The Doomed History of British Revolution

Peterloo Massacre

Britons, and the English in particular – are not a revolutionary bunch, it’s not in our nature. Whenever the topic comes up, this vague point seems to be raised. It’s something in our culture, or simply in the water perhaps. We just get on with it and make things better. We prefer slow reform – because everyone knows that just like with the Colonial Americans; if there is an issue with society and the people are demanding change, then some kind of reform must take place or… oh. Where are all the rest of our revolutions then? The British communist tradition is helpful in this regard because they search out these movements to venerate them, we can use them as cautionary tales.

The first of these is typically considered Wat Tyler and the English Peasant’s Revolt of 1381. Spurred, we are told, by a combination of a poll tax of 4 pence levied equally on rich and poor alike, in combination with the teachings of a radical priest – John Ball (who also seems to have inspired John Wycliffe and the Lollard heresy in later years, but that’s another story) – preaching egalitarianism; “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of [evil] men”. They had a great deal of success, quickly finding themselves presented with a helpless King Richard II in his minority, after killing many royal officials and sacking the Tower of London. The demands they made to the king included relaxation of serfdom and abolition of some taxes. The King agreed to all these demands at first, but the rebels refused to disperse and made more demands. Thus, he invited Wat Tyler to negotiate separately – whereupon either by accident or by deliberate scheme – he was killed and his head raised on a pike. Thanks to the time and breathing room created, the mayor of London was able to raise a militia which dispersed the rebels. Royal forces later tracked down all the rebel leaders, both in the original south-eastern movement, and further afield who were inspired by the initial success of Wat Tyler. The rebels were executed, the promises and reforms rebuked, and order restored.

Jack Cade (Mortimer) leading an army of peasants, shopkeepers, and craftsmen to London

If this movement anachronistically came from the Left, one which could be considered as coming from the Right (or a nationalist position at least) came nearly 70 years later in 1450 under Jack Cade. In the face of repeated catastrophic failures in the waning days of the Hundred Years war – as perceived (probably correctly) due to corruption and incompetence at court – Jack Cade under the name Mortimer (implying royal blood) led an army of peasants, shopkeepers, and craftsmen to London. Their demands largely covered matters of corruption and opposition to royal favouritism which they saw as facilitating it. King Henry VI instead chose to send a royal force to quell it – but they handled the situation poorly and found themselves ambushed and killed. The king fled, and a largely sympathetic city opened the gates to the rebels – who set up courts and tried to establish themselves as the new ruling authorities; resolving local disputes and holding trials for the corrupt councillors they could find. Subsequently, however, the army descended into drunken looting and was barred from the city after they left for the night. They tried to force a re-enter but were defeated in the attempt. Finally, while they were still encamped in the immediate proximity of the city, they were persuaded to return home by promises that their demands would be fulfilled, and they were issued pardons. Shortly afterwards, the pardons and promises were revoked, and the rebels were pursued and executed. The main distinction here is that when Richard, Duke of York returned from exile two months later, many of his demands and promises of reform which became the basis of popular Yorkism echoed those that had seen Cade welcomed into London. These may well have informed the welcome that the Yorkists repeatedly received into London during the later Wars of the Roses.

Moving on to the 16th century, there was Kett’s rebellion, which opposed encroachment on communal lands, enclosures, and bonds of serfdom. At first, they seem to have believed they were simply carrying out the law by removing enclosure fences – which had already been ruled illegal when not authorised. They were commanded to disperse nonetheless, at which point they became an army in rebellion, and lodged their aforementioned demands. Unlike the previous examples, they never threatened London, and only really fought over Norwich, so although they scored some victories – taking Norwich, a few arsenals and baggage trains, and defeating one royal army sent against them – they were ultimately beaten in the field. Their demands were ignored, their leaders executed, and order restored.

There are many examples of similar events across the span of the English Civil Wars, and others in the eras only briefly touched on. Suffice to say that the English Revolution, despite largely not having a particularly populist character in most instances – set the stage for the later revolutions which we have come to characterise and understand as such. They set the legal and intellectual precedent in practice during the very preceding against Charles I: “I would know by what power I am called hither … I would know by what authority, I mean lawful; there are many unlawful authorities in the world; thieves and robbers by the high-ways”.

To which they responded with an inversion of the hierarchy – backed up by the sword: “Sir … Whether you have been, as by your office you ought to be, a protector of England, or the destroyer of England, let all England judge, or all the world, that hath look’d upon it … You disavow us as a Court; and therefore for you to address yourself to us, not acknowledging as a Court to judge of what you say, it is not to be permitted. And truth is, all along, from the first time you were pleased to disavow disown us, the Court needed not to have heard you one word”.

