Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The demise of Thatcher (1990)

Editorial from the December 1990 issue of the Socialist Standard

Who the hell cares which political dinosaur will lead the Conservative Party? What possible difference does the conclusion of this thieves' quarrel make to the vast majority of people living in Britain? 

The Tories represent the interests of the parasite class which lives on the profits which are legally robbed from the wealth-producing majority. The workers, who are the overwhelming majority, have nothing to be gained by supporting the sordid ambitions of politicians. The Prime Minister is not the workers' representative, but the chief mouthpiece of the profit-protecting government. 

The function of government is to rule over those who are the productive majority. The system in which the majority allows itself to be ruled - governed - oppressed by leaders is not democracy. Democracy means the rule of the people by the people. It means the administration of things, not the government over people. In a democracy there can be no leaders or led, for all people will co-operate to make the decisions which affect the life of the human community. 

The irrelevant leadership battle is a sordid fight between defenders of capitalism who think that it is their role to govern and ours to be governed. We are not invited to vote in their election; all we are asked to do is to sit in front of our TV screens and gaze at the cynical tactics of a gang of political tricksters. 

The Tory contestants were united by one policy; their complete and unequivocal support for world capitalism. In this they are at one with Kinnock and Ashdown. All of the politicians and parties of the profit system are solid in their rejection of any alternative to the way the world is run now. We live in a society where needs come second to profit and where those who possess do not produce while those who produce all goods and services do not possess the resources of the earth. 

The real political contest is not about who will lead the Tory party and draw the prime ministerial salary. It is a battle of ideas about whether the working class majority will support and vote for production for profit or production for use. If workers vote for the profit system, then it matters not a jot which of the con men leads which party of fakers. If workers opt for socialism, as historical necessity demands that we should, then the question of leadership is irrelevant. No socialist would ever follow a leader; no socialist seeks to lead anyone else. 

To the Tory tricksters we say "A plague on both your houses!". Socialists have better things to think about than the dirty fighting of those who run this dirty social system. 

In 1979 Mrs Thatcher came to power heralded as the saviour of British capitalism. She now quits the stage with British capitalism in economic decline. Far from realising her boast "to bury socialism", her political career has been buried by capitalism. 

Additive eating (1989)

From the March 1989 issue of the Socialist Standard

The addition of foreign substances to food for profit is as old as capitalism. In medieval times the production of food was subject to quality control by the guilds who regulated their members' trade practices. Food inspectors spent a good deal of time making sure wine, ale, flour and oil were of an acceptable standard and quality. The fourteenth century German "pure beer" laws are an example of this. 

The development of industrial capitalism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century led to increasing numbers of people crowding into towns and cities. The adulteration of their food and drink was accepted as a matter of course and practiced with impunity. Like other wealth creating activities food production took on its modern mass-production character — that of a commodity to be produced for sale on the market with a view to making a profit.

Controls were swept away to such an extent that by the 1850s a Member of the Royal College of Physicians, called upon to give evidence before a Parliamentary Committee, could report that he had found adulteration of food "very prevalent". It occurred, he said 
". . . in nearly all articles which it will pay to adulterate, whether of food, drink, or drugs. There are but few exceptions to this rule . . . The adulterations practised are very numerous . . . The majority consists in the addition of substances of greatly inferior nature, for the sake of weight or bulk. Other adulterations consist in the addition of various colouring matters; these are employed either to conceal other adulterations, or to heighten, and, as it is considered, to improve the appearance of articles. Lastly, a few adulterations are practised for the purpose of imparting smell, pungency, or taste to certain articles ..."
(Quoted in Royston Pike, Human Documents of the Victorian Golden Age, 1974, page 295.) 
That this steady stream of adulterants had a debilitating effect on the health of the working class can hardly be doubted. It must have been in part responsible for the fact that during the first world war 41 percent of workers conscripted to defend their masters interests had to be rejected as unfit. Seventy years later government reports still point to the inadequate nutritional levels of the poorest members of the working class, except that adulterants have been up-graded — they are now called additives and have pretentions to respectability. 

