2011 ASSLH conference – Labour History and Labour Biography beyond National Boundaries

Labour History and Labour Biography beyond National Boundaries: Britain and Australia from the late nineteenth century to the interwar years

Neville Kirk


This paper concerns itself with the opportunities and potential dangers involved in the study of trans-national labour history and biography. The first part of the paper traces the development of and appraises the ‘turn’ to trans-national labour history. The second part considers the case study of Britain and Australia between the late nineteenth century and the interwar years in order to provide specific examples of some of the general issues involved in the ‘turn’. Part Two draws upon examples from my recent and current publications. These illustrate my predominantly favourable case for trans-national and comparative history and highlight the key importance of individual and collective biography to the trans-national and ultimately global labour history projects.

Neville Kirk is Emeritus Professor of Labour and Social History at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK. He has written extensively in the fields of British, comparative and trans-national history. His publications include Comrades and Cousins: Globalization Workers and Labour Movements in Britain the USA and Australia from the 1880s to 1914 (Merlin Press, 2003) and most recently Labour and the Politics of Empire: Britain and Australia 1900 to the present, a volume in the ‘Studies in Imperialism’ series (Manchester University Press, 2011.  

This article is concerned with the opportunities and potential dangers involved in the study of transnational labour history and biography. The first part traces the development of, and appraises the ‘turn’ to, transnational labour history. The second part considers the case study of Britain and Australia between the late nineteenth century and the interwar years in order to provide specific examples of some of the general issues involved in the ‘turn’. Part Two draws upon examples from my recent and current publications both to illustrate my predominantly favourable case for transnational and comparative history and to highlight the key importance of individual and collective biography to the transnational and ultimately global labour history projects.

Part One: The Transnational ‘Turn’; Development and Appraisal

The recent and current ‘turn’ to transnationalism already enjoys a strong appeal among leading academic labour historians and increasing numbers of their journals in the ‘West’ and the ‘global South’.1 Given the ‘globalised’ times in which we live, this appeal is likely to become ever more powerful in the foreseeable future. Marcel van der Linden, perhaps the leading advocate of ‘labour history beyond borders’, also maintains that the ‘turn’ offers the best hope for the revitalisation and modernisation of a sub-­discipline variously diagnosed since the 1980s as suffering from tiredness, chronic decline and acute, recurring crises of identity and appeal. For van der Linden and his supporters transnationalism promises to hasten not only the demise of ‘new’ (socio-­cultural) and ‘old’ (institutional) labour history’s dominant and outmoded attachments to ‘Eurocentrism’ and ‘methodological nationalism’, but also the development of ‘global’ labour history. In its bright and shiny new colours, labour history will necessitate the adoption of ‘broadened’ ideas and methodologies appropriate to the study of transnational experiences, connections and actions. These will entail, for example, ‘new’, expanded notions of the working class – to include the ‘unfree’, the ‘dependent or marginalised’, as well as the traditionally dominant Western focus upon ‘free’, ‘respectable’ and ‘mainstream’ wage-­earners -­ and the linking of labour processes in a variety of locations by the investigation of ‘global commodity chains’. Much in the manner facilitated by the development of the ‘new’ labour history during the 1960s, the transnational ‘turn’ provides labour history once again with the opportunity to assert its cutting-­edge academic and political credentials, according to van der Linden.2

The historian of modern Britain and its empire, Richard Price, has warmly welcomed the initiatives of van der Linden and the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam as offering the main means of rousing labour history from its post-­1980s ‘Rip Van Winkle’ slumbers. For Price, transnationalism offers ‘one possible future where labour history could once again claim to be a vital and integrative form of doing history’.3 I endorse this sentiment. As one who has attempted variously to integrate the methodologies, concepts and substantive concerns of transnational, cross-­national comparative, imperial and ‘British world’ scholarship into my studies of ‘labour’ in Britain, the United States of America and Australia, I both share Price’s praise for van der Linden’s and his colleagues’ pioneering endeavours and welcome the recent upsurge of interest in labour history ‘beyond borders’.

In my view the promise of transnationalism is, indeed, immense. I agree with the labour historian of Latin America, John French, that transnationalism involves the study of ‘extranational connections’ – movements, encounters, exchanges and reciprocities of people, ideas, goods and institutions beyond national boundaries-­-­and ‘supranational processes’-­-­capitalism, imperialism, industrialisation, urbanisation, demographic change and such like.4 As such, transnationalism usefully enables us to widen our framework of analysis beyond the traditionally dominant national point of reference and facilitates the integration of ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ approaches to the study of labour history. It also encourages us to develop new questions and set them to neglected or more familiar bodies of evidence and subject areas. As a result we will, for example, be much better equipped to extend and deepen our knowledge and understanding of rural as well as urban working classes, of the ‘free’ and ‘unfree’, of the roles of gender, race, religion and ethnicity, of the domestic as well as the factory economy and of rural as well as urban movements and organisations in a variety of global places and spaces.

