Posts Tagged ‘Chartism’

Chartist Woman Demand the Working Class Vote

May 14, 2016

Chartism Royle pic

I found this piece from the ‘Address of the Female Political Union of Newcastle-upon-Tyne to their Fellow-Countrywomen’, in the Chartist newspaper, Northern Star, of 9th February 1839 in Edward Royle’s Chartism 2nd Edtion (Harlow: Longman 1986). Chartism was the early 19th century movement campaigning for the vote for working men. Royle says in his introduction to the piece that

Chartism involved women as well as men as active participants, and there were many local women’s groups, like this one from Newcastle. But women’s Chartism was hardly a movement for women’s liberation. Chartism was seen as a movement for the emancipation of the poor, and was thought o fit traditional patriarchal terms. (p. 114).

I’m not sure. Other books on Chartism have said that a few of the Chartist radicals did want the vote for women, and about the same time, the Spencean Philanthropists, an early proto-Socialist group of radical democrats, did want the vote for women, as well as children. Quite apart from the first stirrings of modern feminism in the followers of Mary Wollstonecraft and her Vindication of the Rights of Women. And even if most Chartist women did their political activism in terms of getting the vote, not for themselves, but for their menfolk, nevertheless they were pioneers in that they consciously broke the social rules against women becoming involved in politics, as this piece clearly states.

Fellow-country women, – We call upon you to join us and help our fathers, husbands, and brothers, to free themselves and us from political, physical and mental bondage, and urge the following reasons as an answer to our enemies and an inducement to our friends.

We have been told that the province of woman is her home, and that the field of politics should be left to me; this we deny; the nature of things renders it impossible, and the conduct of those who give the advice is at variance with the principles they assert. Is it not true that the interests of our fathers, husbands and brothers, ought to be ours? If they are oppressed and impoverished, do we not share those evils with them? If so, ought we not to resent the infliction of those wrongs upon them?…

For years we have struggled to maintain our homes in comfort, such as our hearts told us should greet our husbands after their fatiguing labours. Year after year have passed away, and even now our wishes have no prospect of being realised, our husbands are over wrought, our houses half furnished, our families ill-fed, and our children uneducated – the fear of want hangs over our heads; the scorn of the rich is pointed towards us; the brand of slavery is on our kindred, and we feel the degradation. We are a despised caste; our oppressors are not content with despising our feelings, but demand the control of our thoughts and wants! – want’s bitter bondage binds us to their feet, we are oppressed because we are poor …

We’re seeing something of that today, with the poverty forced upon the working people of Britain by decades of Thatcherite political orthodoxy, from both the Tories and the Blairites. 590 people have starved to death or committed suicide due to the government’s savage benefit cuts. 290,000 or so have had their mental health made significantly worse through stress from the Fitness to Work tests imposed by the government. And 4.7 million people now live in ‘food poverty’ in one of the richest countries of the world.

This situation has partly come about through successive government ignoring the poor and working class. Blair and his coterie did. They concentrated on gathering middle class votes from swing voters, and pandering to the view that everyone below them was idle, and savage cuts to the welfare state were needed to force them back into work. One of the Blairite MPs in parliament even said that, in power, Labour would be harder on the unemployed than the Tories! And meanwhile, Cameron was doing his level best to strip the vote from the young, the poor, and ethnic minorities through his voter registration scheme. Just like the Republicans were doing in America. 78 per cent of MPs are millionaires, and it shows!

We need to invigorate working class politics against, to show that the working people of Britain matter, and that their poverty is literally killing this country, just like the Chartists did in the 19th century, though hopefully without their mistakes and failures.

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Georg Weerth’s The Song of Hunger

March 18, 2014

Georg Weerth Pic

Georg Weerth: 19th century Communist poet and journalist

I found this piece of poetry by the 19th century German writer, Georg Weerth, in an anthology of 19th century German prose and poetry dealing with the 19th century revolutionary period. This was the age when German Liberals campaigned for a united, democratic Germany, and Socialist and working class movements arose to protest against the poverty and starvation they experience in the new, industrial society.

Weerth himself was the son of a Prussian official, a Generalsuperintendent. After studying to be a merchant, he became a radical journalist, member of the Communist League and friend of Marx and Engels. In 1843 his close friendship with Engels took him to Bradford in Yorkshire, where Engels’ father had mills. The Song of Hunter was written during this period in England, during which time he met the Chartist leaders. His own literary style used simple, colloquial speech, and was influenced by Chartist working class literature. He was imprisoned by the German authorities in 1949, and was exiled in 1950. He then made a series of business trips to Spain, the West Indies and South America before dying in Havana in 1856.

The Song of Hunger describes, day by day, a week of mounting starvation culminating in an attack on the monarchy itself. It describes the terrible poverty of so many of the working class in mid-19th century Germany and England. It’s also highly relevant to contemporary Britain, where 38,000 people a year may have been killed due to poverty and starvation through benefit sanctions and cuts to the welfare system.

The Song of Hunger

Honoured lord and king,
Do you know the bad story?
On Monday we ate little
And on Tuesday we ate nothing.

And on Wednesday we had to starve,
And Thursday we suffered famine,
And O, on Friday we
Nearly died the death of hunger.

So let us bake on Saturday,
Bread, fine, carefully,
But we will on Sunday seize,
And eat you up, O King!

Thomas Spence on the Aristocracy and the National Debt

February 27, 2014

Spence Book Cover

Thomas Spence (1750-1807) was an 18th century radical. Born in Newcastle, he was influenced not just by the Enlightenment, but also by the radical Presbyterian minister James Murray. He believed that the parishes should become self-governing communes. The power of the landlords would be overthrown, and instead of being governed by the local squire, they would be ruled instead through a council directly elected by all members of the parish, including women and children. These communes would each take all the surrounding land into their collective ownership, to rent out to particular businesses. The rents raised would then by spent on a programme of public works, including road and canal building, schools, and medical care and hospitals for the sick and infirm, as well as supporting the unemployed. The money left over from this expenditure would be paid each quarter day to every parishioner, including women and children. The Communes would also elect a central parliament to deal with national affairs, although the Communes would still hold a great deal of autonomy, including the possession of militias for their own defence.

After his death his followers formed the Society of Spencean Philanthropists, which increasingly turned to violent revolution to transform society. They were involved in the Spa Fields riot of the 2nd December 1816 and the Cato Street Conspiracy to blow up parliament. Both Houses of Parliament had denounced them as revolutionary conspirators in 1817, and government action after the Cato Street conspiracy effectively destroyed the Society. Nevertheless, supporters of Spence’s Land Plan continued to influence working class politics. They were active in the National Union of the Working Classes and the Chartist East London Democratic Association in the 1830s.Bronterre O’Brien, one of the leading Chartist writers, was particularly influenced by Spence.

One of his writings is a question and answer session on the national debt, which he uses to attack bitterly the aristocratic government of the day and its oppression of the poor. Here it is:

For poor Johnny Bull,
Who is now so dull;
A few plain questions,
To suit his thick skull.

Questions: What is the National Debt?

Answer: Money borrowed by the rich men of the nation from the rich men of the nation and placed to the nation’s account.

Q. What is done with the money thus borrowed in the nation’s name?

A. The rich men of the nation give it to each other under pretence of places and services, civil, ecclesiastical and military.

Q. Are not those places and services absolutely and indispensably necessary to the good of the nation?

A. So far the reverse, that many of those places are fictitious and therefore called si9necure; but almost the whole are created under the specious but false pretence of war, religion and jurisprudence as a colour for distributing the public money among themselves.

