Written by Joseph Hettrick, OULC member and head of the History Working Group.
The early 20th century was truly an Age of Extremes. The rule by ledger and Parliamentary Blue Book that had been the dominant discourse of the Benthamite middle classes for much of the 19th century was dead. New movements in art were challenging the decorous self-portrait of Edwardian society which excluded the miserable existences of those ostracised from public life. Russia’s ancien régime had been crushed by Lenin’s revolution and the potential of the first socialist republic to usher in a new civilisation reflecting the principles of equality, freedom and solidarity was, by all accounts, undimmed. Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George warned his fellow heads of government that the potential for European-wide socialist revolution was real. Britain was not immune. Clydeside, Tyneside and Sheffield were all tinder-boxes waiting to explode and the Home Office made provisions and inquiries into how to deal with insurrection.
Nationally, the Labour Party was well placed to soak up the outpouring of discontent that the experiences of the trench, the field hospital and the munitions factory had engendered. It had developed a new constitution under the leadership of Arthur Henderson, leaning heavily on the intellectual leg-work of the industrious Webbs, and it was now a much larger party than it had been in 1900 when the Labour Representation Committee was formed by a meeting of 129 delegates with an election budget of £237. The party fielded 361 candidates in the 1918 ‘khaki’ election and whilst unsurprisingly it did not gain many seats against the war-victor Lloyd George, it is worth noting the improvement in the number of second place finishes, with a 22% share of the vote. The cohort of mayors elected to the London Boroughs in 1919 consisted of some of the giants of Labour history: Herbert Morrison, Major Clement Attlee, and George Lansbury. Eventually as more trade unions had affiliated to the Party and independence from the Liberal election pact was slowly realised, the Labour Party began to look like a real force in British politics, to the extent that by 1924 only 19 constituencies lacked a local Labour Party. Support could be found on the factory floor and in the cloisters of Oxford, where the ‘Red Professors’ Cole, Tawney and Laski were key to the development of new ideas for the Party. It was therefore a fecund time ideologically and organisationally.
Oxford felt the effect of these twin factors profoundly. The guns had fallen silent and the young ladies and gentlemen of the early 20th century returned to the University with a fundamentally altered perspective, aware more acutely than ever before that their privilege did not protect them from the swinging scythe of death, the great leveller. As well as egalitarian impulses, the shocks of the recent past would have imparted a sense of millenarian urgency. The warning of Jose Enrique Rodo, a philosopher admired by many leftists at the time, was to “Be ye conscious possessors of the blessed power you contain within yourselves. But do not forget that this power is no more exempt than other virtuous impulses from weakening and disappearing if it be not carried into action.” The point was that, however patent it may have seemed that the old order had crumbled, what would replace it was a yet more profound question. It was this excitement and the need to do something, as much as a genuine subscription to the policies of the Labour Party, that led to the foundation of Oxford University Labour Club. There was no want of socialist societies in Oxford, ranging from those influenced by the utopianism of William Morris, to the Fabianism of G.D.H. Cole, to the Independent Labour Party with its property on Gloucester Green, to the Trade Unionism of Ruskin Hall. Nor did these groups lack the capacity for co-operation that, on a national level, had engendered the formation of the Labour Representation Committee; the Oxford University Socialist Society had formed on 1st June 1915 and groups such as the Fabians became self-governing affiliates.
It was thus that restlessness played its part in the creation of OULC. At the end of an unusually dry month, a rag-tag bunch of undergraduates met in the spacious and rather grand rooms of Leslie Hore-Belisha in St John’s College on the 30th May 1919. It was only the proposal of the question “Is this to be a capitalist club?” by a certain B. Nicholas that led a breakaway group to found OULC, leaving Hore-Belisha to later become Neville Chamberlain’s Secretary for War and according to the great Nye Bevan a man to whom “it is not worthwhile to extend any sympathy.” On 18th June a second informal meeting was held at which the plans for the Club were established, again at St John’s, this time in Gray Jones’ room. It was decided that the Club would meet on Friday evenings. At the start of the next term, on 31st October 1919, 60 people gathered in the rooms that the Club had acquired in the ‘Three Feathers’ pub in St Aldates for the first General Meeting of OULC. This figure was clearly a disappointment to members who explained it away as due to the bad weather and the difficulty in finding the venue for the first time. Little did they know that they had begun a club whose history, personalities and fissures would both reflect and shape the corresponding history of the British Labour Party.
In the paper The New Oxford, which, although not “slavishly following any political party”, became a mouthpiece for the new club, E. J. Lassen, perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, did manage to divine a more ideologically rigorous ratiocination for the foundation of the Club. The article warned of the danger “that a great mass movement like that of British Labour may be tending towards the division of the community as to those who work by hand, and those who do not.” This, it was thought, was contrary to the declared aim of the Party. The contradiction and tension between being an Oxonian and a member of a party dedicated to the interests of the working class was clearly of paramount importance to the founding members who in the same article went to great lengths to reassure members that the trade unions were greatly interested and supported the growth of the Labour Party in universities. The policy of the Club was “to keep in touch with the headquarters of the Labour Party and try and secure the presence of its best statesmen to address the club.” In this they succeeded. The final warning shot of the article was less well heeded by future generations of OULC members: “the critics must remember that all parties contain sections with different views and it is much worse to get rid of extremists altogether than to keep them in check.”
On October 31st 2019, OULC will celebrate its centenary. To be involved with the project to write its history, please contact email@example.com