From Peterloo to Brexit

The political class still feels nothing but seething contempt for ordinary people’s opinions.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill

Topics Brexit Politics UK

Today is the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, when working people in Manchester were attacked and murdered by cavalry forces for daring to demand the right to vote. And what is our political class doing on this anniversary of such an important event in British political history? They are plotting, tirelessly, to overthrow something that millions of working-class people, and others, voted for: Brexit. They are doing what the Peterloo butchers did, only by political means and court cases rather than with bayonets and sabres. Our current political rulers may not physically attack the masses for having the temerity to use their democratic voices – not yet, anyway – but they view us with the exact same seething, elitist contempt as those who did attack the masses in St Peter’s Field on 16 August 1819.

Around 60,000 men, women and children gathered in St Peter’s Field in Manchester 200 years ago to demand parliamentary representation. They wanted that most basic and essential democratic right: the right to vote. The teeming industrial city of Manchester had no elected MPs in parliament. The old ‘rotten boroughs’ system meant that often sparsely populated rural areas sent MPs to the Commons, involving much patronage and sometimes even the buying of votes by wealthy aspiring politicians, while newly industrialised cities full of the growing urban working classes had little to no political representation. Against a background of post-Napoleonic Wars economic depression and a fast-spreading radical desire for meaningful democratic change, the tens of thousands of marchers arrived in St Peter’s Field with a clear demand: let us vote, let us speak.

What happened next is well known. They were attacked by cavalry forces. Troops on horseback wielded sabres against the democratic crowd. They slashed and stabbed, killing 18 people. Around 500 were injured. The slaughter was given the name ‘Peterloo’ as an ironic comparison to the Battle of Waterloo that took place four years earlier, in 1815. The bourgeoisie’s assault on the working-class democrats of Manchester had a deep impact on the radical psyche. New movements emerged in subsequent years, including the Chartists, the working-class movement for democratic representation. But it would be decades before the right to vote had been established across society. In 1867 some working-class men got the right to vote. In 1918, all men and some women got the right to vote. In 1928, finally all women got the vote. The General Election of 1929, 110 years after the march to St Peter’s Field, was the first election in which all adults had the right to vote.

The 200th anniversary of this bloody assault on working-class democrats ought to be a major occasion. It should be a reminder of the incredible, heroic sacrifices earlier generations made to secure people’s right to express themselves, to vote, and to see their votes be enacted. And yet while some in the political and media class will today pay lip service to the heroes of St Peter’s Field and express regret about the massacre of 18 of them, most of the elites will be too busy to do anything of the kind. Busy doing what? Trying to override and crush the votes of 17.4million people, which includes millions of working-class people and eight million women. It is a genuinely alarming and revealing moment: the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre arrives and the political set is engaged in an effective coup against the people; in a war against ‘No Deal Brexit’ (which really just means a war against Brexit); in a concerted effort to force the ignorant public, as they see us, to vote for a second time and to give the ‘right’ answer on this occasion.

Most tellingly of all, it is the supposedly leftish, progressive sections of the political set – those who in their youths may well have read some EP Thompson and other accounts of Peterloo and the struggle for democratic liberty – who are most committed to the cause of destroying the 17.4million-strong vote for Brexit. The Greens, the Lib Dems, and of course the Corbyn movement. Jeremy Corbyn devoted a large part of his political life to Euroscepticism. He argued, influenced by Tony Benn and other Labour left figures, that the EU was an illiberal, undemocratic, anti-working-class institution. Yet now he offers himself up as a potential caretaker prime minister who can stop Boris, stop ‘Hard Brexit’, and enact a second referendum – that is, tell the people that they were ignorant first time round, that they had been corrupted by demagogues, and therefore they must graciously be granted a second chance by the more unenlightened elite.

Precisely these elitist and contemptuous arguments were used against the heroes of St Peter’s Field and subsequent movements for democratic change. The working-class democrats of the Chartists were told that working people, lacking education and basic knowledge of political affairs, did not have ‘ripened wisdom’ and thus were ‘more exposed than any other class to the vicious ends of faction’ – that is, to demagogic games and the wicked words of strongman politicians. This same ugly view still holds across the political class. They see the vote for Brexit as the handiwork of demagogues who invaded the putty-like minds of plebs and idiots. A ‘Billionaire’s Brexit’, as chief anti-democrat Caroline Lucas puts it. Corbynistas view themselves as the heirs to the martyrs of Peterloo; in truth they are the heirs to the butchers of Peterloo. The efforts of this upper middle-class movement of woke elitists and bourgeois identitarians to trash the votes of the teeming masses utterly explodes their view of themselves as radicals and confirms they have more in common with the cavalry than the marchers of August 1819.

