On 16 August 1819 in Manchester people were killed by the military at a mass meeting called to demand for the vote for working men: it became known as “ the Peterloo Massacre”. Growing up in Manchester in the 1970s I learnt about it in school. At that time the Council and the school felt it was important that children should know about a local event that had been the first step towards a democratic system in this country.
On 17 August 2014 a group of people called the Peterloo Massacre Memorial Campaign held their annual event outside the Manchester Conference Centre to commemorate Peterloo at which the names of the dead were read out. As in 1819 people from outlying boroughs of Manchester, including Bolton and Middleton, attended the event. Councillor Paul Murphy attended as the official representative of Manchester City Council.
At the same time, and about a five minute walk away in Albert Square, a protest Remember the Children of Gaza took place at which the names of the many children killed in the recent conflict were read out.
I spoke to a number of people who attended the events and it was very clear that there were big differences in why people were attending the events and their understanding of what those events meant. I think these two events raise questions about the role of history in modern day life and its link with current events that we see on television every night.
PMCG has a policy of not allowing banners or any reference to present day political events. Paul Fitzgerald of the campaign said;” “Peterloo challenges us about what we’ve done with the legacy they passed on to us, and to ask whether or not we’ve nurtured and deepened the democracy we inherited from their sacrifice.” They believe that once the memorial is up in 2019, it will then act as a focus for political activity and discussion on democracy.
But it is not Peterloo nor even the level of cuts that are being made by the City Council that have energised politics in Manchester over the last six months but the conflict in Gaza. This issue brought thousands of people onto the streets of Manchester in demonstrations with many people also taking part in a daily picket of the Kedem shop in the city which, campaigners claim, sells Dead Sea cosmetics “extracted and processed from mud and minerals in …illegal settlements”
The growing anger of people towards the number of deaths of Palestinians in Gaza has been reflected in the numbers of people who have taken part in the Kedem picket. The local newspaper, the Manchester Evening News, has had regular articles and filled many pages with letters from people who have strong opinions about what is happening in Gaza.
Just as in 1819 at Peterloo, in 2014 the protests around Gaza have also brought up issues about the peoples’ right to protest on the streets of Manchester.
Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council said; “This council cannot support those who seek to bring this conflict into our city and drive wedges between communities whose home is not the Middle East but is here in Manchester. “We cannot support the use of language that would not have been out of place in 1930s’ Germany. “[The council] cannot support Manchester businesses, their staff and their customers being subject to abuse and intimidation as they attempt to go about their ordinary, everyday lives.”
Pia Feig, an activist in the Jews for Justice for Palestinians, who has regularly attended the Kedem Picket feels that the response of Manchester City Council to Peterloo and the Gaza issue reflects the nature of Labour Party politics, both in the city and nationally.
“They are the representatives of big business and have no identification with working people. Their involvement with Peterloo is purely sentimental and in fact their policy towards the Kedem picket is really aping the yeomanry in 1819.”
I have asked Manchester City Council and Paul Murphy for a comment but they have not responded.
As the numbers of people who attended the daily pickets of the Kedem shop increased and people were arrested by the police so Manchester City Council put pressure on the Greater Manchester Police to restrict the protest. The police issued a Public Order section 14 notice which gives the power to a senior officer to move protesters and disperse them if there is an imminent threat of violence. Originally this section covered the whole of the city centre of Manchester and related to any protest about the Middle East.
This policing was reflected in the experiences of some people going to the Peterloo event. Chris Chilton is chair of the Bolton Socialist Club and on 17 August, with some Club members, walked the same route as protestors in 1819 took to Peterloo Fields, about 12 miles. He has taken part in several of the Gaza protests .One thing he did notice was on their way through the city centre; “The police stopped us and asked us if we were going to the Gaza protest.”
The Bolton Socialist Club have a historical tradition of supporting all kinds of political causes so I asked Chris how he felt about the way in which the Peterloo event is staged. He said; “We were told there were to be no political banners and that it was to be kept historical. I felt this was about keeping in with Manchester City Council and keeping the money for the monument.”
Gaynor Lloyd, who attended both events, and is an activist on campaigns around the privatisation of the NHS, believes there are links between the two events;
“Peterloo does raise issues about democracy today. I feel democracy is broken and that for the Left in particular there is little representation within the present system”.
She was disturbed by the theatrical nature of the Peterloo event. “I thought it was strange that people clapped after Maxine Peake gave the Sam Bamford speech. I think people should be strongly protesting about the state of our political system today.”
Jennifer Reid walked with her group from Middleton, some 10 miles, to the event. She is one of the youngest people, aged 23 years, involved in raising the issue of Peterloo. But she is not happy about the direction of the PMCG. “They are just a group of old men who want to control history and only organise an event once a year.” Jennifer’s aim is to get to the people, and particularly children, who know nothing about Peterloo and inspire them to get involved with a range of events. Her latest idea is to set up a music group called; Young Peoples Historical Awareness With Funk and Soul Appreciation Group, the aim being to organise a very different commemoration of Peterloo in 2015!
Looking around at the participants at the Peterloo event it was noticeable that there were people there who do not usually attend demonstrations. The overall atmosphere was lighthearted, the audience mainly middle aged, well off and white, with lots of people taking photos and it seemed very distant from the events that were being commemorated which it is important to remember included 18 violent deaths and nearly 700 injuries .
At the Gaza protest there were many young people, some representing the Palestinian and Muslim communities, and people who looked much poorer than those at the Peterloo event. There were stalls with information about people being threatened with deportation and selling merchandise to raise money to support the campaign around Gaza. They did not have a representative from Manchester City Council speaking although some Labour councillors did take part.
At the Gaza event as the names of the children who had been killed in Gaza were read out, the silence was only broken by the sounds of people crying. Gaynor Lloyd was so touched by the ceremony that she was spurred into action: “I rang back to the GMex to get people from the Peterloo event to join in. But when I got there everyone had gone.”
Michael Herbert, Manchester’s leading historian of the city’s radical movements and author of “Up Then Brave Women: Manchester’s Radical Women 1819-1918 also attended both events. He is very critical of the way that Peterloo is being remembered:
“I think the challenge that the radicals of 1819 posed to the rich and powerful in society ie the politicians, the monarchy, the landowners, the legal system, the church etc has been written out of the story and Peterloo been incorporated into the heritage and tourist industry as a “safe” event. There is no point in remembering Peterloo if you cannot talk about its resonances with the world today. I am now against a memorial, I feel that the best way to remember Peterloo is get involved in a political campaign which challenges power”.
These two events together do raise issues about how we remember our past and also who decides how it should be remembered. At a time of increasing anger and a huge lack of belief in the political parties the commemoration of an event such as Peterloo do make us ask these questions.
Peterloo was one event, though not the only one, which shaped the type of democracy in this country, but does the present organising group really represent that in their events? Is it a question of memorialising our past? Of sanitising it at a time when we should be questioning how we have ended up in the present state of our political system? Is a monument in a city centre that is being sold off to developers the right way to do it? And in the future if people want to gather at the monument will they be issued with restraining orders by the city council ?