UK Uncut’s Chartist parallels

The UK Uncut occupation of Fortnum & Masons over tax avoidance concerns and the more robust attacks on West End shops that took place in the wider context of the 500,000 strong TUC March for the Alternative last month have provoked quite a political debate.

One piece in The Guardian argued that there has been a moral and physical force element of popular protest in the British labour movement since the days of Chartism in the 1840s.

The reality is a little more complex.

It is true that there were moral force Chartists, who campaigned around issues like abstention from drink to hit government taxes and provoke political change as well as personal change in the lifestyle of the abstainer.

But these were a very small section of the Chartists who provided more than their fair share of chroniclers of the period.

Another Chartist tradition was that of exclusive dealing, which has considerable similarities with the activism of UK Uncut.

Here, Chartists refused to patronise shopkeepers who did not support the call for the vote.

They often went further and occupied and shut the offending shops.

A third Chartist tradition was that of the armed rising.

It is now accepted that events in early November 1839 in Newport where an attempt was made to spark revolution and numbers of Chartists were shot down by a crack British army regiment were a very serious attempt to seize political power.

It is doubtful though if these traditions were, in fact, separate, any more than we can or should separate UK Uncut activists from the broader anti-cuts movement.

The distinction between moral and physical force Chartism is one largely created by historians of the Fabian mould who wanted to recreate the history of Chartism by emphasising its gradual and peaceful elements and minimising its more confrontational side.

Not many historians, by contrast, have argued that there was a specific armed tradition in the British working class.

There is a case for this from the attempts at armed revolution in 1817 to Luddite and Captain Swing protests in the 1830s and the quite widespread arming of Chartists with pikes and sometimes guns.

Yet most historians have felt that to isolate an armed tradition is the wrong way to look at things.

A key Chartist slogan was “peaceably if we may, forcibly if we must.”

In other words peaceful methods of achieving change were to be preferred.

If they failed then force might be needed.

Those who marched peacefully but on occasion wielded a pike were not different but often exactly the same people.

There have been violent incidents in British working class history since, mostly relating to sabotage – as in the 1926 General Strike when a train was derailed, but the use of arms has not featured since the 1840s and the rise of organised labour and mass protest.

The much more common form has been what is often now called non-violent direct action which frequently involves protesters sitting down – for example at Faslane nuclear base.

Historically, and this remains a current issue, the state has a near monopoly of violence and is liable to use it on occasion.

From time to time, for example the Bloody Sunday demonstrations in Trafalgar Square in 1887, police action has killed protesters.

The Metropolitan Police website is still denying responsibility for that today, by the way.

An obsession that only peaceful methods of protest should be used comes from much the same political stable as the idea that society can only ever be changed by parliamentary action.

Both have a considerable constituency, but if they don’t work people may try other things, as they did in the 1840s.


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