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British Democratic Politics, 1815 -1850; Parliamentary Reformers, Free Traders, Chartists- Part III

British Democratic Politics 1815-1850 – Parliamentary Reformers, Free Traders, Chartists- Part II

Chartism

  • Chartism was a working-class movement for political reform in Britain which existed from 1838 to 1848.
  • It was the first organised labour movement in modern Britain.
  • Support for the movement was at its highest in 1839, 1842 and 1848 when petitions signed by millions of working people were presented to the House of Commons of the Parliament.
  • The strategy employed was to use the scale of support which these petitions and the accompanying mass meetings demonstrated to put pressure on politicians.
  • Chartism relied on constitutional methods to secure its aims, though there were some who became involved in insurrectionary activities.
  • Chartism got its name from the formal petition called People’s Charter of 1838 (prepared by Lovett), that listed the six reforms as main aims of the movement to make the political system more democratic:
    • Adult male franchise:
      • A vote for every man twenty-one years of age
    • The Secret Ballot:
      • It would protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
    • No Property Qualification for Members of Parliament
    • Salary to Members of Parliament:
      • To enable an honest trades-man, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency
    • Equal Constituencies:
      • To secure the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.
    • Annual Parliament Elections:
      • To present the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since as the constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelve month; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.

Causes of the Chartist Movement

  • The overt goal of the Chartist ‘movement’ was to secure political rights for working class men, but the political demands arose from political as well as economic roots.
  • Political causes of Chartist Movement
    • Dissatisfaction from 1832 Reform Act:
      • After the passing of the Reform Act 1832, which failed to extend the vote beyond those owning property, there was huge disappointment for the working class who felt betrayed by the property owning middle class. It did not give working class the right to vote or other political rights.
      • Chartists were of the opinion that the political rights of which they had been deprived were responsible for all their social and economic ills.
      • The working classes had supported the middle class campaign for the 1832 Reform Act.
      • But, the working class was dissatisfied because the 1832 Act did not enfranchise them.
      • Working class learnt lesson from the middle class which had collectively bargained for the acceptance of their demands.
    • Actions of the Whig government:
      • The sense that the working class had been betrayed by the middle class was strengthened by the actions of the Whig governments of the 1830s.
      • Notably, the hated New Poor Law was passed in 1834, depriving working people of outdoor relief and driving the poor into workhouses, where families were separated.
      • It was the massive wave of opposition to this measure in the north of England in the late 1830s that gave Chartism the numbers that made it a mass movement.
    • Disappointment from subsequent reforms:
      • Subsequent reforms came as a bitter disappointment and actually hurt the working man.
      • Middle class representation in the Parliament led to legislation favoring middle class interest.
      • Working people considered that their problems could be solved by the political organisation of the country like voting rights, parliamentary reforms etc.
    • Failure of trade unions:
      • Early trade unions failed.
      • Legislation in 1824 and 1825 repealed the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 and unions were again allowed, subject to many restrictions.
      • Many unions had been established after 1825 but failed to bargain effectively with employers.
  • Economic causes of Chartist Movement
    • Industrial Revolution had set in and as a result of urbanisation a large number of workers migrated to industrial towns. They faced great hardships. Their wages were low but the industrialists made huge profits.
    • Working class disliked the new conditions of the 19th century factory discipline, low wages, periodic unemployment and high prices of necessary goods.
    • Discontent due to the exploitation in factories.
    • Traditional hand-workers, such as the London silk-weavers, were facing extreme distress in the face of competition from machines. There were few alternatives: they could join the factory workers or ask for relief from the parish.
    • The 1815 Corn Laws and a protectionist economy still prevailed despite reforms of the 1820s.
      • The Corn Laws kept food prices artificially high and therefore depressed domestic markets for manufactures – thus depressing employment.
      • Foreign markets were also undercut, further reducing factory output and exports.
    • The 1830s saw a series of bad harvests which increased distress.
    • There were a series of fiscal crises in the 1830s.
      • The Whigs were in power from 1830 to 1841 but they were weak in economic strategy and left huge deficit on leaving office.
      • They made no attempt to reform banking or the currency.
      • These factors had huge impact on the working class.
    • Reforms were also needed in banking, customs and taxation.
      • Taxation fell mainly on the working class in indirect taxation (which hurts poor more than indirect taxes).
      • The abolition of income tax in 1816 worsened the situation.
      • The real value of wages was diminished and bad harvests made things worse.
    • In a huge meeting in 1938, speaking in favour of manhood suffrage, Joseph Stephens declared that Chartism was a “knife and fork, a bread and cheese question“. These words indicate the importance of economic factors in the launch of Chartism.
  • Social causes of Chartist Movement:
    • Ideas of socialism was rapidly expanding in Britain.
    • The socialists drew attention to the fact that the rich were growing richer and the poor getting poorer. It aroused public opinion in favor of workers.
    • The resentment among working class was increasing due to the widening gulf between rich and poor.
    • The movement marked the beginning of the struggle between the labour class and capitalist class.

