5 September 2019
Facing Our Borisloo
A reflection of 1819?
by J.R. Thomas
One disadvantage of a long August break is that the commemoration of events that really should be noted gets missed. So as our readers sweated on their yachts, or crunched sand in their Cornish pasties, or were stung by giant hornets in Umbria, they missed something important. Billy Bragg gave a talk at Manchester library about his new book on democracy. Red Saunders, the agitprop photographer, opened his new photographic exhibition. On 16th August an “immersive” experience took place with present day citizens playing the part of historic protestors. What occasioned all this? Peterloo, of course, two hundred years ago; don’t say you overlooked that.
You might be forgiven for not knowing. For such a seminal event there has been little fuss. If anything should have got Mr Corbyn blocking the streets with Momentum it should surely have been the sad events of 16th August 1819, when a public meeting of some 60,000 people on Peterloo Fields, Manchester, was charged, swords drawn, by the 15th Hussars to disperse an increasingly angry crowd. Eighteen people were killed and 500 or more injured. The crowd was calling for reform of the Parliamentary franchise (you see why Jezza might have picked up some pleasing symmetries) the end of the Napoleonic Wars bringing about an urge, as wars so often do, for more recognition of the efforts and contribution to victory of ordinary working folk.
The events of that evening caused widespread outrage and anger, fanned by a new phenomenon, national newspapers; they , then, as now, with an eye to a circulation boosting headline, but accurately enough, christened it the “Peterloo Massacre”. The government of the day was made of tough stuff; their immediate reaction, led by Lord Sidmouth, the Home Secretary, was a clamp down on public gatherings, increased monitoring of suspected trouble makers, deployment of troops to potential trouble spots, and the arrest of journalists and editors. Within months the passing of the Six Acts put this repression on a more formal legal basis, though sporadic gatherings and riots continued for another couple of years. (And the Manchester Guardian was founded, as a direct result of Peterloo, by a group of nonconformist businessmen.)
In 1832 the passage of the Great Reform Act gave the protestors much of what they had been calling for; a Liberal government was able to invoke the ghosts of Peterloo Fields to create a more general franchise. By then electoral reform had wide support, not just from radicals but also from much of the liberal leaning business class then rising in power and prosperity, from the growth of Methodism, and not least from those who feared further uprisings if concessions were not made.
Whatever your politics, Peterloo was a shocking and seminal event which coloured much of the politics of the nineteenth century. Which brings us back to that question: why has there been so little to mark it? Even in Manchester, that centre of Victorian radicalism, the unveiling of a modest memorial (on the 13th August, the 16th did not work for various diaries) and Billy Bragg promoting a book seem lightweight markings for such a profound happening.
Maybe the left is too busy fighting the democratic struggles of August 2019 to be troubled by diversions into historic events, however apparently strong and useful the parallels. Why march around Manchester when Boris is abolishing the constitution and suspending the rule of the people as expressed through their honourable representatives in the Commons?
This column has long argued that the People’s Jeremy should not be under-estimated. He is a more adroit politician than he is often given credit for – his ability to continue to lead the Labour Party through a veritable sea of troubles is proof of that – and he also knows his radical history very well indeed. And, we would argue, he is no hypocrite. So is it that he knows that to drag Peterloo into the current troubles would be to demean the principles of that crowd and to debase the memory of those who died? Perhaps; perhaps. Perhaps Jeremy is acutely aware that what democracy has to be about is the will of the people, and that what is going on now is more about the wishes of their representatives than those of the voters. Could Jeremy even secretly harbour the view that it is Boris who is the radical seeking to deliver the true spirit of democracy?
Unlikely, you will probably say. The left, or The Left, really do hate the Tories in their deep dark Momentum hearts. Indeed, even if Mr Corbyn had a sweet and forgiving nature and his upbringing had given him a secret sympathy for Conservatism, it seems unlikely that it would extend to a sneaking admiration for ambitious and tiggerish Old Etonians. But Jezza may have another reason for avoiding the troubles of the distant past and keeping his head down (and the tortoise solution has served him well so far). Keeping quiet allows the Tories to do a very effective job of destroying themselves.
There does seem to be a certain rule that just when things are going well, the good ship Tory Party is once more sailing forward with gentle breezes propelling her in the right direction, the captain having set a course and the opinion polls recording a rising glass, some part of the crew starts a mutiny. Rather than unite the Conservatives against Labour it is generally a better strategy for the opposition to just let the Tories ruin their party for themselves.
And there is another good reason why just at this minute Mr C does not want to win an election. If there is one the whole sorry mess of Brexit will fall upon him and his squabbling party, as divided in truth, more so in fact, than the blue lot opposite. Jezza is in his heart a Leaver; so probably are the majority of his long term supporters, especially outside the south-east. Do you seriously imagine he wants to pick up this mess? It is a highly sensible tactical move to at least hope that if there is to be an election it is after 31st October.
But with Boris’s hand on the tiller, the election will of course be before the 31st, so that it effectively becomes a one issue plebiscite on Brexit. Mr Cummings has no doubt done his detailed research (Mr Cummings is a great man for God being in the details and does not believe his own publicity) and calculates that Leave/Tory will swing it. Well, you may ponder over your bacon and eggs, wasn’t that Mrs May’s idea? Indeed it was, but she then fought one of the worst electoral campaigns in history. Mr Johnson and Mr Cummings are not going to do anything like that. They dare their own rebels, the LibDems, the Scots Nats, and Labour, to throw them into the briar patch. Like that famous rabbit, there is nothing they would like more (other than all the Tory rebels coming to heel perhaps). Largish majority, no dependence on Northern Irish politicians, Tory rebels deselected and out of Parliament, LibDems routed having had to fight on the weakest ground they could find.
After the Cameron and May years we have got used to naivety in politics. Well, that has changed. Boris and Jeremy are clever and calculating politicians, who adore the great game, have read a great deal about it, and know how to play it. Both have been underestimated inside their own parties and by observers outside. For both of them, the great opportunity has arrived. It is going to be a fascinating winter.