About Common Threads

Background as CEO in aerospace/defence, IT, Mergers/Acquisitions/Turnrounds followed by NGO's such as Global Witness / Transparency International (TI). Now, Trustee at TI-UK and Chair the world-wide Defence and Security programme. Also, a writer - Last Line of Defense some time ago and now written 'All the People' on the drive for democracy and the vote in 19th Century England - publishing on 28 Jan 2020

William Hull – The Artist of Rydal – born 6 May 1820

“….that Nature never did betray

The heart that loved her..”

William Wordsworth:Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour. July 13, 1798


So wrote Thomas Read Wilkinson, quoting Wordsworth within a Memoriam to William Hull, written a few days after his death in 1880. Many know that the Poet of Rydal was William Wordsworth, who lived from 1813 until his death in 1850 in Rydal Mount in the beautiful Lake District village of Grasmere.

Few know that there was also an ‘Artist of Rydal’, who lived the last 10 years of his life in a house at the foot of Wordsworth’s home, as close as he could be to the memory of the man whose nature poetry he worshipped and tried, throughout his life, to emulate in visual form. That man was William Hull, who was born 200 years ago on this day, 6th May, 1820.

While the poems of the poet laureate, William Wordsworth, are rightly remembered and still enjoyed by many, the paintings of William Hull remain largely undiscovered and his life unknown. Perhaps my keen interest in William evolved from more than my knowledge of his paintings. Perhaps I have been fortunate enough to see deeply into his work as a result of my understanding of his life, for when that it understood, his paintings allow an absorption that his friend, John Ruskin, might have discerned or that a buyer of his work, such as Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, might well have perceived.


A good example is Harvest Scene (shown above), believed to have been one of the three paintings of William’s exhibited at the 1857 Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester. Prince Albert is understood to have bought this and one other, prompting his friend Thomas Letherbrow to note in his Memorial to William, published in The Portfolio in 1886: “It may seem strange …..  though he was appreciated by so good a judge as Prince Albert (who during his visit to Manchester in 1857, manifested his approval of our artist’s work by purchasing a couple of specimens) he should be so little known.”

This was written 134 years ago, so little wonder, if he was “so little known” then, that he should be almost forgotten now. Yet, once a sufficient number of his pictures are seen and then those images are wrapped within the tales of his life, his compassion, the deepest of struggles that never diminished his congeniality, it is hard not to be infected with a desire to see more of his work and to see more within each one.

Who Was William Hull?

My knowledge of the forgotten “Artist of Rydal” came from research into a book that I have recently published: All the People. That is a story (written in the form of a novel) centred on his father, James Hull, as he took his wife and children from a farming life in Bedfordshire into the harshness of a Manchester riddled with poverty and disease in the 1830s. James was a missionary for the United Brethren, the Moravians, and the story is about his mission of restoring a semblance of life for the people of Little Ireland in Manchester in the early nineteenth century and those, like Hugh Hornby Birley, a mill owner who led the Yeomanry at Peterloo in 1819, and who constantly fought against James and all those that threatened the established order


William was James’s fourth child and one of two brothers that, from an early age, were fascinated by the natural world around them and determined to build that excitement into visual art. The brother, Edward Hull, became an engraver and a well-respected newspaper illustrator for the The Illustrated London News as well as a renowned book illustrator.

William’s future had, his father prayed, been decided when he was sent to Ockbrook, a Moravian school, where it was assumed he would follow its teachings into a church calling. Unfortunately for James, one of the teachers there was Alexander Crossart Hasse, whose family ran a printers in Bradford. Alexander was an artist and, discovering William’s ability, provided patient instruction. Therefore, some years later, when William was a teacher at a Moravian school at Gracehill in Ballymena, Ireland, he decided to leave the church to pursue a life in the arts. His father, somewhat distressed, found him a job in a printers, Blacklock and Bradshaw in Manchester. It was a business that was fast becoming known for its railway guides but it did not appeal to William, who found alternative employ with M. Janvrin, a merchant from Jersey. He took William throughout Europe as a tutor for his two sons. It was a journey that lasted several years and afforded ample time for William wrap himself inside the landscapes of Switzerland, France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands, absorbing, learning and painting.