Course of the Chartist Movement

  • In 1834, Robert Owen established the ‘Grand National Consolidated Trade Union’ to bring all industries and trades under the control and ownership of workers. They organised strikes but failed to achieve their objective.
  • After failure of strikes, several working men adopted political means which led to the beginning of the Chartist Movement.
  • People’s Charter of 1838:
    • This document, written in 1838 mainly by William Lovett of the London Working Men’s Association, stated the ideological basis of the Chartist movement.
    • This set out the six main aims of the movement (as mentioned earlier).
    • None of these demands were new, but the People’s Charter was to become one of the most famous political manifestos of 19th century Britain.
  • First Chartists’ petition:
    • The People’s Charter was launched in Glasgow in May 1838, at a meeting attended by an estimated 150,000 people. Meetings in other places followed.
    • Presented as a popular-style Magna Carta, it rapidly gained support across the country and its supporters became known as the Chartists.
    • There were associations all over the county, but there was a great lack of cohesion. When, however, the People’s Charter was drawn up … clearly defining the urgent demands of the working class, a real bond of union was created.
    • A petition, populated at Chartist meetings across Britain, was brought to London in May 1839 to present to Parliament. It was signed by 1.3 million working people, yet Parliament voted not to consider it.
    • However, the Chartists continued to campaign for the six points of the Charter for many years to come, and produced two more petitions to Parliament.
  • Newport Rising (1839):
    • Several outbreaks of violence ensued, leading to arrests and trials. Secret cells were set up, covert meetings were held and weapons were manufactured.
    • On the night of 3–4 November 1839, Frost led several thousand armed marchers through South Wales to the Westgate Hotel, Newport, with intention of liberating fellow Chartists who were reported to have been taken prisoner in the Westgate Hotel.
    • The result of the Newport Rising was a disaster for Chartism.
      • The hotel was occupied by armed soldiers.
      • The Chartists were forced to retreat in disarray and many were killed.
    • Newport was to have been the signal for a national uprising. Despite this significant setback the movement remained remarkably buoyant, and remained so until late 1842.
    • Whilst the majority of Chartists, under the leadership of Feargus O’Connor, concentrated on petitioning for Frost and other leader, significant minorities planned their own risings in response.
      • These attempted risings were easily quashed.
      • Frost and other Newport leaders were transported and many received long prison sentences.
  • Second Chartists’ Petition (1842):
    • In early May 1842, a second petition, of over three million signatures, was submitted, and was yet again rejected by Parliament.
    • The depression of 1842 led to a wave of strikes, as workers responded to the wage cuts imposed by employers.
    • Calls for the implementation of the Charter were soon included alongside demands for the restoration of wages to previous levels.
    • Typically strikers resolved to cease work until wages were increased ‘until the People’s charter becomes the Law of the Land’.
    • The strikes had begun spreading and there were outbreaks of serious violence.
    • It was the practical problems in sustaining an indefinite stoppage that ultimately defeated the strikers.
    • The state hit back. Several Chartist leaders, including Feargus O’Connor and Thomas Cooper were arrested.
