Let’s have a political start to the year: the year of Peterloo 200.
Here is my open letter to the Conservative Party and the Prime Minister, which I will be sending them, regarding Peterloo.
Open Letter to the Conservative Party
from Ed Glinert of Manchester
Dear Prime Minister, Conservative Party Chairman and Conservative Party,
I write this open letter to you from Manchester. My name is Ed Glinert. I am one of the city’s leading historians, most experienced writers, and its most prolific tour guide. This 2019 major commemorations will be taking place on Friday 16 August to mark the 200th anniversary of the most tragic and violent political event in British history, the Peterloo Massacre of 16 August 1819.
That day a crowd of more than 60,000 people congregated in a public space in the centre of Manchester to demonstrate for the right to vote and for an end to unjust laws. This peaceful crowd, exercising what people would now cite as a basic right to protest, was mercilessly attacked by troops sent in by magistrates intent on brutally dispersing the meeting. A dozen people, maybe more, were killed that day. Others died from their injuries over the next few weeks. More than six hundred sustained injuries.
Peterloo has gone down as one of the most shameful episodes in British history. The government of the time was a Tory government led by Lord Liverpool, supported by Lords Castlereagh, Sidmouth and Eldon. Sadly, these peers supported the actions of the magistrates and the troops. They offered no explanation or apology for the tragedy that took place.
Manchester has not forgotten Peterloo. Every year leading local citizens place wreaths at the site of the tragedy and commemorate the day. I believe it is time the Conservative Party nationally, the heirs of the Tory Party of two hundred years ago, did the same. The 200th anniversary taking place in August 2019 will attract considerable publicity from around the world.
Although there will be those looking to adopt Peterloo as a left-wing phenomenon, that would be disingenuous. Peterloo ranks as a cornerstone in the advance of democracy and liberty in this country, standing alongside habeas corpus, Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights of 1689, the Great Reform Bill of 1832, and the enfranchisement of women in 1918 and 1928. Ironically the main beneficiaries of the public mood in the wake of Peterloo were the middle class (men) who gained the vote in 1832 and the proto-capitalists of the 1840s who achieved a change in the law to allow free trade, one of the demands at Peterloo.
Peterloo is part of the same democracy that has seen a Tory/Conservative government elected more times than that of any other party in the subsequent years. The modern-day Conservative Party and the current government now have a wonderful opportunity in August 2019 to make a positive statement, to apologise for the behaviour of their antecedents in 1819, and to participate in the Peterloo 200 commemorations by laying a wreath alongside the various Manchester groups’ wreathes on Peterloo day.
Your predecessors two hundred years ago did not believe that the ordinary working man should have the vote. They did not believe in the free trade demands of the Peterloo protestors. Yet it was a Tory prime minister, Robert Peel, who introduced free trade in 1846. Later Conservatives, at the beginning of the 20th century, did not believe women should have the vote. Yet it took a Conservative prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, to give women the vote on the same terms as men in 1928. It can now be a 21st century Conservative prime minister who makes a similar bold statement which would be welcomed in the country’s second city, a city where there is no electoral support for the Conservatives, where there has not been a Conservative MP since the 1980s, where there are no Conservatives on the city council.
The prime minister rightly talks of “burning injustice”. Well, here in Manchester, people still feel a burning injustice over Peterloo. Politics in England are polarised. This would be an excellent opportunity to build bridges and create a brighter future out of a dark past.