Left for the Rising Sun, Right for Swan Hunter
The Plebs League in the North East of England 1908/1926
by Robert Turnbull
Pubs. Five Leaves Publications
This slim booklet is a gem of historical research and provides a fascinating, if frustratingly short, insight into the role of worker education not only in the North East but in the country as whole during the latter half of the 19th into the 20th century.
As Turnbull explains in his introduction, ‘I hope this book is a contribution to our history…but also a reminder that education is a right and not a privilege and that the struggle for liberty and equality by previous generations are built on and renewed. In the North East region… we have seen libraries closed, the bedroom tax imposed…cuts to benefits, the disabled and unemployed scapegoated…in some of the most vindictive and cruel attacks by a ruling elite, certainly in my lifetime’.
So how can we fight back in the face of such ruling class onslaughts and how can examining our history help? There are no easy answers, but such books as this can still offer inspiration and unique insight.
Turnbull concentrates on the emergence of the Plebs League and a number of other working class self-education initiatives which were established by working people in order to provide them with the intellectual tools to better understand and change their own lives. Such education was instrumental in helping large sections of the working class break their ties with a paternalistic Liberalism and led to the foundation of real socialist organisations like the ILP, the Labour and Communist parties. While the dreams and hopes of that generation were not realised, those organisations did play a key role in educating a whole generation of working class leaders and underlined the vital role of education as a means of liberation and enlightenment. And those aims are still valid, as the recent autobiography of the comedian Paul Merton reveals. Education is still today key to liberating working class children from often low self-esteem and being categorised as ‘low achievers’. Children learn social scripts early on and these can be more inhibiting than even material disadvantages, as he shows.
The author and Five Leaves should be congratulated on making this unique history once again available to us today, both as a necessary reminder and a challenge.