Saturday, 4 August 2012

Dorset - A Hot Bed of Radicalism?

For a county that routinely returns Conservative MPs to parliament, Dorset has a surprisingly radical history! As far back as the 1640's and the English Civil War, when Cromwell's army was fighting against the Royalists, the Clubmen of Dorset decided to have their own war, against both sides, in a bid to protect their families and property.

The Monmouth Rebellion

The Duke of Monmouth by Willem Wissing
When Charles II died in 1685, the Duke of Monmouth, who is rumoured to have been Charles' illegitimate son, lead a rebellion against James II, which started in Lyme Regis in May and ended with the Battle of Sedgemoor in Somerset in July.

It's no coincidence that Monmouth chose Dorset as his landing point - he was a Protestant claimant to the throne, who was opposed to the succession of James II as a Catholic King.  Dorset has long been a Protestant stronghold and I'd imagine that many of the participants in the failed 'West Country rebellion' were Dorset farmers, who found themselves being 'transported' to Barbados (see my blog post about the Red Legs of Barbados).

The Tolpuddle Martyrs

Dorset also holds an important place in Britain's Trade Union history with the famous case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs.  In 1833, a group of agricultural labourers, from the village of Tolpuddle just outside Dorchester, they were sentenced to transportation (a lovely euphemism - makes it sound like a relaxing rail journey!) to Britain's new colony in Australia.

Their crime?  Being members of a Friendly Society - which was an early form of trade union.  This wasn't illegal in itself, but the landowner who brought the case against them was determined to get a prosecution and his lawyers managed to find an archaic law about 'swearing secret oaths' which was used to find them guilty. Their real crime was that they had demanded reinstatement of their wages, after the landowner had cut their pay to a level that meant they were barely able to support their families.

In those days, being transported to Australia was a fate worse than death and the case of the Tolpuddle labourers caused uproar and led to the largest demonstrations of working-class people that had ever been seen in England.  I'm sure this rattled the nerves of the ruling classes, coming at a time when the British Trades Union movement was finding it voice.


As part of my research, I watched Bill Douglas' film Comrades (1986). It's quite a beautiful movie and tells the story really well, although it is quite long (around 3 hours).  It was mostly shot around South Dorset and, as well as dealing with the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Douglas uses a narrative frame that addresses the art of story-telling, through the character of the Lanternist.

British Trade Unionism today

Being a trade union rep, I'm a great believer in the role of Trade Unions in a democratic society.  I think it's fair to say that Britain was the birthplace of the modern Trade Union movement, but the situation for Trade Unions in Britain today is worse than it has been in some time.  It's estimated that less than one third of workers in Britain still belong to a Trade Union.  With all of the emphasis on capitalism, privatisation, competition and individualism, it feels a little bit like collective bargaining is going out of fashion.

Union demonstration outside the National Gallery by me
I dipped into a book called A History of British Trade Unionism (1963) by Henry Pelling where he starts off by saying that Trade Unions in Britain are stronger than ever, with almost 3/4 of workers being union members.  How things have changed over the past 50 years!  Not long after Pelling published his book, there was a great shown-down between government and the Trade Unions, in the 1970's, followed by attacks on the Trade Union movement by Margaret Thatcher and successive governments and a perceived loss of political representation, as New Labour effectively 'sold out' or rather, 'bought into' the establishment.

The Future of the Trade Union movement?

So the question for many trade unionists in 21st century Britain is Where do we go from here?  The answer seems to involve regaining political power and, increasingly, trade unions are thinking about turning the votes of people like me into an effective political force, by-passing the politics of Labour.

It's a story which is far from finished and, despite many setbacks, the Trade Union movement is still relatively powerful.  It's interesting to note that the Scandinavian countries enjoy the highest 'density' of trade union membership.  It's hardly a coincidence that the gap between rich and poor tends to be much smaller in Scandinavia and everyone benefits from a higher standard of living, not just the 1%!

Tolpuddle March in 2004 by Tom Roper
Compared to a country like the United States, where a mere 1 in 10 workers are members of a Trade Union (or Labor Union),  US society appears to be increasingly wealth-divided, with little or no provision for workers who lose their jobs or fall on hard times.

Tolpuddle in the 21st century

Although it seemed to lose momentum some years back, this year's Tolpuddle Martyrs festival saw a record number of people turning out to march, commemorate, sing and make political speeches.  Although I've never been there, I'd love to visit the Tolpuddle Martyrs museum sometime soon.

Wahhabis in Weymouth?

As I've been blogging about Dorset, I've been keeping an eye on news items from the county and I couldn't help but notice news regarding the arrest of Richard Dart, aka Salahuddin al Britani.  Dart is originally from Dorset and converted to Islam, which is a pretty radical thing, in itself, in Britain in 2012!  He appeared in the BBC documentary My Brother the Islamist and is accused of plotting a terrorist attack on Britain.  He has been living in West Ealing for several years, so we've probably walked past each other on the Uxbridge Road!  He's been portrayed in the media as a mad fundamentalist who wants to bring Shari'a law to England - I can't help but wonder how historians of the future will view people like Richard Dart?

Image credits:

The image of the Duke of Monmouth is by the Dutch portrait artist Willem Wissing - this image is in the public domain - the original painting currently hands at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

The Trailer from the movie 'Comrades' is taken from YouTube.

The picture of the Trade Union demonstration outside the National Gallery was taken by me.

The photo of the Tolpuddle March from 2004 was taken by flickr member Tom Roper, a Medical Librarian from Seaford. You can see more of Tom's work on his flickrstream or on his blog.  Thanks to Tom for sharing this image with us, using the Creative Commons license.

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