Wednesday 16 December 2009

A Hunt for the Masses

Dear old Henry 'Orator' Hunt, the star of the Peterloo Massacre, a man who has had a particularly bad historical press. There have, however, been one or two attempts to redress the balance, and he is now more properly seen as a pioneer of working-class radicalism, and an important influence on the later Chartist movement.

He was first draw into radical politics during the Napoleonic Wars, becoming a supporter of Francis Burdett. His talent for public speaking became noted in the electoral politics of Bristol, where he denounced the complacency of both the Whigs and the Tories, and proclaimed himself a supporter of democratic radicalism. It was thanks to his particular talents that a new programme beyond the narrow politics of the day made steady progress in the difficult years that followed the conclusion of the war with France. Because of his rousing speeches at mass meetings held in Spa Fields in London in 1817-18 he became known as the 'Orator', a term of disparagement accorded by his enemies. He embraced a programme that included annual parliaments and universal suffrage, promoted openly and with none of the conspiratorial element of the old Jacobin clubs. The tactic he most favoured was that of 'mass pressure', which he felt, if given enough weight, could achieve reform without insurrection.

Although his efforts at mass politics had the effect of radicalising large sections of the community unrepresented in Parliament, there were clear limits as to how far this could be taken. The debacle at Peterloo, caused by an overreaction of the local Manchester authorities, added greatly to his prestige, but it advanced the cause not one step. Moral force was not sufficient in itself, and physical force entailed too great a risk. Although urged to do so after Peterloo, Hunt refused to give his approval to schemes for a full-scale insurrection. Thereby all momentum was lost, as more desperate souls turned to worn out cloak-and-dagger schemes, which surfaced in the Cato Street Conspiracy.

While in prison for his part in Peterloo, Hunt turned to writing, to putting his message across through a variety of forms, including an autobiography, his very own Mein Kampf, and just as tedious and self-regarding! After his release he attempted to recover some of his lost fortune by beginning new business ventures in London, which included the production and marketing of a roasted corn 'Breakfast Powder', the "most salubrious and nourishing Beverage that can be substituted for the use of Tea and Coffee, which are always exciting, and frequently the most irritating to the Stomach and Bowels." Catchy, is it not!? He also made shoe-blacking bottles, which carried the slogan "Equal Laws, Equal Rights, Annual Parliaments, Universal Suffrage, and the Ballot." Synthetic coal, intended specifically for the French market, was another of his schemes. After the July Revolution in 1830 he sent samples to Gilbert du Motier, marquis de La Fayette and other political heroes, along with fraternal greetings.

Business interests notwithstanding, he still found time for practical politics, fighting battles over a whole range of issues, and always pushing for reform and accountability. As a consistent champion of the working classes, a term he used with increasing frequency, he opposed the Whigs, both old and new, and the Reform Act of 1832, which he believed did not go far enough in the extension of the franchise. He gave speeches addressed to the 'Working Classes and no other', urging them to press for full equal rights. In his opposition to the Reform Bill he revived the Great Northern Union, a pressure group he set up some years before, intended to unite the northern industrial workers behind a platform of full democratic reform; and it is in this specifically that we can detect the germs of Chartism. Worn out by his struggles he died in 1835, like Moses never to see the Promised Land.

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