The Collier, by Robert Havell (1814). Image: Science and Society Picture Library
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To be continued: how much has English society changed since 1714?

Much has changed in English culture since 1710. But a new book argues our systems of power are less different than we might think.

Very Different, but Much the Same: the Evolution of English Society Since 1714
W G Runciman
Oxford University Press, 208pp, £30

Every exam season, thousands of history students are asked to look at a big event or a period of time in a nation’s past and explain it by assessing the extent to which it represented “continuity” or “change”. They thrash away at, say, the birth of the Industrial Revolution in mid- and late-18th-century Britain, striving to reach some kind of judgement about whether it would best be ascribed to a quickening of the pace of the country’s long-established advantages or to a clutch of inventors and brilliant entrepreneurs who brought on a huge and rapid change in economic life.

The better candidates scribble away, noting that the population had been growing for decades and that there had been a stable political system that was beneficial to investment long before figures such as Matthew Boulton or Josiah Wedgwood emerged and created the sinews of a more complex economy. The examinee must judiciously mention these factors, and many more, and weigh them up. Some might see this as an exercise in carefully crafting fudge but it is what a great deal of historical writing does, not merely in essays by students, and there is nothing untoward in providing the reader with a conscientious balancing act of continuity and change. It often makes for good and rich history.

Garry Runciman’s juggling of continuity and change is a much more intellectually ambitious affair. The sage of British sociology and chair of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice in the 1990s sweeps across centuries, showing scant interest in the impact of celebrated historical figures and focusing very little on individual military, political or industrial events that others of a more orthodox disposition might consider “turning points”. He is an evolutionary sociologist, using the language of Darwin to survey 300 years of English (and sometimes British) political, economic and ideological history in 200 or so densely written pages.

Changes in education, religious practice, law and order or political affiliation are described in terms of adaptation, reproduction of mutant behaviour, variation, design advantage and co-evolution. He borrows, with attribution, from Richard Dawkins, too, using his word “meme” to describe how information-affecting behaviour is transmitted from one mind to another. Neither his method nor his vocabulary makes for a light read but they are worth the effort.

Runciman’s starting point – and his yardstick for change – is Daniel Defoe’s A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, written in the 1720s, in which he mused at length on politics, religion, commerce and human foibles. But despite the suggestion from Runciman’s title that equal weight is given to difference and sameness in his anatomy of 300 years of English history, his principal argument is bolder than that. Yes, since Defoe, there have been innumerable changes in lifestyles and mores, as well as in Britain’s political place in the wider world, and he provides a long list of developments that would leave Defoe baffled if he were alive: the rise of sexual tolerance, the change in the roles occupied by women, the moderation of criminal punishment, the spread of literacy, the decline in religious observance, the vast panoply of technological devices at our disposal – and much else besides. However, when it comes to power, the types of people who have it and how it is distributed, Runciman yanks very hard the other way. Defoe, he claims, would have no trouble recognising our “institutional modes of coercion, persuasion and production”. In a nutshell, political, economic and ideological institutions have been impervious to substantial change.

This is an uncompromising conclusion but it is suffused neither with anger nor with a cerebral version of Russell Brand-like cynicism about all aspects of political or economic life. There is a lot of subtlety on display; for instance, over the continuing resentment of many in the working classes to the intrusion of the state on matters relating to health, schooling, housing or licensing laws.

Runciman asserts that, throughout the period, English society can fairly be described as democratic, liberal and capitalist and he is not a subscriber to the idea that all change counts for nought. He sees that universal suffrage is not, as the 19th-century French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon would have it, “a device to make the people lie” but that it led to “visible changes in both the volume and the content of legislation reflecting working-class concerns”. Yet when Runciman catalogues various elections, political manoeuvres, party splits and other assorted dramas – from the miscalculation of parliamentary tactics by Gladstone and Disraeli to Michael Foot’s unpopularity and the arrival of Margaret Thatcher and beyond – he does not see that any of these events changed the motors of power: “They had no more influence on the distribution of political power within English society than had the results of the elections in which a small, venal and wholly unrepresentative minority of the adult population had cast their votes in full view of observers in a position to bribe or intimidate them.”

I find myself quarrelling a bit with this. The arrival in Downing Street of Clement Attlee in 1945 or Mrs Thatcher in 1979 seems to me to have counted for more than Runciman is prepared to concede. The ability to go to a doctor without paying at the surgery or to buy your council house was hugely important to millions of people – and the introduction of those rights brought about something of a shift in aspects of ideological and economic power. Maybe these sorts of things do not constitute a wholesale overhaul in the structure of power but they were felt as big differences by those who experienced them. I am left unsure as to what would satisfy him that something truly fundamental had occurred – other than the scale of upheaval involved in the French or Russian Revolutions or the rise of fascism, all of which he mentions by way of contrast with the stability of the English state.

