Why political history still matters

Dr Katrina Navickas from the University of Hertfordshire was the keynote speaker at the History of Parliament Trust and Durham University’s Parliaments and Popular Sovereignty conference, which was held at the People’s History Museum in Manchester in November 2017. She offers a blog on the importance of political history today…

There is lively public interest in the origins of popular representation in the British political system at the moment. The attendance at the gatherings to commemorate the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester has grown over the last few years, and the 2019 bicentenary promises to be a major and significant event. I hope we can also begin to build similar momentum about the Chartist movement, encouraged by the attendance at the annual Chartism Day, which this year was held at Heronsgate, Hertfordshire; the hike up to Blackstone Edge to remember the ‘monster’ meetings held there in the 1840s; and the annual commemorations of the Newport Rising of 1839. This year marks the 170th anniversary of the presentation of the third Chartist petition to parliament and the ‘monster’ meeting on Kennington Common in south London. The commemorations planned by the Friends of Kennington Park promise to involve the local community in debates about its significance locally and nationally in the history of democracy.

After these commemorations, some commentators on social media expressed a view along the lines of ‘glad to see people commemorating past events, but hope they put as much effort into campaigning for democracy and political reform now’. They suggested that these sorts of events, with their recreations of historic banners and their memorialisation of events from 200 years ago were inward looking and tended to antiquarianism and were singing to the converted, and in the worst sort of criticism, detracting energy from modern political campaigns and issues.

So why does political history – and in particular the political history of the period c.1776 to 1884 – still matter? Why should we still care about parliamentary reform movements such as the Chartists?

Understanding the history of representation is clearly important in understanding our representative institutions today. But it also highlights how the popular representation is always contested, and indeed how the process of democratisation was never inevitable, relies on a continuity of tactics and organisation by social movements as well as by politicians to keep the issue alive, and the real connections between local and national politics and institutions.

The politics of representation was most vividly exemplified in a contemporary example, on 16 June 2017, in protest marches in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire. Survivors and their supporters marched on the offices of Kensington Town Hall in order to attempt to enter a council meeting. A community activist attempted to present a manifesto, and upon protesters not being allowed into the council chamber, speeches outlining their demands were made outside the building. The protesters then moved on in a march towards Westminster (see the article here).

The forms and route of the march through west London are familiar to historians of the Chartist movement, not least the presentation a list of demands relating to rights and justice to be redressed by local authorities, who, upon being ignored then turn to process to the seat of national government.

Another resonance was also the ways in which the media portrayed this sort of grass roots political activity – the language of newspapers and broadcast journalists in this case used terms such as the ‘mob’ and the ‘contagion’ of the protests in a ‘day of rage’ (for example, in the Telegraph . George Rude and E. P. Thompson warned historians of riot and popular protest to be wary of such terms when looking at the ‘faces in the crowd’.

There are also parallels with the more ground-level attempts by Chartists all over Britain to challenge corruption and exclusion from local government from the vestry level upwards, packing vestry rooms and magistrates’ meeting rooms and village halls as a protest against their exclusion from even the most local bodies of power, and demanding both representation and justice. For example, at the annual meeting of leypayers in the Tameside village of Dukinfield in 1838, the parochial authorities faced a challenge for the first time. Over two hundred people crammed into the Sunday School. Reverend Joseph Rayner Stephens, the fiery Chartist orator, claimed that not only did the time and day (one o’clock on a weekday afternoon) prohibited working people from attending, but more broadly:

Either they were citizens or not – leypayers or not – freeborn Englishmen or not … The Constitution had clearly given the people vested rights and they would not allow them to be bartered or frittered away. (Northern Star, 7 April 1838)

He thereby inferred that parochial meetings were just as important as parliamentary elections, both part of the mythical ‘Constitution’ which gave all male inhabitants ‘vested rights’ of representation.

Another key feature of popular political reform movements then and now is the connection between the local and the national, and also the international. Groups can be grass roots local with local concerns, while also being intellectually connected and part of a broader movement organised nationally and looking internationally. The Chartists certainly were.

The continuities of the parliamentary reform movement were deeper seated features, from the supporters of John Wilkes in the 1760s, through to the ‘mass platform’ radical movement in the 1810s, to the Chartists of the 1840s and the female suffrage movement of the later 19th century:

  1. The right of political representation and a language of liberty and constitutionalism supporting that right;
  2. A language of justice, with echoes of a notion of fairness decided by the community (E. P. Thompson’s ‘moral economy’, translated to political as well as economic grievances);
  3. The exclusion of communities from power and its institutions.

These issues still ring true today in contemporary debates around political representation and public engagement with the political process in Britain.


Further reading:

  • Malcolm Chase, Chartism: a New History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007)
  • Josh Gibson, ‘The Chartists and the Constitution: Revisiting British Popular Constitutionalism’, Journal of British Studies, 56: 1 (2017), 70-90
  • George Rude, The Crowd in History: A Study of Popular Disturbances in France and England (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1964)
  • Katrina Navickas, Protest and the Politics of Space and Place, 1789-1848 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015)

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