The British ruling class has always hated democracy. In the 18th century our rulers denounced attempts by ordinary people to fight for reforms as “mob rule”.
Edmund Burke, the father of modern Conservativism, talked of the threat of the “swinish multitude” that would dominate if suffrage—the right to vote—was extended to everybody.
Although parliament existed, it was only for the very rich. Largely aristocratic MPs were elected by a tiny electorate.
The rich feared the loss of their privileges if the millions of people who created the wealth in society were given a say in how it was run.
So in 1789, when France exploded in revolution against its king, the wealthy of England were quick to clamp down on the spread of those ideas.
They banned Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, The Rights of Man, which called for democratic change.
They put the leaders of the London Corresponding Society, a group of radicals that championed the cause of the poor, on trial. Thomas Hardy and three other leaders were charged with treason for wanting reform.
But attempts to snuff out the movement failed.
Huge gatherings spread across Britain. In 1795, a panicking government passed sedition laws banning meetings of more than 50 people. Habeas corpus, which guarantees basic legal rights, was suspended.
And, for a time, it seemed that repression had worked.
The rich, rocked by the revolt, were forced to implement mild reforms. But this was not enough to quell the resistance—they still had to station hundreds of troops in every populous area.
By 1815 a new radical wave of struggle broke out, combining demands for democracy with calls for the redistribution of wealth.
Newcastle-born schoolteacher Thomas Spence was one of many who argued private property was the root of society’s ills.
He wrote a book called Pig’s Meat—a mocking parody of Burke’s “swinish multitude”. In it, he wrote, “The question is no longer about what form of government is most favourable to liberty but which system of society is capable of delivering us from the deadly mischief of great accumulations of wealth which enable a few unfeeling monsters to starve whole nations.”
Spence’s writings continually landed him in jail. But his calls to mass action won him a large following.
By 1819 the reform movement reached another high. Some 60,000 people gathered in Manchester’s St Peter’s Field to protest.
The ruling class sent in armed yeomanry—a type of cavalry—to attack the demonstration. They killed 11 and injured 140 on the day that became known as the Peterloo Massacre.
The leadership of the movement feared the scale of the repression. Rather than call more protests, they turned to the courts to win redress for the massacre—and failed.
But the spirit of the rebellion continued, and extended beyond the right to vote. It became about who controlled the land, the mills and the factories—in short, who controlled society’s wealth.
“Swing Riots” spread as gangs of agricultural labourers set fire to hundreds of estates owned by the landed gentry. Letters threatening landowners were signed “Captain Swing”.
Some 600 rioters were imprisoned, 500 transported to Australia, and 19 executed in the clampdown.
In 1831, Tory MPs voted down limited parliamentary reforms, while riots engulfed cities.
Working people also rose up against the assault on poor families, who were forced into the hated workhouses where they lived in prison-like conditions and performed unpaid slave labour.
New organisations and methods of struggle were born as people
increasingly looked to industrialised workers, who were challenging the exploitation at the heart of capitalism.
The Lancaster Co-operator newspaper proclaimed, “The workman is the source of all wealth... Yet the labourer remains poor and destitute, while those who do not work are rich.”
The ruling class was also facing an internal battle between the aristocrats, who wanted to defend their dominance, and the rising bourgeois class of merchants and factory owners who wanted parliamentary reform and power.
But both groups feared radical change would lead to more rebellion, and united around a programme of limited reform as a way of heading off insurrection.
Between 1832 and 1839 a series of laws were passed, although the numbers who could vote barely expanded.
Out of a population of 13 million adults, the franchise only grew from 720,000 to 850,000.
The weakness of the reforms on offer led different strands of the working class rebellion to come together to launch the People’s Charter in 1839.
Chartism was born, grabbing the popular imagination on a bigger scale than all previous movements.
Whole communities got involved, with women playing a particularly prominent role.
The Chartist newspaper, the Northern Star, had a circulation of 60,000 a week—rivalling the bestselling Times.
James “Bronterre” O’Brien used his column in the paper to explain why the ruling classes would not budge: “Take a factory—is not the proprietor a sort of petty monarch?” he wrote.
“Has he not a sort of absolute control over all the wealth produced in it, though he has not added one single particle to that wealth?”
O’Brien said political reform might lead to “industrial democracy” too—something he saw as the only way to stop exploitation. Chartism ignited a fire that in some areas, such as Newport, developed into insurrection.
In the summer of 1839 the streets were full of “poorly armed crowds” thirsting for action. They were backed by a series of strikes that could easily have spread to become a nationwide revolutionary movement.
And in 1842 the first general strike in British history took place. It had started spontaneously by Black Country miners in protest against wage cuts, but quickly spread through the Potteries into Lancashire and Yorkshire.
Workers marched from town to town to spread the strike. By August half a million people had joined it.
But the revolt was stopped from spreading to become a revolutionary movement. Time and again Chartist leaders, fearing a bloodbath, called for an end to industrial action.
The ruling class exploited their hesitancy by clamping down on the movement on an unprecedented scale.
Hundreds of activists were swept into jails where they remained until their deaths. Many more were executed.
Yet the movement re-emerged in 1848, with the same fearless radicalism—and the same demands for basic democratic rights.
It came as the spectre of revolution haunted the rulers of all of Europe.
Many of the rich now began to realise that the choice they faced was reform or revolution.
The question they asked themselves was, “is there a way to bring about political reform that does not threaten our ownership and control of the wealth in society?”
They discovered that extending the right to vote did not necessarily undermine their power to determine the policies of the state—in fact, it could even strengthen it.
Most state power lay outside of parliamentary control, residing instead with unelected heads of the police and the military, the civil service and the judiciary.
In a battle that lasted for over 100 years, thousands of working class people gave their lives in the fight for basic democratic rights—the right to assemble, to organise at work, to print their own newspapers and pamphlets and to contest elections and vote.
The ruling class resisted every reform, using the utmost brutality to defend their privileges and the system that guaranteed them.
That is why the struggle so often exploded with revolutionary potential.
But the contradiction that existed between that potential on the one hand, and the fears and hesitancy of the leadership on the other, meant that the ruling class were able to hold onto their power.
Yet the movement did force the ruling class to make sweeping reforms that fundamentally changed the nature of British democracy.
As the acclaimed Marxist writer Ralph Miliband noted, “The politicians’ appropriation of ‘democracy’ did not signify their conversion to it: it was rather an attempt to exorcise its effects. A carefully limited and suitably controlled measure of democracy was acceptable, and even from some aspect desirable. But anything that went beyond that was not.”
Today, the rich cloak themselves in democracy, hoping that we forget how fiercely they once resisted it.
But their recent attempts to criminalise protest and clamp down on dissent betray their true colours. And once again, the growing anger of the millions who yearn for real democracy has the potential to explode.
The Vote: how it was won and how it was undermined, Paul Foot.
A comprehensive and brilliantly written account, packed with anecdotes and arguments. Most examples in this article come from this book. Sadly, it is out of print until the end of this year, but many libraries have copies.
The Making of the English Working Class, EP Thompson.
Concentrates on the English working class in its formative years from 1780 to 1832.
Perish the Privileged Orders: a socialist history of the Chartist movement, Mark O’Brien.
This radical history of the Chartists highlights their support for Irish liberation and opposition to slavery and colonialism.