Runciman’s is a cool intellect and he wants us to concentrate on “the practices rather than the people”. So only occasionally, mostly in touching vignettes at the
end of chapters, does he get drawn into describing lives and hopes. This is a long way away from the flesh-and-blood approach of The Making of the English Working Class by E P Thompson – a book that in its own way also deals with power – or the descriptions of “ordinary” life provided recently by the likes of Jenny Uglow in her study of Britain during the Napoleonic wars and Vic Gatrell in his studies of 18th-century London.

Underneath Runciman’s fiercely analytical approach, however, you sense a deeply humane temperament, and his perspective adds much to our understanding of why, despite many outbreaks of “enmity and discord”, England’s history since the Glorious Revolution of 1688 is so different from that of the rest of Europe. He believes that once the Hanoverian succession was assured, there was almost no chance of either monarchical absolutism or military dictatorship taking hold. There were just too many impediments, institutional and cultural.

State power, throughout, has been challenged and checked. There is in Runciman not a scintilla of complacent superiority but, yes, the English are different.

Mark Damazer is Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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There's nothing Luddite about banning zero-hours contracts

The TUC general secretary responds to the Taylor Review. 

Unions have been criticised over the past week for our lukewarm response to the Taylor Review. According to the report’s author we were wrong to expect “quick fixes”, when “gradual change” is the order of the day. “Why aren’t you celebrating the new ‘flexibility’ the gig economy has unleashed?” others have complained.

Our response to these arguments is clear. Unions are not Luddites, and we recognise that the world of work is changing. But to understand these changes, we need to recognise that we’ve seen shifts in the balance of power in the workplace that go well beyond the replacement of a paper schedule with an app.

Years of attacks on trade unions have reduced workers’ bargaining power. This is key to understanding today’s world of work. Economic theory says that the near full employment rates should enable workers to ask for higher pay – but we’re still in the middle of the longest pay squeeze for 150 years.

And while fears of mass unemployment didn’t materialise after the economic crisis, we saw working people increasingly forced to accept jobs with less security, be it zero-hours contracts, agency work, or low-paid self-employment.

The key test for us is not whether new laws respond to new technology. It’s whether they harness it to make the world of work better, and give working people the confidence they need to negotiate better rights.

Don’t get me wrong. Matthew Taylor’s review is not without merit. We support his call for the abolishment of the Swedish Derogation – a loophole that has allowed employers to get away with paying agency workers less, even when they are doing the same job as their permanent colleagues.

Guaranteeing all workers the right to sick pay would make a real difference, as would asking employers to pay a higher rate for non-contracted hours. Payment for when shifts are cancelled at the last minute, as is now increasingly the case in the United States, was a key ask in our submission to the review.

But where the report falls short is not taking power seriously. 

The proposed new "dependent contractor status" carries real risks of downgrading people’s ability to receive a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. Here new technology isn’t creating new risks – it’s exacerbating old ones that we have fought to eradicate.

It’s no surprise that we are nervous about the return of "piece rates" or payment for tasks completed, rather than hours worked. Our experience of these has been in sectors like contract cleaning and hotels, where they’re used to set unreasonable targets, and drive down pay. Forgive us for being sceptical about Uber’s record of following the letter of the law.

Taylor’s proposals on zero-hours contracts also miss the point. Those on zero hours contracts – working in low paid sectors like hospitality, caring, and retail - are dependent on their boss for the hours they need to pay their bills. A "right to request" guaranteed hours from an exploitative boss is no right at all for many workers. Those in insecure jobs are in constant fear of having their hours cut if they speak up at work. Will the "right to request" really change this?

Tilting the balance of power back towards workers is what the trade union movement exists for. But it’s also vital to delivering the better productivity and growth Britain so sorely needs.

There is plenty of evidence from across the UK and the wider world that workplaces with good terms and conditions, pay and worker voice are more productive. That’s why the OECD (hardly a left-wing mouth piece) has called for a new debate about how collective bargaining can deliver more equality, more inclusion and better jobs all round.

We know as a union movement that we have to up our game. And part of that thinking must include how trade unions can take advantage of new technologies to organise workers.

We are ready for this challenge. Our role isn’t to stop changes in technology. It’s to make sure technology is used to make working people’s lives better, and to make sure any gains are fairly shared.

Frances O'Grady is the General Secretary of the TUC.