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Then & now: Exploring the themes of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

10 Jul

By Tommy Kane, West Lothian Trades Union Council

Since its publication, socialists have justifiably conferred biblical status on the celebrated Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.  Robert Tressell’s tale of life for craftsmen and building workers in the early part of the 20th century whilst working in the mythical, yet all too authentic, Mugsborough reveals clearly the exploitative nature of capitalism.

The book illustrates this at its most rudimentary level, in the workplace. In so doing the inherently unequal relationship between workers and bosses is revealed. As is how the relations of production in a capitalist system impacts and constrains social relations, human activity, and the freedom of people to pursue their lives, their dreams and talents in whatever way that they desire.

Therefore, when West Lothian Trades Union Council and our ‘Better Way Campaign’ heard that Townsend Productions were touring with a theatre production of the book we went to all out to organise showings in West Lothian. Townsend Productions agreed to come from the Citizen Theatre to Loganlea Miners Welfare – quite a coup!

Both shows sold out and were resounding successes. Partly this was because it was just a good, entertaining night out; the audience who came along enjoyed coming to the theatre and witnessing two actors at the top of their craft. However, any good show, song or film works because it resonates when people identify with its core messages. So it was in Loganlea last October.

People also liked the show because they still recognised how unequal workplace relationships still exist today, 100 or so years after the book was written. Moreover they understand how the current economic crisis is being used as an opportunity to intensify inequality and concentrate even more wealth, produced by the workers, in the hands of a few.

Indeed, much of the gains made in the course of the 20th century are being shed and it appears the Tories want to take us back to the days of Tressell and the workmen in Mugsborough.

Take the themes of casualisation. Yes, casualisation is not a new phenomenon; Thatcher’s flexible workforce was a key feature of her neo-liberal project and was shamefully embraced and accepted by New Labour. Yet recently we have observed a spring in the step of the bosses.

The Beecroft report gives the game away. The report by the venture capitalist and Tory Benefactor makes no bones about it: he recommends changes to the law to enable people to be fired on the spot.  And, if that means people being sacked by bosses who simply have taken a personal dislike to them then that’s apparently a ‘price worth paying’.

Recently in West Lothian we have seen two disputes where it seems these battle lines are being drawn. While different they both have clear commonalities. At API foils in Livingston an aggressive management attempted to impose changes to wages and conditions, disregarding the Trade Unions right to negotiate on behalf of the workers. Ultimately they backed down, successfully resisted by solid trade union organisation which forced a return to the negotiating table.

At the Government agency HMRC, tax workers in Bathgate have seen work sub-contracted to Teleperformance. They appear to have taken their workplace practices and rules straight from the book and from Rushton and Hunter. Paying their workers £4000 less than what HMRC pay staff. In addition they have put workers on individual contracts and do not recognise collective agreements.

Unbelievably, they also tell their workers they need to work overtime when the ‘business’ requires it, which could be bank-holidays or weekends, but that they are under no obligation to pay the workers for that work either by cash payment or time in lieu. What an indictment of working conditions in 21st century Britain.

Core themes and messages from Tressell’s book can also be applied at the macro as well as the micro level. Tressell’s book touches on the lack of a social security and welfare system. It also poignantly shows the intrinsic sadness and hopelessness associated with poverty and its manifestations like hunger and bad housing.

In the years after the publication of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists these blights on British society reduced. A central factor was increasing trade union membership and activity, which without doubt led to a political willingness and commitment by successive governments from 1945-1979 to achieve full employment and support, politically and materially, a comprehensive welfare state.

Today, the welfare state is facing an unprecedented attack from the ConDem Coalition. The very poorest and most vulnerable are under attack as the Tories plan the slashing of welfare budgets by £20bn. At the same time the wealth ‘appropriated’ by the super rich is increasing exponentially; since 2000 the richest 1000 people have saw their riches go up by £250bn, while only last month the rich list showed how the wealth of the richest has reached record levels. Yes, the great money trick is still thriving 100 years later!

Tressell was ahead of his time in seeking explanations why and how such injustices happen. In discussing the local Mayor and his relationship and involvement with business, Tressell touched upon the cosy relationship between business and politics and how inequality and the accumulation of capital are facilitated by politics and legislation.

