By Alex Snowdon
‘It’s about time that we stopped being an ungrateful and forgetful nation. Events like the Peterloo Massacre should be commemorated properly. Visionary and brave groups such as the Levellers, Chartists and Suffragettes shouldn’t be afterthoughts when talking about British history, they should be treated as a fundamental part of it.’
That paragraph is a strong conclusion to a good article in the New Statesman, headlined ‘The Peterloo Massacre, the Levellers and the Chartists: why have we forgotten our radical history?’ It might surprise you that these words were written by a Tory. David Skelton’s celebration of democratic mass movements and their positive role in British history – accompanied by a passionate plea for them to be studied and admired more widely – is certainly the best opinion piece by a Tory I’ve read in some time. This, I grant you, is not the greatest of compliments, but it’s interesting that even a Tory can express a vision of British history a thousand times better than Michael Gove’s miserable vision.
Skelton also makes clear his contempt for the behaviour of the British state in massacring protesters in Manchester in 1819, referring to Peterloo as ‘one of the most disgraceful, and totemic, moments in British history’. He explains:
‘The Peterloo Massacre, in which fifteen people were killed and hundreds injured when the cavalry charged a peaceful demonstration for parliamentary reform, happened on this day in 1819. Lord Liverpool’s already reactionary government grew even more repressive. The massacre inspired generations of radicals to keep up the fight for reform and inspired Shelley to write one of the greatest political/ protest poems ever written, ‘The Mask of Anarchy’.’
Skelton’s main point is that there are mass movements which have influenced the course of British history, but these are rarely studied, celebrated or commemorated as they should be. The development of democracy and reform has not simply been the concern of politicians or great leaders, but has been driven from below and – as seen in 1819 – often in the teeth of violent state repression (also think, for example, of the imprisonment and force feeding of suffragettes).
A history of mass protest
Skelton is absolutely right. It’s hard not to wonder, though, why none of Skelton’s examples are more recent than the suffragettes. Perhaps it is easier, if you have Conservative politics, to celebrate those struggles which happened a very long time ago than those which are somewhat fresher. Similarly, we often find right-wing commentators eulogising democratic movements abroad while remaining quiet about protests at home – or indeed backing the forces of ‘law and order’ attacking such protests.
I prefer to see the Levellers, Chartists and suffragettes as part of a rich and inspiring history of protest which also includes poll tax non-payers, anti-war marchers, student protesters and Occupy activists.
It is also a rather selective history. The criterion seems to be that movements have been for democracy. The overarching story here is one of democratic reform, progressively advancing through this country’s history – from the English revolution, via the Chartists, to women receiving the vote on equal terms with men in 1928.
I much prefer this active people’s history to a history which presents the advancement of democratic reform as a result merely of the actions of politicians. It is far closer to the truth and acknowledges the struggles and sacrifices of many ordinary people, while showing that such advances have been bitterly contested by the old order.
But it leaves out countless struggles over social and economic issues which don’t neatly fit this narrative, while presenting a smooth vision of progress that belies the complex reality. A rounded people’s history would also include the great strike waves of the New Unionism in around 1889/90, the Great Unrest directly before World War One, and the early 1970s.
It would include the Luddites two centuries ago as well as the Levellers nearly four centuries ago. There would be a place for international solidarity movements, from Spain in the 1930s to Vietnam in the 1960s, which have shown the breadth of political horizons and depth of compassion of many in this country. And much, much more.
Their democracy and ours
This brings us to the key point. It’s not just about democracy in the narrow parliamentary sense – voting once every few years for politicians to make decisions on behalf, though in truth even they are in office but not in power as the state machine and big business operate with scant regard for democracy. Mass democratic movements have, without exception, raised a range of social, economic and political questions. They can’t easily be placed in a box marked ‘democratic reform’.
All of these movements have contained different strands and expressed a range of views and aspirations. Some leaders have encouraged people to settle for mild reform, holding back from a more far-reaching challenge to the power and wealth of governing elites.
The English Revolution had its moderates and radicals. What characterised the most radical and far-sighted elements was an understanding that real democracy was linked to challenging the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.
The clash of positions within the English Revolution was captured in the Putney Debates of 1647, when the Agitators linked democracy and social equality, but the moderate Ireton replied: ‘no man hath a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom… that hath not a permanent fixed interest in this kingdom.’. In other words: only those with property or wealth should have a vote. Democracy was to be separated from the aspiration to create a more equal society serving the interests of the many.
Chartism was not simply a democratic campaign, but the first working class mass movement anywhere in the world. Its demonstration of the potential of collective action by the early industrial working class inspired Frederick Engels when he wrote ‘The Condition of the Working Class’ in 1844 and, a few years later, both Engels and his close collaborator Karl Marx when they penned ‘The Communist Manifesto’. Most Chartists were motivated by the idea that greater democracy could bring social justice: an end to appalling poverty, greater equality, better working conditions.
The more radical suffragettes, like Sylvia Pankhurst, linked the fight for votes for women to economic struggles. World War One brought many women into the workforce – including traditionally ‘male’ jobs – and broadened their ideas about what role women could play in society.
There were campaigns over issues like housing during and immediately after the war, which involved women in a huge way. During this period left-wing women activists fought for the vote, but also organised against the slaughter of the war, agitated for better housing and services, and built solidarity with the Irish struggle for independence.
Making history live and breathe
We should be inspired by all of this history. We can learn from it, share it with others, celebrate it and commit to building on the traditions of mass protest we have inherited. Crucially, we should link the struggle for democracy – which is unfinished – to the myriad battles over the conditions we live in.
The near-absence of radical history from education and mainstream culture, which Skelton rightly bemoans but can’t explain, is no quirk or accident. It is political. They don’t want us to know about this stuff.
Learn about the Levellers and confront the modern-day Iretons who seek to protect the privileges of the few. Be inspired by the Chartists and build the People’s Assembly as a movement that asserts real democracy while fighting cuts. Celebrate what the suffragettes achieved and oppose 21st century sexism. There’s no better way of making history live and breathe.