Remembering Peterloo and the struggle for liberal democracy

Liberalism has a long and complex history. Sometimes that history has been bloody. This weekend there is a range of events happening in Manchester to mark the 200 year anniversary of one such episode in liberal history, the Peterloo massacre. This was when a large gathering of tens of thousands of people calling for political reform in St Peter’s Field in Manchester on 16th August 1819 was forcibly charged by soldiers on horseback. This resulted in 18 people being killed and hundreds being injured. The name of the massacre aimed to mock the British victory at Waterloo that had happened four years earlier.

Peterloo is an important reminder that we cannot take liberalism and democracy for granted. Our modern political rights and freedoms had to be fought for and even at times face authorities prepared to use lethal force in order to suppress democratic sentiments. 200 years on, liberal democracy is still a luxury that many countries and parts of the world do not have. From China to Syria, from Russia to Zimbabwe and from Saudi Arabia to North Korea, activists the world over are to this day struggling, fighting and even dying for the political rights and freedoms that we have in Britain in 2019.

Peterloo is important for liberals, but it is also important to socialists and progressives of all kinds. We liberals must be unafraid to defend our history. We must not abandon radical moments of British liberal history to socialists and extreme leftists. The political philosophy of the radical liberal thinker, Thomas Paine, helped to inspire the protesters at Peterloo. Peterloo was about liberty, freedom from oppression and people’s political rights. In short, it was about political reform. All of these things form the core tenets of liberalism. 

In 1819, only 2% of the population could vote (mostly the landed gentry) and working people in cities like Manchester lived in industrial levels of poverty and squalor. Both of these issues would be remedied by Liberals over the century that followed. The Great Reform Act of the Whig Prime Minister, Earl Grey in 1832 swept away the Tory rotten boroughs. William Gladstone gave the vote to millions of agricultural workers in 1885 and under the government of David Lloyd George in 1918, universal male suffrage was achieved, as well as the first voting rights for women. In regard to the industrial poverty, Liberals helped to abolish the dreaded protectionist Corn Laws, advanced the rights of workers (including legalising trade unions and legitimising collective bargaining) and created the welfare state.

Liberalism isn’t a bland passive philosophy of an establishment. It has challenged establishment power in multiple countries and advanced radical political change for over 300 years. Liberalism forged the American Revolution and the early years of the French Revolution. Liberals and liberal principles were a factor in the European Spring of 1848, the Russian February Revolution of 1917, the revolutions in Eastern Europe that ended the Cold War and more recently in the Arab Spring.

British liberal democracy has been the result of over 200 years of campaign and struggle by ordinary people and committed reformers; from the protesters at Peterloo to Parliamentary Radicals and Liberal Party MPs; from the Chartist movement to the Suffragists and Suffragettes. Our modern democracy is the product of everyone from working class activists to privileged middle class politicians. As liberals, we must see this as part of our political heritage and shared history. 

The journey that began at Peterloo on that fateful day 200 years ago has still not been completed. Despite the progress that has been made, Britain’s liberal democracy still needs much improvement. The Liberal Democrats should pick up the mantle of Peterloo and call for radical political reform, this must include: Votes at 16; introducing proportional representation; replacing the House of Lords with a democratic second chamber; a codified constitution; and supporting federalism for the regions and nations of the UK. We should also support ways of introducing democracy into the workplace; Greater Manchester after all is also the home of the cooperative movement.

As our television screens are being filled with images of Hong Kong democracy activists campaigning for the same rights and freedoms that the protesters at Peterloo were arguing for 200 years ago, we must remember that the struggle for liberal democracy has been a long and hard one. The Communist Party elites in Beijing look upon Hong Kong’s democracy protesters the same way that Britain’s Georgian elite did to those who called for democracy in the early 19th century. Let us hope that Hong Kong’s road to democracy is much more peaceful than that at Peterloo (or Tiananmen Square).