We will also be far more favourably placed to explore the crucial issue of cultural transfer. This involves the ways and extent to which ideas, cultures and other factors ‘migrate’ across national, continental, imperial and other boundaries, their reception and influence in new contexts and the ways in which they operate and interact in complex, mutual and reciprocal rather than simple and one-­directional ways. In my recent work, for example, I have tried to investigate the extent to which notions of nation, race, empire and class were carried by labour-­movement and working-­class migrants, activists and visitors across the national boundaries of Britain and Australia and within these countries’ imperial, commonwealth and ‘British world’ settings. I have examined, moreover, the extent to which these notions were influenced by new as well as former places of residence, their points of consensus and contestation and the ways, if any, in which they ‘travelled’ backwards and forwards between these places and spaces rather than one-­dimensionally from the British metropolitan ‘core’ to the Australian colonial and commonwealth ‘periphery’. In sum, as we will see in specific detail in Part Two, the study of questions of place, space, context and chronology, individual biography, collective biography or prosopography and connections, experiences and identities (both ‘local’ and ‘transnational’) have been at the heart of my recent explorations of ‘labour’ within the circuits of the British Empire and the British Anglophone world.5

I have also found it advantageous to integrate comparative with transnational history. For example, in eschewing a single nationally-­based approach in favour of immersing myself in the similarities and differences of selected worker and labour movement experiences and actions in various global places, I have been more favourably placed to decide what, if anything, was and is ‘unique’, ‘peculiar’ and ‘exceptional’ about the experience of ‘labour’ nationally and sub-­nationally. Debates about national ‘peculiarities’ and exceptions’-­-­ revolving, for example, around class structure and class-­consciousness, individualism and occupational-­geographic mobility, ethnicity and race-­-­ are longstanding. By adopting a combined transnational and comparative approach, furthermore, we are well placed to move beyond these somewhat tired debates to pose new and in many ways more interesting and fruitful questions about worker and labour-­movement connections, exchanges, similarities and differences which include but also transcend ‘the national’.6

At the same time we must be careful not to pitch our claims for the undoubted merits of transnationalism too high. It is arguably the case that some labour and other historians have welcomed the ‘transnational turn’ too uncritically. There is a tendency, albeit a minority one, to see it incorrectly as a panacea for all or most of labour history’s ills. Like all previous historiographical ‘turns’, that of transnationalism must be approached in a duly critical and balanced manner.7

In this spirit of balanced criticism we may usefully remind ourselves that, to adopt French’s useful definition, the study of both ‘extra-­national connexions’ and ‘super-­national processes’ is by no means a new phenomenon among historians in general and labour historians in particular. For example, as a graduate student in Warwick and Pittsburgh during the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was introduced to a growing and impressive body of work on the migrations, diasporas, connections and reciprocal influences of working-­class people, labour-­movement and other radicals and revolutionaries in nineteenth-­ century Britain, north America and Europe. I was also encouraged to delve into the vast bodies of literature on capitalism, imperialism and international socialism. Alerted, especially by American colleagues, to the significance of factors of race, ethnicity, gender and religion as well as class in specific national and sub-­national contexts, I attempted to remain alive to this important lesson and to incorporate aspects of it, where appropriate, into my research of the 1970s and 1980s. In addition, I soon became aware as a postgraduate student that comparative history enjoyed a long and distinguished pedigree. During the past two decades I have attempted to integrate these insights and approaches into my comparative and transnational studies of not only Britain and the USA, but also Australia. My experiences and career trajectory, moreover, have been shared by other labour historians, especially those who were influenced at an early stage in their academic careers by Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, David Montgomery, Herbert Gutman and Eugene Genovese.8

Yet it must also be observed that the pursuit of comparative and transnational history remained very much a minority concern among predominantly nationally-­focussed labour historians from the 1960s up to the end of the twentieth century. Much ‘comparative’ labour history up to the present day, moreover, has consisted more of largely secondary-­based and often descriptive parallel national case studies rather than explicit attempts to tease out and explain selected comparisons and contrasts on the basis of an interrogation of the primary as well as of the secondary sources.9 In order successfully to achieve the latter it, of course, is necessary to be thoroughly conversant with the empirical literature relating to more than one case study and the necessary conceptual and methodological issues and, where appropriate, language skills involved.

The ‘transnational turn’, furthermore, should be seen as a welcome addition to the existing body of largely nationally focussed historical knowledge rather than being a necessary and superior replacement for it. Due modesty and accurate scholarship demand as much, as does the indisputable fact that historical subjects have and continue to hold several overlapping identities of place, including those of the local, the regional, the national and the transnational.

One of our future tasks as labour historians is more intensively and extensively to set these multiple identities into fruitful engagement rather than seeking to privilege transnational identities over all others. In so doing we must also remember firmly to locate personal and collective encounters, exchanges and influences within their historical, geographical and spatial contexts and chronologies. Transnational exchanges often, of course, occur during particular events, such as international meetings and congresses, and involve not only individuals, but collective actors operating within particular social, cultural and political networks. The further investigation of these networks by means of the study of prosopography constitutes an important and potentially productive area of future transnational labour history.10

Finally, we must recognise the fact that the ‘turn’ is in its infancy. In most recent cases scholars have provided either clarion calls or articles concerning transnational labour history rather than in-­depth research monographs. As such they have usefully added to our knowledge and understanding and pioneeringly opened up the field for further investigation. But many important, and often longstanding, questions remain. For example, how do we relate human agency, experience, actions and consequences (both intended and unintended) to social structures, ‘culture’ to ‘structure’, labour movements and individuals to broad socio-­economic patterns (such as ‘commodity chains’) and politics and culture to economics.11

Yet it would be wrong to end this section on an unduly critical and pessimistic note. The kinds of criticisms and cautions outlined above must not be allowed to obscure the fact that the promise of transnationalism greatly outweighs its actual and potential dangers and weaknesses. Above all, new and younger scholars have been provided with some of the key methodological, conceptual and empirical tools and building blocks firmly to construct transnational labour studies as one of the most exciting and important edifices of future historical study. It is within this context that the recent international upsurge of interest in transnational labour history is to be warmly welcomed.

