Mike Leigh makes singular and successful films. Vera Drake, a gritty and morally ambivalent portrayal of a backstreet abortionist in 1950s London, won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Topsy Turvy, a witty and faithful tribute to the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, won two Oscars. Mr Turner gained Timothy Spall the Cannes Festival’s ‘Best Actor’ award for his portrait of the great artist.
One of the characteristics of Leigh’s films is authentic period detail, and his latest, Peterloo, released next month, promises to be his most dramatic historical spectacle yet. It also appears to be his most polemical. All children should be taught about ‘Peterloo’ (whose 200th anniversary falls next year), says the veteran filmmaker:
“They will know about 1066 and Magna Carta and Henry VIII and his six wives and they may be told about the French revolution and the battle of Waterloo … [but Peterloo] was a major, major event which resonated down the 19th century into the 20th century in the context of democracy and suffrage.”
If the claim is true then, why do so few people know about it? Was it really on a par with Magna Carta and the French revolution, or is Mike Leigh giving it a significance it never had – and thereby contemporary resonance? One of the film’s leading actors, Maxine Peake, said recently at an event to mark next year’s bicentenary:
“We’re in a very dangerous place politically at the moment and protest is really important. We’ve got to remember our history to move forward… People say protest is defunct nowadays and I think that’s wrong. We need it more than ever, we need people physically coming together in events. I may be being a bit of a scaremonger, but I feel it might not be long before we have another Peterloo incident. You look at events like Grenfell and Hillsborough, where working-class people were ignored and disrespected by those in charge and there were huge cover-ups.”
So what exactly was this 19th-century precursor of Grenfell and Hillsborough? Peterloo, says the normally reliable Encyclopædia Britannica, was:
“the brutal dispersal by cavalry of a radical meeting held on St Peter’s Fields in Manchester [hence the ironic conflation of “Peter” and “Waterloo”] on 16 August 1819. The ‘massacre’ attests to the profound fears of the privileged classes of the imminence of violent Jacobin revolution in England in the years after the Napoleonic Wars. To radicals and reformers Peterloo came to symbolize Tory callousness and tyranny.”
Bloody it certainly was: 11 men and four women were killed or died of injuries, most of them trampled by horses. But was it “brutal”, with the connotation of intentional savagery – bloodthirstiness, even – or was it more the case of ineptitude by the civil power, and lack of skill by the military? “Only in England do they call that a massacre,” sneered one French diplomat.
The Manchester meeting was the culmination of a series of political rallies, some of them violent, such as that at Spa Fields in London three years earlier. The organisers at Spa Fields had intended it as a test-run for a full-scale rebellion, wanting to gauge how much popular support they might command. Since Spa Fields the economic climate had worsened further: 1819 was a year of particularly severe industrial depression and high food prices. The high prices were in part the result of the “Corn Laws” introduced in 1815 – tariffs and other trade restrictions on imported food and grain to keep prices high to favour domestic producers.
The laws had been passed by an overwhelmingly landed parliament whose members appeared to be unfairly protecting their own interests. Yet unless domestic producers were protected, ran the argument, they would be unable to compete, would cease production, and the country would then be at the mercy of foreign suppliers who would then be able to fix a far higher price – or even to use the threat of it as a weapon of war. There were honourable men on both sides of the pro- and anti-Corn Law argument; indeed, the issue eventually split the Tory party.
The organisers of the Manchester meeting were not intent on insurrection, however; rather they wished to exert what one of the speakers, the leading radical Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, called “mass pressure”. Some 60,000 people converged on the three acres of St Peter’s Field that day in August, including many women and children. There was no police force at that time, only ward and parish constables reinforced by specials, and the magistrates, not unreasonably anxious about the destructive potential of a large gathering (the population of Manchester itself was only about 100,000), had applied for a strong body of troops to stand by in case of disorder.
Several troops of the Manchester and Salford, and the Cheshire, Yeomanry – local horsed volunteers – were therefore on stand-by, together with a squadron of regular cavalry of the 15th Hussars, and companies of the 88th Foot (The Connaught Rangers). On the day itself the magistrates appear to have been surprised – and become alarmed – by just how large a crowd had gathered, and as soon as the oratory began ordered the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry to arrest the speakers. Why they didn’t do so before they took to the platform remains a mystery.
