It’s always intriguing when one learns something new about one’s own country; especially when that new insight is given by one of the best historians of the generation.
That’s exactly what we received when our newly-appointed Professor of Public History Michael Wood swapped the television set for the lecture theatre in the first of a succession of ‘conversations’ with notable historians, questioning historian-turned- Labour MP Tristram Hunt on his works: Victorian Britain and Communist thinker Friedrich Engels.
Mr Hunt’s work has given a historical analysis on society and life in Victorian Britain and in particular Manchester, somewhere Engels eventually settled in the 1840s. Mr Hunt recounted how Engels and Marx strode around the streets of Manchester, with Engels reporting to Marx both the views and opinions of workers embroiled in their daily struggles and the dangers of Manchester’s factories.
Perhaps most interesting was that it was Manchester where the leftist movement rose to prominence in the early Victorian era. The working class factions and workers wanted political freedom and an end to poverty, as well as representation in a parliament dominated by landowners and aristocrats. When the workers rose up as one they were violently quashed in the infamous ‘Peterloo Massacre’. Engels, Hunt said, was intrigued. But as the century wore on, the German found he was increasingly frustrated at the British ‘acceptance’ of the status-quo. He wanted a revolution, which would never happen in Britain.
Why was this? Why did Britain not follow its closest neighbour France in overthrowing the elites? Mr Hunt’s second book Building Jerusalem revolved around this issue. Liberal MP Joseph Chamberlain was one of the iconic statesmen cited one who made a real difference to local communities. The increasing involvement of local authorities in aiding poorer people seemed to be the over-riding reason for the socialist left to accept the continuing change in society; municipal socialism helped millions of families to gain access to water, electricity, health and education.
The conversation provided an outlook from different eyes: Engels, Marx and the people directly involved in the changes to British society. It was a fascinating insight into an interesting element of not just overarching British history, but something prominent in our very own Manchester too.