Part Two: Britain and Australia

The case study of Britain and Australia from the late nineteenth century to the interwar years both provides a specific illustration of many of the general issues raised in Part One and reinforces my overall case in favour of the ‘transnational turn’.12


Before describing some of the main contacts, exchanges and influences between workers and labour movements in these two countries, it is useful to alert the reader briefly to the context in which the forces of transnationalism exerted themselves. I will confine myself to an outline of the political and industrial fortunes of the British and Australian labour movements and their places and roles within the nation, the British Empire and emerging Commonwealth, and the Anglophone ‘British world’.

The period between 1900 and the time of World War I saw the establishment of independent Labour parties in both countries. The federation of the Australian colonies and the creation of the New Commonwealth in 1901, complete with its policies of ‘White Australia’, compulsory arbitration, economic protection and advanced social welfare provision (including the old-­age pension and ‘fair and reasonable wages’), constituted the political context in which the Australian Labor Party (ALP) began its remarkable early rise.

Developing out of the colonial labour parties of the 1890s, the federal ALP was established in 1901. Labor had formed a minority colonial government in Queensland in 1899 and went on to set up minority federal governments in 1904 and 1908-­9. Although short-­lived, these were ‘the first examples of labour or social democratic rule in the world’.13 In 1910 the ALP held majority office at the federal level with a majority in both Houses and in the States of New South Wales and South Australia. The party ruled the federal roost for most of the period between 1910 and 1916 under the British-­born prime ministers, Andrew Fisher from Scotland (up to 1915) and William Morris, ‘Billy’, Hughes from Wales, while by 1915 there had been ‘a Labor government in every State’. In a remarkably short period of time the young ALP, therefore, had become the main political actor in Australia. Australia was also an advanced democratic state (by 1909 adult women as well as men were enfranchised at both the federal and State levels), while by 1918 it had the highest trade-­union density in the world.

Organised labour in Australia now saw itself as a occupying a, and perhaps the, leading position in the global labour movement stakes. It had become a ‘beacon’ to the rest of the labour and social-­democratic world, including the increasingly ‘limited’ and ‘slow’ nineteenth-­century British labour-­movement pioneer. In the eyes of Andrew Fisher and his colleagues, British, European and American labourites and socialists could all learn much from the ‘Australian way’.

Political developments in Britain were far less spectacular. To be sure the Trades Union Congress (TUC) inspired Labour Representation Committee of 1900 officially became the Labour Party in 1906. Yet up to 1918 the Labour Party’s electoral rise was slow and uneven. Gains made at the municipal level could not conceal the fact that the Progressive Alliance, formed in 1903 between Labour and the Liberals, and in which Labour remained the junior partner at Westminster, generally prevailed up to 1914. Labour did not attain national office during this period. There is now an historiographical consensus that the collectivist experiences of wartime underpinned Labour’s national rise from 1918 onwards. Trade union membership in Britain doubled between 1914 and 1920. Greatly helped by the de facto recognition afforded to unions through the system of arbitration, Australia, however, was rapidly assuming British trade unionism’s formerly pre-­eminent position.

The interwar period saw a major reversal in the fortunes of the Australian labour movement. While trade unionism remained generally strong, despite the negative effects of the Depression, the ALP was out of office at the federal level for almost all of a period dominated by the conservative Nationalists, the Country Party and the United Australia Party. The sudden and persistent downturn in the ALP’s electoral fortunes, albeit more marked at the federal than the State level, was triggered by the disastrous 1916-­1917 split in the ALP’s ranks over conscription for overseas military service and the expulsion of the more moderate, pro-­conscription and pro-­British leaders from the party, including ‘Billy’ Hughes. Thereafter the ALP moved to the left, but suffered greatly from the persistent charge that it was disloyal to the nation and the empire.

Conversely, the 1920s marked the rise to national prominence of the Labour Party in Britain. It replaced the Liberal Party as the main opposition to the Conservatives, built up a strong urban base and achieved minority parliamentary office in 1924 and 1929. The split in the Labour cabinet over expenditure cuts in 1931 led Ramsay MacDonald, Philip Snowden and other leading Labour lights to desert the party and form a National Government. The latter, dominated by Conservatives, ruled supreme throughout the decade. Finally, trade unionism in Britain was in retreat for most of the interwar years from its historic highpoint of 1920. This was particularly the case between the failed General Strike of 1926 and the Depression of the early 1930s. In sum, in overall terms both interwar Australia and Britain experienced the hegemony of the Right and the subordination of Labour.

