Who Do You Think You Are?

Apology, this has nothing to do with Whitehall or Public Management, but here goes anyway…..

Owen (”Chavs”) Jones started a discussion on Twitter to glorify his and others ancestors who’d been involved in what, to him, we’re worthy pursuits like the General Strike. (I or you or may not agree whether this was a worthy pursuit, but that’s not the issue). Clearly, he’d been watching too many episodes of “Who Do You Think You Are?”

I had the temerity to question this, pointing out it was somewhat ”North Korean” to think that inheritance somehow conferred or reinforced your political credentials.

As far as I’m aware, North Korea is the only “socialist” state that has adopted the hereditary principle. As some other contributors have pointed out, I could just as easily used the hereditary principle as applied in the House of Lords or the Monarchy. I think Owen Jones would be one of the first to say, rightly, that no-one should have a claim to make our laws just because some ancestor managed to wangle their way into Parliament. Why then should it somehow add lustre to one’s political credentials if you are on the Left? Somehow, I can’t imagine Mr Jones Tweeting that his Granddad had scabbed in the General Strike, can you? But why should it matter?

One senior trade union official, Heather Wakefield of UNISON, commented on the discussion: “Can I be a proper socialist or feminist if my grandmother was a cleaner and not in the General Strike or the suffrage movement?” Clearly you can, and are, Heather.

Owen Jones unfortunately seemed incapable of making the association or even engaging with the debate, so instead he launched a somewhat intemperate attack which somehow focussed on the fact I’m a professor. (I think it’s called playing the man?). This does however raise some interesting wider questions.

Few, for example, queried the ‘feudal’ nature of the criticisms of Ed Miliband for ”betraying” his older brother. The hidden assumption was that David, as the older brother, somehow had precedence over his younger brother and Ed had ”stabbed him in the back” by standing against him. Considered rationally, this is obviously, to use a technical term, bonkers. Neither brother had any ”right” or ”precedence” over the other. They were equally entitled to stand, and win. Only primitive notions of inheritance said otherwise. Whatever Ed and David’s relative merits, fraternal seniority wasn’t one of them that ought to have mattered to anyone.

As for my lineage, well I discovered a great, great, etc Grand Daddy who was a farm labourer in Dorset. I also found he’d married a woman called Annie Bryant, of Tolpuddle at the time of the Matryrs. My initial reaction was, I confess, great! My ancestor might have been part of the early trade union movement. But….

Annie was the daughter of Farmer Bryant of Tolpuddle, who, as far as I can tell, was the very same Farmer Bryant who shopped the Tolpuddle Martyrs to the local Magistrates. Ooops.

So was my Great etc Grand Daddy a chancer married to the daughter of the man who instigated one of the most symbolic acts of repression of workers in British history? Or was he part of the movement? And where does that leave me? Descendent of a good guy or one of the ”dark side”. I’ll never know, and frankly I don’t care either way – both are equally interesting and equally irrelevant to who I am.

For the record, I am a former trade union official, amongst other things, and led several strikes. Fortunately I didn’t get transported to Australia – I’m currently there of my own volition.

As some other contributors pointed out, those of us who think about such things choose from the many possible ancestral stories which ones we wish to use as justifications for ourselves. I like the one that my name, Talbot, is Norman – which makes me indirectly a Viking of sorts. Honest.

I wonder what Owen Jones other ancestors got up to? The ones he’s not telling us about. Still, Owen can console himself by assuming I’m the descendent of a long line of class traitors, if it helps.

8 thoughts on “Who Do You Think You Are?

  1. Colin you should not have had to defend yourself against Owen Jones comments, although you make a very good job of it. Your family history is interesting and illuminating I wonder if Owen would care to delve deeper into his?
    It’s surprising how some feel you are a traitor if you do not agree with their view and I have to say in this case warped view. I have come across it many times on both sides of the class divide and it never ceases to amaze me.

  2. I really think you’ve missed the point Jones was making. No harm in being proud of an ancestor, but I don’t think he was suggesting it gave him more credibility as a socialist. Bit of a daft thing to pick a fight about too.

  3. Dear Flo,
    I think you have missed my point. It is just as daft to feel “proud” of ancestors just as it would be to feel “ashamed” if they’d done something you disagreed with. And the only reason for “claiming” what you think are worthy deeds of your forebears is to your own benefit. Otherwise why do it – I am sure Owen, and I, and you, have ancestors who did things we’re not proud of. Funny Owen doesn’t mention them. I got over ideology a long time ago, which is where you distort reality to reinforce your own prejudices. Reality is we all have chequered family histories. Live with it, get over it, celebrate it all, not just the bits you like.

  4. I’d like to thank all my relatives for being so that I could. I’d like to thank humanity for helping to give me the life I have. And while I’m doing this I’d like to thank planet earth for evolving to allow humanity to be humans and enjoy a life. If I have missed anything out just take it as read that I have thanked you/it whatever.
    If I have one tiny complaint it is could we have a large amount of sustainable growth and greater equality/fairness.

  5. Bizarre. All I tweeted was: “My railwayman great-grandad was among 100,000s who took part in General Strike, 86 years ago. Heroic and bitter episode”. Colin then tweeted a comparison to North Korean dynastic politics, so I pointed out it was absurd to compare pride in an ancestor to a totalitarian dictatorship. In no way did I suggest that it made me a better socialist. Utterly baffled why you’ve gone out of your way to pick a fight over this.

  6. Owen clearly suffers from selective memory: his first Tweet response was “My God – and you’re a professor?!” He went on to call me “silly”, “bizarre” and “ludicrous”.

    And he still refuses to engage with the issues I raised or he doesn’t understand them, I’m not which it is. The issue, again, is about claiming ‘ancestry’ as a significant factor, whether it’s hereditary Peers, North Korean “communists” or labour activists. If it is not an issue, why did he Tweet about it in the first place? Anyway, as far as I’m concerned the issue is now closed.

  7. My grandad was always proud to tell people how he drove a bus in the General Strike – particularly during the miner’s strike. As an 18 year old lefty in a pit village, this did make me feel awkward when other people’s granddads talked about their parts in the coal bagging strike. Funny, isn’t it.

    For a true inheritance-squirm, do try the episode of Who Do You Think You Are where David Tennant, proudly flouting his victim-of-the-Highland-Clearance family, discovers his grandfather was a renowned Orangeman, pivot in a gerrymandering exercise. Fortunately, family honour was restored when it was found he had advocated better pay for nurses. Phew.

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