A most enjoyable night watching ‘We Will Be Free!’ in Stroud; tremendous performances from Neil Gore and Charlotte Powell who played a variety of characters from both the agricultural labourers and the ruling class.
Interesting to hear the usual response from the squire to a plea for more wages – that would bankrupt the farmers and then where would you be, eh? Worse off, Loveless, eh? That sort of thing.
When I used to dig my gran’s garden in the 1960s for ten bob a time and talk about the old days, then my grannie would always try to counter my stuttering Marxism with the Daily Express line that if we didn’t have rich people then there wouldn’t be the money around to pay the workers, would there? A speaker from the audience pointed out that she had just heard the same thing in the morning on the media.
This is why the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union, the Ant-Poor Law Movement and the Chartists and so on is so important. The decades of the 1830s and 40s were an ideological as well as material battleground, as different persuasions tried to understand and explain the dynamics of this new industrial capitalist society.
How could the rich get richer and the poor get poorer when more wealth was being created each year? How could this economic conundrum be understood?
In the blue corner: the trickle down neo-liberal ruling class explanation.
In the red corner: the profit is stolen wages explanation.
It could have gone either way – when I was at school, the commonly used (but objectionable) term used to describe the 1850s was ‘The Age of Equipoise’. The decade was described thus because the blue corner had won the material and ideological battle. If you were poor it was your own fault, nothing to do with low wages; you just weren’t trying hard enough.
But just think if it had gone the other way; just imagine a counter-factual world where collectivist, egalitarian principles governed society, the economy and the polity. The United Kingdom, the most powerful model to emulate at that time, would have been consequently copied elsewhere… and so, no Age of Empire, no Age of War, no Stalin, no Hitler, no Cold War, no ecological catastrophe…the list is endless… So go on, imagine…
That’s why this seemingly familial, parochial tragedy down in rural Dorset is part of a so much wider picture: part of a global chain of consequence. Thank you Neil and Charlotte for a thought-provoking evening, full of tragedy, comedy, pathos, song and music. The production is next on at the Rondo Theatre, Bath, on March 12th-13th – highly recommended. You will have a heartfelt but heart warming evening - Neil and Charlotte build a rapport with an audience from even before the word 'Go'.