Monday, 31 March 2008

Legacy of Chartism

Both Labour and Plaid Cymru have a poor sense of history if they are both claiming to be the successors of the Chartists. The Charter may have arisen from the London Workingmen's Association, but it was not a socialist document.

Rather it was a demand for democratic freedoms. One can well imagine the original Chartists railing against the curtailing of civil liberties which New Labour has overseen. Moreover, Labour has had the chance to enact the only remaining unfulfilled aim of the Charter, that of fixed-term Westminster parliaments, and failed. (The Charter called for annual parliaments, but that seems rather impractical nowadays. However, the principle of regularly calling MPs to account, as we do in Wales and Scotland, and in local government, still stands.)

Ivor Bulmer-Thomas, in "The Growth of the British Party System", wrote:
[in 1839] plans for a march on Newport from the mining valleys of Monmouthshire led to a bloody clash with the armed forces. The leaders were sentenced to death, later modified to transportation, and most of the Chartist leaders in other parts of the country were imprisoned. For the time being Chartism was suppressed, but Whigs and Tories had been given a sharp reminder that their gilded life was lived only on the surface of society.

Another reminder is overdue.

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