on 2 February 2016
Graham Taylor – ADA SALTER: Pioneer of Ethical Socialism – London Lawrence and Wishart 2016
The sweep of this book is remarkable: the Women’s Movement from the early 1900s to the outbreak of WW2, the struggle for universal suffrage, the principle of beautification and Nature in cities, gardening as a democratic activity, the reduction in the spread of infectious diseases through advances in community housing, the combining of art, education, culture and working class politics, trade unionism, the rise, fall and rebirth of localism and its power to change society from the ground up, the stand of ethical socialism against compromise in party and government policy. All these! Yet what is truly extraordinary is that Graham Taylor has introduced this powerful mix as the essential ingredients of a highly focused biography of one person: Ada Salter. Her story is exciting because at every turn she was active in bringing about change in those areas which most effect people’s everyday lives. Graham Taylor describes how, as a married couple Alfred, a Doctor who combined healing people with a life-long dedication to the Independent Labour Party both from inside and outside the House of Commons, and Ada, a woman who worked tirelessly for a better world through societies, guilds, local council elections, and international women’s groups, succeeded in making Bermondsey a model as a garden city appreciated and copied the world over. Meticulously researched evidence is marshalled to show that it was Ada who was the main force behind the changes in Bermondsey and London as a whole, while Alfred concentrated on the wider political stage, serving as an MP. Far from being his “assistant” – as had previously been accepted – she was in every sense a leader in her field, as he was in his. However, of the two it can be said that she was the more successful.
As a historian, Graham Taylor demonstrates how things are not as they are made to look and people are not as they are portrayed. The way things actually happened is the job of the historian to find out and communicate, and this book does exactly that. For example I did not realise that even though women were awarded the right to vote in 1918, only some women were. Those women who had property could vote but working class women did not gain the power to vote until 1928. Churchill, Ramsay Macdonald, the Suffragettes – all appear differently in these pages from their image in the popular imagination.
Ada’s work in housing, the creation of open spaces for games and leisure, Alfred’s and her commitment to pacifism and non-violence emerge as key factors in the actual reforms and revolutionary change that took place on the ground from the early 1900s onwards to the outbreak of the Second World War. The forces which resisted such change are made up of the unexpected as well as the predictable. For example by reading this book you will find out how a small delegation of British Women in 1916 were able to travel to Switzerland and defeat Lenin. Ada’s activism stretched from trees to trade unions, from women’s rights to the promotion of churchyard orchestras. It was from her Methodist background in Raunds Nothamptonshire that she brought this tradition of celebrating life through music, dance and temperance. Ada and Alfred were at the heart of the Co-operative movement, as their work to establish and help run the local cooperative bakery shows. Graham Taylor through extensive research shows categorically that it was Ada, through her indefatigable efforts, who, through a whole range of skills and contacts, was able to ensure that such ventures were a success. The book is the result of the historical method yet it reads as a story shot through with dramatic happenings. For all the positive energy in these Salter narratives, tragic themes also emerge, in the domestic sphere, the political front and also on the global stage with the outbreaks of two world wars. Graham Taylor is faithful to his subject and never lets his grip slacken on all aspects of her varied and charismatic life.
The closing chapters of the book build a bridge from Ada’s extraordinary and dedicated life to our own lives today. As you reach the end of the story, the arguments that were won, the ground that was lost, the huge progress that was made, despite wars and reactionary politicians, you cannot help but realise you have been moved by the life of a great person. Here you will find her immense energy and love for ordinary people and be amazed at how someone so gentle – who valued and agued for trees and flowers as contributors to our wellbeing – could win such important ground, and advance so far in the hard-headed world of party politics. This book, in its study of Ada and also of the partnership of Alfred and Ada, demonstrates that it is through kindness, love and friendship that communities as well as individuals can become brave and unswerving in their commitment to humanitarian goals. Ethical socialism in its pure form emerges as a kind of activism through which the negative, life-threatening forces which bug and stifle humanity can be made to recede.
Kenneth Hyam Jan 2016