Monday, October 08, 2007

"a bloodthirsty and unconstitutional force"

posted by k
(with apologies for double-posting)

Accusations flew. Counter-accusations parodied the voice of authority. It was It was 1839.

Memories of the Peterloo Massacre and authorised brutality were strong. But the Chartists were determined on reform. The ideas came from working-class people and their demands were simple.

The Charter had six points:

1. annual general elections
2. universal manhood suffrage
3. secret ballot
4. abolition of property qualifications of MPs
5. payment of MPs
6. equal electoral districts and redistribution of seats

These demands don't seem very radical today. We don't have annual parliaments but the question of fixed-term parliaments is being discussion again. All other points are taken for granted. In 1839 the Chartists were treated as dangerous revolutionaries.

On 4th July police were brought from London to break up a demonstration in the Birmingham Bull Ring. Placards produced by the Chartist convention described the Metropolitan police as "a bloodthirsty and unconstitutional force." William Lovett, the peaceable secretary of the convention, was later tried with the man who took the placards to the printer. Lovett was sentenced to a year's imprisonment for seditious libel.

The first Chartist petition was three miles long with 11 million signatures (including some forgeries). On 12th July it was presented to parliament by Thomas Atwood MP. Benjamin Disraeli was among the MPs voting to debate the petition. But MPs decided, by a majority of 235 to 46, that they wouldn't consider it. So there was no debate on its provisions before the petition was rejected.

There were always some Chartists in favour of physical force, if moral arguments failed. After the rejection of debate on the petition, a series of risings took place. The Newport Rising on 4th November attempted to free political prisoners from the Newport's Westgate Hotel. About 20 Chartists were killed. Three leaders of the rising were found guilty of high treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. The sentences were later commuted to transportation for life.

In this atmosphere of fear and repression the government passed the 1839 Metropolitan Police Act. It's a wide-ranging law, rather like the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act of 2005 - the act which bans everybody except Brian Haw from unlicensed demonstrations, placard-holding and badge-wearing in central London. The 1839 Metropolitan Police Act includes stop and search provisions, laws against "furious driving" (of carts), provisions against causing annoyance by kite-flying or ringing doorbells, a ban on blowing horns and lots of provisions against bad language. It also includes a sessional order to ensure that MPs can reach parliament without being obstructed.

This is the law which the government is using the ban the anti-war demonstration today. I wonder what the police will do about David Howarth MP, who plans to join the protest. Perhaps they'll arrest him for attempting to obstruct himself. This would be a shame because he's due to table a Bill which comes close to the one aim of the Chartists that has not yet been accomplished: fixed-term parliaments.

There are uncomfortable echoes of those repressive days in which Chartists were jailed and sentenced to death. However, it's good to see that I can now find Craig Murray's blog in its familiar form by typing the url . It still doesn't take comments and there are no new posts. But I look forward to reading Craig Murray again.

STOP PRESS: Permission was finally given for the march less than an hour before it was due to begin. The government changed its mind in February 2003 as well. In 2003 they gave a little more notice.

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