Archive for ‘politics’

April 28, 2017

“Up Fittie down with the Hun”: 1920s xenophobia and trade

Guest post by Textor

On April 2nd as many as 3000 gathered at the fish market intent on stopping all landings. Fish was dumped, boats cast adrift and strike breakers intimidated. At one point police threw a cordon between Torry and the town in an attempt to stop fishermen moving en-masse to the centre. Baton charges were made. Not to be outdone the women of Torry gathered bowls, jars and stones to pelt the police. When police cleared the streets men and women took refuge in tenements reappearing as the waves of law and order moved on, all the better to attack from the rear. Meanwhile across on the north side of the harbour the families of Fittie gathered crying Up Fittie Down with the Hun. With creels and baskets full of stones they proceeded to pelt boats entering or leaving the harbour, forcing skippers to the south side of the channel where they were met by a barrage from the Torry men and women. The police were undone by this pincer movement.

German Trawlers 4

At a time when the unpleasant whiff of xenophobia drifts over the stinking frame of crises ridden economies it’s worth recalling that there is nothing new in this. It’s what the class divided beast does; cling to backward-looking, mythologised national identity; to blame others for what are in fact consequences of the endemic conditions of international competition is so much easier than seeking out the social foundations of crises.

This is not to say that xenophobic opinion has no location in objective reality, that it is necessarily the manifestation of mad psychologies. No. The current spectre haunting Europe and beyond draws on ways in which the “free movement” of labour has increased competition between workers and helped keep wages down. In other words “foreign” workers are in a sense a threat to older labour markets. But it is the underpinning forces which mobilise them.

In the 1920s Aberdeen was hit by problems and disputes across two of the most important sectors of the local economy: trawling and granite. The foundation of both lay in intensification of international competition and the legacies of the Great War, and both centred on foreign labour undermining British industry.

 

German Trawlers 5

Trawling

It was hardly surprising that when the German trawler Bremerhaven attempted to dock and land fish in Aberdeen in 1919 that there was a wave of revulsion. The war had just ended and Aberdonians, like so many others, had suffered deeply in the slaughter of 1914-18. Men gathered at the quayside to refuse the Germans the right to land. Following its search for a berth the trawler eventually grounded and its crew stoned with the demand the German flag be run down. The local paper described the skipper’s attempt to land as brazen insolence and sinister and making clear its animosity to German trade said it was an unfriendly act of a nation not penitent but revengeful. The editor went so far as to sneer at the country’s Kultur of dried raw fish as a delicacy. Bremerhaven was forced out of Aberdeen, eventually landing at its home port where the Social Democrat Party came to its fishermen’s defence and denounced the Aberdeen men as an English rabble claiming Aberdonian screamed Baby killers. Pigs. Shoot down the Huns.

Three years later the trawler Else Kunkel II steamed into Aberdeen hoping to land its fish; again there was opposition to former enemy, now called alien exploiters who were threatening the livelihoods of local families. Aberdeen’s fishermen were said to hold bitter hostility against their former enemy. However their fish was landed and so the trade was continued sporadically through the year. Skippers and mates appealed to the Government for enforcement of the Reparations [Recovery] Act and that it applied 26% duty on German fish. No help was forthcoming. Matters were made more difficult when the particular interests of buyers and fish processors opposed the embargo demanded by trawlermen; and there was local bitterness when Peterhead harbour offered to give room to German boats, not through internationalism but for the money to be made. The local newspaper acknowledged the need for Europe-wide trade in fish but realised with more powerful trawlers and crews able and willing to fish dangerous Icelandic waters the local industry faced a serious threat: A German monopoly of the fish trade of Aberdeen would leave the consumer in the grip of alien exploiters and would mean a disaster to a great local industry.

German Trawlers.jpg

 

So matters simmered until February 1923 when skippers and mates voted to strike. Once again the rhetoric of wartime found a voice: you are fighting the Hun a second time for your rights. By the end of the first week of March 100 boats were tied up with hundreds of men out of work. Share fishermen, skippers and mates, led the dispute fearing for their livelihoods. Waged men, deckhands and engineers, were what you might call victims rather than being instrumental in this strike. Although local communists mobilised meetings around the notion of the internationalism of the working class as distinct from men such as skippers and mates there is no evidence that any significant animosity split the ranks nor that the waged men felt kinship with the German crews despite rumblings about some share men having avoided service in the war and making money out of wartime demand.

In fact solidarity within and across the fishing communities of Torry and Fittie was strong enough to draw them together to fight German landings, strike-breakers and police. When one local boat decided to scab hundreds turned out from Torry to confront the skipper and turn him back. Boats were sabotaged including the German trawler Senator Sache; while its crew slept the moorings were cut; eventually saved from grounding by the local pilot. Porters landing German fish were threatened with violence and police were defied. On April 2nd as many as 3000 gathered at the fish market intent on stopping all landings. Fish was dumped, boats cast adrift and strike breakers intimidated. At one point police threw a cordon between Torry and the town in an attempt to stop fishermen moving en-masse to the centre. Baton charges were made. Not to be outdone the women of Torry gathered bowls, jars and stones to pelt the police. When police cleared the streets men and women took refuge in tenements reappearing as the waves of law and order moved on, all the better to attack from the rear. Meanwhile across on the north side of the harbour the families of Fittie gathered crying Up Fittie Down with the Hun. With creels and baskets full of stones they proceeded to pelt boats entering or leaving the harbour, forcing skippers to the south side of the channel where they were met by a barrage from the Torry men and women. The police were undone by this pincer movement.

But so much conspired against the lcoal trawling industry, both men and forces of international trade. Trawl owners looked for compromise, buyers needed the Icelandic fish brought by Germans, the herring industry needed access to the German market and the British government was unwilling to hamper this sector of international trade. From the German side it made so much sense to continue coming to Aberdeen or failing this perhaps Peterhead. With the German Mark devalued, and the hyperinflation of 1923, the prices realised at British ports easily covered the costs of labour and coal. Stones and insults were little compared to the high explosives of the Great War.

 

Granite Yard

Granite

Much less militant but driven by very similar forces Aberdeen’s granite industry also found itself in 1923 under threat from German competition. It is probably the case that much of the militancy of the fishermen and their families was born from the closeness of their communities with so many of them living together in the tenements of Torry and Fittie. Granite workers had a much more fragmented life style.

Granite like fish was as open to international competition. And like the owners of trawler Bremerhaven German manufacturers could and did take advantage of the opportunities afforded by devaluation. Selling in the British market was more profitable and vitally gave payment in Sterling, then an important international currency.

Just as the trawler dispute had at times adopted a stance of being anti-German as opposed to anti German competition so also did the dispute with foreign granite traders. Not that Aberdeen’s stone trade was against the import of foreign granite in fact since the later 19th century the trade had depended on imports to meet the fashion for greater variety of colour in memorials. What disturbed Aberdeen’s granite manufacturers was the threat of dressed stone being sold to British customers.

The first hint that there might be competition coming from Germany was reported in 1921when the defeated nation was found to be trading in France. Bad enough there being a competitor on the block but made worse by the belief that monuments made by the one-time enemy were to be erected over the graves of dead French soldiers. In the following year one Friederich Hagelauer of Fürth was said to have been offering memorial crosses for British graves.

German Granite Leaflet 1923

By 1923 the “scandal” was being highlighted in Aberdeen’s Press & Journal with German’s accused of dumping fish and dumping granite. The Sunday Post took up the cry of an insult to our heroic dead the stones being erected where woman pray . . . and children weep. Aberdeen’s granite manufacturers sided with the newspapers and led the way in Scotland to enforcing an embargo on this foreign stone. However, it was one thing to achieve success in the home country it was another to get English dealers and customers to agree to a boycott. For customers there was the incentive of cheaper stone, if they were willing to turn a blind eye to origins; and for dealers there was the carrot of more profit. With the English market still accepting German imports Aberdeen’s trade with the south was threatened.

The difficulties Aberdeen’s stone trade faced were nothing compared to the chaos hitting Germany as it struggled to meet reparation demands of the Versailles Treaty. Its economy had all but collapsed, made worse when France occupied the Ruhr bringing its vast coal industry to a halt. Compared with the French the British state favoured a more conciliatory attitude to the defeated enemy, favoured international trade and stabilisation of the German economy.

Consequently when the granite traders approached the Government and asked for an increased tariff on German stone, like the trawlermen they met with refusal, indeed they faced the prospect that the existing tariff might be cut. The Press & Journal argued the local case, believing (and this sounds eerily like opinion in 2017) that by giving up free trade and enforcing tariffs the grave menace of foreign competition could be brought to heal. Regardless of the clout the local press had in the North East its opinion failed to sway the government and into 1926 imports continued.

Employers led the way in this dispute. There were no bands of granite-cutters and families guarding cemeteries, dinging doon German memorials; the nature of the trade simply did not lend itself to this form of action. But labour did have a voice which put itself behind the demands of the masters. George Murray, who lost a son in the Great War said it made his blood boil that German stone should even be offered as suitable material for British graves. Putting a stop to this, he said, was not only the correct thing to do but also good for the industry and what was good for business was good for workers: We in Belmont Street [offices of the Trades Council] are always favourable to the bosses . . . but of course we expect a good living wage from them in return.

 

 

Apart from the notable success in Scotland the best legislative advance made was to seek the protection of the Merchandise Marks Act, at one point speaking to Sidney Webb at the Board of Trade arguing that the granite imports should be marked “Made in Germany”. Eventually in 1929, after extensive evidence given including opposition from granite retailers, the Government decided that stone should be marked with its country of origin. Although important to local communities across Britain the Government had decided the granite industry was of no great significance in the national economy hence refusal to “safeguard” it from overseas competition. Marking stone was the most it would concede but even here it was niggardly in the eyes of merchants as only the slightest of marks-stencilled- was insisted on, not the heavily-cut lettering asked for by manufacturers.

The year after being given nominal protection the complaints continued. Germans were accused of stealing designs, appropriating the names of granites made famous by the Aberdeen industry and despite the legislation they palm off cheaply produced monuments . . . as British made.

British made; a rallying cry of the period as the United Kingdom hoped to engender patriotism in consumers and at the same time draw from the still important empire preferential treatment for manufacturers. But even here, with the cold wind of protectionism blowing across economies dealing with slump and the fall-out from the Crash of 1929, even here Aberdeen’s granite merchants struggled. Canada, for instance, did a curtsy to the “Mother Country” but refused to bow the knee. Canada gave some slight advantage to British granite but it still bore a tariff of 27% thus favouring Canadian manufacturers.

 

Cheyne Nellfield granite Works 1915 (2)

And so the Aberdeen granite industry, along with other British manufacturers, found the battle largely lost, found its markets shrinking and in an increasingly unstable world was forced to look to improving its competitive position by reorganising the use of labour and introducing new technology to raise productivity. And where in 1936 did Aberdonians go to see how granite could and should be handled? Germany.

Under the auspices of the British Institute of Quarrying a deputation representing the trade plus engineer Frank Cassie were content to take lessons from “the enemy”. At one site near Dresden they visited a quarry where 2000 men were said to be employed, where 250 men working at stone-splitting machines produced thousands of granite setts. Although Frank Cassie believed Aberdeen granite was unsuitable for mechanical sett-making overall the deputation was impressed by the thoroughness with which the German does the job, and the importance attached to organisation. Three years into Hitler’s rule the British deputation was envious of Germany’s road and bridge building – a policy they said the British government should put in hand. Whether the deputation witnessed other aspects of the young Nazi regime is not recorded.