Q. Is public money never given but under pretence of some place or service, real or nominal?

A. It is frequently given under pretence of former services; and frequently also under pretence of secret services; and the sums thus disposed of are called pensions.

Q. Do the rich men make the nation pay interest for the money they thus squander away among themselves?

A. Yes, certainly; for it they alone had it to pay, they would not be so ready at borrowing.

Q. Was it always the custom of those at the head of the nation to govern by running it in debt?

A. No: until our Glorious Revolution, our government, however, covetous or extravagant, never expected more than could be raised upon the spur of the occasion. They had no notion of taxing future generations before they were born.

Q. It is probably that this system of taxing futurity can continue long?

A. No. For the interest of the debt will soon be more than the revenue of the country will pay.

Q. How must the interest then be paid?

A. The rich men of the nation must borrow of each other to pay the interest as they did before to fund the principle.

Q. But when the revenue and the money borrowed are condemned before hand to pay the interst of the national debt, what must support the government?

A. Those who have got both principle and interest must then govern gratis.

Q. Will those who have all along paid themselves so liberally take the trouble at last of governing us for nothing? Surely no. We must inevitably be ungoverned! Can no way be thought of supporting our government in such unparalleled distress?

A. Let them go a-pirating with the Algirines (North African pirates from Algiers).

Q. Nay; them they have long been in league with, and far excelled in depredation, as the African coast and both the Indies can woefully witness; insolence and robbery, rapine and murder, have been fully tried in every quarter of the globe.

A. Then damn them, I’ve done with them!

Spence sees the National Debt as something that the rich have created in order to make themselves even richer, and compares them with the Barbary Pirates of Algiers, who raided and enslaved European ships and southern Europe. Indeed, he was well aware of and bitterly opposed to the way Britain had attacked and enslaved the peoples of the African coast, India and the Caribbean for the commercial gain of the ruling classes.

Although over 200 years have passed since his death, and economics has moved on considerably since his time, these views are still valid. The rich men, the commercial bankers of Britain and America, ran up massive debts for their own vast profits, and the vast, national mercantile companies of the 18th century, like the East India Company and the Royal African Company, have gone and been succeeded by the vast multinationals. Who are still exploiting people for the profit of the rich in Africa, the Caribbean, India and in the rest of the world. And these rich men now make up the government here to enrich themselves still further.

cameron-toff

David Cameron: The type of aristocratic government minister Spencer denounced in the 18th century. Another example of the durability of British tradition.

Bloody revolution aside, it’s time some of our MPs followed Spence and showed a bit more compassion for the poor and supported the welfare state that he predicted against the government’s depredations.

Spence Oppression Cover

Books on Radical History, the Working Class and British Democracy: Popular Movements c.1830-1850

January 19, 2014

edited by J.T. Ward (Basingstoke: MacMillan 1970)

Popular Movements 19thc

This discusses the major reform movements in the second quarter of the 19th century, which touched on nearly every aspect of British politics and society. There are individual chapters examining

1. The Agitation for Parliamentary Reform, discussing the campaign for the 1833 Great Reform Act, which expanded the franchise, and attempted to remove some of the most notorious rotten and pocked boroughs.

2. The Factory movement, which campaigned for lower working hours and prohibitions on employing children, or limiting their working hours, and improving conditions for factory workers.

3. The Anti-Poor Law legislation, which attacked the Workhouses set up by the Liberals.

4. Trade Unionism.

5. Chartism. This was the great working and lower middle class movement demanding the establishment of democracy. All men over the age of 21 were to be given the vote, there were to be equal electoral districts, annual parliaments, and MPs were to be paid, so that politics was no longer the province a wealthy elite. Much of their campaigning consisted in the presentation of giant petitions to parliament. It finally collapsed after the mid-19th century, when most of the signatures in its ‘monster petition’ were found to be forgeries, like ‘Queen Victoria’ and ‘The Duke of Wellington’. Nevertheless, it was a vital episode in the campaign for the expansion of the franchise.

6. The Agitation against the Corn Laws. These had been imposed at the time of the Napoleonic Civil War to keep the price of corn high and so ensure large profits for the farmers by excluding foreign imports. The Liberal politicians Cobden and Bright formed the Anti-Corn Law League to attack them, as they made bread and corn expensive for the working class, and so led to misery and starvation.

7.The Irish Agitation. Most famously led by John Stuart Parnell, this campaigned for Home Rule in opposition to the poverty and oppression experienced by ordinary Irish people under British government. One of the most notorious issues, bitterly resented by the Irish were the absentee landlords, who demanded extremely high rents from their tenants while enjoying life across the Irish Sea.

8. The Public Health Movement. This was another reaction against the disgusting squalor and foetid conditions in the Victorian slums, which led to horrific epidemics of diseases such a cholera. It led to the establishment of local boards of health, subordinate to a central board of health, which were to provide help and advice to the poor on problems with food, clothing, ventilation, drainage and cleanliness. It also resulted in a series of studies and commissions investigating the problems of disease, sanitation and living conditions in towns across Victorian Britain. Much of this was done or inspired by the Benthamite Radical, Owen Chadwick.

These movements gradually transformed industrial Britain. Instead of the laissez-faire philosophy towards government that officially informed government policies and ideology, state interference in the economy and society was increasingly accepted as a necessary means to improve conditions in the new, industrial society that was then emerging. This marked the beginning of a new, collectivist approach to politics that gradually became stronger and led to increasing legislation granting increasing political freedoms and improving conditions for the working and lower middle classes.

Resisting Cameron’s Contempt for Parliament: Books Giving a Historical Perspective on British Democracy and Constitution

January 17, 2014

This evening I’ve reblogged Mike’s piece over at Vox Political commenting on the Coalition’s response for parliament’s call for an inquiry into the alarming rise of poverty in the UK. Cameron has ignored it, despite the fact that it was passed by a majority of 127 to 2. Mike and the commenters to his blog have justifiably viewed this as the death of democracy, the day when parliament’s ability to the hold the government of the day to account was finally suppressed. At the moment this isn’t quite true, but it does not bode well for the future. Tony Blair’s tenure as prime minister was harshly attacked by the Conservative press for its very presidential style. The Tories particularly objected to the way Blair ignored parliament when it suited him, quite apart from his reform of the House of Lords. The Conservatives saw him as a real danger to the British constitution and our ancient liberties, and there were a number of books by right-wing authors and journalists proclaiming this very clearly on their covers. Cameron is continuing and possibly accelerating this process and the transformation of the post of prime minister into something like the American presidency, and in so doing running over the constitutional checks to the power of the prime minister.

One of Mike’s commenters has said that for people to be able to challenge this gradual accumulation of power by the prime minister, without recourse to or check by parliament, they need to be informed of how parliament actually works. I haven’t quite been able to find a book I bought a while ago on parliament. I have been able to find a number of books, which give an important historical insight into the development of democracy and the extremely long struggle for a truly representative, democratic parliament. Here are the books I recommend:

Eric J. Evans, The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain 1783-1870
(London: Longman 1983)

Forging Modern State

This is a general history of Britain. I’ve selected it here because of its chapters on the constitutional changes which vastly increased the electorate in the 19th century. These were the Great Reform Act of 1833, and then Disraeli’s further expansion of the franchise in 1870, and the agitation and popular movements that demanded them, such as the Chartists. These show just how hard won the vote was, though it wasn’t until 1918 that every adult in Britain had the vote. The 1870 electoral reform enfranchised most, but certainly not all, working class men, and still excluded women from the franchise.

