Mike Sanders’ address
THE BLACKSTONE EDGE GATHERING 2013
We’re here to commemorate and celebrate – The Blackstone Edge Gathering – a meeting held on this site almost 170 years ago on August 1st 1846. 30,000 Chartists from Yorkshire and Lancashire gathered here to show their commitment to the People’s Charter and to hear speeches from a number of Chartist leaders, including Ben Rushden of Ovenden – the leader of Calderdale Chartism. The day after the Blackstone Edge meeting, Feargus O’Connor (the movement’s national leader) wrote “My heart expands as I sit down to write to you…I am full of what I saw yesterday upon the bleak mountain-side. I saw THIRTY THOUSAND confirmed Chartists, some of whom had travelled over thirty miles to renew their covenant.” Well, we’re not quite thirty thousand strong yet but a number of us have travelled more than thirty miles and one of us, Chloe Mason, has travelled from Australia to be at today’s event.
When the Chartist newspaper, the Northern Star, reported on the Blackstone Edge Gathering, it described the meeting as follows:
“Sunday last may be considered as the resurrection day of Chartism…on the summit of a bleak wild mountain – THE BACKBONE OF ENGLAND – a formidable gathering… [assembled at] a beautiful ampitheatre from which the world below looked like a cast deserted plain. At half past two o’clock, Mr O’Connor, Mr Jones, Dr McDouall and the Managing Committee from Manchester, had reached the summit and were loudly and enthusiastically cheered.”
You’ll notice that the Northern Star talks of the “resurrection” of Chartism and Feargus O’Connor too speaks of “renewal”. This reminds us that Chartism was already 9 years old by this stage, and had already enjoyed an eventful history in which the West Riding had played an important role. In January 1840 there had had been attempted risings in Bradford (led by Robert Peddie) and in Sheffield (led by Samuel Holberry). These were in response to the rejection of the first Chartist Petition and followed another attempted insurrection in Newport, South Wakes in 1839. In 1842, the West Riding was part of the storm centre of the mass strike-wave, known as the ‘Plug Plot Riots’, which followed the rejection of the second national petition. During this strike Ben Rushton provide local leadership addressing a mass meeting on Skircoar Moor at 5am on the 15th August and another at Hawksclough later the same day. From Hawksclough the strikers marched to Halifax, where their arrival was described by the Leeds Mercury as follows:
“…not less than from 15,000 to 20,000 [people], came from the neighbourhood of Bradford, Hebden Bridge [and] Todmorden…There were at least 5,000 from Hebden Bridge and they entered the town singing the hundredth psalm.”
This crowd was dispersed by cavalry and some 18 strikers were arrested at Akroyd’s Mills. The following day an attempt was made to rescue these prisoners while they were being taken under cavalry escort to Elland station.
After 1842 the Chartist movement went into decline. However, it seemed to acquire a new lease of life in 1845 when O’Connor announced the formation of the Chartist Land Co-Operative Society. In essence, this ‘Land Plan’ involved raising money from subscriptions to buy land which would then be rented out in 2, 3 and 4 acre allotments (complete with cottages), to members of the Chartist Land Co-op. The rent would be used to buy more land, which would be rented out to members and so the scheme would continue. This plan which offered the prospect of ‘independence’ and a good home proved incredibly popular with working people – Halifax Chartists alone subscribed nearly £200 (at least £10,000 today) in 1845 alone. The size of the Blackstone Edge gathering in 1846 reflected the movement’s gathering momentum.
And so, 29,999 Chartist climbed to this place in August 1846. I say 29,999 climbed because the Northern Star reports that Mr Thomas Livesey of Rochdale (described by the paper as ” a remarkable stout man”) rode his “celebrated race-horse ‘Bando’ to the top of the mountain.” The Northern Star also records that Ben Rushton was “unanimously called to the chair”. On taking the chair, Rushton called for order and told the meeting that “the squire had made a request that in their passage across the mountain they would not disturb the rest of his birds.” Rushton waited for the crowd’s laughter to die down before commenting acidly that “Those gentlemen, thought but little of the rest of the toiling millions, as compared with the rest of those birds that ministered to their amusement. It would be well for themselves and for the country, if they thought more of their duties and less of their sports.” He then introduced the assembled speakers to the crowd.
Amongst those speakers was Ernest Jones, a young man from a relatively privileged background (his father had been the Duke of Cumberland’s aide-de-camp). Ernest Jones was a barrister and a published poet who had literally just taken the momentous decision to join the Chartist movement. His speech at Blackstone Edge was his maiden outdoor speech, and it made such an impression on the Halifax Chartists that they invited him to stand as their candidate in the following year’s General Election. Re-reading the reports of Ernest Jones’s speech in preparation for this meeting I was struck first by the differences between the problems facing the Chartists in 1846 and those facing us today. Then, however, it was the resonances and similarities between our situation and that in 1846 which drew my attention.
First, the differences: it occurred to me that the problems with which our political system is grappling are, in one sense, the mirror opposites of those confronting the Chartists. In 1846, there was a politically engaged and committed populace – 30,000 people on Blackstone Edge testify to that – and for them, the problem was how to secure proper political representation, in short how to get the vote. Today, we have the vote – our problem is how to get more people directly interested in and involved with democratic politics.
Does the Chartist experience offer any suggestions, any lessons as to how the problems of widespread political apathy and cynicism about politics and politicians might be solved? Well, not only can their example serve as a continuing inspiration to us all – once you’ve learnt how long the people of this country had to campaign to secure those basic democratic rights and civil liberties we enjoy, it becomes more difficult to take them for granted. But more than that, the Chartist belief in the ability of ordinary, working people to develop policies, to find answers to the problems they faced in daily life – that is to say a belief that politics could, and should, be a bottom-up rather than a top down process – it is this which arguably offers the best way of re-invigorating our democracy.