Researchers from the DHSS found in 1986 that children were eating more crisps, chips and potato products than any other single food. Biscuits and cakes were the second most popular item, being eaten more by weight than vegetables. Little fresh fruit was eaten. Commenting on the report Andrew Veitch, medical correspondent of The Guardian, noted:
"Children of families on Family Income Supplement and Supplementary Benefit had the lowest nutrient intake and were significantly shorter than others. (4 April 1986, emphasis added.)
The "state of the nation's health" is still a subject of concern. The employing class clearly does not want a clapped-out working class suffering ill health because of their diet. On the other hand, there is a great deal of money to be made peddling food given an added value and therefore a bigger margin of potential profitability. 

Increasingly too consumers — workers who stump up at the cash register — are asking the question, What is it that we are really eating? Complacency is being replaced by concern. Worried families pressurised by advertising and lack of time and money into buying the cheaper processed foods are questioning the need for additives, as the campaign to remove artificial colouring matter demonstrates. With limited money to spend it does not need a degree in economics to work out that a shopping basket of products less likely to contain processed, additive-rich food, will cost more than one including a preponderance of beef-burgers, pot-noodle and fruit squash. The outlay for a family of four eating a "healthy" as opposed to a typical diet was compared recently by Isobel Cole-Hamilton, a dietician working for the London Food Commission, and Anita MacDonald from the University Hospital Leeds. Not surprisingly the healthy diet costs a great deal more — £48.04 as compared to £37.09 (more than 25 per cent.) MacDonald also pointed out that:
" . . . it would be impossible for a child to obtain the minimum nutritional requirements laid down by the DHSS from the amount of money available for food from supplementary benefit — the allowance simply isn't large enough." (The Guardian, 18 October 1986.) 
Food and drink manufacturers have an annual turnover of £6bn and account for 10 per cent of all manufactured output. They spend an estimated £231 in a year on food additives. Seventy per cent of what is spent on food buys processed products. There are no exact figures for the amount of additives consumed per head but Erik Millstone of Sussex University estimates it to be between 3 and 7 kilogrammes annually. It could be considerably higher in some cases — 10 or 15 kg per head a year because not all people consume the same quantity of processed food. As The Guardian survey quoted above showed, food purchases of those with less money to spend will almost invariably be made up of processed food because it is cheaper. 

Why are additives used in such vast and increasing quantities? As far as food manufacturers and processors are concerned they fulfill a number of important technical needs. They improve the look of food products, they modify their texture to increase acceptability, they inhibit mould and bacteria and extend "shelf life" (which means the product can be kept in circulation from machine to mouth longer before it decays and loses its value). Flavours lost in the manufacturing process can be regained or reinforced. These needs are real in a system where increasing amounts of food are industrially processed before consumption. For example, Erik Millstone estimates that 45 major food distribution centres handle some 80 per cent of all the food marketed in Britain, "Hence the ability of preservatives to give food a long shelf life is of enormous economic value to the food industry . . ." (New Scientist, 18 October 1984). 

The Consumer Association have looked into the use and need for additives in food, and as far as flavours are concerned state that:
"In a highly competitive industry, keeping down costs while maintaining sales is essential for survival. Even though manufacturers might acknowledge that the most wholesome products would include natural ingredients . . . substitution of flavours for ingredients is one of the easiest ways for them to reduce costs . . .  Undoubtedly when raw material costs increase, manufacturers may feel under pressure to lower the quality of some products in order to maintain their position in the market." (Understanding Additives, Which? Books-Consumers Association/Hodder and Stoughton, £6.95.) 
In the case of preservatives they admit that:
"Hygiene in factories is not always as high as modem standards would demand. Bacterial spores are commonly found in food processing plants, and preservatives may need to be added to food to prevent contamination during processing . . .  The financial benefit of extending the shelf-life of products is likely to be greater than the cost of adding individual preservatives."
Scientific research coupled with public pressure have led in recent years to the abandoning of some artificial colouring matter in food. This was almost always added to make the product look attractive. But according to the CA: 
"Manufacturers would not have replaced synthetic colours with more expensive natural ones unless they were able to recoup or absorb the additional cost. Companies which felt that there was a commercial risk in excluding colours have, on the whole, retained them . . ."
As far as additives as a whole are concerned an anonymous representative of the food manufacturing industry is quoted as saying that "We do produce some products with fewer artificial additives. This is purely for marketing purposes" (emphasis added). This puts into true perspective what the CA identifies as the consumer's overriding need " . . .  to be able to obtain a nutritious and balanced diet, at prices they can afford . . . " (emphasis added). To which it is reasonable to retort — "It may be cheap, but is it safe?". 

