Lord Morris of Handsworth: Inspirational Victorians

Inspirational Victorians
Thursday 7 June 2012
Lord Morris of Handsworth OJ DL

When I was asked to talk tonight about people from whom I have drawn inspiration, my immediate reaction was “easy”.  In fact I identified those about whom I wished to speak very quickly, and I was pleased to find the images of all but one here in the National Portrait Gallery.

But I also began to wonder what I meant by inspiration.  What is it about some people that inspires me?

I concluded that I am inspired by a philosophy of life which I share, and which is used to make a contribution to some aspects of society.

The people I have chosen are leaders, and I draw inspiration and strength from their actions – their words carry weight.  And when faced with a situation which taxes me, I am able to reference what I believe would be their response to similar situations.

But perhaps you will forgive me for starting by talking about my own background, because that might explain why I am inspired by particular people.

I was born in Jamaica in a small rural village called Bombay.  My mother was a voluntary domestic science teacher, my stepfather a farmer and part-time police officer.  My parents were not rich, but they gave me more than money – they gave me ambition, and they gave me self-belief.

The four institutions which guided my life were my family, my community, my church and my school.  Between them they gave me stability and security, and they taught me responsibility.   Most of all they gave me my moral compass which has guided me throughout my life.

In our village, every adult took responsibility for every child – each adult had a right to discipline you, but they also had a duty to protect you.

The most influential person in my life was my grandmother.  She saw no challenge as too great and never took “no” for an answer.  Her attitude was simple:  “you can do it”.  So you did.

As a result, when I arrived in England aged 16 I had developed a sense of duty and responsibility, but more than that - a sense of self-belief.  When any task seemed too great, I remembered my grandmother’s words – “you can do it”.

Sadly there is no photograph or painting of my grandmother to put on the screen, but to this day she remains my first and lasting inspiration.

Once I had arrived in Birmingham, I studied engineering skills on day-release at Handsworth Technical College.  Work came at Hardy Spicers Limited where I joined the Transport and General Workers’ Union.

I was elected a workplace representative and later to the General Executive Council - the governing body of the Union.

My first real test came when I applied to become an employee of the Union in the West Midlands.  I was told subsequently that the union “wasn’t ready for a black officer”.

At this stage I could have screamed racism and found a chip on both my shoulders, but I probably wouldn’t be here this evening.

Instead I remembered my grandmother’s motto:  Never take “no” for an answer. No challenge is too great.  You can do it.

So I set out to prove the Union wrong.

Eventually I went to work for the T&G, and I took every opportunity to learn and to study through day-release and evening classes.

I worked my way up through the ranks of the Union and was elected General Secretary in 1991, a post from which I retired in 2003.

And thanks to the inspiration of my grandmother, the rest, as they say, is history.

As you already know from the Gallery’s “Inspiring Victorians” exhibition, another person from whom I have drawn inspiration is William Cuffay.  Some of you may have heard the BBC Radio 4 documentary on Cuffay which I presented.

As the programme recorded, much of the wealth of Britain was built on the sweated labour of black people, and it is likely that the British Empire grew rich on the fruits of slavery.

It is also likely that my forefathers were taken from Africa to work as slaves on the sugar plantations in Jamaica.

In the 1950s, Britain again relied on the work of migrant labour from across the colonies – that’s when my mother and her brother came to the West Midlands to look for work, to be closely followed by me as a 16 year old.

It is therefore odd that not many leaders emerged from this body of sweated labour.  When I became General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union in 1991, I was the first black member of a trade union to have reached the top.

Like my contemporaries, I am often described as one of the first black leaders of the Labour Movement.  But William Cuffay was ahead of me by about 150 years, and there were other black men – former slaves – who even earlier than Cuffay had been active in the campaign to end slavery.

Cuffay was born on a merchant ship in the West Indies in 1788, the son of a naval cook who was a former slave from St Kitts.  His family settled in Chatham, Kent where he grew up to become a journeyman tailor.

He lost his job when the new tailors’ union went on strike in 1834.  Furious at the way he had been treated, Cuffay became convinced that workers needed to be represented in parliament, and he became involved in the struggle for universal suffrage.

Two years earlier, in 1832, the Reform Act had increased the electorate to about 18% of the total adult-male population in England and Wales.  Very few were working-class men, and women were specifically excluded.

Reformists thought that this was merely a starting point - the demand for more universal suffrage was just beginning. And the Chartist Movement was formed.

Cuffay joined and became an important figure in the London movement.  He was the main organiser of a huge Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common in south London on the 10th April 1848.   There had been Chartist demonstrations previously which had presented petitions calling for universal suffrage and a reformed voting system; some had even been violent.

