Friday, January 27, 2017

Steven Parfitt's "Knights Across the Atlantic"

Steven Parfitt teaches history at the Universities of Nottingham, Loughborough and Derby, and is an active University and College Union member. Here he shares some thoughts on an adaptation of his first book, Knights Across the Atlantic: The Knights of Labor in Britain and Ireland:
It pains me to say it, but the British and Irish Knights of Labor are not likely to get their own movie anytime soon. The problem is not finding interesting characters. Hadyn Sanders, for instance, became the first socialist town councillor in Britain, was often removed from his own meetings by the police, and referred to his fellow councillors as “bald-headed and pot-bellied… more fond of guzzling than justice.” The problem is that the British and Irish Knights were the offshoot of a much larger American organisation, and only lasted for ten years. They never led strikes and political campaigns on anything like the scale of their American brothers and sisters. Without those kinds of dramatic events our movie would have to take a lot of liberties with the historical record.

But the British and Irish Knights were also associated with one of the great upheavals in British labour and political history, the “New Unionism.” Hundreds of thousands of British workers joined unions and went on strike between 1886 and 1891. A large proportion of them were previously unorganised and worked in some of the worst paid jobs in the country. Women entered the unions in unprecedented numbers. The wave of strikes and union organising subsided after 1891, but within ten years Britain had a Labour Party, and the whole politics of the country began to change for the better.

This is a movement that has not yet found its movie.

With everything that has happened recently, from the financial crisis and austerity to Brexit and Trump, we could do with a movie on a subject like that – and a reminder that ordinary people can shape history too. For this reason I would entrust our movie about the New Unionism to Ken Loach, the acclaimed British director.

His last movie, I, Daniel Blake, took an older, unemployed man and a young single mother through the British benefit system, with its sanctions, its contradictions, and the misery that flows from it. Having presented poor Britons here as the victims of an uncaring state, Loach might now want to direct a movie that presents them as subjects, who have the power to defend themselves and build something better.

Loach has already made movies about the Labour Party’s achievements between 1945 and 1951, and about the heroism of ordinary people in Britain and other countries over the years. Why not go sixty years earlier than The Spirit of ‘45? He could even draw on the same cast of actors that he used for I, Daniel Blake. Their faces would then represent ordinary people as subjects of history rather than its victims. People might be encouraged into action, rather than harrowed into apathy. Loach, at least, might be relieved to know that the casualization of British university teaching leaves this author with time to spare, if a historical consultant should be needed.
Learn more about Knights Across the Atlantic at the Liverpool University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue