The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog

RSS

The Peterloo Massacre, the Levellers and the Chartists: why have we forgotten our radical history?

The visionary and brave groups who fought for democracy shouldn’t be afterthoughts when talking about British history, they should be treated as a fundamental part of it.

'The Massacre of Peterloo or Britons Strike Home'. British soldiers charging the crowd at St Peter's Fields, Manchester in 1819. Photograph: Getty Images.

There’s a posh hotel in the middle of Manchester called the Radisson Edwardian – it’s a regular haunt for politicians when party conferences head to the city. If you look carefully, you’ll see a plaque commemorating the fact that one of the most disgraceful, and totemic, moments in British history happened on the site of the hotel. 

The Peterloo Massacre, in which fifteen people were killed and hundreds injured when the cavalry charged a peaceful demonstration for parliamentary reform, happened on this day in 1819. Lord Liverpool’s already reactionary government grew even more repressive. The massacre inspired generations of radicals to keep up the fight for reform and inspired Shelley to write one of the greatest political/ protest poems ever written, ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, with words that still resonate to this day:

'And that slaughter to the Nation
Shall steam up like inspiration,
Eloquent, oracular;
A volcano heard afar.

'And these words shall then become
Like Oppression's thundered doom
Ringing through each heart and brain,
Heard again - again - again -

'Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number -
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you -
Ye are many - they are few.'

Peterloo remains one of the most important, shocking events in British history. But today we hear next to nothing about the anniversary. The plaque on the wall of the hotel is the only memorial to the massacre and many schoolchildren leave school without any knowledge of the event. Today’s newspapers have barely mentioned the anniversary. Surely such an event of profound importance needs more than a small blue plaque on the side of an upmarket hotel to commemorate it and pay tribute to the sacrifice of those killed and the bravery of the protestors?

There’s a campaign for a more fitting memorial to the massacre and there surely must be a permanent statue near the site of the event. But we also need to do more as a nation to remember the pioneers who helped to ensure that we have a sovereign Commons and a functioning democracy today.

We should be ashamed that some people don’t know about Peterloo, or have, at best, a sketchy knowledge of the Levellers, the Chartists and the Suffragettes – all an important and inspiring part of our island history.

Sadly, the lack of a memorial to Peterloo is replicated when it comes to saluting the memory of these other groups. If you pay a visit to the pretty Cotswolds town of Burford, where the Levellers had their last stand with Cromwell’s troops, you can see little evidence of their presence. You have to go to the church, where the stand-off occurred, to find a small plaque to their presence.

John Lilburne, one of the most inspirational characters in British history, has been condemned, like his fellow Levellers to be a footnote in history. Lilburne, or 'Freeborn John' was, at one point flogged from Fleet Prison to Westminster as a punishment by the Star Chamber for distributing unlicensed literature. While in the pillory, he still distributed some more of this unlicensed literature to the crowd. The ideas of the Levellers: freeborn rights, manhood suffrage, freedom of the press, supremacy of the Commons, free trade, breaking up of monopolies and that "the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he" was thoroughly ahead of its time and absolutely worth celebrating.

It’s all well and good expecting schoolchildren to be able to know the Kings and Queens of England by heart, but they should also leave school with a well-rounded knowledge of the other movements who have shaped our history and our democracy. All too often, these movements are treated with indifference at best.

Such a level of indifference to our great ancestors is nothing new of course. H. N .Brailsford put it most poignantly in his biography of the Levellers:

Truly we are an ungrateful and forgetful nation. Never, though its population counted less than five millions, has England produced in thought and action so many daring pioneers as in those days of the Commonwealth, when men staked their all for an idea, and lived with an intensity their descendants have never touched.

It’s about time that we stopped being an ungrateful and forgetful nation. Events like the Peterloo Massacre should be commemorated properly. Visionary and brave groups such as the Levellers, Chartists and Suffragettes shouldn’t be afterthoughts when talking about British history, they should be treated as a fundamental part of it.

David Skelton is the director of Renewal, a new campaign group aiming to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party to working class and ethnic minority voters. @djskelton