History of the British Chartist movement: People power versus privilege

May 14, 2010
200,000-strong rally at Kennington Common, 1848.

‘Perish the Privileged Orders’: A Socialist History of the Chartist Movement
By Mark O’Brien
New Clarion Press Revised Edition 2009, 119 pages

Review by Alex Miller

If you believed the corporate media, you might think that the greatest threats to parliamentary democracy in a country like Britain have come from Kaiser Wilhelm’s armies in World War I or — today — from Al Qaeda and Islamic jihadists. In fact, the greatest enemies of representative democracy in Britain over the centuries have been the British ruling classes themselves.

This concise and very readable volume, published by a workers’ cooperative, highlights the fact that what democracy there is in modern Britain did not flow seamlessly from the development of capitalism itself, but had to be literally wrenched out of the ruling classes through decades of struggle and sacrifice by ordinary working people.

Although universal suffrage — the right of all adults to vote — was not achieved in Britain until the early 20th century, much of the groundwork for its eventual attainment was laid by the Chartist movement in the middle of the 19th century.

The Chartists — so-called because of the tactic of presenting charters or mass petitions to parliament — had a number of basic demands: universal suffrage, election by secret ballot, the abolition of property qualifications on voting, annual parliaments, and payment for MPs (this was a progressive demand in the 19th century, since without payment only the wealthy could afford to be MPs).

O’Brien gives a vivid sense of how radical these demands were for their time by detailing the repressive measures that the ruling classes of the day took against the Chartists, the Newport Rising of 1839, the General Strike of 1842, and mass Chartist demonstrations such as the 200,000-strong rally held on Kennington Common in 1848.

He explains how support for the Chartists was fed by brutal ruling class measures against the poorest in society, such as the Poor Law of 1834, which aimed to drive down the cost of poor relief by making it so unpleasant and brutalising that only the most desperate would apply for it.

O’Brien also gives vivid portraits of the leading lights of the Chartist movement, figures such as Fergus O’Connor, Ernest Jones, and George Harney and other progressive characters that you probably won’t have heard about in school history lessons. There is also an insightful chapter on how Marx and Engels related to Chartism.

Overall, O’Brien’s excellent book provides an antidote “to the influential idea that the British working-class movement had always been essentially subservient, dominated by a culture of deference and the politics of piecemeal reform”.

We are entering an era in which the ruling classes will attempt to take us into a high-tech version of the 1830s by making ordinary working people pay for the global economic crisis through massive cuts in jobs and public services, the privatisation of the National Health Service, and the destruction of what remains of the post-1945 Welfare State. The history of the Chartist movement and its fight for democracy in Britain is more relevant than ever.

O’Brien’s fine volume is a first-class, inspiring introduction to this often untold chapter in British history.

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