That the 200th anniversary of Peterloo coincides with the largest assault on British democracy in living memory – the assault on Brexit – points to the unfinished business of the struggle for democracy. Still, 200 years after the massacre in Manchester, ordinary people are not taken seriously. Still their democratic voice is casually sidelined or overridden. Unlike the marchers of 1819, people today have the right to vote; but like the marchers of 1819, they’re ignored, blanked, disenfranchised. For the right to vote becomes meaningless if our votes are not properly acted on, if they do not result in the political change that the masses – the largest political mass in UK history in the case of Brexit – demanded.

They’ve put away the sabres and other weapons, and for that I suppose we should be somewhat grateful. But our rulers still look upon us as a grotesque multitude with no right to impact on serious political matters, in the same way that those sword-wielding horsemen did 200 years ago.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy

Picture by: Getty.

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Mark Collings

18th August 2019 at 9:22 pm

60% of Manchester was remain. I’m from Manchester and “working class” and as many working class in the city voted remain as leave. Same in Liverpool and Glasgow, Birmingham and on… Brexit as a working class movement is a myth. It’s a movement started by public school boys and taken on, in the rear, by the angry, the purple rinse and ‘dad’s army ‘ brigade and the obscure, plastic revolutionary opportunists such as we see here. It is a movement heading only into the arms of the United States and China or whoever wants to shovel up our shit pile in the next few years. Let’s be truthful. There will be no taking control of anything unless some greater state says so. All along you should have asked yourself the basic question… Which great visionary is going to lead this gamble project? Boris? Nigel Farage? Reece Mogg?
It’s a comedy without the laughs. A shit early 90’s sitcom returned for a terrible unexpected re run .
As is the above story from Brendan. Talk about using the shoe horn. Comparing Peterloo with Brexit is just a toe curling embarrasment of a piece. It’s also worth noting that very few people in the defunct RCP and now at Spiked are working class people. This would not matter so much if they didn’t pretend they were and were the champions of. What most of the writers here are can be fairly accurately described by their own naff phrase, which the writers on this mag have been lazily trotting out for the past 30 years. They are “the chattering classes”. No one chatters like the firm on these pages and a massive proportion of that “chatter” is nothing other than pissing into a very strong and persistant wind that isn’t about to drop anytime soon. Don’t forget your water proofs folks!

Robert Johnson

19th August 2019 at 12:22 pm

Well argued Mark, thanks. Your “shovel up our shit pile” passage resonated with me and your “shit early 90’s sitcom” bit was well chosen. But no doubt your piece de resistance arrived towards the end…”pissing into a very strong and persistant wind” which brought the smell of piss on top of all the shit.
You are Shiva the destroyer Mark and a restorer of balance and wisdom.. like a benevolent shepherd of souls.


Mark Collings

19th August 2019 at 2:08 pm

Sorry, I should have said “stool pile” instead of “shit pile” and “mictorating into the gale” instead of pissing etc.. It was getting on a bit and the darts was on. Glad you read it through all the way though and took the time to comment.

Jerry Owen

19th August 2019 at 1:29 pm

You were clearly with O Jones at that nightclub at 2am in the morning, what garbled stuff !

Mark Collings

19th August 2019 at 2:12 pm

You need to get yourself a job or get a girlfriend or do something useful, pal, instead of spending time commenting on this page. You’ll drive yourself mad.

Scott Adams

19th August 2019 at 1:39 pm

Not sure how or where you’ve got your data on working class voters from, but Birmingham voted leave.

