Why did discontented members of the middle classes seek to mobilise, lobby for and protect their own interests in the 1920s and 1930s? Staff and students at Kingston University were recently given a talk in the History Research Seminar Series, organised by Marisa Linton of the History Department, which explored an organisation called the ‘Middle Classes Union’ in Britain between the wars.
The talk, entitled ‘Awakening the Nation: The Rise and Fall of the Middle Classes Union in Interwar Britain’, was given by Dr. Steve Woodbridge, of Kingston University. It took place on Tuesday, 23rd February at the Penryhn Road campus.
Dr. Woodbridge revealed that the organisation was founded in central London in 1919, with a number of businessmen and Members of Parliament forming the main executive committee at the heart of the movement. During the early 1920s the Middle Classes Union (MCU), which was designed by its founders to lobby and fight for the ‘man in the middle’ or the ‘middle interest’ in society, quickly grew into a movement with over 300 branches across the country, which was also able to publish its own monthly printed news journal, The New Voice.
The MCU proclaimed that it wanted to ‘awaken the nation’ to the plight of the supposedly hard-pressed and over-taxed middle classes, and a former top civil servant and industrial negotiator, Lord Askwith, eventually emerged as its President and main public figurehead, a position he held until 1930.
Askwith was the author of Industrial Problems and Disputes (1920), and felt that industrial ‘harmony’ and peace was essential to future prosperity. He was highly critical of the Labour and Socialist movement, hated class conflict, and saw Trade Unionists as ‘victims’ of manipulative Communist subversion. Indeed, in many ways, the MCU became a strike-breaking organisation, prepared to help the government in times of industrial ’emergency’ through the provision of numerous volunteers to run transport and other essential services. Another key figure was the Die-hard Conservative MP John Pretyman Newman, who was one of the founding members and also became its first chairman. Pretyman Newman was strongly anti-Bolshevik and quite outspoken (even voicing sympathy for fascism), and this created considerable unease among some of the other more moderate and ‘respectable’ members. He stepped down in 1922, taking the role of vice-chair instead.
In 1922, perhaps worried at its ‘sectarian’ image, the MCU retitled itself the ‘National Citizens Union’ (NCU), but continued to campaign for the middle classes across the nation, warning in particular about the ‘dangers’ (as members saw it) of Socialism and Communism. For a brief period in the 1920s, it became quite an extensive national organisation, yet drew much of its strength mainly in the south of the country. In the 1930s it went into steady decline, increasingly showing some strong fascist tendencies.
Steve provided an overview of the MCU based on his recent research at the National Archives (TNA), the British Library, and in local archives. He explored the nature of the organisation at national level, but also with special reference to branches in the Thames Valley area (there were branches in, for example, Richmond, Barnes, Twickenham, Chiswick, Brentford, and Sunbury). He described how Kingston itself saw the creation of an early branch of the MCU, which was launched at Surbiton Assembly Rooms, just a short distance away from the current site of the main Kingston University campus.
Moreover, the MCU soon began to make newsworthy waves at local level, with a notably rowdy public meeting held in 1920 in Kingston, where rival members of the audience (i.e. MCU supporters and anti-MCU socialists) tried to shout the speakers down and drown each other out through heckling and loud singing of either the ‘red Flag’ or the ‘National Anthem’!
Similarly, Steve described how the MCU/NCU in Kingston was especially active during the General Strike of May, 1926, with the local branch providing the services of 100 volunteer owner-drivers to help ferry non-striking workers to their places of employment, either in Kingston or in central London.
However, as Steve demonstrated, the MCU/NCU faced a range of problems when it came to sustaining its momentum. Its ‘fascist’ image and associations, unsurprisingly, were not helpful. Two Conservative MPs, C.R. Burn and R. Burton-Chadwick, for example, were members of both the MCU and the British Fascists. Moreover, another activist and regular speaker was the highly controversial historian and conspiracy theorist Nesta Webster, who often espoused anti-Semitic ideas.
Furthermore, there were evident tensions between the organisation at national level and the concerns and priorities of the local branches. At national level, the desire to smash the Labour and Trade Union movement tended to be the main preoccupation of the executive, whereas at local branch level the activists tended to want to campaign solely on very ‘local’ and parochial issues, such as the state of the roads or the ‘spendthrift’ policies of local municipal Town Halls.
Another problem was the ageing profile of much of the membership. Many of the branches were sustained by a hard core of dedicated, but mainly middle-aged or elderly, activists. The MCU/NCU found it very difficult to attract sufficient numbers of younger people into its ranks. As Steve pointed out, one response of the organisation to its decline was to try to reinvent itself as a ‘ratepayers’ organisation at local level but, again, this was not all that successful, as the already existing and more genuine ratepayer groups resented the attempts of a new arrival trying to muscle in on the local activist scene.
All in all, the talk helped to introduce the audience to a little-known but fascinating aspect of British interwar history and politics. Ultimately, the MCU did not really succeed in its stated mission: many middle-class people did not ‘awaken’ and remained stubbornly resistant to the movement’s appeal. By 1939, the organisation had effectively collapsed.