This latest demonstration was to march to Westminster to present a third Chartist petition containing somewhere between two million and six million signatures. The number is disputed for a variety of reasons – including the fact that all women’s signatures were disregarded.

At this time, the British establishment was horrified as revolution swept across Europe, and the authorities viewed this campaign with great concern. Some of the property-owning classes believed that the Chartists intended revolution.

In fact, so worried was the British establishment that Queen Victoria was sent to the Isle of Wight for her safety, and the Duke of Wellington was brought in to defend London with thousands of soldiers and special constables.

Estimates of the numbers assembled on Kennington Common on 10th April 1848 varied from twenty thousand to two hundred thousand.  This has echoes of more recent demonstrations when there have been discrepancies between the police and demonstrators about numbers!

At the appointed hour for starting the march, the Commissioner of Police told Feargus O’Connor, Leader of the Chartist Movement and MP for Nottingham, that the rally would be allowed to continue, but that no procession to Westminster could take place – soldiers and police were in control of all bridges, and demonstrators would not be allowed to cross.

The Commissioner said that a couple of delegates could take the petition to Westminster by cab.  In fact it took six cabs to transport the petition.

Persuaded that there would be bloodshed if they were to continue, the crowd voted for the proposal, and after many speeches, the meeting broke up, but of course there would be recriminations among the leadership.

Later that year Cuffay became involved in an alleged conspiracy to lead an armed uprising against the government.  Based on the evidence of a government spy who had infiltrated the meeting held in the Orange Tree pub in Red Lion Square, Cuffay was arrested, convicted and sentenced all in one day at the Old Bailey.

He had demanded a fair trial by a jury of his peers in accordance with Magna Carta instead of a jury composed of shopkeepers and professional men.   He was refused.

His sentence was transportation to Tasmania for life.

Three years later, all political prisoners in Tasmania were pardoned, and most returned home.  But Cuffay decided to remain, carrying on his trade as a tailor. Inevitably he again became involved in radical politics and trade union issues.

Cuffay died in poverty in Tasmania in July 1870, and his grave is unmarked. However, I learned recently that Martin Hoyles, who is here with us tonight, has been given permission by Westminster Council to erect a blue plaque to William Cuffay in the Strand where he lived.

I guess I do not need to labour the reasons why I find William Cuffay inspirational.  We share much - including our name:
  • He was the son of a slave; I am probably the great-grandson of a slave.
  • We both came to England and became involved in labour politics.
  • We share the same beliefs in democracy, in equality, in fairness and in the pursuance of social justice
  • We both came to recognise that politics is the engine of change, and the need to raise the political consciousness of workers to achieve that change.
  • On occasions his colour appears to have been an issue.  A report in the Times referred to “the black man and his party”.  But this did not take away his motivation to get things done – he was not afraid to challenge the political orthodoxy of his time. And as some of you may know, I have had my moments too.
I described earlier my experience of being told the union was not ready for a black officer.  Looking back, it was the hurt of rejection based on colour - about which Cuffay and I could do nothing - which motivated me to challenge the T&G by joining the union and to work my way up through the ranks.

But let’s move on to a time closer to us.

As a General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union, how could I not be inspired by the founder of my Union:
  • a Labour Minister during the war
  • one of Britain’s greatest Foreign Secretaries 
  • and someone who brought the Labour and Trade Union movements together from the darkness into the light.
Ernest Bevin was born in 1881 in the West Country and was orphaned at an early age. He received little formal education, and by the age of 11 he was already working as an agricultural labourer.

He soon became a van driver and started the Carters union in Bristol, but later he changed track and became a docker, joining the local branch of the Dockers’ Union where his formidable organising abilities led to his appointment as its national organiser.

Now in London, Bevin saw the importance of organised labour and brought together 19 unions to sign the Amalgamation document which formed the Transport and General Workers Union.

This was a monumental achievement, given that it required bringing together, and holding together, men and women from a wide range of trades and occupations into a single, integrated union structure.

He became the first General Secretary of the Union in 1922, a post he held for 19 years. The T&G quickly became the largest trade union in Britain and to this day remains one of the most influential unions in the TUC and Labour movement.

But his vision – and his persistence – was much greater.  He wanted to build a working class movement which united all workers, and he built Transport House in Smith Square as the headquarters of the Union.

Transport House brought together under one roof the wider Labour and Trade Union movement.  This included the Labour Party, the TUC, the Co-operative bank, Co-operative retail, the Workers Educational Association and the International Transport Workers’ Federation.

All became Bevin’s tenants in Transport House, less than five minutes away from the Houses of Parliament.