This weekend, I will be recalling those who were killed in the Peterloo massacre and how fortunate we are to have a liberal democracy, even in 2019. At a time when populist nationalism is rising around the world, not least in our own country, we need to hold to the values of Peterloo, now more than ever. Liberalism continues to be a very dangerous idea to those in power, we forget that fact at our peril.

* Paul Hindley is a PhD politics student at Lancaster University and a member of the Liberal Democrats in Blackpool.

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  • James Sandbach 16th Aug '19 - 1:28pm

    Brilliant article Paul – you are so right; we must never forget that Liberalism has been forged by radicals in the fight against oppression and for equal political and civil rights – 200 years later the fight we’re engaged in against a resurgent hard right authoritarianism that wants to close down parliament, reject international treaties and depress living conditions is no less important than the fight against the Six Acts, the rotten boroughs and the Corn Laws.

  • William Fowler 16th Aug '19 - 2:22pm

    Great history lesson, can’t recall Peterloo being taught in school back in the sixties, the black hole of Calcutta was, though.

    There is a difference between radical political reform and ending up with even more politicians at all levels who can only justify their existence by churning out endless laws which actually – by being either ignored or ridiculed – bring more serious laws into disrepute.

    If Brexit happens may anyway find we are only left with England and Wales rather than the UK, the political system will then need to be pared right back to take into account falling govn spending from disappearing tax revenues and further ruination of Sterling.

    The House of Lords could be replaced by confirmatory votes from the populace via electronic voting as per the Swiss model, even the threat of being ridiculed by the public vote will stop a lot of the silliness from the politicians of all extreme ilks. That is actually taking back power!

  • Philip McLellan 16th Aug '19 - 4:17pm

    We must not be too blasé about our history as Liberals. Yes we have been at the forefront of democratic change on many occasions, but let’s not forget it was the Liberal governments of 1906+ that put suffragettes in prison and did things like forced feeding. At least we now have our first female leader, but don’t forget our history has not always been purity and light,

  • Stephen Hesketh 16th Aug '19 - 4:18pm

    Great article Paul. The past, present and future of British-style Liberalism and Liberal Democracy. Also good comments from James Sandbach and Steve Trevethan.

  • Mark Seaman 16th Aug '19 - 4:38pm

    ‘Liberals helped to abolish the dreaded protectionist Corn Laws’ Indeed they did, and that was a major step towards Free trade. Now we are in 2019 and sadly the Liberals in the UK want us to stay in the EU, an organisation which has at it’s very heart the principle of shielding inefficient businesses from non EU suppliers by imposing as high a Tariff barrier as they can get away with under WTO rules.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Aug '19 - 4:40pm

    Paul Hindley: Take this to federal conference and expect amendments:
    political reform must include Votes at 16 (which has been party policy for decades and was conceded by Tory leader David Cameron for the 2104 referendum in Scotland)
    introducing proportional representation (be careful what you wish for, in case you get it, STV is better, not strictly proportional, but empowers the individual voter to express all of his/her preferences)
    replacing the House of Lords (we tried that in the 2010-2015 parliament. It is too easy to get bogged down. Chip away by abolishing the absurd Lordly by-elections, as David Steel wanted to do and gradually reduce the size of the House now that voluntary resignations are possible, complete the task on hereditary peers, which Labour promised to do in 1997, promised to complete, but did not)
    Workers’ rights must include legal ownership of their pension rights and power to prevent agents extracting excessive commissions (remember the Daily Mirror and the actions of former Labour MP Robert Maxwell, who stated (rightly) that when he bought the company he also bought the pension fund. He was litigious, but being dead he is unlikely to sue).

  • Richard Underhill 16th Aug '19 - 4:42pm

    Also be willing to conserve ideas and actions not invented here, such as an unarmed police force.

  • Richard Underhill 16th Aug '19 - 4:46pm

    Sorry, 2014 not 2104.

  • Thank you Mark, I’m sure the farming industry will thank you for throwing them under a bus.

    Britain must accept US food standards such as allowing chlorinated chicken and genetically modified crops as part of any post-Brexit trade deal, the head of America’s powerful farming lobby has suggested.

