and the wages are poor

In many ways this doesn’t look like a particularly left-wing song. Look at the second verse:

If we could find labour we ne’er would complain
We’d work well for a master his favour to gain
We’d be honest and faithful with never a stain

It’s not exactly “Solidarity Forever”, is it? Right Argument 1: Workers Want to Serve. (Or else “workers should want to serve” – or possibly “workers want to serve, deep down“.) Then:

a man with a family, his hands they are tied
He must look to their comfort or lose all his pride

And:

it breaks his poor heart for to see his wife cry
So, poor fellow, he’ll do what he can
… he’ll turn out and rob,
Poor fellow, to prove he’s a man.

Right Arguments 2a and 2b: A Man Needs His Pride and Men Are The Breadwinners. (These weren’t radical or unusual arguments in the 1780s, when the action of the song was set; they were still very much the common sense of the age. But they certainly aren’t left arguments.)

Then some thoughts about crime:

If a good man goes robbing, you know it’s a shame
He brings scorn and misfortune on his honest name

Right Arguments 3a and 3b: Respectability Is Valuable and Crime Is Shameful.

And the big finish:

let’s hope that these hard times will soon pass away
And unto our sweet Saviour we earnestly pray
That this dark cloudy morn brings a glorious day

Opening with a nod to the traditional song Hard Times of Old England, these lines preach religiously-justified passivity. Right Argument 4: The Lord Will Provide (Because We Can’t).

To be fair, there are a few lines in the song which seem to be making ‘left-wing’ arguments. On inspection there are two main arguments, each with two sub-claims. There’s an argument about unemployment:

So how can a good man keep the wolf from the door?
Poor fellows, we all will go down.
When work it is scarce, tell me, how can we eat?
How can we afford to buy shoes for our feet?

Sometimes people are out of work because there is no work, or not enough work. And we can’t assume the existence of some Darwinian struggle guaranteeing that the scarce jobs go to the best people: sometimes good people suffer, through no fault of their own, because the jobs aren’t there. So here’s Left Argument 1a: Unemployment is Real. (Also, in the ‘shoes’ line, another nod to Hard Times of Old England.)

We could plough the good land, we could fish the salt sea
We could work in the woodland a-felling of trees

Anyone who’s ever been unemployed or under-employed – a group which included Peter Bellamy – can identify with this couplet: there’s stuff I could do! (“Gizza job. I could do that.”) Left Argument 1b: Unemployment has Social Costs.

Then there’s an argument about crime:

a man that is desperate and can’t find a job
He will not be contented to sit home and sob:
Be he never so honest, he’ll turn out and rob

Crime isn’t only committed by people dedicated to dishonesty: an honest man may be driven to it. So that’s Left Argument 2a: Crime has Social Causes.

The fourth claim ties the two arguments together:

If a good man goes robbing, you know it’s a shame
He brings scorn and misfortune on his honest name
But in pitiful straits, tell me, who is to blame?

Left Argument 2b: Poverty Reduces Blame.

In short, this is a left-wing song inasmuch as it argues that the economy sometimes denies people a job; that this has bad results for them and for society, including a rise in crime; and that, in the circumstances, some of those responsible for the rise in crime aren’t entirely to blame.

On the other hand, it’s a right-wing song inasmuch as it argues for subservience at work, patriarchal dominance at home, respectability and rejection of crime, and pious fatalism.

Three thoughts come to mind. Firstly, it seems to me that those right-wing values are a lot more fundamental than the supposedly left-wing ones. Whether crime may sometimes be promoted by economic conditions is very much a secondary question compared with the questions of whether workers should “work well for a master, his favour to gain”; whether a man should be seen (and see himself) as the head of the household; whether criminality is always shameful; and whether improvements to collective conditions can be left in the hands of the Almighty. This is not surprising: Peter Bellamy had a long-running disagreement with those folk singers who claimed to have excavated a radical tradition of working-class song, maintaining that the huge majority of traditional songs about work celebrate working conditions and wish the master well. This is, in part, his tribute to that tradition.

Secondly, I think it’s arguable that the left-wing arguments aren’t actually left-wing at all, in two senses. To say that a capitalist economy doesn’t guarantee full employment – and that it is indifferent to the personal worth of the people it periodically throws out of work – is not a left-wing argument, or any sort of argument; from my limited understanding of economics, it’s basically a statement of fact. To say that social conditions temper effective freedom of choice, again, isn’t so much a left-wing argument as common sense. On the other hand to say that, when freedom is reduced, blame for wrongdoing should also be reduced isn’t a left-wing argument but a compassionate one. What this song demonstrates, in other words, is that it’s possible to combine a highly conservative worldview – in which respectable working men serve their masters, provide for their families and have no aspirations to bring about social change – with economic realism and compassion. I think they used to call this combination ‘Toryism’.

But (thirdly) if that’s the case, what are we saying when we say that this sounds like a left-wing song? I think this tells us something about what ‘right-wing’ means these days. It suggests that ‘right-wing’ means looking at unemployment through a stigmatising mythology of the deserving and undeserving poor, instead of from the perspective of economic realism, and looking at law-breakers as criminal types who deserve only punishment, rather than trying to extend compassionate understanding to them. In short, it means allowing the pleasures of class warfare to take precedence over rationality and humanity, to say nothing of the effective reduction of crime and the management of the business cycle.

In conclusion, let’s hope that… well, these hard times are going to be with us for a while, particularly given that the present government plainly regards promoting economic growth as less important than assuring its own survival. But let’s hope that by the end of the year Labour, at least, has a leader who doesn’t believe in dealing with unemployment by attacking the unemployed, or dealing with crime by making convicted criminals suffer – and who, unlike the previous leader, believes in stating his or her beliefs clearly and without equivocation. It wouldn’t make Labour a left-wing party, and it probably wouldn’t take them any nearer to power – but it would represent an act of moral and intellectual hygiene which is long overdue.

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