Another response to criticism has been the provision of more "information" on food packaging. However this sop to public opinion still fails to give relative quantities, excludes flavourings, and often does not specify additives used in production prior to the final processing. For example museli, that prime example of health conscious eating, may contain fruit treated with mineral oil or preserved with sulphur dioxide, the presence of which is not indicated on the label! 

Of the use of sulphur dioxide, the most widely used antimicrobial preservative, Erik Millstone and John Abraham say: 
".. it is of enormous technological, industrial and commercial value, but we know that it is harmful to at least a few people, and that it may be harmful to many people." (Additives: a Guide for Everyone, Erik Millstone and John Abraham, Penguin Books, £3.95.) 
Other entries in this "dictionary" of chemicals used in food manufacturing make grim reading. In their assessment of the supposed safety of over 200 additives the phrase "presumed safe" occurs with frightening regularity. The possible long term effect of the continuous intake of small doses and the consequences of taking combinations of chemicals (the so-called "cocktail" effect) will be costly and time consuming to ascertain. The Food Additives Council (a body which regulates the use of additives) has no funds of its own and has to rely mainly on research carried out by the food industry itself £ a bit like a gamekeeper trusting the poachers.

The results of research are secret or difficult to verily. Experiments on animals do not produce results which can be readily transferred to humans primarily because the methods are imprecise. Millstone and Adams, summing up this state of affairs, say: 
". . .  the entire regulatory system rests on an undisclosed base . . . Secrecy is defended by industry and government on the grounds that disclosure might adversely affect the commercial interests of companies."
Indignant as one may feel at being poisoned for profit — at being forced by economic circumstances to consume inferior food — it must be realised that this is simply part and parcel of the production for sale and profit system. In a society of production for use the incentive to adulterate food would disappear. 
Gwynn Thomas

Between the Lines: 1968, the BBC & Tabloid Journalism (1988)

The Between the Lines column from the February 1988 issue of the Socialist Standard

1968 and all that
Back in the late sixties, while thuggish cops kicked hell out of anti-Vietnam war demonstrators in Grosvenor Square and the Beatles sang "you say you wanna revolution", your reviewer was quietly tripping out on Junior Disprins, listening to John Peel on pirate Radio London and occasionally paying attention to my old man who told me that Harold Wilson was no more a socialist than Bob Dylan could sing. He was right about (Lord) Wilson, wrong about Dylan and now a lot of the Grosvenor Square victims are members of the SDP and like to recall their youthful rebel days.

World In Action (8:30 pm, ITV, January 4) was all about three of those rebels of 1968. Using film clips of the heady days when lads with duffel coats and earnest expressions were going to change the world, the programme jumped on to 1988 when Thatcher reigns supreme and young trendy lefties have turned into middle-aged, compromising bores. The first was Mike Tomkinson, then President of the LSE students' union, now a man who writes for the Digger and believes that the establishment is here to stay. Second bore was Dave Clarke (no, not the one who made bad records then and no records now) who owns his own business in Docklands publishing a local newspaper. Clarke, whose line in cliches has not changed much in twenty years, is shown in 1968 declaring that violent revolution is what we must prepare for and in 1988 admitting that Thatcher's put some good old life back into the profit system and — I bet you've never heard this one - if you're not a socialist before you're twenty you have no heart but if you're a socialist after you're forty you have no brain. Dave did not explain what you are supposed to be between twenty and forty, although he seems to have maintained a sort of permanent mindless dullness throughout the whole process.

Dave looks into the camera and declares that his heart is on the left, but his wallet is on the right. The fact is, of course, that back in 1968 Dave Clarke, then President of Manchester Student's Union, was a moralising trendy with nothing to do except sloganise in accordance with the then fashionable dogma which insisted that Vietnam should win its war. Now that Vietnam has won and millions of Vietnamese workers are living under an obscene dictatorship (just as they would have done if America had won the war) Clarke is trotting out the latest fashionable tripe about Thatcher being good for "our" industry. The false message of the programme was that Clarke had changed in twenty years; the reality is that he was a capitalism-supporting fool then and he appears to be no better now.

The third rebel chosen for ridicule by World In Action was Tariq Ali, a r-r-r-revolutionary then and an oh-so-constitutional Labourite with his own TV programme on Channel Four now. Ali is at least consistent: in 1968 he was struggling for state capitalism in Vietnam, now we are able to see from the programme that he is struggling for state capitalism in Nicaragua.

