Before the 1930s, the period from the early 1870s to the early 1890s was known as the Great Depression. My A-level history teacher insisted that it still should be, arguing that, although the drop in GDP was less spectacular than in the 1930s, the impact on working people was worse.
Will Hutton thinks this period may offer some clues about how we might face the long period of austerity indicated by last week’s economic projections. What is now called the Long Depression was a period when economic growth struggled to get above 1 percent for several consecutive years and, even when there was a growth spurt, it would drop back again the following year. It’s a similar pattern to the anemic growth being forecast for many of the developed economies.
In the 1880s, though, people didn’t just sit around waiting for something to happen. As Hutton says:
[T]he last time Britain endured such an extended period of depression and falling living standards – the 1870s and 1880s – saw the mushrooming of the co-operative movement and the emergence of the Labour party as the more moderate expressions of anger that wanted to challenge the very basis of capitalism.
There was very little state welfare or legal protection for workers in the 1880s. People formed co-operatives to get cheaper food, trade unions to protect their wages and employment, friendly societies to provide welfare insurance and mechanics institutes to educate themselves.
With the benefit of hindsight, this all looks like an obvious response but, at the time, all these forms of organisation were new. The ideas had been around for a while but it was not until the second half of the nineteenth century that they began to take off. They were practical solutions but they also challenged conventional thinking. Perhaps bosses didn’t have the right to set pay and sack people at will. Maybe you could club together and bypass existing food retail and distribution systems. What if you didn’t have to rely on the parish if you were thrown out of work? Perhaps those with little or no education could set up libraries and educate themselves.
To an extent, this also reflected a disillusionment with the political system. In the early nineteenth century, most working class political activity had focused on political reform. Large rallies, Chartist petitions and even riots were directed towards extending the political franchise. With the recognition that revolution was unlikely in Britain and that the vote granted to male heads of households in 1867 would only bring very gradual change, working people began to look outside conventional politics for ways of changing things. When I was a student, I read a quote from an old Chartist complaining that the young working class men of the 1880s were only interested in union meetings, divvies and whippet breeding. However, in time, new political forces emerged from the institutions of the 1880s which would eventually become the labour movement of the twentieth century.
As Andew Rawnsley said, only a fool would make predictions about the next decade but, as in the 1880s, innovative thinking and new types of organisation will be needed if we are to get through it. This is especially true for public services. Our ancestors found ways of dealing with their precarious situation and we will have to too.
That was the reaction of many of the comments, on here and on Twitter, to this post. I particularly liked this from Dipper:
I’ve worked with people from a variety of countries and cultures, and my over-riding impression is that Britain has the most creative culture I’ve come across by a long way. If we can’t do better than most of the rest of the world we must be really crap.
And our ancestors managed it 130 years ago so why shouldn’t we?
Like Will Hutton, I found myself making comparisons with the 1880s when I read about McDonald’s pulling out of Rochdale. The town may fear for its future, and with good reason, but this is the place that has just been voted world capital of co-operatives by the international co-operative movement, and which is seen as an inspiration by people setting up similar organisations in Latin America and Eastern Europe. It was the town where, in the grip of poverty, creative new solutions were found. No-one is suggesting it is going to be easy but Rochdale has solved its own problems before. Surely it can do so again.
Which brings me back to where I started this post. My A-level history teacher was from Rochdale. Perhaps that’s why he too thought the long depression of the 1870s and 1880s was so important. Against all the odds, people found new ways of doing things and took control in what seemed like a hopeless situation. That’s the sort of drive and creativity we are going to need again over the next few years.