Consider attacks on trade union rights, privatisations, and real term cuts to workers wages just as we see cuts to businesses taxes and top levels of personal taxation. In addition we need only look at the current economic crisis, especially in the Eurozone, to see how governments and supranational institutions prop up and help capital in the midst of its own ineptitude.

Tressell also noted the role of the Media. The Obscura could be one of any current mainstream TV or Radio stations or Daily or Sunday Newspaper (with the honourable exception of the Morning Star). Turn on the news or read a paper and according to the mainstream media, there is no alternative to austerity.

Frozen and reduced wages are necessary as are cuts to public services; we all need to suffer the pain; we are all in it together; all are phrases and notions that go unchallenged by the dominant media. Left unsaid is the discussion of alternatives and challenging the status quo; perhaps through re-distributive progressive taxation or tackling tax avoidance and evasion. Perish the thought of such blasphemous thinking!

Perhaps the central theme in the book was how the surplus value enjoyed by the bosses was provided by the workers who acted, in essence, as ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’. Tressell has been criticised for being too harsh on the workers who were seemingly indifferent to their working conditions. Maybe he is, however I think Tressell shows that the real culprit here is the system which allows workers to always be just one wage packet away from destitution and hunger. No wonder there was a climate of fear in Mugsborough.

Tressell does not stop at outlining the failings, and the accomplices of the current system. He raises the perennial question of what are we going to do about it and how are we going to do it. Do we seek to rip it up and start again, as Frank Owen recommends? Or do we, as Barrington suggests, use a Parliamentary workers party as a vehicle to reform this flawed and defective system that’s called capitalism?

These are perpetual questions over strategy and ethos that workers need to ask again today. I don’t have the space to explore these fundamental questions here. Although one observation I would make is that for Barrington’s tactic to work the workers’ party must remind itself that it is a workers’ party….

Townsend Productions have done working people across the UK and Scotland a great service by staging this play. It reminds us of the key issues faced by workers and the people of this country, that the substantive issues we have to consider are class-based and about the distribution of resources rather than arguments over borders.

Likewise I commend Unite Scotland. Once again they are leading the way in raising awareness and using theatre and education as a means to stir people into action; challenging the inequities that workers faced in the time of Tressell and, scandalously, are now facing once again in 2012.


Townsend Productions, ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’  will be running everyday at the Edinburgh Fringe from 1st – 27th August, 12PM at the Assembly George Square Two. Tickets can be purchased online now.

Unite Scotland will also host a further special event in support of the play’s run at the Scottish Parliament’s ‘Festival of Politics’ : 

Revisiting the themes of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ An evening of working class debate, entertainment, beer & sandwiches. 

Tuesday 31st July, Committee Room 1, Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, from 6PM to 9PM.

To confirm your attendance at the Scottish Parliament event, please contact Tommy Kane on 07947826808 or

You can also get all the up to date information on the play via:

twitter @raggedtour





Unite Scotland & The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – Edinburgh Fringe & Special Events

19 Jun

Unite Scotland is dipping its toe into the arts this summer!  We’re delighted to help sponsor Townsend Production’s new two handed version of Stephen Lowe’s play based on the classic Tressell book, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

The play will be running everyday at the Edinburgh Fringe from 1st – 27th August, 12PM at the Assembly George Square Two. Tickets can be purchased online now.

The inspiration and roots of Tressell’s story are fuelled by anger at increasing political ineptitude and social inequality and the need for an alternative, a better way. Arguably, many of the story’s key themes still resonate over a century later; the game hasn’t changed much since 1914.

We’re hoping this play provokes curiosity and questioning in the audience of the world we live in today and how the levers of power are controlled, whether you are a trade unionist or not.  Above all, it’ll be a really enjoyable show!

As part of our work with Townsend Productions we’re also excited to host two events in advance of the play’s run which we’re calling: Revisiting the themes of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ An evening of working class debate, entertainment, beer & sandwiches.

These events will be free and open to all on a first come first serve basis until the respective venue capacities are reached. They will take place on:

  • Thursday 5th July, John Smith House (5th floor), 145-165 West Regent Street, Glasgow, G2 4RZ, from 6PM to 9PM.
  • Tuesday 31st July, Committee Room 1, Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, from 6PM to 9PM.