 

Pneumati Tools

The pressures of social disruption and global economic crises exposed the trawling and granite industries as poorly equipped to meet the threat of external competition. Trawl owners were content to fish middle-distance waters using an ageing fleet and granite merchants managed an industry characterised by a few large employers in a sea of small businesses, far from ideal when foreign competition became very keen.

March 7, 2017

The Transportation of Angus Gillies

Angus Gillies from Inverness-shire was convicted of simple larceny (theft) at the Old Bailey in London in February 1845 and sentenced to seven years transportation.

Punsihment-of-convicts

I don’t know what attracted Angus Gillies to make the long journey south into England but he worked for a time in the household of a Dr Dowler, as a carer for a man described at the time as ‘a lunatic’. Dr Dowler’s cook and housekeeper, Mary Lewis, and Gillies struck up a relationship and together they planned to open a coffee-shop which was to prove the undoing of Gillies when he was accused of stealing fifteen £10 bank notes and three £5 bank notes which Mary Lewis had withdrawn from a bank to pay for the business.

Full of anticipation the pair set off to check out the property and settle the payment. Mary picked up her money – notes and a little in gold coin when Gillies suggested she let him carry the money –  “You had better hand over that money to me, as I have had the paying of the other money, and I will pay it” – he had earlier paid a deposit of £5.

Bangalore first of migrant ships

Bangalore is on extreme left

Mary Lewis replied, “Well, Mr Gillies, as you had the paying of the other, I suppose you will have the paying of this” and so she gave him notes worth £165 which he slipped into his pocket-book and off they went to the coffee-shop on Ludgate Hill. Satisfied with the premises they were shown into a back room to settle the deal but no sooner had they sat down when Gillies jumped up stating, “I have lost my book.”

Mary Lewis replied, “That is impossible.”

He said, “Then I have dropped it from my pocket in your room; give me your key to go back and look for it.”

She handed over the key to her room and Gillies went out returning within the hour to report he found no sign of the money. Mary Lewis insisted it was impossible the money could have been lost as they had gone straight to the coffee shop from her home. Gillies then urged her to return to the Glyn and Co bank and get from them the numbers of the bank notes paid out to her so they might be stopped.

shippppp

Onboard a convict ship

After this Gillies proposed marriage to Mary Lewis but when their marriage banns were put up he disappeared and that was the last she saw of him until his appearance in the dock of the Old Bailey charged with larceny.

In court as a witness was Janet Gillies, Angus’s cousin. She had travelled all the way from Inverness-shire and as Janet spoke only Gaelic her evidence was relayed through an interpreter. She told the court she saw Gillies at her home a few days before Christmas the previous year when he gave her a bundle of money and asked her to take care of it. In turn she gave the money to Angus MacDonald, a magistrate in Inverness-shire, for safe-keeping. For whatever reason MacDonald passed the money on to Andrew Wyness, a police constable, who was also a witness in court having arrested Angus Gillies at his home in Inverness-shire on the 29th December 1844.

Thirty-five year old Angus Gillies was found guilty and sentenced to seven years transportation to Van Diemen’s Land on the 3rd February, 1845.

prison-hulk-discovery

Convict hulk

Gillies was duly put on to one of the very many ships that sailed non-stop delivering their cargoes of criminals to whichever part of the British Empire there was a need to for their labour, far away from families. The majority of this human cargo was composed mainly of the impoverished and desperate among Britain’s population and the trade was a major source of income for shipping companies. Whether or not the transported could ever return to their homes was of no interest to the British authorities.

One of the ships on the Britain to Australia route was Angelina which makes it sound rather nice. In April 1844 she set sail with 171 prisoners stuffed into her hold and docked in Australia in August – four months of incarceration in crampt and unhealthy conditions all the time the distance stretching between the ship and home. Disease and death cut many a sentence short.   

I didn’t expect to find any record of Angus Gillies’ transportation but such is the magic of the internet that is precisely what I did – not in Australia but in the year 1848 – three years after his transportation order from the court – he was at last en route for Van Diemen’s Land on board a wood barque, the Jersey-built Bangalore, along with 203 fellow prisoners sailing from Bermuda.

In 1823 Parliament passed an Act permitting the courts to send their British and Irish convicts to any of Britain’s colonies to provide free labour. Times had become harder for the Britain’s capitalists anxious to squeeze every ounce of profit out of the Empire once slavery was abolished in 1806 -although they kept the trade going until 1833. Over the next forty years 9,000 were transported from Britain and Ireland to Bermuda and put to work mainly on the island’s naval dockyard – quarrying the local limestone and constructing a breakwater, similar to the construction of a prison to provide prisoners for forced labour to construct a breakwater at Peterhead in northeast Scotland.

bermuda 1862

Convict hulks and ships of the British fleet at Bermuda

Seven old hulks were moored off Bermuda to house prisoners many of whom had been given shortish sentences such as Gillies’ with his seven years for larceny. The hulks were steaming hot in summer and freezing cold in winter and were breeding-ground for disease – dysentery, consumption bronchitis and all manner of fevers.

It was easy to become a convict in 19th century Britain and Ireland when people lived in unimaginable poverty and starvation was ever-present. The 1840s was the period of the worst of Ireland’s famines when food grown in that country was carted past hungry men, women and children – food they could not afford to buy and which was being taken to the ports to be exported to England. Anyone caught stealing was arrested, tried and transported.  

jersey

Whatever happened to Angus Gillies once he landed in Australia on 14th July 1848 I have not been able to discover. Did he ever get back to Inverness-shire and his family? Perhaps someone out there knows.

February 20, 2017

British-American Project – grooming leaders

You will all be familiar with the British-American Project. No? Here’s a clue – it is a British/American networking organisation sponsored by several well-known businesses including Monsanto, Philip Morris (tobacco), Apple, British Airways, BP Coca-Cola, Unilever.

In the words of BAP:

“The British-American Project is a transatlantic fellowship of over 1,200 leaders, rising stars and opinion formers from a broad spectrum of occupations, backgrounds and political views. It is an extraordinarily diverse network of high-achievers on rising career paths in public, professional and business life.

naughtie

BAP operates on a not-for-profit basis, funded through its membership and a small amount of support from corporate partners. We also receive support in kind from a number of bodies [see above] who share our values and objectives.”

 In 2007 the journalist John Pilger wrote that:

‘The BAP rarely gets publicity, which may have something to do with the high proportion of journalists who are alumni. Prominent BAP journalists are David LipseyYasmin Alibhai-Brown and assorted Murdochites. The BBC is well represented. On the Today programmeJames Naughtie, whose broadcasting has long reflected his own transatlantic interests, has been an alumnus since 1989. Today’s newest voice, Evan Davis, formerly the BBC’s zealous economics editor, is a member. And at the top of the BAP website home page is a photograph of Jeremy Paxman and his endorsement. “A marvellous way of meeting a varied cross-section of transatlantic friends,” says he’[21].

BAP has been described as a Trojan horse for American foreign policy/business/influence in the world – the Special Relationship grown large. I’ve read it has folded yet its website is still up and BAP’s annual conference is advertised for Newcastle later this year so it looks as though it is alive and kicking.

Untitled.jpg

The Labour Party features largely, New Labour’s usual suspects, along with several Conservatives and assorted others. Tony Blair, not a member, described BAP as a wide-ranging pro-active organisation for “young leaders.”

Wendy Alexander, remember her? was one of those expected to take on a leadership role. Blink and you would have missed her leadership of Labour in Scotland but get there she did.

“BAP network …committed to “grooming leaders”

“Casual freemasonry” was Pilger’s description – and “by far the most influential transatlantic network of politicians, journalists and academics.”

isabel-hilton

It appears this self-selective organisation of like-minded people who saw themselves as movers and shakers able to influence all of our lives and mould attitudes relating to politics, culture, trade, defence, war and so on grew out of an idea of the late US president Ronald Reagan to develop a network of co-operation between the UK and America then developed by Sir Charles Villiers (Etonian banker and former member of Special Operations Executive) and Lewis Van Dusen. This was no peace organisation, very anti-CND.

“In the summer of 1997, a few weeks after New Labour won power, a striking article about the election appeared in a privately circulated newsletter. Under the cryptic headline Big Swing To BAP, the article began, “No less than four British-American Project fellows and one advisory board member have been appointed to ministerial posts in the new Labour government.” A list of the names of these five people and of other New Labour appointees who were members of BAP followed: “Mo Mowlam … Chris Smith … Peter Mandelson … Baroness Symons … George Robertson … Jonathan Powell … Geoff Mulgan … Matthew Taylor …” The article ended with a self-congratulatory flourish and the names of two more notable BAP members: “James Naughtie and Jeremy Paxman gave them all a hard time on BBC radio and television. Other fellows, too numerous to list, popped up throughout the national media commenting, criticising and celebrating.”

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/nov/06/usa.politics1

In 2003 John Pilger noted that “Five members of Blair’s first cabinet, along with his chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, were members of the British American Project for a Successor Generation, a masonry of chosen politicians and journalists, conceived by the far-right oil baron J. Howard Pew and launched by Ronald Reagan and Rupert Murdoch.” 

In the beginning advisory boards were established in the US and Britain through the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of the Johns Hopkins University, Washington DC in the US and in Britain the rightwing Royal Institute of International Affairs at Chatham House in London currently headed by Eliz Manningham-Buller, former DG of the Security Services. Former presidents include Douglas Hurd, George Robertson and Paddy Ashdown.  It describes itself as ‘independent’ and not funded by government-

“The institute receives no subsidy from the UK government or any other source.” although, curiously, among its funders, those who do not wish to remain anonymous, is the British Army, Ministry of Defence and the BBC.

The BBC? Explains why it uses is so much in its news reports. Isn’t there a question over BBC’s independence when it pays into this think tank? How many others does it help fund?

See more at:

https://www.chathamhouse.org/sites/files/chathamhouse/Fundingbands15-16A.pdf

Let’s cut to the chase – who are/were some of these anointed if not by predestination then something not dissimilar?

imgres

Apart from Wendy Alexander, sister of former Labour foreign and trade minister, Douglas Alexander, other alumni include – well, Douglas Alexander, Labour Party Foreign and Trade minister; Stephen Dorrell, former Conservative minister; Alan Sked founder of Ukip, David Miliband, Labour Party; Baron Mandelson, Labour Party, EU trade commissioner; Baron Robertson of Port Ellen, ex-Labour Party Minister, Adviser to BP, on Board of Equilibrium Gulf Ltd; Baroness Symons, Labour Party former Foreign Office minister; Jonathan Powell, Labour Party former chief of staff to Blair;  Baroness Scotland, Labour Home Office minister; Geoff Mulgan, former head of Downing Street’s policy and strategy unit; Sadiq Khan, Labour Party, Mayor of London; Matthew Taylor, Downing Street head of policy; David Willetts, Conservative minister; journalists Jeremy Paxman, BBC; Evan Davis, BBC; James Naughtie, BBC; William Crawley, BBC; Jane Hill, BBC; Ben Hammersley, BBC; Trevor Phillips, BBC; Isabel Hilton, BBC, the Independent, the Guardian; Margaret Hill, BBC producer of current affairs; Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, The Independent, London Evening Standard; Charles Moore, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Telegraph, The Spectator; Rowan Pelling, Daily Telegraph and many, many more.

bbc-employee

BAP was designed to be an active professional networking medium for young professionals so many in the list above will have dropped out to be replaced by the future. And on the subject of the future at a time when there is great concern at the erosion of the NHS and the prospect of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership aka TTIP I think there are reasons to be very worried indeed over this close and cagey liaison.

 http://powerbase.info/index.php/British_American_Project

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2004/nov/06/usa.politics1

 http://www.britishamericanproject.org/

February 20, 2017

STOP PRESS: Russian Revolution 1917

It was almost incredible that it could be true. We stood together in the darkened street, half delirious with joy, while tears mingled with our laughter.

