Wessex political thinkers: William Barnes

We recently received an email criticising this blog for focusing too much on “an undifferentiated English radical tradition” and on influences from America and Eastern Europe at the expense of our own native Wessex political tradition. The Clubmen, argued our correspondent, were a distinctively Wessaxon movement, the Levellers were not.

Whilst we make no apologies for drawing influences from agrarian movements and peasants’ parties beyond our shores, the criticism is not entirely without merit. In order to redress the balance somewhat, I present the first in an occasional series of posts about Wessex political thinkers, beginning with William Barnes.

Barnes is, of course, best known as a poet. Many critics of his poetry, even sympathetic ones, have made the mistake of seeing him as an essentially apolitical observer of a dying rural way of life. EM Forster called Barnes a “Yes-man” who had “live[d] through the Labourers’ Revolt of 1830 without its shadows falling across his verse”. Notwithstanding that the decision to write verse in dialect is itself a political one, it would appear that Forster was unaware of Barnes’ treatise on economics entitled Views of Labour and Gold.

Far from the forelock-tugging, “begging your pardon, zur” sycophant of Forster’s caricature, readers of Barnes’s political writings such as Views will see some harsh critiques of capitalism and empire. Like his protege Thomas Hardy, he regarded the hoarding of wealth by capitalists as the source of the destruction of the rural Wessex that he knew and loved. In the words of the old joke, he saw money as being like manure – useful when spread around, but it stinks to high heaven when all piled up in one place.

Barnes saw great dignity in labour, but realised that it was not he be all and end all. He was strongly opposed to the idea that human beings existed solely to spend every waking hour toiling in the fields, with no time for leisure or any sort of interior life. Neither did he believe that everyone should be a farmer or labourer, though he recognised the special role of farmers in feeding the nation. As a schoolmaster and poet, he would naturally have no truck with those who believed that poets, artists and intellectuals were a drain on society, that the main role of education should be to prepare students for jobs, and that “people have had enough of experts”. He gives the example of King Ælfred of Wessex, who was too busy protecting his kingdom from marauding Danes to keep watch over a cake.

Views of Labour and Gold ends with a section on housing which seems remarkably prescient given the housing crisis currently enveloping Wessex and other parts of rural England. He laments the emptying of rural cottages due to the urbanisation that followed the industrial revolution, and their subsequently being rented out in a dilapidated state by unscrupulous landlords. His ideal was for the rural working classes to live in small, well-kept houses with space for both privacy and a healthy family life. One can’t help thinking that if Barnes were alive today, he would stand opposed to both the loss of good agricultural land to provide luxury 4- and 5-bedroom homes, and to the iniquities of the private rented sector.

Views of Labour and Gold is not without its flaws. His view of tribal people, for example, has more than a whiff of noble savage romanticism about it. But it remains an important influence on Wessex Regionalist thought.

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