However, as I read Jones’s speech I was also struck by the, often uncanny, way in which the issues and themes he identifies have a continuing contemporary relevance. In particular, four aspects of his speech stand out in this respect. Firstly, Jones identifies a dangerous gap which exists between popular understanding and the increasingly dogmatic insistence on the part of politicians and assorted ‘experts’ that “they know best”. In 1846, Jones put it like this:
“They say we are too ignorant to enjoy the franchise; we, ourselves, do not know what we want; we are no judges of what would be good for us. Does a man know what he wants when he is starving? And sees the rich rolling on in riotous profusion? He’ll tell you that he wants food – but then, they say, that’s all his folly – it’s the workhouse that he wants!”
If Jones were here today, I suspect he would say something along the lines of “The doctors, the nurses, the teachers and many other public and private sector workers , say that they want are more resources and to be trusted to get on with their jobs – but they say – no, what you need is more austerity and more managers, more directives and more outside consultants to tell you how to your job properly!”
Secondly, Jones identifies the need to establish what we could a ‘life/work’ balance. Speaking to his C19th audience, Jones puts it like this:
“Does a man know what he wants when he is sinking with overwork, that the wealthy may enjoy their sumptuous indolence? He’ll tell you he wants some hours of rest; but then they say that’s idleness and crime! It’s the gaol that he wants!”
If he were speaking today, I think Jones would reflect on the grotesque inequalities in the distribution of working hours – where mass unemployment is accompanied by the longest working-hours in Western Europe and would ask what good are the benefits of a ‘flexible labour-market’ and globalisation if they continually result in longer hours for diminishing levels of pay and increasing joblessness?
Thirdly, Jones raises the question of whether Parliament is to be anything more than a rich man’s club. One of the arguments used by opponents of the Charter was that it would be unfair if a poor man’s vote was to be equal to that of a rich man. Jones responds to this argument:
“What? are pounds sterling or living souls to be represented in our house of Parliament? What? are the interests of a man possessing a million pounds to be cared for a million times more? This – this is what their argument involves. This, then, is their philanthropy! Out upon them! they have but legislated for their money-bags – we will legislate for our fellow-men. The interests they tried to promote, was the interest of their vested capital, the interests we will further, shall be those of humanity all over the world.”
Well, where do I begin? I can imagine Jones saying today – a cabinet consisting mainly of public schoolboys from millionaire families, the number of MPs holding multiple company directorships, a so-called ‘revolving door’ between the civil service and big business, to say nothing of the cash for questions, the sale of honours and the recent MPs’ expenses scandal. Parliament seems to be as much of a rich man’s club in 2013 as it was in my day,
Finally, Jones contrasts the then Government’s willingness to commit money to military expenditure with their reluctance to spend on social welfare. In 1846, Jones observes:
“The means, they took to further their interests, put bloodshed and violence at a premium. They can build Greenwich and Chelsea palaces for the men, who plough the sea, and handle the bayonet, but what have they built for the men who plough the land and handle the loom? – Oh! [for them] they have built Poor-law Bastiles and Union-workhouses!”
Iraq, Afghanistan, the government’s continuing lethal love affair with our so-called ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent. Indeed, if Jones were alive today not only would he be distraught at the continuing loss of life in so many neo-imperial wars but he might also be baffled at the way in which the medical needs of our serving soldiers frequently appear to be ignored as well as the way in which our own veterans are left to languish on miserly state pensions rather than enjoying the comforts of state palaces.
From a distance of almost 170 years, Chartism continues to speak to our lives. The continuing relevance of their ideas and ideals alike is unmistakeable. Chartism called for an active and engaged citizenry, not as some kind of utopian dream but because they understood that there is a deeper content to democracy. For the Chartists, democracy could not be reduced to making a mark on a slip of paper every few years – they understood this could never be anything more than a means to an end. They understood that democracy, real democracy, was a way of obtaining better and more rewarding work, better and more fulfilling lives, and a better because a more just society. The Chartists were not naive, they did not think that the vote alone would bring this about – which is why so many Chartists also played key roles within local Co-operative Societies and trades unions. Chartism understood that it is only through richer and fuller democratic structures capable of harnessing the enthusiasm, skill and knowledge of every member of society – that a better society can be built.
The Blackstone Edge Gathering of 1846 was intended to be an inspirational event and it certainly inspired Ernest Jones who, less than 3 weeks after the meeting, published a poem in the Northern Star called, quite simply, ‘The Blackstone-Edge Gathering’. That poem which was set to music (and which I’m hoping will be sung later today) contained the following verses:
But waved the wind on Blackstone height
A standard of the broad sunlight
And sung, that morn, with trumpet might,
A sounding song of Liberty.
And grew the glorious music higher,
When pouring with his heart on fire,
Old Yorkshire came, with Lancashire,
And all its noblest chivalry.
The men, who give, — not those, who take;
The hands, that bless, — yet hearts that break;
These toilers for their foemen’s sake;
Our England’s true nobility
How distant cities quaked to hear,
When rolled from that high hill the cheer,
Of – Hope to slaves! to tyrants fear!
And God and man for liberty!
At a distance of almost 170 years, the Blackstone Edge Gathering continues to be an inspirational event. Back then, Chartist meetings invariably ended with a call of ‘Three Cheers for the Charter’ and with your permission, I’d like to end by resurrecting this practice and calling for:
THREE CHEERS FOR THE CHARTER
HIP HIP HOORAY!