We are probably all aware of the horrific conditions which our ancestors worked under, and of the way in which they were exploited and oppressed so that the wealth of the ruling class of our country could grow. But the struggles of those same ancestors to bring about change are all too often forgotten.
A hundred and sixty-six years ago this week, on April 10th 1848, hundreds of thousands of people delivered a petition – signed by millions of workers throughout the country – to the Houses of Parliament. The third petition demanding the implementation of the reforms of the People’s Charter, it was overwhelmingly rejected by the House of Commons. But, far from being a manifesto of numerous revolutionary demands, this Charter simply asked for six key democratic reforms.
In 1838, a committee of six Members of Parliament and six working men published the Charter, demanding: a secret ballot; an end to the property ownership rules for MPs; payment of MPs so working class people could run; equal voting constituencies so the voices of urban workers would be heard; a parliamentary election every year; and universal suffrage for men (they weren’t even trying to push the boat out and ask for female suffrage!). Their movement, known as Chartism, largely believed in bringing about reform by peaceful means, showing the government that a significant percentage of the population supported the People’s Charter.
But the petition was rejected by parliament in 1839. As a result, thousands of angry workers marched on Newport, some of them with homemade weapons, in what would be known as the Newport Rising. And similar attempts took place in Sheffield, Bradford and elsewhere. Twenty-two protesters were shot down by soldiers in Newport, and over 200 were imprisoned or ‘transported’ to Australia.
In 1842, Chartists delivered another petition to parliament, this time with twice as many signatures. It was again rejected.
Workers, who were suffering wage cuts at the time, saw this rejection as yet another attack by the Establishment on the working class, and a General Strike soon spread throughout the country. Workers directed their fury at their employers and the ruling class, and soldiers were soon sent in to suppress the protests. When workers in Halifax attacked soldiers who were escorting prisoners, for example, they were violently repressed, with three of them being killed. Hundreds of workers and chartists were subsequently arrested, imprisoned, or transported as a result of their participation in strikes and riots.
The Chartists had been weakened, but trade unions were forming around the country, and their membership was swelling. In 1848, with violent workers’ revolutions breaking out throughout Europe, the Chartists presented their final petition to parliament, once again with twice as many signatures as the last time. The government, fearing a revolution might be in the making in Britain, sent Queen Victoria to the Isle of Wight and brought in the Duke of Wellington – with thousands of soldiers and ‘special constables’ – to ‘defend’ London.
Although the hundreds of thousands of workers present had marched peacefully towards parliament with their new petition, the government ordered the police to use force if the crowd surrounded Parliament. Soon after parliament had received the petition, it rushed new legislation on sedition and treason through Parliament, and banned public meetings.
The Chartist movement soon faded away but, over a century and a half later, the only Chartist demand not yet to be implemented is that of annual elections. The implementation of the other demands was a sign of their successors’ continued fight for justice for the working class. It shows that, although the peaceful requests of workers were ignored on numerous occasions (including those involving the Chartists), their persistent resistance eventually forced the Establishment to give in to the majority of Chartist demands.
The lesson we ought to learn from our working class ancestors is that undemocratic governments (and yes, we still have one) fear the unity of workers. We should also learn that, in the absence of political parties that represent the interests of a country’s working class, a conscious, united workforce has the power to frighten an unjust government into eventually making concessions.
Even better, however, would be if that conscious, united workforce became the government.