North East radicals highlighted by People's Museum

From Beveridge to Blair, a new list outlines the people who have changed Britain

Labour Ministers outside Buckingham Palace following the formation of the first Labour Government. 23rd January 1924
Labour Ministers outside Buckingham Palace following the formation of the first Labour Government. 23rd January 1924

He's unlikely to be on most people’s Christmas card lists, let alone grab a top spot in a new political hall of fame.

Yet former Prime Minister and North East MP Tony Blair has made it to the People’s History Museum’s ‘100 Radical Heroes’ line-up.

His elevation from Sedgefield MP, to the leader of the Labour party and eventual PM, saw him reform turn-of-the-century politics, and it’s for that reason he’s been placed, deliberately and controversially, on the Manchester based museum’s list.

He joins a stellar cast, however.

Whether born in the region, or inspired by its citizens’ decades of labour and toil, political radicals hailing from north Northumberland to County Durham have been so influential they make up 10% of the entire list.

Museum curator Chris Burgess said: “The North East’s contribution to the UK as a whole politically is absolutely huge. Emily Wilding Davison is one of the most famous, and we also have a large amount in our collection on Ellen Wilkinson.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair
 

“I think there’s so many from the North East because of the history of industry and ship-building - in Manchester it would have been the link to cotton. But radicalism is in part the spread of ideas quickly and revolutionary ideas can spread quickly when people work closely together in a place of industry.”

Sitting next to Tony Blair is William Beveridge, architect of the welfare state, economist and social reformer, who sat in the House of Lords under the title of Baron Beveridge, representing Tuggal in Northumberland.

A trio of trailblazing women also take their rightful place, and include Ms Davison, ‘Red Ellen’ Wilkinson, who was one of the first female Labour MPs and first female minister of education, and Margaret Bondfield, the MP for Wallsend and the first woman cabinet minister.

Charles Grey, the 2nd Earl Grey, who became Prime Minister, is classed as a radical for introducing the Great Reform Act of 1832 which changed constituency boundaries and expanded the franchise by giving the vote to anyone who owned property worth more than £10.

But unlike some others on the list, his radical credentials gained pace almost as soon as he resigned as Prime Minister, and Newcastle’s Grey’s Monument was built four years after he stepped down from office in 1838 to commemorate his great political achievement.

A favourite of the curator Chris Burgess to take his place among the top 100 is Arthur Henderson, who was the first Labour cabinet minister and won the Nobel Peace Prize, but whom in earlier life worked in a locomotive factory in Newcastle before becoming MP for Barnard Castle.

Arthur Henderson's Nobel Peace Prize
Arthur Henderson's Nobel Peace Prize
 

Chris said: “He served in the First World War Cabinet. He was a seminal man and without him the Labour Party wouldn’t have become as important as it was.

“By him going into the five-man War Cabinet it was from that point onwards that people looked at the Labour Party differently. There has been a lot of misunderstanding about the First World War that the left was very pro-war as trade union leaders actively recruited.

“Arthur Henderson was essentially against the war but realised that it was a war that did need to be fought and won and he became a member of that Cabinet.”

“Uncle Arthur”, as he was known among the Labour party, started off as a Iron Founders Union organiser in Newcastle after starting work in a factory aged 12.

After rising through the ranks and winning seats at various by-elections he eventually went on to become leader of the party after Ramsay MacDonald resigned.

In 1915, following Prime Minister HH Asquith’s decision to create a coalition government, he became the first member of the Labour Party to be made a member of the Cabinet, as President of the Board of Education.

In 1916 he became a member of the small War Cabinet with the post of Minister without Portfolio but resigned in August 1917 after his proposal for an international conference on the war was rejected by the rest of the cabinet.

His son died during the Battle of the Somme, which went on to inform many of his views on conflict, and after he stepped down as leader of the Labour Party he went to work for the World League of Peace and chaired the Geneva Disarmament Conference, which led to him being awarded the 1934 Nobel Peace Prize.

Chris said: “He was such an interesting character.”

Many on the radicals list have lost their rightful place in history as the people who had the greatest influence, argues Chris, and it is the museum’s intention to restore some of those forgotten names back into the course of debate and discussion.

Sponsorship worth £3,000 is being sought for each person on the list and so far 32 people or organisations have come forward to donate money in their honour to the museum.

While most of the North East names are currently without a financial backer, ‘Red Ellen’ Wilkinson’s inclusion as a leading British radical has been sponsored by Lord John Monks, who is a patron of the institution, which is based at Spinningfields in Manchester.

Tom Mann, a leading trade unionist active in the mid to late 19th century, also makes the list, and has been sponsored by Unite the Union.

This colliery clerk from Coventry was radicalised himself after reading Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist Manifesto and arrived in Newcastle in 1887 to work as the Social Democratic Federation’s northern organizer.

While in the area he helped form the North of England Socialist Federation and acted as the manager of the campaign to get Keir Hardie elected as MP for Mid-Lanarkshire in Scotland.

Another ‘lost name’ is John Lilburne, a Sunderland-born Durham based landowner and a prominent Leveller who first defined the notion of human rights.

He was imprisoned for distributing unlicenced Puritan books and pamphlets before becoming a Parliamentarian soldier under Oliver Cromwell.

After the English Civil War he helped draft the Leveller manifesto, An Agreement of the People, and his radical views on the end of the monarchy and Parliamentary reform meant he was regularly imprisoned until his death aged 42 in 1657.

Chris said: “There’s been lots of debate about the list which is really interesting. The definition does tend to depend on who the person is but it’s someone who is changing the status quo as they see it and the existing order. Some people will think one person is a radical, whereas others will see that person as the worst person in the world!”

Richard Cobden, who co-founded the Anti-Corn Law League and went to Bowes School is also a North East great, as well as British Prime Harold Minister MacMillan, who was MP for Stockton-upon-Tees.

For the full list of radicals visit www.phm.org.uk/support-us/sponsors/100-radical-heroes .

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