My reading list lately has included a hefty tome by Prof Jane Humphries of Oxford University entitled Childhood and Child Labour in the British Industrial Revolution, and another book entitled The Establishment - And how they get away with it by Owen Jones. Both are not easy reading, but they are certainly eye opening. The first exposes how Britain's wealthy and Middle Classes benefited from the mass exploitation of children in the 18th and 19th Centuries. It describes how children from the age of six or less were employed in mines and mills at absolute minimum wages, often putting in 16 hour shifts in the mines where they hauled the waggons, or gathered the coal from spaces too small for an adult. In the cotton mills, children were used to gather waste beneath the machines while they were operating. Deaths and injuries were too numerous to count, and the resistance in Parliament to any restrictions, or the imposition of any safety measures was unbelievable.
Which leads me to the second book. Written by an angry young man I found I have observed many of the things he speaks of at first hand. "The Establishment" is a very well organised 'clique' of the wealthy and the powerful, and, if this book is to be believed, they exercise some very far reaching control over the civil service, the political landscape and the access to wealth. As I said, I can attest to having witnessed certain aspects he mentions, but not being a part of the "Establishment" myself, cannot say whether everything he mentions is as he says. I have long suspected much of this, and I would agree the circumstantial evidence points to it, but I cannot see anyone actually provided proof 'beyond reasonable doubt'.
The first book I found difficult because of the emotions it stirred. After all, the vast majority of us, born two hundred to a hundred years ago, would have followed at least some of the 'career path' described in it. As Prof Humphries points out, in many of the 'trades' a boy would be lucky to reach 25, and as for reaching a 'retirment age' - well very few did. For the girls it was as bad if not worse in some aspects. I felt a deep sense of thankfulness for the efforts of my great grandparents, grandparents and their antecedents for their efforts to break out of that mould and give my brother and I a chance of something better. Her book prompted me to look into the whole 'Workhouse' and Poor Law administration and the manner in which orphans were handled. Some of it made so angry I had to stop, and to me the worst aspect is that the modern 'Benefits' system is administered by the same mindset and the same 'social class' that set up the Workhouses. Worse, they seem to have the same motivation as their forebears - don't 'improve' anything, as the recipients might then break the cycle of patronage ...
What is fascinating about the revelations in both books is just how far those who do hold the keys to wealth and power will go to defend their control, and the lengths they will employ to ensure that they and their families, friends and close associates remain in control. Students of history will know how the Roman aristocracy used Circuses, 'free bread' and other populist handouts and entertainments to keep the populace 'happy' and unwilling to challenge the status quo. We can see a similar pattern in our own society, with 'football' extravaganzas and other 'sporting' entertainments. The 'arts' are funded to the hilt because they keep a population from asking awkward questions, and there is also that wonderful stand-by, fear of the 'enemy'. Here we can take our pick of a wide range, from 'being overwhelmed by immigrants', through 'runaway climate change' and 'loss of sovereignty' right down to all the 'something'-phobias we are constantly told we engage in.
Anything and everything to make sure we don't ask questions like, 'how does a man enter the political 'career' as a penniless graduate struggling to pay his loans become, in a few years, a millionaire property owner?' Or how a company with no expertise in some technical area get awarded huge contracts to perform work in that field? Or, Why does the Treasury have a list of 'preferred bidders' who can bypass the tendering process, but who all seem to be major companies with links to MPs, senior civil servants or other 'power' figures?
It is said that history is written by the victors, but I suspect this is not always true. What is true is that those in power have always been very good at manipulating our thinking, and in redirecting our attention away from their activities. Hence "Climate Change" (take a look at who the main promoters really are), or the Anti-Eu or any other convenient 'enemy'. As Owen Jones points out "Sovereignty" is, today a total illusion. The agenda is set by unelected officials in the UN, the EU and numerous other 'international' bodies. Once signed up to, parliaments have little scope for adjustment.
In the UK much is made of the 'unelected' nature of the Commission and the Council of Ministers, yet the politicians will argue that both are 'indirectly' elected bodies - the Council by National electors voting for the Party or Minister on the Council and the Commission by virtue of the fact its appointees are 'elected' by the Council and approved by the European Parliament.Mr Jones argues, and I believe he has a point, that this is a sham, since the Ministers are representatives of the political elites of the various member countries, the Commissioners are drawn from their ranks and the Parliament is also stuffed with members of the same political class.
The problem is, of course, that they can and do argue that we, the gullible voters, voted for them.
What is very clear is that in any age, and in every age, the wealthy and powerful will look after each other first and last. If there is any benefit lower down it is usually because some have managed to break out of the mould and claw their way upward by their own efforts, not because anyone in power made it easier or even helped them. This is where the Trades Unions have, in my view, gone badly wrong. The leaders of the Unions have joined the Establishment and become a part of the problem. No, I am not calling for a more radical Union movement, I am calling for a better understanding of what the working people - everyone who has to earn a salary or a wage to pay the bills - really want and need. Stuff the ideology where the sun doesn't shine. Let's recognise that for our society to prosper as a whole we need less division, less isolation and a damned sight more recognition of the partnership between 'worker' and 'manager/investor/owner'.
Yes, reading this made me angry at the abuse and the duplicity, but it also made me very proud of the boys, girls, men and women who managed to claw their way out of the pits of the slums, the poverty, the exploitation - and give their children a better chance. For the record, my paternal grandfather - the youngest of four children and the only surviving male - was apprenticed as a coffin-maker at 13. His future wife, the daughter of a small holder, apprenticed as a seamstress at 12. My maternal great grandfathers were respectively Colour Sergeant in the Royal Irish Rifles and a farmer. Great grandmother Heron's father was a Gardener on the Mount Stewart Estate. Their children managed to rise to become a Postmistress and to run his own business. My paternal grandfather finished his schooling on his own, taught himself accountancy and worked as a bookkeeper well past retirement age. I salute them all.
I commend both these books to my readers here, some of this is what inspired my latest book, due out soon. Limehouse Boys follows the paths of a trio of orphans in the 1830s East End of London. Watch this space for more details of its release.