As much for an ability to inquire into the natural world is William’s recording of a time that has long passed. His hundreds of paintings show the, mainly, English landscape of the 19th Century in stark contrast to the present. An example is the drawing of Torside Bridge on the River Etherow in Derbyshire, painted in 1852 which stands in marked contrast to today’s roadway by the Torside Resevoir, although that was built around the same time).


William shirked the use of harsh, prime colours as can be seen here. John Ruskin criticised this absence, but William painted what his heart and skills extolled. As Thomas Letherbrow wrote in 1886: “so familiar with Nature, that she seemed often to take the pencil from his hand and make her own record; his doctrine being that you must first know a scene thoroughly, and, next, that you must love it with your whole heart, before you can paint it worthily.”

For anyone interested to read more (and see more of William’s work), I have written a longer note on William, composed as an autobiography, as if in his own words. I will set about publishing that in some form. I also have a number of his paintings and drawings.

His life in brief includes his marriage to Mary Newling in 1847 after a stroke in his thirties that left him deaf and lame; his continued work that led to friendships with those like the renowned critic and painter John Ruskin and the purchase of his paintings by Prince Albert; the formation of the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts, with William as one of ten Founder Academicians in 1859 – Sheila Dewsbury in her history of MAFA (‘The Story So Far’) describes him as “a landscape painter with a natural sense of beauty”; works exhibited at the Royal Academy and other noted galleries in England; the awful death of his wife on 3 Dec 1861 while they were in Betws-y-coed in Wales with other painters (she was subject to epilepsy and died after a savage episode, in a coma for four days); the death just a week later of Prince Albert, who William had seen as somewhat of a benefactor; his membership of arts and literature clubs such as the Letherbrow Club in Manchester and his ever-continuing painting; his relocation to Rydal in Grasmere in 1870, living close to Wordsworth’s home, where his painting of the Lake District became well known; his death in 1880 and his burial in Grasmere.

Especially poignant are his drawings from that year, which were used in Robert Langton’s book “The Childhood and Youth of Charles Dickens”, a highly successful book. William died halfway through his commission and his younger brother, Edward, was called upon to complete the drawings. So excellent did he consider William’s work that Langton wrote: “It is most probable…that had Charles Dickens lived to complete Edwin Drood, some of the views of Cloisterham given here would have been engraved as illustrations to the story.” It is also the only place I have found a drawing of William.

Scan 2

For now, a “Rest Along the Way” (by William Hull).



The Birleys & the Hulls – a reconciliation

The Background

In my forthcoming novel, All the People, due for publication on Friday, 28 February 2020, a Bedfordshire farmer, James Hull, becomes a missionary for the United Brethren (the Moravians) in 1834 and is sent into an area of deprivation that is known as Little Ireland, later called the worst spot in Manchester*. Here, confronted by the disease, filth, deaths and desperation of the people just struggling to survive, he makes a new resolution: instead of preparing people for life after death, he will work to make their lives on earth bearable.

Set against him is a society that demands that the natural order should remain unchanged. This axiom is preached by his religion as much as by government and business. The latter is symbolised by the local mill owner, Hugh Hornby Birley, who employs many of the Irish that live close to his mill. He is the most hated man in the town of Manchester, remembered not for his business and political skills, nor for his philanthropic work but for just one act: Birley was the man that led the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry at Peterloo in 1819, when twenty men, women and a child were killed and hundreds injured by the yeomanry and troops. Birley becomes the missionary’s main adversary, rejecting change and any notion of help for the starving of Little Ireland**.

All the People spans the period of 1832, just after the introduction of the Great Reform Act, to 1842, just after the Plug Plot Riots have made their way throughout the northwest of England, when the Chartists sought to change the natural order through the institution of universal suffrage.

Present Day

It is now 2020, 178 years later, and the Birleys and Hulls have gone their separate ways through history. Last year was the year that commemorated the 200th anniversary of Peterloo, so it was high time that the scions of the rivals for the soul of Little Ireland came together.

I had long used the facilities afforded to me by Ancestry.com to discover the family trees of the Birley and Hulls. It underpinned all my research and I now brought the research to the present day. I found that two of the direct descendants of Hugh Hornby Birley and James Hull now live, coincidentally, in Dorset, many miles from Manchester but just twenty miles from each other. I had contacted Dr Roger Hull some years before and he had been gracious enough to invite me to his home near Blandford Forum in Dorset. Having now discovered the whereabouts of a direct descendent of Hugh Hornby Birley, I made contact with Dr Rick Birley.


The Ancestors

James Hull – missionary for the United Brethren. Born 1782, he was a farmer in Huntingdonshire and Bedfordshire. With his wife, Elizabeth, and nine children, he made his life as a missionary in Manchester around 1836. James died on 9 May 1856 and was interred at the Moravian Settlement in Fairfield.

Hugh Hornby Birley – mill owner near Little Ireland who, throughout his life, failed to rid the world of the memory that he had led the charge of the yeomanry at Peterloo, destined to be remembered for just one act. Born on 10 March 1778, he was successful in his business ventures and a philanthropist (e.g. the Treasurer of the Lying-in Hospital in Manchester, where the poorest gave birth). He died on 31 July 1845 and was buried in the family vault / crypt in St Peter’s Church, very near to St Peter’s Field where the events of 1819 took place. This is now buried under roadways in Manchester. Birley’s mill – Chorlton Mill, located at the corner of Cambridge Street and Hulme Street in Manchester and still there today – forms the cover for All the People.

The descendants

A few words about these two descendants of James Hull and Hugh Hornby Birley:

Dr Roger Hull is a scientist, with a PhD from London University. He was born in 1937 and is a great-great-grandson of James Hull. Roger has been a highly successful scientist and writer, the author of the well-known ‘Comparative Plant Virology’ and continues to research how plants obtain resistance to virus infections. He has an Emeritus Research Fellowship from the John Innes Centre in Norwich and lives in Child Okeford in Dorset. Roger is currently writing the follow-up to his book.

Dr Rick Birley is a composer, who gained his doctorate from Southampton University, and was born in 1954. He is the great-great-great-grandson of Hugh Hornby Birley. Rick has been a music teacher and devoted much of his life to helping other composers to reach their potential as well as composing his own music. This includes a String Quartet and a Violin Concerto. Rick lives in Dorchester, also in Dorset.

It was a pleasure for me to arrange for the three of us to meet up, which we did in early December 2019.

The meeting

Screenshot 2020-02-25 at 15.52.42


We initially met at Rick’s home in Dorchester where we talked about All the People with Rick, his wife, Sally and Roger. Clearly, 178 or so years after the period in which All the People ends, any antipathy between the ideals of James Hull and Hugh Hornby Birley no longer persist as a handshake beneath the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs confirmed. That we were able to visit the place where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were incarcerated was another coincidence. Their fight to be ‘unionised’ nearly 200 years ago and their arrests and severe sentences (originally to death, later commuted to deportation to Tasmania) led to a mass movement on their behalf. It was on such a march that Feargus O’Connor, later to lead the Chartist movement, is said to have gained the notion that he, an Irish MP, could play an important part in the working people’s movement in England. He performs an important part of All the People.


Our discussions of their ancestors were honest, informed and highly agreeable. Rick has been highly critical of his ancestor and there was no disagreement about the need to change the natural order in 1842. However, in case any arbitration was required, Rick and Roger went before the ‘judge’ in Shire Hall, Dorchester – where the Tolpuddle Martyrs had been sentenced in 1834.


Screenshot 2020-02-25 at 15.52.58


The Dorchester Men were sentenced to deportation but the judge considered that 177 years of estrangement had been long enough and that the Birleys and Hulls should be allowed to remain in the beautiful County of Dorset, the home of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and now home to the descendants of the Birleys and the Hulls.

All the People is published on 28 February, 2020 – available via the Troubador website and all online bookstores (hardback, paperback and electronic).





*Frederick Engels – The Condition of the working Class in England (published in 1845)

** See my blog for the People’s History Museum – https://phm.org.uk/blogposts/the-captain-of-the-yeomanry-at-peterloo/

Hugh Hornby Birley

Below is my blog written for the People’s History Museum (PHM) in Manchester – celebrating their acquisition of the portrait of Hugh Hornby Birley. The PHM has a great exhibition – Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest that runs until 23 February, 2020.

Hugh Hornby Birley is a character central to my book All the People – published on 28 February 2020 by Troubador (www.troubador.co.uk)

The captain of the Yeomanry at Peterloo

Portrait of Hugh Hornby Birley, captain of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, oil paint on canvas, date unknown © People's History Museum

To complement the display of a portrait of Hugh Hornby Birley, who as captain of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry played a central role in the events that unfolded at the Peterloo Massacre, we asked author Jeff Kaye to share his research on Birley from his forthcoming novel All the People and treat us to an excerpt about the painting, now in People’s History Museum’s (PHM) collection.


The captain of the Yeomanry at Peterloo

‘It may be hard for us to imagine the carnage at St Peter’s Field at the Peterloo Massacre on 16 August 1819, when the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry led by Captain Hugh Hornby Birley rode into the crowd, sabres cutting, killing men, women and a child, injuring almost 700.

Thereafter, the survivors and their supporters who wished to commemorate the tragedy of Peterloo were not allowed near the site of their grief.  The field was blockaded by the 15th King’s Hussars, the regiment that supported the yeomanry into battle in 1819, stationed nearby at Hulme Barracks.

Therefore, on each anniversary of Peterloo, crowds of working people would gather outside a house in Mosley Street and also at Chorlton Mill, now apartments at the junction of Cambridge Street and Hulme Street.  There, they would jeer at the symbols of the man that led the charge at Peterloo, the faceless buildings owned by Hugh Hornby Birley.

The authorities considered him guiltless and it was not until April 1822 that a private prosecution was brought by Thomas Redford, a Middleton hatter, against the promoted Major Birley and others, for ‘assault’ at St Peter’s Field.  The prosecution failed and Birley must have believed that, at 44 years of age, the shadow of Peterloo had lifted.

Chorlton Mill, unknown artist

Birley was already a successful businessman in Manchester, based on the success of Chorlton Mill, the area’s main employer.  He was also a civic leader, the founder of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce and spokesman for the Manchester Association of Master Manufacturers.  He used this platform to vigorously oppose Ten-Hour reform: his reputation as the harshest of employers was well earned.  He also despised interference by the state into his private affairs, except for the wholesale reduction of the tax on corn because he considered taxation was required to fund his cherished military.

As the Treasurer of the Lying-in Hospital (later transformed into St Mary’s Hospital on Oxford Road, Manchester) for 30 years, he may also have considered himself a philanthropist, if a giver of time rather than his money.  But this was insufficient to persuade working people to suspend their hatred.  Indeed, many of Birley’s own class thought him contemptible, including Archibald Prentice, Editor of The Manchester Times newspaper and Founder of the Anti-Corn Law League with Richard Cobden.  Cobden donated land at St Peter’s Field for the building of the Free Trade Hall; considered a cenotaph to Peterloo and a snub to Birley.Lying in Hospital 1820 © Salford Pubs, Part One by Neil Richardson (Bath Inn)

Birley attempted to build a wall of respectability to change memories.  His business activities, work for the town and his philanthropy were likely designed, at least partly, to alter how he was remembered rather than compensate for any guilt, which he never admitted.  Such efforts were doomed to fail.  In 1842, cotton mill workers, striking over starvation wages and the Chartist cause of universal suffrage, came to Chorlton Mill.  Throughout the Plug Plot Riots of 1842, other mills across the North West closed without a fight, but Birley’s mill was defended vigorously against the strikers with water hoses fired and masonry thrown from the roof, causing the death of a young girl.  The mill was nevertheless closed.