1

Guest post by Textor

Emotionally charged, with an echo of Wordsworth’s response to news of the French Revolution, these are the words Aberdonian John Paton on hearing that the Tsar had been overthrown. It was March 1917. It was the Russian Revolution. The thirty one year old socialist was leaving an election meeting where he’d supported the anti-war stance of Ramsay MacDonald. Since 1914 millions had been sucked into the bloody maelstrom of world war. For small bands of socialists across Europe the war was final proof of the bankruptcy of capitalism and as such had to be opposed despite lies in the press, willingly if not happily accepting threats of violence and imprisonment.

Anti-war socialists saw glimmers of hope in working class militancy which continued through these desperate years. Rent strikes, demands for 40 hour working week, the emergence of an unofficial shop steward movement all implicitly challenged political authority so much so that by 1917 “Red Clydesiders” were being harassed, sent to internal exile and gaoled. Socialists were buoyed but faced the fact that in Britain and across Europe, particularly in Germany, social democratic parties had taken up their respective national flags and helped drum men to the battle-fronts.

When John Paton left the election meeting on that fateful evening he met with a comrade who was almost choking with excitement at the news of the fall of the Tsar. Hardly surprising that local election politics were for the moment put into the shade. For John Paton events in Russia spurred him to greater political activity which eventually resulted in him becoming a leading figure in the Independent Labour Party.

In a similar fashion the cub reporter James Leslie Mitchell (Lewis Grassic Gibbon) was inspired by the later Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia so much so that he and a colleague could not sleep o’nights. We prowled Aberdeen . . . talking the moon into morning about jolly and heart-some and splendid things: life, death, the Revolution. Young Mitchell was then working for The Aberdeen Journal; the city’s most important newspaper. Since the 1740s the Journal had served Aberdeen with a generally conservative view of the world. In its time it had wagged a political and moral finger at the excessive demands of Chartists and seen off more radical newspaper rivals by accepting some of the liberal policies of the 19th century. Basically the Journal wanted men to be politically sensible. Political militancy, whether it was votes for women or re-division of land, was unacceptable, at least in the parliamentary “democracy” that was Britain.

James Leslie Mitchell’s enthusiasm was not shared by the Journal nor by its stable-mate The Evening Express.   However, this is not to say that the earlier phase of the Russian Revolution which had so captivated John Paton was denounced by the Aberdeen newspapers. We must remember that the British state and its mouthpieces were concerned with the prosecution of the war. Where John had seen universal hope for an end to the slaughter and the building of a more just world the Aberdeen papers believed that far from doing this the fall of the Tsarist autocracy would mean a more rational organisation of Russia’s military forces, taking power from the hands of an incompetent regime, with what they called dark and mysterious forces behind the throne, and placing it with men in the Russian parliament, the Duma; in other words a new regime with some sort of political legitimacy, consequently better able to work with Britain and her allies by marshalling workers and peasants to fight the German enemy.     

In March 1917 Aberdeen Daily Journal welcomed the “Revolution” and confidently predicted that a more democratic empire could be built with the help of Grand Duke Michael and on this solid foundation the energetic prosecution of the war [would be] their first consideration. And at the same time that it praised Russia for holding fast to the European battlefields where millions were dying the newspaper congratulated Russia for not taking the bloody path of the 1905 revolution or that mapped out in France in 1789. As the Evening Express put it the simple-hearted, generous, hospitable Russians were following a course of common sense in showing a willingness to keep the slaughter going.

On the other hand there was an enemy in Britain, conspiring to defeat the just ends being pursued by the state, personified in the person of Ramsay MacDonald: Aberdeen wants no peace bargainers, no mischief makers, in a time of national crisis. Russia, said the Journal must also beware Socialists and fanatical Revolutionaries. Ramsay MacDonald is now one of the great villains of Labour history; the man who sold out to the National Government and Conservatism. But this is to forget he and others had the courage and we might say the decency to stand against the bloodletting of 1914-18 even if this was from a pacifist stance rather than, as the young John Paton would have demanded, a revolutionary overthrow of the property owning class. 

2

It just so happened that Aberdeen played its own small part in ensuring the pacifist MacDonald with his M.P. colleague Fred Jowett of Bradford were prevented in June 1917 from attending an anti-war socialist meeting in Petrograd. Aberdeen was the “certain port” from which these two men attempted to sail only to be stopped by organised labour under the leadership of Captain Edward Tupper of the seamen’s union. Pickets at the harbour threw their luggage ashore and followed them to their lodgings to keep them from sailing. Needless to say the local press was enchanted by this show of militancy, displaying a support for picketing which tended to be conspicuous by its absence in earlier industrial strikes.

When the Bolshevik Lenin was given safe passage by the Germans to the Finland Station in April unsurprisingly he was said to be an agent of the Kaiser, the editor of the Evening Express advised the Russian state now is the time for a supreme effort to trample down the internal enemy before hurling back the invader. Equally unsurprising the newspapers also saw MacDonald and his ILP comrades as doing the Kaiser’s work not to mention men and women going on strike threatening to disrupt munitions production.

Regardless of all the political guidance being given and the moral exhortations made it still looked as if the events in Russia had a dynamic beyond the control of any of the states involved in mutual destruction. The “moderate”, pro-war, Russian leader Kerensky seemed unable to guide things to the desired end. In Aberdeen’s Mither Kirk (Parish Church) on the third anniversary of the outbreak of war Colonel the Rev. James Smith preached asking God to intercede on the side of Britain: he prayed to God that a better day might speedily dawn upon distracted Russia and that the men of patriotic spirit and invincible courage be forthcoming to lead one of the greatest and most ancient of Empires to the destiny that awaited her. That destiny turned out to be not the one desired by the Rev. Smith or the local editors. Perhaps the call for God to intercede had not been heard or God (some Hegelian might say History) had set course for a future beyond their imaginations.

Come October-November 1917 and pro-war elements had their worst fear was realised: in Petrograd and beyond workers and peasants organised in councils sought peace and began to imagine a world which might be other than the one they now lived in. This was, however, more than a mental act. The councils, packed with voices from all parts of the political spectrum, were organised around degrees of holding power, making decisions which carried force and when necessary using armed militias to achieve their ends. This is what the British and other voices of “reason and common sense” could neither comprehend nor accept.   The Bolsheviks were wiser, their political programme, as much as it might have been made on the hoof at times, recognised the dynamics of class action and were able to place themselves at the head of this deeply revolutionary situation. Where revolutionaries saw liberation and new found freedoms the status-quo perceived only anarchy, an upsetting of the natural order and more immediately the loss of privilege and power. 

3

One of the local editors wrote: It is incredible that the Russian people would long tolerate a system which aims at undermining the foundations of the whole fabric of society . . . But undermine it they did. The exploited across Russia and many beyond its frontiers recognised that the “foundations of the whole fabric of society” included systematic exploitation of workers and peasants, imperial adventures and colonisation which had given the world the blood drenched trenches across Europe. Who held power, and to what ends, this was one of the keys to explaining 1917 and indeed equally important to understanding the future of what became Soviet Russia and the emergence of a regime which eventually needed no lessons in how to repress and control civil society.

But this was in the future. Socialists might at times be star-gazers but they are not clairvoyants. The emergence of workers and peasant councils pointed to new social forms around which a new world might be built. One hundred years on John Paton’s words hint at how it must have been:

 Every day brought its fresh excitements and new hopes that even now something of lasting good for Socialists in Britain was to come out of the war.

January 28, 2017

BBC and the word of God: the rise of the think tank

The Thatcher years saw an increase in the number of privately financed think tanks/pressure groups with mission statements liberally infused with terms such as: liberal, freedom and liberty. Picky people might interpret the dogmas dished up by the majority of them, rightwing neoliberal and neocon, more accurately as illiberal, authoritarian and repressive.

Their objective is to propagate their particular ideologies; to influence government thinking and the direction of policies on areas such as the economy, health, education, transport, welfare, benefits and pensions. They hire researches to comb through statistics and compile strategies covering every aspect of British life and present themselves,  as fed to us daily by the BBC, as ‘experts’. And, importantly, they all claim to be ‘independent’ except the question is never posed on the BBC who funds them. Now I’m being picky.

svoped_wideweb__470x3230

It must be so reassuring to the busy programme presenter, editor or reporter in a hurry to press fast dial for one of their contacts with whichever think tank is seen as most appropriate to the item being covered – a reliable friend to sort out confusing facts and figures for them and, perhaps, provide an articulate spokesperson for interview who can dazzle with facts that trip off the tongue. And in the unlikely event of a challenge will run rings around any reporter lacking their expertise. 

A cursory glance at the personnel involved with some of these think tanks suggests a familiarity about them. It is as if person A completes his/her degree, preferably at Oxbridge (in Scotland it may be Glasgow), goes to work with a think tank for a while, nips off to the BBC or a newspaper for a bit, then perhaps into parliament or, if unelectable, turns up in the House of Lords. Same faces reinforcing a similar message.

 

They – peers, top journalists, senior civil servants, senior BBC staff are among an interdependent British elite who mould our thinking and values. They inhabit their own ecosystem – feeding off each other, mutually dependent and interbred to a degree that is incestuous – and results in the neoliberal or neocon.

20170127_191755

The growth of the neoliberal or neocon since the 1980s has been impressive. Frequently smart and well educated at private school followed by Oxbridge – or Glasgow but mainly Oxbridge – if not recruited by the intelligence services they might amble into journalism, perhaps be found a ‘position’ at the BBC, especially if a member of their family ‘puts in a word on their behalf’ (in other places this might be called nepotism but at the BBC it is coincidence) or they might go into parliament but the important thing is that they find ways to ensure the survival of their species and they are surrounded by others of their species who are there to help.

One such ‘independent’ voice given liberal access to the BBC is The Institute of Economic Affairs (set up by Antony Fisher, a habitual funder of think tanks aka pressure groups including the Fraser Institute and Adam Smith Institute as well as others in America and Canada – and the first to set up a battery chicken ‘farm’ in England but that’s by the way – his granddaughter is married to Conservative former strategist, Steve Hilton.)

This London-based rightwing lobby group has links to other similar organisations such as Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the International Policy Network. It sees itself as active in expanding the network of conservative think tanks worldwide – all of them ‘independent’.

Another, the Centre for Policy Studies  was set up by Thatcherite minister Keith Joseph with Thatcher its Deputy Chairman. It’s current director is Tim Knox and its president is Lord Saatchi (Conservative). CPS was ranked as one of the four least transparent think tanks in the UK in relation to funding by Transparify. Former PM David Cameron credited the vital role played by CPS in the Conservative election victory of 1979.

