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Peterloo: A Class Skirmish

At its May Day rally in Manchester this year the Labour party commemorates the 150th anniversary of the massacre of Peterloo. The Socialist Party of Great Britain denounces this as blatant hypocrisy. Labour has always been opposed to Socialism and the interests of the working people but this miserable attempt to present themselves as the champions of the underdog — at the same time that they are viciously attacking workers and their living conditions — is dishonest even by their unprincipled standards.

For all that, Peterloo is an incident which deserves to remembered — especially by those who claim that the British working class has no 'revolutionary' tradition. In the first half of the 19th century, working-class unrest tended to reflect the state of the harvest. So 1817, with a heavy grain crop and the price of wheat falling from 111s. 6d. per quarter to 75s. found the Home Secretary writing

    Our situation and prosperity at home are improving. The materials of disaffection to work upon are less abundant and less susceptible than at the corresponding period last year.

To which Lord Exmouth replied that this was not only the factor in keeping the workers in their place:

    We owe our present peaceful and happy prospects to your firmness and prompt exertions in keeping down the democrats.

The wheat harvest for 1818 was much poorer, however, and by July 20,000 workers were on strike in Manchester (out of a population which in 1801 had been estimated at something over 70,000). For the most part the workers' demands were entirely economic, for improved wages and working conditions, but groups of radicals tried to point out that any solution to their hardships would need to be far more fundamental than this.

Universal suffrage, annual parliaments, and repeal of the Corn Laws were the reforms which these elements campaigned for, but for a long time their ideas found a hostile reception. For example, John Bagguley — an agitator who was active in the Manchester area — was beaten up in August 1818 by a crowd of strikers in Manchester and was also shouted down when he tried to speak at a meeting of weavers in nearby Stockport.

But gradually, partly as a result of their experiences in the struggle to improve their conditions and partly in response to the arguments of the reformers, political ideas started to spread among the working class. As the stipendiary magistrate for Manchester wrote:

    I do not by any means think that the system of turning out in the different trades is connected with this idea [parliamentary reform], or that the sentiment itself has taken root in the minds of the mass of the population, yet I am disposed to think that this idea gains ground  . . .

This, then, was the background to the huge gathering, 50,000 to 60,000 strong, which assembled in St Peter's Fields in Manchester on August 16, 1819 to listen to Henry Hunt, a leading radical. The banners they carried called for 'Parliaments Annual', 'Suffrage Universal' and harked back to the French Revolution ('Liberty and Fraternity'). But the general lack of political clarity was also well illustrated when a band played God Save the King before the meeting started.

Although the crowd was well-behaved and unarmed the magistrates decided to arrest Hunt and sent the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to do this. This bunch of scared and incompetent territorials came charging onto the field, knocking down a woman and killing her baby on the way, but — after arresting Hunt — they found themselves stranded among the densely packed throng. Seeing this, the magistrates claimed that the workers were "attacking the Yeomanry" (a complete lie) and gave the order for the troops of Hussars who were being held in reserve to disperse the crowd with their sabres. Eleven people died, either cut down or trampled to death, and over 400 were wounded. As the Prince Regent put it, the magistrates and the army were to be thanked for their "prompt, decisive, and efficient measures for the preservation of public tranquillity."

But it was The Times, writing four days after Peterloo, which made the most penetrating comment on the massacre:

    The more attentively we have considered the relations subsisting between the upper and labouring classes throughout some of the manufacturing districts, the more painful and unfavourable is the construction which we are forced to put upon the events of last Monday  . . . The two great divisions of society there, are — the masters, who have reduced the rate of wages; and the workmen, who complain of their masters having done so. Turn the subject as we please, 'to this complexion it must come at last'.

In other words, Peterloo was just one particularly brutal battle in the class war of capitalism — which still persists today. And there should be few workers in Manchester or anywhere else with illusions as to which side of the barricades the Labour party is fighting on.

Manchester Branch,

Socialist Party of Gt. Britain