As the strikes ebbed, the Northern Star newspaper, in its Peterloo commemoration edition of 20 August 1842, printed the engraving published by journalist and agitator Richard Carlile of the Peterloo Massacre on its front page with the description, ‘The accompanying engraving represents the horrible scene, just when the ‘heroes’ were hard at work.  Let the ‘heroes’ look upon it and refresh their memories respecting their courageous ‘deeds in arms’.’Northern Star newspaper, 20 August 1842

Feargus O’Connor, the newspaper’s Editor and Chartist leader, listed all the members of the yeomanry present on 16 August 1819, headed by: ‘Hugh Hornby Birley, Commander.’

In my forthcoming novel, All the People, a story of the fight for survival and universal suffrage by the people in Manchester, the heart of the industrial revolution, Birley reads the article in shock.  He had decided to return permanently to Broom House, his country home in Weaste in Salford together with his painting that had hung in his office.  He knows that his life’s efforts to erase the memory of one terrible act have been futile and rips the newspaper to pieces with a knife, then:

‘He walked to his painting…Yes, he had looked mightily content with himself, he thought, all those years ago, self-confident and secure, almost overbearing in his towering self-belief.  Yet now, as he reached into his final years, he was conscious of an insecurity that he had never allowed to surface.

He was standing with some difficulty, exhausted, shaking with the strain of life pressing on his shoulders.  He inched closer to inspect the painting.  It showed a man in his prime, at the height of his physical wellbeing, he thought, yet with eyes that could not look into his own.

He wondered how he would be painted now?  His physical form would show him fatter, for certain; redder of face, definitely; balding, of course.  But, underneath the external signs of ageing, how would the artist seek to show the inner self?  Would he portray the man of destiny, the yeoman, forever undertaking what was right and proper for God, his King and his country?  Or would he betray the man, maltreated throughout his life, misunderstood, drenched in a guilt that he would never acknowledge, eyes unwilling to make contact with even the artist himself?

Birley shuddered at an image that he no longer recognised.  His shaking grew in intensity … He still had the knife in his hand.  “Perhaps,” he said, “I should lance the boil of history.’

St Peter’s Church, Manchester a guide by Clare Hartwell, engraving by J Fothergill, c1820It is ironic that deep beneath St Peter’s Square in the heart of Manchester lies the Birley family crypt.  Burrow beneath the streets where St Peter’s Church once stood and you will find the tombs where Hugh Hornby Birley was buried on 8 August 1845, just eight days before the 26th anniversary of Peterloo.  By that time, it is doubtful that anyone congregated outside his mill or home, but the ghosts of St Peter’s Field could jeer at his corpse for an eternity.’

Jeff Kaye is the author of the forthcoming novel, All the People.  It is a story of the fight for survival by Manchester people between the Reform Act of 1832 and the Plug Plot Riots of 1842, due for publication in the autumn of 2019.  During the last 15 years, Jeff’s work within international Non-Government Organisation’s such as Global Witness and Transparency International added greatly to his interest in Britain’s development.  All the Peopleis the outcome.  He previously wrote Last Line of Defense about corruption in America, following his earlier career in hi-tech industries.  Jeff is a graduate of the University of Manchester.

A portrait of Hugh Hornby Birley is on display in PHM’s new exhibition Disrupt? Peterloo and Protest until Sunday 23 February 2020.  The exhibition is part of PHM’s year long programme exploring the past, present and future of protest, marking 200 years since the Peterloo Massacre; a major event in Manchester’s history, and a defining moment for Britain’s democracy.  The exhibition is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.

