(and the suffragettes)
The idea for this post came from the YouTube channel of the Intelligence Squared debates that you can find here. I am gradually working my way through past debates. In an earlier post, I featured Jess Phillips making a fool of herself during the Intelligence Squared debate – Is Labour Unelectable? Through incompetent advocacy, Jess did much to convince the previously sympathetic audience that Labour is unelectable.
The debate that caught my eye this time was ‘The left has right on its side’. The motion was forwarded by George Monbiot and Labour MP Stella Creasy and opposed by Roger Scruton and Conservative MP Kwasi Kwarteng. I am a great fan of Roger Scruton, but I was slightly disappointed by his performance which was a little rambling and lacking focus. I think George Monbiot got the better of the exchanges between the two. I find that Roger Scruton is a much better writer than a speaker.
The subject of this post is a remark made by George Monbiot. At 48.39 in the debate he reasonably argues that the left is not synonymous with Stalinism and doesn’t have to be like the Bolsheviks. He then goes on to say – the left which we create in this country is entirely different to that and Roger’s conceit that it was the right who invented freedom and the left who try to take it away……..has he forgotten the diggers and the levellers and the chartists and the suffragettes? How many of those would you place on the right?
The answer is at least one, the suffragettes. Emmeline Pankhurst, who founded the Suffragettes was arguably racist and colonialist. She was was opposed to working class people of either sex having the vote and she even stood as a Tory candidate. The suffragettes were to the right and, even by the standards of the times she lived in, a long way to the right.
In 1917 Emmeline and her daughter Christabel founded the Women’s Party and according to their manifesto …. the natural resources, the essential industries and the transport system of the British Isles and of the Empire should be under strictly British ownership and control….no foreigners should be allowed to share in British commerce. These views were pretty regressive even for those times. The first world war was then in progress and British soldiers were fighting alongside soldiers from around the then Empire.The Women’s Party manifesto went on to say, the British Public Service to be manned exclusively by officials of long British descent and wholly British Connection. In other words, white people only for the Civil Service. Both Emmeline and Christobel were obsessed with idea that foreigners and Jews were a major threat to Britain.
At the start of World War One, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst toured the country encouraging men to fight for their country in the trenches. Roughly half of those men did not have the vote and Emmeline opposed the emancipation of those working people she was exhorting to fight. It is entirely just to accuse the Pankhursts of hypocrisy – they were insistent on their own right to vote while they were happy to send to their deaths working class men whose right to vote they did not regard as significant.
At a WW1 recruiting rally Emmeline Pankhurst cried .. the least that men can do is that every man of fighting age should prepare himself to redeem his word to women and to make ready to do his best to save the mothers, the wives and daughters of Great Britain from outrage too horrible even to think of…The suffragettes where also at the forefront of the white feather campaigns, where men who had not joined up where handed feathers to symbolise their cowardice. In many cases the men receiving these tokens were on leave from the western front, underage boys or men conscripted to work in coal mines. How like modern feminists these women were.
Blogger William Collins puts it much better than I could when he says whilst Pankhurst saw her struggle entirely in terms of women battling against men, she refused to acknowledge the crucial class issue which prevented her succeeding and she was herself of the Bourgeoisie not the proletariat,…..In that regard, at least, she sounds a lot like a modern day Labour MP.
Emmeline Pankhurst was also crassly insensitive. She failed to appreciate how her campaign for the enfranchisement of upper class women would be received by working-class men. This was the era when the labour movement was becoming established and these men knew that votes for upper class women would only entrench the ruling class hegemony. On one occasion she addressed a group of coal miners in somewhat insulting terms. She wrote afterwards..the ring of men grew closer, I looked at them in their drab clothes smeared with yellow pit clay and they appeared so underfed, so puny and sodden that a poignant pity swept over me. That pity did not, however, extend to compassionate language and with a staggering lack of psychological insight she stupidly and imperiously cried – are none of you men? The atmosphere quickly became ugly, not because of misogyny but because she came campaigning for rights for her self and her kind (toffs) while not recognising their rights. She was lucky to escape unscathed.
During the 1926 general strike for better pay and conditions Emmeline Pankhurst, who was virulently right-wing, took part in strike breaking. Subsequently she was selected as a parliamentary candidate for the Conservative party. Something that George Monbiot appears to have overlooked.
So, returning to the question posed by George, how many of the social movements he presented would you place on the left? The answer is that one, the suffragettes, could be placed on the right and the Pankhursts in particular were virulently reactionary. Remember, that while the suffragettes were campaigning for ‘respectable women’ to get the vote the the labour movement and the trade unions advocated universal suffrage. The role of the suffragettes in achieving that social transformation has been overstated, it took the slaughter of men in their thousands during WW1 to bring about that social change.