Spying on sword dancers: Nazis, work camps, and English folk music

In 1927, a party of 46 German students visited Newcastle. The local chief constable duly reported this to the British security services, who opened up a new file on Rolf Gardiner, the Germans’ English contact, and the spooks duly monitored Gardiner for the next twenty years. Gardiner loved folk music all his life, and he ensured that folk song and dance was an integral part of the work camps that he founded and led.

I’ve been thinking about Gardiner and race this week, as the folk festival season gets into full swing, and I pass my evenings stewarding concerts in my local rugby club. Rolf Gardiner (father of John Eliot Gardiner) has intrigued and divided historians for years. His most recent biographers sum him up as a ‘folk dancer, forester, poet and visionary’. He was all of these, and more, for Gardiner was also an adult educator, youth worker, organic farmer and lifelong Germanophile with strong public views on Jews, racial purity, and the future of Europe. He admired the Danish adult education thinker Nikolai Grundtvig, and described his own rural work camps as attempts to put the ideal of the Danish folk high school into practice in England.

He became involved in folk dancing while a pupil at Bedales School, and joined a dance side while a student at Cambridge. So when he joined a work camp in Germany in 1927, it was entirely in character that he led his young male camper comrades in a naked sun dance – at six in the morning. By 1930 he was hosting work camps for Kings’ College students at his uncle’s farm in Dorset, complete with singing around the campfire (though he seems to have found the students less adept at dancing).

By this time, Gardiner was spending time in Cleveland, researching local sword-dancing traditions and encountering a ‘people of robust Scandinavian stock’. He opened further work camps for unemployed miners that he had met through the dancing sides, as well as sympathetic students on their summer vacations, as well as visitors from the German youth movement. Again, folk singing and dancing were part of the everyday routine, along with the demanding labour of converting rough pasture into small-holdings. And they also helped Michael Tippett, himself a communist and a student volunteer in Gardiner’s, to compose a somewhat völkisch opera about Robin Hood, duly performed in the miners’ hall.

Boosbeck: the site of Gardiner's Cleveland work camp as it looks today

Boosbeck: the site of Gardiner’s Cleveland work camp as it looks today

By 1933, Gardiner had fallen out with his Cleveland partner (and owner of the land), who disliked Hitler’s treatment of German Jews. By now he had his own farm in Dorset, at Springhead, and could organise his own ‘harvest camps’. Once more, the camp day started with a supposedly Nordic ritual, and closed with song; plentiful dance and song opportunities arose in the evenings.

Gardiner’s aim, whether through heavy labour or folk music, was ‘to restore and remake the real England which is basically that rural England upon whose final destruction the forces of today are willy-nilly bent’. Gardiner was clear and unambiguous in portraying Jews as among these destructive forces. In one article, published two years before the Nazi seizure of power, he denounced ‘deliberate misinformation by our Jew-controlled press, cinema, wireless and advertising’ for having ‘corrupted the soul of England’.

By contrast to these dark forces, both labour and dance, he said, taught ‘order, beauty and rhythm’, which ultimately ‘come of the soil and care of the soil’. These were, of course, fundamentally masculine – he would have said ‘virile’ – qualities. And the folk high school model was attractive because, as conceived by Grundtvig, it provided a form of ‘national education’ that underpinned work and cultural activities with a suitably nationalist – or Nordic and Germanic – knowledge of history, agriculture and current affairs.

Gardiner was, then, more than a Germanophile. His understanding of history and culture was racially based, and he was more than a sympathiser with the Nazi Party. He was on good terms with Otto Bene, the Nazi Party’s Landesgruppenleiter for the British Isles (ironically, given the Irish Republican movement’s sympathies, when it came to their own organisation, the Nazis treated Ireland and the UK as a single political space). Gardiner disparaged Oswald Mosley to Bene as ‘very shallow’. In exchange, Bene reported to Berlin that Gardiner’s work camp movement, while puny by German standards, was ‘well above the average English one’.

What Britain’s spooks made of this is another matter. While they opened his mail, and monitored his connections, a report in March 1940 mocked him for ‘still worshipping the sun, Wotan etc at a Dorset farm and being generally “nordic” and “voelkisch”‘, concluding that ‘I do not think he is a danger’. Nevertheless, the authorities carried out period checks, including an inquiry into rumours that he had planted trees on his farm in the shape of a swastika, and was engaging young men ‘in disgusting practices under the influence of hypnotism’ (neither of which could be confirmed). The last report, in 1949, asked for British security officers in Germany to monitor Gardiner’s contacts during a visit to recruit managers for a tea company.

Don’t for a moment think I am damning the whole of English folk music with this reminder of a dark, racially-rooted past. Gardiner was denounced on several occasions by other folk enthusiasts for his attempts to weave dance and music into a mystical pan-Nordic völkisch world-view. But there was enough overlap to cause discomfort: in presenting folk dancing as manly, for example, Gardiner was echoing the views of Cecil Sharp, and an interest in national culture often went together with beliefs in racial purity. I have blogged previously about Scottish nationalist thinking on race and work camps.

