Amid the ongoing debate over Brexit, how it is to be effected, and how British democracy is to be respected, it is easy to forget how often the concept of democracy is taken for granted – at least on the east side of the Irish Sea. The complaint is frequently levelled that people all too often prefer to vote in the X Factor or Big Brother than in either national or local elections. Then again, democracy has never evolved in precisely identical circumstances in any two nations. Even before things like television and the internet came along and influenced politics in their own particular way, levels of political participation in Britain were very different – and much lower – than in places like, say, France or the United States. Kevin Jefferys, Professor of Contemporary History at Plymouth University, is one academic who has written much about this. In his December 2008 article “Two Cheers for Democracy” for the History and Policy partnership, he wrote of how British democracy – in which universal adult suffrage was partially achieved only in 1918 – was “stable but not vibrant”:
The system stood the test of time because it had strong historical roots (unlike Weimar Germany, which collapsed when economic crisis struck), but it was an elite-centred version of democracy in which the majority of “the people” were not much involved from the outset. The implications are best appreciated by contrasting Britain with France or the United States, nations with revolutionary traditions dating from the late 18th century. These traditions created a very different model of citizenship. According to political scientist Bernard Crick, the French and Americans ‘are not a hyperactive ancient Athenian citizen elite; yet they know there is a kind of official…blessing on being at least spasmodically active; or at least not feeling peculiar if they are’. In Britain, by way of contrast, the language has more often been of “good subjects” than of “active citizens”. Against the setting of Britain’s unique historical background, it should come as little surprise that in the years after 1918 most good subjects were in no rush to turn into active citizens.
This doesn’t mean the process of turning Britain into a modern, democratic state was a completely seamless and trouble-free experience, where our rulers were always going to give us the right to vote – though in a country in which most popular historical memory consists more of kings, queens, and generals than campaigners for freedom and democracy, you’d be forgiven for thinking that. Exactly two hundred years ago just outside Manchester, one of the most dramatic episodes in the still largely unappreciated campaign for British democracy took place.
The years after Napoleon Bonaparte’s final surrender at Waterloo saw an economic slump, as a country hitherto on a war footing struggled to adjust to peacetime trading, and demobbed soldiers from Europe and North America were thrown on to a crowded job market. Some ex-soldiers from Britain and Ireland who had the means took the opportunity to emigrate to the Americas, either to set up homes of their own or to serve as volunteers in Bolivar’s and San Martin’s nationalist movements in the Andes and the Pampas. For those who couldn’t, though, life was tough, and increasing numbers of them began to follow democratic campaigns. Radical pamphleteers like Henry “The Orator” Hunt and Samuel Bamford opined that the people would only get a fair deal out of life if they had the right to vote, even if they didn’t own any property. Only around 400,000 men, out of a population of about 15 million, passed the property-value qualification that meant they could vote.
A public meeting calling for the franchise to be extended was arranged for St Peter’s Fields on the outskirts of Manchester for Monday 16 August 1819, and speakers at the event included Hunt and Bamford. Banners at the meeting contained such slogans as ‘Taxation and no Representation is unjust’, ‘Equal Representation or Death’, and ‘Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage, and Vote by Ballot’. Around 60,000 people (none of them armed) turned up to the open-air meeting on one of the hottest and sunniest days of the year, and their numbers included many women and children. Manchester magistrates, having initially allowed the meeting to go ahead, then had a change of heart, and decided to arrest Hunt and other speakers. The attitude of Lord Liverpool’s Tory government to pro-democracy campaigners was to assume they really wanted a violent, French-style revolution, and so took a hard line on Radical agitators and their sympathizers. Mounted yeomanry at St Peter’s Fields, who were already there to ensure the meeting stayed peaceful, thus stampeded toward the platform to make their arrests, but in the process accidentally trampled a small girl to death. Surrounded on all sides by hostile, jeering crowds, they panicked, drew their sabres, and started slashing indiscriminately. Bamford described the melee:
The cavalry were in confusion; they evidently could not, with the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings; and their sabres were plied to cut a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion.
Many females appeared as the crowd opened; and striplings or mere youths also were found. Their cries were piteous and heart-rending, and would, one might have supposed, have disarmed any human resentment: but here their appeals were in vain…
‘Shame!’ was shouted then “Break! Break! They are killing them in front, and they cannot get away.’ On the breaking of the crowd the yeomanry wheeled, and, dashing whenever there was an opening, they followed, pressing and wounding. Women and tender youths were indiscriminately sabred or trampled.
Eleven people were killed, and over 400 injured, many seriously, and around a hundred of those included women and children. Six more would die of their wounds before the year was out. The event was soon dubbed the “Massacre of Peterloo”, with comparison being drawn with the killing at Waterloo four years earlier. Critics of the authorities’ actions included the Times newspaper. Their reporter John Tyas, no friend of Hunt, made his views clear in the paper three days later:
Was the meeting at Manchester an unlawful assembly? We believe not. Was the subject proposed for discussion (reform of the House of Commons) an unlawful object? Assuredly not. Was anything done at this meeting before the cavalry rode in upon it, contrary to the law or in breach of the peace? No such circumstances are recorded in any of the statements which have yet reached our hands.
Needless to say, nobody was ever punished for killing unarmed civilians: the government moreover congratulated the Manchester magistracy on their actions, and imposed further restrictions on Radical activities, which included a complete ban on similar public meetings. Hunt was arrested and jailed for two years. Eventually, however, the powers that be did get the message that some political reform was essential to avert a French-style revolution, and also as a way of dividing the Radical opposition – thirteen years later, in the 1832 Great Reform Act.
Why does any of this matter today? Probably because Peterloo was, in so many ways, Britain’s Bloody Monday: the parallels between this event and Bloody Sunday are certainly haunting. As in Derry over a century and a half later, government soldiers got away with killing unarmed people, and a depressing number of public figures preferred to take the government’s side. In keeping with the depressing tradition (still upheld today) among some English people of punching down rather than punching up, those praising the actions of the sabre-happy Manchester yeomanry included the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge.
Two centuries on, as Britain grapples with the question of how to honour the 2016 Referendum result (however murky the circumstances behind it) yet at the same time exit the European Union sensibly and responsibly, Peterloo is also a reminder of how all too often we take for granted things like the rights to vote and to hold public meetings, and the freedom of speech. If social media is anything to go by, it’s clear that most of us in Britain do care about democracy, freedom, and accountable government, but at the same time many of us are oblivious as to how our freedoms and rights came about, and how they came about relatively recently (qv, the number of times some on Facebook and Twitter have used the toe-curling term “A Thousand Years of British Freedom” when discussing Brexit). At a time when more British people prefer to blame one another for the failures in the Brexit process, rather than our incompetent government, it’s also a reminder that We The Voters should always regard our rulers as our employees, and not our bosses. The radical poet Percy Bysshe Shelley got the message very early on, in his poem The Masque of Anarchy, which he wrote soon after Peterloo:
Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war.
And if then the tyrants dare,
Let them ride among you there;
Slash, and stab, and maim and hew;
What they like, that let them do.
With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay,
Till their rage has died away:
Then they will return with shame,
To the place from which they came,
And the blood thus shed will speak
In hot blushes on their cheek:
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few!
Based in Birmingham, Dan is a writer and actor