As will be evident from the outline above, the Australian labour movement, and especially the ALP, occupied a leading role in the national life of the country, especially up to the period of World War I. Significantly, the ALP was keen to present itself not only as the ‘true’ representative of the industrial and rural working classes and small producers, including women as well as men, but also of the radical ‘white’ nation. In this way issues of nation and race, as well as class and gender stood at the centre of the ALP’s ideology. The party saw itself as a key player in the campaign for the enfranchisement of women and in ongoing campaigns to improve the socio-­economic position of children and women (the latter far more as housewives and dependants rather than wage-­earners in their own right). It was the ‘proud’ champion of the ‘White Australia’ policy in order to protect ‘white’ Australians’ high living standards from the threat of ‘cheap, coloured’ competition from abroad, especially from Asia, and to safeguard national and racial ‘homogeneity’ against the threat of ‘overseas invasion’ from ‘inferior’ and ‘degraded’ ‘coloured labour’. It was highly critical of the ‘mixed race’ character of the British Empire. The White Australia policy officially lasted until the early 1970s. In turn the ALP pursued policies of exclusion (from citizenship), separation, superiority, paternalism and ‘protection’ towards the native Aboriginal people. It thus defined the Australian nation and Australian citizenship partly in terms of racial criteria.

In contrast, matters of nation and race registered far less strongly in the general consciousness of the British labour movement. The more subordinate position of early and interwar twentieth-­century British labour within the national polity and society as a whole meant that it assumed a far more sectional, limited and defensive corporatist mentality than its Australian counterpart. To be sure, concerns with the nature and character of the English and British nation, and especially the issue of radical patriotism, arguably mattered at various points, such as during the South African War (1899-­1902), far more to organised labour in Britain than is suggested in the dominant labour historiography. As argued by the latter, it, however, is true that the overriding concern of British labour lay with domestically based ‘bread and butter’ issues. By the mid 1920s support for radical patriotism, furthermore, was being eclipsed by dominant labour-­movement endorsement of a far more consensual and conservative form of ‘respectable’ patriotism. For example, Labour Prime Minister MacDonald wanted the Labour Party above all to demonstrate its ‘fitness to govern’. To realise this goal the movement had to respect the established institutions and traditions of the country, such as the monarchy and the ‘paternalism’ of the gentry, to adopt, much in the manner of the leading Conservative of the period, Stanley Baldwin, the notion of England as a largely peaceful, harmonious and stable ‘rural idyll’ and to reject all forms of ‘extremism’, including ‘foreign’ forms of ‘doctrinaire’ socialism. Significantly MacDonald, the traditionalist, supported King George V’s ultimately unsuccessful attempt to scupper Australian Labor Prime Minister James Scullin’s campaign to appoint the first Australian-­born governor-­general, Sir Isaac Isaacs, in 1930.

While more important to organised labour in Britain labour than maintained by the traditional ‘bread and butter’ commonsense, race, nevertheless, figured less prominently in the minds of British labour leaders and activists than their Australian counterparts. British labour did not explicitly describe itself in this period as ‘white’ or as the unapologetic champion of ‘whiteness’ in the manner of its mainstream Australian counterpart. Racism was by no means absent in British society, even among class-­conscious labour activists and socialists. It was, however, tempered by significant, if often neglected, anti-­racist (mainly socialist) voices within the labour movement’s ranks and by support for the country’s traditional ‘open door’ policy towards all citizens of the ‘mixed’ British Empire. While nineteenth-­ and early twentieth-­century Britain experienced continual immigration, it did not experience either the waves or volume of Asian immigration affecting nineteenth-­century Australia or such widespread fears of ‘coloured invasion’ and ‘swamping’ as were to be found among ‘white’ Australians. There also existed the widespread belief in Britain that ‘race’ was mainly something ‘out there’, beyond Britain’s shores. It was ‘where non-­white people belonged in an empire under British colonial rule’. Located on the ‘periphery’, it was perceived as being without significant overall influence upon the domestic concerns or consciousness of the imperial ‘core’, including its labour movement. In general workers’ and organised labour’s fears around race were greatly aroused mainly on those occasions when questions of race and immigration directly affected their ‘bread and butter’ concerns with wages, jobs and living standards and working conditions in general.14

Many insular Britons, including members of the labour movement, lived at the core of the world’s dominant empire in a country far more established, secure and far less fearful of invasion than siege-­like, ‘white settler’ Australia. As such these Britons generally tended to see imperial influences upon themselves and their country much in the same way as they viewed that of race: largely ‘outside’, remote and indirect apart from periods of crisis. As we will see below, there, of course, were other Britons, including socialists and some labour leaders, who adopted a more expansive and far less insular view. They were alive to the importance of empire and reciprocal influences and exchanges within the circuits of the British Empire and the ‘British world’, including those between metropolitan Britain and the colony and dominion of Australia.

