Meeting Report: Manchester’s Liberal Myth & Liverpool’s Hidden History

Manchester’s Liberal Myth & Liverpool’s Hidden History: Report from the Third Northern Radical History Meeting- Manchester, Saturday 6 October 2012.

York, Nottingham, Bradford, Liverpool and Greater Manchester were represented at the 3rd meeting of NRHN:  participant interests and research included syndicalism; Chaplin and clog dancing in Liverpool; the Luddites and next year’s anniversary of their executions in York; the election riots of the 1830s; the endgame of the Indian Empire; Jews and other foreigners in Manchester and the Wigan Diggers.

Bill Williams in his talk, asked the question as to what extent is Manchester justified in calling itself a ‘liberal city’ or indeed, how strong is England’s claim to be a tolerant society?  He began by examining the history of immigration in the 1930s and the impact of British immigration laws between 1933 and 1938:  capital and skills useful to Britain were permitted to be imported, and jobs were available to immigrants so long as they could not be taken by British workers, Jews who could find a guarantor who was willing to put up £50 were enabled to enter and there were a few industrial trainee-ships available to foreigners.  Following Kristalnacht, or Night of Broken Glass in November 1938, when the Nazi SA attacked Jewish shops in Germany and Austria, the immigration policy in Britain was relaxed somewhat, but it was still not easy for the  less educated  Ostjuden from eastern Europe who were resident in Germany and Austria to access or grasp the intricacies of these laws.

Bill Williams has been able to trace the development of this phenomena of the Ostjuden in microcosm through his access to a hundred or so letters from the parents of a Ostjuden girl, who had herself been allowed to come to Manchester as a refugee through the program of ‘Kinder transport’ that prevailed while her parents were left to fend for themselves in Austria.  Her parents later moved illegally from Austria to what they regarded as the relative safety of Zagreb in what is now Croatia, but as the political situation developed they were later shot in the street by Croatian Fascists.  Yet, in the same way that the Ostjuden failed to appreciate the international situation in Europe, so the island people of England demonstrated both institutional blindness and anti-Semitism as Roman Catholics, Quakers, and even some leading Jews resisted the immigration of Jews into this country, in some cases owing to the fear that it would lead to more local anti-Semitism.  Bill concluded his lecture by saying that the claim to a liberal tradition in Manchester was really largely ’empty rhetoric’.

Steve Higginson, a former Liverpool postal worker and union official, described what was meant by ‘Writing on the Wall’ in Liverpool as being hidden history from below.  He explained how it had developed out of the Liverpool Docker’s Dispute in the 1990s, and through the involvement of the playwright Jimmy McGovern.  He said that he had been influenced by E.P. Thompson’s essay Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism’, published in 1967, about the imposition of the time discipline on the English working class through the changes brought in by the industrial revolution.  Steve argued that Liverpool as a port city, had escaped to some degree this time neurosis owing to it being dominated more by nature rather than the factor of time, and as a consequence he felt that the culture there was distinct and different from that of the industrial inland towns and cities in the UK.  The appreciation of this distinction was leading the ‘Writing on the Wall’ group to reassess and reinterpret the 1911 Great Transport Strike; to reconsider the origins of the shop steward’s movement and to examine ideas about anarchist influences in Liverpool on the 1911 dispute in the light of this.  He seemed to be saying that a kind of unconscious ‘anarchism’ was at work here which ‘chimed’ with the local workforce and was particularly best represented among the dockers.  He referred to a sympathetic strike that had taken place in Liverpool at the time of the execution of the anarchist educationalist, Francisco Ferrer, in Barcelona following the riots there that became known as the ‘Semana Tragica’ (Tragic Week).  A play is now understood to be a work in progress dealing with these events.

Steve Higginson said that he had been influenced by Tom Nairn’s book ‘The Break-up of Britain’ (1977), and saw in it a reflection of the 19th Century ‘Council of the North’, he felt that this should lead to a ‘Northern Parliament’.   He argued that the North/ South Divide was now a significant reality and would have to be tackled.  This would seem to chime with the comments of Paul Salvison, a speaker at the previous Northern Radical History Network meeting in June.  It was reported that this coming Thursday, at the Adephi Hotel, there will be a meeting entitled ‘Austerity!  My arse!’ which will be addressed by Len McClusky and Ricky Tomlinson.

The next meeting of the NRHN is expected to be in January 2013, the venue is likely to be Bradford. Details will be posted on the NRHN blog in due course.

Report courtesy of Northern Voices:

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