The purpose of this programme (if TV reviewers may be so arrogant as to seek such a factor) was to show that times have changed in twenty years. For conservatives this is supposed to be a reason for good cheer: all them lefty radicals have grown up at last, what!; for leftists it is supposed to show that the good old days of the late sixties, when you could start a demo faster than Harold Wilson could light his pipe, have gone and we are now in the miserable age of Thatcherism. Socialists accept neither view. The Left in 1968 never was a threat to the system. We do not doubt that many workers matured a little politically through the struggles of those active years but that maturity came from seeing through the illusions of futile reformism, not pursuing them. What is sad - very sad, in fact — is that students in 1988 who mouth the platitudes of pseudo-revolutionary leftism have not moved beyond the moralising confusion of 1968. Twenty years ago they were rolling joints and wasting their hopes in the political haze of reformism; today the dope costs more and it's mainly young Tories who smoke it. Apart from that, the task of changing society has still to be carried out


Marmaduke exposes himself
See For Yourself (8pm, BBC1, January 3) was all about how the BBC works. It was a two-hour programme which is probably like the kind of thing they show about collective farms on Bulgarian TV. "This is the BBC making a play - this is us making the news - did you know that it takes fifteen cameras to film the golf coverage?" Well, thanks for telling us, but does it really matter to the old workers who can't afford to pay the TV licence fee out of their pension?

After the programme we were invited to phone in questions to the two men who run the BBC. One was Michael Checkland, a man who looks and sounds like a banker and seems to think that the BBC would have been better off if it went into banking. The other was Marmaduke Hussey - a man who, as if not foolishly enough named already, kept on being referred to as Dukey by Checkland. Before the calls came in Marmaduke answered a question or two from the interviewer. Had he watched the two hour programme? No - well, he'd seen a bit of it. Wise man: he was probably watching ITV at the time. But what sort of Chairman of the BBC goes on TV to answer questions on a programme most of which he has never seen? Does he watch EastEnders, the BBC's most watched programme? He had seen it a few times, said Marmaduke — and then proceeded to ask a caller from Bristol what the weather was like there because he had one of his houses round that way.

One of his houses? Marmaduke probably spends so much time travelling from one home to the next that he has precious little time to watch the telly like the rest of us. I was thinking on 'phoning up and asking why BBC news tells so many lies about "Marxist" countries — or asking why EastEnders is such insulting, anti-working-class drivel, or when it was that Marmaduke was actually elected by the viewers of the BBC to be its Chairman.


The People caves in
Readers who have been following our own little soap opera about the People newspaper's published lies about comments made in this column about soap operas will be pleased to know that the People admitted in a written reply to the Press Council that it was wrong to claim that The Socialist Party was in any way connected with the Labour Party or that we stand for socialism in one country. They have published a letter from a member of the Socialist Standard Production Committee correcting their distortion. However, as their correction was several months after the original lies had been published and as our reply was given about a tenth of the space which was given to their original article, you can draw your own conclusions about so-called press freedom. One thing can be said about the BBC: they can't be accused of twisting what The Socialist Party says — they just maintain a conspiracy of silence which began in Reith's day and shows no sign of changing in the Era of old Marmaduke.
Steve Coleman



OUT OF STEP . . . What Is 'Normality' In Capitalism? (1973)

From the May 1973 issue of the Socialist Standard

The governor of a large London prison is reputed on good authority to have said that if he were to unlock all the gates most of his prisoners would prefer not to walk out. This was of course a comment not so much on the prison as on the world outside. For one thing a prison accepts, or at any rate contains, attitudes and behaviour which are unlikely to be tolerated elsewhere. Prisoners are classed as among society's deviants; while they are inside they are subject to a social code which is geared to the needs of the prison and to what is required to survive there. Any prisoner who deviates from that code (for example the "grasses" — men who inform on others) act in ways which conform more closely to the requirements of the world outside the walls. 

This typically many-sided example serves as well as any as an introduction to the subject of deviance which in the time of drug use, homosexual reform, Women's Lib and so on is painfully exercising the minds of many workers who would probably feel more secure in unquestioning conformity. There are of course many fields in which deviance can show itself, not all of them connected with crime; madness for example. What they all have in common is an ability to provoke a general rejection of the deviants, which may lead to them being shut away — in prison, mental hospitals — or in them shutting themselves away (which may amount to the same thing) in their own circles of social contact. 