In the inter-war years, despite being outside parliament, Bevin was a leading figure in the development of Labour Party strategy and ideology.  He was responsible for ensuring that the claims of organised labour were made central to the ethos and policies of the Labour Party at the time.

In 1940 Bevin took leave of absence from the Union when he was appointed Minister of Labour by Winston Churchill in the wartime coalition government, and he succeeded in transforming Britain into a total war-time economy in which all human and material resources were focused on the war effort.

When Britain declared war in 1939, thousands of experienced miners joined the armed forces or transferred to higher-paid 'war industries'. By the summer of 1943 over 36,000 men had left the coal industry. The government decided that it needed around 40,000 men to replace them.

Ernest Bevin devised a ballot to put a proportion of conscripted men into the collieries rather than the armed forces.

Every month, ten numbers were placed in a hat.  Two were drawn out, and those men whose National Service number ended with one of those drawn were directed to the mining industry. They became known as "The Bevin Boys".

Between 1943 and 1948, 48,000 young men were conscripted for National Service Employment in the British coal mines. Contrary to a common belief at the time, only 41 were conscientious objectors.

The Bevin Boys helped to ease the shortage of coal, but their contribution to the war effort was not formally recognised until 2008 when Gordon Brown, then Prime Minister, awarded each a Commemorative Badge.

In 1945, Bevin became foreign secretary in Clement Attlee's Labour Government and was one of Britain’s longest-serving Foreign Secretaries.

Among the many achievements to which Bevin has been accredited is the shaping of the Marshall Plan, which was crucial in the restructuring of post-war Europe, and he was a central figure in the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation in 1949.

He was also among those who reinvigorated the International Labour Organisation.

Bevin was described as one of the most important creators of the post-war world when he died on 14 April 1951.

At that time I was just 13 and still at school in Jamaica.

But later, when I joined the Union and began to study Union and Labour history, Bevin became a true inspiration for my work.

Although we shared a different political ideology, I admired him for his achievements, and in the world of day-to-day trade unionism I am inspired by his prag-mat-ism.

Not only did he give the Trade Unions and Labour Movement a home, he gave them an agenda which ensured that the voice of organised Labour was heard at the highest table in the land.  It was a philosophy of collective action, co-operation, pooling of resources and a focus which I doubt has been given before or since.

What an act to follow!

When I first became an employee of the Union I worked in different parts of the Midlands.  Later, Transport House in London became my base.  Inevitably there was a “Bevin Room” in the building which could be used for small meetings and quiet thought.

I mostly used it to think through some of the issues and problems we had to face as a union, and I took solace in thinking through how Bevin would have reacted to those situations.

Maybe it was in the Bevin Room in Transport House that I made one of my most difficult decisions as General Secretary.

The building needed to be brought into the 21st century, but structural changes and the removal of asbestos would be expensive.  I therefore decided that we needed to relocate the Union from Bevin’s historic home.

A hard – and unpopular – decision, but one with which I felt sure Bevin would approve, because as a pragmatist Bevin was never without a solution to any problem.

In fact it was once said of Bevin that he was a man with a solution looking for a problem.

The fourth person from whom I draw inspiration is a woman who wouldn’t have had much patience with the men in Parliament who disregarded the signatures of women in the 1848 Chartists petition to which I referred earlier.

In fact she was eight years old before women over 30 received the vote.

I am referring here to Barbara Castle who was born in 1910 and someone it was NEVER easy to disregard!

Barbara was a Labour activist from childhood and was at the heart of the Labour Party in the early 1930s.  In 1945 – at the age of 35, she was elected MP for Blackburn and served as its MP for over 30 years.   At that time she was the youngest woman MP.

Barbara had to fight hard to hold her place in the Labour Party and Government – she was a fiery fighter, radical and flamboyant, and whilst this might have been accepted from a man – the men in the Party found it difficult to accept from a woman.

Many men still believed that the place of women at political meetings was in the kitchen making tea.

I deviate here, to point out that black men are often required to deal with similar assumptions about their role in society.

Some time ago I was standing in my evening suit in the lobby of the Albany Hotel in Birmingham when I was handed a set of keys and told to park the car by a fellow guest.   In response I offered him my keys for parking my car and pointed out that mine was the Jag.

I can imagine Barbara’s response being rather similar.

In 1966 as Secretary of State for Transport, she introduced the breathalyser and seat belts.  As a non-driver and worse, a woman, she was showered with abuse and ridiculed by drivers and interviewers alike.

Two years later as Secretary of State for Employment she was brought in to negotiate a settlement in the battle for equal pay by women sewing machinists at the Ford plant in Dagenham.