People’s History Museum is open seven days a week from 10.00am to 5.00pm, and is free to enter with a suggested donation of £5.  Radical Lates are the second Thursday each month, 10.00am to 8.00pm.

All the People


Part I – The mission to Manchester

February 2020 is the month that my novel, All the People, gets published (February 28 2020 by Troubador Publishing). It was more than ten years in the making: spent researching and writing, then more research and re-writing to result in a book on which my editor’s commented as follows:

“All the People is an absorbing tale of a city, the people who lived in it, and the often unforgiving spirit of the times…it successfully marries political conflict with human drama, delivering a plot that is both compelling and moving. You bring the setting to life with great eloquence and convincing authenticity, and your characters are intricately and thoughtfully constructed.”

I was compelled to write this novel because the stories of a family that I had unearthed were so fascinating and completely unknown. Students are given the histories of kings and prime ministers, army generals and those other leaders that reach the pinnacle of one definition or other of success. How little we learn of those who fight their battles just as hard, within the toughest of environments, but who do so to survive in the supposedly lower reaches of a society that effects to ignore them, despite their extraordinary achievements.

I will write about the journey on which I discovered the stories shortly, but, for now, I want to tell a little about the story , the characters and places that dominate All the People.

Our Lives are Harsh‘ – the natural order of England in 1832

All the People contrasts the rural life of James Hull, a farmer in Bedfordshire, to the harsh  conditions he would face in the depths of a ‘nether world’: the slums of Manchester, under the rule of mill owners. Here, most of the people existed on the edge of starvation, with illnesses that killed many at childbirth and sought them out throughout the short length of the lives. They subsisted in houses that shook violently when the winds blew and collapsed when it blew hard, close to the River Medlock into which the mills and factories discharged their waste, transforming it into a solid waterway, foul-smelling, with a viscosity of unrefined oil.

This contrast is between the farming world and the new existence he would be plunged into as a missionary. As one of the characters says towards the end:

“Our lives are harsh for there is starvation and intolerance of us, of all the people here as if we were a different race or wild animals.”

England had hardly been altered by the Reform Act of 1832, which only gave the business owners better representation in Parliament. For most, like those that All the People describes jeering at the building owned by Hugh Hornby Birley, the man that led the deathly charge of the yeomanry at Peterloo in 1819, on the anniversary of that event, life was a relentless struggle for survival. Many worked for Birley, whose family had bought the Chorlton Mill. The mill forms the cover of my book (shown above) and it exists to this day, on the corner of Cambridge Street and Hulme Street, where it remains  as an apartment block that also houses The International Anthony Burgess Foundation.

Screenshot 2020-02-04 at 15.54.53

When James came to Manchester, living in Granby Row, later the home of the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, he was shocked by the poverty and deprivation. Imagine the change of life he and his family would experience.  James and Elizabeth had lost their eldest daughter just a few years before. Elizabeth had, in the book, refused the call to move north, but, when her daughter died, she relented. She suffered from what we would now call depression until her death in 1842. Her husband wrote of her at her funeral: “She had a bad nervous attack in May 1820 from the effects of which she never recovered. …..she could never bear to hear even good things…and she would never comfortably enjoy the singing at our (church) and other meetings.” In the book, it is the death of their daughter, Mary, that causes her depression, but, whatever the cause, she was clearly a very troubled soul.

James’s sanctuary from the relentless horrors of Little Ireland, the location in Manchester that was his mission and one that Friedrich Engels later called “the most disgusting spot of all” (The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844), was the Fairfield Settlement. This was a settlement of the United Brethren (the Moravians), an evangelical Protestant religion that James had joined when John King Martyn, a wealthy landowner in Pertenhall, Bedfordshire, had espoused the cause locally. In All the People, it is John that proposes James as a missionary.

