Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Late John and Vi Hughes

John Hughes obituaryvi hughes
John and Vi Hughes.

I attended an ex-students weekend at the Rookery at Ruskin College a few years ago to give a talk on Iraq, which I have had an interest in ever since I served my National Service there in 1955/6. Later I went to Ruskin to study, from 1960 to 1962. The talk I gave was at held in the equivalent of the old lecture room I had once attended to listen to John Hughes and other tutors. Shortly after I started my talk, John and his wife Vi walked into the room and sat at the back. It was a telling moment for me. Here was a man I respected as much as anyone I had come across and whose lectures and tutorials had been inspirational. Yet now he was coming to listen to me. My life from my time at Ruskin has been dominated by political education and political practice, Yet John and Vi turning up to hear me at the Rookery of all places, gave me more satisfaction than anything I have ever experienced in these aspects of my life. Way beyond anything like visits to 10 Downing Street, when I became an MP. After my studies at Ruskin, I eventually had the privilege of becoming a tutor on the same courses at Sheffield University which John had once taught upon between 1952 and 1954, including those he covered at Scunthorpe. Thankfully John did not only teach me applied economics, he used the ideal techniques for adult education. I knew whom I had to seek to follow. As an MP, I was in a group of his ex-students who hosted an evening with him in the Commons. Apart from talking to John and Vi after the meeting on Iraq, it was the only meeting I had with him after leaving Ruskin over 50 years ago. When I had a chat with Vi and John at the Rookery, I pointed out that his comments on one of my essays (after his inevitable encouragements) had said that it lacked an analytic framework. I did not appreciate what this meant and failed to raise the matter with him at the time. But after Ruskin I moved to Hull University and studied philosophy, so the point soon became clear to me. So I told John when we met , that I could now do analytic structures at the drop of a hat. My difficulty has been to find sufficient appropriate empirical information to sustain my analysis. John never had such problems. Vi also taught at Ruskin in my time, but not on the course I pursued. Yet we all invariably linked the two of them together and talked of "Vi and John". It was not just an indication of how close they were, but of the combined impact they had on our closed community. The fact that they died within a fortnight of each other must have been a terrible wrench for their family. Yet without seeking an inappropriate religious symbolism, it means that ever since they first met in 1948 John and Vi were together and virtually departed together. Their togetherness in pursing their joint values is what will be remembered, and will give comfort to those who knew them.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

100 Years And A Day


Between 1920 and 1942 within a quarter of a mile, there were three Methodist Chapels which were all situated on the southern side of Easington Colliery's main road - Seaside Lane. By the 1930s, the Colliery (in County Durham) reached its peak population of some 10,000.

The first of these Chapels was opened on 22nd November 1913. It is shown in the above picture and it is currently celebrating its 100th anniversary. It was initially called the United Methodist Church, which was a title which arose out of the amalgamation of two previous Methodist sects. But at that time a further distinction existed in Methodism between the Wesleyans and the Primitives. The Wesleyans established their own local chapel on 7th November 1917. Then the Primitives purchased two ex-army huts in 1920 which they used as the basis for their own chapel.  When Methodism was united in 1932, the local Primitive Methodists renamed their chapel; calling it the "Bourne Methodist Chapel", after a prominent former leading Primitive Methodist. They were keen to keep their heritage.

The three chapels co-existed and were drawn into the same Methodist Circuit, sharing preachers and various local activities. When the ex-Wesleyan chapel closed in 1942 their members moved a few hundred yards down the street into the building that is shown above, which was renamed St. John's Methodist Church. Then when the Bourne Methodist Chapel closed in 1956, they moved into the same Church which then changed its name a second time to the Easington Colliery Methodist Church.

The initial three chapels, did not of course suddenly spring for nowhere. Paradoxically, the United Methodists first held services in Easington's pioneering days in what is now 22 Bourne Street and also had open air meetings on the grass which later became Bede Street. On 11th March 1911 their society was officially formed at what is now 6 Byron Street. The two women in the above photo are walking in the direction of these places, which are just a short distance away. The Wesleyians and the Primitives were equally active and by 1910 were holding separate meetings in the Colliery's first temporary tin schools.

The Colliery's initial Miner's Union and leading Labour Party activists were often prominent in the local Methodist Chapels; especially George Bloomfield the local Lodge's Secretary (and Checkweighman) from 1911 to 1939 and also George Walker the Lodge President - whom I knew.  Both were amongst the group of six who met at nearby Murton just after the First World War to establish a Constituency Labour Party. They also became active and prominent Labour Councillors. Like-minded Labour activists in County Durham (such as Peter Lee and Jack Lawson) also travelled into Easington Colliery to preach from its Methodist pulpits.

I picked up many of my own political commitments from several years of activity in Bourne Methodist Chapel, until I left Easington Colliery to do my National Service at the age of 18.  By I returned to Easington two years later, I had rejected my former religious beliefs; but I was left with what had been a local Methodist-socialist heritage. My mother was also active in the Bourne Methodist Chapel and she moved to St. John's when they amalgamated. The last time I visited what is now the Easington Colliery Methodist Church was for my mother's funeral service, which was held on my 63rd birthday. Hence my need to record these matters. Although I happen to be a day late in  discovering this anniversary.

