The Chartists, civic vandalism, and destruction of our radical history

The Chartists, civic vandalism, and destruction of our radical history

This blog post started as a report on the campaign to save Newport’s Chartist mural. But before I finished writing, Newport Council moved in and started destroying this remarkable piece of public art.

This act of civic vandalism tells us a lot about what is, and is not, officially valued in British culture. Public artworks which commemorate the struggle for freedom and equality are few and undervalued, whilst those that celebrate the establishment are numerous and carefully preserved.

The Chartists were so named because in 1838 they produced a ‘People’s Charter’ - six modest demands for the reform of an electoral system which almost exclusively represented the interests of the rich and the landed gentry.

The movement was largely non-violent, believing in the moral force of its argument to achieve its aims. When civil disturbance seemed likely, however, the establishment reacted with overwhelming and lethal force. The 115ft Mural which has now been destroyed commemorated the events of 4th November 1839, when Chartists marched on a Newport hotel where magistrates were sitting. They were met by troops who opened fire. Twenty two Chartists were shot dead, and many more injured. The leaders of the march were sentenced to be hung drawn and quartered, though this was later commuted to transportation.

It is perhaps understandable, when all local authorities are facing drastic budget cuts, that Newport Council felt it could not justify spending money to preserve a piece of art. Nobody could argue that an artwork is more important than the care of an elderly or disabled person, for instance. But there are individuals or institutions in the UK with the resources to have saved this mural if they chose. Yet Newport City Council seemed determined not to allow time for a saviour to be found. And it is worth noting that even in this age of austerity, many millions of pounds can be found to save art for the nation when it is valued highly enough.

There is undoubtedly a tendency in the UK to commemorate people or events approved of by the Establishment, but a marked reluctance to commemorate anything vaguely radical, no matter how historic and significant. Consider the Peterloo Massacre, which occurred in Manchester in 1819. Cavalry troops attacked a peaceful crowd of people who had gathered to listen to anti-poverty, pro-democracy speakers. Eleven people were killed and around 500 injured, but so far this dramatic event has been marked by a simple wall plaque. There is a campaign for a ‘prominent, explanatory, and respectful’ memorial which now seems close to being successful. But it should not have taken almost 200 years.

Also in Manchester, Emmeline Pankhurst’s home, and birthplace of the Suffragette movement, fell into dereliction and had to be restored by women volunteers, who now maintain it on a shoestring.

All this seems to tie in with the current controversy over the Daily Mail and its treatment of Professor Ralph Miliband. Professor Miliband was part of a generation of Socialists who fought in the Second World War, many of whom went on to establish the NHS, free secondary school education for all, and many other of Britain’s great post-war achievements. That the Daily Mail is now trying to paint such a man as someone who left ‘an evil legacy’ is ludicrous, but perhaps part of an ongoing process to erase any regard for radical progressive politics from our national consciousness.

It is interesting to note that when Ekklesia brought forward proposals to make St George's Day, a day to celebrate and remember our radical past, The Daily Mail quickly condemned them.

The Chartists, the Suffragettes, the people massacred at Peterloo, all would have been dangerous radicals to the Daily Mail, but without their spirits our country would be infinitely poorer and less free. We should never forget them.

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© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. You can follow her on Twitter: @BernaMeaden

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