Fairfield was a glorious testament to the way of life that the Moravians embraced. They built Fairfield to be a self-contained village (near Droylsden, six miles east of Manchester). It had everything needed including a farm, schools, factories for embroidered linen and even a tavern. Several of the buildings remain today under the auspices of the United Brethren. I was welcomed there to carry out a good deal of my research. It is where Elizabeth was buried in 1842 and James in 1856.

Screenshot 2020-02-04 at 17.04.07

James lived as a missionary near Little Ireland. It was the home, as its name suggests, of many Irish immigrants. Bringing evangelical Moravian protestantism to Catholics must have been quite a mission and All the People surmises that James, when he saw the evils that befell the inhabitants of Little Ireland, paid more attention to their survival in this world rather than the next. This set him against a society that viewed the natural order as God-given.

Screenshot 2020-02-05 at 11.58.01

Those that God appeared to have given most included the mill owners like Hugh Hornby Birley. In 1832, he was the most hated man in Manchester because of his deeds 13 years before at Peterloo. That there has never been a biography of Hugh Hornby Birley is perplexing. He was a man that was viewed as a successful businessman and civic leader but All the People suggests that, deep down, he was a very troubled man.

Part II – Hugh Hornby Birley……



The Ripples from Peterloo

16th August 1819 should be a date that the British hold in its memory just as the world applies itself to Tiananmen Square. That there are such commemorations of its 200th anniversary this year is down to the hard work and insight of those like the Peterloo Memorial Campaign who, rightly, refuse to let a key date in our history fall from our memories.

In my research for All the People, the story of people caught up in the deprivations and class warfare of early nineteenth century Manchester, I was continually reminded of Peterloo. For years after 16 August 1819, it was remembered as the prime example of how people in this country rise against oppression: peacefully, with intelligence, wit and good humour to confront oppressors that are determined to ground them down. Mike Leigh’s film captured this well as do the wide range of books* on the grand assembly headed by Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt that was destroyed by the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry’s killing and maiming.

That British history has mainly been written by the victors is a truism attributed to Churchill, Nehru and many others but it remains valid. Peterloo had no victors but those in power sought to recast the massacre as a battle. Fortunately, the journalists present, like John Tyas of The Times, were better able to record the truth and his editor was brave enough to print it. Yet, there has been an almighty struggle to retain the memory of that day in August, 1819.

For years, workers in Manchester would assemble around buildings owned by the Captain of the Yeomanry, Hugh Hornby Birley. He led them, sabres swinging, cutting into and trampling with their horses over men, women and children. At those buildings would come the workers and out of work from the town and surrounding areas to jeer as a sign of their hatred and torment, their conditions (starvation, ill-health and extreme poverty) unchanged or worsened. When the Reform Act of 1832 was passed through Parliament, giving the wealthy industrialists the vote and some towns like Manchester representation for the first time, nothing changed for those with no property.

Feargus O’Connor, an Irishman that led the Chartists in the latter part of that decade, used his newspaper, The Northern Star, on 20th August, 1842 to remind the world (or at least that part that read his working people’s paper) that the memories of Peterloo still rippled powerfully.

Screenshot 2019-08-15 at 12.00.39Screenshot 2019-08-15 at 12.01.05

Crucial to O’Connor’s editorial that day was the memory of Henry Hunt and the memory of the Yeomanry. A memorial to Henry Hunt had just been erected in Manchester at John Stephenson’s Roundhouse Chapel that the ‘Plug Plot Rioters’ (as they were disparagingly termed) would have passed on their way through Manchester earlier in August 1842. They were on strike, still fighting for universal suffrage just as Hunt and those at Peterloo had been in 1819. Hunt was a hero to O’Connor and Peterloo the singular moment in history that acted as an inspiration in 1842.

