The ‘Clarion Scheme’ or NIGFTLU (Part 2 )
I finished the last episode with the ‘new unions’ helping to produce a revival of working-class – and working-class oriented – politics which resulted in – among other things – the launching of the Clarion in December 1891 and in 1893 the foundation of the Independent Labour Party (ILP)
In previous episodes we have seen how Blatchford’s attempts in, especially, the second half of the 1890s to encourage the two main socialist parties, the SDF and the ILP to unite came to nothing. We need to bear this in mind as part of the background to the Clarion scheme which was being promoted at more or less the same time
Another part of the background vital for understanding the nature of the attempt to promote a radical form of trade unionism is the nature of Clarion politics during these years. We have seen in earlier episodes that – in, arguably, an over-simplistic way – Blatchford and Co had been very opposed to anything that might lead to bureaucracy or the professionalisation of socialist politics. This in turn led to the advocacy – especially in the pamphlets written by A M Thompson (or ‘Dangle’) – of direct democracy in the form of the referendum and initiative. Blatchford was even critical of the Cycling Club for using a delegate system rather than holding referendums to make decisions.
After the dodgy plebiscite of 2016 it is, quite understandably, even harder than it usually is to make the case for referendums – which as we shall see played a major role in NIGFLTU (aka the ‘Clarion scheme’. But there are a few things we should bear in mind. At a time when at something between a quarter and a third of men and all women were denied national voting rights, whatever criticisms can be made of their partiuclarl proposals, the intentions of the Clarion were definitely to promote democracy. Secondly, the ‘initiative’ -the right of an agreed number of electors to call a referendum – was always what was intended rather than plebiscites arranged by the government. If the UK intends to go down the direct democracy route maybe we should have some public enquiries into the experience of Switzerland and those US states where people regularly vote on ‘propositions’ resulting from what the Clarion (and others) called ‘initiatives’?
But back to the trade union scene in the 1890s. The upsurge of ‘New Unions’ is far less well remembered than what followed, which is what has become known a ‘the employers’ counter-offensive’ In the earlier part of the decade even the unions representing the well-established ‘coal and cotton’ trades came under attack with, to name just a few examples. a mining lock-out in 1893, and a bitterly fought Lancashire Cotton-Spinners’ struggle the same year as well as a dock strike in Hull.
Meanwhile, among more radical trade unionists – especially those with socialist convictions – discontent grew with the TUC. Critics were stronger in local trades councils which were represented at the annual congress than on the Parliamentary Committee which looked after – inadequately the rebels said – union interests for the rest of the year.
In 1895 the TUC leadership carried out what was seen as a ‘coup.’ It came up with a new procedure which included the block vote, proposed the exclusion of the trades councils from Congress representation and then used the new system to get this through – which many saw as sharp practice. All this encouraged the belief that something more -and more representative of the grassroots and more radical – than the TUC was needed if the employers’ counter-offensive was to be resisted and union demands for the eight hour day and other improvements in working conditions were to be advanced.
Things came to a head in the summer of 1897 when a near-national lockout by the Engineering employer’s co-ordinated by a Col Dyer began against the ASE – seen since the 1850s as the most powerful and secure trade union. This lasted into 1898. In the Clarion Blatchford described it as ‘the Engineers’ Sedan’ a reference not the famous chair but to the decisive defeat of Napoleon III in the Franco-Prussian War which among other consequences brought the Second Empire crashing down. Was the same fate about to happen to the British trade union movement?
Not surprisingly with concerns about the success of the counter-offensive rising even before this thoughts began to turn to some form of allianceor trade union federation that could do more to resist this than the TUC seemed able or willing to do. Various schemes were suggested including the one that came to be known as the ‘Clarion scheme.’ It’s author, P J King seems to have turned up at the paper’s office early in 1896, persuaded Blatchford and Thompson to back his radical scheme which was then promoted on a virtually weekly basis sometimes under Blatchford’s own non de guerre of ‘Nunquam.’
Next time we will see what was the nature of this scheme and what became of it