The hundredth anniversary of two major twentieth century events are a warning to us about the dangerous reverse of reforms that our grandmothers and grandfathers fought for.
On April 12 1912, the Titanic sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The exposure of the values and the class system that prevented social mobility of Victorian/Edwardian Britain were, in my mind, a much more important factor in the aftermath rather than the “unsinkable sinking.” If there was a message from any God, it must have been that the vilification and creation of a “subspecies” of the poor meant that some lives were more valuable than others. The disgusting statistics of Third Class dead and stories of people being kept away from the lifeboats because of the Third Class status exposed the truth of “our betters.” Even the bodies taken on board ships following the disaster were treated differently – third Class passengers buried at sea, and first class passengers embalmed and brought home for burial.
The Edwardian golden sunlit afternoon was one of extreme iniquity, and one of corporate control of national politics. Corporations with the help of nation states competed for resources and markets, the British empire was rivalled by Germany and the US, and some were predicting war between the three great powers.
Some people think that with this sinking, came the beginning of the end of the class system in the United Kingdom. The anniversary of the beginning of World War 1, the Great War, the War to end all wars, in two years time, shows that this patently did not happen as young men were sent to the front to die in their thousands while those who ordered them over the top, did so from Chateaux or from Stately homes – and did so for their profits and dividends. Although the classes were equally cast into the black abyss of grief, the fact remained that the war did not benefit the majority of families who lost their young men.
|pic by Gwen Penner|
The Titanic and World War 1 were deeply politicising. Victorian philanthropy was seen to be lacking. “Our betters” were revealed as people who thought of their working classes as something almost sub-human.
The very visible class barriers needed to come down. The Titanic disaster exposed the lack of empathy the upper classes suffered from. The great war was the murderous conclusion of – millions died as capitalist machine gun fodder – sacrifices for the Dollar, Mark or Pound.
After the Great War, prejudice and inequality deepened. Women were asked to give up their places of work for the returning soldiers. Women had up until the war and irrespective of class been seen as second class citizens. They were expected to become wives and mothers and working opportunities were as limited as much of their lives. Emmeline Pankhurst had started to agitate for women’s suffrage in 1903, and after a massive campaign and the confidence that women had after taking over men’s work during the war, this goal was achieved, but equality is still to be had.
It was during this period that people fought back. The new party of the Working Class began to grow momentum. Liberalism, that great compromise and capitulation that drove working conditions down, was destroyed and in a thirty year period, our welfare state – a state that ensured the weakest and poorest of society were given a real chance, was born. The new society meant that wealth was more evenly re-distributed. It was by far, imperfect, but working class people were given access to education, medical care, a real say in society, cheap transport and better wages. These led to a society in which small businesses burgeoned. The birth of a society that redistributed a larger proportion of its wealth led directly to the boom years of the sixties and the never before or again experienced equalities of the seventies.
We had socialised housing, socialised medicine, socialised education all the way through to degree level, we had socialised postal services and energy and travel and water. We took these things for granted, at least those of us who lived in that more equitable Britain.
Of course, protections of the weakest and laws against exploitation and socialised utilities meant less profits for the rich corporations, shareholders and directors. The reversal of the reforms of society started with Thatcher. The “common Sense” Tories told the baby-boomers that British Rail and Gas and Telecom would be much more efficient if they were ran by the private sector. Those same baby-boomers who bought shares from Sid, now ask why our utilities are so expensive. Those same Tories are now directors and shareholders, in power, and determined to drain increasing profits from privatised utilities into offshore accounts, trust funds and Cameron’s dinner guests companies.
New Labour for the most part, put the brakes on the Tory reinvention of rigid class demarcation, but did nothing to reverse the attacks on workers’ pensions, the NHS and pay and conditions, but the new power given to the Tories by the Liberals is rapidly creating a society in which “deserving poor and undeserving poor” is becoming accepted language. The term “underclass” was introduced into the UK political language by the proto-type neo-liberals of Thatcher’s Government and the destruction of council housing meant that the new term, “sink estate,” gave the poor the physical space – the equivalent of the Victorian and early twentieth century ghetto.
Attacks on Health and Education are slowly squeezing profits from working people and the poor. Attacks on pensions and pensionable age are meaning that people in the future are going to be dying of old age at their desks, in front of their classes or building houses for the protected so called squeezed middle (which, regardless of the term, are certainly NOT the middle earners in our society – it is illuminating as to what our political class are exposed to when they feel earners of £150,000 are a “squeezed middle.”)
These attacks take time to seep into society – slow enough for people not to notice what they have lost straight away. In ten years time, what extra bills from your GP will you accept as normal? The health insurance bill will be like any other bill in England, now the Tory and Liberal Democrat Government have managed to privatise the NHS.
Oil and energy profits are rising exponentially as oil producing country after country is invaded by imperialist powers who are driven by their democracies that have been subverted by rich lobbyists. Poor people still die in foreign lands – forced by the economics of the billionaires to fight each other rather than embrace and share.