The book also describes the other major events and crises of that part of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including the establishment of something like a public educational system in Britain, the enfranchisement of religious Dissenters so that they could participate in politics, the repeal of the Corn Laws, industrialisation, the Factory Acts, and poverty. The 19th century is very much a part of political discourse today by both the Left and Right because it was the age in which modern Britain really took shape, and the debate over ‘Victorian Values’ introduced by Maggie Thatcher. Evan’s book as an overview of Britain in the period offers valuable information on that crucial period.

John Miller: The Glorious Revolution (London: Longman 1983)

Glorious Revolution

This was an other vital period in the creation of British parliamentary democracy. It was when the Roman Catholic, Stuart king, James II, was overthrown and the crown given instead to William of Orange. It is obviously an immensely controversial topic in Northern Ireland, because of the way it cemented the exclusion of the Roman Catholics from power, which was held by a very narrow, Protestant elite. Back in 1988, the year of its tricentennial, Margaret Thatcher’s government deliberately chose not to celebrate it because of its highly divisive legacy in Ulster. It’s importance to British democracy lies in the fact that it gave real power to parliament. True, Britain was still a monarchy, not a republic, but its kings and queens now ruled by the consent of parliament. Furthermore, William of Orange was forced to reassure his British subject that he would not override parliament and the traditional constitutional checks and liberties by issuing a Bill of Rights. This became one of the founding documents of the British Constitution during the 18th and early 19th century.

J.W. Allen, A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (London: Methuen)

16th Century Politics

This was first published nearly a century ago in 1928. Nevertheless, it’s still a very useful book. The 16th century was the period when politicians, theologians and philosophers across Europe began to inquire into the origins of their countries’ constitutions, and debate the nature of political power. It was an age of absolute monarchy, when it was considered that the king had total power and whose subjects had no right to resist him. This view was attacked by both Protestant and Roman Catholic political theorists, who developed the idea of popular sovereignty. St. Augustine had introduced into Christianity the ancient Greek theory of the idea of the social contract. The theory states that right at the beginning of human society, people came together to elect a leader, who would rule in order to protect their lives and property. As well as claiming a divine right to rule, medieval kings also claimed the right to rule as the people’s representative, given power through this original contract between the primordial ruler and his people. Under theologians and philosophers like the Spanish Jesuit, Suarez, this became the basis for a true theory of national sovereignty. Just as kings owed their power to the will of the people, so the people had the right to depose those kings, who ruled tyrannically.

These are just three of the books I’ve found useful in presenting the history and development of some of the aspects of modern British theories of constitutional government and parliamentary democracy. I intend to post about a few others as well, which I hope will keep people informed about our democracy’s origins, how precious it is, and how it must be defended from those modern politicos, like Cameron, who seem intent on overthrowing it.

Radical Voices from History to Today

December 18, 2013

People Speak

The People Speak: Democracy Is Not A Spectator Sport (Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove with David Horspool (Edinburgh: Canongate 2012) is a collection of radical and anti-authoritarian texts from British history from 1066 to the present, collected and edited by the actor, Colin Firth, and Anthony Arnove. It was partly inspired by Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Arnove had worked with Zinn translating the book into a series of stage readings of American radical and democratic texts, which toured the US. Realising that Firth was one of the book’s fans, Arnove approached him to do a British version. Firth, Arnove, and a number of their friends and other performers they admired did indeed stage a reading of some of the texts collected in The People Speak in 2010. This was filmed and broadcast by the History Channel. The two authors state that they hope a DVD of this reading will eventually be released to accompany the film of the same name made the year previously (2010) by Zinn and Arnove, with Matt Damon, Josh Brolin, and Chris Moore. Firth and Arnove rejected any claim that this was the ‘actorly activism’ attacked by critics such as Marina Hyde. Rather, they were simply doing what actors are paid to do – to act, and interpret other’s voices.

Firth states that the book is not an attack on history teachers or the history curriculum, noting that his own father is a history teacher. It comes from his feeling, dating from when he was studying history at school, that the kind of history we are taught is incomplete. It concentrates on kings and queens and politicians to the exclusion of everyone else, who are presented as a faceless, homogenous mass. This is his and Arnove’s attempt to put back into history the voice of the excluded, the Socialists, Anarchists, agitators, Chartists, suffragists, Lollards, Levellers, in short, the trouble-makers, like Zinn himself. Firth makes the point that democracy works from the bottom up, and that it’s protagonists are real trouble-makers. He also makes the point that the rights we now take for granted and accept as civilised and decent were at one point considered treason. The people, who fought for and won them were those without political power, and were hanged, transported, tortured and imprisoned, until their ideas were eventually adopted and adapted. Their continued existence is, however, precarious, and we need to defend them. ‘These freedoms are now in our care. And unless we act on them and continue to fight for them, they will be lost more easily that they were won.’

Firth and Arnove freely acknowledge that in covering two millennia, they have let much important material out. They hope, however, that their readers will feel rightly indignant about that, and be compelled to point it out, or, even better, write another the book, which will be the first of many. Firth hopes most of all it will inspire their readers to speak out, and make their voice heard on the issues they feel is important, ‘As Howard reminds us, democracy is not a spectator sport, and history is not something on a library shelf, but something in which each of us has a potentially critical role’.

Chronologically, the book has divided into five chapters, ‘1066-1450: Commoners and Kings’, ‘1642-1789: Representing the People’, ‘1790-1860: One Man, One Vote’, 1890-1945: Equal Rights’, and ‘1945-2012: Battling the State’ collecting some of the radical texts from these periods. Between these are other chapters covering particular political, constitutional, religious, national and economic issues and struggles. These include:

‘Disunited Kingdoms: ‘Our English Enemies’,
‘Freedom of Worship: ‘Touching our Faith’,
‘Land and Liberty: ‘The Earth is a Common Treasury’,
‘Empire and Race: All Slaves Want to Be Free’,,
‘Money and Class: ‘The Rank is But the Guinea’s Stamp’,
‘Workers United: Labour’s “No” into Action’,
‘War and Peace: ‘What People Have Your Battles Slain?’,
‘Gender and Sexual Equality: ‘A Human Being, Regardless of the Distinction of Sex’.

The chapter on the 400 or so years from 1066 to 1450 contains the following texts:

Ordericus Vitalis on the Norman Conquest of 1066,
The Liber Eliensis on Hereward the Wake,
Extracts from the Magna Carta,
Extracts from the Song of Lewes; written by a Franciscan monk in 1264, this sets out some early examples of the doctrine of resistance and popular rights.
It also contains a section devoted to the voice of the Peasant’s Revolt, including
Wat Tyler’s address to Richard II,
John Ball, ‘Until Everything Shall Be in Common’ (1381),
and William Grindcobbe, ‘I shall die in the Cause of Gaining our Liberty’.

The chapter on ‘Disunited Kingdoms – Our English Enemies’, includes the following pieces:
The declaration of Scottish independence at Arbroath, 6th April 1320,
Owain Glyn Dwr’s letter to another Welsh noble, Henry Don,
The Complaynt of Scotland of 1549,
Jonathan Swift’s bitterly satirical ‘A Modest Proposal’ of 1729,
The Speech from the Dock of the Irish Nationalist leader, Theobald Wolfe Tone,
The Speech from the Dock of Tone’s successor in the United Irishmen, Robert Emmet,
Rev. John Blackwell’s Eisteddfod Address in Beaumaris in 1832, stressing the importance of literature in Welsh,
Letters from the Rebecca Riots’,
The Letter from Nicholas M. Cummins to the Times attacking the English for refusing to supply the Irish with food during the Potato Famine,
The Speech from the Dock of the Irish American Fenian Leader, Captain John McClure, of 1867,
Padraig Pearse’s Eulogy for the Fenian Leader Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa of 1915,
An extract from the Scots writer Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song of 1932,
Bernadette Devlin’s Speech in Draperstown when she stood as the candidate for the Nationalist Independent Unity Party in Northern Ireland,
Silvester Gordon Boswell’s Address to Travellers on Appleby Hill of 1967, and Boswell’s The Book of Boswell: Autobiography of a Gypsy of 1970,
The Dubliners’ Luke Kelly’s lyric, ‘For What died the Sons of Roisin?’ of 1970,
Pauline M.’s description of the events of Bloody Sunday,
An editorial on the Tax-Dodgers on the Isle of Man by the Manx Marxist group, Fo Halloo,
Bobby Sands’ prison diary for 1-2 March 1981,
and an extract from Gwyn Alf Williams’ history of the Welsh, ‘The Dragon Has Two Tongues’ from 1985.