Deviance, the mainstream agrees, is bad — which means that normality is good. It is possible to spend a great deal of time in argument over a definition of normality, tossing about evidence from many fields — anthropology, history, sociology and so on. A psychiatrist may well have a definition substantially different from that of, say, a lawyer. There is no agreement about where normality is to be found — is it in an individual, a family, a community? Can prisoners really be classed as abnormal, when they themselves fit into a community with its own culture and morals? There is clearly more to this question than is to be found in the hysteria of the get-tough-with-criminals lobby. 

One solid fact we can deal with is that normality is socially defined and therefore socially violable. In other words, deviance is not a matter of scientific theory but of social pressures and expectancies; society at any one time decides who are the outsiders, not the other way round. Like any other social factor, the quality of normality — and therefore of deviance — changes in accordance with differing conditions and demands. For example, homosexuality was not so long ago considered one of the most abhorrent and threatening of deviances but now there is the beginning of a reaction against such bigotry. The result has been that there have been same minor changes in the law but, more importantly, there is a greater readiness among homosexuals to declare themselves and to organize in an effort to resist the special type of repression which is applied to them. There are stories that the true extent of homosexuality would be shocking news to Mary Whitehouse; that if it were revealed it would be seen to be common enough to cease to be deviant behaviour and, by sheer weight of popularity, almost to become normality (which would presumably transform our great stud heroes like James Bond into super deviants.) 

It would be useful here to give same attention to the norms — the social expectancies — which are imposed upon us today and which determine who and what is deviant. We must accept that in any social system minimum demands are imposed, which generally have to be met in order to survive. How does this apply to the capitalist society we live under today and what effect does this have upon us as social creatures? 

One of the first things we have impressed upon us is that our place in the economic order is to be employed for our living. As we grow up we are persistently cajoled into thinking about what we will do for a job when we leave school; to regard a top job with a desk and an office and a secretary and a company car as the climax of achievement. Our childhood, which is so crucial to our growth into adults, is cruelly distorted in the drive to turn us out as schooled and disciplined wage slaves, ready to do our part in capitalism's commodity production and to be driven slowly out of our minds in the boredom of an office or the drudgery of a production line. To deviate from these norms — to question the usefulness of wage slavery, to assert that work should be pleasure or nothing — is an offence against normality for which one of the lesser penalties is to be stigmatised as slothful. 

What is Required 
From our economic standing under capitalism we absorb social norms which are partly expressed in our family life and in the relationships between men and women. It is within the family that a significant part of the socializing of the child, adapting it to the requirements of capitalism, takes place, The family has its own expectancies — an invariably monogamous marriage, at its most fabulous a pre-ordained union of boy and girl to complete part of a great romantic jigsaw puzzle and go on to live happily ever after despite the Bomb and slumps and famine and the general rottenness of capitalism. Outside of the poorer magazines it never happens - and even if it did it would not be healthy. 

In marriage the expectancy is that the husband operates to a tolerance and to ambitions a lot higher than those of the wife. At its worst she is allowed the drab, unhistoric tasks at home, perhaps relieved by a teatime chat with another, equally confined, woman, or by a session of bingo, while he is away at heroic, vital deeds in the fierce world of commerce and industry. The family needed by capitalism is private, defensive; it denies free human contact and obstructs full living. And with all this, the family today is extremely fragile, with inadequate safety nets to catch those under whose weight the bough breaks. Yet so powerful is the conditioning of family dependence that to rebel against it may need to be an act of heroism — and capitalism can exact a high price for such courage.

These norms converge into the political expectancies of capitalism — the massive confidence trick by which millions of workers are persuaded that property society is normal and must go on for ever because it is based upon an eternal morality. Thus they continually opt for their own exploitation and repression, trusting in their leaders as wise, courageous men who will guide them through all their troubles to a safe and comfortable grave. They react derisively towards political deviants who insist that capitalism is no more than an historical phase, that it fails to meet the needs of its peoples, that leaders are an obstacle to our progress. Socialists are stigmatised, like any other deviants; we are dubbed agitators, cranks, impossibilists and we would not have it any other way. 

The concentrated personification of capitalism's norms is the smart young executive in his new town house, keeping a prudent eye on his stake in unit trusts, watching for the right moment to trade in his Ford for the latest model, paying all his bills, mowing the lawn whenever it is time and generally behaving as if he were only part-alive. This person can be seen in advertisments, in statistical returns and in some popular stories and plays. He may even, somewhere, exist for real. It is a relief to turn our attention to the deviant. 