The women,  who made car-seat covers,  took industrial action to get their work recognised as skilled and equal to their male colleagues.  The dispute lasted three weeks, and car production came to a standstill, but with Barbara’s intervention they settled for 92% of the rate paid to men.

Barbara continued to fight for equal rights for women and was instrumental in bringing about the Equal Pay Act in 1970.

My campaign to secure not just equal pay but equal rights for temporary and part-time workers through the T&G’s “Link Up” campaign was inspired by Barbara’s doctrine of “fairness not favour”.

Yet in her role as Employment Minister she was frequently in conflict with the trade unions over wage demands and industrial disputes.  In1969 her White Paper, “In Place of Strife”, with its proposals to curtail the power of the trade unions, threatened to cause a major split within the Labour Party.

Despite much opposition from within the Party and the unions, Barbara pressed ahead with her Industrial Relations Bill.  It gave the Secretary of State powers to enforce settlements in inter-union and unofficial disputes, and to enforce penalties for non-compliance.

The TUC opposed the bill, and in an atmosphere of crisis the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson threatened resignation.

However, TUC President, Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones - my own General Secretary at that time, offered a way out through an agreement that the TUC would seek to resolve unofficial disputes.
Barbara presented a watered-down Industrial Relations Bill to parliament, but before the second reading, Labour was defeated in the general election.

It will come as no surprise that on this occasion, Barbara did not have my support, and I was not inspired by her proposals.

Nevertheless, I did learn something from her failure – the importance of consultation and compromise, and that it is possible to learn from the mistakes of those by whom you are inspired!

Barbara was still fighting for the rights of women when in 1974 she went to the Social Services Ministry and masterminded a new earnings-related and inflation-proof pension scheme which, among other things, reflected her determination to give complete equality to women.

One of her lasting legacies, now under threat, was the introduction of Child Benefit which replaced what was known as family allowance.

Child Benefit was paid for each child, and Barbara insisted it must be paid directly to mothers. She described her proposal for the restructuring of child benefit as an empowerment of women from the “wallet to the purse”.

As Health Minister she had to contend with formidable opposition over the government's plans to phase out private practice in the National Health Service but she did win higher pay for nurses.

Barbara was tenacious in fighting for what she believed was right – whether it was protesting at the way detainees accused of supporting the Mau Mau were treated in Kenya, or at the brutality of soldiers supposed to be keeping the peace in Cyprus. She was a passionate campaigner for a genuine global redistribution of wealth.

As a committed believer in the principals of fairness and the persuance of social justice, I am confident that Barbara would have been standing shoulder-to-shoulder with me during my campaign in 2001 to get justice for asylum seekers.

Working with a wide range of voluntary and church organisations I led the Union’s campaign against the voucher system for asylum seekers.

The Government had decided that asylum seekers would not receive any cash benefit but would instead receive vouchers which could be exchanged at a limited number of retail outlets, and no change would be given.

Our motivation was simple – poverty must never be allowed to triumph over human dignity. Asylum seekers had the right to expect that they would be treated with dignity and respect.  Ultimately the voucher scheme was abolished, but sadly we are moving to a voucher society - and not only for asylum seekers.

As with other activities before and since, the campaign brought me into conflict with the political leadership of the day – as well as some members of my own union. But this pales into insignificance in comparison with the hostility received by Barbara when she stood shoulder to shoulder with the women sewing machinists at Fords.

Barbara retired as a member of the House of Commons in 1979 and entered the European Parliament where, as leader of the Labour Group, she frequently made her views known on the control of expenditure of taxpayers’ money.

When later she became Baroness Castle of Blackburn, she launched a sustained attack on the Labour leadership for its attitude towards pensioners and the disabled.

I recall her speech at the Brighton Conference in 2000 when she attacked the government’s record on pensions.  She received a standing ovation, and the government was forced to change course.

In an interview in 1998 she said:  “I will fight for what I believe in until I drop dead.  And that’s what keeps you alive”.

Barbara died in her sleep in 2002 aged 91

  • my grandmother
  • William Cuffay
  • Ernest Bevin
  • Barbara Castle
Why do I look to them for inspiration?

Earlier, I said that the four institutions which guided my life were family, community, church and school.  They gave me stability, security and a sense of responsibility.   And together they provided my moral compass.

And so too have the four people I have spoken about tonight.  They all embrace the common bond of fairness, humanity and social justice, and their achievements demonstrate that they had not just the will to win but the vision to succeed.

It was said by Barbara Castle that it was important to do the right thing not just the easy thing.   And I think that my grandmother, William Cuffay and Ernest Bevin would all agree with Barbara about that.  I know I do.

Thank you.