Kill the bill protest, Sheffield Kill the bill protest, Sheffield. Photo: Mike McCarthy

In response to the attempts to whitewash the monarchy and to criminalise protest, John Westmoreland traces the working class history of the struggle for democratic rights

Neoliberalism – the naked pursuit of profit and to hell with the consequences – has stripped away the cherished façade of British democracy. Westminster stands in plain view as a bastion of privilege and corruption, where the House of Lords has more members than the Commons, and the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, ladles money into the outstretched begging bowls of the super-rich.

The corruption in Westminster is rampant. Under the cover of an emergency, contracts worth billions have gone to companies with connections to the Conservative Party. The Tories fear transparency and democratic accountability.

And that explains the determination to crush opposition through a draconian set of laws that gives the police and the state the power to ban demonstrations, lock up activists or disable the movement for democratic and social justice through heavy fines.

The Tories are following a centuries old ruling class tradition of repression.

Demonstrators marching today stand in a proud working class tradition that has fought and won the democratic reforms and rights we cherish and are not about to surrender.

The fight for democracy

In the 17th century, the fight for democracy climaxed in the execution of a king, Charles I. The practically enforcedworship for Prince Philip make this particularly poignant. Monarchy and democracy are opposites. The idea of royalty being preserved to defend democracy, a Tory shibboleth, is patently absurd.

It is well to recall the words of the Leveller John Lilburne: “Unnatural, irrational, sinful, wicked, unjust, devilish and tyrannical it is for any man whatsoever … to rule, govern or reign over any sort of men in the world without their free consent.”

This perfectly obvious idea that all human beings deserve the dignity of equality is a theme that connects with the fight for democracy through the ages.

The 18th century regime of early capitalism was known as Old Corruption. Elections in rotten boroughs were simply bought and paid for. Corruption was taken as the right of the ruling class and a testimony to the glory of wealth. Sinecures and pensions were dished out in a parallel universe to working class existence.

The working class was completely deprived of any access to political power. Driven from the land and with only their labour to sell, their poverty was the inevitable consequence of the vast wealth of their oppressors. The fight for democracy is, and always has been, about property, because for the rich to hold onto their wealth, real democracy is a threat.

The anti-slavery movement

The earliest mass democratic impulses in the English working class came from opposition to the slave trade and the slave plantations – literally human property. The industrialising areas of England became hotbeds for slave abolition. Freed slaves like Olaudah Equiano spoke to big meetings up and down the country. The connection between Black slaves in the Caribbean and wage slaves in mines and mills was an easy connection to make.

The generosity, passion and human solidarity displayed by workers was rightly seen as a danger by the ruling class.

The fear of workers’ rebellion has led to a frenzy of ruling class lying. The French Revolution suggested to British workers that democracy might be a solution to working class misery. If workers acted together, their superior numbers and mutual solidarity could not help but win.

Edmund Burke, a founding father of modern Conservative thinking and a pioneer of right wing culture war, labelled working class democrats as ‘a swinish multitude’. Then as now, the most humane and progressive forces that might rescue humanity itself had to be presented as its opposite – a dehumanised and dangerous mob, violent and destructive. Jeremy Corbyn knows a bit about this.

Massacre at Peterloo

The great working class movements of the 19th century were social democratic. They wanted a democratic politics that could bring about social justice – not oppress, kill and maim others.

The first mass protest against Old Corruption happened in Manchester, a city from which ‘pure gold’ was said to flow, but where the living and working conditions of men, women and children were horrendous. The democratic demands of the workers for votes were literally cut down at St Peter’s Field, in the infamous slaughter of Peterloo. Workers gathered for a huge electoral reform celebration and picnic were butchered in defence of inequality.

Peterloo Massacre by Richard Carlile. Photo: Public Domain

But the working class could not be held down by force alone, and as the industrial revolution transformed the country the political weight of the working class increased. In 1832, a ‘Great Reform Act’ was passed. Not great, and not much of a reform, but it tidied up the most flagrant abuses of the electoral system. However, property qualifications decided who got to vote.

People’s Charter

Working class anger at being excluded from politics yet again led to the greatest mass movement in British history – the Chartists. The six points of the Charter were hardly revolutionary: male universal suffrage; secret ballots; ending property qualifications for MPs; payment for MPs to enable working class candidates; equal constituencies; and, annual parliaments.

The propertied class were terrified, as Lord Abinger testified:

“The doctrines promulgated by the Chartists are insane. A popular assembly devoted to democratic principles and elected by persons, a vast majority of whom have no property. The first thing such an assembly would do would be to aim at the destruction of property and the putting down of the monarchy.”

William Cuffay, Chartist leader

Today, the ability of the ruling class to manage dissent has increased, and voting rights extended though only when they were forced to.

It took the First World War and the resulting militancy in Britain combined with the Russian Revolution for men over 21 and women over 30 to be given the vote.

After the Covid crisis the economy is in the worst state it has been in since the 1930s – a decade that produced untold misery for the working class. Now the Tories fear a backlash, and that means scaling back democratic rights, more enforced worship for Royals, flags and poppies – and above all more powers for the state. Unless we stop them – and we know from the history of our movement just how to do that.

Originally published in Counterfire’s April freesheet

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John Westmoreland

John is a history teacher and UCU rep. He is an active member of the People's Assembly and writes regularly for Counterfire.