Deviant from the Norm 
It is the lot of deviants to be rejected, which may conceal the fact that they are reacting in a way which is basically healthy, as a protest against intolerable conditions. The response to their protest is often anything but healthy, of which more later. For example a child who refuses to go to school may be tucked away under the deviant label, as "school-phobic". Yet it is often the case that such children are fearful not so much of what may happen to them at school as of what is actually happening to them at home. Nobody labels the family as "child-phobic", Drug addicts are often trying to block off the bleakness of capitalism yet they are dealt with as if they are the sickness in themselves. Many criminals are like those men who would prefer to stay in prison — capitalism offers them little in terms of concern, acceptance, esteem. Many of them bear the marks of a lifetime of social rejection, which has been intensified as they have kicked against it. At the end they are isolates, with little ability to form a relationship with even one human being, let alone with enough to enable them to win a place in the ranks of capitalism's wage slaves.

This is a process which has been expressed in a theory of primary and secondary deviance, which suggests that a first deviant act may provoke a response liable to produce another such act. A logical extension of this is that the agencies which set out to oppose deviance and to impose norms have the end effect of stimulating deviance. From this point of view the police, say, are seen as doing more, in a broad social sense, to promote crime than to contain it. At the same' time, by labelling a deviant as such society may be setting up the preconditions for repeat deviance — for example to stigmatize a person as mentally sick may induce fear in him and about him which can be expressed in disturbed behaviour — which reinforce the original labelling and so on. 

Can Society Care? 
The point at which this process might conveniently be said to start is often determined by the prejudices of stereotyping, by which one aspect of behaviour is presumed to determine another. Men with shoulder length hair, for example, are presumed to be on drugs; negroes all to live in ghetto conditions. There are elements of defensiveness in such labelling; anyone who feels the need to prove that he is not on drugs need only keep his hair short, and "while" people can wear their skin colour as if it were a badge guaranteeing civilized living. But another way, the normal actually needs its deviants, not just as the opposite side of a relationship but for the norm's protection, to define its position and to assert its acceptability. Deviance is insecurity and society at large can feel safer when it is reacting against it. By stigmatizing and shutting away its criminals and its mental patients society can take comfort from the fact that they are out of the way — and even call it treatment. 

An important point about capitalism is that its norms do not coincide with majority interests. Normality as far as capitalism goes is set and defined to assert and protect the superior standing and the privileges of the dominant, property-owning minority. It follows from this that it is virtually impossible to conform to the expectancies of capitalism; most people at some time have stolen, or slacked on the job, or breached the sexual assumption of the capitalist family. Capitalism's deviants are in the majority, which is evidence of the system's basic inability to organize itself to the advantage of its people. 

What, then, of the alternative society? Socialism will have its norms and so, it must be agreed, also its deviants. But those norms will be acceptable in that they will be laid down by the interests of the majority. Human beings will respond to the incentives of a co-operative, socially supportive system; even under capitalism, with the drive all the other way, deviants make pathetic attempts at winning acceptance. Socialism will be a society which will care. Anyone who then remembers the banished miseries of capitalism may end up by asking: where have all the deviants gone? 
Ivan

The Peterloo Massacre (1994)

From the August 1994 issue of the Socialist Standard

One hundred and seventy-five years ago, on 16 August 1819, troops attacked a radical meeting held on St Peter's Field in Manchester. At least eleven of the crowd were killed, and over 600 injured. Within a few days the massacre was being ironically styled 'Peterloo'. It was an event of enormous significance, not just for the north west area but for the history of working class struggle in Britain.

The back-ground to Peterloo can be traced within the development of industrial capitalism and workers' response. Trade unions, though strictly illegal, were active during the second half of the eighteenth century (primarily among skilled workers and organised on a purely local basis), and were often reasonably successful in defending wages. Political activity among artisans and other workers grew in the 1790s, mainly aimed at reforming the antiquated electoral system by introducing manhood suffrage and annual elections. Despite the mildness of the measures proposed, the government and ruling class were unable to countenance any independent political action by workers, and they reacted with vicious repression, including charges of treason ( England being at war with France). By 1799 all the most prominent activists were in prison or in exile.

