Socialist Worker

The Chartists: accused of treason, repressed with lies

by Keith Flett
Issue No. 1964

Feargus O’Connor

Feargus O’Connor


Summarily deporting opponents, jailing people for what they are held to have said and raising the spectre of treason are not new.

The British government is the oldest capitalist state — and it would be surprising if it did not have a range of devices for attempting to deal with challenges to its authority.

Sometimes, such as in Derry on Bloody Sunday in 1972, this has involved troops cutting down unarmed protesters. But more usually the government has relied on the law, judges and jails to suppress its opponents.

John Maclean, the Scottish revolutionary, was jailed several times in the period after the First World War for sedition.

Leaders of the Communist Party were imprisoned on similar charges around the time of the 1926 general strike.

We have to look further back in history to find an episode where the authorities aimed to criminalise an entire movement. The Crown and Government Security Act of April 1848 introduced a new offence of treason as a felony, allowing deportation or imprisonment.

It has never been repealed and could be the piece of legislation used against Muslims, if media speculation of treason charges for those failing to condemn the recent London bombings were to be taken up by the government.

The early part of 1848 saw revolution start to sweep across Europe.

In Britain a mass working class movement — the Chartists — agitated for the vote. On Monday 10 April they held a huge demonstration on Kennington Common in London.

The government had been talking up in public the supposed threat of revolution by the Chartists—even though it knew in private that no such threat was forthcoming. After the demonstration, it moved in parliament to push through treason legislation in one week.

Home secretary Sir George Grey moved the Security Bill in the Commons. It did not alter in any way the offence of high treason against the Crown, he explained. Rather it introduced a new offence of treason punishable by transportation.

Rebellion

Grey claimed that the idea was to curb rebellion in Ireland, and that while the legislation would apply to the whole of the United Kingdom, in practice it made no change to matters on the mainland.

This was far from true. One provision was to make “open and advised” speaking punishable as treason. This meant that it was not what someone did or planned to do that was subject to legal sanction — simply what they said that could be a crime. Calling for revolution or the overthrow of the government certainly came within this definition.

The second parliamentary measure in the week following 10 April was the Aliens Removal Bill. This legislation gave the home secretary powers that New Labour can still only dream of. Any foreigner deemed to pose a threat to the peace of the country could summarily be booted out.

In the Commons opposition to the measures was led by Feargus O’Connor, the Chartist leader and MP for Nottingham, and radical Liberal MPs such as Joseph Hume.

Hume complained that people would be “dragged before tribunals for words spoken not only in public but at their own tables”.

O’Connor made several effective interventions — including producing a letter from a leading military commander pointing out that the Times had recently reported an uproarious Chartist meeting in Blackheath — even though no such meeting had ever taken place.

Nevertheless both pieces of legislation were easily passed well before the end of April. There was, however, some opposition to the clauses on “open and advised” speaking, which the government agreed to review after two years.

Charges

Did the legislation work in the way that the government had intended? Up to a point. Charges against Irish rebel leaders for seditious libel had failed in March 1848, while a charge against another leader under the new legislation was successful.

Neither act was much used directly. The aim, following on from events in France and the perceived Chartist threat, was to create a climate where opponents found it more difficult to operate and where the government could strike more easily against individual radicals if it so chose.

The Chartist left, the Fraternal Democrats, were led by George Julian Harney and friendly with Marx and Engels. They had to reorganise to exclude foreign radicals from direct participation in the organisation.

Not to do so would have been to invite government action to criminalise the whole party. It was an inconvenience rather than a hammer blow. The work of international solidarity and discussion of ideas with radicals from across Europe who had made their way to Britain continued.

The “open and advised” speaking clause was quite heavily used in the summer of 1848, when the Chartist challenge to the authorities was much greater than in April.

Notes of the speeches of Chartist leaders were taken by government spies and were used to jail and transport activists. Where Chartists were convicted under the Security Act, there were complaints from Australian authorities that the government was sending the wrong sort of people out to the colony.

The repressive legislative measures floated in the “war on terror” in the summer of 2005 have a long pedigree stretching back to the summer of 1848. But while the measures were and are genuinely nasty, their ability to disrupt a mass opposition movement turned out to be less than the state had hoped.


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Features
Sat 20 Aug 2005, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1964
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