Monday, 7 November 2011

The Blanketeers, Leek and the language of dissent.

One Tuesday in March 1817 the horrified people of Leek awoke to find 400 demonstrators had arrived in the town overnight. The group of decent working men had left Manchester to present a petition to Prince Regent protesting against the poverty and unemployment effecting cotton workers. England after the Napoleonic War was in the grip of a severe economic recession. Many radicals thought the Tory Government of aristocrats indifferent to the plight of the common man. As they slept rough, the marchers carried rolled up blankets on their shoulders to keep them warm at night. They were dubbed "The Blanketeers. The protestors marched peacefully passing through Stockport and Macclesfield before arriving in Leek.

The response of authority was a panicky one. They called out the local Yeomanry under the command of Lieutenant Copeland fearful of the possibility of violence. The vicar of Leek and magistrate Edward Powys ordered the detention of the Blanketeers and many were arrested. Local newspapers reported on the marchers describing them as " subservient to the all too evident design of disorganising society and destroying the constitution. They were dismissed as " gaping gulls who surround the altar of sedition made dupes by artful and wilful men".

What struck me about the accounts was the condescending language used about the Blanketeers is now used about the anti capitalist protestors at St Paul’s. Melanie Phillips wrote "The idea that this supremely self-indulgent exercise is a spontaneous protest by ordinary people is wide of the mark. The similarity of these worldwide tent cities suggests that a high degree of co-ordination is involved".

That comment tells me that the St Paul protestors are regarded as the Blanketeers were as "gaping gulls made dupes by the artful", unable to make their own analysis or come up with solutions. Something should not be forgotten that the Blanketeers were the beginning of a long campaign that ultimately achieved much of what they wanted. The right to vote, a welfare state, work reform and the ability to hold governments to account were all gained. We should recall this when today’s St Paul protestors are mocked.