In retracing the steps of the Jarrow march of 1936, Stuart Maconie finds that much of the past remains with us
Monday 24 July 2017
“Our people shall not be starved … If we cannot do this, what use are we as a Labour party?’ asked Jarrow’s MP, Ellen Wilkinson, at the Labour party conference in October 1936. To make her speech she had dashed to the conference in Edinburgh from the route of the Jarrow Crusade, an event that has “stitched itself into the warp and weft of British history”, as Stuart Maconie elegantly puts it. Jarrow, an industrial town on the south bank of the Tyne, had seen the closure of its steelworks and shipyard, leaving 80% of its population unemployed. Wilkinson helped organise a march of 200 men from Jarrow to London, to present a petition to parliament demanding jobs.
The question Wilkinson posed encapsulates the thrust of Maconie’s Long Road from Jarrow, a social commentary reflecting on the parallels between the 1930s and today, as he retraces the steps of the marchers. His book is an exercise in giving the mundane its beautiful due, to use John Updike’s phrase.
Walking for most of the journey, Maconie traverses the contours of A-roads and rambling countryside from north to south, meeting a wide range of people along the way. He speaks to a restless waiter in a Ferryhill curry house about his “feeling that there must be something more, something else out there”, who has an urge “to see a bit of the world”, but resolves: “I suppose I’ll stay here.” He talks to a member of the Darlington Women’s Institute, who as a little girl in 1936 became convinced that a tent peg she found in a field belonged to the marchers. In Wakefield, he reflects on the role of religion in establishing communities as he receives the generous hospitality of the Sikh Gurdwara. And in Bedford, he learns of the family history of a pizzeria waiter in “the little Italian provincial town”, formed by a wave of immigration during the 1950s.
The book is a celebration of a certain kind of approach to politics – one of sympathy and personal connection with working-class people – which was championed by one of the first women in parliament, Ellen Wilkinson. She was a passionate feminist and socialist committed to the Labour party and to advancing the position of the working classes. Earning the nickname “Red Ellen” owing to both her politics and her flaming red hair, by 1936 she had become one of the most famous women in the country.
As Maconie’s book attests, the question posed by Wilkinson in 1936 is just as relevant for Labour now as it was then. In 1936, economic depression, unemployment and hunger were everywhere. One of the marchers was witnessed packing the ham from a sandwich he had been given into an envelope to send back home for his wife and children, who hadn’t eaten meat in weeks. Today, while unemployment levels are low, we live in a society in which work does not guarantee the absence of poverty, with a sharp rise in self-employment and zero-hour contracts; under austerity, the number of people going to food banks has soared with the Trussell Trust giving out more than a million food parcels last year. As Maconie writes: “The 30s in some ways start to look very much like Britain today, once you’ve wiped away the soot and coaldust.”
Maconie argues that class is still the defining division of British society. He also reflects upon the north-south divide as he travels from the ex-industrial northern towns of Jarrow, Ferryhill (“a mining town with no pit”) and Barnsley, to the southern market towns and suburbs of Market Harborough and Edgware. With London receiving £5,000 more per head of capital investment than the north-east, it is no wonder that marginalised northern communities voted predominantly to leave the EU in 2016. In the aftermath of the closure of the mines and the emasculation of the trade unions by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, once cohesive communities have been dissolved and fractionalised. Wilkinson saw the impact that this dislocation had on Jarrow in 1936 and you can see it today in many towns across northern Britain. Mining communities in their heyday cultivated social bonds and a sense of intimacy that have since been eroded. Maconie recalls that in a conversation with a group of ex-miners, one of them could still remember the pit number of every single one of his fellow workers.
In 1936, Labour was so anxious to dissociate itself from what it considered to be communist hunger marches that it condemned the Jarrow Crusade. Two years earlier Ramsay McDonald, then leader of the National government, had urged Wilkinson to look at the bigger picture: “Ellen, why don’t you go and preach socialism, which is the only remedy for this?” Wilkinson viewed such a response as “sham sympathy”, devoid of human feeling and connection with the very people who sustained the life force of the Labour party. Yet simultaneously, she recognised that the poverty of her own constituency was part of a bigger picture that demanded urgent reform: “Jarrow’s plight is not a local problem … it is the symptom of a national evil.” The personal was political.
When Wilkinson and the rain-battered marchers arrived in London after 26 days on the road to present their petition to parliament, the Conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, refused to meet them. Wilkinson was grief-stricken by the abandonment of her constituents by parliament and her party, and was seen “sobbing broken-heartedly” in a quiet street near Westminster.
The last survivor of the Jarrow march, Con Shiels, who died in 2012, said it “had made not one hap’orth of difference” and had been a waste of time. It may not have been a political victory, but it was a personal one; it re-established social bonds between people – the marchers and their communities at home. When Wilkinson returned to Jarrow, she was greeted by waves of cheering and triumphant crowds. As someone Maconie spoke to in a pub in Ferryhill recognised: “It achieved something in that we’re talking to you about it now.” And in talking about it by walking in their footsteps, by viewing the march through the filter of “the roads, tracks, streets and riverbanks they walked … the pews, pubs, cafes, and halls they visited”, Maconie’s book is not only a heartfelt tribute to Wilkinson and the marchers, but a reaffirmation of the role of the personal within the political, and a rallying call for anyone stirred by the story of Jarrow.
• Long Road from Jarrow: A Journey Through Britain Then and Now by Stuart Maconie is published by Ebury (£16.99).