In contrast to insular Britons, most Australians were highly aware of the strong and immediate presence and effects of Britain and the British Empire upon their lives. This was largely because, both as a ‘settler’ colony and, albeit to a generally lesser extent, as a more autonomous and equal member of the Commonwealth, Australia’s daily existence and character were routinely shaped by an ‘outside’ force: British imperial ‘rule’. Whether in economic and defence ties, naval requirements, the British monarch as the Australian head of state, the massive and continuing popularity of the monarchy as seen in royal visits ‘down under’, the widespread, if contested, celebration of Empire Day, the presence and continuing power of British-­born governors-­general and State governors and the design of the flag, the currency and postage stamps, the symbols of what historian Manning Clark termed Australians’ ‘dual loyalty’ to their own country and Britain were immediate, highly visible and widespread. They could not be ignored, especially by the radical white nationalist ALP. Throughout the period under discussion the ALP regarded itself as the representative of ‘true Australianism’, of putting Australia’s interests ‘first’. In contrast Labor’s conservative, ‘Imperialist’ opponents were accused of slavish and overriding loyalty to Britain, British ‘plutocrats’ and their empire, and of neglect and even betrayal of their own country’s interests.

The mainstream labour movements in pre-­World War I Britain and Australia shared the belief that imperial British rule was, on balance, more beneficent and ‘enlightened’ than harmful and ‘coercive’ in character. Leading ALPers, such as Andrew Fisher, wanted a more independent and autonomous role for his country within the Empire rather than an end to the tie with the ‘mother country’. After all, Britain had agreed to federation and sought, however patronisingly at times, to nurture Australian ‘maturity’. At the same time there continued to exist minority currents in both national labour movements, especially prominent among (albeit limited) sections of Irish Catholic communities, that opposed empire and imperialism as being necessarily oppressive and exploitative. Yet as the ALP moved to the left after 1917 and the mainstream BLP of the 1920s became more ‘responsible’, so did attitudes to empire in general and the British Empire in particular diverge. Whereas most British labour-­movement brothers and sisters sought the more extensive application of MacDonald’s imperial ‘standard’ in order to render British imperial rule as a whole more enlightened and civilised, their interwar counterparts in Australia continued to be more critical of imperialism in theory and practice. This occurred despite the fact that the Balfour Declaration of 1926 formally confirmed Britain and the dominions henceforth to be ‘autonomous communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate to one another…though united by a common allegiance to the Crown’. Many members of the Australian movement believed that the daily situation on the ground was very different. They saw it as comprising continued Australian subordination to Britain and British upper-­class, public school and at times ‘effeminate’ condescension towards ‘colonial’ ‘Poms’ and ‘down to earth’ ‘mates’. During the 1930s imperial matters, however, were increasingly overshadowed by the rise of fascism and the threat of war. Shared experiences and loyalties with their British counterparts during World War II induced a far more favourable attitude towards the British Commonwealth on the part of Australia’s labour leaders. For example, socialist, popular wartime leader and prime minister, John Curtin, put aside much of his former opposition to British imperialism in Australia and elsewhere and worked well with Churchill and other wartime British leaders. Lastly, as will be evident from the preceding narrative, empire, like nation, was a highly classed, racialised and at times gendered concept.15


Within the context described above, transnationalism continued to exert a strong and enduring influence upon working-­class Britons and Australians and their respective labour movements. It manifested itself, for example, in a high level of continuing British and Irish migration to Australia. By 1901 approximately 98 per cent of the enumerated Australian population of 3,825,000 were emigrants from Britain and Ireland (some 100,000 Aborigines were excluded from the census). Following the introduction of the ‘White Australia’ policy in the same year, which made provision for intending immigrants to pass a dictation test of fifty words, usually in a European language, that population became progressively ‘whiter’ between 1901 and 1940. There was also some return migration, while both permanent settlers and temporary migrants sometimes provided fascinating accounts of their travels, encounters and exchanges in the Australian and British press. The labour and socialist press in both countries carried useful accounts of such travels, while also providing important views, insights and pen pictures concerning labour movements and their leaders and followers in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.

Among these were several early-­ and mid-­Victorian labour activists in Britain who, as observed by Paul Pickering, transported their ‘trade of agitation’ to Australasia.16 They played a crucial role in the development of the Australian labour movement during the second half of the nineteenth century. By 1900 these British-­born labour veterans had been joined by an impressive crop of young, native-­born and highly mobile labour activists. Together they contributed significantly to the ‘making’ of the Australian working class during this period.

During the later nineteenth century and early twentieth century there was also what Andrew Scott has termed a ‘remarkable procession’ to Australia and New Zealand of ‘many of the most prominent activists in the British labour movement’. They included Tom Mann, who became very influential in terms of labour and socialist politics and, to a lesser extent, trade unionism during his period of residence in Victoria, Keir Hardie, H. H. Champion, Ben Tillett, Margaret and Ramsay MacDonald, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, Dora Montefiore and the lesser known Scot, Andrew Fisher. The latter settled in Queensland and became the prime minister of Australia. John Redmond and Michael Daviott were among the most prominent Irish visitors, while in 1899 a ‘brilliant, young’ and ‘radical-­minded’ student of the Sorbonne, Albert Metin, travelled on a scholarship to study ‘social and labour legislation’ in Australasia. Metin’s study was published as a book, Socialism Without Doctrine, in France in 1901. All these visitors were attracted by the ‘advanced’ reputation of the political democracies and ‘social laboratories’ of Australia and New Zealand. Most were impressed and stated their intention to take the lessons of Australian labour’s successes ‘back home’. In turn some Australian socialists and labourites, such as socialist Claude Thompson and Andrew Fisher, visited and commented upon developments in Britain, while others, such as Marion Phillips, Melbourne-­born and the post-­1918 chief women’s officer of the Labour Party, left Australia to settle permanently in Britain.17

