George Cruikshank's The Massacre of Peterloo George Cruikshank's The Massacre of Peterloo

Peterloo presents our history vividly, finds David McAllister – the result is a film that is both timely and historically accurate

I never much liked history at school.  I remember at the age of 14, around the time I was picking my GCSE options, it became commonplace to say “History is boring. I mean who cares about what happened in the past?” The truth is we were not entirely wrong to feel this way. The past does of course matter, but if you are expected to spend hours studying the weapons soldiers used in battles, or the diet of the ‘average peasant’ in the 14th century, then you cannot be blamed for feeling that history is a subject which only deals with the irrelevant. 

History is in fact rich with lessons which could not be more relevant to people struggling under the current system.  It often amazes me how, in 21st century Britain, we can still be so woefully under-educated on how our own parliamentary democracy came to be.  This is why Mike Leigh’s new film Peterloo is so timely and important. It covers the events of the 1819 Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, in which 15 people were killed, and hundreds injured, protesting for democratic rights. Not only did it become a historic rallying point for the much greater Chartist movement later on, but it also led to the formation of the Manchester Guardian, later renamed The Guardian

This is our history, not theirs.

These days, I understand that history is actually a battleground. Interpretations of the past are shaped by the priorities of the present. If you wish to preserve the status quo, and to downplay the role of ordinary people and mass movements in shaping events, then you may hold to a David Starkey-fied version of history. This is chiefly concerned with political manoeuvres at the very top of society and the goings on within the courts of various monarchs. History becomes something remote, an automatic process we are unable to shape ourselves. 

Director Mike Leigh, who grew up and went to school in Salford, can concur with my, and many others’, experiences of dominant historical narratives. In a Q&A session following the preview in Manchester, he explained that he could’ve got on a bus and been in St Peter’s Field (where the massacre happened) in 15 minutes.  Yet he knew nothing about it. Maxine Peake, one of the lead actors who was also born and raised near Manchester, relates a similar experience.

The film establishes the historical backdrop by beginning at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.  Britain was just emerging from a long and expensive war with France in the wake of a world-shaking revolution on the other side of the channel.  It had also recently lost its colonies in the American War of Independence.  The film therefore takes us to a Britain where there is a hunger for new ideas, together with a sense that the old order is crumbling.  This is conveyed effectively first of all by immersing us in the daily drudgery of working life in Manchester, the first industrial city in the world.  Several scenes are touching and poignant, such as the young man returning home from Waterloo traumatised, only to find there are no jobs for him. The spectacle of the huge, loud cotton mills is striking, as are the struggles by families to manage their limited funds while the bitterness at such circumstances constantly simmers beneath the surface in every scene.

This film, however, goes far beyond coverage of the mere aesthetics that we might associate with many conventional period dramas.  There is a recognition that we are covering a period which saw the early days of the development of the British labour movement.  Already, with capitalism at a relatively embryonic stage, people were being crowded together in large towns in their thousands and subjected to an increasingly homogenous factory system in which the powerless were all in essentially the same boat. This engendered amongst the people a tendency towards organisation and mass agitation.  A huge number of scenes, therefore, are spent covering the various meetings and heated debates which took place amongst activists and political reformers. In scenes not entirely unfamiliar to activists today, people debate their priorities as a movement and discuss what their democratic demands are while various political tendencies open up.  

These scenes, I later found out, were actually very well-researched, which means we are effectively witnessing the actual discussions which took place at the time. Activists talk about the hated Corn Laws – trade restrictions which increased the cost of living and the power of land owners. They also discuss the centrality of the right to vote for parliamentary representatives, but often go much deeper into insurrectionary talk about the kind of society they want to live in, inspired by the rhetoric of the recent French revolution.  Some of them even quote the classics, indicating a hunger for education and new ideas amongst a people who had never had anything like a formal education. This is, in every sense, a story of the downtrodden rising up.

One central character is the radical reformer, Henry Hunt, a great orator who is hailed as a hero by the workers. So much so that his arrival in Manchester is almost treated like a royal visit. This reveals an interesting contradiction.  Although he clearly embraces the cause for universal suffrage, he is also depicted as an egocentric self-promoter and there are several humourous scenes where people fall over themselves to accommodate his every whim, perhaps indicating the comparative powerlessness felt by the workers of Manchester. This contradiction was possibly a hallmark of liberal reformers around that time, and may serve as a warning about not investing all of one’s hope in ‘great men’ as a substitute for people power.

My favourite character, however, is Maxine Peake’s Nelly.  An outspoken character in her household, Nelly expresses her politics in a far more blunt and practical manner, and we feel that she is generally unimpressed by the rhetoric of the male-dominated meetings, preferring to see more action being taken instead. This character is important because she personifies how deep the radicalism goes in the communities of Manchester.  She reminds us that radical ideas did not fall from the sky. They are borne organically out of the lived reality of working class people in a particular time and place. You have to believe that this was fairly common in such a time period, where people’s own concrete experiences engendered a yearning for social transformation and a preparedness to articulate and fight for it.

Crucially, the film also spends a great deal of time portraying the ideas of the powerful, both locally and nationally. Their panicked rants about a town crawling with ‘sedition’ leave us in no doubt as to the scale of the fear felt by this section of society, which had been accustomed to unchallenged power and privilege. Some of these characters border on pantomime villain. I doubt this is an exaggeration, such was the contempt that the ruling class held towards the lower orders, especially when they had the audacity to demand suffrage and democratic representation. Politicians and industrialists are shown as being all too aware of the dangerous times they are in. The right to vote is something which had to be fought hard for against the most brutal resistance. We did not get it on a plate. 

Mike Leigh said in the Q&A that he doesn’t want to transmit a specific message or argument, rather he just wants to lay out the events in front of you. But to me there does seem to be a very clear lesson in the story itself. The film gives us two episodes of bloodshed. In the first one, people are being killed for their government; in the other, people are being killed by their government. The first is for a cause they did not choose; the second is for a cause they not only chose but built themselves. So surely the overwhelming lesson is this: despite the repeated rhetoric about gratitude to the army and the wars it fights, your enemy in the struggle for democratic rights and equality is not abroad, but at home.

Now, with the capitalist system in the grip of a crisis of its own creation, and forcing the working class and the poor to pay for it, we must never forget the words of Percy Shelley, written in the aftermath of Peterloo, which are as relevant now as they were then: ye are many, they are few!