    The comments from Zippy Duval, presiddent of the American Farm Bureau

    Bless Mark, you voted for that. But it isn’t the Brexit you voted for, but that was never on offer. Fantasy time is over Mark and reality is biting your Harris. Get used to it, there is a tidal wave of reality heading in your direction. No amount of delusion or whatabouttery will deflect it. But I’m a man of distinction and I want my Brexit you cry, bless you so are not and it isn’t on offer.

  • clive english 16th Aug '19 - 5:26pm

    The only problem is the focus on a single event such as Peterloo, which was not considered at the time as being very significant is actually very historically inaccurate and a distorting mirror, although it has propaganda value in the modern era.
    The struggle for reform was not crystalized in one dramatic event but was a long struggle. It is a similar situation to writing suffragists out of history because the suffragettes (whose campaign can actually be considered to have been counter-productive) are more dramatic or promoting the frankly medically incompetent Florence Nightingale, deaths in her hospital were actually higher, over less acceptable at the time (because non-white) female nurses

  • A timely article from Paul and a reminder that radical Liberalism is (or ought to be) a force for good for the underprivileged as well as a fight for equality in a democratic system. It should also be remembered that Peterloo provided the inspiration for the founding of the Manchester Guardian, the only truly liberal newspaper, by John Edward Taylor in 1821.

    My personal hero is Elijah Dixon born in Huddersfield. He marched over the moors to Manchester. He played a key role in the Blanketeer’s March of 1817 and after the Tory Government’s suspension of Habeus Corpus was arrested, chained in double irons and imprisoned without trial, the episode set the stage for the Peterloo Massacre. Everybody in Victorian Manchester knew of Elijah Dixon.

    Over a period of sixty years, Elijah was an ever-present force in the tumultuous politics of the town. He worked alongside the great figures of nineteenth century Radicalism, and as ‘The Manchester Man’ became the town’s ambassador for Chartism. An early apostle of votes for women, Temperance advocate, Christian convert, Dixon rose from poverty to make a fortune as Britain’s first mass-producer of matches (the Lucifer – immortalised in ‘Pack up your Troubles in your old kit bag’ in 1915.

    Mike Leigh’s Peterloo: first trailer for drama about the notorious ……/mike-leigh-peterloo-first-trailer-for-the-drama-abo…
    Video for peterloo film▶ 1:17
    24 Jul 2018 – Uploaded by Entertainment One UK

  • Try this

    PETERLOO – Official Teaser Trailer [HD] – YouTube
    Video for peterloo youtube▶ 1:17
    24 Jul 2018 – Uploaded by Entertainment One UK

  • @ Martin – Steve Trevethan made a reference to the ‘Second Reform Act’ of 1867 in his comment at 2.18pm above. However, Lord Palmerston would have had difficulty in opposing this measure – since he died in 1865!

  • Well, but but but…liberals often brand Luddites as a bunch of anti-modern reactionaries.

  • Sue Sutherland 17th Aug '19 - 12:53pm

    In the West Country school I attended in the 60s we were taught about Peterloo but now I live in Manchester I have heard people saying they didn’t learn about it. I seem to remember that it was the newspapers which coined the term Peterloo, as a sarcastic reminder that defenceless British citizens had been mowed down by armed soldiers on St Peter’s Field, which was a shameful echo of Waterloo. Sadly I’m unable to go on the March commemorating Peterloo, which I feel is part of the history of the Lib Dems.
    Peterloo was caused by intransigence and fear of the mob held by the leadership at that time who were anxious to maintain what they saw as their natural right to rule and have a far better life than most of the population. I see that arrogance expressed today in this Tory government.
    Peterloo occurred many years before Marx wrote about the capitalist system so the residents of Manchester had nothing to fear from the extreme left. We Lib Dems , however, must also fight against the arrogance and authoritarianism of Corbyn’s Labour Party who refuse to warn people about the suffering they will have if Brexit goes ahead. The rival ideologies of Left and Right are fighting with no thought for the people. It’s time for us to stand up against this dual threat and reform our country as the Liberal party once did.

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