Sunday , September 22 2019

The Peterloo paradox

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Summary:
From one perspective, there’s something odd about the commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre. You can be forgiven for thinking that there should be nothing party political about these. The protestors were demanding a wider suffrage. One would expect those Tories who sanctify the “will of the people” to celebrate such demands. And we’d expect lovers of freedom to condemn those who killed the protestors: they were, after all, doing just what Stalin did later – murdering opponents of the regime. But this is not what we see. It is trades unions and leftists who are marking the day: Mike Leigh made a film of it. Tories, on the other hand, seem much quieter. Why? For one thing, many Tories have never really been on the side of freedom. Of course they claimed to be

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From one perspective, there’s something odd about the commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre.

You can be forgiven for thinking that there should be nothing party political about these. The protestors were demanding a wider suffrage. One would expect those Tories who sanctify the “will of the people” to celebrate such demands. And we’d expect lovers of freedom to condemn those who killed the protestors: they were, after all, doing just what Stalin did later – murdering opponents of the regime.

But this is not what we see. It is trades unions and leftists who are marking the day: Mike Leigh made a film of it. Tories, on the other hand, seem much quieter.

Why? Peterloo

For one thing, many Tories have never really been on the side of freedom. Of course they claimed to be in the 70s and 80s. But in many cases their protestations were insincere, merely a stick with which to beat the left. During much of the Cold War, Tories supported Pinochet, apartheid, Macarthyism, the forced labour that was national service and the criminalization of homosexuality. There were happy with repression, as long as it was they who were the repressors.

We’ve had a reminder of Tories’ attitudes to freedom recently in a report from the “think tank” Onward which urges the party to “reject the freedom fighters and pursue the politics of belonging.” Of course, not all Tories agree with this, but it reminds us that Tories’ attitudes to freedom has always been, ahem, ambivalent.

There’s something else. Peterloo was an assertion of working class agency, a refusal of workers to accept their place. Conservatives, and the ruling class in all its forms, have always been uncomfortable with this. As Corey Robin has said, the main consistent principle of conservatism has been a defence of hierarchy:

When the conservative looks upon a democratic movement from below, this…is what he sees: a terrible disturbance in the private life of power. (The Reactionary Mind, p13)

In this sense, there is a direct line from the cavalry murdering the Peterloo protestors to Arron Banks wishing Greta Thunberg dead.  

Indeed, we can read Brexit as an example of the counter-revolution Corey discusses – a desire to reassert old hierarchies in which British rulers and bosses could exercise power unfettered by interference – real or imagined - from Brussels.

So perhaps there’s really no mystery after all about who’s commemorating Peterloo and who isn’t – because, 200 years on, many on the right haven’t changed much.

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