Jerry Owen

17th August 2019 at 10:50 am

My reserved optimism when BJ became PM has now gone. I think we need to accept that ‘Brexit’ will not happen.. that is the ‘Brexit’ of course we voted for , no customs union and no single market, ie total independence.
The fact that the elites are talking about installing Corbyn as PM should wake us all up to just how bad things are, senior tories supporting such a move shows that the elites really are that desperate for us to remain in the EU.. the imaginary ‘left right’ divide expose for all to see for the fraud it is.
As I have said elsewhere, do not think for one minute that Corbyn and his motley crew would ever relinquish that power once given, I suspect much of the establishment know that. Leaving the EU will would be the biggest crushing blow the globalists will ever have had. The ‘New world order’ has been in the making for decades , Bush senior spoke about it telling us in no uncertain terms that we will be governed by it like it or not, his speech is readily available on Youtube, lest anyone accuses me of a being a tin foil hat nutter, Brown amongst many others has also spoken about ‘Global governance’. Again check out YouTube
We know that leaving the EU will lead to its collapse which in turn sets back the whole world governance plan back to zero ( the AGW scam is another wing of the global governance plan ).
I was active in the ’84/85′ miners strike romantically called ‘The Great Strike’, but in reality it was a strike stoking Scargill’s socialist ego, it was never about the miners. The strike lasted a year and was crushed by an elite that stockpiled coal in advance.. they played the long game.
We are three years in with this battle and we are nowhere near leaving, they are playing the long game again, just like the communists that have played the long game of marching through the institutions. They control them.
The elites are like a world family they plan well ahead , they are ruthless, they kill when they are up against the wall.
The stakes are far higher than most realize, we need to prepare for civil disorder, the elites have always been decades ahead of us plebs, we need to plan now and use the only weapon we have , numerical strength, we have no other power, parliamentary democracy has been exposed for the utter sham it is and by default always has been.
I can see where we are headed, I suspect many others also know , Spiked needs a ‘part 6’ .. ‘how to survive in a post democratic society’.

Julie Smith

17th August 2019 at 8:21 pm

I agree with much of what you say and remember the Miner’s. What I disagree with is the idea that the elite ‘plan’. It smacks of conspiracy theory – where ‘others’ control *everything*. If the elite truly planned then we’d already be completely neutered.

Instead I see a frightened elite simply reacting. The stock pile of coal had been done for practical reasons I suspect rather than as any part of a ‘keep the plebs from rising’ plan. It simply happened to play in the favour of the elites.

The word ‘elite’ now has a different definition as a result of Brexit, has anyone else noticed this? The Oxford English Dictionary appears to be catching-up, though they still use the word ‘intelligent’ in the deifnition as though it’s a prerequisite for being ‘elite’ in the new sense of being ‘elite’. It’s not.

Jerry Owen

18th August 2019 at 9:33 am

Julie Smith
It is no conspiracy theory . As I have pointed out many world leaders have spoken about the ‘ new world order/global governance . There is archive video footage and modern footage that can be found on the internet and as such is real.
We have European governance, what makes you think world governance isn’t a long term plan ?

Hana Jinks

18th August 2019 at 11:36 am

Julie. Jerry’s is a post of truth. It’s not possible to understand what the truth is straight away, especially if all you’ve been fed is lies like the rest of us. There are just so many lies that we’re fed, and I’ve found that if you acknowledge that they lie non-stop, , then it’s easier to recognise them.

Watch this, and some of the vids l put up on the Epstein story.

Robert Johnson

18th August 2019 at 1:28 pm

The best thing about any world governance idea is the reality of implementing it: who exactly controls what…at that point you get disagreement, factionalism and ultimately, implosion, leading to a rise and strengthening of more conservative and traditional principles. Perhaps that is not a million miles away from what is happening.

Julie Smith

18th August 2019 at 4:49 pm

You understand my point, Robert.

World domination is a long-game, so who’s to say one’s grandson/daughter will want the throne when it becomes available anyway. There are so many variables in such a plan, so many things that could go wrong, are already goign wrong, so many parties involved and to bring onboard, so many tasks to get right, that it’s far more likely to fail than succeed…. life is a messy chaotic affair at the best of times. I always marvel at how in control people feel over life, and how utterly, unshakably convinced they are of it… of course if you’re in that much control, you’ll never get old.

Jerry Owen

19th August 2019 at 1:34 pm

My point would be that world governance is doomed to failure, the globalism and global instant communications are valuable tools for global governance, but people are very different and held together by their local nationalities.. hence the drive to dismantle them. As we can see already the EU part of the global movement is faltering and in my opinion destined for failure as i have said before.
My worry is that it won’t accept ideological defeat, but try to cling on with the army it is developing.

Jane 70

16th August 2019 at 3:44 pm

At the risk of sounding self obsessed and self pitying, I will say that I’ve experienced significant hardship and pain in my life, but it hasn’t stopped my belief that we should leave: after all, what is democratic about the EU?

Genuine public spiritedness I agree, is sadly lacking in our ‘me, myself and I’ society but my opinion is that Brexit is in part a reaction to the prevailing liberal orthodoxy which we’ve had to accept for so many years.

Identitarianism , victim hierarchies, the policing of free speech and genuine dissent, dismissal of traditional beliefs and the imposition of multiculturalism, austerity and political correctness -by all major parties-plus the disastrous mendacious war in Iraq, the bank bailouts and a mounting sense of exclusion and loss of civic pride and basic decency have led, in my opinion, to the democratic protest which resulted in the referendum result.

