This is an unusual view of British society, there are certain facts that appear difficult to assimilate. Throughout the twentieth century Britain has been in a constant state of change. there have been waves of immigration; Jews from Russia and Poland, successive waves of immigration from Ireland, the displacement of people during the 1 World War and the much greater movement of people after the 2 World War from the devastated countries of Eastern Europe. Yet we like to think of ourselves as a homogenous British group that we have been since the days of the Norman Conquest a thousand years ago. Two groups that are largely missed out from this story are those who came on the Empire Windrush in the 1940s from the West Indies and those who came from India and Pakistan, from what was then the British Empire.
Another subject mentioned only briefly was Britain’s leading part in the inhuman Slave Trade for two hundred years. Some British families got exceedingly rich and set up their very large estates on the profits of this trade between Africa and the Caribbean. Some beautiful mansions were embellished with paintings and elaborate furniture bought with the profits of treating human beings as if they were bits of machinery to be used ceaselessly and thrown aside when their usefulness came to an end. Historically Britain’s part in the slave trade has been minimised to the point of being a footnote. Maybe generations have to pass before we can face the full horror of what we have done.
Of course we know that workers in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries worked in appallingly dangerous conditions: in the mines, in the factories, on the land and in the ships. The only issue that mattered was Profit. The workers were not owned by the coal owner, instead it was a kind of serfdom. The programme ‘Black and British: a Forgotten History’ by the historian David Olusoga on BBC2 was brilliantly done. I’m looking forward to episode 2 tonight.
Young babies learn amazingly quickly when they are hungry they cry and someone feeds them, when they are wet someone changes them. At the same time the baby responds to mother by gurgling and smiling at this caring person. The caring person responds in very much the same way and also by adding some words: whose a beautiful baby then. Very quickly mother and baby are communicating with words. Some time later Bill or Sue will learn to walk and then walking and talking will develop with astonishing rapidity. Much of this learning is a one to one business, one person speaks and the other listens, they take turns. Sitting in front of a television set is completely different. There is no to-ing and fro-ing , the programme has no interest in the person watching whether that person is two years old or eighty-two. It is totally unresponsive.
I heard on the radio that some children in England starting school in their fifth year are scarcely able to talk. Teachers expect children to follow simple instructions and to be able to respond using brief sentences. It is inexpressibly sad that young children in a rich country like this one start school at such a terrible disadvantage. There is a view that the education of poor children is an unnecessary expense because they will get ideas above their station. In this rapidly changing world who knows what skills and knowledge will be required in 20 or 30 years. Countries where only a small wealthy elite are educated like Saudi Arabia or Syria tend to develop very unhappy populations ripe for any demagogue who appears. What follows is hundreds if not thousands of deaths and a society always in poverty. In countries where the education of every child matters for example Finland, Sweden or The Netherlands populations, societies are at the forefront of modern developments and their societies are peaceful and prosperous.
Documentary on BBC2 17/10/2016.
The phrase ‘the past is another country’ describes in very few words the strangeness and absence of familiar landmarks which studying in detail our own past of a hundred and fifty years ago. The circumstances of everyday life; living conditions, working, eating and sleeping are so different from anything we know today it could be the Brazilian rain forest or life in the Arctic snows of Greenland. For anyone interested in family history like me it is relatively easy to go back a hundred and fifty years and discover where my ancestors were and what they were doing. Of course the words written down on the page have nothing like the huge visual impact of seeing living people living in one dirty depressing room, no bright colours, no soft furnishings, broken windows, nothing to look at at all.
The narration by Michael Mosely filled in some of the extremely harsh facts which formed the background to the lives of the families flooding into London at that time. My ancestors came to the industrial towns of the North-east of England in search of work, mostly from the more rural parts of the country. A hundred years later Parliament recognised the huge gap in living conditions between the 1% of the very wealthy and the poverty of the vast majority of ordinary people. There had been talk and actions by the trade unions to improve the lives of working people. Most members of Parliament were very much against the amelioration of working peoples lives but the Lloyd George Liberal government passed the first Old Age Pensions Act of 1908, a non-contributory scheme paid to those over 70 (the deserving poor) and in 1911 the first National Insurance Act, a contributory scheme to pay out sickness benefit for a regulated time to the worker to ill to work. This was the beginning of the Welfare State.
Mosely mentioned in the programme that the average age of death was 40 years and many people did not survive beyond 20 years and many children died of malnutrition and infectious diseases. The broader aspects of the Welfare State were debated in the early years of the 2nd World War when there was a Coalition Government. The Labour Party was keen to introduce a system of health care for everyone, free at the point of need; an improved free system of secondary education to continue until the age of fifteen and support for those too ill to work. The Conservative Party appeared willing to go along with these ideas in order to get the cooperation of everyone in the efforts to defeat Hitler and bring an end to the war.