TWO hundred years ago, on 16 August 1819, a crowd of some 60,000 gathered at St Peter’s Field in Manchester to hear the orator Henry Hunt support their campaign for parliamentary reform. The authorities panicked; a cavalry charge, with drawn sabres, killed 18 and injured hundreds more, a slaughter now known as the Peterloo Massacre.
Those were the days of the Rotten Boroughs, crowned by the absurdities of two MPs for Old Sarum (uninhabited), or Dunwich (washed into the sea) while ballooning cities such as Manchester had none. What cannot go on generally does not; the Representation of the People Act 1832, however limited its provisions, was the quiet dawn of modern parliamentary democracy. Nevertheless, it took two more Reform Acts in the nineteenth century and two in the twentieth before universal adult suffrage was achieved in 1928, more than a century after Peterloo.
Modern democracy was thus a hard-won thing, campaigned for by Tony Benn’s favourite heroes, the suffragettes and the Chartists, and their predecessors. In the vanished days when the British Labour movement still honoured the origins of British democracy, the TUC commissioned the Peterloo Overture (1968) from composer and lifelong Labour supporter Malcolm Arnold to celebrate its own centenary.
The episodic advances were opposed at all stages by those forced to yield political power to ordinary people, one vote each. The powerful did not consider themselves equal to the ordinary, didn’t like it, and still don’t. Variants on ‘they didn’t understand what they were voting for’ are at least two centuries old.
For 44 years after 1928, the United Kingdom was a modern parliamentary democracy. We resisted a fascism that declared democracy dead, and fought a world war in defence of our sovereignty and of freedoms yet more ancient than the vote. Within that fully democratic period the Mother of Parliaments continued to scatter her offspring promiscuously across the British Commonwealth. The family principle of ‘one citizen, one vote’ was always part of the send-off.
The push-back of the powerful against the ordinary took two main forms. The first was accession to the European Community in 1972, escalated at Maastricht 20 years later. In vain did Peter Shore protest at ‘the transfer of our whole democratic system to others’ (1975). The same deaf ears ignored Tony Benn’s credo: ‘The rights that are entrusted to us are not for us to give away’ (1991). The EU happily allows elections to continue, but ensures that such elections mean less and less, reserving to unelected and unremovable bodies the decisions that really matter.
The second was the wholesale disregard by MPs of any commitments they might have made in order to secure election, a phenomenon which must now have reached its apogee. Enoch Powell warned in 1974 that if parties ‘invert without shame . . . the principles on which they have gained power . . . all links in the chain of democratic responsibility have been snapped’. He referred to the volte-face over wage controls by the Heath administration, but the warning serves as well for the betrayal of the 2016 Referendum.
That betrayal of trust by MPs of the Tory and Labour parties is all but complete. The explicit and detailed commitments of the Tory manifesto have been repudiated wholesale by all but a minority. The chaos in the Labour Party distracts from but does not conceal abandonment of its own parallel promises. Splinter groups break away to cleanse themselves of embarrassing prior commitments. Reckless factions plot constitutional mischief. One such Act is passed by the single vote of a convicted criminal. The Speaker discards the ancient convention of impartiality. He allows the same measure to be presented not just twice but three times in the same session. The Liberal Democrats claim integrity with their election manifesto but openly reject the 2016 Referendum. Lord Ashdown’s declaration that he would ‘forgive no one who does not accept the sovereign voice of the British people’ is clearly forgotten. The clamour for a second referendum comes exclusively from those who plainly wish to repudiate the first, but cannot bear to be explicit. A fake-democratic fig-leaf is required: a second referendum on a rigged question may be accepted, but the result of a clear and simple one already held is not.
As we approach the bicentenary of Peterloo, we see only MPs determined to act in their own sectional interests. They have forgotten from whom their authority derives, whom they are elected to serve, and at what cost their constituents’ rights were won. The openly corrupt MPs for Dunwich, elected by a mere 15 or so ‘freemen’ prior to 1832, could hardly have been worse. Tony Benn’s warning, ‘we shall be ruled by a few white persons, as in 1832’, continues to hold. After a century of democratic progress, that astonishingly short 44-year window of full democratic sovereignty, then another 44 years of creeping subordination to the EU, we have, in three years since 2016, come rapidly full circle: from Rotten Boroughs to the Rotten Parliament.
These vainglorious clowns nevertheless managed to pass the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. It restores full democratic sovereignty. It remains the law. Miraculously, they have nothing more to do, except bring it into effect. If they will not, there is nothing to be done with a Parliament rotten to its core, except to dissolve it, and elect another. It cannot come too soon.