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Culture Ideas
Culture: Holding Fire- The Chartists
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Friday, 31 August 2007 Written by Henry Midgley

A contemporary print of the riot at Newport
with which the action of the play culminates
Conservatives today are fond of rhapsodising about the dangers of welfare dependency, the abilities of charity and the way that the class structure benefits those at the bottom as much as those at the top. Market forces we are told will bring the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate everything they might wish for or need without the interposition of a clumsy and inept state. Should agencies be required, we are informed that charitable inclination will supply that agency. The case against socialism has been made cogently time and time again, in the textbooks of economists and on the stomping grounds of politicians. In the House of Commons, the Inns of Court, the byways of Fleet Street (or should that be Wapping) and the counting houses of the City, the case against welfare dependency is obvious and certain. The case against socialism though wasn't so obvious a hundred years ago when the Chartists ranged through England seeking votes for working men.

Often it takes a play to remind us that the pieties of the free market leave people behind. My first encounter with serious left-wing thought was seeing the play an Inspector Calls which affected me deeply and still does- every time I see Alistair Sim's eyes in the film version bore into the family of industrialists he visits I wonder about myself sitting in their places. Similarly Holding Fire is a biting attack on the world of the early 19th Century. It chronicles two different stories- the first romantic and the second political and the first provides the rationale for the activity of the second. It chronicles them against the backdrop of the hungry forties, a decade in Ireland especially of unmitigated hardship and against the backdrop of the disastrous mid-Victorian state- a state whose treatment of the poor scandalised contemporaries like Charles Dickens and forced gradually a reevaluation of the condition of the working classes, forcing the introduction after fifty years of education services (1870) and health provision and pensions in the early part of the 20th Century.

The first story concerns young Lizzie and her life. Thanks to a fortunate encounter Lizzie is taken up by a kind upper class woman as a member of the deserving poor, deserving of help that is, the upper class woman makes her a servant and Lizzie goes to live in a great country house near Bradford. There she encounters all the abuse that one might expect, her fellow servants treat her with scorn, internalising the values of the system they look down on her as the girl at the bottom of the heap. A neighbourhood pastor, Mr Morgan, makes a pretence of saving her soul, but attempts to rape her. Lizzie meets in the house a manservant with whom she falls in love- however she knows that should she refuse to consent to having sex with Mr Morgan then her place will be lost, her boyfriend is more assertive and kills Mr Morgan on finding him in flagrante delicto with his wife and hence they flee across country.

At the same time as we see this story, we perceive another story develop. The story of the early Chartists, led by William Lovett and Fergus O'Connor, representing the alternative moral force and physical force sides of the movement and their struggles. Essentially those struggles as we see them are about the condition of the working people. In the text of the play, Lovett and O'Connor believed that by giving people the right to vote, workers would be able to access all kinds of benefits and the asocial values of the ruling order would be blown away. Where the two of them differed- and increasingly it becomes revealed differed mightily- was in their strategy. Lovett beleiving in moral persuasion- O'Connor in riots. The play implies that Lovett was incredibly personally brave- and he was, going to prison for a year in 1839- but slightly less fairly that O'Connor was a coward, O'Connor was imprisoned twice though by the end of the 1840s he was becoming mentally unstable.

The two stories are strengthened by their connection. The first without the second would seem mere melodrama, without the second though the first would lack relevance. Because we can see a real poor couple suffering and suffering harshly, because we see the horror of working class life we can appreciate the reasons why the Chartist campaigns were so important- if that is they could ever deliver what they promised.

And that ultimately is the issue. Because today 5 of the Chartist's 6 points have been implemented- all accept for annual elections are the policy of most governments in the West (though equal electoral districts no doubt might be argued about) but what has changed. Well in most of the West people are no longer able to starve on the streets, rape is no longer something that a girl in service need expect without redress, the worst grinding poverty has gone as have the workhouses which promised hungry people food at the price of their liberty. But much still has to be done and there is much that seems to have no possibility of changing. Inequality is high and getting higher. People live in poverty. Healthcare is almost everywhere limited- dental care say to people with the money to afford it in the UK and it is true that birth in certain postcodes means that your life will be shorter, your education worse and your prospects lower than a contemporary born in a more advantageous location.