I see Gardiner as a man of his time. He shared the racial assumptions of many English and German men of his generation, and was certainly guilty of anti-Semitism; unlike some, I do not minimise his Nazi sympathies. But I’m also not persuaded that I should see sword dancing and folk singing as quintessentially tainted by association. Far more important to me is how we reposition British traditional music today so that it appeals to and engages a more diverse audience that is representative of the entire population of these islands. British folk festivals routinely include Irish, Australian and American performers; it is high time that they also made space for black British traditional music.

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Is social capital a tool for colonisation by economics?

In his book Social Capital and Social Theory, the economist Ben Fine argued that the concept of social capital was a neo-liberal Trojan Horse, designed to allow economists to colonise other disciplines. Several other authors in the Marxist tradition have followed and developed this line, and I’ve been considering their work while revising my own short text-book on theories of social capital.

But not all Marxist-influenced theorists dismiss social capital. Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, thought that the economists had narrowed the concept of capital down so that it covered only one very limited type of capital, namely traded capital. The result of this, he argued, was that other types of capital – broadly, what he saw as ‘symbolic capital’ – were presented as somehow non-material, and as detached from the material interests of profit and loss. He saw his task as widening the language of capitals, and thereby broadening our understanding of how the privileged maintain their position.

In Bourdieu’s own words:

it is in fact impossible to account for the structure and functioning of the social world unless one reintroduced capital in all its forms and not solely in the one form recognised by economic theory. Economic theory has allowed to be foisted upon it a definition of the economy of practices which is the historical invention of capitalism; and by reducing the universe of exchanges to mercantile exchange, which is objectively and subjectively oriented towards the maximisation of profit, i.e. (economically) self-interested, it has implicitly defined the other forms of exchange as non-economic, and therefore disinterested.

I’m inclined to side with Bourdieu on this. I have found his ideas of social and cultural capital helpful in understanding the self-interested way in which particular groups position themselves. They use their symbolic capital to align themselves with others who share their own interests; and they use it to disparage and stigmatise those who potentially or actually threaten their interests.

And if economists really are trying to colonise other social sciences through the concept of social capital, I reckon they are making a pretty bad job of it.

Bourdieu’s essay on the ‘forms of capital’ has been made available at: http://econ.tau.ac.il/papers/publicf/Zeltzer1.pdf

HE tuition fees and EU membership: a Scottish dilemma

Today I read a short report in the Scotsman on the future of higher education tuition fees should an independent Scotland join the EU. This is a pretty trivial topic, unless you are directly affected yourself; in importance, it barely compares with the massive socio-economic inequalities of access to university education in Scotland. So it seemed a good topic for a summer blog.

The issue itself is fairly simple. Currently, the Scottish Government will not allow universities to charge fees for home full-time undergraduates. As the UK is a member of the EU, Scotland’s public universities must offer undergraduate degrees on the same bases to all citizens of the EU, and therefore cannot charge them fees. Unless, that is, they come from elsewhere in the UK.

This seems an anomalous position, and a hardy Edinburgh student promptly challenged it in the courts. She lost her case. The reason that the Scottish Government can treat students from the rest of the UK differently is that, under current EU law, Scotland’s is a regional government, and not a national one. And this position has now been upheld by the courts.

The question addressed in the Scotsman was what happens if an independent Scotland should join the EU. The obvious answer is that English, Welsh and Northern Irish applicants will be treated as foreigners from another EU state, and will be treated on the same terms as Scottish – or Bavarian or Basque – candidates.

If this comes about, then it will cause considerable turbulence within the Scottish higher education system. At present, the number of fundable student places is limited; they are free to Scots and other EU students, but the universities can only admit a specified number. There are also rules about how many students must be studying certain subjects, which are judged of national importance. But universities can top up these numbers with fee-paying students from the rest of the UK.

In an independent Scotland within the EU, then English, Welsh and Northern Irish students would be competing for the fixed number of student places. And if there are no tuition fees, then we can expect very large numbers of people from the rest of the UK to fancy taking a degree in Scotland.

But according to the Scottish Government, independence will change nothing. The Scotsman quoted the First Minister as saying that ““We believe we can maintain the current arrangement and we’ve got legal advice to that effect”. The Scottish Conservative spokesperson promptly demanded that Mr Salmond publish this advice.

And here is where I give licence to any Über-Nationalist reader to dismiss anything else I say, ever. Because I think the Conservatives are right. Not on everything, but right on this.

If there is any such legal advice, then I would be very surprised. It’s some years since my knowledge of this was fresh (I published a study of the EU and its educational policies in the late 1990s), but the principle of free movement of labour – and the consequent insistence of equal access to training – is one of the founding objectives of the EU.

Why on earth would the EU make an exception for a candidate country, when all other candidate countries have had to take the entire body of EU law as a given? So this advice would transform our existing understanding of EU law on education, and on higher education in particular (which, for technical reasons, has been treated in EU law as a form of vocational training). I suspect that the Government will have to publish the advice eventually, and it may as well come clean now, rather than wait until it is forced to do so reluctantly.