The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

The Struggle of the Working Class for Its Rights

Category: 19th century

After the defeat of Chartism and in a period of industrial upsurge, the English workers’ movement assumed a purely economic character. The advantageous position of Britain as world workshop, its supremacy in trade, the tremendous profits derived from the colonies made it possible for the bourgeoisie to split the working class by bribing the top layer and creating the labour aristocracy. The workers in trade unions looked for a policy that would bring practical results. Rapid industrial growth associated with the railway boom increased demand for labour and especially for skilled labour. The key men in industry, with the skills on which the machine age depended, were in a strong bargaining position when they pressed for better wages and conditions. By the early fifties these factors had led to the growth of new trade unions which united only the skilled workers. Membership dues were high, thus the lower paid were excluded. These unions were known as the ‘new model unions’. There were about 1600 trade unions in Britain, mainly small ones. Soon an unofficial leadership evolved, called the Junta which was based in London. The basic new feature of these unions was the acceptance of the capitalist system as the established and natural social order. With this came an acceptance of the laws of the capitalist market. Labour was now seen as a commodity, to be sold to the employers on the best possible terms. To implement this aim, the first thing was to ensure the security of skilled labour, in order to keep up its natural market price. This meant the restriction of entry into skilled trades by controlling the number of apprentices.

At the end of the 1850s a crisis broke out in many capitalist countries. England too was involved. The closure of factories, growing unemployment, deterioration of living standards enhanced the militant spirit in the trade union movement, as well as the need for greater unity. Thus in 1858 a Council of trade unions was formed in Glasgow and then in other industrial centres. In 1860 the London Council of trade unions united all the London trade union members. Marx and Engels exercised great influence on its members, especially after 1864 when the First International was founded. In 1865 the Reform League was formed in England by representatives of workers; its programme was worked out by the General Council of the International headed by Karl Marx. Industrial action taken by the employers against the workers necessitated the idea for greater unity and solidarity among different sections of the working class. Thus in 1868 a national congress was called by the Manchester and Salford Trades Council. Thirty-four delegates attended, representing 120,000 workers, which was the beginning of the Trades Union Congress, the annual parliament of the trade union movement, known everywhere as the TUC.

In 1857 — 8 a world economic crisis broke out and Britain which was no exception was hard hit. The crisis led to closures and unemployment was an inevitable consequence. The deterioration of living standards stimulated class struggle and led to a revival of the militant spirit in the trade union movement. The builders’ strike of 1860 which continued for one and a half years was a vivid manifestation of this new spirit of challenge to the onslaught of the capitalists. Chartist ideas, and the influence of old Chartists, helped to revive democratic agitation in a national campaign for further parliamentary reform. The First International headed by Marx played a most important role in stepping up the struggle of the British workers for parliamentary reform. Mass meetings were held throughout the country and memories of Chartism frightened the government.

After the death of Palmerston in 1865 the Liberal party was headed by William Gladstone (1809—98) who was a former Tory in the early years of his political career. He understood the dangers of working class discontent and decided in 1866 to introduce a Bill of parliamentary reform to extend the electorate by granting electoral rights to the petty bourgeoisie and the labour aristocracy. However, even these moderate concessions were rejected by the Conservatives in alliance with the extreme right-wing Liberals. The rejection of the Bill led to Gladstone’s resignation. The new Conservative cabinet was headed by Lord Derby, with Benjamin Disraeli (1804—81) later Lord Beaconsfield as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Disraeli was soon to become the leader of the Conservative party and for many years he was Prime Minister. He steadfastly defended the interests of the top bourgeoisie both at home and abroad. The extension of the British empire, the maintenance of the established institutions at home are inseparably associated with Disraeli. Both Disraeli and Gladstone were bitter rivals in politics but they were unanimous in serving the vested interests of property.

The new Conservative cabinet had to deal with an unheard of working class activity, which reflected the renewed militancy of the working class. The rejection of the Bill introduced by the Liberals made reform a class question. In the autumn of 1866 the ruling class was amazed and frightened at the outburst they had provoked. In scores of industrial towns huge demonstrations were held in which almost the whole working class and even the petty bourgeoisie took part. Under such circumstances Disraeli brought forward the Reform Bill in 1867 which was passed by Parliament to avert further revolutionary developments.

The vote was given to all householders who lived in parliamentary boroughs and to those who rented lodgings paying an annual rent of no less than ten pounds. In the counties the vote was given to those whose annual income was not less than five pounds. These provisions extended electoral rights to the labour aristocracy and the petty bourgeoisie. Agricultural labourers and those industrial workers who did not live in parliamentary boroughs like miners and others were disregarded as well as women.

Nevertheless despite its limitations the Act of 1867 was a modest step forward: the electorate was now doubled, including one man in every three. Under the extended franchise both the Conservatives and Liberals were forced to bid for working class support and there was little practical difference in internal policy whether the government was Liberal from 1868 to 1874 headed by Gladstone or Tory between 1874 to 1880 headed by Disraeli. Another important concession of the ruling class was the winning of the secret ballot in 1872. The labour aristocracy, at least, could be allowed to vote in secret.

The establishment of a system of universal elementary education, the work of the Act of 1870 associated with the name of W. E. Forster, was another important development. It was indeed urgently demanded by the requirements of industry in the new age. In the past it had not been important for the working class to be literate, but now, with the fiercer foreign competition that was being experienced and the higher standards of education existing in Germany, the United States and elsewhere, it was an obvious necessity.

In 1871 an important reform took place in the army. The aim was to make it more efficient by the abolition of the practice of purchasing commissions in the army.

The fifties and sixties of the nineteenth century were years of the golden age of British capitalism. These were years of slow and steady progress in the development of the capitalist state machine. Comparative progress in material conditions, trade union rights, extended suffrage and the secret ballot all seemed to confirm the idea of steady, peaceful advance. The days of critical social and political problems seemed to be over, but this was an illusion that was soon to be shattered.

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