The section on Freedom of Worship, begins with a section on the Pilgrimage of Grace, which includes
The examination of Nicholas Leche of 1536,
The Pontefract Articles of 2-4 December 1536,
The Examination of Robert Aske, 1537,
John Foxe, ‘The Mart6yrdom and Suffering of Cicelie Ormes, Burnt at Norwich the Testimonie and Witnes of Christes Gospell’ of 1557,
Matthew Hamont’s Trial for Heresy,
John Mush, the Life of Margaret Clitherow, 1586,
Daniel Defoe’s satirical ‘The Shortest Way with Dissenters:, Or, Proposals for the Establishment of the Church of 1702,
Ignatius Samcho’s Letter on the Gordon Riots of 1780,
William Blake’s ‘America’ of 1793, his Preface to Milton of (1804) and Preface to Book Two of ‘Jerusalem’ of the same year.
Grace Aguilar’s History of the Jews in England of 1847,
George Jacob Holyoake, Exchange with his Caplain on Atheism (1850),
An anonymous account of the Basingstoke Riots against the Salvation Army of 1881,
and Victoria Brittain’s ‘The Meaning of Waiting’, using the words of eight Muslim women married to prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

The section on the period 1642-1749 contains
Elizabeth Lilburne’s Appeal against the arrest of her husband, the leveller leader John Lilburne,
Richard Overton’s An Arrow Against All Tyrants of 1646,
The Putney Debates of 1647,
John Lilburne’s Appeal to Cromwellian Soldiers of 1649,
The last speech of Richard Rumbold at the Market Cross in Edinburgh,
Reports of torture in prison from 1721,
The frontispiece to the anonymous pamphlet ‘Idol Worship, Or, the Way to Preferment, showing that the way to political power to was kiss your superiors’ rear ends,
Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, 1776,
The American Declaration of Independence,
Paine’s Rights of Man, 1791,
Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Destruction of the Bastille’,
An Advertisement for Commemoration of the French Revolution by Dissenters in Birmingham in 1791,
and An Anonymous Birmingham handbill to Commemorate the French Revolution, 1791.

The section ‘Land and Liberty’ contains
Robert Kett, ‘Kett’s Demands Being in Rebellion’, 1549, against the Enclosures in Kent,
Gerard Winstanley, ‘A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England’, 1649,
The 1650 Declaration of the Wellingborough Diggers,
The ballad ‘Bonny Portmore’ of 1690, lamenting the destruction of the forest around Lough Beg,
Thomas Spence’s ‘Spence’s Plan for Parochial Partnerships in the Land of 1816), an early Utopian Socialist precursor,
John Clare, ‘The mores’, c. 1821-4,
W.G. Ward’s ‘The Battle, the Struggle and the Victory’ of 1873, on a battle between the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union and the employers and landowners, who refused to employ their members,
Richard Barlow-Kennett’s ‘Address to the Working Classes’ on Vivisection of 1883,
Henry S. Salts’ Animal Rights Considered in Relation to Social Progress (1892),
Ernest a Baker, The Forbidden Land of 1924 on the landowners’ denial of the right of access to land around the Peak District and the Yorkshire moors due to grouse shooting,
Benny Rothman on the Kinder Trespass in 1932 by ramblers,
and Voices from the Kingsnorth 6 Greenpeace protesters of 2007.

The section on Empire and Race has the above extracts,
William Cecil’s Speech in Parliament of 1588, against a bill against Strangers and Aliens Selling Wares by Retail, 1588,
William Shakespeare’s Sir Thomas More, Act II, Scene 4, c. 1593,
Anna Barbauld, Sins of Government, Sins of of the Nation; Or, A Discourse for the Fast, of 1793, against imperialism and war with revolutionary France,
Robert Wedderbu5rn’s The Axe Laid to the Root or A Fatal Blow to Oppressors, Being an Address to the Planters and Negroes of the Island of Jamaica, 1817,
Mary Prince, The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, 1831,
Louis Asa-Asa, ‘How Cruelly We Are Used’, 1831,
Joseph Sturge, Speech at the Baptist Missionary Society of Birmingham, 1836,
An Anonymous Member of the Walthamstow Free Produce or Anti-Slavery Association, Conscience Versus Cotton: Or, the Preference of Free Labour Produce, 1851,
Ernest Jones’, ‘The Indian Struggle’, 1857, supporting Indian independence during the Mutiny,
Richard Cobden’s Letter to John Bright on Indian independence, 1857,
Celestine Edwards, a Black Methodist preacher from Dominica, The British Empire, attacking imperialism,
‘A Voice from the Aliens about the Anti-Alien Resolution of the Cardiff Trades Union Congress of 1893, by Jewish worker protesting at a motion by William Inskip and Charles Freak to ban immigrant workers from joining trades unions,
Henry Woodd Nevinson, ‘The Slave Trade of Today’, 1906, against the cultivation of cocoa by Angolan slaves,
The Indian nationalist Ghadar Movement’s ‘An Open letter to the People of India’, 1913,
The satirical, ‘In Praise of the Empire’ by the Irish nationalist and founder of the Independent Labour Party of Ireland, James Connolly,
B.R. Ambedkar’s ‘India on the Eve of the Crown Government’, 1915,
John Archer’s Presidential Address to the Inaugural Meeting of the African Progress Union, 1918,
Manifesto of Bhagwati Charan Vohra, a Punjabi revolutionary Indian nationalist, 1928,
Gandhi’s Quit India Speech of 1942,
C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary, on cricket and his experiences growing up in Trinidad, 1963,
Peter Hain, Defence in Trial from Picketing Apartheid South African Cricket and Rugby, 1972,
Linton Kwesi Johnson, ‘Inglan Is a Bitch’, 1980,
Sinead O’Connor, ‘Black Boys on Mopeds’, 1990,
The account of his own incarceration by an anonymous Tanzanian Asylum Seeker, 2000,
Benjuamin Zephaniah, ‘What Stephen Lawrence has Taught Us’, 2001,
Roger Huddle and Lee Billingham’s Reflections on Rock against Racism and Love Music Hate Racism, 2004,
The People’s Navy Protest on the eviction of the indigenous islanders from the islands, 2008,
and Mark Steel’s ‘The Poles Might be Leaving but the Prejudice Remains’, 2009.

The section on the period 1790-1860 has the following extracts and pieces
An Account of the Seizure of Citizen Thomas Hardy, Secretary to the London Corresponding Society, 1794,
‘Rules and Resolutions of the Political Protestants’, 1818. Political Protestants was the name adopted by a number of northern working class radical organisations demanding universal suffrage.
There is a subsection devoted to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, in which the local militia and then a detachment of Hussars attacked and broke up a peaceful meeting in Manchester of protesters campaigning for an extension of the franchise. This section has
The Letter from Mr W.R. Hay to Lord Sidmouth regarding Peterloo, 1819,
extracts from Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy
and William Hone’s The Political House that Jack Built.