We’ll have speakers discussing the contemporary political and social relevance of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, encouraging debate from the audience on the parallels between the 1900s and today’s Britain, and we’ll have live enactments from the play for your entertainment…we’ll also provide the beer and sandwiches!

  • To confirm your attendance at the Glasgow event, please contact Peter Welsh in the Unite Scotland Campaigns Unit on 07810157931 or

You can also get all the up to date information on the play via:

twitter @raggedtour A5 Hertford on the frontBack of Leaflet GOLD MAY 2012

Theatre Review: King Lear

16 May

Citizen’s Theatre, Glasgow 29th April 2012

Photo by Tim Morozzo

I arrived at the Citizen’s Theatre to a packed foyer.  Glasgow’s great and good quaffing Chenin Blanc (Chardonnay is so 90s), people parting to make way as a herd of teens from a prestigious private school file through, tossing their glossy manes and braying at one another enthusiastically.  It’s not often I go to the theatre, it makes me uncomfortable, and this reminded me why.  The segregation of society is still evident here: the theatre doesn’t do enough to make itself relevant and accessible to the working classes, and what a shame to miss a performance such as this.

Dominic Hill’s masterful production of King Lear focuses on that which makes Shakespeare’s narratives wholly relevant, regardless of the age in which they are being performed, or indeed the audience receiving them.  Greed, betrayal, anger, vulgarity, financial transactions gone wrong with grievous consequences; all these are instantly recognisable in today’s society.

The stark stage set of bare wooden boards, with the flotsam and jetsam of city life littering the sidelines, was a perfect backdrop to this play, and the nails-on-a-blackboard piano soundtrack was a move of absolute genius.  The barren setting was echoed in the actors’ portrayals, with Shauna MacDonald’s Regan particularly devoid of humanity.  Another standout performance was that of Paul Higgins, bringing (much to my delight) elements of ‘the crossest man in Scotland’ to Kent’s more enraged moments.

David Hayman gives a unique, compelling and harrowingly human performance in the lead role of this well-loved play.  His King Lear is full of bravado, which he diminishes with enviable subtlety in the face of his daughters’ betrayal, until he is reduced to a trembling and broken man who we’re still not quite sure we should feel sorry for.  The interplay of the Fool and Kent, pushing and pulling Lear, echoes the instability of Lear’s own inner self, and I can’t help but wonder if the support they seek to provide the King carries an undertone of revenge, even from these, his most loyal companions.

Lear’s kingdom dissolves around him, and the unrest of his own mind is played out in the increasing agitation of the actors of the company, prowling the boundaries of the stage like animals waiting for the kill.  The inference of dementia, as a dressing-gowned Lear is brought onto the stage in a wheelchair, is nicely done, and carries real significance; however I was disappointed the poignancy of Cordelia’s return was blunted by a slightly inexperienced performance.  As the players fall prey to their own greed, one by one, they shunt us sorrowfully to a climactic scene both bleak and outrageous, with the fate of all ruined.

Kind of like what the Government is doing now.

UCS at Celtic Connections – Sunday 5th February

31 Jan

The organisers of the concert celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Clydeside’s important UCS Work-in have unveiled the full line up for the Celtic Connections event scheduled for February 5.

It features a number of stars from last October’s gala concert alongside new artists, and is again being produced by Fair Pley with musical direction by Rab Noakes.

Rab Noakes said, “We hope this stellar line-up is a fitting celebration of the inspirational struggle won by the UCS workforce 40 years ago.  The UCS Work-in contributed, and continues to contribute to the civil and social conscientiousness of musicians, poets and artists. This concert is both the result of, and a tribute to those stewards and workers.”

Rab will perform, and links with the fundraising concerts of 40 years ago are being kept with the concert starring musicians Jimmie Macgregor, Arthur Johnstone, Dick Gaughan, and  Alistair MacDonald. Hilary Brooks and Fraser Speirs will be there in first-class accompaniment. Other musical performers will include James Grant (of Love and Money).