Yeomanry regiments, raised 30 years earlier at the height of the French invasion scare, and kept on after Waterloo as a reliable aid to keeping the peace, were composed of men of some standing in their locality, owning their own horse. In the shires they were generally drawn from the yeoman class of small-holders (hence the name) and tenant farmers, and were usually under the good regulation of their gentry officers. In the towns they were from the merchant classes, and were therefore less “feudal” and not so disciplined – as well as being poorer horsemen.
Sixty troopers of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry attempted to force their way through the crowd to arrest Hunt, but in doing so lost control of their mounts and of themselves. The more they flayed about, isolated in ones and twos, the more the crowd jeered and jostled them. Brickbats were thrown. The magistrates panicked and ordered the 15th Hussars to rescue them by clearing the field. There is no evidence that, as Encyclopædia Britannica puts it, the Hussars were ordered to “join the attack” – not least because the Yeomanry themselves had not been ordered to attack.
At first the crowd had some difficulty in dispersing, as the Connaughts standing with bayonets fixed blocked the exit into Peter Street. An officer of the 15th Hussars was heard trying to restrain the yeomen, who in panic or malevolence – who can tell? – were now lashing out with the sabre: “For shame! For shame! Gentlemen: forbear, forbear! The people cannot get away!”
In 10 minutes, the place was cleared except for bodies (as many as 500 may have been injured). Hunt and the other radical leaders were arrested, and in due course tried and convicted. Hunt was sent down for two years. None were brought to justice for the killing of a special constable by a portion of the crowd fleeing the square.
Though it was a disgrace to both the authorities and the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, a tragedy for those killed and injured, and poetic inspiration for radicals such as Shelley (who on reading of the affair would pen The Mask of Anarchy and his defiant England in 1819), Peterloo was not a turning point in British history. There is little evidence that it did much to advance the cause of “democracy and suffrage”, even though some insist this was the case, not least because that was not the object of those attending the meeting.
But to the poor of Manchester and the surrounding towns and villages, improvement in their economic condition was the object. Reform of parliament was simply the means to that end. And as the economy improved in the next decade (and, it must be said, the authorities began an effective crackdown on mass protest), popular support for radical reform faded – at least until 1831, when once again an economic downturn lent support to the Whigs’ calls for parliamentary reform.
Ironically, Peterloo had more effect on the military than on the political. When great violence erupted in Bristol in 1831, after the defeat of the Reform Bill by the Tory-dominated House of Lords, the military authorities – all too mindful of the opprobrium that followed from Peterloo – were dilatory in responding to the magistrates’ calls for aid. The resulting death and destruction was far greater than it had been in Manchester.
Yet Marxist historians such as the late Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm were always at pains to place Peterloo at the centre of the story of “democracy and suffrage”. Why? As I explain, Das Kapital’s historical examples (it is first and foremost a work of economic and social history) argue that change cannot come without violence. Violence against protesters, therefore, is always perversely welcome, providing justification for violence in return against the state.
So when in January this year the author and journalist Stephen Bates, in a long read in The Guardian, claimed that the “Peterloo massacre has become a battle honour for the left, its memory played out in a thousand mass meetings, in a direct line from August 1819 to Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign rallies today”, he distorts the historical truth. Not only is it at odds with Mike Leigh’s assertion that few people have heard of Peterloo, it betrays the Left’s entirely romantic reading of history. Britain’s path to modern democracy was not decided by street protest. No “glorious Phantom”, to use Shelley’s words, “Burst, to illumine our tempestuous day.”
And when Maxine Peake, a Mancunian proud of her working-class roots, compares Peterloo with Grenfell and Hillsborough, she not only gives Peterloo greater weight than it can bear (and vice versa), she gives a nudge and wink to the notion that violence might work again. She asks (implicitly) if she’s scaremongering. No, she isn’t scaremongering; she’s being inflammatory.
I hope that Mike Leigh’s Peterloo will garner as many awards as his previous films, but for the right reasons. Weaponising history is perilous enough; but weaponising fake history is downright dangerous.