|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine
Issue 223 November 2018
Peterloo's timely reminder
Directed by Mike Leigh, 2018, 154 mins
Reviewed by Kevin Parslow
Peterloo is a welcome addition to political cinema. It is a fine telling of the circumstances that led to the brutal attack on a peaceful demonstration in Manchester on 16 August 1819, and its release should ignite discussion on this relatively unknown part of British history. Director Mike Leigh said recently that the events of Peterloo should be taught in all schools, but media comments confirmed that it was not on the curriculum of many history courses.
But it’s not just in schools that Peterloo is barely mentioned. Many workers are unaware of the massacre or the time before it. They may be familiar with Britain’s wars against France, particularly the Napoleonic wars (1803-15), ending at Waterloo. They are unlikely to know that there was great sympathy in Britain for revolutionary France during its key period of 1789-94.
Even in Manchester there is scant public recognition of the massacre. In the 19th century there once stood a statue of Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt in the Ancoats district. Hunt was addressing the crowd when the drunken yeomanry and hussars attacked. Money was raised by the Chartists and others for its commission, but it did not remain for even 50 years.
There have been many debates about the necessity to erect a public memorial. Even Labour-controlled Manchester city councils have been loath to push for one. A plaque on the Manchester Free Trade Hall, built by supporters of the industrialist-led Anti-Corn Law League, merely said: "The site of St Peter’s Fields where on 16th August 1819 radical orator Henry Hunt addressed an assembly of about 60,000 people and their subsequent dispersal by the military is remembered as Peterloo".
Following lobbying by the Peterloo Memorial Campaign, this was changed in 2007 to something more apt: "On August 16 1819 a peaceful rally of 60,000 pro-democracy reformers, men, women and children, was attacked by armed cavalry resulting in 15 deaths and over 600 injuries". The Free Trade Hall is now in part a 5-star hotel! While it has been agreed to erect a permanent memorial, time is getting short to reveal it for the bicentenary.
Why has Peterloo been hidden from the public for so long? When it is discussed, it is normally in the context of the struggle for ‘democracy’ and to extend the franchise. The working-class issues are barely mentioned yet, for most of those on St Peter’s Field, the vote was a means to an end: for improved housing and jobs, ending poverty, and for a better society. This is emphasised in Mike Leigh’s film. The reason for this deliberate oversight lies in the British ruling class’s fear of revolution.
In 1819, echoes of the French revolution still reverberated, just as the Russian revolution had similar lasting effects a century later. The previous three decades had been characterised by turmoil. After Edmund Burke, seen by many as a father of modern conservatism, opposed the French revolution, the radical Thomas Paine wrote The Rights of Man (1791) in response. It sold 450,000 copies at two shillings and sixpence (12.5p) – the equivalent of the Socialist Party selling 2-3 million of a £20 publication!
In the 1790s radical organisations were set up, such as the London Corresponding Society, which spawned similar organisations throughout the country. It was eventually suppressed and its leaders put on trial, although most were acquitted. Mutinies took place in the navy. Workers, now being herded into the mechanised factories of the industrial revolution, began to establish trade unions and go on strike. The government banned trade unions and industrial action through the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800, while economic downturns also had their effect on these early workers’ organisations.
Other repressive measures were enacted to stifle the revolutionary mood, including the banning of national political organisations. These, combined with the whipping up of patriotism, particularly in the wars against Napoleonic France, had some effect in quieting unrest. They did not, however, stop the Luddite protests of unemployed workers against mechanisation between 1810 and 1816.
Once the wars ended after 1815, there was no longer any external reason not to fight for radical ideas. New organisations sprang up as a result, including trade unions fighting for better conditions. (It is often mentioned that we are now in the lowest period of wage growth since the Napoleonic wars.) Towards the end of 1816, the Spa Fields riots in Clerkenwell were expressions of the discontent of the London masses. In the spring of 1817, unemployed Manchester weavers tried to march on London but the ‘march of the blanketeers’ was stopped by the authorities. The Pentrich rebellion the same year was one of many local disturbances against the government and the system it represented.
Peterloo was in one sense the culmination of this mood. But it was also a representation of the working class moving onto the field of history. When news spread of the massacre, there were riots in nearby towns such as Macclesfield and Stockport but also around the country. Uprisings took place in Huddersfield and Burnley. Protest meetings were held, including one of 15,000 in Westminster. In response, the terrified government passed the Six Acts, a series of repressive measures outlawing political organisation, military drilling and other potentially ‘subversive’ activities. This did not prevent the ‘radical war’ of April 1820 in central Scotland, strikes and uprisings against reaction.
Workers flexing their muscles scared not just the government but also many of the reformers. Debates took place between those still prepared to confront the government and those who would compromise. Subsequently, the main force for change would come from the working class, through the trade unions and then the Chartists. Despite concessions on parliamentary reform, workers would be denied the vote for decades to come.
In the 1920s, the Russian revolutionary leader, Leon Trotsky, wrote extensively about the political situation in Britain. He took up the then leaders of the Tory and Labour parties, Stanley Baldwin and Ramsay MacDonald. Both of them commented on the ‘peaceful’ development of British parliamentary democracy, but Trotsky showed that the exact opposite was the case.
He wrote, for example: "Let us allow for the minute that a Labour majority in parliament results from the next elections and that as a start it resolves in the most legal fashion to hand over the landlords’ land to the farmers and the chronically unemployed without compensation, to introduce a high tax on capital and to abolish the monarchy, the House of Lords and a few other obscene institutions. There cannot be the least doubt that the possessing classes would not give in without a fight, and all the less so since the entire police, judicial and military apparatus is wholly in their hands. In the history of Britain there has already been one instance of civil war when the king rested upon a minority in the Commons and a majority in the Lords against the majority of the Commons and a minority in the Lords. That affair was in the 1640s". (Writings on Britain, 1925)
The ‘affair’ was the English civil war which led to the short-lived Commonwealth, a republic. But Trotsky could have also mentioned Peterloo or any of the brutally repressed uprisings of the Chartists, such as in Merthyr and Newport, to show the fear of the British ruling class of revolution. And in Trotsky’s words there is a warning for any future Corbyn government which attempts to implement a radical programme without mobilising the working class in its support!
So Peterloo is timely in reminding us not just about what our ancestors had to confront in their early struggles against the capitalist system but also what we face today in fighting to change society. The current wave of populism against governments worldwide could quickly change into something more dangerous for the defenders of the system. When it does, the role of socialists is to explain a programme for a better world and how to overcome the challenges from the state against us.