What on earth is the use of anniversaries if we don’t learn from them?
Recently, we have had the anniversaries of ‘Votes for women’ (laws of 1918 & 1928) and also of that earlier cry for the democratic right to representation, ‘The Peterloo Massacre’ (1819).
The first reminded us of the bravery of the suffragettes – women who stuck to their cause with little apparent fear for the personal privations, pain and even death their activist campaigning brought them.
The second, the meeting of radicals and their supporters (about 60,000 in all) at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester in January 1819, which became, on the orders of those defending their advantageous status quo, a brutal and lethal killing ground. Between 10 and 20 unarmed people were killed and hundreds injured by cavalry sabres and horses’ hooves.
Like politicians who have imperilled lives in our own times, Manchester’s self-appointed leaders failed to heed or care about the consequences their orders would bring on others.
Both these anniversaries remind us that democracy is a recent incomer to Britain. Our Parliament may be aged and venerable – our democracy is barely out of short trousers. In 1819 the people of Manchester – a booming industrial town full of energy, riches, poverty and chaos – had no MPs to represent them in Parliament.
A link from the Peterloo Massacre to our own area was noted recently in a fascinating article by Sara Morgan published in trilithon - the newsletter of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society.
Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt addressed the St Peter’s Fields meeting, was injured by the cavalry and was charged with high treason. He was convicted of lesser charges and sentenced to thirty months in prison.
Hunt was born in Upavon and became rich farming in several parts of Wiltshire. Sarah Morgan writes: “Not a modest man, Hunt described [his farms] as ‘one of the largest farming concerns in the country’.” Later he became a staunch advocate of electoral reform.
In 1817, when he addressed a meeting in Devizes’ Market Square, “…he was shouted down by hecklers organised by local landowners, and had to be escorted to the Castle Inn by his supporters when fighting broke out.”
If Manchester had no MPs at Westminster, the ‘rotten boroughs’ were sending a ludicrous number of MPs. Most famous was Old Sarum – made up mainly of the astonishing ruins of the old town and old cathedral and lots of sheep. It sent two MPs to Parliament. ’Sent’ rather than elected – the last contested election there was in 1751.
‘Orator’ Hunt called Devizes a ‘vile rotten borough’. In 1818 it had two MPs to represent 3,500 inhabitants. Of those just thirty-two were qualified to vote. That’s 32 voters.
Buying their votes would have been quite a cheap proposition – probably via a roast beef dinner at The Bear with lots of ale.
In recent years and around the world the fragile nature of democracy has become much clearer – clearer than it was in the school books of yore and in the West’s Cold War propaganda.
It does not need a military coup – like the one backed by the USA in Chile – to bring a torturing dictator like Pinochet to power. They can creep in via the ballot box – as Hitler did.
So the lesson of the two recent anniversaries is simple: we must all go to cast our vote on Thursday, 12 December 2019 – to support democracy. We owe it to our forebears and to our children.
Even if you can barely stomach any of the candidates and/or their parties – show that you know you have the right to vote. And hope for better times.
Even if the outcome is a foregone certainty – go and vote. Many people in Wiltshire feel disenfranchised because the outcome is a dead cert. That is nothing very new:
in Devizes from 1802 to 1830 both MPs were ‘Tory’!
Still go and vote – you or your offspring would be in an even worse place without THE VOTE.