In addition Eddie McGuire’s new composition – Work-in at UCS – a celebration suite – will feature. Eddie wrote an original piece for saxophones in 1971, that he presented to Jimmy Reid. This piece will be performed by Eddie’s traditional music band, the Whistlebinkies, Sax Ecosse and Alba Brass.

Actor and director, David Hayman will perform some of the dramatic speeches of the time and poet Tom Leonard will give a short reading. Well known actor and musician Dave Anderson is MC for the night.

Stephen Wright of organisers FairPley said, “We are delighted  that Celtic Connections has recognised the UCS 40th Anniversary by staging this concert on the last night of the festival. The link between folk music and the struggles of ordinary people is unbreakable; the support of musicians and artists was a key feature of the Work-in.  As the concert on 5th February will demonstrate, their successful fight forty years ago to save shipbuilding on the Clyde continues to inspire artists to this day.”

The concert is being sponsored by Unite the Union, inheritor of many of the UCS unions’ members. Unite’s Scottish Secretary, Pat Rafferty said, “The UCS campaign touched all facets of community and country – including artists in many spheres. It is fitting that a working class struggle is remembered in a festival that connects so many artists. It should provide an example for the struggle of today’s trade unionists.”


For Further Information please contact:

Chris Bartter (Communications) 07715 583 729,

Stephen Wright (FairPley) 07734 350 247,

Jim Lister (FairPley) 07793884136,

Book Review: For the Win

12 Jan

– by Walton Pantland

There is a shortage of literature on trade union organising, so it is a real pleasure to come across Cory Doctorow’s novel about the union organising efforts of a group of young workers in online games in the near future. Unions often seem stuck in the past, and we have suffered from a collective failure of imagination as we have been too busy fire fighting to look at how we might organise emerging sectors. It’s interesting that the best exploration of trade union organising in the information age comes from the world of science fiction.

Cory Doctorow’s For the Win outlines a campaign by the Industrial Workers of the World Wide Web – the Webblies – to organise cyberspace. For the Win is set in the internet cafes of South East Asia in the near future, and tells the story of workers in online video games earning points to sell to Western players. In these games – like current games World of Warcraft and Skyrim – it takes many hours of gaming to earn perks such as effective weapons and other digital, in game bonuses. The young gang of sweatshop gamers puts in long shifts of gaming to earn credit that can be sold to Western gamers keen to level up, but too lazy to put in the hours.  When their gangmasters crack down, they start an in game union organising campaign. Their online avatars unionise and take part in the kind of coordinated mass online action that Anonymous has made famous.

They have to face old-fashioned scabs, and real world vicious gangs hired by the bosses. In order to survive, they build links and solidarity with workers in the real world economy. There are plenty of misunderstandings as they make their case to the more traditional trade unions in the Indian textile industry, but solidarity wins the day in the end. Crucially, they are able to make links with a woman organising illegal “factory girl” unions in China’s sweatshops through a talk show podcast.

The book is aimed at young readers, and would be an excellent gift for a young person with an awakening political consciousness. However, it’s well written and researched, and makes an excellent read for anyone interested in the intersections between unions, technology and economics. Doctorow’s description of the development of a speculative bubble in “game gold” – digital currency earned in online games – is all to believable. This is how capitalism works.

Doctorow’s vision of a new unionism emerging from developing economies and new sectors opened up by technology is prescient, as is the implicit critique that existing unions are too bureaucratically rigid to take on this challenge. He suggests that the challenge for trade union leaders is to realise that we need decentralised organisation, and to let power pass gracefully from their hands to their activists. Activists should be encouraged to experiment with technology, and to build horizontal networks. By managing the shift to more open and decentralised organising structures, the new breed of trade union organisers will be radical facilitators, rather than tub-thumping militants.

The age of mobilising industrial armies is passing. The information age needs a networked trade unionism that builds a swarm of activism around workplace rights and popular campaigns, and acts as the industrial muscle in a world-wide struggle for social justice. Doctorow’s book is a remarkable work of the imagination that allows us to envisage this future.

Even better, Doctorow believes in flexible, balanced copyright, and uses the same Creative Commons license that Unite Scotland uses for this site. That means you can either buy a hard copy of the book, or download an e-book, for free and legally, from his website.


– Follow @doctorow on twitter.

The Courageous State by Richard Murphy

8 Dec

What is The Courageous State?

