Editorial: “De Massa ob de Shepfold”

The annual meeting of trades union “shepherds” and fleecers has taken place. Ipswich was the venue chosen on this occasion. The old Essex town has been the scene of many a sale of fatted beasts and meek-eyed bleaters in years gone by, but a new kind of cattle was bought and sold there a few days since, a new breed of sheep—more meek of eye, more trustful of their shepherd, more timidly plaintive in their complaining bleat, than any which have proceeded them to the local market place—passed under the hammer and on to their unsuspected fate.

Of course the gathering was graced by the presence of the Mayor of the town and the two sitting M.P.’s for the locality, presumably as the direct representatives of the batchers (M. P. —meat purveyor, you see). Equally of course the former opened his mouth and spake, saying, “These are our faithful shepherds, who do look well after our mut’n ‘n our wool, who do cry ‘wolf’ when the Socialist appeareth, and who do—Gordnozowtheydoit—contrive to get our sheep into the market in the pink of condition as to fleece, and all prims and rosy as to meat, and warranted quite to ride and drive as temper. It ain’t often I drop into poetry (I’ll have pleasure in dropping into somewhere else with Pete when I’ve finished with this job), but I am reminded, forcibly reminded, when I picture the sheep they have brought us to-day, of Shelley’s well-known lines:

“Their wool is wrapped about their ears,
Their wool is wrapped about their eyes,”

and as long as we leave it to these chaps the wool will continue to be where it is. The good shepherd is worthy of his hire, in other words these chaps deserve well of us.”

The Mayor having “breathed” as a certain “labour” paper puts it, “political neutrality” intermixed with the utmost friendliness, it was the turn of the chief shepherd, Shackl’em, no, Shackleton. “The young lambs ran a pretty race,” he began, dropping into poetry at once in emulation of his predecessor, but someone said the question of child labour wasn’t on the agenda, and the president changed the subject. He began with great adroitness to pull the wool over the eyes and ears of his patient bleaters, and we may congratulate him on his quite remarkable resource in the operation. Of course he had the advantage afforded by the fact that it was long ago ruled that discussion on the chairman’s speech was out of order. But this wise ordination did not make the man ; it only gave him his opportunity. Where all are so admirable it is impossible to select any particular distortion, misrepresentation, or dowright (ought we say upright?), honest lie and say “this is his best.” But we may give two instances which prove the man to be possessed of no ordinary accomplishment, even if they do not bear the stamp of genius. Read, mark, learn and digest, all ye who aspire to some little eminence in the gentle art of telling lies, and go home and be modest.

Firstly he enlarged with much effect upon the number of delegates present and trade unionists represented as compared with the Congress held in the Eastern counties in 1891. A man of less calibre might have spoilt this by letting it slip out that, however the present numbers compared with those of 1894, there had been a steady decrease in those, figures for some years now, but not so Shackleton. Again he said with convincing blandness (a point to be noted, for it is often not so much the lie you tell as the way you tell it) “Trade unionism no longer waits upon the orthodox parties to carry out its wishes.” How can they keep such a man down ? He is bound to rise like scum in a pot. And talking of pots, did the “revolutionary” Thorne cackle under the pot ? Perhaps he dared not for fear the pot should boil over and the scum souse him out.

Better a little spark beneath the pot
Than in a boiling-over lost outright.
O. Ma.

In another part of his speech Shackleton sang the praises of the “generous and kindly disposed Liberal Party,” and from his “exalted” position beseeched his brothers in “arms” to arouse their “apathetic” constituents to a sense of implicit trust in their “generous benefactors,” the Liberal Party. “We see in this Budget great possibilties. The care of the aged, the feeding of the necessitous school-children and the more humane treatment of the unemployed workers will make ever increasing demands on the public purse, and we see for the first time the opportunity of raising the money without unduly taxing the poor to keep the poor.” Count it to his honour that he spoke with deep emotion. Dilly, Dilly, murmured the butchers, and the sheep said Ba ! and wept. So copiously did the tears flow that Shackleton might be said to have cast his bread upon the waters. And was it returned unto him manyfold ? Yes. Mr. Shackleton. later announced that the Board of Trade had sent him word that they had graciously consented, to have all the appointments of officials of Labour Exchanges made by a committee consisting of three persons—an employer, an official of the Board of Trade, and—Mr. Shackleton himself. What a day for Labour ! How the delegates did cheer ! Virtue rewarded ! ability recognised ! Striking confirmation of his eulogism of their “generous benefactors,” the Liberal Party. Could the Board of Trade have been listening at the keyhole ? or was it inspiration ? At any rate it is another bond of. union between the “generous, kindly disposed” Liberal Party and the very unorthodox Labour Party. And now perhaps Shackleton will be able to do something for unemployed children who have got over their “teething.” He can certainly do something for his fellow-shepherds, and we hear that the “revolutionaries” have already hidden the red flag, while the Thorne is quiet beneath the pot.

Of course other things transpired at the Congress, though of less importance. There was the indictment of Richard Bell for defending, in the Parliamentary debate in July on the North Eastern Railways Bill, the action of the company’s manager to prevent the combination of the railway clerks. The delegates, being trade union delegates (and perhaps afraid of the law of lie-Bell), forgave him—the wool is wrapped about their eyes. The Government Unemployed Insurance scheme was hailed with great joy. The Salvation Army, so near the heart of J. R. Macdonald, who once declared that he had “many irons in the fire,” but he hadn’t one iron that they “did not hold one end of” (the hot end, it is to be presumed, or he would not have been so cheerful—was put “through the hoop.” Ben Tillet placed it on record that all Cabinet Ministers are liars, greatly to the horror of Shackleton. Thorne pictured the unemployed luxuriously lounging in the Labour Exchanges waiting for the masters to call and ask them to go to work. Tillet moved that Congress call upon the Government to appoint a Labour Minister with Cabinet rank. Since he aspires so high, and “trade unionism no longer waits upon the orthodox parties to carry out its wishes,” Tillet may consider himself appointed to the select circle of “liars.”

The dominant note of Congress was love toward the Liberal Party, a sure sign of the near approach of a General Election. The “labour” papers all reported “some progress,” as must we also—backwards.

(Editorial, Socialist Standard, October 1909)

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