Friday, August 16, 2019

Lest we forget - Peterloo

200 years ago, working people in Manchester and surrounding towns were becoming increasingly vocal in their demands for political reform. They were angry about the fact that most of the population could not vote, that corruption was rife, and that urban areas were grossly under-represented in Parliament.

50-60,000 people arrived at St Peter's Fields on 16 August 1819 to hear radical Henry Hunt campaign for parliamentary reform.  When Hunt began to speak the Manchester Yeomanry were sent in try to arrest him, and attacked anybody who got in its way. The sabre-wielding cavalrymen charged into the crowd. At least 11 people were killed and 400 injured. Estimates of the final death toll vary widely and the true number will never be known. 

The events were dubbed Peterloo, an ironic reference to the Battle of Waterloo that had taken place four years previously was one of many brutal battles in capitalism’s ongoing class war. Peterloo is an event which deserves to remembered — especially by those who claim that the British working class has no ‘revolutionary’ tradition.

William Hulton was the magistrate who gave the order for troops to violently disperse the peaceful, pro-democracy protest. Hulton was born into a family of wealthy landowners. Seven years before Peterloo, as a justice of the peace, Hulton had already sentenced four Luddites to death for setting fire to a weaving mill in Westhoughton, near Bolton. One of those hanged was just 12-year-old.

Eleven of the leaders were arrested by the troops. They were charged with conspiracy and illegal assembly. Hunt was sentenced to two and half years in prison, Middleton weaver, Samuel Bamford, and others to one year. In an atmosphere of government repression and provocation stretching back a quarter of a century, there can be no doubt that the massacre fitted in with the strategy of the ruling class. The use of state power against those who were unprepared simply to accept their lot continued. Depicting Peterloo as an aberration, out of character with British values, obscures the reality that this was business as usual, at home and abroad, then and now. Peterloo was just one particularly brutal battle in the class war of capitalism — which still persists today. And there should be few workers with any doubts as to which side they should be fighting on.

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