, with the noble exception of a small number of socialists, drifted towards imperialism and its intellectual fig leaf, social Darwinism. But the thrust of this work is optimistic.

As the preface notes, Cockcroft's “main motive in undertaking this piece of work is to rescue the positive achievements of this era and to celebrate what it did achieve rather than lament that it did not do everything”.

In another recent work, Cockcroft has lamented the retreat of the left into positions of “Stop, Don't and No”. It is understandable that he should wish to “recall that there was a time when dreamers became actors and the vileness of Dickensian slums, child labour, starvation and the ostentation of inherited wealth could be challenged”.

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