The Courageous State is a new book published in November 2011 by the economics and tax blogger, Richard Murphy. Amongst other things, Richard has done much of the work on the tax gap for the TUC, PCS and other unions including Unite Scotland on Corporation Tax.

What does The Courageous State say?

Three things. First it argues that neoliberal economics, of the sort we’ve suffered for thirty years, has given us cowardly politicians who think anything they do will be worse than the market outcome, so they do nothing. Richard argues we need a strong mixed economy with proactive government leadership of the public services instead.

Second, Richard doesn’t just reject neoliberalism, he offers whole raft of new economic thinking that shows why it’s wrong and then explains the theory of how it could be put right.

And thirdly, because theory is useless if it cannot be put into practice, Richard proposes a whole new range of economic policy proposals that Courageous politicians could adopt to get us out of the neoliberal mess we’re in. There are six chapters devoted to that practical stuff. That’s stuff like defending the NHS and freeing it from the market, delivering the investment needed to create jobs, ensuring we have the education we need, funding real care for the elderly and ensuring we have decent homes for real people to live in.

Why buy it now?

 Because everyone says that we’re living with the problem of there being no alternative ideas to counter neoliberalism – and now there are lots of them and The Courageous State is part of the answer.

For more information visit Richard’s site here on the book and on wider Tax Justice issues.

Music Review – Steve Earle and the Dukes

18 Nov

– by Ian McDonald

Steve Earle and the Dukes [and Duchesses] featuring Allison Moorer – Glasgow O2 Academy, 27th Oct.

“If you got a Boss, you need a Union.”

About halfway through the show, Steve Earle made the comment ‘If you got a Boss, you need a Union’ after talking about what was happening in the USA to the union movement, particularly the attacks on collective bargaining in Wisconsin and Maine.

This tour is Steve’s first with a band in about six years and his first at the O2 Academy, his usual preferred Glasgow venue being the Barrowlands, where, as he put it, the floor and the audience bounce. He also stated that this gig showed why he and other musicians like playing to Glasgow audiences.

Since the last tour with the Dukes, Steve has moved from Nashville to New York, re-invented himself as a Greenwich Village based folk singer with the album Washington Square Serenade and made an album of Townes Van Zandt songs (Townes) and also found the time to be a political activist, actor and author.

Steve has toured almost constantly for the last few years, either with wife Allison Moorer or solo, and over the last year with this new band, which is one of the most versatile line-ups there could be – at one point a Celtic folk rock band with Johnny come lately , the next a hard rock outfit with great versions of The Revolution starts now and Taneytown. And then a bluegrass band: the version of The Mountain had exquisite harmonies from the Dukes and Duchesses.

On bass and drums with the band were long time Dukes, Kelly Looney and Will Rigby and on vocals, guitar, pedal steel, mandolin was Chris Masterton along with Eleanor Whitmore on fiddle, guitar and vocals. Allison Moore completes the line-up on guitars, accordion and keyboards and her featured version of the Sam Cooke soul classic A change is gonna come was powerful and intense and quietened the chattering members of the Glasgow audience for a while.

The latest album I’ll never get out of this world alive shares its title with the novel he has just brought out and also refers back to the Hank Williams’ song of the same name. The album is a great collection of songs which in the main deal with mortality. 57 year old Steve and Allison Moorer have a son who is just over a year old, and who Steve plans to take to Yankees games. The O2 show started with Waiting for the sky to fall, the opening track from the new album. The first half was being recorded by Radio Scotland for the Ricky Ross ‘Another Country’ programme and consisted of a few tracks from the new album, Little Emperor with its reference to George W Bush and The Gulf of Mexico inspired by the BP Gulf of Mexico oil disaster and a mixture of other songs from Steve’s career.

The show lasted nearly three hours and the favourites were played – Guitar Town, Someday, My old friend the blues, Copperhead Road, Galway Girl and after two encores including Bob Dylan’s It takes a lot to laugh, Steve and the band came out to the merchandise stand to sign CDs and books.

I have seen Steve Earle on a number of occasions and at the O2 Academy the Hard Core Troubadour and his band were on top form and the Glasgow audience enjoyed a top class combination of political activism and great songs.