We Leave supporters are not all died -in-the-wool hard line free marketeers; I’m certainly not George Osborne was one of the most destructive politicians ever let loose on the great British public but look at what Corbyn and his crew represent.

The endless lecturing, condescension, derision, insults and vilification meted out by our so called betters, the adoption of the moral high ground-no questions allowed- has run its course.

What goes around, comes around.

Jane 70

16th August 2019 at 3:44 pm

Meant as reply to John Millson.

Robert Johnson

16th August 2019 at 1:35 pm

Brexit? Don’t forget the big picture:
“We have a global ecology, a global economy and a global science – but we are still stuck with only national politics…To have effective politics we must either deglobalise the ecology, the economy or the march of science – or we must globalise our politics.”
Not to mention…”“After centuries of terrible bloodshed, French, Germans, Italians and Britons have finally built a mechanism that ensures continental harmony – only to have the British public throw a spanner into the miracle machine” writes George Osborn’s pal Yuval Noah Harari who also thinks that “we are very close to the point where an external system can understand your feelings better than you…neuroscience shows us that there is no such thing as free will.”
These people just want to change the world for the better, in spite of ourselves…they see the inevitability of global integration (they tend to meditate a lot) which means the EU is a good thing. So we should vote again.

Jim Lawrie

16th August 2019 at 3:20 pm

Britons? All woaded up?

As for peace. Germany rode a coach and horses through the arrangements in Yugoslavia at a cost about 300,000 lives and left a simmering conflict that they now say can only be resolved if they all come under the embrace of The EU.

steve moxon

16th August 2019 at 10:38 pm

Anyone who thinks global integration is feasible or desirable does not know the first thing about what makes people and society tick. The natural reaction to being subsumed within a vast mega-society is to secede from it. Nothing has ever been achieved on a global scale, and nothing ever will be. Anything that may appear truly global happens anyway by default, as with banning CFCs.

Robert Johnson

17th August 2019 at 12:26 pm

Yes, I probably agree with you on that, but they’ve got this narrative (often a thin and vaguely spelled out one) that a return to nationalism is antithetical to the continued evolution of harmonious global interdependence. Throw in climate change and survivalism and suddenly you start finding yourself talking to people who admit that it’s regrettable that some things need to be done (ie not listening to the people) but we need to be responsible…same thing applies vis-a-vis pure economic self interest and not allowing working class people to shoot themselves in the foot. Thankfully there seems to be a failure to mobilize anti Brexit extremism (barely) but its causes remain a curiosity and not something that will go away any time soon.

Jane 70

17th August 2019 at 12:59 pm

Even the good old Graun is examining Remainer extremism. A good article, not as irritating as most of the G’s output.

Jerry Owen

17th August 2019 at 3:40 pm

And if we vote ‘ leave’ again.. what then ?

Bri -an

18th August 2019 at 12:24 pm

“global ecology”? “global economy”? and “global science”?
If you remove yourself far enough from the facts, you will not be able to perceive anything that is real.
So the ecology of the Sahara has the same ecology as a tropical rain forest?
So the economy of Switzerland is the same as the economy of Chad?
So the science of phlogiston is the same as the science of phlogiston molecular physics?
Easy to say, but just another way of describing universal ignorance!

Jane 70

16th August 2019 at 1:13 pm

Well worth reading; John Gray analyses the conspiratorial delusions of the elites and their continuing reluctance to accept that the buck stops with the .

Jane 70

16th August 2019 at 1:13 pm

Should read ‘ buck stops with them’.

James Chilton

17th August 2019 at 9:33 am

John Gray’s commentary on the reasons for the mistrust in liberal elites and the paranoia that produces conspiracy theories is exceptionally penetrating and well written.

Jane 70

17th August 2019 at 1:03 pm

Indeed; he is one of our very best commentators, in my opinion.

Fraser Bailey

16th August 2019 at 12:32 pm

Great article.

John Millson

16th August 2019 at 11:38 am

“…in a war against ‘No Deal Brexit’ (which really just means a war against Brexit)”. Probably there are many who want to overturn the vote, but there are just as many who accept the decision, but want to protect communities. If that means ‘fudge’, a less than ‘pure’ Brexit; a prolonged process; a delayed full ‘independence’, then that should be accepted, for the good of us all.
Avoiding economic and logistical crisis (NB, not overturning the vote) in 2019 can’t be a reasonably compared with the Peterloo Massacre of 1819.

