Monday, 14 March 2011

Review: John Beckett 'The Luddites: 200 Years On', for the Thoroton Society of Nottingham

Having never attended any meeting of a local history society before, I didn't know what to expect from this event - other than perhaps the stereotype of what such occasions may be like: average age mid sixties, tweeds, conservative ('small c' and 'big C'). The stereotypes didn't let me down after all. Despite my valiant attempt to lower the average age by 25 years or so, I was simply outnumbered - the organisers had underestimated the interest, and extra seats were called for.

What we got was a talk with a very high quota of dates and names and events, but with perhaps less analysis than you'd expect of a professor of history. In the circumstances, he was probably giving this audience what they wanted, and there is a lot to get through in a potted history of Midlands Luddism after all. A scholar of Luddism wouldn't have learned too much that was new here, but one nugget that did come out of it for me and explained a lot was the contemporary legal limitations on the Nottingham authorities which prevented an effective response to the events of Arnold on 11th March 1811: the Nottingham City authorities simply had no remit to stray over the Nottinghamshire County borders without obtaining permission from the Home Office - obviously impossible at such short notice.

Given that one of the Thoroton Society's most famous scholars is the author of several works about Luddism, Malcolm Thomis, it's perhaps unsurprising then that the conclusion that John Beckett reached chimes with Thomis' ultimately conservative historical analysis - that the Luddites were simply opposed to change, and that any resistance to innovation can only succeed in the short-term. There's a certain amount of truth to that - Luddites did oppose changes that would reduce them to penury & destitution, and who can blame them? Thomis saw the Luddites as apolitical and reactionary, and whilst Beckett didn't exactly go quite that far, one joke aimed at his conservative audience ('small c' but particularly 'big C') went down well, but was actually ahistorical and ignorant - he joked that perhaps local miners and Arthur Scargill had Luddite DNA, given the Miners' Strike of 1984-1985 . No doubt E.P. Thompson would delight in the parallels being drawn between the potentially revolutionary actions of Miners in the 1980s and the pseudo-revolutionary actions of the Luddites 170 years before, but that isn't what Beckett meant. The irony is that Nottinghamshire was the home of the scab Union, the Union of Democratic of Mineworkers - whilst their members may well indeed be ancestors of Nottinghamshire Luddites, their actions in breaking the strike 25 years ago prove they have nothing else in common with them, a parallel conveniently missed by professor Beckett.

In the meantime, let's hope there's a veritable festival of events to look forward to in Nottingham come November 2011, the anniversary of things getting really serious in the area 200 years ago.

1 comment:

  1. Great article as normal - the NUM miners did compare themselves with the Luddites mainly in the correct idealism of protecting their rights, wages and looking after their community.

    Not all Nottinghamshire pits were UDM, Manton for example was classed as a South Yorkshire coalface so was NUM.

    The police can quite rightly be compared to the local militia/cavalry though - arrogant and wanting to cause a fight with the peaceful demonstrations. To call the UDM a scab union is unfair though - a ballot was taken by the NUM and they voted to go back to work. the NUM rejected this vote and the party had a huge rift that let to its seperation. Pit villages still carry this divisional scar.

    And yes most historians are old - go to any conference and its a veritable feast of combovers and grey hair :)