(Many of the above facts come from "Methodism in Easington Colliery :1913-1963", which is a Jubilee Brochure. My mother obtained my current copy almost exactly 50 years ago)

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Case For Public Ownership

Sidney Webb (1859 - 1947) 
The original version of Clause IV of the Labour Party Constitution, drafted by Sidney Webb in November 1917 and adopted by the party in 1918, read, To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.
The move in Britain towards public ownership, a mixed economy and the welfare state came in the years of the Second World War and immediately afterwards. The war effort demanded effective economic organisation and the start of a much fairer distribution of the basic requirements of food, warmth, clothing, and health. Even schooling entered the frame in 1944. The electorate in 1945 decided that we would not return to the days of poverty and exploitation that had characterised the inter-war years. The NHS, welfare provisions, council house building and the public ownership of key elements of the "commanding heights of the economy" took place under the Attlee Government. Even when the Conservatives returned to office, they then limited their programme of denationalisation to the Steel Industry and basically accepted the norms of the welfare state and the mixed economy. Their future depended upon accepting this compromise.  An era of "consensus politics" then emerged, with fewer fundamental differences between the two main parties. The problem with the basic acceptance of the status quo by Labour was that capitalism can always find its way around restraints, unless governments act continuously to block and transcend its activities.

The cohort of voters who supported Labour in 1945 and the early 50s, tended to remain loyal to the then Labour's vision of society. But whilst some of us from that time are still around, we are now a dying breed: long since replaced by fresh cohorts. New experiences and influences began to shape the norms of the new generations. Car ownership, undermined the scope for public transport. Whilst rail denationalisation and the end of much municipal transport, further shifted us away from public transport. The growing world of television was opened up to advertising and to commercial programming, thus enhancing individualistic values. Then whilst Thatcherism rowed upon a wave of anti-collectivism, she also acted to undermine its remaining communal base with the destruction of much of manufacturing and mining. To which she added the sale of council houses. Moves which New Labour never sort to contain. Then in recent years we have moved into a incredible and ever expanding technological revolution. Almost as soon as the latest advances are made in computer-style technology, they become outdated.  Capitalism uses its position to cash in upon these changes - as an avenue for sales and controls. The capitalist power elite established global controls, buying services via the use of the third world's impoverished work force; whilst selling in the dearest markets.

But capitalism always operates for its short term interests. Paying as little as it can for raw materials, labour power and technological innovations. It then sells where it can make the highest profits. These practices lead to an eventual collapse in effective demand, leading to economic deprivation. For capitalism ends up failing to supply people with the money to purchase its own goods and services. The global financial crisis of 2008 is likely just to be a taster of things to come.

Yet there is a huge paradox. This was pointed to by the late Royden Harrison. Things have moved  rapidly in recent years, but events have only confirmed his diagnosis. He pointed out that the objective circumstances for the operation of socialism had never been better, yet the subjective circumstances had never been worse. For whilst objectively we have the skills, knowledge, organisational potential and technology to provide for everyones' basic, intellectual and emotional needs; the subjective appreciation of what is possible have never been worse. Our minds are often taken over by passing consumer fads and the beer and circuses of the modern media. When people rebel (often under stark circumstances) they tend to be consumed by unquestioning and counter-productive doctrines, such as those of racism and militant Islam.

So what can be done about the world's serious situation - climate change, imperial expansionism, fanaticism, starvation, mass poverty, unemployment, economic decline and the threat of economic collapse?  As radical improvement requires a change in people's values and commitments, then it is essentially a question of political education, political education, political education. Luckily there is something to build upon. If people could not be moved to contribute readily to disaster relief funds or to go to people's aid when they saw accidents, then there would be nothing to build upon. But consumerism and individualism still get adjusted by the experiences of daily life into avenues where human sympathy and collective instincts come to the fore. Political education directed towards the best in people is, however, very different from political indoctrination. The strongest educational question is "why?". It rebounds on those who see themselves in the role of stimulating political education. Any of us could be wrong at anytime.

If public ownership is to advance (including the end of outsourcing in the public sector which currently accounts for 24% of expenditure in the UK's public sector). then there are big problems we need to tackle. Public bodies can be prone to bureaucratic centralised controls. Wealth, power and status can come to dominate in the public as well as the private sector.  Democratic controls by producers and users of services are an antidote. Municipal, Consumer Co-operative and Worker Self-Management structures will often be more appropriate than the running of centralised State owned systems. Above all the providers of services and their users need to share a public service ethos. Those who work for a public body, need to see themselves as public servants. Whilst those who benefit from such services need to share similar values, which lead to them not just to grabbing whatever they can. Selfishness detracts from the common good.

I am not seeking perfection, just general standards of human decency and a sense of sharing.

The biggest problem is, however, to get ourselves out of the grip of capitalist domination. Sidney Webb called for the inevitability of gradualness in advancing public ownership. Today, it might take us time to get the ball rolling towards forms of public ownership, for we need to get politicians on board. Each step might be difficult. But once we create the conditions to start the move, we might come to be surprised as to just how revolutionary our gradualism has become. For we will come to realise that the future of mankind is tied in with our actions.

If you see public ownership as an avenue towards our salvation, then check "We Own It" out.  Things did not end with Sidney. Nor with Tony Blair's rejection of Clause IV.