openDemocracyUK

Assembling for democracy: part 1, learning from the Blanketeers

As Assemblies for Democracy prepare to meet this Spring in London, Manchester and Glasgow, it is time to look again at the history of popular assembly in the struggle for democracy in Britain.

Peter Evans
24 March 2015

Throughout Britain's history her people have had to organise and assemble to fight for meaningful democracy. Blanketeers, Chartists, and Radicals; trade unions and the labour movement; suffragists and suffragettes – all of these movements over the past 200 years emerged as the people of this country recognised that they were being denied a political voice, and excluded from exercising meaningful political power.

In 1793 a Convention was organised at Edinburgh called ‘The British Convention of the Delegates of the People associated to obtain Universal Suffrage and Annual Parliaments’ – an assembly for democracy. As its title declared, its purpose was to discuss how best to achieve Universal Suffrage in this country (albeit to be exercised by males on behalf of family units).[1] It was quickly shut down by the government, and the participants were arrested and put on trial for sedition (seeking to overthrow the government). They were show trials. In the case of Joseph Gerrald, for example, the case was presided over by a judge candid in expressing his belief that calling for universal male suffrage constituted sedition, or worse. The jury was hand-picked: each one a member of a group that had already publicly denounced Gerrald for his political views.[2] Needless to say he was found guilty, and sentenced to 15 years ‘transportation’, i.e. exile, to New South Wales, where he died from tuberculosis. Along with the other ‘Scottish martyrs’ he became the example the government wanted – evidence of the consequences of seeking democratic reform for political empowerment.

22 years later, Britain’s people celebrated the final end of the long wars with France – first revolutionary, then Napoleonic – that had begun in the year of Gerrald’s trial. Patriotic sentiments ran high in 1815, and spontaneous celebrations broke out across the country. Unlike the war years, these festival occasions were no longer empty affairs haunted by the sound of recruiter’s drums.[3] But this elation was not to last. The mood of the people changed rapidly as the economy slumped, a problem exacerbated by the rapid demobilisation of 300,000 soldiers and sailors, who inevitably saturated Britain’s labour markets. The burden of taxation imposed by the war was not lessened either, and Britain’s taxpayers were left to pay off a massive national debt of £834,000,000 – more than 250% of GDP (ours, by contrast, was 90.6% of GDP in 2013).

In 1816, furthermore, the government was forced to repeal Income Tax after failing to legislate for its continuation, so the means of paying down this debt was shifted to indirect taxes, including on a wide range consumer goods such as bread (via the Corn Laws introduced in the 1815 Importation Act). The burden of repayment therefore fell most heavily on the poor – who had, of course, already disproportionately born the burden of providing manpower for the wars, yet were the least likely to reap any benefit from its prosecution. On top of all this, the summer of 1816 was disastrous, heavy rains and a terrible harvest causing widespread deprivation and poverty. In this context, the people called on the government to alleviate their burden. Their appeals fell on deaf ears – when the people submitted numerous petitions for reform gathered from across the country, Parliament rejected them out of hand and refused to acknowledge them – mostly on technical grounds of incorrect language or procedure.[4] They simply weren’t interested. A proposed Universal Manhood Suffrage bill went nowhere. The people therefore turned to petitioning the Crown, an act of ‘remonstrance’, and a declaration that the people were nearing the end of their tether. According to the constitutional customs at the time, this could form part of establishing the right to armed resistance. However, given the restrictive legislation against political organisation at the time, this was essentially the only constructive option open to them.[5]

One of the most prominent of these attempts to petition the Crown was conducted by a group in Manchester who came to be known as the ‘Blanketeers’. They gained this name since all they would carry with them on a long march to London to deliver their petition would be blankets packed with food, although it also referred to the fact that most of them were textile workers. They were careful not to appear like violent revolutionaries – their march was to be organised into bands of no more than ten, so as to be sure not to violate the Seditious Meetings Act of 1795. Conceived in desperation, the Blanketeers hoped sheer weight of numbers would be sufficient to impress the Prince Regent of the severity of their plight. The government’s response though was to suspend habeas corpus and arrest the leaders who had emerged from the movement, or else force them into hiding. This included those who had advised against the march, such as Samuel Bamford. But new leaders simply sprang up to replace the old, such as the 18 year old machinist John Bagguley, who quickly found he was well suited to being an orator. The people were determined to go.

