Sunday, 22 February 2015

Notes From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - 'Those Foreigners'

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell was written a hundred years ago and described as 'a classic representation of the impoverished and politically powerless underclass of British society in Edwardian England, ruthlessly exploited by the institutionalized corruption of their employers and the civic and religious authorities'.

In this series of blogs on the notes I made from the book, I am looking at the alarming parallels between attitudes then and attitudes now. In this particular blog, I am looking at the attitude of the ordinary working class man (who we assume is typical of many of his time) towards the foreigner.  Note, their views have been fed to them via the newspapers and right-wing politicians - just as they are today.  In the excerpt below Easton is debating the issue with three of his fellow workmen, Harlow, Sawkins and their foreman Crass:

'Well, I don't  go in for politics much, either, but if what's in this 'ere paper is true, it seems to me as we oughter take some interest in it, when the country is being ruined by foreigners.'  (Easton)
      'If you're goin' to believe all that's in that bloody rag you'll want some salt,' said Harlow.
      The Obscurer was a Tory paper and Harlow was a member of the local Liberal club. Harlow's remark roused Crass.
      'Wot's the use of talkin' like that?' he said, 'you know very well that the country is being ruined by foreigners. Just go to a shop to buy something; look round the place an' you'll see that more than 'arf the damn stuff comes from abroad. They're able to sell their goods 'ere because they don't 'ave to pay no dooty, but they takes care to put 'eavy dooties on our goods to keep 'em out of their countries; and I say it's about time it was stopped...'
      'Yes it's quite true that we gets a lot of stuff from foreign countries,' said Harlow, 'but they buys more from us than we do from them.'
      A bit later in the exchange Sawkins says: 'Wy, even 'ere in Mugsborough...we're overrun with 'em! Nearly all the waiters and cooks at the Grand Hotel where we was working last month is foreigners.' 

On page 43, Owen reflects on his workmates' attitudes.

'... And so the talk continued, principally carried on by Crass and those who agreed with him. None of them really understood the subject....the papers they read were filled with vague and alarming accounts of the quantities of foreign merchandise imported into this country, the enormous number of aliens constantly arriving, and their destitute conditions, how they lived, the crimes they committed, and the injury they did to British trade. These were the seeds which, cunningly sown in their minds, caused it to grow up within them a bitter undiscriminating hatred of foreigners....the country was in a hell of a state, poverty, hunger and misery in a hundred forms had already invaded thousands of homes and stood upon the threshold of thousands more. How came these things to be? It was the bloody foreigner! Therefore, down with the foreigners and all their works. Out with them....the foreigner was the enemy, and the cause of poverty and bad trade.'

Does this all strike you as depressingly familiar?  As the main parties turn their mind to electioneering and populist issues, we will, sadly, be plied with a lot more misinformation on this matter in the coming weeks... 

Previous blog in this series:

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Notes From The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists - Employers and Employment

Reflections by Frank Owen, the main narrator in the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists on the attitude of employers and unemployment.  Bear in mind that this was written 100 years ago.

"…. It is the bad employer – the sweating, slave-driving employer – who set the pace and the others have to adopt the same methods – very often against their inclinations – or they would not be able to compete with him. If any employer today were to resolve to pay his workmen not less wages than he will be able to live upon in comfort himself, that he would not require them to do more work in a day than he himself would like to perform every day of his own life, Mr Grinder knows as well we do that such an employer would be bankrupt in a month; because he would not be able to get any work except by taking it at the same price as the sweaters and the slave-drivers.
      'He  also tells us that the interests of masters and men are identical; but if an employer has a contract, it is to his interest to get the work done as soon as possible; the sooner it is done the more profit he will make; but the more quickly it is done, the sooner the men will be out of employment. How then can it be true that their interests are identical?... At the same time it is quite true that the real interests of employers and workmen are the same, but not in the sense that Mr Grinder would have us believe. Under the existing system of society but a very few people, no matter how well off they may be, can be certain that they or their children will not eventually come to want; and even those who think they are secure themselves, find their happiness diminished by the knowledge of the poverty and misery that surrounds them on every side.
      'In that sense only is it true that the interests of masters and men are identical, for it is the interest of all, both rich and poor, to help to destroy a system that inflicts suffering upon the many and allows true happiness to none. It is to the interest of all to try and find a better way.'

P 573

"Easton… went out every day on the almost hopeless quest for work. Rushton's had next to nothing to do, and most of the other shops were in a similar plight. Dauber and Botchit had one or two jobs going on, and Easton tried several times to get a start for them, but was always told they were full up. The sweating methods of this firm continued to form a favourite topic of conversation with the unemployed workmen, who railed – and cursed them horribly. It had leaked out that they were paying only sixpence an hour to most of the skilled workmen in their employment, and even then the conditions under which they worked were, if possible, worse than those obtaining at most other firms. The men were treated like so many convicts, and every job was a hell where driving and bullying reigned supreme, and obscene curses and blasphemy polluted the air from morning till night. The resentment of those who were out of work was directed, not only against the heads of the firm, but also against the miserable, half starved drudges in their employment. These poor wretches were denounced as "scabs" and "wastrels" by the unemployed workmen but all the same, whenever Dauber and Botchit wanted some extra hands they never had any difficulty in obtaining them, and it often happened that those who had been loudest and bitterest in their denunciations were amongst the first to rush off eagerly to apply there for a job whenever there was a chance of getting one."