- Friday, 01 February 2008
- Written by David Brandon
When wars end, the economy usually goes into a rapid and severe slump. Demand falls off and large numbers of those who have been fighting cannot find work in civilian life. Britain had been at war with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France almost continuously from 1793 to 1815. When war ended, the economy plummeted into slump. As always, it was the poor who had borne the brunt of the fighting in these wars that had not been of their making. Now they were required to bear the economic and social fallout from the subsequent peace.
Britain's ruling elite hated the democratic principles which had underpinned the early stages of the French Revolution and had been determined that nothing similar could be allowed to happen here. The same democratic principles which disgusted the well-to-do and powerful inspired a wave of radicalism and idealism among sizeable layers of middle-class and working class opinion. These feelings survived the wars with France and so when they ended, there was a widespread belief that the corruption and narrow base of power that characterised British politics needed to be swept away and replaced by institutions which would better represent the ordinary people and act to address their needs. For their part, the ruling elite stood foursquare against any manner of democratic political reform. Never in modern times, has there been such a reactionary political elite.
In 1817 a small number of half-starved labourers, stockingers and weavers met in the White Horse Inn in Pentrich and made plans for a march on London. This it was believed would gather support as it went and the intention was that it would turn into a mass uprising to topple the Government. The leader was Jeremiah Brandreth. It may well be that the planning of the uprising was largely the work of an agent-provocateur, a shadowy figure often referred to as Oliver the Spy. His job was to join and gain the confidence of groups of political dissidents and then foment 'subversive' activity. The authorities would be alerted and poised ready to catch those involved and make an example of them.The threat of internal unrest and rebellion could then be used as the excuse to strengthen political repression. In 1817 Habeas Corpus (the right to no imprisonment without a trial) was suspended while the Seditious Meetings Act was intended to suppress all organisations committed to political reform. Both the Government and local magistrates in the industrial districts made systematic use of spies and infiltrators in radical movements. Snippets of information about their activities filtered out from time to time and aroused considerable concern even among those not necessarily supportive of radical or democratic causes. Ironically the Government argued that these measures were required in order to maintain the much vaunted liberties of the 'free-born Englishman'. The half-starved wretches of town and country wondered what on earth these so-called liberties actually were.
The working class was in a state of ferment. There was extreme economic distress, large-scale unemployment especially in the textile and iron-manufacturing trades and soaring inflation – all the ingredients that understandably led many to seek extreme measures to change their political and economic situation. In the post-war depression starving miners went on strike in Somerset, the North-east and the Black Country. The Luddites of the East Midlands, Yorkshire and Lancashire engaged in strikes and sabotage as a way of fighting against the reduction of wages and the loss of jobs associated with the introduction of new machinery, particularly in the textile and hosiery industries.While working people did not necessarily win all these disputes, they were groping towards an understanding that they could rely only on their own solidarity and collective action as a class. They also learned that the law was not an impartial institution. Their experiences taught them that the courts were presided over by men sympathetic only to the interests of the rich and powerful. They dispensed 'justice' according to their own narrow class viewpoint and used the armed might of the State, particularly the yeomanry, to back up their determination to keep those they considered to be the 'unwashed masses' in their place. They were incensed when such people took action, fighting for a living wage and to keep jobs, especially when these struggles were associated with demands for some say in political matters. This was an affront to the traditional right of the rich and powerful to abuse and exploit the poor and expect them to be grateful for the experience.
In Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire distress was greatest among what were known as the hand-workers, especially those in the textile and hosiery industries who owned or hired their simple tools and machines. They were proud of their skills and saw their livelihoods being threatened by the loss of jobs which came from the replacement of handicraft work by labour-saving machinery.