On the 10th of March around 5,000 marchers assembled, with some 20,000 more people gathering to see them off. But the march was abortive from the start. The Riot Act was read, and the marchers broken up by the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry. A small group of around 300 managed to get away and leave Manchester, but they were intercepted, attacked, and arrested later that day. In truth the march was never likely to succeed. The government was keen to prevent organised activity by the people, and the movement had been infiltrated with spies from the beginning. Furthermore, in response to rioting in London, but also the tangible threat that mass meetings might be held there to coincide with the march, the government had drafted in special constables, and even put the army on alert.  But this did not deter the Blanketeers from trying. Indeed we know from accounts of their meetings that they were well aware of the spies, and the government’s use of agents-provocateur to provoke rash acts of violence that would discredit the movement. They pushed on regardless.

The intention of the march was to attempt to compel the Crown, as King John had been compelled to sign the Magna Carta in 1215, and as – the Blanketeers believed – the Peasant’s Revolt had similarly compelled Richard II to accept their demands in 1381 (at least before Richard betrayed and killed their leaders Wat Tyler and John Ball). Now, in reality the Peasant’s Revolt was a bloodier affair than the Blanketeers believed, but their understanding of it was as a forceful, yet ultimately peaceful march, and it was this that informed their approach. The Blanketeers’ conception of it, as Bagguley once declared to the crowd, was that ‘In the reign of Richard II about 40,000 men went to London to demand their rights of the King; and he granted them their rights and they went home again’.[6] The march was thus conceived much like many other peaceful marches in history, such as the National Hunger Marches in 1932, or the American civil rights movement’s March on Washington in 1963.

The failure of the Blanketeers’ march was followed by a series of abortive – and, with the benefit of hindsight, ill-judged uprisings – a number of which were directly instigated by government agents. One spy going by the name ‘Oliver’ for example was instrumental in orchestrating infamous events at Pentridge near Sheffield, and Folley Hall near Huddersfield. These violent, government orchestrated risings, involving only a few hundred people, were doubtless intended to demonstrate the futility of pushing for democratic change, and to discredit advocates of radical reform by associating them with indiscriminate violence and treason. But, even in the face of these failures and attempts to sabotage the movement, people refused to stop agitating and pressuring for democratic reform – people continued to assemble to discuss how best to mobilise in pursuit of their democratic aims.

The Blanketeers organised themselves not because the chances of immediate success were high, but because their statement needed to be made. Efforts towards a sustained pressure for reform needed to be built. As the pre-eminent historian of this era of reform politics, Robert Poole, has argued: ‘The reform movement of 1817 may seem to have gone off in all directions like a cheap box of fireworks’, but the march had been part of a coherent push for reform on the part of this self-organising upsurge of the people, whereby ‘Radicals used mass petitioning on a national scale, backed by the threat of assembled numbers’. And assembled numbers there were – one government spy, William Chippendale (based in Oldham), writing in 1816 for example that ‘There is not a Village or Hamlet or Fold of Houses anywhere but has its periodical Meeting & Committee…. The Activity of these People is to me most astonishing’.[7] But what was the great threat that the demands of the Blanketeers constituted to the order and stability of British society? What did these supposed firebrands want? Well, the opening of their petition reads as follows:

That your Petitioners have full and immovable conviction, a conviction which they believe to be universal throughout the Kingdom, that your Honourable House doth not, in any constitutional or rational sense, represent the Nation: That when all the People cease to be represented, the Constitution is subverted.[8]

They wanted representation – the fundamental basis of Britain’s political system since the Great Reform Act of 1832 – and they wanted it for all the people (which was only achieved in 1928, with the extension of universal suffrage to all women over the age of 21).

The Blanketeers March may seem a far-fetched attempt to us, after all it did at the time, but we should always remember that in the end it actually was royal intervention, forced by popular pressure that forced the House of Lords to accede to the Reform Act in 1832. The policy of pressuring the crown to force a concession from Parliament actually succeeded, as, after a Whig landslide in the Commons, the king was compelled to create a sufficient amount of new peers in the Lords to allow the Act to pass. These events were a direct response to popular discontent. After all, when the Lords rejected the second reform bill in October 1831, riots broke out across the country, and the authorities even lost control of Bristol, Derby, and Nottingham![9] This situation simply would not have been possible without earlier efforts to organise and mobilise people such as Blanketeers attempted. Remember this point the next time you see some smug political commentator tell you that political reality dictates we only seek measures which could pass Parliament today, and that seeking anything else is an unrealistic fantasy.