The chapter also has following pieces
William Davidson, Speech to the Court in the Cato Street Conspiracy Trial, 1820,
and Mr Crawshay Recounts the Merthyr Uprising, 1831.
This is followed by a section on Chartism, including
Henry Vincent, Chartists in Wales, 1839,
Edward Hamer, ‘The Chartist Outbreak in Llanidloes, 1839,
and Chartist Protests in Newcastle, 1839.
Charles Dickens,’The Fine Old English Gentleman: New Version’, 1841, bitterly attack Tory feudalism and massacres of radicals,
and the Bilston, South Staffordshire Chartist Rally.

The section on money and class has a piece on the rebellion of William Fitz-Osbert against the way the Anglo-Normans barons shifted their tax burden onto the poor,
George Manley’s speech from the gallows at Wicklow, where he was hanged for murder, against the murder and plunder of the rich and general such as Marlborough,
Thomas Gray’s Elegy Written in Country Churchyard,
Robert Burns’ A Man’s A Man for A’ That,
and John Grimswaw’s ‘The Handloom Weaver’s Lament’.
This is followed by a section on Luddism, which contains
John Sykes’ account of machine-breaking at Linthwaite, Yorkshire, 1812,
An Anonymous ‘Address to Cotton Weavers and Others’, 1812,
The poem ‘Hunting a Loaf’,
The poet Byron’s speech on the Frame-Work Bill in the House of Lords, and his ‘Ode to the Framers of the Frame Bill’,
The ballad, ‘The Tradesman’s Complaint’,
An extract from Carlisle’s Past and Present in which he questioned the benefits of unrestrained economic growth,
Frederick Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England,
An extract from Marx and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto,
Henry Mayhew’s ‘Labour and the Poor’,
‘The Last Sark’ by the radical working class poet, Ellen Johnston,
Thomas Hardy’s ‘To An Unborn Pauper Child’,
The Invasion of the Ritz Hotel in 1938, by Jack Dash, a Member of the National Unemployed Workers’ Union,
George Orwell’s ‘England, Your England’,
John Lennon’s ‘Working Class Hero’,
Jimmy Reid’s Inaugural Speech as Rector of Glasgow University in 1972,
and Dick Gaughan’s ‘Call It Freedom’.

The section ‘Workers United’ contains the following

An Address to the Inhabitants of Great Britain and Ireland by the Glasgow Weavers, 1820,
Richard Oastler’s Letter to the Leeds Mercury on Slavery, denouncing the harsh conditions endured by children working in the factories and mines,
George Loveless, the Tolpuddle Martyr,
Patience Kerr’s Testimony before the Children’s Employment Commission, 1842,
Thomas Kerr’s ‘Aw’s Glad the Strike’s Duin’, 1880,
William Morris’ The Depression of Trade and Socialism: Ends and Means, 1886,
Annie Besant on White Slavery in London,
Samuel Webber’s Memories of the Matchgirl’s Strike,
Ben Tillett on the Dock Strike, 1911,
The Speech, ‘I am here as the Accuser’ by John Maclean, a Revolutionary Glaswegian Socialist tried for sedition for trying to dissuade soldiers from fighting in the First World War,
An account of the General Strike of 1926 by an Ashton Sheet Metal Worker,
Hamish Henderson’s ‘The John Maclean March’,
Frank Higgins’ ‘The Testimony of Patience Kershaw’,
An account of the Miners’ Strike by Bobby Girvan and Christine Mahoney,
And Mark Serwotka’s ‘Imagine Not Only Marching Together, but Striking Together’, of 2011 against the Coalition.

The section on Equal Rights has an extract from Oscar Wilde’s The Soul of Man under Socialism,
Emmeline Pankhursts’ Kill Me or Give Me My Freedom,
George Orwell’s ‘A Hanging’,
and a section for the voices of those involved in the Battle of Cable Street against Mosely’s Blackshirts.
This section includes the testimony of William J. Fishman, a Stepney Labour activist, the then secretary of the Communist Party, Phil Piratin, Joe Jacobs, another member of the Communist Party, also from Stepney, Julie Gershon, a Stepney resident, Mr Ginsburg, from Cable Street, and Mrs Beresford, of Lascombe’s fish and chip shop.
These are followed by an extract from Aneurin Bevan’s ‘In Place of Fear’.

The section and war and piece begins with Thomas Hoccleve’s An Appeal for Peace with France of 1412,
a Handbill from the Weavers of Royton, 1808,
John Bright’s Speech against the Crimean War,
Bertrand Russell’s Letter to the Nation, 1914,
Siegfried Sassoon’s Declaration against War, 1917,
Wilfred Owen’s ‘Disabled’,
The section answering the question, ‘How Should War be Prevented?’ from Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas,
James Maxton’s Speech Against War,
Charlie Chaplin’s Final Speech from The Great Dictator,
Phil Piratin on the Invasion of the Savoy Hotel, 1940,
Denis Knight, The Aldermaston Anti-Nuclear March, 1958,
Hamish Henderson’s ‘Freedom Come-All-Ye’, dedicated to Scots anti-Nuclear marchers,
and Adrian Mitchell’s ‘To Whom It May Concern (Tell Me Lies about Vietnam)’, 1964.

There is also a section of voices from the women involved in the Greenham Common Peace Protest, containing testimony and memories from Kim Besly, Sarah Hipperson,Ann Pettitt, and Thalia Campbell.
This is followed by Mary Compton’s speech at the Stop the War Coalition, and Robin Cook’s resignation speech to parliament against the invasion of Iraq.

The section and gender and sexual equality begins with an anonymous sixteenth century Song on the Labour of Women,
The Petition of Divers Well-Affected Women, 1649, against the imprisonment of four of the Levellers,
An anonymous article from the Saint James Chronicle from 1790, recording the ‘Extraordinary Female Affection’ between the ‘Ladies of Llangollen, Lady Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby,
Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, 1792,
Anna Wheeler and William Thompson’s ‘Address to Women’, an extract from their pamphlet, Appeal of One Half of the Human Race, Women, against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, to Retain them in Political, and thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery, 1825,
A letter by an anonymous prostitute from the Times, 1858,
Josephine Butler’s An Appeal to the People of England, on the Recognition and Superintendence of Prostitution by Governments,
Edmund Kell, ‘Effects of the Acts Upon the ‘Subjected’ Women, against the humiliation endured by women through the examinations under the Contagious Diseases Act,
Oscar Wilde’s Second Trial for ‘Gross Indecency’,
Helen Gordon Liddle’s The Prisoner, an account of the force-feeding of the Suffragettes under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act,
Two passages from Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own,
Against the Law, by Peter Wildeblood, a journalist and TV producer arrested for conspiracy to incite acts of gross indecency,
The memories of Vicky and Janice of Lesbian Life in Brighton in the 1950s and ’60s,
Selma James and the Women’s Liberation Workshop, ‘Women against the Industrial Relations Act’, 1971,
Tom Robinson’s ‘Glad to be Gay’,
Quentin Crisp’s How to Become a Virgin,
and Ian McKellen’s Keynote Speech at the 2008 Stonewall Equality Dinner.

