‘Surely there never was a daily paper set going in such conditions, under such almost frightening handicaps.’ This is the late William Gallacher recalling, 35 years later, the birth of the Daily Worker. For years before that, and in the years since, every socialist who understands that first Caxton and hundreds of years later the rotary press, seriously tilted the social balance of power in western Europe, has tried to think just what a socialist newspaper ought to be. The thinking has had to be particularly severe in Britain where no socialist daily newspaper except the Daily Worker, founded at the end of 1929, and its greatly extended successor, the Morning Star, first published early in 1966, has found—or created—a climate in which it could exist.
Some of this thinking was hamstrung because the thinkers were insufficiently acquainted with the mechanics of the British (as distinct from the continental) newspaper industry. It is therefore relevant to return to Gallacher and his story of that very difficult first birth.
‘We had rented an old warehouse in Tabernacle Street, which had to be completely reconstructed internally. All this work was done by volunteers organized by that grand comrade Frank Jackson, a wood-worker by profession. Evenings and Sundays they gave to this labour of love. On December 31st, 1929, we entered the premises to work on the first issue, and a nearby printing press was all set for the big event. The lads were actually still working at the reconstruction, which meant that we had to be mobile journalists to allow them to get on with their job. The lights had not been fixed; we made do with an abundance of candles. If any of the big fellows from Fleet Street had looked in while we were in the midst of our hammering and sawing, with only candles for illumination, they’d have told us we’d never get the paper out. But we did get it out.’
The account, written just before Gallacher’s death last year, is rather more than a reminiscence of the physical scene at that important moment in the history of the Left press in Britain. It evokes, too, a general situation, an atmosphere, a state of mind.
The fact that a daily newspaper of the Left could be produced at all in Britain at that period was considered, and often described, as ‘a miracle’. Not many, except those who insisted on producing it, reflected that what was truly ‘miraculous’ was that such a paper did not exist already. French and German sympathetic observers looked on with a mixture of admiration for the efforts of the British pioneers, and amazement that the British working class had taken so long to indicate even that minimal demand which was necessary to launch such an enterprise.
But in Britain, the ‘conditions’, the ‘almost frightening handicaps’ were in general taken for granted. They astounded very few, however much they were deplored. They were part, so to speak, of the British way of life. And this almost self-congratulatory ‘under-doggedness’ could be seen as containing within itself the danger of a kind of unconscious defeatism. I need not, I suppose, say that I am not here using the word ‘defeatism’ in its narrowly pejorative sense. To doubt the energy, courage and enthusiasm of men such as Gallacher and his colleagues would be both stupid and slanderous.
But since it was true enough that bringing that tiny paper to birth in the Britain of 1929 must be accepted as ‘wonderful’, then a lot of people distantly and even intimately concerned were going to be susceptible to the feeling which Dr Johnson had about a woman preaching or a dog dancing. It was true the dog did it very ill, but the wonder was that it did it at all.