Hunger marching in the 1930s

There was an awesome predictability about the comparisons drawn between

Hunger Marching in Britain, 1934.

that People’s March for Jobs in May and the Jarrow Crusade in 1936. Awesome because the comparisons were blind to an important fact: this is a sick society and its history is not so much repeated as regurgitated.

The 1981 March, much publicised, had some impressive sponsors—like Harold Wilson, whose second government saw unemployment begin to rise to its present level and who was always inveighing against “overmanning” in industry and was fond of referring to redundancies as “shake-outs”. Like garrulous Brian Clough, who doesn’t mind sacking footballers if they don’t play up to standard. Like compulsive protester Peter Main. Yes, it was impressive and exciting, and thoroughly predictable.

The Jarrow marchers were selected for their physical fitness: they marched in ground sheets and flat caps, fed at wayside soup kitchens, and had their boots mended at the local Co-op. One participant (Sunday Times 26/4/81) remembers it as “. .. a holiday . . . they were feeding like fighting cocks. And they got 1s 6d (9p) pocket money at a time when the Means Test Commissioners said you could keep a child on a shilling (5p) a week”.

That stark memory says a lot about conditions in the thirties. In Britain the effect of capitalism’s global depression was the crumbling away of the foundations laid down in the Industrial Revolution—the coal mines, textiles, iron and steel and shipbuilding. (In 1932, 62 per cent of shipyard workers were unemployed.) Thus what had once been the boom spots of British capitalism became its Depressed Areas, where the plight of the workers was particularly wretched:

  Most of our children are suffering not so much from tuberculosis as from starvation. Seventy-five per cent of the cases admitted to the Society’s sanatorium were suffering from undernourishment. (Dr. O’Hara at the 1933 meeting of the Durham County Society for the Prevention and Cure of Consumption.)

But the government were not impressed. John Boyd Orr, who found that in 1935 30 per cent of the British population were trying to survive on a seriously deficient diet, remembered:

  Mr. Kingsley Wood, the Minister of Health, asked me to come and see him. He wanted to know why I was making such a fuss about poverty when, with old age pensions and unemployment insurance there was no poverty in the country. (As I Recall.)

Any surprise at Kingsley Wood’s denial of something which was all to obvious should be tempered by the consideration that he was, after all, a politician—and governments had for some years been busily turning the screw on the unemployed. In 1931 an unemployed man received 85p a week, with 45p for a dependent wife and 10p for each child. “Unemployment benefit”, insisted Ramsay MacDonald, “is not a living wage; it was never meant to be that’’. MacDonald’s rare flirtation with the truth can be explained on the grounds that at the time he was arguing for a reduction in the benefits. This was introduced a few months later by MacDonald’s National Government, under an Act passed by his earlier Labour Party administration.

One result of the cuts was that many people were disqualified from receiving state benefits as of right and were left at the mercy of locally based Public Assistance Committees (PAC), whose decisions were often distinguishable only by a variation in harshness. In January 1935 there was another turn of the screw, when unemployed benefits were placed under the central control of the Unemployment Assistance Board (UAB). This change led to even lower allowances than those under the PAC; Tory MP Robert Boothby summed it up: “The new administration is brutal. I can use no other word”.

But the UAB were fretting about the profligacy of the unemployed on those generous allowances. Their 1935 Report was shocked at one who, having inherited some money “. . . immediately took his whole family for an expensive seaside holiday”. One remedy for this sort of behaviour was in places called “residential instruction centres and camps” where, under the watchful repression of ex-army officers, young men were disciplined back to “employability”.

The Times (22/3/38) was ecstatic about the camps (some of its readers had been writing in to say how well this very matter was being handled in Nazi Germany):

  . . . hundreds and thousands of young men . . . do not show any disposition to bestir themselves to get themselves out of unemployment and into employment . . . there is a slackness of moral fibre and of will as well as of muscle . . . the breakdown of morale can only be made good by applying compulsion.

Strangely, no lack of moral fibre was descried—and the UAB did not fret about—the country house parties remembered by Harold Macmillan (Winds of Change) where: “There were no rules except the necessity of appearing at dinner . . .Otherwise, in a large company the groups organised themselves for golf, tennis, walking, talking or quiet reading”. Nor in the world of Tory MP Henry Channon, who had married into the Guinness family and who complained in July 1935: “I am tired of being ‘tiddly’ by night and ‘gaga’ by day: the season has lasted long enough”.