The section, ‘Battling the State’, has pieces and extracts from
Tariq Ali’s ‘The Street is Our Medium’, from Black Dwarf, the newspaper of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, with a copy of Mick Jagger’s handwritten lyrics to Street Fighting Man.
Paul Foot’s Speech on the Murder of Blair Peach, 1979,
The Clash, ‘Know Your Rights’, 1982,
Elvis Costello, ‘Shipbuilding’, against the Falkland’s War,
Pensioner Nellie discussing the Poll Tax revolt,
Jeremy Hardy, ‘How to Be Truly Free’, 1993,
‘Catching Buses’ by the Bristolian disabled rights activist, Liz Crow,
Harold Pinter’s ‘Art, Truth and Politics’, 2005,
Mark Thomas’ ‘Put People First G20 Protest of 2009,
Euan Booth’s ‘Subversively Move Tony Blair’s Memoirs to the Crime Section in Bookshops’,
The Speech on Student Protests by the fifteen-year old schoolboy, Barnaby Raine, to the Coalition of Resistance Conference.
The book ends with Zadie Smith’s piece attacking library closures in 2011.

As well as notes and a normal index, the book also has a chronological index, placing the pieces in order according to the dates they were written.

The book is indeed encyclopaedic and comprehensive in the range of its selected texts through two millennia of history. Firth is quite right when he says that much has been necessarily left out. Whole can and have been written about some of the subjects he has touched on, such as popular protest in history, the Enclosures, Chartism, the development of British Socialism, Irish, Scots and Welsh history and nationalism, Socialism in Britain, opposition to the workhouse, to name but a few. There are a number of works on gay, gender and women’s history. E.P. Thompson himself wrote a history of the English working class, which remains one of the standard texts on the subject. Labour history-writing goes further back than Thompson, however. The Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb wrote two books on the country and town labourers respectively. A number of the first Labour MPs to be voted into parliament have also left their autobiographies, describing their rise from manual labourer to Member of Parliament.

The book does an important service by showing just how old some of the issues and techniques raised and used by today’s protesters actually are. Hoccleve’s appeal for peace with France shows that peace protests go right back to the Middle Ages. Indeed, in the Tenth Century the Church led a peace movement to establish God’s Truce. This was the ban on fighting by the knights and the aristocracy on certain days of the week, so that the peasants, their crops and livestock were harmed as little as possible. And some of the 19th century popular protests are surprisingly modern in flavour. I was struck in the 1980s by how similar Cobden and Bright’s peace meetings demanding an end to the Crimean War were to contemporary anti-Nuclear peace marches and protests. An earlier generation would doubtless be struck by the similarity to the anti-Vietnam protests. The various articles, pamphlets, books and letters written attacking British imperialism are a reminder that, even during the intensely patriotic Victorian age imperialism and colonial expansion were the subjects of criticism. One of Gladstone’s ministers was privately strongly anti-imperial, and wrote articles for the Liberal press denouncing imperialism. ‘A love of empire’, he wrote, ‘is the love of war’. It’s as true now as it was then.

The Anti-Saccherist League is another example of a startlingly modern Victorian protest. It was an early example of ethical consumption. It aimed to attack slavery by destroying the profits from sugar produced by slaves. Instead of buying sugar from the Caribbean, it instead promoted Indian sugar, which it believed was produced by free people. The book doesn’t mention it, but there were also feminist campaigns to end slavery. One of the petitions against slavery compiled by anti-Slavery activists, was by women, attacking the brutality experienced by enslaved women, and addressed to the Queen herself, Victoria. It was felt that she, as a woman, would have more sympathy to the sufferings of the other members of her gender in slavery than men. Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman is justly famous, and has been published in Penguin Classics. It, and the 19th century pamphlet similarly protesting women’s subordination and exploitation are a reminder that feminism did not begin with the suffragettes or was a product of ’60s radicalism.

Some of the older, more ancient texts from the book could easily be reprinted today as an indictment of modern conditions and attitudes under the Coalition. The descriptions of the government and employers’ opposition to the dock and matchgirls’ strikes sound very modern indeed, and Annie Besant’s denunciation of white slavery in London – the gruelling work performed in factories by poorly paid and exploited workers, sounds exactly like the world Cameron, Clegg and the rest of the whole foul crew would like to drag us back to.

I do, however, have problems with some of the material included in the book. It’s true that the United Kingdom was largely created through military expansion and conquest, as the Anglo-Norman barons first took Wales, and then established the English pale and suzerainty over the Gaelic clans in Ireland. They tried to conquer Scotland, but England and Scotland were only politically united after the failure of the Darien colony in the early 18th century. The history of the British control of Ireland is one of repeated misgovernment and oppression, as well as missed opportunities for reform and improvement. If some of George III’s ministers had succeeded in enfranchising Roman Catholics, so that they had at least some of the same rights as Protestants, or Gladstone, himself very much a member of the Anglican Church, had succeeded in granting ‘Home Rule all round’ to the ‘Celtic Fringe’, then some of the sectarian and political violence could possibly have been avoided. Discrimination against Roman Catholics was widespread and resulted in the Civil Rights demonstrations by Ulster Catholics in the 1960s. It also produced the Nationalist terrorist groups, who, like the Loyalist terrorists, which opposed them, have been responsible for some truly horrific atrocities, including the mass murder of civilians. I do have strong reservations of parts of the Irish folk scene, because of the way folk songs describing and denouncing historic atrocities by the British, were used by Nationalist paramilitaries to drum up hatred and support for their murderous campaigns. I am certainly not accusing any of the modern folk groups included in the book, whose lyrics denounce what they see as the continuing oppression of the Irish people, of supporting terrorism. Firth and Arnove appear to have deliberately avoided choosing the contemporary folk songs that do glamorise terrorism. Nevertheless, there is a problem in that some of the Irish folk songs about the suffering of their country and its people can be so abused. I am also definitely not impressed with Protestant, Loyalist sectarianism and its vilification of and celebration of violence against Roman Catholics.

It’s also the case that historically at least, many Protestants did support the aspirations of their Roman Catholic fellow-countrymen for freedom and emancipation. A few years ago Mapping the Town, BBC Radio 4’s urban history programme, broadcast an edition from Belfast. This noted that one of the first Roman Catholic churches built in the town in the late 18th or early 19th century was half funded by the town’s Protestants. Although there denominations were recognised and permitted by the Anglican establishment, unlike Roman Catholicism, which was rigorously prohibited, they also suffered serious legal disabilities and were prevented from holding political office. They shared the resentment their Roman Catholic friends and fellow Irishmen felt, and so sometimes, as here, made common cause with them. The book does include some of the speeches from Wolfe Tone’s United Irishmen, the 18th century militant Nationalist organisation that included both Roman Catholics and Protestants. This makes the point that the struggle for an independent Ireland has historically included Protestants as well as Roman Catholics. Nevertheless, possibly some further Irish Protestant texts supporting independence or Roman Catholic emancipation would have been useful, to show such issues can and did transcend the religious divide.

Another problem with the section on Ireland is that in Northern Ireland the majority of the inhabitants were Protestants, who wished to remain part of the United Kingdom. Indeed, the province was created through an uprising against the possibility that it would become part of Eire. While the oppression of Roman Catholics in Ulster is definitely undemocratic, it also has to be recognised that Ulster has remained part of the UK through the wishes of a majority of its people. This has been implemented through democratic politics, which is something that needs to be recognised. Unfortunately, the exclusive focus on Irish nationalism in the book obscures the fact that the province’s inclusion in the UK does have a popular democratic mandate.

A further issue is the exclusion of a modern, working class Ulster Protestant voice. Nearly a decade ago now the Independent reviewed a play by a working class Ulster Protestant playwright about the Troubles. The play was about a family reacting to the rioting occurring outside. I’ve unfortunately forgotten, who the playwright was. What I do remember was his comment that working class Protestants in Ulster were disenfranchised, as there were no organisations representing them. It’s a controversial claim, but there’s more than a little truth in it. Many of the working class political parties in Northern Ireland, such as the SDLP, are more or less Nationalist. The Unionist party, on the other hand, was formed from the merger of the Conservative and right-wing parts of the Liberal party. There has therefore been little in the way of working-class Protestant political parties, although some of the militant Protestant paramilitaries did adopt a radical Socialist agenda in the 1970s. Again, it would have been good to have a text or so examining this aspect of Northern Irish politics, though one which would not support the Protestant paramilitaries and their violence.

