The Chartist Movement and Today

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In the third part of a series looking at radical democratic movements in history, Gareth Beynon looks at the Chartists and the lessons for today.

In the mid Nineteenth Century a radical working class movement for democracy exploded in Britain around the People’s Charter. Frustration grew after the passing of the 1832 Reform Act which gave the vote to large sections of the middle class but denied it to workers, increasing the electorate from around 12% of the adult population to around 18%.

In 1834 the parliament elected post-reform passed the Poor Law Amendment Act, ushering in the age of workhouses for the poor in England and Wales (similar reforms were introduced in 1845 in Scotland) in which brutal conditions were the norm. From now on poor relief would obey be focussed on punishing the unemployed for their ‘laziness’. As disappointment and despair gave way to anger and thirst for change the conditions in which the working class movement could reshape itself came about.

The charter had six points:

  1. A vote for every man twenty-one years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for crime.
  2. A secret ballot. – To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
  3. No property qualification for members of Parliament – thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
  4. Payment of members thus enabling an honest tradesman, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency, when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the Country.
  5. Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.
  6. Annual parliaments, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since though a constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelve-month; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.

In and of themselves these demands do not seem all that radical.  However in the context of a government and ruling class unwilling to grant even the smallest of concessions they were revolutionary.  The insistence upon accountability made clear in the call for yearly elections suggests that the system which the Chartists had in mind was not at all like the yearly low intensity democracy we currently have.  Many Chartists also viewed democracy as something which applied to all aspects of life, not merely parliamentary elections. Parallels between the autocracy of the state and tyranny in the workplace were commonly drawn.  If governments should be democratically controlled and elected then why not factories?

The First Charter

The first major peak of the movement came in 1839 with mass meetings of thousands and tens of thousands across the country. The existing political reform clubs and societies were unified into a single, albeit it broad, movement which was able to hundreds and thousands, possibly millions, of people new to politics but angry about the poverty and the lack of democracy.  Preparations were made to arm the movement in several towns and the idea of a general strike was mooted. Several leading military figures warned the government that there was a significant risk of an armed uprising, especially in Lancashire. When the Charter was presented to parliament in July it carried some 1.5million signatures. On the day before the parliamentary vote on whether to debate the Charter police attacked a peaceful Chartist demonstration in Birmingham. Rioting ensued in the city throughout the day of the parliamentary vote.

However when parliament voted overwhelmingly against even hearing the petition the leadership of the movement was slow to respond. The maxim of the reform movement through the 1820s and 30s had been ‘by moral force if we may; by physical force if we must’. A small minority of the Chartist movement saw no alternative to an armed uprising with a handful of the leadership in favour only of persuading parliament to accept the charter through petitioning and such. The vast majority lay somewhere in the middle, at some points agreeing with moral force arguments and the physical force case at others. Had the more convinced revolutionaries been better organised they could potentially have pushed the argument for immediate radical action more coherently. As it was the opportunity for immediate radical action was missed.

The exception to this was in South Wales. An armed group attempted to storm the Westgate hotel in Newport where around sixty armed soldiers were present. Around 20 chartists were shot dead. The Newport Rising came in November 1839, several months after the parliamentary vote. The anger which this sparked had begun to dissipate and the rising failed to engage with the consciousness of the masses. The movement had been depleted by the arrest of a number of leading figures. The persecution of the movement continued apace after the setback in Newport. Only a hastily arranged rearguard action saw the three key leaders of the rising deported rather than hanged, drawn and quartered. However the events in Newport hardened the determination of the authorities to smash the movement, by the summer of 1840 almost all the main leaders of the movement, and a significant number of rank and file members, were in prison. The movement was thrown into disarray and quickly went into decline.

The Second and Third Charter

Chartist members involved themselves with the trade union movement which had become increasingly vibrant through the depression of 1841-2. Their aim was not simply to build the unions, important as that was, but to imbue them with the politics of Chartism. The result of this politicised trade unionism was a general strike which came from below demanding pay increases and that the charter became law. Walkouts began in Staffordshire and picketers went from factory to factory bringing the workers out. This kind of action, which was repeated all across the midlands, the north of England and the west of Scotland, had never been taken before and is an innovation worthy of note. Soldiers were deployed in many areas and some 1500 arrests were made, once again including most of the national leadership, although only 250 were convicted of any offence. Simultaneously signatures to the charter were collected and a petition bearing 3 million names was presented to parliament, which they again rejected.

While the arrests were a major setback for the movement, organisation was able to continue. The movement was maintained through a co-operative scheme to buy land and build houses for workers and a series of election campaigns. In the context of 1848, the year of international revolution, Chartism took off again. A new petition was prepared bearing some 1.5 million signatures. While nobody really expected parliament to accept the petition which they had rejected twice before, forcing the government into a position in which they would have to turn it away was a shrewd way of exposing the bankruptcy of the institution. A mass demonstration was called for the day of its presentation to parliament. Some 100000 ‘special constables’, in reality armed thugs, were enrolled to aid the police in ‘keeping order’ on the day. The demonstration passed off peacefully, under the threat of military intervention had the marchers done anything. Riots against the poor law took place in Manchester and in Bingley, Yorkshire, a demonstration outside the local magistrates court turned violent. A new National Assembly was prepared for which would act as a parallel parliament to agitate for new elections under universal suffrage. However the leadership hesitated and the opportunity to pile pressure on the government was allowed to pass. While 1848 doesn’t mark the end of the Chartist movement, activity continued in various localities until the late 1850s, it was the last time that there was a realistic chance of forcing the government to accept the charter.

The Chartist Movement and Today

There are many significant lessons we can draw from the chartist movement. Through re-inventing itself to fit the political context Chartism was able to remain a relevant political force for over a decade. Through combining political radicalism with flexibility of tactics they were able to shake the establishment to its core. The high levels of class struggle threw up new ideas and new tactics, flying pickets being the most significant. The refusal of the middle classes to involve themselves with the democratic movement after gaining the vote in 1832 is telling. Only the working class, as an exploited majority under capitalist society, can be trusted to be consistent advocates of democracy. We can also learn from some of the failings of the movement. The vacillations of 1839 and 1848 proved to be very costly. A more centralised national leadership of the more radical elements may have been able to call the actions which could have brought about significant victories. These failings should not detract from the incredible achievements of the Chartists in organising so effectively and for so long against the hypocrisy and violence of the establishment.

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