By Maggie Hall
Maggie is a former Chair of Brighton Humanists, a member of Humanists UK, Humanists International and the Humanists UK Dialogue Network. She is also a Humanists UK School Speaker. In this article, she reviews the effectiveness of people's protests from the Peasants' Revolt to the present day.
"If you thought the storming of the Capitol in Washington in 2021 was frightening, a brief examination of the events of 1381 makes that little local difficulty look like a Sunday School picnic."
The Peasants’ Revolt
In May 1381, a 'poll tax' was introduced in England in order to pay for England’s involvement in what eventually became known as the Hundred Years' War between England and France. This was the third such tax in recent years, following those imposed in 1377 and 1379, and required every person over the age of fifteen to pay a tax of twelve pence, regardless of income or resources. This third imposition proved to be the final straw for the peasantry who were already discontented at the enactment of laws designed to cap wages (which had risen considerably due to the severe depletion of the labouring population after the Black Death) and to restore feudal conditions, which were rapidly falling apart owing to the increased bargaining power the shortage of labour had given to agricultural workers. The result was a popular uprising which came to be known as the Peasants’ Revolt or the Great Rising. If you thought the storming of the Capitol in Washington in 2021 was frightening, a brief examination of the events of 1381 makes that little local difficulty look like a Sunday School picnic. It involved beheadings and stabbings, destruction of palaces and priories, and book-burnings, not to mention the sacking of the Tower of London. The revolt was eventually suppressed, but no further poll taxes were raised, England began to withdraw from the war in France, and wages continued to rise and serfdom to decline, disappearing altogether in the 15th century. Interpretations of the events of 1381 have varied over the centuries, but the Peasants’ Revolt is often cited as an example of what happens when the people get fed up with unfair treatment by the ruling elite. In fact, it has been shown over and over again that when it comes to the repressive wielding of power you can only push the people so far.
In 1833, six men from the village of Tolpuddle in Dorset founded the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers to protest against the lowering of wages for agricultural workers. Its members were refusing to work, holding out for a wage of ten shillings a week, rather than the seven shillings they were being paid, due soon to be reduced to six shillings. The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 had outlawed the 'combining' or gathering together of workers in order to campaign for better working conditions. This was in response to political uneasiness following the French Revolution. In 1824, these unpopular Acts were repealed and replaced with the Combinations of Workmen Act 1825, which made trade unions legal but with severe restrictions placed on their activities. In 1834, a local landowner and magistrate complained about the union to the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, who advised him to invoke an obscure law, the Unlawful Oaths Act 1797, which prohibited the swearing of 'secret oaths'. As a result, all six labourers were convicted of swearing such an oath and sentenced to transportation. Their supporters organised a political march and collected 800,000 signatures on a petition to have them released. The petition was successful and all the men were pardoned in March 1836. Another victory for working men, and this time with no bloodshed.
The case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, as it came to be known, did not lead directly to the formation of modern Trade Unions, but by the 1850s there were many more such unions and the Trades Union Congress was formed in 1868. The right to withdraw labour continues to be irksome for employers and the Government, as demonstrated by the present wave of strike actions and the Government’s anti-strikes bill which, as I write, is currently making its way through Parliament. But it remains the workers’ most powerful tool to improve their working conditions.
The Chartist Movement
As well as discontent with wages and working conditions, many working people were unhappy with the political system under which only property owners could vote. The Reform Act 1832 had failed to extend voting rights to those not owning property, and In 1836 the London Working Men's Association was founded, followed by the Carmarthen Working Men’s Association. This marked the beginning of a national protest movement known as the Chartist Movement, which took its name from the People's Charter of 1838. The People's Charter called for six reforms to make the political system more democratic:
A vote for every man aged twenty-one years and above, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime
The secret ballot to protect the elector in the exercise of his vote
No property qualification for Members of Parliament, to allow the constituencies to return the man of their choice
Payment of Members of Parliament, enabling tradesmen, working men, or other persons of modest means to leave or interrupt their livelihood to attend to the interests of the nation
Equal constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing less populous constituencies to have as much or more weight than larger ones
Annual Parliamentary elections, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since no purse could buy a constituency under a system of universal manhood suffrage in every twelve months
In June 1839, a petition, signed by 1.3 million working people, was presented to the House of Commons, but MPs voted, by a large majority, not to hear the petitioners. In early May 1842, a second petition, of over three million signatures, was submitted, and was yet again rejected by Parliament, although to gather three million signatures on a petition in the time before the internet and social media seems like quite an achievement to me.
In 1842 a wave of strikes in response to the cutting of wages by employers disturbed the country, beginning with the miners in Staffordshire, but quickly spreading throughout the country. One of the demands of the strikers was that 'the People's Charter becomes the Law of the Land'. The protests were unsuccessful and the state responded with the incarceration of hundreds of protesters. Several dozen were transported and one 19-year-old man was shot dead.
