Throughout my life I have experimented with psychogeography (the non-structured exploration of urban environments by chance). As a child, some 65 years ago, my father and I would often go to Halifax Bus Station and catch the first bus that was leaving to “see where it took us”. Ten or more years ago, I embarked on an exploration of West Yorkshire by visiting 500 metre squares chosen by a random number generator. Such exercises in psychogeography are activities for sunnier months – and months when we are not locked down at home. In winter months, therefore, I restrict myself to psychogeography’s first cousin – psychohistory. And by that I mean, the random exploration of history, driven by chance and a delightful lack of purpose. So let us jump on any old newspaper and see where it takes us.
For my exercise today I have not used a random number generator, but simply gone back 100 years to the 11 January 1921. My newspaper of choice is the Daily Mirror, for no other reason than it had an attractive front page, which is useful if I have to live with it on my desktop for the rest of the day. And, as expected, my pointless exploration of the byways of history had fascinating results.
100 years ago today, the Hereford by-election took place and the front page of the Daily Mirror (then a ultra-conservative, right-wing paper controlled by the Harmsworth family) was full of photographs of their favoured candidate in the election, Alderman Ernest Langford. “Alderman Langford, a local man, liked by all who know him, smiles in anticipation of victory” runs one of the captions. Langford was the anti-waste candidate, and the Mirror was a big supporter of the Anti-Waste League (a political party established in 1921), indeed the Mirror owners’ son was the leader of the party.
You can forget your twenty-first century interpretation of the name of the campaign – this had nothing to do with pollution and the environment. The “waste” they were against was the waste of public expenditure on such things as benefits for the poor, house-building or any kind of state social provision. They wanted a small state and an even smaller rate of income tax. Given their media backers, they were remarkably successful, and soon had the ruling Conservative party fearing an electoral rout: so it quickly took the policies of the League on board and began to push, what we would now call “austerity” in a bid way. They appointed a commission under Sir Eric Geddes to look into public expenditure, and the Committee eventually recommended sweeping cuts in spending on education, health, housing and pensions – the so-called “Geddes Axe”. Most people now agree that the impact of this was to seriously exacerbate the economic crisis that dominated the 1920s and 1930s.
Who says you can’t learn anything from history!