Monday, 18 August 2014


Deception in high places: a history of bribery in Britain's arms trade - Nicholas Gilby
Pluto Press, £15.99 

In his new book Nicholas Gilby reveals how the profits of Britain’s arms companies rely on acts of bribery and corruption that are overlooked at Westminster and can damage the living standards of developing nations.
What impact can corruption have in countries where officials and agents are bribed to ensure a British arms company obtains a major contract?

It amounts to theft, by elites, of the resources of their country. If the country is poor, that means fewer or no resources for basic health or educational services, which means worse life chances for the population. In richer countries what this means is that the precious and finite natural resources they have are not deployed for the country’s development.
When dubious payments were revealed at Lockheed in the US and Associated Electrical Industries in Britain? How did the countries deal with the issue differently? 

In Britain the government successfully worked with AEI to hush the matter up, and Britain’s inadequate anti- corruption laws remained intact (until 2010). In America there was a major investigation by Congress, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and a presidential task force was set up. Ultimately Congress passed the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in 1977.
Is it a case of British governments ignoring, facilitating or encouraging corruption or a mix of all three?

In the past British governments certainly did on occasion actively facilitate corruption. Their failure to do anything about it encouraged companies to use corrupt practices. Undoubtedly they have done their best to ignore it, and still try and do so.
Has there been any difference between Labour and Tories in office when dealing with corruption?
No. Neither party has shown much enthusiasm for being at the forefront of international action against corruption in global trade. The recent passing of the tough Bribery Act 2010 only occurred after the BAE Systems scandal and serious criticisms from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
How did the British government act when faced with an investigation into suspected corruption by BAE to secure contracts in Saudi Arabia?

They made three attempts to persuade the Serious Fraud Office to terminate the investigation. In November 2006, shortly before it ended, they warned that if their investigation continued the Saudis might cease counter- terrorism co-operation with Britain, and that “British lives on British streets were at risk”.
What role did Britain play when the US attempted in the 1970s to establish an international agreement against corruption in the arms trade?

They submitted the proposals of the Americans and other governments to very searching scrutiny and tried to water them down, but had no constructive proposals of their own to put forward.

Has the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001 and OECD Anti-Bribery Convention helped clean up corrupt practices by British arms firms?

Until the factors encouraging the payment of bribes are tackled the answer must be probably not... There have been a few convictions of companies and individuals under Britain’s old anti-corruption laws, but the real litmus test will be whether the Serious Fraud Office can convict companies under the Bribery Act 2010.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Book review - STRIKING A LIGHT: the Bryant and May Matchwomen by Louise Raw

STRIKING A LIGHT: The Bryant and May Matchwomen and their place in History 
Louise Raw
Published by Bloomsbury 

This book demonstrates that the 1888 strike by 1,400 matchwomen and girls at Bryant and May should rank with the similarly successful strikes by Gasworkers’ and Dockers’ the following year in changing forever the face of British trade unionism, which until then had tended to be craft unions only. Now, unskilled and poorly paid workers had the confidence to organise themselves and engage in collective action. Trade union membership doubled to over 1.5 million by 1892 and rose to over two million in 1899. 

The women, who were  employed at a factory on Fairfield Road in East London, were poorly paid. Average pay was around 8 shillings (40p) a week with some earning less than 5 shillings. This was for a seven-day working week that started at 6.30am in the summer and 8am in the winter and which ran till 6pm with half an hour off for breakfast and an hour for lunch. Half a day’s pay was lost if they were late for work and there were also a series of illegal fines and deductions for materials such as glue and brushes. Many workers were confused about how their wages were calculated. They were also badly bullied by domineering foremen some of whom were not averse to handing out physical punishment.

Matches were essential in Victorian homes for lighting candles or gaslights and where coal fires provided heat and hot water. Although portable devices to produce a flame had existed for centuries it was the discovery of phosphorus in 1669 that paved the way for mass production of matches.

In 1831, the introduction of white phosphorus by French chemist Charles Sauria made matches much easier to strike by increasing their toxicity. Within a few short years it was well known that phosphorus poisoning affected workers in match manufacturing.

