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Trade Union activity and the trade cycle

taken from Norman Gash, Aristocracy and People

It is often said that swings occurred according to disillusionment first with trade unionism and then with political activity. Thus, in the years 1830-32, it is said, working-class activity swung away from trade unionism into politics, after failure of strikes in 1829-30; but then disillusionment with the Reform Bill caused a swing back into trade unionism combined with Owenite socialism; after the collapse of the 'Grand National' in 1834, however, there was a gradual swing back to Radical activity, leading to Chartism; but again, when Chartism failed in the late 1830s and early 1840s there was a revival of trade unionism in the middle 1840s only to be followed by a swing back to Chartism again in 1847-48; and after the Chartist collapse in 1848 there came 'New Model' trade unionism.

The pendulum theory is often associated with the trade cycle, as evidenced by the statements of Briggs and Prothero. That trade fluctuations had profound social effects is, of course, generally agreed: changes in the level of industrial and commercial activity obviously affected employment, wages and the cost of living, and the resultant pattern of prosperity and depression, it would seem equally obvious, must have been closely related to trade-union and other working-class movements.

What pattern, then, emerges from all this theorising? The trade cycle seems generally to have had a dominating influence on both trade-union and political activity. In booms, the favoured and strongly organised trades, both the old and new elite, conducted advance movements, while even the depressed trades had a respite and tried to strengthen their organisation. In slumps, the stronger trade societies tended to be more quietly defensive, though sometimes having to fight strongly against wage-cuts, while the depressed trades struggled in much direr straits. This cyclical pattern in trade unionism continued into the second half of the nineteenth century; there was no great 'economic watershed', as postulated by Hobsbawm, around mid-century.

The political swings may also be fitted into this economically determined pattern. In general, these were much more marked among the weaker or unorganised trades, for whom politics appeared to offer some hope in trade depressions; the stronger trades tended to hold aloof from politics, in both boom and slump, relying more on trade-union action. This general political pattern, however, did not apply invariably. There was considerable variation, as Briggs emphasised, according to the local economic and social background.

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