The economic depression which followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars led to a growth of unrest and the passing of the Corn Laws to benefit the landowners by keeping up the price of wheat. From 1816 mass meetings of workers resumed for the first time since the repression of the 1790s. The government fought back with spies, agent provocateurs, and prosecutions; Habeas Corpus was suspended for a while. By 1819 there were many outdoor meetings for parliamentary reform: this was seen, even by working class radicals, as a necessary means to the economic end of a more equitable taxation system.

The new industrial cities were the centres for much of the protest. The economy of the Manchester area was based on cotton, and there was particular support for radicalism from the handloom weavers, who worked in their own homes (unlike the industry's other workers, the spinners, who worked in the mills operating spinning machines). As early as 1808, a weaver was killed by troops, at a Manchester meeting for a minimum wage bill. The depression hit the cotton trade especially hard, and by 1819 weavers could only earn half the wages of a few years before. 'Passages in the life of A Radical', by the Middleton weaver Samuel Bamford, gives a vivid account of working class political activity during this period; the clandestine meetings, the constant fear of informers, the effects of government repression. The 1817 Blanketeers' March intended to be from Manchester to London to petition for the relief of distress, was broken up by troops within a few miles of Manchester. By 1819 mass meetings were being held in Manchester as in other large Towns, and the city's magistrates were becoming alarmed, and making military preparations against what they feared might befall.  

The 16 August meeting on St Peter's Field was intended to be the largest gathering of all, and men and women and children came from the cotton towns around Manchester, eventually forming a crowd of around sixty thousand. The magistrates assembled in a house overlooking the site, and had fifteen hundred troops, both hussars (regular soldiers) and yeomanry (part-time force of local merchants and factory-owners), waiting on horse back in nearby streets, even though the meeting itself was illegal. When Henry Hunt, one of the prominent radical organisers, was speaking, the magistrates decided Manchester was in danger and ordered Hunt's arrest. Troops were summoned to effect this, and the yeomanry began to ride through the packed crowd, striking out with their swords when they could not make their way forward. The hussars were then called in to disperse the crowd. In ten minutes, among scenes of unbelievable chaos and carnage, St Peter's Field were cleared, leaving the dead and injured to be taken away as best could be arranged. Bamford provides a dramatic eye-witness description of the scene:
"Over the whole field, were strewed caps, bonnets, hats, and shoes, and other parts of male and female dress; trampled, torn, and bloody. . . . Several mounds of human beings still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some of these still groaning, - others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others never breathe more. . . . Person might sometimes be noticed peeping from attics and over the tall ridgings of houses, but they quickly withdrew, as if fearful of being observed, or unable to sustain the full gaze, of a scene so hideous and abhorrent." 
The rulers had replied as decisively as they knew to working class demands.

Eleven of the main radical leaders were arrested by the troops. They were originally charged with high treason, though this was later amended to conspiracy and illegal assembly. Hunt was sentenced to two and half years in prison, Bamford and others to one year. Further repressive legislation was passed, and by 1820 working class resistance was greatly reduced. Many radicals rejected the policy of peaceful agitation promoted by Hunt and turned to violent action; the same year, five men were executed for high treason in the Cato Street Conspiracy, when they plotted to assassinate members of the Cabinet. The Government supported the actions of the magistrates at Peterloo, and refused to hold an inquiry into their conduct. Some were even given financial rewards; William Hay was a clergyman and magistrate in Salford, he was awarded a sinecure worth £1730 a year (at a time when weavers earned perhaps £25 a year).

It is impossible to believe, as has sometimes been suggested, that the events of 16 August were a chapter of accidents, leading to an outcome that nobody wanted. In an atmosphere of government repression and provocation stretching back a quarter of a century, there can be no doubt that the massacre fitted in with the strategy of the ruling class. The use of state power against those who were unprepared simply to accept their lot continued: in 1831; at least two dozen workers were killed by troops after the uprising in Merthyr Tydfil, and in 1834 six trade unionists were transported from Tolpuddle, this even after the 'reform' of the House of Commons in 1832 (which still left the vast majority of workers without a vote).

But Peterloo is probably the clearest demonstration of the viciousness of ruling class politics in the nineteenth century, of the fact that the vote and trade unions' rights were not handed to workers on a plate but had to be fought for against savage repression. The courage and commitment of those in the early working class movement remains astonishing and humbling even now.
Paul Bennett