Equally problematic is the inclusion in the book of the voices of the womenfolk of the men imprisoned in Guatanamo Bay, collected by Victoria Brittain. Now Gitmo is indeed a human rights abuse. The prisoners there are held without trial or sentencing. The reasoning behind this is that, while they are guilty of terrorism offences, wartime conditions and the pressures of battle mean that it has been impossible to obtain the level of evidence required to secure a conviction under civilian law. If they were tried, they would be acquitted, and disappear to continue their terrorist campaigns against the US. Hence, for national security they must be detained outside the law. It’s a dangerous argument, as it sets up a precedent for the kind of ‘Nacht und Nebel’ disappearances and incarceration without trial of domestic opponents that was ruthlessly used by the Nazis on their political opponents in Germany.

This does not mean that the men held without trial in Gitmo are democrats. Far from it. Those that fought for the Taliban supported a vehemently anti-democratic regime. It was a violently repressive theocracy, which rejected ‘man-made law’ in favour of the Sharia. Under the Taliban, no forms of religious belief or unbelief were tolerated apart from Islam. Women were prevented from going out in public except when clad in the chador. As they were supposed to be silent and not draw attention to themselves when in public, they were beaten if they made a sound. This included the noises made by the artificial limbs of women, who had been mutilated by the mines and ordnance used in the fighting. There was also an active campaign against female education. This situation has been challenged by the presence of the Coalition forces in Afghanistan. Jeremy Hardy in the News Quiz derided this as ‘collateral feminism’. He has a point. The war was not fought to liberate or improve the conditions of Afghan women. This is very much a side effect. However, if the Western occupation of Afghanistan does raise their status and give them more freedom, then it will have done some good.

As for the occupation of Afghanistan itself, I’ve read material that has argued that the real reason the Western forces are there is to secure access to and appropriate the country’s oil pipelines. There’s possibly something in that. However, the immediate reason for the invasion was al-Qaeda’s attack on the US on 9/11. The destruction of the Twin Towers and parallel attacks on the Pentagon and the White House were acts of war. There is simply no two ways about this, and the West’s counter-attack and invasion of Afghanistan was an entirely appropriate response. It is therefore somewhat disingenuous to include the piece of on the suffering of the wives of the men imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay, when the men themselves were the militant, murderous supporters of an oppressive regime that itself had absolute contempt for democracy and Western notions of human rights.

If many of the texts in this volume seem surprisingly modern, the extracts on the Ladies of Llangollen can be somewhat misleading in that historically British society has recognised a number of intense same-sex relationships, that were not at the time regarded as homosexual, or which included a homosexual element that was nevertheless seen in context as part of a wider relationship. There has been a book published within the last year or so on the homosocial relationship between medieval knights, which examined the all-male camaraderie and loyalty between them. The chivalrous concept of campiognage, which was the extreme friendship and loyalty between two knights, could be described in homosexual terms, even when one knight was helping his comrade in arms to escape with his lady love. In the 19th century there was the ‘romantic friendship’. This was a devoted friendship between two members of the same sex. These now can strike us as definitely gay, but at the time these were not seen as being necessarily homosexual or particularly extraordinary. Cardinal Newman’s request to be buried next to another priest, with whom he shared a profound friendship, was almost certainly such a Victorian romantic friendship, rather than a straightforward gay relationship. Although the ladies of Llangollen described themselves as having eloped, they always maintained that they devoted themselves to artistic and intellectual pursuits. They were celebrated at the time for their devotion to each other, and visitors to their home included many of the 19th century’s great and good, including the Duke of Wellington. It seems to me therefore that there relationship was seen as another romantic friendship, rather than a lesbian relationship.

It is also the case that the Victorians were aware of the existence of lesbianism. The story that when they were formulating the laws against homosexuality, Queen Victoria and her ministers did not outlaw female homosexuality because they didn’t believe it existed is a myth. They knew that it did. They just didn’t see it as a particular threat. The historian Martin Pugh makes this point in his book, British Fascism between the Wars. He argues that lesbianism was only perceived as a threat to British society after the First World War, when there was a ‘crisis of masculinity’. It was widely believed that the cream of British manhood had all been carried off by the War, and that only inferior men had been left behind. This created the atmosphere of sexual panic in which arose Pemberton Billing and his notorious black book. Billing was an extreme Right-wing Tory MP, who believed that the Germans were blackmailing British homosexuals into betraying their country. He claimed to have a little book containing the names of 50,000 ‘devotees of Sodom and Lesbia’, and regularly attacked other public figures with accusations that they were gay. At least one of his victims sued for libel, but the trial was called off when Billing accused the presiding judge of being another gay, whose name was in his book. I’m no legal expert, but it has struck me that the judge would have grounds for jailing him for contempt. Moral fears and legislation against gay women arguably date from this period, rather than the Victorian age.

These reservations aside, this is a powerful, inspiring book, that should encourage and empower anyone with an interest in radical history and who is determined to defend freedom and dignity today from the increasing attacks on it by the Coalition, the most reactionary regime this country has endured since the election of Mrs Thatcher in 1979.

Gun Rights in 19th Century Britain: A Left-Wing Cause

July 7, 2013

The issue of gun rights – the right of the individual to bear arms, as stated in the American 2nd Amendment, is today pretty much the preserve of the Conservative Right in America and Britain. There are some Democrats and Radicals, however, who support the individual’s right to arm him- or herself against tyranny. In 19th century Britain, however, gun rights were supported and demanded by radical members of the disenfranchised working class.

Peter Hitchens on Contemporary Politics and the British Empire

After the last shooting tragedy in America, Peter Hitchens’ posted his views on the issue on his blog on the Mail on Sunday webpage. Hitchen’s is very much a man of the Right, having rejected his youthful Trotskyite Marxism and moved across the floor to Conservatism. He is also a staunch defender of Christianity, unlike his late brother, Christopher, who was a militant New Atheist. Nevertheless, politically Hitchen’s is very much his own man. He heartily despises David Cameron for his rejection of tradition, Conservative marriage and sexual morality. He frequently derides him as ‘Mr. Slippery’ for Cameron’s electoral duplicity and lack of any consistent morals. Some of his views seem to be those of the traditional Left, or Butlerian Conservatism, rather than modern Cameronite post-Thatcherism. He had opposed the sale to the private sector of council houses and the railway network, and objects to private policing and prisons on the grounds that only the state has the moral authority to prosecute and punish crime. Many of his views are eccentric and highly controversial. He believes that we should have stayed out of the Second World War, for example. In his view this would have allowed us to preserve our national independence and Empire against the supranational, unaccountable misgovernment of the European Union. I believe he is profoundly mistaken in this. In one of his articles from the 1930, George Orwell describes watching a parade of Black African troopers in the French army in Morocco. Orwell describes the troopers’ expectant looks as they saluted the watching White officers. He stated that at that point, he knew what every white man there was thinking, ‘How long can we keep on fooling these people?’ The break-up of the British Empire was partly a product of Britain’s economic exhaustion and near-defeat by the Axis during the Second World War. Nevertheless, the independence movements in Africa and particularly India predate the War. Modern historians of the British Empire have pointed out that the Empire was actually an economic drain on Britain after c. 1900. In many ways the Second World War merely accelerated a process that had already began, rather than caused the break-up of the Empire.