  • Mid-Forties:
    • Despite this second set of arrests, Chartist activity continued.
    • Beginning in 1843, O’Connor suggested that the land contained the solution to workers’ problems.
      • This idea evolved into the Chartist Co-operative Land Company, later called the National Land Company.
      • Workers would buy shares in the company, and the company would use those funds to purchase estates that would be subdivided lots, built on, and then settled by lucky shareholders, who were chosen by lot.
      • Unfortunately for O’Connor, in 1848 a Select Committee was appointed by Parliament to investigate the financial viability of the scheme, and it was ordered that it be shut down.
    • Candidates embracing Chartism also stood on numerous occasions in general elections.
      • O’Connor was the only Chartist to be elected an MP and it was a remarkable victory for the movement.
      • More commonly, Chartist candidates participated in the open meetings, called hustings, that were the first stage of an election.
      • They frequently won the show of hands at the hustings, but then withdrew from the poll to expose the deeply undemocratic nature of the electoral system.
  • Third Chartists’ Petition (1848):
    • With Feargus O’Connor elected an MP and Europe swept by revolution, it was hardly surprising that Chartism re-emerged as a powerful force in 1848.
    • On 10 April 1848, a new Chartist Convention organised a mass meeting which would form a procession to present a third petition to Parliament.
    • The meeting was peaceful. The military had threatened to intervene if working people made any attempt to cross the Thames, and the petition was delivered to Parliament by a small group of Chartist leaders.
    • The Chartists declared that their petition was signed by 6 million people, but House of Commons clerks announced that it was a lesser figure of 1.9 million.
      • In truth the clerks could not have done their work in the time allocated to them; but their figure was widely reported, along with some of the pseudonyms appended to the petition, forged signatures and the credibility of Chartism was undermined.
    • The high-point of the Chartist threat to the establishment in 1848 came in June when there was in the West Riding, widespread drilling and arming and, in London, the devising of plots.
    • The banning of public meetings, and new legislation on sedition and treason (rushed through Parliament immediately after 10 April) drove a significant number of Chartists into the planning of insurrection. All these failed by proactive intervention of Government.
  • Charles Jones became a leading figure in the National Charter Association during its years of decline and helped to give the Chartist movement a clearer socialist direction. Jones knew Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels personally.
  • Role of press:
    • Both nationally and locally a Chartist press thrived in the form of periodicals. They reached a huge audience.
    • The Poor Man’s Guardian in the 1830s, dealt with questions of class solidarity, manhood suffrage, property, and temperance; and condemned the Reform Act of 1832.
    • Other Chartist periodicals included the Northern Star (most popular and radical), Northern Liberator, English Chartist Circular.
    • The papers gave justifications for the demands of the People’s Charter, accounts of local meetings, commentaries on education and temperance and a great deal of poetry.
    • There was also denunciations of imperialism – the First Opium War (1839–42) was condemned – and of the arguments of free traders about the civilizing and pacifying influences of free trade.

