PETER FROST presents a brief people’s history of progressive politics in our green and pleasant land
William Blake’s anthem is sung at communist funerals, protest marches, countryside rallies and Women’s Institute meetings.
Blake’s 1804 poem, set to music in 1916 by Hubert Parry, tells the fanciful story of a young Jesus visiting Glastonbury and England with Joseph of Arimathea.
It paints an idyllic picture of a green and pleasant land built to contrast with the dirt and squalor of the dark Satanic mills of the industrial revolution.
The Women’s Institute
The Women’s Institute celebrates its centenary this year. This grassroots organisation for rural women has supported many progressive causes — often well ahead of public opinion.
Many of the WI founders were keen Suffragettes, campaigned for equal pay, for STI health education, against nuclear testing and for affordable housing among many other progressive policies. WI members were at the famous Greenham Common peace camp.
King Charles II believed in the divine right of kings. Oliver Cromwell and his elected parliament chopped off the king’s head. Bourgeois historians call it the English civil war, but the epic battle between Parliament and the Crown was in fact the English revolution.
In 1872 Karl Marx described what he saw in the British countryside as the “great awakening” of British agricultural workers.
It was in that year that Joseph Arch founded the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union under the chestnut tree on the village green in Wellesbourne, Warwickshire.
Arch’s supporters hoped for an attendance of perhaps 30. In fact over 2,000 agricultural labourers arrived to hear Arch speak and to join his union.
In two world wars women have taken jobs previously considered men’s work. The Women’s Land Army worked on farms and market gardens to feed the nation.
The Lumber Jills (above) managed our forests and produced timber for building and strategic items like pit props. Women also worked narrow boats on the canals carrying loads through the countryside.
In the 1930s the world economic slump put more pressure on agricultural workers and farmers. The Church of England was still enforcing the tithe system, taking 10 per cent of the harvest in many parts of the country. After a huge fight, these iniquitous ancient tithe laws was abolished.
Burston school strikers
The Burston Strike School in Norfolk was set up amid the longest-running strike in British history, between 1914 and 1939.
Teachers Annie and Tom Higdon were sacked by the village’s Church of England school. Schoolchildren went on strike to support the popular teachers.
The Higdons set up a school financed by the labour movement. This strike school continued teaching local children until shortly after Tom’s death in 1939.
In August 1923 between 50 and 60 boat families gathered at Braunston, Northamptonshire, blocking the canal. They were on strike to stop canal employers slashing wages. The strike, to fight the wage cuts and for the right to join a union, was to last 14 weeks.
It was one of the first strikes organised by the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU), which had only been formed the year before. Today the TGWU and the Union of Agricultural Workers that can trace its history back to Joseph Arch are both part of Unite.
In Cromwell’s New Model Army, new ideas and arguments were being thrashed out. Ordinary soldiers debated radical ideas like agrarian socialism and electing their own officers. Groups like the Leveller’s would fight, and some even die fighting for democracy in Cromwell’s army. Three Levellers were shot in front of other imprisoned Levellers in Burford Churchyard in the Cotswolds.
The Diggers, an English revolution dissident group, wanted to establish a kind of primitive communism inspired by Biblical texts. They quoted John Ball: “Things will not go well in England until all things are held in common.”
Robin of Sherwood
It may be just a legend, but what a legend. Robin Hood taught us to rob the rich and give to the poor, a far superior philosophy to David Cameron’s “rob the poor and give to my rich mates.”
Wat Tyler led the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, marching from Canterbury to London to protest against the poll tax. The peasants also demanded universal freedom. During negotiations at London’s Smithfield, the deceitful King Richard II had Tyler murdered.
Rebel priest John Ball was another leader of the revolt. He believed that all humans should be treated equally. “When Adam delved, and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?” he preached.
THIS weekend we are celebrating the heroic farm workers of west Dorset, who, in 1834, famously formed a trade union.
They did nothing wrong but that didn’t stop six leaders of the union being arrested and transported. Today we still remember and celebrate those brave Tolpuddle Martyrs but the names of the farm owners and judges who sentenced them are long-forgotten.
However our new majority Tory government has lost no time in attacking trade union rights.
Rich farmers have always used mechanisation, not to improve the lot of agricultural workers but to reduce costs. In 1830 rural workers sought to protect their jobs in the Captain Swing riots over the introduction of new threshing machines.
Ancient forests have to be defended from development. A lack of spending on rivers leads to disastrous flooding, while rural post offices, pubs and village shops close.
Allotments are concreted over by developers. Huge global multinational agribusinesses dominate food production with genetically modified crops and toxic chemicals.
Careless husbandry brings disease and invasive species. Rapacious supermarkets blackmail food suppliers. Children are ignorant about the origins of the food on their plates.
The co-op group, once Britain’s biggest and best farmers, have sold up to prop up the disaster caused by dodgy bankers. All over the land, the countryside is subject to rape and pillage.
The struggle goes on. One of the most important is the constant campaign for a living wage and affordable secure housing for farm workers. The spirit of Tolpuddle lives on in this fight. The other battle is to protect a sustainable environment.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star’s Tolpuddle Special 18 July 2015