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Response to Review no. 1049

I am very pleased that Jo McBride found so much to appreciate in The Tide of Democracy, especially as she has both a scholarly knowledge of the shipbuilding industry and many family and friends involved in it. Endorsement of my book from such a reviewer is deeply reassuring, and it is an added bonus that she also found it written in such a way as to be accessible beyond a narrow circle of academic specialists.

Jo was especially enthusiastic about the first part which deals with the organisation of craft production, and she made many interesting suggestions of other issues to pursue. I would be delighted if other scholars were to do this, as shipbuilding was a huge and complex industry, full of variations between regions, smaller localities and indeed firms. Though I would just add that we always need to ask whether, significant as they were to those immediately involved, those variations were always meaningful in relation to the larger historical issues at stake.

Jo also found much to appreciate in the second part which deals with leadership and democracy in the boilermakers’ society, but did not seem to have been fully convinced by my presentation. This only came out indirectly when she asserted that I tend to neglect the ‘controlling’ and ‘dictatorial’ aspects of Robert Knight’s leadership. However, while this is indeed received wisdom in the literature, the whole point of chapters seven and eight is to tackle this view head on and refute it, by a thorough comparison of Knight’s overall strategy with that of an allegedly militant successor, John Hill, followed by a careful dissection of the union’s constitution and a key internal debate over constitutional reform.

Perhaps these lingering doubts about the legitimacy of the leadership contributed to Jo’s greater dissatisfaction with the whole of the third part, which explores the theory and practice of craft politics through the lens of the ideas and activities of Knight and Hill. She would have preferred it if this had been left to another book and there had been more on the politics of ordinary shipyard workers. But at this remove in time all we have for that are indirect indicators, and the overall architecture of The Tide of Democracy is an argument that the study of the politics of union leaders is one useful, if indirect, way into the politics of their members as a whole. If craft workers really were as independent as they claimed, and if their unions were significantly less undemocratic than their critics asserted, then it might not be unreasonable to think that the libertarian radicalism of their leaders in this period tells us about something more than just their own individual opinions.