By then marches by unemployed workers had become an established routine of protest. At the spearhead was the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement (NUWM), led by Communist Party member Wal Hannington and widely regarded with the sort of hostility and contempt expressed for the flying pickets a few years ago. “Hannington and the revolutionary riff-raff of London” was the Daily Telegraph’s (1/11/32) description. The NUWM was proscribed by the Labour Party and the TUC, was under continual police surveillance and the subject of many a worried Special Branch report.

In spite of this the NUWM organised numerous marches and protests, many of which were on the receiving end of violent repression from the blue uniformed guardians of capitalist law and docility. At the peak of the violence, in October 1932, a crowd of tens of thousands in Hyde Park was attacked by the police, who then stole—there is no other word for it—the petition brought by the marchers to London. Later NUWM demonstrations were on a lower key; in 1936 they finished an orderly march with a rally in Hyde Park, where Attlee and Bevan spoke from the same platform as Hannington. There was nothing to cause alarm, except to any workers class-conscious enough to understand what Bevan meant when he proclaimed, “This demonstration proves to the country that Labour needs a united leadership”.

But the NUWM protests, although they were bigger and more violent, they have been historically overshadowed by the Jarrow Crusade. This latter march sprang from the 1934 closure of Palmer’s shipyard in Jarrow, which threw 80 per cent of the town’s workforce on the dole. Both the Labour Party and the TUC, although they now lay claim to the Crusade as part of their glorious history, condemned it at the time as a publicity stunt by Jarrow’s Labour MP, Ellen Wilkinson. The march was orderly; almost the loudest noise it made came from the mouth organs in the lead, until they got to London and saw King Edward VIII in the Mall. At this they forgot any indignation they might have felt about their poverty as against ruling class privilege and. said the Special Branch, “cheered lustily”.

Benignly, the Home Office agreed that, as “. . . the marchers show every sign of being orderly, it would be a good way of encouraging them and placating them” if they were to be entertained to tea at the House of Commons, where much of their misery was discussed and legislated upon. That was about all they got, and Ellen Wilkinson was scathingly rebuked by the Labour Party NEC at their Annual Conference that October. One Jarrow councillor said “. . . you have drawn a blank” but that was not entirely true. Because the marchers had not been “available for work” while they were away from Jarrow the UAB, overlooking the fact that there was no work to be available for, reduced their benefit by up to 55p a week.

Little more could be claimed for the protests than the restoration of some benefit cuts. Unemployment remained stubbornly high; Jarrow did not come back to life. Until the war in 1939 enforced a change, the UAB continued as the scourge of the unemployed. And now, nearly fifty years on. the failure is starkly illuminated: it is all happening again because we are almost back where we began, with 2½ million unemployed.

This is no accident. Wal Hannington (Unemployed Struggles 1919-36) claimed some massive demonstrations in 1931—30,000 people in Dundee, 50,000 in Glasgow, 40,000 in Hyde Park, and much more. Yet that same year the British working class voted overwhelmingly for capitalism to be run by the National Government—the very government who were imposing the cuts in dole money, the police repression of the hunger marchers and all. The total government vote at that election was over 14½ million against just over 7 million for the equally futile, equally culpable, opposition such as the Labour Party.

So capitalism was allowed to continue and now, 50 years on, there can be no optimism that the protesters would have it any different. Like the battlers of the NUWM, like the pathetic men from Jarrow, the 1981 marchers demanded the unobtainable—capitalism without its inevitable ill-effects. One of their leaflets urged: “Unemployment is a human tragedy . . . People must act now . . . Say no to unemployment. . . Demand a return to full employment”.

These ringing phrases could only have reinforced the demonstrators’ confusion, when their overwhelming need is to grasp that working class life under capitalism is tragedy, whether they are in or out of work. There is no dignity in the degrading experience of a person who sells their labour power as the only way of getting a living. It is futile for workers to say no to unemployment, for an economic recession does not happen through a mistake, because someone has not listened. And even if they—the politicians, the economists, the experts—had listened, they would still be powerless to end the recession, to put all the unemployed out of their misery of idleness into the misery of active exploitation.

There is much, much more to it. Those who protest about the effects of capitalism would do better to look for a more radical approach—or else contribute towards generations to come suffering the same sore feet, the same sore heads—and the same bitter disillusionment.