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In its attitude to World War I, the British working class showed that it was no more capable of separating itself from the national aspirations of its bourgeoisie than the European working class. There were no mass movement against the war once it had been declared (though literally the day before Ramsay Macdonald had addressed a monster meeting in Trafalgar Square about how the working class would resist the war). However, unlike the European working class it not only proved able during the war to defend its interests economically, it also extended its control over the production process. It was also able to assert and win the demand that its level of subsistence should not be subject to the vagaries of the market (rents and food prices). 

The shop steward movement in the engineering industry was a reaction to the increased need for working class representation on the shop floor; arising from the need for increased production (a need which seemed never-ending even to those captains of industry called upon to provide the increase). This need had to be met by introducing greater division of labour, substitution of unskilled labour, and new production techniques. The engineers demanded and received a promise from the Government and employers (not without a series of strikes) that these changes would be wiped out at the end of the war and that production would continue after the war as if the new techniques had never happened. The employers were as good as their word and G.D.H. Cole records in 1921 this fact with not a little wonder. It was only when the force of the world market compelled British employers to reintroduce these techniques that the bitter economic struggles of the late 20s and 30s ensued.


The need for more centralised organisation in Britain did not result in the creation of a European bureaucracy, whose power came from its own institution and which [was? - PB] regulated from above. The need was met by the application of the voluntary principle, i.e. those who needed the regulating did it themselves, guided by the needs and demands of "public opinion" as expressed in Parliament, the newspapers, the trade unions etc, and were put on "their honour" to do what was expected. In the case of the economic struggle, the working class refused to deal with the employers; and the Government was forced to provide "fair and honest brokers" to regulate production. The working class refused to let the employers be self-regulating because they did not trust "their honour".

Lloyd George went to Glasgow in 1915 as Minister for Munitions boasting that he would be able to make the workers see sense, and accept dilution, pegged wages and more effort. Instead he found himself confronted with a unanimous refusal by the workers to be addressed by him and the demand that he should meet their "self-appointed" leaders, the shop stewards committee. His silver-tongued rhetoric never had a chance. He had to meet the shop stewards who put a demand for workers control. The shop stewards committee accepted the Government's concession of taking collective bargaining out of the employers' hands altogether and its substitution of dilution commissioners appointed by the Government who could agree bargains with shop stewards to increase production. This was the case in the engineering industry throughout Britain.


In his biography of Disraeli written in 1890, the Tory Christian historian J.A. Froude comments on the change in the bourgeoisie's consciousness: 

"From the Restoration downwards the owners of land began to surround themselves with luxuries, and the employers of labour to buy it at the cheapest rate. Selfishness became first a practice and then developed boldly into a theory [...] Every man was to be set free and do the best which he could for himself. [...] Competition became the sole rule of trade [...] artisans and labourers were taught to believe that they would gain as largely as the capitalists. They had been bondsmen; they were all now free, and all would benefit alike. Yet somehow all did not benefit alike [...] Discontent broke out in ugly forms [...] They were told they must keep the peace and help themselves. Their labour was an article which they had to sell, and the value of it was fixed by relations between supply and demand. Man could not alter the laws of nature, which political economists had finally discovered. Political economy has since been banished to the exterior planets; but fifty years ago to doubt was heresy, to deny was a crime to be censured in all the newspapers." (pp.77-8) 

"The remedy of the economists (50 years ago to working class distress, NS) was to heat the furnace still hotter, to abolish every lingering remnant of restraint, and stifle complaint by admitting the working men to political power. The enlightened amongst the rich were not afraid for they were entrenched, as they believed, behind their law of nature. In its contracts with labour, capital must always have the advantage; for capital could wait and hungry stomachs could not wait." (p.79)