Jim Lawrie

16th August 2019 at 12:22 pm

What does that mean – “protect communities”?

John Millson

16th August 2019 at 12:54 pm

Thinking of MPs, leavers and remainers, who see a *disorderly* Brexit as a bad thing for many of their constituents. There may be hype, ‘project fear’-mongering, but MPs who weren’t concerned about their constituents’ wellbeing first and foremost would be missing the point of standing for Parliament. (Of course they exist – they consider local party first.)
(If Corbyn, a conviction Brexiteer, really wanted ‘no-deal’ then he should have led properly, not feared the Momentum remainiacs (yes, alienating his ‘base’) and allowed Labour MPs to support May’s withdrawal agreement. He would have received more respect from the country as a whole.))

Jane 70

16th August 2019 at 12:43 pm

Erm, if this protection involves parachuting one J Corbyn -who in my opinion, couldn’t govern his way out of a paper bag- into no 10 ,accompanied by a motley crew of Remainers like Lucas, Blackford, Grieve, Clarke, Soubry, Abbott, McDonnell et al, I’ll pass on that.
The UK should have the experience, the manpower and the commitment to get us out on October 31st.

John Millson

16th August 2019 at 1:28 pm

If there was a genunine public-spiritedness in the UK so in the event of any shortages people didn’t panic buy; shops didn’t blame ‘Brexit’ to profiteer, employers didn’t use ‘Brexit’ as excuse to lay people off unnecessarily, then personally I would feel more hopeful about the UK’s ‘experience’, ‘manpower’ and ‘commitment’ to deal with a Brexit ‘crash-out’.
(Optimism, a source of hope, is not a bad thing. However, it’s much easier for those who have never experienced failure and absolute hardship to be optimistic. Boris Johnson and his cabinet fall into this category.)

SNJ Morgan

17th August 2019 at 10:14 am

The LibDems have already said they won’t accept the result of a second vote, if it goes against them. So much for their notion of democracy!

You really should be thinking of the precedent you are setting here. Once it is set, it can work both ways.

SNJ Morgan

17th August 2019 at 10:19 am

Sorry – in reply to Robert Johnson above…

Patrick Taylor

16th August 2019 at 10:49 am

(I wrote this comment this morning and posted it on the Grauniad cif pages. I imagine it will not be there long before it is “moderated” for upsetting the bien-pensants at Guardian Towers)

(So, clearly when I talk in the piece about “this paper”, I refer to the G, rather than Spiked)

“The crowds at Peterloo were ultimately placing their faith in the power of parliament to represent the people once its archaic constitution had been amended.”

Well, that is a convenient reworking of what the Peterloo protestors were asking for. They were demanding “Universal Suffrage” – it even said so on their banners. That and “Liberty & Fraternity”. They wanted the voice of the working man heard. They wanted the simple democratic principle of one man, one vote. Each vote counting the same, whether cast by a Duke or a dustman.

So for a newspaper, whose editors have been explicitly engaged in an attempt to disenfranchise the section of society with whom they disagree, who they hold in contempt, to try and rewrite the history of Peterloo, to twist what the protesters were marching for just to serve their ends, seems breathtakingly hypocritical.

Earlier this year this paper cheered on another demonstration as people marched through London – specifically calling for the disenfranchisement of the section of society they disagreed with.

You can dress it up all you like, but at heart you surely must know this. If you support Free Speech then that extends to supporting the right of someone you disagree with being allowed to say things you recoil from. If you support the idea of universal suffrage then that has to extend to accepting the result of such a democratic vote, even if the result is one you would also recoil from. If you refuse to accept a democratic vote, you are not a democrat.

If you think those working class leave voters (or old people, or shire Tories, whoever) that you have spent the last 3 years demonizing across these pages, should not be allowed to see their votes matter then you do not support the idea of universal suffrage.

We are not going to see cavalry charges on our streets, or armed insurrection, (whatever the more lurid catastrophists employed by this newspaper might like to pretend) but the fallout from disenfranchising such a large number of voters (the majority view at the referendum, let’s not forget) will be profound, and will damage what faith we have left in our democratic institutions for generations.

So, as you commemorate the Peterloo Massacre just remember which side of this divide you are on. You do not stand for Universal Suffrage, Liberty or Fraternity, you stand with those who would cheer on the forces who’d ride roughshod over the plebs just to maintain their comfortable status quo.

Jane 70

16th August 2019 at 5:09 pm

Splendid, splendid! Is it still on cif or has it been ‘moderated’ to protect those delicate Remainer sensibilities?

steve moxon

16th August 2019 at 10:40 pm


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