Peter Hitchen’s on Gun Ownership

However strange or peculiar Hitchen’s views are, they are always historically informed. According to Hitchen’s, 19th century Britain had an attitude towards the freedom to buy arms that makes modern Texan legislation look positively effeminate. The licensing of firearms was only introduced in the 1920 when governments feared a possible revolution. I don’t know, but this sounds about right. The 1917 Russian Revolution had been accompanied by radical revolutionary campaigns throughout Europe. A soviet revolution broke out in Germany in 1919, comprising independent radical Socialists and anarchists, which then gave rise to a full-scale Communist insurrection in German, Austria and Hungary. Italy in the same period saw ‘Red Week’ and the invasion of the factories, again by radical Socialists. Even after these were put down, the situation was still very unstable politically, with militant anti-democratic movements of both Left and Right. These included the Nazis in Germany, and the seizure of power by Mussolini’s Fascists in Italy. It was against the rise of these violent, paramilitary movements, including the British Union of Fascists, that the government introducing legislation banning uniformed political organisations. My guess is that the restriction on firearms ownership was part of this legislation.

19th Century British Chartism

In 19th century England, the right to own guns and other weapons was demanded by the ‘physical force’ Chartists, militantly campaigning for the franchise to be extended to the working class. Government at that time was strongly aristocratic, and the franchise was very much restricted to the landed aristocracy and gentry and the middle classes. Poverty, disease and squalor were common. Working hours were long, and conditions appalling. Fourteen hours days were the norm. One German writer in the 1820 in Bavaria said he knew young people in their 1920s who already looked like old men, so worn out were they by hard work. Chartism was an attempt by the working class to gain the right to vote and political freedom against this background of hardship and inequality. Led by the London cabinet-maker, William Lovett and Francis Place, a master tailor, the movement’s charter, from which it took its name, had six demands:

1. Votes for all men over 21.
2. No property qualifications.
3. Annual parliaments.
4. Equal Representation (which meant that all electoral constituencies were to be equal in size)
5. Payment of MPs
6. Vote by ballot.

Chartism and the Right to Bear Arms

Beyond the Charter, the movement could be extremely diverse with no uniform political philosophy. Most Chartists were laissez-faire economic liberals. Some were Socialists. There were Christian Chartists, who combined a radical programme of political democracy with worship of the Lord in their own chapels. There was also a division between ‘physical force’ Chartists, who were prepared to use violence to advance their gaols, and the more respectable ‘moral force’ Chartists, who believed that only logic and rational persuasion should be used. Among the ‘physical force’ Chartists were Joseph Rayner Stephens and R.J. Richardson. Stephens was a radical Methodist minister from Ashton-Under-Lyne, who had been disowned by the Methodist Conference for his views. He exhorted working men to take up arms to defend their constitutional rights against a brutal, centralizing authority. R.J. Richardson, who came from Salford, joined him in his demands. In 1839 he gave a lecture to the Chartist National Convention ‘to show the advantage and propriety of arming the people as the best guarantee of the liberties of a country’, citing authorities as diverse as Aristotle, Queen Elizabeth and Dr. Johnson.

Decline of Chartism and Hitchen’s View of Gun Ownership

Chartism declined after the middle of the century from a number of causes. Partly this was ridicule, as the monster petitions of millions of signatures presented to parliament by the Chartists to secure constitutional reform consisted mostly of forged signatures, like ‘the Duke of Wellington’ and ‘Queen Victoria’. Another cause was the rise in living standards as the economy expanded and legislation improved housing and working conditions. Lastly, successive legislation enlarging the franchise, culminating in that of Disraeli’s Conservatives, gave nearly all working men except the very poorest the vote, thus making the Charter obsolete. Nevertheless, its history does show that in the 19th century the right to bear arms was a demand of the revolutionary Left, rather than the Conservative Right as it is today. As for Hitchens’ view of gun ownership, he stated that in his view you should have the right to own one, but having seen what they did to the human body, you shouldn’t really want one.

Robert Owen: Utopian Socialist, Promoter of ‘Rational Religion’

May 12, 2013

The founder of British Socialism was the 19th century Welsh reformer, Robert Owen. The son of a saddler and ironworker who was also the local postmaster, Own moved from Newtown in Wales to take over the mill at New Lanark in Scotland. There he improved the conditions of his workers through paternal management. Unlike other contemporary businesses, he did not employ children under ten, and the children of his workers were educated in the factory school. Owen later went on to denounce the social division, inequality, poverty and crime which he believed had their roots in private property, and advocated instead a series of utopian communities based on co-operation and the sharing of produce. He initially enjoyed the support of many members of the clergy and ruling aristocracy, including dukes and archbishops. He alienated them through his religious scepticism. His lecture on the New Religion given at the Freemason’s Hall in 1830 is essentially an attack on revealed religion. He believed that the revealed religions of the world kept people in ignorance and so prevented them from improving themselves, as well as creating bitter hatreds that served only to divide humanity. He also campaigned against the idea of marriage for life, which he viewed as chaining unhappy couples together permanently and consequently creating vice and crime through broken families that could nevertheless not be dissolved.

The 19th century was an age of social and political upheaval, with groups like the Chartists emerging to demand the extension of the franchise to the working class. The Christian Chartists, who were particularly strong in Scotland, objected to co-operation with the Owenites as they disliked being associated with ‘Socialists and infidels’. In fact, Owen was a Deist, and then later a Spiritualist, and took many of his ideas from the 17th century Quaker, John Bellers, the Moravians, and the Shakers and Rappites in America. He was also a firm advocate of freedom of conscience. Law 12 in his 1840 Manifesto states

‘That all facts yet known to man indicate that there is an external or internal Cause of all existences, by the fact of their existence; that this all-pervading cause of motion and change in the universe, is that Incomprehensible Power, which the nations of the world have called God, Jehovah, Lord, etc., etc.; but that the facts are yet unknown to man which define what that power is.’

He believed that God created human nature at birth, but that the good qualities of humanity could be brought out if developed in accordance with natural, rational laws.

‘Human nature in each individual is created, with its organs, faculties, and propensities, of body and mind, at birth, but the incomprehensible Creating Power of the universe; all of which qualities and powers are necessary for the continuation of the species, and the growth, health, progress, excellence and happiness, of the individual and of society; and these results will always be attained when, in the progress of nature, men shall have acquired sufficient experience to cultivate these powers, physical and mental, in accordance with the natural laws of humanity.’

He was also radical in arguing for complete religious freedom. Law 8 of his Manifesto states that ‘everyone shall have equal and full liberty to express the dictates of his conscience on religious and all other subjects.’ Law 9 laid down that ‘No one shall have any other power than fair and friendly argument to control the opinions or belief of another.’ Law 10 stated that ‘No praise or blame, no merit or demerit, no reward or punishment, shall be awarded for any opinion or beliefs’. Finally, Law 11 stipulated that

‘But all, of every religion, shall have equal right to express their opinions respecting the great Incomprehensible Power which moves the atom and controls the universe; and to worship that power under any form or in any manner agreeable to their consciences – not interfering with others.’

In many ways, Owen’s views are a product of 18th century rationalism. After the Fall of Communism, few would argue that a completely socialised economy can be successfully run. Nevertheless, the success of New Lanark did show 19th century businessmen that working conditions could be improved and the working classes provided for while still making a healthy profit. It also differs from later radical socialism in that, unlike later Communism, it was not atheist and specifically provided for freedom of conscience. Indeed, Owen is interesting for making the belief in God an article of his Manifesto, even if he looked to science, rather than revelation for establishing the Lord’s nature.