The last two episodes sketched in the essential background in terms both of the Clarion stance on democracy and the developments in the trade unions – essentially from ‘New Unionism’ to ‘Employers’ Counter-offensive’ with the latter culminating in the Engineering Lockout of 1897 to 1898 which threatened to smash the most well-established of all British trade unions– the Amalgamated Society of Engineer or ASE – and very nearly did. It should now be possible to make sense of the ‘Clarion scheme’, why it seemed to gain a significant foothold and why, ultimately, like, for example, the Clarion referendum, it failed.
There were several schemes for allying unions into a mutually supportive federation. Most were named after their originators – Eyre’s scheme- which the Clarion‘s by now well-established rival Keir Hardie’s Labour Leader tended to favour – or Horrock’s scheme. What became known as the ‘Clarion Scheme’ was the brainchild of P J King.
Little is known about King. At the time of the New Unionism around 1890 he had been the leader of the Lancashire Chemical and Copper Workers’ Union centred on St Helens and Widnes. King’s first Clarion article promoting his scheme appeared on 6 February 1896. For the next nearly four years his federation scheme – soon known as the ‘Clarion Scheme’ was featured in the paper most weeks. Four of the Clarion Pamphlet series – Nos 17, 24, 28, and 33 were also published in its support – the first under Blatchford’s name as well as King’s. The association with the paper was to be a mixed blessing for King’s proposal. It did get it nationwide publicity but it also mobilised anti-Clarion elements.
The scheme was very Clarionesque in its ethos. In June 1898, just a month before it was launched as the National and International General Federation of Trades and Labour Unions [definitely just NIGFTLU from now on!] King wrote: ‘The Trade Unions of this country must no longer be manipulated and controlled by a bureaucracy. The initiative and referendum will do much to check abuses of irresponsible persons.’ He went on to attack ‘well-paid and well-groomed officials’ – hardly likely to go down well in the trade union ‘establishment.’
There were to be only two NIGFTLU full-time officials – president and secretary. They would be assisted by an elected lay Executive. The decisions of its annual delegate meeting – to be called the Federal Labour Parliament – were to be ‘submitted to the general body for confirmation. ‘ Referendums were also to be used to decide whether or not to aid member organisations in disputes with employers. These direct democracy provisions were the most novel feature of NIGFTLU together with its ‘four nation’ structure which guaranteed at least one Executive member from each of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Not only entire unions but individual branches could join NIGFTLU.
After a very shaky start during which uncertainty prevailed over where – Manchester? Carlisle? London? and when, May? June? July? – the initial meeting of NIGFTLU was to take place it was launched in July 1898 with, reportedly, a Federal Labour Parliament meeting attended by 200 delegates representing 750,000 trade unionists. King was elected as secretary.
Meanwhile, the 1897 TUC, under the pressure of the disastrous lockout of the ASE, set up a committee which put together what became known as the ‘official scheme’. This was to become the main rival of King’s Clarion scheme. It was meant to debated at the 1898 TUC in Bristol. But the night before the issue was to be dealt with the Colston Hall burnt down and the TUC leadership postponed discussion until a Special Congress in January 1899. My friend Logie Barrow, who is the world expert on NIGFTLU, thinks that the members of the Parliamentary Committee in the photo that appeared soon after this look surprisingly relieved.
When the Special Congress met it was announced that only the ‘official scheme’ would be discussed. An amendment designed to allow discussion of other schemes – notably the Clarion one – was defeated. The meeting went on to set up the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU) which still exists today. There were now two rival federations.
The GFTU got off to a slow start – but it lasted. NIGFTLU didn’t. King’s lack of tactical sense in seeking union support and his rather erratic organising ability had much to do with this. Being seen as part of the Keir Hardie v Robert Blatchford or Labour Leader v Clarion vendetta didn’t help at least not in some union circles. The Clarion also retreated into the role of an entertaining newspaper that was getting a bit fed up with the scheme associated with it. Rather like the case of the Clarion referendum one gets the impression of poor tactics not always thought through and boredom with the issue which was easy to dismiss as dilettantism. Blatchford continued to maintain – in October 1901 – that King had not been given the chance he should have had by the powers that be in the trade union movement. ‘I do not believe that the scheme or the man had fair play.’
NIGFTLU still enjoyed some support but it gradually faded away in the early years of the twentieth century. I am not aware of any reference to it after about 1905. So the best laid schemes of the Clarion once more came to nought – there was not to be an ultra-democratic trade union organisation flourishing in Britain. That said, there must be plenty of people who are members of trade unions – even active ones – who have never heard of the GFTU – the TUC’s ‘official scheme’ and NIGFTLU’s rival – though, as I have already said, it is still very much in existence.
I think we’ve had enough of the ‘heavy’ political stuff for the moment so I’m going to use a piece on the composer Gustav Holst and his association with the Clarion and his cycling adventures. It’s long enough since I first circulated it.