On 9 June 1817 two hundred, perhaps a maximum of three hundred men, mostly stockingers, quarrymen, iron workers and a few agricultural labourers, gathered at Pentrich, muttering angrily about changing economic forces over which they had no control. They had a few ancient firearms, blunderbusses and pikes, scythes and bludgeons. They trudged off in the dark and the pouring rain intent on covering the 14 miles to Nottingham during the night. The rain literally had a dampening effect on them and their morale, and ones and twos held back in the darkness and then went home. En route the marchers called at farms and houses demanding arms and support. At one such dwelling where they were told in no uncertain terms to clear off. Brandreth, who was a loose cannon, was so angry that he foolishly fired a shot through a window and killed a farm servant.
This did little to reinvigorate the flagging spirits but Brandreth had invented some verses which he insisted they should sing lustily as they went along. One of them went like this:
Every man his skill must try, He must turn out and not deny; No bloody soldier must he dread, He must turn out and fight for bread.
The time is come you plainly see
The government opposed must be.
So they proceeded towards Nottingham managing to make a considerable amount of noise. But when dawn broke they became only too aware that they were wet through, hungry, most were frightened and those that were left were demoralized, since it was evident that many of their number had slipped away in the dark. Brandreth became even more volatile and threatened to shoot anyone who, as he put it, deserted. When a small force of hussars came in sight at Eastwood, outside Nottingham, most of the marchers simply dropped whatever weapons they had and ran. They were mainly rounded up within a few hours. The `Pentrich Uprising' was something of a fiasco.
The Government was determined to make an example of the Pentrich rebels. Thirty-five men were tried at Derby accused of treason and levying war against the King. The reality was that they were half-starved, insecure and desperate to find a way to put bread on the table. They saw the rich and the powerful and their political and legal system as their oppressors. They were of course absolutely right in this but there was no way in which the system that oppressed them was going to be overthrown by a ragged handful of desperate men with such callow leadership.
The authorities fastidiously handpicked a jury whose members could be depended upon to view the evidence in the way the Government required. Only two lawyers were allowed to appear for the Defence. The Prosecution was represented by no less than ten. Some of the accused were pardoned and some transported but Brandreth and two others were hung, drawn and quartered at Derby. Great care was taken to insure that the doings of Oliver the Spy never reached the proceedings of the court. In his summing up, the judge loftily and self-righteously declared, "A crime is no less a crime because the man who commits it is poor." With his class background he certainly wasn't going to utter the words, "A crime is often less a crime because the man who commits it is rich." Warming to his theme, he snarled at the defendants, "Your object was to wade through the blood of your countrymen, to extinguish the law and the constitution of your country, and to sacrifice the property, the liberties, and the lives of your fellow subjects, to confusion, anarchy and the most complete tyranny."
It was just a couple of years later in 1819 that Shelley produced what is probably his angriest work. This was 'The Masque of Anarchy', a long, complicated poem with the well-known line, / met murder on the way, he had a mask like Castlereagh. Viscount Castlereagh was a notoriously reactionary cabinet minister in the Conservative government under Lord Liverpool which came into office in 1816. It is clear that he and other leading government figures were prepared to stoop to any measures in order to maintain the power of their class. This determination to prevent root-and-branch change is something of which all socialists must take note. No ruling class in history ever voluntarily gave up its power. It is a testament to the strength of the ideas controlled by the ruling class both then and also now that many people are astonished when the State sheds its veneer of 'impartiality' and resorts to naked force in order to maintain its power.In modern advanced capitalist countries the ruling class greatly prefers to govern through institutions which it controls but which give the illusion that the adult population has full and democratic control over the decision-making processes. While nothing could be further from the truth, as socialists we still have to defend those democratic advances which were won by our predecessors in the movement. At the same time we must always be aware that those gains were made out of struggles when the balance of class forces temporarily favoured the organisations of the working class. What the ruling class is forced to concede at one stage, it will grab back ruthlessly later if working people and their organisations are not vigilant and determined. To safeguard such gains and as the only way to move on to the effective defence and development of the interests of ordinary working people and their families, the movement needs to be equipped with a socialist programme. Such a programme has to absorb the lessons of past struggles.