In 2013 the CPS complained of the BBC’s ‘left of centre bias’ and suggestion that leftwing think tanks were ‘independent’ while flagging up the likes of theirs as rightwing. It complained in particular about the Social Market Foundation, Demos the New Economics Foundation and Institute for Public Policy Research. It will come as something of a shock to many that the Social Market Foundation is regarded by anyone as leftwing or, indeed, that the BBC could ever be accused of omitting the word, ‘leftwing’ in any of its political or economic coverage. Rightwing, now, I’ve never heard that spoken by them.

In case you are not familiar with the Social Market Foundation its purpose is to ‘”advance the education of the public in the economic, social and political sciences” and to “champion ideas that marry a pro-market orientation with concern for social justice”‘ – according to Wikipedia. Its director is Emran Mian (Cambridge), former civil servant and policy adviser in Whitehall. It was set up in 1989 by ‘Tory minded elements’ in the SDP – forerunners of Liberal Democrats. Oh, and it is ‘independent’ but you knew that. And it is based at Westminster and said to have been former Conservative PM, John Major’s ‘favourite think tank’ and associates itself with New Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.  

A former director of the SMF, Rick Nye, was also a director of the Conservative Research Department and Director of Populus (a research consultancy for corporate research and analysis) as well as a journalist. Another was Daniel Finkelstein, (LSE) a Conservative peer.

neocon-3-22

Better known to you, possibly, is Evan Davis (Oxford and Harvard) a former BBC economic editor and currently a presenter of several BBC programmes who when at the Social Market Foundation was among authors of its publication Osborne’s Choice: Combining fiscal credibility and growth. He was once seconded to the Thatcher government to work on the poll tax and previously with The Institute for Fiscal Studies. Mills spends time on examining the role of economic journo and monetarist, Peter Jay, (private school/Oxford) born into illustrious Labour family, one-time son-in-law of Labour PM James Callaghan and Jay’s influence on the rise of Evan Davis.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies  was founded by Will Hopper, (Glasgow),  banker and later Conservative MEP, investment trust manager, Bob Buist (Dundee); Nils Taube, stockbroker; John Chown (Cambridge), monetary economist,  a tax consultant and ex-chairman of Cambridge University Conservative Association. The Institute’s director is Paul Johnson (Oxford) formerly employed in the Cabinet Office, Dept for Education and Employment, HM Treasury who is aided and abetted by some 60 researchers. According to an article in The Guardian the IFS wields huge influence over economic policy in the UK – its authority has become, ‘the word of God’ according to former economics editor at the BBC, Robert Peston. Pronouncements from the IFS frequently become the main story at the BBC and other news outlets and the base line from which others should argue. 

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/mar/15/british-umpire-how-institute-fiscal-studies-became-most-influential-voice-in-uk-economic-debate

Director Johnson’s tutorial partner at university was Ed Balls (Oxford), former Labour Chancellor →IFS →Treasury→IFS and ex-journalist Financial Times. Ex-director of IFS Robert Chote, (Cambridge) was chair of the university’s Liberal and Social Democrats, a journalist at The Independent, Independent on Sunday, Financial Times, ex-director IFS, ex-Office for National Statistics; Office for Budget Responsibility. Chote’s wife is Sharon White, (Cambridge) civil servant – sometimes of the Treasury, 10 Downing Street policy unit under Blair; chief executive of Ofcom  which regulates broadcasting, postal services and other communications and oversees licensing, complaints, competition etc. Ofcom’s current chair is Dame Patricia Hodgson (Cambridge) ex-BBC producer, ex- BBC Trust and a host of other posts.

“The IFS today occupies a quasi-constitutional role in British life, but without the scrutiny on management and funding that applies to formal government bodies. Its separation from government may be one of the best explanations for its success.”

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2016/mar/15/british-umpire-how-institute-fiscal-studies-became-most-influential-voice-in-uk-economic-debate

Innumerate journalists have come to rely on the IFS to do the sums for them when it comes to explaining numbers – and the IFS is more than happy to oblige. It is all very incestuous and the more innumerate the journalist the more heavily is reliance on the IFS’s figures and interpretation of figures being accurate or even acceptable.

The Adam Smith Institute -“a formidable advocate of economic and personal freedom, achieving real and lasting changes in public policy” Andrey Neil (Glasgow) member of Glasgow University Conservative Club, ex-research assistant with Conservative Party, journalist and BBC broadcaster.

The ASI was founded in 1977 by three British men then living and working in the USA. One was its president, Dr Masden Pirie, (Edinburgh, St. Andrews, Cambridge) to promote free market policies including privatisation of public services. Sam Bowman:

“Our policy agenda hasn’t changed. We want low, simple, flat taxes to promote investment and growth. We want patients and parents to have choice and control over healthcare and education, through voucher systems and competition between private firms. We want to liberalise the planning system so that the private sector can build more homes, and create a free market welfare system that guarantees that work always pays. And we want free trade with the world and a liberal immigration system that people trust.”http://www.conservativehome.com/platform/2016/10/sam-bowman-why-we-at-the-adam-smith-institute-are-best-described-as-neoliberals-not-libertarians.html

It was from the ASI the poll tax originated and as we’ve seen above reconfiguring taxation is one of its principle preoccupations.

Of Masden Pirie the journalist and panellist on the  BBC’s the Moral Maze and twice failed to land a seat for the Labour Party in the House of Commons, Edward Pearce wrote:

“He is a Scot of sorts, but despite education at Edinburgh and St Andrew’s Universities, he is quite unscarred in either accent or hang-ups by Scottishness.”

 The Guardian, 19 April 1993. 

Think we’ve got your number there, Ed. Just in case you haven’t had enough of Mr Pearce’s velvety prose try this:

“For the second time in half a decade a large body of Liverpool supporters has killed people …the shrine in the Anfield goalmouth, the cursing of the police, all the theatricals, come sweetly to a city which is already the world capital of self-pity. There are soapy politicians to make a pet of Liverpool, and Liverpool itself is always standing by to make a pet of itself. ‘Why us? Why are we treated like animals?’ To which the plain answer is that a good and sufficient minority of you behave like animals.”[8]

the Sunday Times  23 April 1989

In Scotland as well as all of the above the BBC here often turns to the neo-liberal Fraser of Allander Institute, attached to the University of Strathclyde, for its opinions on a whole range of topics. In an article in the BBC’s website it charted the expansion of FAI in favourable terms and quoted a spokesperson:

“…the expanded institute would be able to provide decision-makers, the media and the public “with even greater leading-edge independent economic analysis than before”.

Presumably on its call to privatise Scotland’s water and such like.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-36747530

Who are they? Financial sponsorship for the FoAI has come from the Hugh Fraser Foundation, BP, Shell, Scotsman Publications, Mobil North Sea Ltd, Shell UK, the Industry Department for Scotland. Fraser of Allander Institute’s director is Dr Graeme Roy (Edinburgh/Glasgow) who replaced Brian Ashcroft, husband of Wendy Alexander former leader of the Labour Party in Scotland and a former Labour MSP.

Mills in his book The BBC: Myth of a Public Service criticises the BBC for its narrow range of sources – chiefly political party press statements augmented by think tanks that form the incestuous media/government network that runs through Westminster and Whitehall in England and I will add, encircles the Clyde in Scotland. He writes of the revolving door through which the select are admitted and the links they form that bolsters their influence and allows their voices to be heard.

224229_209840205707123_161331373891340_741583_7864026_n

A mere snapshot of those who have taken a spin around that revolving door – Ben Bradshaw, (Sussex) BBC reporter, Labour MP and minister; James Purnell, (Oxford) ex-BBC Director of Radio, BBC Director of Strategy and Digital, Labour MP and minister;  Don Brind, ex-BBC political correspondent, Labour press officer; Bill Bush, ex-BBC analysis and research, ex chief of staff to Labour’s Ken Livingstone, head of political research for Blair; Lorraine Davidson, ex-BBC political correspondent, Labour Party, journalist – wrote biography of ex-leader of Labour of Scotland, Jack McConnell, former partner of Labour MSP Tom McCabe, wife of Labour MEP David Martin; Michael Gove, (Oxford) Conservative MP and minister, ex-journalist, ex- BBC reporter; Patricia Hodgson BBC, Ofcom, a Thatcherite, Ruth Davidson, (Edinburgh/Glasgow) ex-BBC presenter, leader Conservative Party in Scotland; Thea Rogers, ex-BBC political producer to BBC political editor Nick Robinson, ex-adviser to Conservative Chancellor George Osborne; Nick Robinson, (Oxford), Oxford University Conservative Association, BBC presenter and journalist, who has a catalogue of controversial incidents relating to his reporting recorded for posterity. At the 2015 General Election:

“I am not, though, required to be impartial between democracy and the alternatives”

which comes down to an individual’s definition of ‘democracy”.

bbc-values

We can gauge a great deal about an organisation by those who run it and dominate it. To discover who sets the tone of the BBC and how reflective it is of UK society you just have to run your eyes down a list of who gets to be top dog there. 

The BBC is governed by a group of appointees. Currently they include:

Rona Fairhead – (Cambridge/Harvard), former CE of Financial Times Group, non-exec director HSBC
Sir Roger Carr – Chair of BAE Systems (UK biggest arms producer)
Richard Ayre – former Deputy CE of BBC News
Mark Damazer – (Oxford/Harvard), former controller of BBC Radio 4 and Radio 7
Mark Florman, (private school, LSE), CEO of merchant banking group
Aideen McGinley former NI civil servant; Nicholas Prettejohn – senior City executive.

Former governers:

Lord Gainford (Joseph Pease), (Cambridge), Liberal politician, Deputy Chairman of the Durham Coal Owners Association, director of Pease and Partners Ltd and other colliery companies, Chair of Durham Coke Owners – in post at the BBC during the General strike that included miners, President of the Federation of British Industry.
George Villiers, Earl of Clarendon, Conservative, Captain of the Gentlemen-at-Arms;
John Whitley, Liberal MP,
Viscount Bridgeman, (Eton and Cambridge), Conservative MP,
Ronald Norman, (Cambridge), banker, his brother was governor of the Bank of England, 
 Sir Allan Powell, Lawyer.
Lord Inman, Labour MP,
Baron Simon Wythenshawe, (Cambridge), Labour Party then Liberal, Industrialist.
Sir Alexander Cadogan, (Eton and Oxford), Conservative MP, Director of the Suez canal company and friend of PM Anthony Eden – handy during the Suez crisis for the bias promoted by the BBC – which he defended, naturally.
Sir Arthur fforde – no mistake spelled with two lowercase fs, (Oxford), Civil Servant;
Lord Normanbrook, (Oxford), Senior Civil Servant.
Lord Hill, (Cambridge) Consrvative MP and a Liberal.
Si Michael Swann, (Cambridge and Edinburgh), appointed by Conservative PM Ted Heath following his handling of student protests at Edinburgh.
George Howard, (Eton and Oxford), owned Castle Howard in North Yorkshire where Brideshead Revisited was filmed), chair of the County Landowners Association.
Stuart Young, appointed by Thatcher to be a conservative influence – his brother of Conservative Cabinet Minister Baron Young of Graffham in Thatcher government.
Marmaduke Hussey, (Rugby and Oxford) Conservative, husband of Lady Susan Hussey, woman of the Bedchamber to Elizabeth II (sic), put into BBC to bring it ‘into line’ with her government’s policy – he was also involved in print union disputes.
Sir Christopher Bland, (Oxford), Army, Business, Conservative.
Gavyn Davies, (Cambridge), adviser to Labour Party, former Goldman Sachs partner, married to Susan Nye -former Director of Government Relations and diary secretary to Gordon Brown.
Lord Ryder of Wensum, (Cambridge), Conservative peer,
Sir Anthony Salz,  Executive Vice Chairman at Rothschild
Lord Grade, Controller BBC 1, Conservative peer,
Sir Michael Lyons, Labour Party
Lord Patten, (Oxford), Conservative peer,
Sir Hugh Greene (Oxford)
Greg Dyke, (York), former Labour Party donor.

