What would William Morris say to the Brexit debacle? It’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine what the Victorians – whether radical, conservative or liberal – would have thought of the EU and Britain’s divisive vote to leave. When Morris died in 1896, the First World War was still 18 years away, the Russian revolution 21, the first, limited, votes for women in the UK 22. The founding of today’s Labour Party was still 4 years away. So many of the things we take for granted were far in the future. His, like it or not, was a world in which Queen Victoria (the Empress Brown or Widow Guelph as Morris preferred to call her) ruled a vast empire that provided (some people in) Britain with great wealth, where Ireland had no self-rule, where all European states jockeyed with each other for power, where the Balkans – and part of Greece – were still ruled by the Ottoman Empire.
A very different world, so we can’t second guess whether Morris would have been a Remainer or a Lexiter. He enjoyed visiting other countries (sort of…) and appreciated the culture of Northern Europe in particular, he was part of the International Socialist community, and as part of the artistic elite of the time he would have known many immigrants and exiles as well as visiting foreigners. On the other hand, as a radical socialist, at times veering into anarchism, the current set up of the EU wouldn’t have impressed him, and perhaps he would have wanted revolution across Europe to create the utopian vision of which he dreamed. Who knows?
One thing I do feel sure of, though, is that he would have been horrified at the lack of political and economic understanding among the people of the UK. He would look at the benefits we have – universal primary and secondary education, unlimited information at our fingertips, libraries, accessible higher education, equality for all men and women in the eyes of the law etc. etc. – and he would be appalled about how little we know about the institutions that shape and rule our countries. And he would be out there, shouting to us via the tv, via twitter, via social media, any way he thought he could reach people, to educate ourselves and our children so that this never happens again.
How can I say this with such certainty? The banner you see above gives the clue: it’s by Walter Crane and is the banner of The Socialist League (of which Morris was a member), whose tagline was ‘Educate, Agitate, Organise’. And for the League ‘Educate’ was the most important. Morris took up the Educate baton and ran with it. Up and down the length and breadth of Britain he travelled, lecturing, lecturing, lecturing. He wrote regular columns for Commonweal, the League’s newspaper, which he funded (shades of Murdoch? Shh…), and the League published his lectures as pamphlets, and, later those same lectures were published in book form.
He wasn’t, by all accounts, a great orator. He didn’t enjoy doing it, and the long hours and constant travel on uncomfortable public transport may have been a contributor to his ill health and, ultimately, early death aged just 62. But he felt he had to. Why? Because people needed to know how the world worked. His lectures are biased, of course. They promote his vision of the socialist cause to which he had attached himself. But, they are based on his observation of life in London and from his copious reading to try to batter the economic and social arguments of the early socialists into his head. They were the truth as he saw it.
He didn’t just reach out to the working man, either. Most of his lectures are aimed at the people who he hoped would start the revolution he desired, and who would bring about the utopia he outlines in his novel News From Nowhere – the working classes. One of his first socialist lectures, in 1883, however, was at his old Alma Mater, Oxford University, at the Russell Club, a group of undergraduates whose politics tended to the liberal or radical. In this lecture ‘Art and Democracy’ he declared himself ‘one of the people called Socialists’ and then proceeded to take apart capitalism and then, to the utter shock of those who had invited him, he invited the young men sitting before him to join him in converting to the cause. It was – and still is – an inflammatory speech:
‘One man with an idea in his head is in danger of being considered a madman; two men with the same idea in common may be foolish, but can hardly be mad; ten men sharing an idea begin to act, a hundred draw attention as fanatics, a thousand and society begins to tremble, a hundred thousand and there is war abroad, and the cause has victories tangible and real; and why only a hundred thousand? You and I who agree together, it is we who have to answer that question.’[i]
Terrifying stuff for the establishment. Prophetic too of the kind of extremism that would become commonplace in the early 20th century, and which, sadly, is very much with us now. At this point, Morris was an extremist. He later stepped away from the idea of bloody revolution. At this point, he was desperate to do something. The incident, as Morris must have known it would be, was reported widely. He stoically endured the ‘brickbats’[ii] of the papers against him, and continued lecturing.
Today, perhaps, this isn’t the approach we would take. Morris understood that many people had received very little education of any kind. When I went to school in the 1970s and 80s we were not prepared for our lives as part of our community, our nation state or our international community. I’ve had to learn along the way, and I’m very much an amateur in my knowledge. Like Morris, I’m trying to batter these things into my head in middle age, when the brain is less nimble. Today, citizenship is taught in schools, and that’s good. Today’s young people, most of whom voted Remain, have had that as part of their education[iii]. My generation, and the one before it didn’t. Perhaps that tells you something. Perhaps not. However, there’s more to simply learning about the institutions of governments. To begin to understand, we need to be taught at that young age how to exercise critical thinking. We must be allowed to question and debate, to discern how rhetoric and propaganda are used by politicians, the media – and by someone we might meet in the pub – so that we have the skills in place to be able to see through the spin, the stories and make our own, informed decisions. Whatever those decisions might be.
Morris would go for that, I think.
Banner of The Socialist League by Walter Crane, c. 1884
[i] ‘Art under Plutocracy, retrieved from the Marxist Internet Archive https://www.marxists.org/archive/morris/works/1883/pluto.htm, 4/7/2016. Note that this is a later title for the lecture delivered at Oxford as ‘Art and Democracy’.
[ii] Letter by Morris to Georgie Burne Jones, quoted in Fiona MacCarthy’s William Morris: A Life for Our Time (Faber and Faber : 1994), p. 479.
[iii] Citizenship was introduced to the UK’s National Curriculum in 2002.