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Anarchy unmasked; Peterloo 200 years on

With the 200th Anniversary of The Peterloo Massacre this month, were the rebels’ objectives truly ever achieved?

Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, working-class Britain was manifested by appalling levels of famine and a frightfully low employment rate. Exacerbating these issues were the notorious Corn Laws, which recommended the exclusion of foreign-grown corn until UK prices had risen substantially. The blight of this was, of course, to fall mainly onto the urban poor. With the rapid mechanisation of the textile industry, men, women and children were hurriedly dismissed from work without any forewarning, leaving whole families unable to feed. 

In our 21st century Britain, brimming with rules, regulations and 24-hour McDonalds’, it is almost impossible to imagine such a lapse into disorder. With our damp-proof housing, reliable food supply and relatively satisfactory minimum wages, we are alienated by the idea that a large fraction of our country was once stuck in what would now resemble the developing world. Yet this was the reality, only two centuries ago. The British working-class, deprived of the vote, were left abandoned to the murky shadows.

200 years on from the Peterloo massacre, and it appears that the North is, finally, being paid the attention it deserves. Our new Prime Minister, however questionable his intentions, has traipsed around almost every major Northern capital, assiduously frowning under his blonde mop whilst listening to locals’ complaints. As a Northerner, I can guarantee that this is a very welcome change. But just why and how has it taken Westminster this long to realise the North’s importance?  

When considering this question, I’m struck by the lack of publicity for the 200thAnniversary of Peterloo in the national media. Only last month we saw the 50thanniversary of the moon landing, which saw zealous celebration across the UK, despite being a largely American success. With many historians agreeing that Peterloo played an integral role in creating modern Britain’s liberal democracy, I am baffled that this anniversary is being so massively undervalued. The people of Manchester rightfully honoured their heritage and turned out in their hundreds last Friday, yet most of the country don’t seem to have any idea or interest in commemorating this crucial event. 

Unfortunately, such ignorance is all too common. In the South, the narrative applied to the North/South divide is one of pity, of token concern for ‘the other side’ and its troubling socio-economic history. Yet, the North is no longer impoverished. London may be the preferred location to initiate a career, but in the North opportunity is rife, and its social concerns are often marginal compared to those of London. Whilst the defeated rebels of Peterloo may have been pleased by the concept of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, their principal political aim has not been achieved; working-class northerners are still not only vaguely undermined, but entirely politically silenced.

I’m referring, of course, to Brexit. The referendum of 2016 saw the North voting overwhelmingly Leave, with the majority in regions such as North East Lincolnshire coming up to just below seventy-percent. This decision – and I believe that it must now be re-iterated that this was a thoroughly considered decision – astounded the political class. Those who maintained the very same naïve mindset as David Cameron were taken aback, unable to construe any reason to vote for such a divorce. They were astonished by the temerity of Northerners in not doing what they’d been told, just as those plump-bottomed Parliamentarians had been surprised 200 years earlier at Peterloo. 

Since 2016, the contempt shown for the referendum result by those politicians, journalists, think-tankers and others ensconced in SW1 has clearly demonstrated that the complaints of the Peterloo rebels are still justified today. In fact, even as I sit here at my laptop fact-checking this article, Google has very pointedly decided to push me in the direction of an article entitled ‘Why the North of England will regret voting for Brexit.’ The idea that this search result has been given pride of place doesn’t shock me at all; Brexit has shown intellectual and political snobbery at its very worst.

The Commons’ handling of Brexit has shattered my hope in democracy, and I am confident that I do not stand alone. Blood, tears, toil and sweat have been spent by the public in order to ensure that Parliament hears their voice. I feel an even deeper sorrow for those who lost their lives at Peterloo when I realise with horrible irony that, on the very anniversary of the massacre, the political class were rabidly plotting to overthrow the democratic vote. Sitting pretty in their comfortable London show-homes, the majority of Remainer MPs have repeatedly refused to lend an ear to those they consider to be insolent and idiotic Brexiteers from the regions. As such, they’ve failed to realise that for many voting to Leave was simply a desperate cry for help. Disillusioned by a political class that never alters, whatever we tick in the ballot box, voters used their first real chance at changing something in decades to voice their frustration. To parallel with Peterloo, the Remainers are imitating the stance of the Duke of Wellington: “Beginning reform is beginning revolution.” For those upper echelons who feel at ease in their socio-economic situation, what doesn’t seem broken doesn’t need fixing. 