 

You don’t have to have attended Oxbridge or Glasgow universities to get on at  the BBC but if you have it won’t be held against you. In fact, you may even have formed friendships there which could hold you in good stead to secure a position because in life it isn’t what you know so much as who you know – or who kent your father. 

There are believed to be genetic risks with incest in that the genetic pool is depleted with the result that diversity is limited. But the advance of neoliberal and neocon ideologies through our newspapers and on television and radio has so far proved a boon for those species in achieving their goal of becoming the accepted authority on all things but their very success is damaging to society for it restricts and perverts the discourse on alternatives to their rightwing doctrines. 

January 25, 2017

BBC: Myth or Magic part 2 – In Wonderland they Lie

Second part of a sideways glance at the BBC prompted by Tom Mills’ book The BBC: Myth of a Public Service.

In a Wonderland they lie

In part one I mentioned how proactive the BBC was in attacking striking workers during the 1926 General Strike so it is not surprising it provided the government with a vehicle for propaganda during the Second World War. Now there is nothing unexpected about that for no country would allow any publicly financed medium become something of a fifth column – issuing news and briefings critical of the constitutional authority. Mind you before that war the BBC could be found in the camp of appeasers along with major British newspapers such as the Daily Mail, Sunday Dispatch and London Evening News owned by Lord Rothermere and The Times and The Observer owned by Lord Astor all of which were relaxed over developments in Germany during the 1930s when many from Britain’s upper middle class and aristocracy were sympathetic to Hitler’s Nazis – the very classes at the helm at the BBC. According to Mills, ‘speakers hostile to fascism were barred from broadcasting’ on the BBC which drew a rebuke from Churchill that he,  an anti-appeaser, was one.  

Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing

 The BBC’s own interpretation of its conduct in the war on its website is a polished piece of guarded-speak which emphasises the integrity of BBC management and reaffirms the BBC as ‘a trusted news source’ and how the BBC resisted becoming simply a tool of government. It would, it insisted at the time, broadcast ‘the truth’ but omit anything that might ‘endanger the civilian population or jeopardise operations.’ To this end it admits heavily censoring news to omit mentions of high casualties among the Allies. There was not a single reference in the BBC website I consulted to its propaganda operations later made famous by George Orwell.

bbc-bans-liberals-oct-18-1933

BBC chooses whose opinions may be heard in 1933

Orwell was one of many recruited by the government to work within its vast Ministry of Information, as Talks Producer at the BBC. You can see how smudged that line is between both institutions. For the Ministry of Information you could read Ministry of Misinformation. Other famous writers similarly employed included J. B Priestly and Graham Greene (whose brother Hugh Greene worked for the BBC’s German service and later he became Director General of the BBC)

The brilliant cartoonist David Low refused to be used as a propagandist for the government/BBC and the writer C. S. Lewis also refused to participate in disseminating lies.

Even the once enthusiastic Orwell later changed his mind on the integrity of outright propaganda, ‘all propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth.’ His prescient novel, 1984, was written while his experience of working for the government/BBC was fresh in his mind and the novel’s Ministry of Information became the terrifying Ministry of Truth.

 The acknowledged importance of the BBC’s output during WW2 both for home and overseas audiences demonstrates the potency of its influence over the public’s perceptions of truth.

The Party’s go-to tactic for maintaining power is to shift blame to a designated scapegoat, toward which all of its constituents’ hatred and violence may be directed

Broadcasters enjoy a privileged role in life able to construct narratives in tune with their own opinions aimed at persuading their audience of the legitimacy of their interpretation of events. The BBC is not a place to hear radically divergent views instead it promotes that small c conservatism that is in tune with all of the major institutions in the UK. Like some well-oiled machine of state government, the City of London, the courts, military, royalty and the BBC reinforce one another and operate to maintain the status quo where the top brass in all of these institutions remain in charge.

commons-complaint-over-bbc-feb-1933

The power of the BBC to censor its airwaves

We have seen how the BBC sought to sway opinion against workers during the General Strike how it was in tune with the reactionary press during the 1930s in relation to Germany and its willingness to broadcast a catalogue of myths and lies during the war and that aspect of its character was no less slanted post-war.

And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed – if all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth. “Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

During the Suez crisis of 1956 Britain found itself divided between those who defended the Empire and Britain’s military presence at the Suez canal and its control over this vital trade route and supporters of Egypt, a nation desperate to shake off its shackles as a colony and assert its independence. Britain’s rightwing were seething with racist venom against uppity and ungrateful Egyptians their xenophobia evident in many references to ‘our boys’ versus ‘wogs’ and ‘gyppos’ .

suez-wogs

The Director General of the BBC dined at Number 10 Downing Street with the Prime Minister on the evening of 26 July 1956 when news broke of Egypt’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal Company.  As Tony Shaw in his book, Eden, Suez and the Mass Media: Propaganda and Persuasion during the Suez Crisis, explains the chairman of the BBC’s Board of Governors, and a former under-security at the Foreign Office (and share holder in the Suez Canal Company) nipped down to Downing street to discuss how the BBC should handle the crisis. A nervous government was said to have threatened to take over the BBC entirely but that appears was an exaggerated claim however it was made clear to the broadcaster that its handling of Suez should be on a war footing with all that involved including censorship. And, as Shaw points out, the DG of the BBC and his chief assistant were trusted with highly secret information in the run-up to military action.

The chairman of the Independent Television Authority, Sir Kenneth Clark, was also approached and asked to ‘slant the news about Suez’ but he refused to co-operate with the government on grounds of the need to retain impartiality.

WAR IS PEACE
FREEDOM IS SLAVERY
IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH

Despite much hand wringing at the BBC the corporation complied with the government and broadcast carefully constructed reports and interviews or simply relayed official statements. It repulsed any attempt for outright government control over its output but did undertake close liaison with the Ministry of Defence and departments of the military.

Meanwhile in Cyprus an ostensibly independent radio station known as Sharqal-Adna but run by British Intelligence and ‘known’ to BBC management transmitted pro-British propaganda as did the BBC’s Arabic Service. Reminiscent of the Iraq wars enemy casualties were not counted or reported realistically and there were no first hand reports of bombings or the impact of British actions on civilians. Shaw noted  that BBC

‘bulletins on the whole bore such a close resemblance to so much of the officially released information on the invasion [it] suggests that the government’s machinery of liaison paid dividends.’

The next moment a hideous, grinding speech, as of some monstrous machine running without oil, burst from the big telescreen at the end of the room. It was a noise that set one’s teeth on edge and bristled the hair at the back of one’s neck. The Hate had started…

Big events such as the General Strike, WW2 and Suez highlight the hugely influential function of the BBC. One that is more memorable for readers will be Hillsborough. It wasn’t only The Sun that chose to become a mouthpiece for the official police version of events.  

hillsborough-1

BBC Radio 2 reported: “Unconfirmed reports that a door was broken down at the end that was holding Liverpool supporters.”

Mills tells us that Graham Kelly, Chief Executive of the English Football Association, who was interviewed on Radio 2 implied that the police had not ordered the gates to be opened. This was as was later became apparent not true but repeated by another reporter

“…at ten to three there was a surge of fans at the Leppings lane end of the ground… the surge composed of about 500 Liverpool fans and the police say that a gate was forced and that led to a crush in the terracing area – well under capacity I’m told, there was still plenty of room inside that area…”

Such shameful distortions of the truth continued to be broadcast on the BBC – Radio 4 news at 6pm still insisted that fans without tickets pushed their way into the football ground causing the disaster –

“It’s clear that many hundreds of Liverpool fans travelled to Hillsborough even though they didn’t have tickets for the game. Shortly before the match started it appears that these fans were able to get into the ground through a gate at the Leppings Lane end.”

Winston kept his back turned to the telescreen. It was safer, though, as he well knew, even a back can be revealing

The BBC went further in its reporting of the so-called Battle of Orgreave in June 1984 when striking miners were battered by police. The corporation went out of its way to edit film in such a way it altered the sequence of events and broadcast film that was deliberately constructed to lie to viewers in something straight out of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.  

orgreave-1

Mills: the BBC was ‘blatantly biased in their output to the extent it ‘chopped up and re-sequenced’ film of the picket attack to ‘make it appear miners provoked the police.’

With no hint of impartiality BBC reporters referred to miners as ‘law-breakers’. When confronted by their biased reporting the BBC immediately issued denials – as it invariably does when caught out.

“no evidence of any deliberate attempt to mislead viewers”

“marginal imbalance”

not “wholly impartial”

What did happen at Orgreave, and unreported on the BBC, was that the police launched an unprovoked attack on striking men who retaliated with missiles.

orgreave-2

It took the BBC 7 years to own up to this deliberate manipulation of events

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jul/22/orgreave-truth-police-miners-strike

The BBC is almost unique in this country in its ability to mould public opinion. We found out in part 1 that the ‘impartial’ BBC is not keen on CND and peace campaigners in general but allows itself to be used as a bugle boy for British military campaigns. At the time of the Iraq war it was so openly jingoistic it allocated only 2% output to the views of people opposed to this war.  

http://www.newstatesman.com/uk-politics/2009/08/mehdi-hasan-bbc-wing-bias-corporation

The BBC is very good at lots of things including marginalising groups it disapproves of such as the peace movement. At the same time it is supremely capable of enhancing organisations and views that fit in with the ethos of the men and women who wield influence at the BBC.

Banking and big business command great respect within the organisation, including the rural business of farming. We know this because the BBC has rather a lot of business slots as stand-alone programmes –

BBC In Business; Business Daily, The Bottom Line, Global Business, The World of Business, World Business Report, Talking Business, BBC Business Live, Business Matters, Dragon’s Den, Wake Up to Money, Inside Business with more of a similar hue dished up in Scotland, hourly on the lamentable Good Morning Scotland

– and teams of employees who feed economic and business data into news and current affairs programmes. By contrast it has no designated slots to reflect on green issues, or anti-business views or workers’ issues that might be at the heart of trades unions or indeed peace campaigning. The only perspective that interests the BBC are those of employers and a peek at the make-up of who’s who in the BBC which will be covered in a separate blog shows this is only to be expected. You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours is surely carved over the front door at the BBC. This preoccupation the BBC has for finance and business is explored by Mills.

Inside the flat a fruity voice was reading out a list of figures which had something to do with the production of pig-iron. The voice came from an oblong metal plaque like a dulled mirror which formed part of the surface of the right-hand wall. Winston turned a switch and the voice sank somewhat, though the words were still distinguishable. The instrument (the telescreen, it was called) could be dimmed, but there was no way of shutting it off completely

The Business and  Economics Unit at the BBC was set up in 1989 and I checked the BBC Website to see what this unit had to say for itself. The underlining emphasis is mine.