At two points in Holding Fire, Lovett the great Chartist becomes involved in a fictitious argument with Frederick Engels, Marx's friend in a London pub. The situation is contrived but isn't impossible. Engels presents communism to Lovett and listening to Lovett's response one can hardly feel that Engels has proved anything- and yet, Engels too is right for the charter was achieved but the poor are still with us. The economic structure of the world did not turn on its head as Lovett and O'Connor promised it would, the poor were not saved but are still with us, beggars still inhabit the London streets and like in their day often they are ex soldiers down on their luck. Democracy ended up through the creation of the middle class, becoming a ballast to the establishment- Hillaire Belloc's famous lines, from a later more cynical time, that

The accursed power which stands on Privilege
(And goes with Women, and
Champagne, and Bridge) Broke—
and Democracy resumed her reign:
(Which goes with Bridge, and Women and Champagne).

Never seem truer than when watching Lovett and his allies discourse about how democracy can redeem those at the bottom of the pile. What they never realised was that for many they are too demoralised to vote, and even if they could vote, they might well be outnumbered by the majority in the middle who are fearful of change. Engels was wrong but so was Lovett.

Suffering on the scale of the 1840s hopefully shall never happen in the West, and soon in the rest of the world ever again. Technological change and the development of welfare states hopefully mean that that is true (though economic crisis might put pay to that rude optimism). But if so the hope held out by Chartism for democracy was misplaced- democracy can prevent the worst evils but promises no revolutions in the condition of the poorest. Equality of Opportunity does not exist today. The last century showed that the main alternative to liberal capitalism- state socialism- did not work- that it led as Lovett in this play prophetically says it will lead to, to the destruction of freedom and the human spirit. Isaiah Berlin looks to have been a good historical analyst in this case- he faced us with the dilemma- either freedom or equality and we still have not squared that circle.

Political issues are the very soul of this play- they run through it but the play lends them, as the best drama tends to do, a human context. The hope that democracy might bring is shown as the alternative to a religious faith which at times in the play is shown to be so much bunkum resting upon priest-craft from lecherous old ministers. What the playwright captures as well is the particular intensity of the Chartist and one has to say early Labour rhetoric- the way that it had more Methodism than Marxism about it, the Bible and Biblical promises about the end times, from revelation in particular, crop up again and again. The language of radicalism is the language of the bible, of scripture, of natural right, not the language of socialism.

It might appear apt therefore to refer backwards to the Bible in concluding this piece, this is not really a socialist play, but it is a deeply Christian play. The play is another call, in the tradition of the early Christian writers, to rethink poverty. Moral Force Chartism, much more than physical force Chartism, is the Chartism given voice in this play and it sought to advance through consent the lot of working people. The most obvious way of doing that for the 'moral force' Chartist was to give men the vote- but also it was to change society, change character. Rather than seeking like Engels a development of a beehive, the Lovetts of the world sought to contain freedom together with equality, to bring them into a marriage. That marriage of conscience and community is something that we still struggle with- rightly the West rejected communism, wrongly we have not dealt with equality and the promise of the Sermon of the Mount, that the meek shall inherit the earth, remains even now unfulfilled, the other significant prophecy of Christ, that the poor are those we shall always have with us, looks like being the truest word spoken by either human or divine agency in history.

Because we still have failed to square that circle the end of this play is curiously problematic. One feels as the last character is hung and the last speech is given that the audience will go home, the Chartists failed to bring about the changes in working life, the poor are still with us despite ameliorations in their lives and the dilemma still remains- how do we ultimately give everyone a life worth living and still maintain human dignity and freedom. Is the price of freedom the failure of many to attain it.