Yet, Brexit is not the only recent political catastrophe which holds clear parallels with Peterloo. Thatcherism of the 1980s infamously ripped the heart out of Northern industry, leaving old and great cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield to seemingly irreversible decline. The livelihoods of millions were torn away as communities were shattered for an ideological project that began in London. This had consequences much like the textile industry’s mechanisation prior to Peterloo. The physical violence struck against the Northern mining communities shows that, over the intervening 200 years, the suppression tactics of the ruling classes haven’t changed one bit. Recalling Thatcher’s treatment of the miners mirrors how Shelley described Lord Castlereagh’s actions during Peterloo; ‘I met murder on the way – he had a mask like Castlereagh.’ Whilst it would be unreasonable to argue that all of Thatcher’s reign was completely disastrous, for the Northern working classes Thatcher was indeed little more than a masked murderer. Even today, when assessing our current political leaders, it becomes difficult to set them apart from such brutal rulers. The South’s “intellectual” elite still show aggressive contempt if ‘the many’ have the boldness to express a contrary political opinion.

However, the situation is not entirely hopeless. It would be both defeatist and inaccurate to say British politics hasn’t improved since Peterloo. Following the Representation of the People Acts of 1918 and 1928, our country’s political constitution has gone from strength to strength. Those vicious laws put in place following Peterloo, such as the Unlawful Drilling Act, have been repealed, and protests are now more tolerated than ever before. For those on the outside looking in, it must appear as though the UK is a place of unadulterated free speech and absolute equality.

For women especially, life has greatly improved. The Peterloo massacre was notable for its number of female protesters, which included societies such as the Blackburn Female Reform Society and the Manchester Female Reform Society. With now 202 female MPs within parliament, I have no doubt that the women of Peterloo would be more than satisfied with the position of women in society today, and feel that their sacrifice was by no means wasted.

Regardless of your opinions of Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May, it is undoubtedly a success that the UK gave the Western world its first female Prime Minister, and has now seen two in less than a hundred years since all women were given the right to vote. However, there are still significant battles to be fought. Four days before Peterloo, a nasty cartoon was published depicting the Blackburn Female Reform Society addressing an open-air meeting. The cartoon portrays these women as licentious, with their clothing unkempt and their children lying abandoned in the background. On this front, it appears women cannot win. Only two months ago, Stella Creasy, the Labour MP for Walthamstow, spoke out against Parliament’s rules on maternity leave for female MPs, arguing she felt she had to choose between “being an MP and being a mum”. The first female MP to face such a struggle, Baroness Hayman, was treated even worse; she was immediately dubbed a ‘militant feminist’ and bombarded with national criticism.

This is just one of many deterrents women still face on entering the political world. With Trump’s blatant misogyny damaging women’s political ambitions across the pond, such sexism seems to have trickled slowly into our Commons. As a consequence of the gentlemen’s dining-club culture of parliament, any female MP seen loudly vocalising her opinion is accused of ‘whining’. Even today such opinions are often displayed openly, in a nation much less crippled by a gender gap than the majority of the world. It is no secret that, during the PMQs of December 2018, Jeremy Corbyn churlishly mouthed ‘stupid woman’ at Theresa May. With such a culture in place, it comes as no surprise that Maggie Thatcher sought out vocal training in order for her voice to sound more masculine.

Yet, whilst women remain undermined in the political sphere, and the desires of the Peterloo rebels have still not yet been wholly achieved, I am confident that a situation similar to Peterloo could never re-occur. Eighteen innocent citizens were killed at Peterloo, with up to 700 others badly injured. Although the English Bill of Rights of 1689 should have prevented the military’s cruelty, the absence of free speech and unbiased media sources meant that local authorities were able to easily cover up their actions. Prior to the creation of The Guardian newspaper, governmental control of news media enabled a complete disregard for human rights. With recent bills and treaties such as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1998 Human Rights Act, it is reassuring to know that legal barriers are now in place to prevent another Peterloo staining British soil. 

Unfortunately, it becomes difficult to maintain such optimism when faced with the open partiality of the mainstream media. Although The Guardian was designed with the simple task of addressing this issue, I am unsure I could name one modern media outlet that doesn’t reek of inexcusable bias. In 2017, only 48% of Britons said that they trusted the mainstream media. Another regrettable trend to spread from across the pond is so-called ‘fake news’, which appears to be at an all-time high. Even social media outlets such as Facebook aren’t innocent, with the Tories paying out millions for Facebook advertisements in the run-up to the 2017 election. The outrageous lies of the mainstream media are regularly a cause for dismay and, on this front, I am unsure that this area has had any drastic improvement since Peterloo.

With no party in place to represent the people’s vote, I feel a sense of dismay surely not dissimilar to how the survivors of Peterloo felt, when they would have to wait thirteen years before any legislation would admit them onto the tedious road to political reform. Yet, Peterloo must be celebrated. It must be celebrated because the fight for true democracy is far from over. In such a turbulent political climate as this, we must honour those who fought at Peterloo, and recognise their sacrifice now more than ever before. 

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