Deflation, not socialist ideology, fueled trade unionism in Britain

This is what happens when my sister leaves history books lying about. In the “The Oxford History of Britain”, H.C.G. Mathew writes in the chapter on what he calls the Liberal Era (1851 – 1914) in Great Britain,

Trade union activity grew in a context which seems most curious to the post-1945 observer. The twenty years after 1874 were characterized by a sharp and substantial deflation – that is, prices (and, to a lesser extent, wages) fell. On the other hand, real wages … rose. But this was hard for trade unionists to come to terms with: a man will hardly believe that an employer who reduces his wages may still be leaving him better off. The new trade unionism was thus concerned to defend working-class wages: it was a reaction, as much as a positive force. It had little ideology except for the concept of solidarity. Some socialists played a part in the most publicized strikes of the period … But these were not typical strikes (indeed the London Dock Strike was not conducted by a union: the union was formed after the strike finished); nor should the role of the ‘socialists’ who led them, such as John Burns, be over-stressed. Even most of the trade union leadership was staunchly Gladstonian: Karl Marx and his works were virtually unknown, outside a small circle in the country where he had spent almost all his working life…

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