The Blanket

A Case for Class Politics
Further Reflections on the Somme

Billy Mitchell

I am constantly being told that the only thing that loyalists should be concerned about is the maintenance of the Union. The message that is increasingly being levelled at the Progressive Unionist Party is “All this talk about working class issues has nothing whatever to do with the loyalist cause”. It is as if the maintenance of the union is somehow an end in itself rather than a means to an end.

We constantly talk about our “British way of life” as if it was something written in tablets of stone by Britannia and set in concrete never to be improved upon. Those who think like that appear to regard culture and social structures as something that is static and unchangeable. The truth of the matter is that both are evolutionary processes which progressive citizens will engage in as a means of developing a way of life that truly reflects the wishes and the changing needs of the people. Societies that refuse to change will stagnate and die.

Reflections on the origins of the First World War, and on the class structure of the military High Command that directed allied military operations, provided a vision for social change that has still to be fully realised within the United Kingdom. The horrors of that war challenged the peoples of these islands to think again about the nature of British society. Notwithstanding two centuries of ‘liberalism’ society at the beginning of the Great War was rooted in a class system that militated against the development of a genuine egalitarian society.

The class structures of British society at the time were replicated in Kitchener’s Army, with devastating results in terms of the loss of human life and national trauma. The incompetence of that structure - summarised in the indictment that British soldiers were “lions led by donkeys” - resulted in the unnecessary slaughter of thousands of British and Irish servicemen on the battlefields of Europe.

This led many within the army to question the class system upon which the military structure was based. Some of the most poignant reflections on the incompetence of the military High Command, and indeed of reasons for the whole 1914-1918 debacle, are to be found in the diaries, letters and poetry of soldiers and chaplains who served with honour in the front lines. Such writings ought to be set as essential reading material for the political cadres of loyalism. Even before the war was over it was clear that class distinctions both within the army and at home were being challenged. An entry in Vera Brittain’s diary for 28/9/1915 notes that “class distinctions slip away and are lost in this great community of anxiety”.

In the aftermath of the slaughter the diarists, poets and chaplains were joined by others who began to seriously question the class structures of society as a whole. It was becoming increasingly clear that the “land fit for heroes” to return to was nothing more than empty rhetoric, and there was growing disenchantment with a closed class system that thrived on marginalisation and social exclusion.

The struggle for social justice and for the full political, social and economic emancipation of the working classes is an integral part of a vision for a new British way of life that emerged following the Great War. Notwithstanding the many gains made by the Labour and Trade Union Movement, that vision has never been realised. Class may no longer be tied to birth and blood yet the divisions of class, and the inequality which these divisions bring, are as real as ever.

According to the latest ILO Report more and more British citizens are falling into the poverty trap than ever before, and the World Labour Report 2000 singles out the United Kingdom as offering less protection against unemployment, ill health or old age than other western European countries. That the United Kingdom is ranked twentieth out of twenty-three countries for child poverty is evidence in itself that we have a long way to go.

A loyalism that cherishes equal citizenship for all within the United Kingdom - and why else would we desire citizenship, if it is not to be equal citizenship? - has a duty to work to close those divisions. Equal citizenship must mean equality of both opportunity and outcomes. Nothing less will do. Class divisions which lead to social exclusion, marginalisation and inequality can only be addressed through class politics.

That is the way the world works. That is the legacy which we have inherited from those who had a vision for wholesale social reconstruction in the aftermath of the debacle that left thousands of our kith and kin dead and dying amidst the mud and the blood of Passchendaele, Messines, and the Somme.

Geographical Unionism is simply a means to an end. The ultimate goal of Unionism must be for a social and political Union of citizens who are committed to the development of a genuine social democracy and an end to social inequality and class divisions. That is what real politics is all about. My political Unionism is a matter of free choice, my class is a matter of birth and inheritance. My loyalty within the Union is a class loyalty.





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The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies but also to hate his friends.
- Friedrich Nietzsche

Index: Current Articles

14 July 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


A Case for Class Politics

Billy Mitchell


Tim Lopes - Poor, Black, Journalist

Anthony McIntyre


Pretty Vacant



11 July 2002


In Memory of a Storm Trooper

Billy Mitchell


States of Failure

Ciarán Irvine


Colombian 3 - What Chance of Justice
Sean Smyth

So Many Monuments...

Brian Mór

Lord Alex on the job
Brian Mór




The Blanket




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The Blanket Magazine Winter 2002
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