Safer alternatives were to be ignored for decades with Bryant and May, the largest match manufacturer in the UK, who persuaded the government to veto the proposed banning of white phosphorus internationally. Workers at Bryant and May were forced to take their meal breaks at their workstations, thus increasing the risk of contracting ‘phossy jaw’ in which the jawbone rotted producing evil-smelling pus that made it almost impossible for anyone to remain in the sufferer’s presence. Death, often very painful, was not uncommon. Bryant and May failed to report illnesses and fatalities and sacked any worker exhibiting any symptoms.

Bryant and May became a limited company in 1884 and they expanded overseas and bought out the smaller matchmaking companies in Britain, with their dominant position allowing the company to force down wages in the industry.

Workers at the factory took strike action to try and raise wages and improve factory safety with walkouts in 1881, 1885 and 1886. With no union organisation or funds these failed but demonstrated workers were aware of the need to collectively fight for their rights. This was also demonstrated by matchwomen throwing red paint over a statue of Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone that had been erected by Theodore Bryant who illegally deducted a shilling from their wage packets to help pay for it.

Bryant and May’s shares had more than tripled in value since they were issued in 1884, leaping from £5 to over £18. Twenty per cent dividends were standard and amongst those to benefit were a number of prominent clergymen and Liberal politicians.

On 15 June 1888, after Henry Champion had drawn attention to low wages at the company, members of the Fabian Society resolved not to use any matches made by Bryant and May and called on others to also boycott the firm. Annie Besant was keen to investigate further and swiftly visited Fairfield Road where she – and possibly other Fabians who accompanied her - approached a small number of women as they left work to get accounts of their working conditions. They confirmed what Champion had said and she wrote an article for The Link that was published on 23 June.

By heading her work ‘White Slavery in London’ Besant made the point that it would cost Bryant and May much more to look after a slave than it paid in wages to its workers. The article did not however call for strike action, which, in general, Besant disapproved of during her life.

For well over a hundred years it has been assumed that Besant was the leader of the strike - with few historians questioning whether well over one thousand very poorly paid workers really would go without pay under the leadership of a middle class women they hardly knew – Louise Raw very capably demonstrates this was not the case. The key to this was a re-examination of Besant’s own writings and the newspapers of the day along with Raw’s finding and interviewing grandchildren of some of the strike leaders. Besant’s role in the strike was important but she was not its leader and to suggest so has meant the inspiring story of the matchwomen’s courage has remain hidden whilst the ability of working class people to successfully organise collectively in defence of their needs has been underplayed.

Besant’s article did though push the company on to the defensive and after denying all the charges Bryant and May sought to discover who had spoken with Besant. To ensure there were no such further attempts to exercise free speech workers were asked to sign forms stating they would remain silent about their working conditions.

Exactly how many refused to sign is not known but on 2 or 3 July at least one woman and possibly two more were dismissed. The company denied this had anything to do with any failure by a worker to sign the distributed forms and they cited a lack of trade and some disciplinary problems for the sackings. None of the remaining female workers believed this and suspecting foul play they downed tools and marched out of the factory.  The small number of male workers who mostly worked as dippers joined them.

Ignoring company reinstatement offers the women widened their demands to include other conditions, including the ending of illegal deductions. The women immediately organised an effective, noisy picket line and felt confident enough to send a deputation of six matchwomen to meet company directors. When the discussions were not to their satisfaction they resumed their strike.

On 6 July around one hundred strikers marched to the offices of Besant near Fleet Street and where three of them informed her of developments and asked for her assistance. The following day, Besant wrote a further article for the Link in which she expressed her dismay at the action the women had taken but continued to call for a boycott of Bryant and May’s products.

On 11 July, a friend of Besant’s, Charles Bradlaugh MP raised questions in Parliament and a deputation of 56 women who marched there to meet him brought parts of central London to a standstill as onlookers starred at the appearance of so many poor people. Newspaper coverage of the strike was intensified and for the first time it was reported that embarrassed shareholders were pressuring management at Bryant and May to come to a compromise with those refusing to work. The Star and Pall Mall Gazette began collecting donations from its readers and on 14 July the first strike pay was distributed. It was also reported that the women themselves had been collecting funds across East London.

On 16 July 1888 the company’s directors met with a deputation of matchwomen and two days later the company ceded to all the strikers’ demands. These included abolition of all fines, ending deductions for paints and brushes, all grievances to be taken straight to the managing director without the intervention of the foremen, the provision of a breakfast room to allow for meals to be eaten away from work stations and the formation of a union so that any future disputes could be officially laid before the company. The Union of Women Matchworkers, which was then the largest union of women and girls in the country, was formed, with Besant taking the role of secretary for the next few years. One of her first engagements was to speak to 5,000 Tilbury Dockers who in October 1888 unsuccessfully took strike action over a pay increase.

