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Sunday, 31 August 2014

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Hidden in the hills

When historians come to write the history of the early 21st century they’ll have to mention the work of David Clark.

The Cumbrian politician – now Lord Clark of Windermere – was the cabinet minister during Tony Blair’s first term who pioneered the Freedom of Information Act.

That ground-breaking law allowed us to see our MPs’ expenses claims – and revealed some very dubious ones indeed. It could be said that Lord Clark indirectly helped end the careers of some crooked politicians.

So he may feature in the history books of the future. At the moment, however, he is behind one of the history books of today.

Lord Clark is author of The Labour Movement in Westmorland, published this week and telling the story of the struggles of working people and of the trade unions in Cumbria up to the present day.

The 72-year-old former MP has penned four other books on his movement’s history, but admits he was at first reluctant to take up this latest one.

After all, the Cumbrian countryside has rarely been fertile territory for his party. Penrith and the Border has long been a Conservative stronghold and Westmorland and Lonsdale was also in Tory hands until 2005 – since when it has been Liberal Democrat.

Labour may be stronger in Allerdale, Copeland and Carlisle – but the party never made much headway in Cumbria’s more rural areas.

Indeed the first story in the book is of Frank Parrott, a Labour supporter and new headmaster of a school in Kirkby Stephen and the two ladies who visit him asking for his subscription to the local Conservative Association. They assumed that any headteacher there had to be a Tory.

“When I was invited to write the book I hesitated, for there were practically no records and I felt there would be nothing to unearth,” Lord Clark recalls. “How wrong I was. The Lake District has masked much poverty – and hidden many political surprises.

“For instance, I was really amazed how solid the county was during the General Strike of 1926. Every trade unionist who was called out came out.”

And Lord Clark has great admiration for the farm workers at Askham near Penrith who banded together to form the Agricultural Labourers’ Union, virtually in the shadow of Lord Lonsdale’s Lowther Castle.

“Lonsdale was fanatically anti-Labour – and he owned everything as far as the eye could see. Those guys who formed a union were very brave individuals. The could have lost their jobs and their homes.”

It wasn’t just the trade unions which were strong here, Lord Clark discovered. Another surprise was the strength of a very different kind of union: The British Union of Fascists (BUF). It was local Labour members who led the campaign against fascism.

“You thought of fascism as being confined to the East End of or central Manchester, areas with large Jewish populations.

“But Oswald Mosley, the fascist leader, had identified Westmorland as a key seat. He held meetings that attracted 2,000 people. And William Joyce was a regular visitor.”

Joyce was the notorious “Lord Haw Haw”, who made Nazi propaganda broadcasts from Berlin during the Second World War. His wife Margaret Cairns White had lived in Nelson Street in Carlisle’s Denton Holme area.

The BUF planned to put up one member, Price Heywood, as an election candidate. “I spoke to a chap in his 70s who used to deliver milk to his house. His mother told him: ‘Be careful because he’s a friend of Oswald Mosley’s’.”

Anti-fascists mobilised in Cumbria. At the Grasmere youth hostel run by Harry Kirkby, volunteers for the Spanish Civil War against Franco’s fascists received their basic training before joining the International Brigades. And one man who warned tirelessly of the dangers of fascism was local Unitarian minister Rev Baker Short, whose wife Evelyn was a Labour candidate in the 1935 election.

“The Shorts had studied in Germany in the 1930s when Hitler was coming to power, so they were very much aware of the danger of the Nazis.”

When Jews were being murdered in Europe, the Shorts adopted three Jewish refugee children.

Writing is not Lord Clark’s only occupation these days. As a former chairman of the Forestry Commission he is prominent in the campaign against the Government’s plans to privatise our woods. He’s also a dedicated Carlisle United fan, never missing a home game. And he is a regular attender at the House of Lords, saying: “There’s still a big job to do there.”

But with today’s challenges to deal with, is there any real value in visiting the political struggles of the past? He believes so.

“Democracy is important,” he argues. “Whether you’re Conservative, Liberal or Labour, you believe in people having the final say.

“The fight for the vote wasn’t easy. Many people fought for it and some of them lost their jobs and often their homes in that fight.

“There’s never any harm in knowing your history and knowing what your ancestors had to go through. It can only make you a better judge of today.”

The Labour Movement in Westmorland is published by Lensden Publishing and costs £14.99.

SBlease@cngroup.co.uk

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