The Business and Economics Unit is at the heart of BBC News. We produce output for all BBC platforms and offer editorial guidance to the full range of BBC programmes. We have a truly global presence including teams based in Singapore, New York, Johannesburg and Mumbai.

The Economics Editor holds one of the most senior roles in BBC News, leading the BBC’s coverage across all platforms, domestic and international…Reporting to the Editor, Business and Economics Unit, the Economics Editor will be a regular contributor to the main TV and radio news bulletins and programmes, as well as to BBC News Online. Much of the role will focus on providing material for the Six and Ten O’clock News, the 1800 Radio 4 news bulletin and the Today Programme…  a primary contact for senior figures in Government and the Business/Economics community.”

We can take from this that the BBC regards the promotion of trade and commerce as one of its prime functions.

The ideal set up by the Party was something huge, terrible, and glittering – a world of steel and concrete, of monstrous machines and terrifying weapons

According to Mills the BBC fell for the charms of the economic and business sectors with the flourishing of New Labour that neo-liberal progeny of Thatcherism. As a consequence obscene amounts of money were spent on creating a more pro-business BBC but in the end much of what is reported is little more than recitation of press statements issued by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, Bank of England, City analysts, CBI, Office of Economic Development, IMF and their ilk who are also given air time to express their ‘expert’ opinions live.

Just who are the Institute for Fiscal Studies and why does the BBC assign them so much air time? I’ll look at think-tanks and pressure groups and the people who influence our opinions in the next part.

Quotes from:

Tom Mills: The BBC: Myth of a Public Service

Lewis Carroll; Alice in Wonderland

George Orwell; 1984

Tony Shaw; Eden, Suez and the Mass Media: Propaganda and Persuasion during the Suez Crisis

 

January 23, 2017

BBC Myth of Magic? Part 1

swallow-me

The Rabbit took a watch out of its waistcoat pocket and saw it was 1922.

Broadcasting, “is ultimately a persuasive art” said Hilda Matheson, former MI5 officer and the BBC’s first Head of Talks. Her remark made in the wake of the creation of the BBC in the early 1920s is interesting on two grounds – that broadcasting’s role is to influence and it was the voice of British Intelligence that was invited to set the tone of the BBC.  

Tom Mills in his book, The BBC : Myth of a Public Service, dismantles the claim repeated ad nauseam by the British Broadcasting Corporation that it is an honest and impartial national broadcaster. Presumably their claim is repeated so often because it is challenged so often, with very good reason.

The BBC likes to present itself a bit like the NHS, as a British institution held in high regard by the public. Arguably that was true once upon a time but today it is a spurious assertion.

Broadcasting emerged as an alternative source of news and entertainment to that dished up by newspapers which were all biased in one direction or another and reflected the cultural and political views of their owners; wealthy individuals and corporations. The BBC would be different – as a public service it would report news in an impartial manner. That’s a bit like an historian claiming to be objective in recording events – it never happens. The storyteller’s role is a powerful one where what is not said distorts the message as much as what is selected for inclusion.

In 1926 the new BBC was regarded by the UK government as an ideal medium to inform Britain’s “politically uneducated electorate” an observation I suspect was as untrue then as it is now. Back in the 1920s in the wake of the Great War the majority of Britons would have been pretty clued up on politics – and active – women were still battling to get equal voting rights with men and both sexes had spent the 19th century fighting for employment and political rights a struggle that continued throughout the 20th century.

Of course it wasn’t a politically committed left-leaning electorate the BBC was looking to bring on-board (unless to re-educate) but to counter leftist views and disseminate information provided to the BBC by the government and its associated arms – intelligence, police, military, royalty with the expectation the public would swallow it hook, line and sinker. The BBC became an adjunct of the British state reinforcing its small c (sometimes big C) conservative message – a function is has proved to be well able to fulfil.

The question is,‘ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words means so many different things.’

1926 year of the General Strike with the horror of fighting for King and country in the Great War still fresh in memories and the echo of shelling and promise that returning soldiers would find  a land fit for heroes ringing in their ears Britain’s workers instead found they were being screwed into the ground for a second time in a decade and expected to accept pay cuts to their rock bottom wages and having to work longer hours for less pay. When they resisted the King and government did not come rushing to their defence as workers had for them in 1914 and 1915 – they were no longer heroes but demonised by the press, including the BBC .

bbc-1926

Then conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, said:

“The general strike is a challenge to the parliament and is the road to anarchy.”

His chancellor, Winston Churchill, said:

“I do not agree that the TUC have as much right as the Government to publish their side of the case and to exhort their followers to continue action. It is a very much more difficult task to feed the nation than it is to wreck it.”

And BBC management agreed. If it was not exactly happy to oblige, oblige it did and allowed its airwaves to be used to undermine workers and defeat their strike. Far from being impartial the BBC only aired anti-strike opinions and propaganda, co-operating with government to read out its press statements in news bulletins verbatim while deliberately omitting pro-worker views.

Stonehaven man, John Reith, who helped establish the BBC was by 1927 its first Director General . The story goes that Reith made sure all voices involved in the General Strike were heard on the BBC but that wasn’t true. It’s a claim that is still made today. Reith asked the government to decide whether he should allow the Archbishop of Canterbury to go on the air to ask for a compromise between the unions and the government. The government  said no and that was that.  Does that make the BBC a government mouthpiece?  Surely there is no more appropriate term for it.

It was almost as if the British Establishment had discovered a great wheeze whereby it set up its own propaganda machine that could reach out to all four countries in the UK – and soon abroad – get the public to pay for it and claim it represented them.

And so impoverished workers and their families struggling to prevent being pushed into greater poverty were forced to abandon their protest. Many lost their jobs altogether and in the Depression of the thirties, the hungry thirties, these same people had to endure unbelievable squalor and anguish.  

Meanwhile Reith and his BBC colleagues were chummily office-sharing with government personnel in the Admiralty (UK government building) where news bulletins were jointly drafted by the BBC and the government’s press officer. That’s how impartial the BBC was. BBC/Westminster government/military/secret services = one body with tentacles.

Mills teases out an entrenched system of collusion between the BBC and successive governments since its inception in the twenties. Management of the BBC and its overseeing body, the Board of Governors, were and still are government appointees who inhabit the same social circles, attend the same schools, often private, and universities – mainly Oxbridge and, unsurprisingly, they share similar cultural and political outlooks. Basically, they are all the same chaps and gels.

bbc-state

Mills tells us that in 2014 26% of BBC executives attended private schools compared with 7% in the UK as a whole. 33% were Oxbridge educated compared with 0.8% of the population. 62% attended Russell group universities (Wiki – 24 self-selected research universities in the UK. Set up 1994 to represent members’ interests, principally to government and parliament. And receive two-thirds of all university research grants and contract income.) It is their job to represent the British public.

There is no need for any audacious conspiracy to try to link the BBC with the British establishment’s view of the world for their top personnel come from the establishment pool of contacts, friends and families recruited for their dependable attitudes or ability to adopt them to ‘get on’ within the organisation. Just in case any reprobate tried to squeeze in appointments to the BBC used to be vetted by MI5. Not now, of course. No, of course not. Mills tells us this vetting process was known as ‘formalities’ and the BBC pet name for MI5 was ‘The College’, in the spirit of George Smiley.

Why such tight vetting? What were they on the lookout for down at the BBC? Commies or lefties are the easy answers. To give them credit, extreme right-wingers were mostly excluded, too. In the parlance of the BBC those with ‘political reliability’ were the sort of chaps they were happy to recruit. It is just a pity the BBC’s intense vetting failed to uncover an inordinate number of sex fiends and paedophiles employed by the Corporation – all presumably of the ‘right sort.’

In the Alice in Wonderland world of the BBC, Lord Green – if they weren’t Lords when they got the job as Director General then most became one after – Lord Green was keen on upping MI5’s vetting of recruits to prevent the BBC’s reputation for impartiality from being compromised. And that, folks, is a line that Lewis Carroll should have written for the Mad Hatter.  

One of the shadowy figures who features in Mill’s exposure of the BBC was the Corporation’s special little helper Ronnie Stonham also known as Bongo. Stonham was a handy sort of chap with a background in post office communications, the military and the secret services that found him operating in all sorts of shadowy theatres of conflict: Cyprus, Malaya, Vietnam, Northern Ireland. He worked out of Room 105 at the BBC where careers were enhanced or broken and he had the power to prevent programmes being transmitted according to how embarrassing they might become to the government. 

It is said any staffers not quite BBC/establishment enough had their files marked with a triangular green tag or Christmas tree to show they weren’t trustworthy sorts.

Typical of the BBC first it denied any such vetting took place then it reluctantly admitted it. Some things never change. Even when the truth was dragged kicking and screaming out of it  BBC management prevaricated and hid as much as it revealed. – claiming that only around 8 people had been positively vetted when in fact the number was close – well not that close – over 6000.  

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/obituaries/military-obituaries/army-obituaries/11038585/Brigadier-Ronnie-Stonham-obituary.html

Back in 1969 a young film maker asked to make a film for the BBC about a sit-in at Hornsey Art College in London realised he was being watched by the police and soon his film was cancelled. Fast forward two years and he was again taken on to make a different film for the BBC and provided with a room to work from until thrown out by a member of BBC management. His crime? Travelling to Czechoslovakia as a student. He was far from alone. Read more examples about BBC housekeeping here:

http://www.cambridgeclarion.org/press_cuttings/mi5.bbc.page9_obs_18aug1985.html

Leftwing and communist were indivisible categories of the unclean to BBC management and not the sort encouraged to share their opinions with the public which gives the lie to BBC’s assertion of impartiality and fair representation of all opinions. Never has been and never will be. That is just not its function in the UK – it works for the British state to preserve it as it is, elitist and conservative; the BBC and the British state work hand-in-glove in pursuit of the ‘national interest’ which, of course, they define.

While a function of the BBC was to reinforce status quo in Britain its much vaunted World Service was established to influence political opinion abroad and disseminate British culture and ‘standards’ to a wider audience. This service nearly doubled post 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, according to Mills, who highlighted input from the BBC’s security correspondent, former army captain in the Royal Green Jackets, Frank Gardner, who, according to Mills, admits close contact with MI5 and MI6. Mills described the BBC World Service as ‘an instrument of “soft power”‘ and it is difficult to disagree when in 2015 the Conservative government announced in its National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review of all places investment of £85 million annually in the World Service in order to, in the words of the World Service –

“further enhance our position as the world’s leading soft power promoting our values and interests globally'”

No iffs, no doubts, BBC working for the British state. And, of course, the DG of the BBC, Tony Hall was grateful, acknowledging the World Service as,

“one of our best sources of global influence”

Thus grew the tale of Wonderland:
Thus slowly, one by one,
Its quaint events were hammered out

… to be continued

The BBC: Myth of a Public Service
By Tom Mills
Verso, 272pp, £16.99 and £14.99
ISBN 9781784784829 and 4850 (e-book)

December 27, 2016

Are you the Laird of Udny’s fool? Aye. An fa’s fool are you?

The Laird Of Udny’s Fool
220px-jamiefleeman

Of all the sayings about fools I’ve come across Jamie Fleeman’s is the most perceptive. Who was Jamie Fleeman? He was employed as a fool – a clown – by the Laird o’ Udny at Knockhall Castle near Newburgh, up the coast from Aberdeen.
When asked,

“Are you the Laird of Udny’s fool?”