The Star newspaper had no doubt about the importance of the outcome:

The victory of the girls……is complete. It was won without preparation – without organization – without funds……a turning point in the history of our industrial development……

Even in 1923 every person at the Fairfield Works was believed to be a trade unionist.

The victory by the matchwomen would undoubtedly have raised morale amongst working people in East London. The factory on Fairfield Road was less than two miles from where the 1889 Dock Strike began. Strikers and dockworkers lived cheek by jowl; many were related to each other, including plenty with Irish backgrounds, whilst there are also strong indications that amongst both sets of workers there were some with a strong interest in radical politics.

During the 1889 Great Dock Strike its leaders such as Tom Mann, Ben Tillett and John Burns regularly made reference to the matchwomen as they recognised that what had been achieved demonstrated that the previously unorganised could combine and win improvements in pay and working conditions. The Dockers’ were to prove this was now a fact of life with a  famous victory that further threw open trade unionism to all workers whatever their skills.

Louise Raw must be congratulated for her persistence over many years to try and discover what really happened at Bryant and May in 1888 as she has produced a book of vital importance.

Mark Metcalf 

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

English workers now left behind as Supreme Court backs a Welsh Agricultural Wages Board

The UK Supreme Court has decided the Welsh Assembly can establish a dedicated Welsh Agricultural Wages Board. (AWB) The decision is a blow to the UK government’s attempted impoverishment of farm workers but a significant success for the Labour led assembly. 

The ruling leaves workers in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales covered by an AWB that has powers to raise wages and establish minimum terms and conditions for overtime, sick pay and training and skills. By only being covered by national minimum wage legislation then English farm workers are worse off than those in other parts of Britain after the UK government abolished the England and Wales AWB last year. 

This caused the Welsh assembly to pass the agricultural sector (Wales) Bill giving Welsh ministers powers to establish their own board. Dominic Grieve, the attorney general, challenged the bill in the Supreme Court on the grounds that it referred to employment law that has not been devolved to the Welsh Government, which in turn argued the bill fell under agriculture, which is a devolved issue.  

Five Supreme Court justices unanimously backed the Welsh Government. The result may prove constitutionally significant, as it is the second time the UK Government has unsuccessfully attempted to block legislation passed by the assembly. 

The court appears to have extended the assembly’s powers over decisions in key areas of the economy. This pleases Labour’s Mick Antoniw who - with UNITE fully supporting him - led the AWB retention campaign and who said: “the UK Government has been told to let devolution work. Consequently, we can confidently explore using things like public procurement in our business contracts to promote the living wage and improve conditions.” He criticised the large legal fees wasted on the ill-conceived challenge.

Antoniw was always confident of victory and now visualises an improved Welsh AWB being established that, “can extend its vital remit on protecting wages and conditions for 13,000 agricultural workers into developing a progressive training and education programme that encourages young people to seek careers in farming and land based industries. We need them for our future food production. The standards we create can also help towards ensuring a living wage in rural areas, where many workers are poorly paid.” 

Antoniw wants to see the English AWB restored very quickly and he attacked the Tories for failing to protect English farm workers. Patriotism for Cameron clearly does not extend to ensuring English workers are properly rewarded for their efforts! 

UNITE Wales regional secretary Andy Richards hailed the Supreme Court decision as “vindication for the close work undertaken by the Welsh Government with the trade unions. Cameron’s attack on our democracy has been rebuffed and we have strengthened protection for agricultural workers.” 