Reference to the important biographical case study of Andrew Fisher and his relations with British labour leaders, serves to underscore the full significance of these trans-­national connections and exchanges.18 Fisher was born in the coalmining village of Crosshouse, near Kilmarnock, in Ayrshire, Scotland in 1862. He left school and began working in the local pit around the age of 10 in order to supplement his family’s income. In 1881 Fisher, the young secretary of his district branch of the Ayrshire Miners’ Union, stood shoulder to shoulder with ‘the already legendary’ Keir Hardie in a strike that ‘convulsed the Ayrshire coalfield’. The strike was lost, but it marked the beginning of a long friendship between the two men who were committed not only to trade unionism and socialism, but also to education and teetotalism. Hardie went on to become Britain’s first Labour MP in 1892, the leader of the socialist Independent Labour Party, founded in 1893, and a central figure in the Labour Party.

‘Blacklisted’ for his role in the strikes of 1881 and 1885, Fisher emigrated to Queensland where he soon gained prominence in the labour movement. There he worked alongside other British-­born radicals, most prominently Henry Boote, from Liverpool, who was to become ‘the most outstanding Labour journalist in Australia’.

Fisher was elected as a federal Labor candidate in 1899. Instrumental in the formation of the Commonwealth Labor Party, he became a minister in the minority Labor government of 1904. In 1910 he successfully led Labor to victory as a majority government. He received congratulations from Ramsay MacDonald and Hardie. Although the ALP dominated federal office between 1910 and 1916, Fisher retired as prime minister on health grounds in 1915. He subsequently became the Australian high commissioner in London, until his period of office ended in 1921. Between 1922 and his death in 1928 Fisher lived in London. During his career Fisher saw himself as an advocate of both a strong, mature and increasingly autonomous Australia and an ‘enlightened’ British Empire.

Fisher retained strong, but intermittent, links with his comrades in Britain, especially Hardie. The latter maintained that the Labour Party in Britain needed to heed the lessons of its precocious Australian counterpart under the leadership of Fisher. In the opinion of Hardie, the labour movement was becoming the dominant force in Australia. ‘Some day’, he concluded, something ‘similar’ would happen in Britain.

Hardie met Fisher, Mann, Tillett, Champion and J.P. Jones, a Melbourne labour leader, during his ‘World Tour’ of 1907-­8. Five years earlier Fisher and Hardie had been reunited during the trip of the former to Britain. In 1911 Fisher not only attended the royal coronation and the Imperial Conference in London, but also paid two trips to Ayrshire where he was feted by the miners’ union at a banquet in Kilmarnock and at a celebration organised by the villagers of Crosshouse. Hardie presided at the banquet and, notwithstanding his opposition to the Fisher government’s support for military conscription for home defence, spoke warmly of Fisher’s and Labor’s achievements in Australia. In turn Fisher defended his pro-­conscription stance as being part of Australia’s necessary response to its exposed geo-­political position and the possible threat of invasion from ‘inferior’ and ‘degraded’ Asians. Before leaving Britain Fisher accompanied Hardie on a visit to the South Wales coalfield and gave a speech strongly supporting the miners in their fight for decent working and living conditions. In such ways did labour solidarity, struggle and ‘whiteness’ manifest their compatibility in the eyes of Fisher.

In 1928, following Fisher’s death, Arthur Henderson, secretary of the Labour Party, sent a letter of ‘deep regret’ on behalf of the National Executive Committee to Mrs Fisher. In the letter Henderson not only praised Fisher’s outstanding contribution to Australian labour, but also expressed the view that Fisher’s successes in Australia ‘had their place in assisting the growth and development of our own party in this country’.  Fisher’s period as prime minister had given British labour ‘a standing throughout the world that it had not previously attained’ and ‘its influence upon our struggles here at home was altogether beneficial and helpful’, declared Henderson. Two years later Ramsay MacDonald unveiled a memorial above Fisher’s grave in Hampstead cemetery, London. MacDonald declared Fisher to have been ‘a great servant of the British Empire’ and ‘more than a Prime Minister’.


The case study of labour in Britain and Australia raises issues much neglected by labour historians concerning people’s experiences and identities of place and space. For example, my research suggests that several of the British and Australian subjects studied, including members and activists of organised labour movements, did develop senses of transnational space and place. While most marked among national and international leaders, such as Fisher and Hardie, these senses, moreover, were not confined to them. A number of ‘ordinary’ British migrants, both within and outside the ranks of organised labour, combined loyalties to the ‘old country’ and its villages, towns and regions with strong allegiance to their new places of settlement in Australia. They had multiple identities of place and space. My research thus adds weight to the view that the neglected study of ‘the transnational’ merits more intensive and extensive study alongside the labour historian’s traditional concerns with ‘the national’ and ‘the local’.

