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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.