Peterloo Massacre 195th Anniversary Commemorative March on Sunday 17 August 2014

On 16th August 1819 in St Peter's Fields, Manchester, armed cavalry charged a peaceful crowd of around 60,000 people gathered to listen to anti-poverty and pro-democracy speakers. It is estimated that 18 were killed, and over 700 seriously injured. The event is one of the most significant in the history of the struggle for democracy.
This march is part of a campaign for a PROMINENT, EXPLANATORY and RESPECTFUL memorial to this major event and to those who died that day. See website and Facebook PETERLOO MASSACRE 195th ANNIVERSARY for further details. The campaign has attracted the support of Richard Leese, Chair of Manchester City Council. Turner prize winning sculptor Jeremy Deller has been invited to work with the city council on the design of the monument.
Itinerary for the Bolton March:
August 17th 8.00 am. The March will set off from the Socialist Club, Wood Street, Bolton heading for St Peter’s  Square Manchester, where it will  meet up with marches from other parts of Greater Manchester.
8.00 am 
Leave from Bolton Socialist Club Wood Street.  Head towards Kearsley  via Bradshawgate and Manchester Road (B6536), Bolton Road at Moses Gate, along Market Street and through the underpass to pick up the A666 Bolton road. 
9.15 am ( 3.6 miles) 
Moss Rose,  Kearsley.  Head along A666 to Swinton to junction with A6044 (3 miles)
10.20 am (7.1 miles)
Henry Boddinton, Swinton. Continue along A666 to merge with A6 at Broad St. 
11.20 (9.7 miles)
 Salford Crescent Station. Continue along A6 through Salford, possible pausing at the Working Class History Library and the Peoples History Museum, 
12.00 - 12.30pm  (11.4 miles) Arrive St Peter’s Square, Manchester

Anyone wishing to join the march from Bolton can join at any of the stopping points indicated in bold.  Further details on Bolton march from Chris Chilton 0875 646 6070 or at

Scotland on cusp of radical land reform

The following has been taken from the excellent magazine THE LAND and is good news. England and Wales next!

No Tory bonfire yet for the Forestry Commission

To the surprise of many people the Queen’s Speech on 4 June made no mention of forestry. According to Maria Eagle, the shadow environment secretary, this could be due to Tory campaign consultant “Lynton Crosby’s ‘get the barnacles off my boat’ advice to David Cameron.” Stick to the main message and ditch extraneous policies and projects, especially when they remind the electorate of the controversies of the past such as the proposed sell-off of swathes of the Public Forest Estate (PFE) in 2011. An outraged public forced a humiliating climb down on the Government but who have since continued to deny the Forestry Commission the resources and staff numbers they require to maintain a much valued public service. Hundreds of jobs have been slashed and seven regional offices closed since 2010. 

The Government was planning to replace the PFE before May 2015 with an arm’s length PFE Management Organisation run by their appointees. FC staff would lose their civil service status and FC trade unions (FCTU) have warned that the new organisation would remain vulnerable to a takeover or future government bonfire. Armed with a mandate from members, a well-organised campaign - that has been carried into the halls of Westminster - has been waged by the FCTU with the aim of maintaining an integrated and suitably resourced FC, which is set to celebrate its centenary in five years time.

The lack of a decision by the Government has therefore come as a relief to hard working FC staff. Constituent unions within the FCTU are now taking the opportunity of surveying their members to see if privatisation is happening by stealth and if so, how this is affecting their working lives – their pay, working conditions, working relations, and health and safety – and the health and sustainability of the forests. The results will be ready to help influence the major parties in the run up to the 2015 General Election. 

Barnacles tend to inhabit shallow water and it may not take much for the Tories to be once again exposed for their ill-fated attempt to chop down the PFE and subsequently fail to offer sufficient reassurances that it really is safe if they are returned to power. 

Monday, 4 August 2014

First major review of my Manchester United 1907-11 book

Every football club has a turning point, a moment that changes the face and direction of the club forever.  For Manchester United one might think of the Munich Air Disaster or the many successes in Europe, but there was a period that was just as defining, long before either of those.
The years 1907-1911 represent early success for Manchester United, a time that allowed the club to grow and prosper under the expert eye of Ernest Mangnall. Zero league championship became two league titles, two Charity Shield wins, and triumph in the FA Cup.
Manchester United wouldn’t have been the global superpower that it is today without Mangnall and the legendary Billy Meredith, a Manchester legend who scored 169 goals in 681 appearances for both City and United.  Meredith was also instrumental in the labor movement for footballers, creating the first Players’ Union.
Manchester United 1907-1911: The First Halcyon Years by Mark Metcalf breaks down these influential years, something no title has ever done in such detail.  This period of time might be a footnote in any other Man U book, but this author does it right.  He gives these influential footballers and administrators the respect and credit they deserve.
Metcalf proves once again that he is the master of Manchester United lore.  His eye for detail and nose for impeccable research are second to none.