Chartism continued during the 1840s with further protests, arrests, transportations and further attempts at introducing the Charter as a legislative Bill in Parliament. Chartism did not directly generate any reforms. However, after 1848, its demands were taken up by other reformers and In 1867 some working men were admitted to the franchise under the Reform Act 1867. In 1918, full manhood suffrage was introduced. Secret voting was introduced in 1872 and the payment of MPs in 1911. Only the demand for annual elections remains unimplemented, a fact for which I, for one, am very grateful!
It will not have escaped the attention of the observant reader that women’s suffrage was nowhere mentioned in the Charter, and the women’s campaign, running from the 1850s until women in Britain finally achieved suffrage on the same terms as men in 1928, has already been explored by me in a previous issue. Suffice it to say that, like the other activism mentioned here, it only succeeded after a long and bumpy journey and as a result of the tenacity, courage and determination of ordinary people.
These struggles are reflected in present day popular activism in many regions of the world where people fight for basic human rights or to wrest power from corrupt regimes. According to the mass mobilisation data project, which tracks protests outside the United States, there have been nearly 7,000 protests from 153 countries over the past 10 years. While most protests range from hundreds to thousands of demonstrators, between 2010 and 2020, there were at least 900 protests around the world, each with more than 10,000 participants. To examine all of them would require a lengthy and probably not very readable thesis, but outstanding among those seeking democratic reform or regime change is the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ of 2010/11, the outcomes of which have been very mixed:
Four governments overthrown as part of the events
Six protests leading to governmental changes
Five major protests
Four minor protests
Three governments overthrown in the aftermath
Four civil wars in the aftermath (Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen)
Some popular uprisings are clearly more successful than others. Some appear to have failed completely, but then, as we have seen, sometimes apparently failed campaigns lead to eventual change much later on.
A movement which ended comparatively swiftly, and with what was seen by protesters as a good outcome, was the Indian farmers’ protests in 2020-21. Several farmers’ unions and political parties came out in protest at three new Indian Agriculture Acts which had received Presidential assent on 27th September 2020. After months of marches and protests by farmers, who feared that the omission from the Acts of a Minimum Support Price (MSP) would lead to the end of a government-guaranteed price floor and a reduction in the prices they would receive for their crops, the Acts were repealed on 1st December 2021.
However, many protesters lost their lives during the protests. Estimates vary, but according to Samyukt Kisan Morcha, a coalition of at least 40 farmers’ unions, as at 10 July 2021 the death toll stood at 537. Causes of death included heart attack, hypothermia, pneumonia, accident and suicide. There were also accusations of violence and fatal shootings by police. Journalists who reported these accusations were charged with sedition. In a televised address on 19 November 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that his Government would repeal the contentious laws in December, during the upcoming parliament. There have been suggestions that his decision may have been influenced by the forthcoming state elections in Punjab and Uttar Pradesh in 2022. Controversy over the affair persists as many farmers were actually in favour of the new laws, which would have deregulated agriculture and allowed the market to decide the prices of agricultural commodities. They claimed that the minimum support prices had actually weakened farmers, instead of empowering them.
I have written before about indigenous peoples around the world resisting the impacts of resource extraction and land grabbing by big corporate companies. Here are just a few more examples:
The Algonquins of Barriere Lake in Quebec, Canada, face a land and governance struggle against the Canadian Government. Since 1991, this dispute has hinged on a Trilateral Agreement, which both the Federal and Provincial governments have signed, but have failed to honour.
The Karipuna people of the Brazilian Amazon are fighting against illegal logging and land grabbing by closely monitoring activities in their forests and reporting their findings to the authorities, demanding the government take legal action against invaders causing the deforestation. Police operations have already been carried out in response to the Karipuna people’s reports, leading to arrests and confiscation of logging equipment.
The Ogiek are a hunter-gatherer tribe who have lived in the Mau Forest in Kenya’s Rift Valley since time immemorial. They have long suffered discrimination and eviction from their land, from colonial times to the present. Much of their forest home has been invaded and converted into illegal logging concessions, and their dwellings destroyed and set on fire. In a landmark decision in 2017, the African Court ruled that the government of Kenya has violated the rights of the Ogiek tribe by repeatedly evicting them from their ancestral lands. The case was brought by the Ogiek People's Development Program (OPDP), the Centre for Minority Rights Development (CEMIRIDE) and Minority Rights Group International, and was first lodged eight years ago.
Some of the grass roots struggles discussed here have been violent, others non-violent. Research conducted in 2019 by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, found that non-violent civil resistance is not only more ethical but clearly more effective than violent resistance. She concluded that it only takes 3.5% of the population actively participating in protest to ensure serious political change.
In these restless times it is easy to feel that ordinary people are at the mercy of venal governments or big multinational companies, and that there is little one can do to bring about change. But we should remember Aesop’s Fable about the bundle of sticks. An old man on the verge of death was worried about the fact that his many sons were always quarrelling. He presented them with a bundle of sticks and instructed them to break it. Each son in turn tried hard to break the bundle but failed. The old man then instructed them to each take a single stick and break it, which they were all easily able to do. Moral: ‘The breach of unity puts the world, and all that’s in’t, into a state of war, and turns every man’s hand against his brother; but so long as the band holds, ’tis the strength of all the several parts of it gathered into one.’ (Aesop’s Fables, L’Estrange version.)