Concentration upon the local is partly English in origin. Most nineteenth-­ century English workers experienced only short-­distance migration (of ten miles and under) throughout their lives. However, the long-­distance working-­class migration associated with post-­1850s industrialisation beyond the boundaries of England and Britain, and its considerable ‘pull’ on migration from capitalism’s ‘rural periphery’ in southern and south-­eastern Europe, combined with the increasingly global reach of capitalism and imperialism, meant that considerable numbers of migratory working people beyond mid-­century were re-­thinking their experiences of place and space. What the historian Frank Thistlethwaite termed ‘proletarian globe-­hopping’, became increasingly common. The British-­ Australian migratory case constitutes one aspect of this wider process.19

Second, my research has suggested that in order to explain and understand the attitudes of working-­class and labour-­movement British and Australian subjects towards the issues of nation, empire and race we must closely attend to their locations, or structured positions, within the national and imperial spaces they inhabited. We have seen that Australian labour’s central location within the New Commonwealth, combined with the immediacy and strength of the British imperial presence within Australia, meant that questions of nation and empire figured more prominently in the consciousness of Australian labour than in the case of its less central and more insular British counterpart. In addition we have observed that the geo-­political situations of Australia and Britain were both very different and strongly influenced the attitudes of their respective labour movements towards race. In this context it would be useful to apply this form of locational and geo-­political analysis to the attitudes of labour to nation, empire and race within other places and spaces, both within the British and other modern empires.

Third, this kind of mainly structural analysis, however, constitutes a necessary rather than sufficient means of understanding and explanation. For example, cultural and political traditions, demographic factors, events, change and continuity also influenced attitudes to nation, empire and race. Let me give two examples. First, Britain’s traditional ‘open door’ policy in relation to imperial migration influenced the attitudes of the British labour movement towards race and immigration, as did the lower volume of Asian immigration into Britain and the smaller size of the country’s indigenous black population in comparison with Australia. Second, the transformation of the Empire into a more equal and ‘enlightened’ Commonwealth, combined with united Commonwealth opposition to fascism during the 1940s, greatly softened Australian labour’s hostility to Britain and further strengthened a shared British and Australian sense of ‘Britishness’. Yet we have seen that when considered as a whole Australian labour’s commitment to ‘Britishness’ between the late nineteenth century and the interwar period was more problematic and contested than a largely consensual model of the ’British world’ would suggest.

Fourth, the case study raises questions concerning the origins, passage, reception, context, chronology and reciprocity of ideas and influences. For example, in which places and by what means did the self-­ascribed notion of ‘whiteness’ develop and spread and how was it changed or modified, if at all, in its cross-­border passages? In opposition to an influential recent view,20 my research suggests that ‘whiteness’, as a mode of ‘subjective identification’ and a ‘transnational form of racial identification’ was more variable and contingent in existence and influence than ‘global’ in character. It certainly prevailed among labourites in Australia and the other ‘settler society’ of South Africa, as well as in the antebellum United States. However, it is important to heed the views of historian Laura Tabili ‘never’ to have ‘encountered in a historical source of nineteenth or early twentieth century Britain a historical actor using the term “whiteness” to describe his or her identity’, and her ‘reservations’ about ‘the wrenching of a reified construct of “whiteness”’ from its antebellum context and using it ‘to explain racial relationships and practices within quite different historical contexts, including those in Britain, past and contemporary’.21

Similarly, to what extent were ‘whiteness’ and attitudes to race modified, changed or transformed by transnational crossings? The case of Andrew Fisher would suggest that whereas ‘whiteness’ did not generally concern him in his ‘white’ Ayrshire coalmining community, it did concern him greatly in the very different demographic and geo-­political contexts of Queensland and Australia.

In terms of the issues of influence and reciprocity, to what extent did the views our visiting British labour leaders influence the attitudes and practices of the Australian labour movement? To what extent did these visitors really attempt to apply the ‘lessons’ learned in Australia and New Zealand to Britain? And to what extent and in which ways, if any, did the often insular and elitist British labour movement receive these ‘lessons’ positively and apply them to itself? In order satisfactorily to answer these questions we must eschew a one-­ dimensional, ‘core-­periphery’ approach in favour of an emphasis upon the two-­ way, indeed multi-­directional, possible flow of ideas and influences.

Fifth, the case of Fisher and his British comrades and friends should encourage us to cast our biographical net wider and deeper. We should turn our attention not only to the further investigation of more individual labour lives, but also to the study of collective biography, of the networks and connections developed between and around transnational individuals, their acquaintances and friends. What, for example, were the personal, financial and organisational connections and networks in the two countries that made possible the visits of leaders such as Hardie? And what influence, if any, did they exert upon the ways in which chosen labour movements operated both nationally, internationally and transnationally?

Finally, the case study of Britain and Australia case raises significant comparative issues. These revolve, for example, around ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ explanations of the contrasting fortunes of the British and Australian labour movements between 1900 and 1916 and their interwar advances and reverses. The extended study of Scottish and Irish influences upon these labour movements, allied to questions of religion, ethnicity, occupation and class, would also be most welcome and potentially very rewarding.


This article has argued that, while not a panacea, transnationalism can help substantially to remedy labour history’s recent and current ailments and offer it a robust and healthy future. In a world dominated by ‘globalisation’, transnationalism appropriately widens our terms of reference and analysis. In the process it enables us to ask new and refreshing questions. Biography and prosopography should become core components of transnationalism as a way of casting new light upon individual and collective experiences and the interplay between human agency and social conditioning. Transnationalism can also stimulate much-­needed cross-­border collaborative research and funding.


