Terry Liddle (South London Republican Forum) describes the opposition to Victoria’s Golden Jubilee celebrations
The year 1887 opened with rioting by the unemployed in Norwich. Two members of the Socialist League were arrested and later imprisoned. The Socialist League was a split by members including Eleanor Marx, from the Social Democratic Federation, Britain’s first Marxist organisation, William Morris and Belfort Bax, who could no longer stomach the dictatorship of H.M. Hyndman. By 1887 the Republican agitation of the 1870’s was but a memory but the tradition of staunch opposition from below to the monarchy was kept alive by the new-born groups of socialists, particularly the Socialist League. Some Socialist League members, such as Joseph Lane had cut their political teeth in Charles Dilke’s earlier Radical republican campaign. The Socialist League aimed at the realisation of complete Revolutionary Socialism.
On January 12th, 1887, at a Liberal Party meeting, the national anthem was hissed and members of the audience cried out for the Marseillaise. This was a period of labour unrest. In April 1887, William Morris, who edited the Socialist League’s paper Commonweal, travelled to Northumberland to address a crowd of 10,000 striking miners. A demonstration for the miners, organised by the Glasgow Socialist League, attracted 20,000 people. This was also the period of the grab for Africa, when the imperialist powers of Europe were annexing every acre of land they could occupy. War was raging in the Sudan, a war the socialists of the time bitterly opposed. At an anti-war meeting Morris caused a stir when he attempted to move an amendment stating that the Sudan had been invaded in the interests of capitalists who wished to exploit it.
Policy of coercion
In Ireland the government continued its long-term policy of coercion against nationalists. When William O’Brien and John Manderville organised a meeting to oppose this policy they were summoned. At a preliminary hearing in Mitchelstown, County Tipperary, scuffles broke out and the police opened fire, killing two men and wounding several others. O’Brien was later imprisoned.
In March of the same year, socialists organised the anniversary celebration of the Paris Commune. The English translation of the first volume of Marx’s Capital had appeared. On April 11th there was a mass demonstration, over a 100,000 strong in Hyde Park, against the Irish Coercion Bill. Under its terms the Irish Land League was outlawed. Any manifestation of Irish nationalism was treated as an outrage. Gladstone spoke for the Liberals, George Bernard Shaw for the Fabians and Tom Burns for the Social Democratic Federation. Eleanor Marx and Edward Aveling spoke from the Socialist League platform.
The agitators of the Socialist League had been hard at it, speaking at numerous meetings, particularly those of the Radical Clubs. Aveling held a series of classes at Plumstead Radical Club. The Radicals constituted a working class left wing of Liberalism and socialists were trying to win them over. The Plumstead Radical Club, for example, would eventually affiliate to the Labour Party.
The Radicals felt a great affinity for the Irish. The Patriotic Club, nowadays, Marx House, held a meeting on Clerkenwell Green to protest the landlords’ rack-renting and evictions. A delegation of Radicals had visited Ireland to express their solidarity with the small farmers’ struggles there.
On May 14th, Victoria went to the East End to open the so-called People’s Palace. This was a bourgeois philanthropic scheme to bring art and culture to the deprived masses of the area, without, of course, improving their wages, working or housing conditions. All along the route she was jeered. To the socialists she was Empress Brown, a title given by William de Morgan, after she had been crowned Empress of India. It was rumoured that after the death of her husband, Victoria not only sought spiritual consolation from her Scottish servant, John Brown, a powerful medium, but also shared his bed, even having his illegitimate child.
William Morris first came into conflict with the monarchy in the 1870’s when he opposed the efforts of the ruling class to drag Britain into another war with Russia, something Victoria greatly favoured.
At last on June 21st there dawned the great day of Victoria’s golden jubilee. Some 26,000 children were entertained in Hyde Park and a twelve year old girl was presented with an award by Victoria in person. Crowned heads from Europe and beyond came to attend the celebrations as well as Presidents from several republics. An envoy from the Pope was also present.
Hypocrisy & corruption
At the bottom of the social pyramid, the jubilee was far from popular. The Metropolitan Radical Federation issued an appeal for an anti-jubilee service on June 19th. The Socialist League issued a leaflet subtitled A word on the class war, outlining the technological advances of the previous fifty years and saying that Victoria, a mean old woman, had not had a hand in any of them. At a meeting in Llanelli, Victoria’s name was greeted with hissing. Neath Town Council refused to pay for any celebrations and Cardiff Trades Council refused to participate. A meeting in Bristol, addressed by socialists, carried two militant republican resolutions.
Writing in the Commonweal, William Morris stated,
The powers that be are determined to show what a nuisance the monarchy and court can be as a centre of hypocrisy and corruption, and the densest form of stupidity.
He returned to the attack in the issue for June 25th. Whilst stating that it would benefit socialists little if the abolition of the monarchy gave place to a middle class republic, he felt it necessary to vent his anger at what he called tomfoolery and monstrous stupidity.
At least some people benefited from the Jubilee – in India, 23,000 prisoners were set free.
The pioneer socialists had to fight hard to carry out their activities. Open air meetings were often broken up by the police and speakers fined. In November a demonstration to protest at O’Brien’s imprisonment was savagely suppressed and William Cutner, a member of the Deptford Radical Society, which had a staunch Republican tradition, was killed, along with two others. Cutner’s funeral was closed with a song penned by William Morris. Socialists continued to attack the monarchy. In 1893 two members of the Commonweal Group were heavily fined for flyposting an attack on a royal wedding. Kier Hardie lambasted the monarchy in parliament and in his paper, the Labour Leader. The socialists who controlled Battersea Council, refused to celebrate Edward VII’s coronation and Edward was attacked in the pages of The Socialist, which became the paper of the new SDF breakaway, the Socialist Labour Party. The Social Democratic Federation included the abolition of the monarchy and the Lords in its 1903 edition of its programme.
In the 1930’s the Daily Worker regularly published brilliant anti monarchy cartoons. These were the work of Desmond Rowney, who was killed in action defending Republican Spain.
By 1977, at the time of Mrs Windsor’s silver jubilee, republicanism outside of Ireland was at a low ebb. However, republicans gathered in the rain on Blackheath, to celebrate the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and the Chartist demonstrations held there in the 1840’s. An anti-jubilee event in East London was attacked by fascists. The SWP did a good trade in Stuff the Jubilee badges. These haven’t yet reappeared.
This time round the monarchist ardour is on the wane. A celebration of the life and work of the Red Republican, George Julian Harney, has already taken place. On May 30th, the Socialist Alliance will be holding an anti-Jubilee rock concert in Brixton. And there will be Thomas Paine and Charles Bradlaugh celebrations in June and a meeting on Bradlaugh in Bromley in April. On May 25th there will be a march and meeting to remember the heroic struggle of Bobby Sands. There will be a strong anti monarchist element in the Socialist Alliance local election campaign in May. The war in Afghanistan is far from popular and the prospect of war in Iraq even less so. Mrs Windsor’s jubilee could well be the last!