“Aye,” Fleeman said, “an fa’s fool are you?”

Except Jamie Fleeman would have said “feel” spikkin Doric as he did – which gives rise to that everyday expression in these parts, g’wa ye feel.

Court jesters and fools have gone, I think, but clowns are still with us although I suspect they are far less popular as entertainers than they were once. Royal court or big hoose clowns were not usually chosen for their sharp wits, although surely some were, but mainly because of something odd in their appearance that made them the butt of jokes. Painters have recorded scenes from European court life that reveal a penchant for males and females of stunted growth who were kept for as long as they were amusing, not only for their looks but how well they danced and sang and sometimes for their witty or silly talk. Such was the clamour for short-legged court jesters in the middle ages unfortunate children who were selected for that part had their growth stunted so they could better fit the bill; in Russia it was de rigueur for court clowns to be chosen because of their unusual appearance, the uglier the better.

No very prosperous or powerful household in the middle ages (and much later), conscious of its status, was complete without a jester or fool to boost its army of servants pandering and catering for their every whim and incapacity or as one of Aberdeen’s local newspapers put it,

In those days every laird had his ‘feel,’

and the greater the ‘feel’ the more the laird was respected.

jane-the-fool-perhaps-on-far-left-background

Jane the Foole is perhaps the figure on the far left 


Usually fools were male but not exclusively. Two prominent female fools were Jane the Foole at the English Tudor court in the sixteenth century and in France Astaude du Puy hired to amuse Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, a century later.

As late as the nineteenth century Mongkut, King of Siam, employed Nai Teh to fool around, perform gymnastics and generally help him endure life’s long idle hours while his people wore out their fingers maintaining him in wealthy boredom.

Court fools could become confidants of their masters or mistresses because they lived cheek-by-jowl with them and so could get away with being open and critical in their opinions because of their special relationship. They, alone, among staff and hangers-on were not expected to exhibit lackey deference, general fawning and ass-licking that royals, aristocrats and other sub-species generally expect from them.

Fools, as I’ve said, were often sought out as children and trained for the position. Claus Narr was ‘appointed’ in this way. This little German boy was herding geese when he was spotted by a courtier and his father happily accepted 20 guilders for his child.

The prospect of living in a palace as an alternative to sucking on stones throughout their lives probably held a certain appeal for some fools with a thick skin. It was not for everyone, however. Paul Wüst had no qualms about turning down Duke Eberhard the Bearded of Württemberg –

My father sired his own fool; if you want one too, then go and sire one for yourself.

And, looking around, who’s to argue they haven’t done just that?

Back in Scotland King James VI* took on Archie Armstrong, a sheep stealer from Eskdale in the Borders as his court jester but he never made the mark in life that Jamie Fleeman did despite being attached to the royal Stewarts. 

Jamie Fleeman’s renown stems mainly from his one brilliant utterance but how many of us will be remembered for anything we say, far less anything so insightful?

220px-knockhall_castle_geograph

Knockhall Castle ruin

Jamie lived in the eighteenth century (that is the 1700s for those who are confused over centuries) and conformed to the idea of odd-looking fools for he reportedly had a big round head and sticking-up hair. He trebled up as the Laird o’ Udny’s cow and goose herd and as a goose herder he is remembered for another anecdote. One day walking home with the Laird’s special geese Jamie was anxious not to lose any and so he tied straw ropes around their necks to lead them back home. He walked on tugging on the ropes as he went and when he arrived back at the laird’s house he discovered he had unwittingly throttled the geese and had dragged back a herd of carcasses. Panicking over how to explain the loss Jamie stuffed feed into the birds’ mouths and when asked how the geese were he replied:

Safe! and gobble, gobble, gobblin as if they had nae seen meat for a twalmonth. Safe! I warran they’re safe aneuch, if they hae nae choked themsells

Another Fleeman anecdote tells how he went up to a minister with a horse shoe he found and asked the minister what it was. The minister replied –

“Why Jamie, any fool would know that it is a horse shoe”

Fleeman said –

“Ah, what it is to be wise – to ken it’s no a meer’s shoe.”

Famously when dying he said, poignantly –

“I’m of a gentle persuasion, dinna bury me like a beast”

or perhaps –

“I’m a Christian, dinna bury me like a beast”

Fleeman was said to have been immensely strong which proved handy when Knockhall Castle went on fire in 1734. Jamie’s barking dog alerted him but not the folk inside the castle so Jamie picked up and threw a large wooden chest through a window and none of them slept through that.

mary_hay_14th_countess_of_erroll_by_francis_cotes_1726-1770

Mary Hay, Countess of Erroll

Mary Hay was the Countess of Erroll, a Lord High Constable, Knight Marischal of Scotland, Senior Great Officer among the Royal Officers of Scotland and Chief of the King’s Household in Scotland – oh, and a supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie. She raised an army in support of the Jacobite uprising in 1745 with Slains Castle (inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula) a focus for the Jacobite cause. Hay used Fleeman to run messages for the Jacobites, including ones to and from Lord Pitsligo during the time he was in hiding at Auchiries from government troops under Butcher Cumberland who were ruthlessly hunting down Jacobites not slaughtered at Culloden. Jamie Fleeman was such a familiar sight in the neighbourhood and being the person he was did not raise suspicion he might be a courier. Hay lost her Slains estate following the failure of the ’45 when it was seized by the government in London and sold off.

Despite being a mere pauper gowk Jamie Fleeman did not just disappear as might be expected instead he left a remarkable impression on the world. He had a biographer, John Pratt, who wrote this of him in his The Life and Death of Jamie Fleeman:

Before the eighteenth century, about the middle of which Jamie Fleeman flourished, matters wore a very different aspect. Jamie was perhaps the ultimus Homanorum, the last of the race of Scottish family fools—a class of beings which the author of Waverley has rendered so familiar to every one by his picture of ” Daft Davie Gellatly.” Jamie differed from his brethren and ancestors in this, that whereas the great majority of them were ” fenyet fules,” he was, in most respects, naturally what he appeared to be, and by chance fell into the very situation in which he was capable of acting a conspicuous part.

Pratt believed a fool’s character was partly real and partly feigned.

Apart from Walter Scott’s Waverley character of Davie Gellatley, Fleeman got a mention in Bram Stoker’s, Dracula’s Guest and Other Weird Stories:

‘Na! Na!’ came the answer, ’there is nae sic another fule in these parts. Nor has there been since the time o’ Jamie Fleeman–him that was fule to the Laird o’ Udny. Why, mon! sic a heathenish dress as ye have on till ye has nae been seen in these pairts within the memory o’ mon. An’ I’m thinkin’ that sic a dress never was for sittin’ on the cauld rock, as ye done beyont. Mon! but do ye no fear the rheumatism or the lumbagy wi’ floppin’ doon on to the cauld stanes wi’ yer bare flesh? I was thinking that it was daft ye waur when I see ye the mornin’ doon be the port, but it’s fule or eediot ye maun be for the like o’ thot!’

(Bram Stoker, Crooken Sands)

Caught on the road in the cold and torrential rain one day in 1778 Jamie Fleeman became feverish and in his desperation to find shelter he broke into a barn at Little Ardiffery at Cruden injuring himself in the process. He was patched up and set-off the eight miles to his home at Longside. Normally he would have covered this distance in no time but because of his injury and the sickness that had struck him he took a whole day to get back home. Two days later the Laird o’ Udny’s feel was deid.

Born in 1713 at a croft at Longside near Peterhead Jamie died not so far away at Kinmundy, in 1778. There hasn’t been a published volume of his wit and wisdom but from accounts he did have a way with words and wasn’t shy about sharing his opinions. As a young man his quick wit was noticed by many but it didn’t earn him riches. He was listed as a pauper in the Statistical Account for Longside.

Nearly a century later, in 1861 a tombstone was erected to Jamie Fleeman, the Laird of Udny’s fool when funds were raised in the northeast of Scotland by those who thought it wrong Jamie was buried in an unmarked grave – normal for very poor people. The stone was sculpted by George Donaldson of Aberdeen and inscribed –

Erected in 1861, to indicated the grave of Jamie Fleeman,
in answer to his prayer, “Dinna bury me like a beast.”

220px-jamie_fleemans_grave_longside_-_geograph-org-uk_-_261867Reporters at Aberdeen Journal were sniffy about erecting a memorial to a simple pauper and suggested to readers the money raised should have gone to repair the tablet over the grave of the Rev. Mr Skinner, author of Tulloch-gorum.

The decline of the European court clown was slow in coming given they were still around in the nineteenth century but by then they were uncommon. Shemus Anderson was one of the last of them. He worked for the Bowes-Lyons some of you might know as the Queen Mother’s family – and the last to own a full-time jester in Scotland.

hms-serapis-captured-during-the-american-revolutionary-war-she-was-sold-to-the-french-and-became-a-pirate-shipp-later-lost-off-madagascar-in-1781

Jamie Fleeman’s brother is thought to have died on HMS Serapis. This ship fought against the rebels in the American Revolutionary War before being used as a pirate ship by the French. I don’t know when Jamie’s brother was killed – it may have been when the ship exchanged fire with an American ship under command of John Paul Jones. The Serapis was subsequently taken by the Americans then transferred to France and eventually lost following an accidental fire off Madagascar that involved a huge explosion.

Incidentally Fleming is the Anglicised equivalent is Fleeman.

The Life and Death of Jamie Fleeming: the Laird of Udny’s fool. by John Burnett Pratt was published by Lewis and James Smith in Aberdeen in 1859

http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/640914.html

*James VI or James I, as colonists know him.

December 19, 2016

From Shorter Hours to Zero Hours

Guest blog by Textor

…the mere creature of business . . . his ledger was his Bible, and his heaven was the shop.

In 1847 counter assistants (all male) employed in Aberdeen’s drapery and grocery shops got bees in their bonnets over working hours or rather they recognised that the extremely long hours they worked were, as they said, pernicious and hurtful; detrimental to their health and well-being.

pratt-keith

Pratt & Keith, Aberdeen

To their fellow Aberdonians toiling in unhealthy and dangerous textile mills where work was deeply repetitive the shop assistants’ complaints might have seemed a bit of a joke: serving behind a counter was paradise to the “white hell” experience of factory hands. But workers selling their labour must take what they get and regardless of the relative ease of shop work assistants were, nonetheless, exploited according to the demands of the market place and the whims of employers.

In this respect the life of mid-19th century shop assistants differed little from their 21st century counterparts whether among the “fulfilled” staff in one of Amazon’s warehouses or employed on zero hours contracts in high street chains. Still there are differences and they are significant and they tell us something of the past and present trajectories of capitalism.

Who were these Victorian protesters and what was the problem? The Early Shop-shutting or Shorter Hours movement as it was known was in fact a loosely formed nation-wide organisation. The Aberdeen branch appeared in January 1847; a time of emerging economic depression, militant Chartism and glimmerings of revolutionary activity on the Continent of Europe. But it’s clear that as much as the assistants wished to shorten the working day their newly formed Association was not seen as a threat to foundations of capital. These Victorian shop men were workers just like factory hands to the extent that their livelihood came from wage labour but unlike industrial workers they were not aggregated in hundreds rather they toiled in a fragmented sector of the economy, dealing directly with customers and frequently in daily contact with employers. Beyond this shop work for time-served grocery and drapery assistants was seen as socially superior to dirty labouring trades. And important as retail was it did not have the economic clout of factories and workshops.

Consumerism, which is a fundamental part of contemporary capitalism, was largely confined to middle and upper classes.

It is not surprising that shop assistants had little problem attracting goodwill from Aberdeen’s middle class including its “ladies”. Provost Thomas Blaikie who was hostile to Chartism was quite taken by the Association, seeing its demand for shorter hours in the context of the world’s moral and intellectual improvement. Reduced hours presented no challenge to the rights of business, the alteration of working hours could be accommodated through customers becoming more thoughtful and finishing their purchases by the closing time of 7pm. In practice this meant middle class women who shopped personally or their servants following their instructions to complete shopping by seven. Coming from an iron founding business, however, Blaikie recognised the need for men and women factory hands working their long hours to be able to shop and this could be achieved through extended shop opening hours, particularly on pay-days such as Thursdays or Saturdays.

james-gordon-silk-mercer-1840s-castle-street

James Gordon, Silk Mercers, Aberdeen 1840

Professor of Anatomy, Jardine Lizars, spoke up for shop assistants and labour in general – nothing was more desirable and necessary than shorter hours for shopkeepers, mechanic, and persons employed in the mills. He described how some assistants were working as many as 16 hours a day and in extreme cases might only be permitted a 15 minute break for dinner. According to the professor this placed too much stress on mental and physical capacities of workers on top of their exposure to too little daylight resulting in their greater susceptibility to illness and disease.

James Hadden, speaking for the textile interest, was less convinced. He accepted that shorter hours could improve the lives of shop assistants; what Amazon might call (but not give), affording greater fulfilment. Hadden understood this was workable in the retail trade which he believed could make the same profit in 11 hours as it did in 12, but manufacturers had no such leeway as they competed in national and international markets precluding any reduction of factory hours. For him mill hands working 69 hours a week was both normal and acceptable. The proposal to reduce the working week for shop assistants he hoped would not be imposed, no improper means would be used to force any one to do that which he did not conceive to be proper – in other words moral exhortation was unobjectionable but there should be no militant action such as striking.

The assistants rhetorically asked customers:

Have you given thought as to the life of the young man who served you?
Has it ever occurred to you that, tied to the back of the counter from morning to night, his life must be one of tiresome monotony, and one for which you would not willingly exchange?

But neither Hadden nor shop assistants expected shortened hours be extended to factory labour. Their concern stopped at the shop counter. Literally what the assistants demanded was not the formal working day be cut rather that they should only be expected to labour contracted hours. By 1848 shop assistants had successfully rallied support of customers and employers and in the higher ends of the trade shops were closing by 7pm. The Reverend David Simpson of the Free Church praised the campaign for being respectful and conciliatory; and attributed its success to a lack of harshness towards their employers, with no accusations that their masters were unreasonable, avaricious and tyrannical.

The “struggle” was largely couched in terms of moral and intellectual possibilities and responsibilities. Being in Scotland and coming shortly after the 1843 split in the Established Church discussion over altering working hours took on religious connotations. David Gray, Professor of Natural Philosophy, linked the call to curtail shop opening hours to the word of God and the notion that it was not sufficient to recognise the capacity of man for improvement but it was a duty to provide him with opportunities for moral progress and allow him to get home early in the evening to enjoy leisure for reading and so on and keep him out of drinking dens.

It is important to note that whilst there was considerable success in the move towards reducing hours across the city not every employer complied with the assistants’ request. No doubt industrialist James Hadden with his knowledge of competition saw that coming; faced with the chance of a faster buck some employers insisted in staying open beyond the accepted hours eliciting the following response from shop assistants:

…we despair of success, even for the most limited period, so long as a class exist where feelings no appeal of a philanthropic character ever warmed, and who thoughtless of the consequences of the system they are perpetrating, never dream that the youth who serve them ever feel fatigue, or that they have minds capable of expansion, by the interchange of ideas round the domestic hearth.

In other words despite strong moral support the logic of the market place continually reasserted itself tending to leave employees faced with the stresses and strains born out of competition.

Into the debate stepped another professor, John Stuart Blackie, armed with a strong humanist philosophy. His open and welcoming Christianity contributed to a critique which never defied the logic of competition but went a considerable distance to expose the problems facing Victorian and post Victorian labour.

He began from the observation that protracted hours in the Retail Trades are highly injurious to the bodily health, and form a barrier to the social, intellectual, and spiritual improvement of those engaged therein. Additionally he understood the unrelieved working day of the assistant was liable to make him fusionless (weak). What Blackie called the mechanical life of retail was so detrimental that people would become little better than machines and he concluded that it was a duty of Christians and what he called thoughtless madams to support shop assistants.

schoolhill-2

Schoolhill, Aberdeen

What Marx and Engels were just then beginning to characterise as the problem of capitalism and commodity production Professor Blackie was groping towards when he cited the question of the shop as, one of the great evils of these times . By this he appeared to be saying men and woman were in the thrall to commodity production with buying and selling taking precedence over moral and intellectual values. Assuredly his critique owes something to the biblical story of driving money-changers from the temple but almost certainly it was motivated by the burgeoning and at times devastating impact of commercialism and industrialisation. Lust was a lesser evil. People, he said, had their moral sense [more] undermined by the shop, than by what is termed the flesh. Men had cast aside the primacy of morals and had reduced everything to what Thomas Carlyle called the cash nexus. The living sentient human was no longer central, what mattered was place and function in the accounting system: a man was the mere creature of business . . . his ledger was his Bible, and his heaven was the shop.

But for all that, and for all the evils of capitalism since the 1840s the ability of labour to struggle for its own immediate interests and with the system able to accommodate some of its demands lead to capitalist power improving material well-being across most social classes. This was a bumpy historical ride in which many sectors of labour benefited. Hours of work were restricted by local regulations and state law: unions became negotiators of wages; health and safety standards were enforced etc. This improved working environments as well as saving an otherwise rapacious system from fracturing. Within this model the struggle of the shop assistants was a moment in a rising curve which nonetheless continued to leave many in its wake particularly if they existed outside the centres of capital.

The fate of those in the retail trades, and beyond, today show how things have changed. The halcyon days for labour was probably through the 1950s to the ’70s when post-war growth was rapid, profitability of capital re-emerged and it seemed the benefits of the system were unlimited for the metropolitan countries. Since then growth has faltered, stagnated and recently fallen back calling into question the very historical viability of the system. Apart from the wars, the corruption and financial criminality of the past four decades capital has taken on organised labour and more often than not defeated it to such an extent that the protections which took years of struggle to introduce have been shoved aside. The sense of progressive improvement which characterised much of 19th century capitalism has been lost. Capitalism now promises nothing other than might be accrued through deepening debt and ever harder working conditions.

a-s-cook

A.S. Cook, Aberdeen

If Aberdeen Victorian drapery assistants thought they were having a hard time they would surely have thanked their lucky stars they were not 21st century automatons in gigantic warehouses regulated by the speed of computers, tracked by GPS coordinates and observed, no doubt, by “fulfilled” managers. Today’s employee: often casual labour, searched like prisoners and with no rights beyond that of obeying the machine. This is probably the most extreme end of shop work exploitation where discussions over moral or intellectual improvement are reduced to slogans and propaganda to keep control of labour and exploit the gullibility of the consumer. At the sharp end of the shop counter it is now common to find virtually zero hour contracts where labour has to be ready to accommodate the “flexible” needs of the employer with no wage for standing-by time. It is a bit like the emergency services being on call without either the cash or the social caché. All these assistants have is poverty wages and few “prospects.”

Who can say what the future for capitalist development is? It has all the signs of a system unable to solve a multitude of problems. First it breaks the power of organised labour, tries inflation, privatisation, colossal private and public indebtedness, austerity, quantitative easing, negative interest rates, increased rates of exploitation and still it remains in crisis. Professor Blackie could hardly have imagined the depths to which the shop machine could sink as it struggles to survive.

November 27, 2016

Tears in Havana. Cheers in Miami

Guest post by Textor

Fidel is dead.
The Leader has gone. The tyrant has perished.
Tears in Havana. Cheers in Miami.
And so the story goes on.

o

To listen to the commentators and read the headlines it all comes across so easily. At best the consensus allows that Cuban health care was good, the spread of literacy and education in Fidel’s fifty years of power was good; but all done at a terrible cost. Physical violence by the secret police, suppression of dissent, lack of a free state, a cult of leadership and countless executions were all blights of such a magnitude that the gains pale into virtual insignificance. The revolt of the late 1950s might well have started from a high idealistic point, they say, the removal of Batista was needed but not at any cost. If decent moral men had only got together things could have been so different. This takes us to the nub of the problem, a liberal dilemma which centres on the sense that if only idealists and revolutionaries could be a bit more like “us” and allow a broad spectrum of opinion, a “free press”, political opposition etc. If only they would let people get on with their daily lives. Toleration they say is all that is required.

What the liberal spirit fails to answer is the question what is a state to do if in seeking to change fundamental political relations with both internal and external powers it comes up against deep-seated opposition which uses military and economic strength to stop change. Will openness to liberal values advance a cause? Will, as would have been the case in Cuba, having a “balanced” debate with greater financial powers of Batista and his backers be helpful? Or should the new proto-state not only arm itself against enemies but use extreme force to root out all who would destroy it? The same problem faced the French Revolution when reaction of the 1790s threatened to roll back gains. Was the “Terror” wrong, would it have been better if a re-born Ancien Regime had gained the upper hand, which we might speculate would have been equally bloody? And when the Bolsheviks instituted bloody force during the Civil War would it have been better for them to relinquish power or compromise with the Whites and the intervening powers, find a “middle way” with high moral values and respect for the individual? In situations of radical political change, where fundamental property and economic structures are being re-made is there really a half-way house, where we can all agree and no one is harmed or is this a lie which first obscures, then denies and finally reintroduces the injustices and inequalities of the regime under attack?

l

What liberal opinion in the west fails to acknowledge is the extent to which its freedoms and material well-being have been and are dependent upon a bloody and brutal swathe cut across history. Yes there have been huge gains in material well-being in western societies but at what cost? Ignoring the impending global devastation of Climate Change the history of the modern material world (the surpluses necessary for capital accumulation) was generated via slavery, devastated urban and rural populations, famines, genocides and wars. But that, they say, was then, this is now. We know better. However, the comforts, now rapidly shrinking for millions, were born of this brutality and history marches on. High liberal values of the west have not stopped wars. Capital in its various forms ceaselessly searches the world for opportunity; labour is there to be exploited brutally or otherwise depending upon circumstances. Nation states arm themselves to the teeth to defend their interests. These, as well as the liberal values of the free press, right of political dissent are components which make up the worlds we inhabit.

m

 Fairness will not carry the day. Can we expect economic power to be relinquished through a gentle Socratic dialogue? Was there no brutality marching on in 18th century France? Was the opposition of Louis XVI and his class simply based on a misunderstanding? And the Tsar if only he had sat round the table with moderate men in a convivial atmosphere then the Soviet regime, and even Hitler some say, would not have happened. Then Fidel, surely Batista with the backing of the USA could have shared a cigar, had a decent coffee and worked out a deal to make everybody happy.

What if?
What if history had not happened.
What if we could start before the Fall and have our Maker use a different Road Map.