Causes of the failure of Chartist Movement

  • Lack of able and experienced leaders:
    • The leaders differed with one another and there was no powerful speaker who could explain the objective of the movement to the public.
  • Responsibility of O’Connor:
    • Chartist leader O’Connor’s egotism and vanity have been identified as causes in the failure of Chartism.
    • O’Connor was known to have connections with radical groups which advocated reform by any means, including violence.
    • But the causes of the movement’s decline are too complex to be blamed on one man.
  • Factionalism:
    • The Chartists were divided in factions and used conflicting means.
    • There was too much diversity in the intellectual and ideological aims of Chartism.
      • Some demanded nationalisation of land, some currency reform, some demanded the repeal of the Poor Land Amendment Act while Lovette and the Chartists of the London Working Men’s Association stressed upon social change.
    • In 1839, there was split in the movement between
      • those who believed in moral force and favoured the use of constitutional means to lead the movement, and
      • those who subscribed to physical force and considered an armed revolt necessary for the success of the movement.
  • The main problem was how to achieve a revolutionary goal by constitutional means. It failed to obtain parliamentary support for the Charter.
  • Lack of public support:
    • The middle-classes either ignored, shunned or condemned Chartism due to sometimes violent protest and other socio economic reasons.
    • It remained a political propaganda without popular backing of British people.
    • Chartist demands seemed too drastic and strange to the British people.
  • Use of violence:
    • Use of violence forced the Government to take strict measures to suppress the movement.
    • Government also handled the movement firmly and calmly.
  • Forged signatures:
    • Forged signatures used by them in signature campaign undermined their credibility and brought them in disgrace.
  • Chartism and the Chartists were made to look ridiculous after mass meeting of 1848, and the failure of the Land Plan.
  • Improved socio-economic conditions:
    • The socio-economic position improved after 1842.
    • Prosperity eliminated mass support.
    • The changing sociology of England after railways fragmented the ‘unity’ of the working classes.

Chartist Movement was not a complete failure

  • Though Chartist movement failed and did not directly generate any reforms, it left its impact on the contemporary society.
  • It was the first organised labour movement and infused among the workers a spirit of cooperation and unity.
  • It presented a prospect of the forthcoming British democracy.
  • Political elites feared the Chartists in the 1830s and 1840s as a dangerous threat to national stability. After 1848, as the movement faded, its demands appeared less threatening and were gradually enacted by other reformers. After 1848 middle class parliamentary Radicals continued to press for an extension of the franchise.
  • Despite its failure, demands of Chartist Movement had been met in the succeeding years.
    • Reformation Acts of 1867 and 1884 incorporated many of their demands. Urban working men were admitted to the franchise under the Reform Act 1867.
    • By 1918, five of the Chartists’ six demands had been achieved – only the stipulation that parliamentary elections be held every year was unfulfilled.
      • Representation of the People Act 1918:
        • It extended the vote to all men over the age of 21 and to women over 30.
        • However, it took another decade before the Representation of the People Act 1928 gave the vote to women on the same basis.
        • As the franchise had already been extended to larger numbers of working men in 1867 and 1884, the 1918 Act is best seen as one step on a journey to achieving the first point of the People’s Charter.
      • Secret Ballot was brought by Ballot Act in 1872:
        • After skilled men won the right to vote in 1867, concerns were raised that they would be susceptible to undue pressure from employers and landlords which led to the passing of the Ballot Act, 1872.
      • Property Qualification for Members of Parliament Act 1858:
        • It repealed the requirement for an MP to own property.
      • Parliament Act 1911:
        • Parliamentary salaries for MPs was introduced through the Parliament Act 1911.
      • Constituencies of equal size by the Redistribution of Seats Act 1885:
        • The 1867 Reform Act had extended the franchise without fundamentally changing constituencies or the general practice of having two MPs for each constituency.
        • The Redistribution of Seats Act 1885 reorganised seats by redistributing parliamentary seats largely among single member constituencies and introducing the principle that constituencies should have broadly equal numbers of electors.
  • Passing of the Factory Act, Mines Act and the Public Health Act as well as abolition of the Corn Act were indirectly inspired by the Chartist movement.
  • Chartism improved the condition of workers. It spread awareness among people about the conditions of working class and later working class movements took inspirations from it.
  • Participation in the Chartist Movement filled some working men with self-confidence:
    • They learned to speak publicly, to send their poems and other writings off for publication, to be able, in short, to confidently articulate the feelings of working people.
    • Many former Chartists went on to become journalists, poets, ministers, and councillors.
  • Chartism was also an important influence in some British colonies.
    • Some leaders had been transported to Australia, where they spread their beliefs which led to the first elections of the Victorian parliament with near-universal male suffrage and by secret ballot.
    • In the African colonies after 1920 there were occasional appearances of a ‘colonial chartism’ which called for improved welfare, upgraded education, freedom of speech and greater political representation for natives.
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