Our history of popular movements pressuring Parliament into democratic change could end here. We could recount, as many have before, a complacent tale of how a long process started with the Great Reform Act of 1832, by which British democracy gradually emerged under Parliament’s leadership. A story culminating triumphantly in the Reform Acts of 1918 and 1928 – with the granting of Universal Suffrage for men and women respectively – by way of the Second and Third Reform Acts, 1867 and 1884, which had extended the franchise to greater numbers of men. A story of the triumph of a reforming Parliament and its champions, as they steered Britain on a slow and steady journey towards Britain becoming a “mature” democracy (and therefore a society with little need for further democratisation). But it is an outright lie to tell this story, to say that 1832 inaugurated such a process, if we are to say that it was led by Parliament and middle class intellectuals, and that democratic power was given as a gift to the people, or perhaps reward , as they demonstrated their maturity and worthiness for the franchise. It wasn’t. It was taken. In reality, Parliaments opposed to reform were repeatedly made to concede power, just as it had been in 1832. Britain’s process of democratisation has been slow precisely because Parliament has not taken a leading role in promoting it. If they had ever really been champions of democracy, they could have made the changes overnight.

The Blanketeers and the Chartists are often said to have been unsuccessful, but this is untrue. To see their success you have to know not only where to look, but how to look. Without knowledge of the context of the pressure created by organisations of people dedicated to achieving democracy in this country, one would be liable to believe that radical reform and meaningful democratic power was given to us out of the kindness of politicians’ hearts, or handed out as some kind of reward. It wasn’t, and at each step Parliament gave the least ground it could. It was only by assembling for democracy that people made change happen. That the process stopped in 1928 is not evidence of us having arrived at some ideal final destination of becoming a “mature democracy”, but rather that there was not really any more ground to be given on that front, and so people moved on to other demands.[10] There’s a reason the Welfare State was constructed after all, and it had nothing to do with Britain somehow arriving at a predefined destination of being a “mature” democracy, but everything to do with the balance of power. After all, real power is never given, but taken.

It took sustained pressure from popular democratic movements to wrest power, by degrees, from the hands of elites in the 19th and 20th centuries. Recent years have undoubtedly seen a reversal of this process, but, historically speaking, this means only that the time has come to renew it once more. This process is, and ever will be, a tug-of-war, not some easy ramble up a gradual slope of reform to some idyllic final summit where we can say we have no further need to strive for democracy, and can entrust its functioning to someone else. Democracy is a process, it lies in the doing. Properly understood, it means taking charge of our own affairs – and this, as previous generations did before us, is what we must now learn to do again.

Notes:


[1] The present concept of voting as being exercised by individuals on their own behalf did not emerge as the guiding principle in the British system until the early-twentieth century, when it supplanted the notion that dependents such as women, servants, and children, were represented by the votes of those they were dependent upon. This was a concept of ‘virtual representation’ – the idea that certain people did not need the ability to elect their own MPs, as MPs already represented everyone. Rejecting the application of this concept to the Thirteen Colonies was an important part of the American Revolution and the slogan “no taxation without representation”.

[2] J. Epstein, ‘Our real constitution’ in J. Vernon (ed.), Re-reading the constitution, (Cambridge 1993), 22-51.

[3] See R. Poole, ‘The March to Peterloo’, Past & Present 192 (2006), 109-154.

[4] R. Poole, ‘French Revolution or Peasants’ Revolt?’, Labour History Review 74.1 (2009), 109-54. The account of the Blanketeers given here is taken from Poole’s work.

[5] The Seditious Meetings Act (1795) had banned groups over the size of 50 from assembling together, and also national political organisations – which included those organised through meetings attended by regional delegates, as well as by correspondence. Freedom of speech meanwhile was limited both by the Stamp Act (a levy on newspapers which priced most consumers out of the market), and laws against the vaguely defined crime of “seditious libel”.

[6] ibid., 7.

[7] HO42/153, fol. 371, Chippendale to Fletcher, 4 September 1816; ‘Documents Concerning the Formation of Hampden Clubs 1816-17’, Manchester Central Library (MCL), MS f.363.D1. Cited from R. Poole, ‘French Revolution or Peasants’ Revolt?’, Labour History Review 74.1 (2009), 8-9.

[8] R. Poole, ‘French Revolution or Peasants’ Revolt?’, Labour History Review 74.1 (2009), 10-1.

[9] E. Evans, ‘A British Revolution in the 19th Century?’, BBC History (2011), http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/revolution_01.shtml (accessed 29/1/15).

[10] One area franchise extension could still be pushed would be to lower the voting age, but this has only recently started to gain any real popularity. Another aspect which was successfully pushed historically was to fully establish the principle of ‘one person one vote’ with the 1948 Representation of the People Act, which abolished university constituencies, and the right of graduates from relevant institutions to have two votes. However, this was not a process of extending the franchise, but rather a rationalisation of the system in accordance with its new principle of organisation.

 

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