Printed Depiction of the Gordon Riots

This brings us to the revolutionary period proper. Perhaps at the height of the earnest sentiment expressed at the outset – another major rebellion broke out; the Gordon Riots. Police forces were a foreign, absolutist malignance – so Britain didn’t have one. Likewise, Britons place a great deal of stock in the legitimacy of the law, and so the fact that the law does not reflect the realities of practice must be rectified. Discriminatory but largely unenforced laws against Catholics were formally relaxed, and the ire of radical anti-Catholic Protestants was raised. A crowd (or army) of at least 40,000 strong, led by Lord George Gordon at first petitioned Parliament in London, which was almost unanimously rejected after soldiers were brought in to disperse the crowd outside Parliament. The government believed the troubles were over, and so were surprised when the rioters then reconvened elsewhere to attack Catholic chapels, the houses of wealthy Catholics, and break into four prisons to release the few rioters who had been arrested. In particular, on the walls of Newgate Prison were painted the words: Freed by “His majesty: King Mob”. Eventually, they even made an attempt on the Bank of England but were repelled after a battle with army units. Subsequently – more troops were brought in, and the soldiers were ordered to shoot into any crowds of more than four who refused to disperse. 285 rioters were killed in this way, with more wounded and, even more, arrested. Early in the crisis, the idea was officially floated that a police force should be created along French lines; a symbolic end to the naivety of the British political class which had also learned from certain mistakes made at the outset of the ongoing American War of Independence. Valuable lessons were learned about the necessity of force, and they would soon be made useful again.

William Pitt the Younger began his political life as one of the naive appeasers to the American Revolutionaries and continued to maintain his desire for Parliamentary reforms and increased representation when the war was over. The French Revolution changed all this. At first, it lit a fire under the reformers to match the Revolutionaries – after all, the English were the indirect progenitors and inspiration for these movements in many ways. But when the French Revolutionaries let their mask slip, the radicals and reformers in the UK – some of which were former allies of Pitt – were crushed ruthlessly. Under threat of treason charges, with censorship, arrests, limits to gatherings, and a suspension of habeas corpus – organised dissent was silenced. Using a network of secret spies and informants, any hint of republicanism was snuffed out, and a wildly successful propaganda campaign was waged. Only 10 or so years after the threat of an over-powerful monarch had been the ultimate threat, and arbitrary power and privileges were derided – now the order of aristocratic, monarchical Britain was her pride, in contrast to the plebian republicanism of France. As a result, only the Irish presented an internal threat during the period, and not even coherently – only a faction. There, in addition to all the measures conducted elsewhere in the British Isles, the British enlisted the help of exactly the kind of Protestant radicals who conducted the Gordon Riots – many of them predecessors to the modern Irish Loyalists. The rebellion was put down, and Irish autonomy ended with the 1800 Act of Union. The only other black marks on what was otherwise an extremely successful counter-revolutionary campaign were few mutinies among sailors who thought themselves underpaid. One of the few genuine examples of concessions being made was when the mutineers at Spithead were granted pardons, increased pay, and the reassignment of unpopular officers. To their credit however, the mutineers never gave a hint of disloyalty or indiscipline, and no blood seems to have been shed. The same cannot be said for later mutinies, especially at Nore, where the mutineers were largely repressed, and their leaders executed.

Finally, there is to discuss Peterloo and the slightly lesser-known Cinderloo massacres, along with the foiling of the Cato Street Conspiracy and the crushing of the Luddite movement. In all cases, they represent the triumph of the effectiveness of repression, overwhelming military force in a civil context, and secret police/ informer networks. By 1822 there were no major poor radicals to rabble rouse – outside of prison, seditious newspapers were silenced, the government still had eyes and ears everywhere, and they could direct the direction of the economy as they pleased – free trade or not, industrialisation or not, and wage negotiations would happen under the purview of government force. Many like to point out that many of these groups got their way in the end, and while that is largely true in the grand scheme of things; it was always at the behest of the government, never demanded from below, and they carefully pick and choose which requests to enact.

Briefly, post-World War One, when the government was perhaps at its weakest, and when maybe 10,000 soldiers abroad would achieve what millions couldn’t mere months before – it chose to sacrifice everything to preserve its domestic strength. Neither Greece and Turkey, nor Russia, nor Ireland, nor any of the other regions hanging in the balance were worth being dictated to by the plebs. And while the nascent mutinies and strikes such as those of the 1919 railway strike claimed victory, they were careful not to espouse political aims, lest they suffer the same as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre victims. Perhaps the strikers did harbour revolutionary aims slightly more quietly – as the communists and Bolsheviks would have liked, but regardless, the government once again bought the time it needed and made the promises it needed to make to survive in the moment. Notably, however, the race riots of 1919 did not meet with the same level of appeasement.

Two things very much seem to be true then; firstly, the British, and indeed the English – are in fact a very revolutionary people, contrary to the image it projects both to the world, and to its own people. ‘Come now, Englishman, don’t think of revolution – you wouldn’t want to act like the French, would you? It’s not in your blood.’ And secondly; the government will, even more so than most other countries seemingly – do everything needed to stave off a loss of its power, and true revolution. It will not be dictated to – and it will choose the points that it acquiesces on. Perhaps more than any other country on earth, the British government is prepared to combat populism and revolution by any means necessary. All the more so, because it can convince its revolutionaries that they will be triumphant, every other revolutionary before them has had their aims come to pass, but through reform – through them. But try to force the issue and see how quickly the blood runs in the streets.

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