Monday, 20 May 2019

Florence Boos at Kelmscott House

‘I’m with the people … the working class people who have been left behind economically … The elites have tried to silence my own voice … I’ll represent you, the working class of England … just another millionaire stockbroker who looks down at the working classes’.  These remarks are not, as you might have thought, quotations from the uncollected Morris lectures that Professor Florence Boos eloquently set before us at the Morris Society AGM on Saturday.  At that event the admirable socialist content of her talk made a welcome contrast with its politically anodyne first half, devoted as that was to Society business and chaired by Stephen Bradley.

No, the class-oriented quotations above are from the European election leaflet from notorious far-right activist Tommy Robinson that I found on my doormat a few days ago.  Fascism is clearly now on the move in this country in a way and to a depth that we haven’t seen for some years; and its rhetoric cunningly ventriloquises aspects of socialism’s own appeal to working-class people.  We always knew there were nasty, dangerous, far-right individuals out there.  Now, however, as Robinson’s North-West election leaflet shows, they have serious money and organisation behind them.

This alarming fact suggests that we recalibrate the purposes of the William Morris Society.  While celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Kelmscott Chaucer in 2021 is a worthy project in itself, at a time of political emergency such as our own, when the Brexit impasse is allowing the far-right to emerge again (though this is, of course, a global as well as a British trend), a society devoted to the life and work of Britain’s foremost Communist will need to be rather more politically interventionist than that.  It should surely also aim to renew left-wing and utopian thinking in the present – a task in which recovering it from the past, as Florence Boos so skilfully did, is a necessary first step.


Martin Stott said...

The Society has been doing a good job at promoting Morris's ideas in a contemporary context - Stephen Bradley in his review of the year mentioned the event with the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity at which both Ruth Levitas and Rowan Williams spoke to an audience of 250+, and its membership has been consistently on the increase over the past few years. This is in striking contrast to practically every other membership-based charity in the land. The WMS must be doing something right. But, and it is a big but, it is a charity and as such cannot engage in explicitly political actions. Its work is about influencing, acting as a thought leader. Political action is for other contexts - influenced by their knowledge of Morris. But as a former trustee of the Society you know that.

Tony Pinkney said...

“There were those in the Society who were firmly against its officers or the Society as a whole engaging in any form of political activity or public controversy … those who argued for the Society’s involvement in contemporary political debates were argued down by those who thought that this would split the Society (Minutes 21/3/64)”, Martin Crick, ‘The History of the William Morris Society 1955-2005’ (2011), pp.34, 56.

Tony Pinkney said...

On the European Election front, I'm glad to be able to report that Tommy Robinson got only 2.2% of the vote in the North-West (38,908 votes), which meant that he finished in eighth place behind all the major parties and lost his £5000 deposit into the bargain. So Fascism has been stopped in its tracks up here for a while, electorally at least.