Clarion History 10: The Clarion and John Lister

We saw in the last episode how much Blatchford objected to the very notion of ‘leadership;’ He rejected it in Clarion articles on ‘Real Democracy’ and ‘On Leaders’ in the summer of 1894. He always conceded that he was in a minority, even among socialists, in taking such ideas so far. And there was considerable debate in the paper featuring those who disagreed with him. One such was John Lister, who was among other things, the national treasurer of the ILP.. Perhaps a slightly unlikely ILP, Lister was a Wykehamist, an Oxford graduate and the owner of Shilden Hall near Halifax, a town he would stand twice unsuccessfully as a parliamentary candidate for the ILP. In the Clarion on 15 July he recognised the necessity for democratic control but entered some caveats about leaders and elected representatives. Responding to Blatchford he gave his opinion that

…a large amount of individual freedom must be left to the selected ones. This, not in the interest of the leaders themselves, but of those they represent and guide. To me the essential thing seems to be that really the fittest men for any special work be selected.

Provocative words – if you were Robert Blatchford.

But the debate died down over the summer – for one thing the staff of the Clarion were up to their ears busily bringing out the penny edition of Merrie England. In November the debate was resumed with a new intensity when the behaviour – or alleged behaviour – of Lister on Halifax council seemed to epitomise ‘the never-ending audacity of elected persons.’ The facts of the case were hotly disputed but, as initially presented in the Clarion, concerned suspicions of secret dealings with the Liberals by Lister and his colleague as a town councillor representing the local constituent of the ILP, the Halifax Labour Union, James Beever. Such activity would have been anathema especially to advocates of the ‘Manchester Fourth Clause’ like Blatchford.

Whether or not they were guilty of such things Blatchford argued that it was ‘quite clear that they were guilty of another and equally serious offence and that is insubordination.’ Lister had refused ‘to act according to the direction of his constituents when on the Council’ and Beever had refused to publicly deny charges of Liberalism. They were both prominent and popular people who had served the movement well in the past, but that just made it more clear that ‘the only course open to Halifax Labour Union is to expel both of these members from the I.L.P.’

A heated controversy inevitably followed with Hardie defending Lister in the Labour Leader. Blatchford insisted that

Socialism without Democracy would be a state of abominable tyranny. Democracy means that the people shall manage their own affairs…

One critic of Blatchford and defender of Lister in the Clarion itself was Edward Carpenter – ironically enough the declared disciple of the very Walt Whitman so often cited by the Clarion editor as a steadfast democrat. Carpenter attacked ‘the dancing doll theory’ and supported Hardie on the Halifax business and eulogised John Lister. Like so many other Clarion campaigns in the 1890s the Clarion – or in this case Blatchford himself – lost out. But this does not mean that the issues raised are not important -even in the 21st century




Next Time   The Origins of the Clarion Cycling Club – a national link-up?



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