1   For the growing influence of transnationalism see, for example, the US journals Labor History and Labor: Studies in Working-­Class History of the Americas, the UK’s Labour History Review, vol. 74, no. 3 (December, 2009), vol. 75, nos. 1, 2, 2010 and Australia’s Labour History, no. 88 (May, 2005), no. 90 (May 2006), no. 95 (November 2008). See also Marcel van der Linden, ‘The “Globalization” of Labour and Working-­Class History and its Consequences’, Jan Lucassen, ‘Writing Global Labour History c.1800-­1940: A Historiography of Concepts, Periods and Geographical Scope’ and Sabyasachi Bhattacharya, ‘Paradigms in Historical Approach to Labour Studies on South Asia’ in Jan Lucassen (ed.), Global Labour History: A State of the Art (Bern: Peter Lang, 2006).
2   Marcel van der Linden, ‘’Labour History beyond Borders’, chapter 11 in Joan Allen, Alan Campbell, John McIlroy (eds.), Histories of Labour: National and International Perspectives (Pontypool: Merlin Press, 2010).
3   Richard Price, ‘Histories of Labour and Labour History’, Labour History Review, vol. 75, no. 3 (December 2010), 263-­70.
4   John French, ‘Another World History is Possible: Reflections on the Translocal, Transnational and Global’, in Leon Fink (ed.), Workers Across the Americas: The Transnational Turn in Labor History (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 3-­11.
5   Neville Kirk, Comrades and Cousins: Globalization Workers and Labour Movements in Britain the USA and Australia from the 1880s to 1914 (London: Merlin Press, 2003); Neville Kirk, Labour and the Politics of Empire: Britain and Australia from 1900 to the Present (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011).
6   Kirk, Labour and the Politics of Empire, 1? Neville Kirk, Labour and Society in Britain and the USA 17801939, 2 vols. (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1994);? Mary Hilson, Political Change and the Rise of Labour in Comparative Perspective: Britain and Sweden 1890-­1920 (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2006), Part I.
7   Kirk, Labour and the Politics of Empire, 1.
8   For example, Leon Fink, the distinguished US labour historian and current editor of Labor, was heavily influenced as a student in Britain and the US by Edward Thompson and Herbert Gutman. Transnational and comparative approaches have figured strongly in Leon’s work. See, for example, his current book, Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant Seamen in the World’s First Globalized Industry from 1812 to the Present (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011).
9   Kirk, ‘Transnational Labour History: Promise and Perils’, in Fink (ed.), Workers Across the Americas, 18-­22? Alan Campbell and John McIlroy, ‘Britain: The Twentieth Century’, in Allen, Campbell, McIlroy (eds), Histories of Labour, 123. For an example of the parallel case studies, or ‘additive’, approach, see Marcel van der Linden and Jurgen Rojahn (eds), The Formation of Labour Movements 1870-­1914: An International Perspective (Leiden: E.J.Brill, 1990).
10   This kind of research, focussing upon connections and networks among British, Irish and Australian labour activists, is currently being launched by Melanie Nolan, Paul Pickering, Don MacRaild and Neville Kirk under the auspices of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Australian National University.
11   The question of how successfully to integrate the study of culture, politics and labour movements into transnational labour history is particularly relevant (and potentially problematic) in relation to Marcel van der Linden’s predominantly socio-­economic agenda for transnationalism. See van der Linden, ‘Labour History beyond Borders’, 370-­2.
12   The material in Part Two is based largely upon Kirk, Labour and the Politics of Empire, chapters 1-­6. As such endnote references are kept to a minimum.
13   Leighton James and Ray Markey, ‘Class and Labour: The British Labour Party and the Australian Labor Party Compared’, Labour History, no. 90, May 2006, 26.
14   Wendy Webster, ‘Transnational Journeys and Domestic Histories’, Journal of Social History, vol. 39, no. 3 (Spring 2006), 653;? Neville Kirk, ‘The Rule of Class and the Power of Race: Socialist Attitudes to Class, Race and Empire during the era of “New Imperialism”, 1899-­1910’, chapter three in Kirk, Comrades and Cousins .
15   Neville Kirk, ‘Labour and Empire: Australia and Britain from the late Nineteenth Century to the Inter-­War Years’, in Billy Frank, Craig Horner and David Stewart (eds), The British Labour Movement and Imperialism (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2010), 41-­64.
16   Paul Pickering, ‘Chartism and the “trade of Agitation in Early Victorian Britain’, History, 76 (1991), 221-­237.
17   Andrew Scott, Running on Empty: ‘Modernising’ the British and Australian Labour Parties (London: Pluto Press, 2000), 19; Albert Metin, Socialism Without Doctrine (Sydney: Alternative Publishing Cooperative Limited, 1977)? Jurgen Tampke (ed.), Wunderbar Country: Germans Look at Australia 1850-­1914 (Sydney: Hale and Iremonger, 1982).
18   For Fisher and British labour see Kirk, Labour and the Politics of Empire, 14-­19.
19   Kirk, Comrades and Cousins, 1-­3.
20   Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds, Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the Question of Racial Equality (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2008).
21   Laura Tabili, ‘Race is a Relationship, and not a Thing’, Journal of Social History, vol. 37, no. 1 (Fall 2003), 125-­30.