Just as ‘memorial’ were the Yeomanry, signified by O’Connor’s insertion of the names of each member that took part on St Peter’s Fields on 16th August, 1819, headed by the name of Hugh Hornby Birley, mistakingly shown as “Commander’. Birley had spent the last 23 years as a businessman, philanthropist and civic leader in the town of Manchester, working to leave the legacy that he wished to be remembered by. The only one he left was the memory of his murderous deeds at Peterloo: O’Connor saw to that.

177 years on from that day, Manchester is alive with the memory of Peterloo in a way that could not have been expected 100 years ago when the centenary was commemorated by informal gatherings of those like the Independent Labour Party. In 1919, World War One had not long finished and working people (excluding most women) now had the vote but little power and few resources. Civic society remained class-bound and Peterloo was seen as a working class revolt, separate from those that ran the country and ill-suited to a collective celebration.

We live (at least for now) in different times. There remains so much to be done in the field of human rights and equality that the newer burdens of climate destruction and popularism and our own torture of Brexit seem to overwhelm. It is a good time to remember Peterloo and it is always a good time to recall a brave fight for justice. As we all watch the scenes from Hong Kong, a 2019 fight for universal suffrage and democracy against an unyielding foe that believes itself above the law, we know that much of the world remains as this country was 200 years ago. As we read surveys that show young people might prefer a type of leader that runs roughshod over democracy, it is a good time to remember the fight for democracy and the vote and the reasons it was always held to be so vital. For those put into positions of power quickly assume the mantle provided and rarely, if ever, remain uncorrupted. Without the checks and balances that democracy (via universal suffrage) provides, the risk of deprivations for the majority grows. It is why Peterloo must remain in our memories as one of the most important events in our history, why the ripples of Peterloo must always wash over us.

  • Amongst Books on Peterloo, please read: Robert Poole, Peterloo, The English Uprising; Peterloo, Witnesses to a Massacre (Polyp, Eva Schlunke – a graphic representation); Peterloo, the Story of the Manchester Massacre, Jacqueline Riding.
  • My book, All the People, is due for publication on 28 February 2020.

Transcript of part of O’Connor’s editorial:

And this was the way the middle-class men

of Manchester and Cheshire, the ” Yeomanry”

served a peaceable and unarmed people, seeking to

petition For a Reform in the system of Representation!

These were the terms of  theUnion between

the middle and labouring class at that period.

This was the way one class, bleated, ‘blustering,’ big,

and inflated with gin and pride.—brandy and arrogance;

this was the way they attempted to prove

 the ” interests of the two classes are identical’ ‘ !

and that the middle classes are the ” natural leaders

and protectors of the labouring portion of ihe community”

! O ! how arrogant, how puffed-up with

pride, they were then! How they sneered, and

scoffed, and turned up the nose of affected contempt !

How they gloated and glorified over the blood they had

shed—the suffering they had caused—the life they had

sacrificed! What ” heroes ” they then were!

Where are they now How many of them are

Yeomen now? How many of them have been able to

keep out of the Gazette, or out of the Insolvent

List? How many of them have been able to keep out

of the workhouse ? And how many of them have cut

their throats, or hanged themselves! Where is the

 amongst them that would now glory in the

bloody deeds be then committed? Where is the

thing amongst them that would not give his ears to

have his name erased from the damning record—the

list of the “heroes”; of Peterloo?! It is in vain , however,

that he so wishes ! The character in which those

names are written are those of blood. They cannot be

washed out, but by the waters of Justice  and those

have not yet been applied,—or Thistlewood, Ings,

Brunt, and Tidd would not have been the last

men Executed and BEHEADED in England for

High Treason !!! No ; the names are not to be

obliterated from the bloody list ! Here it is

Let the actors of the fiendish deeds of 1819 feast

their eyes upon it ! !!

Names, of the Manchester Yeomanry on the 16th of

August 1819:

Hugh Hornby Birley, Commander…………………

Americanism: A World Menace



As part of my research for a book that I hope to publish in late 2020 (its predecessor, All the People, is due for publication on 28 February, 2020), I read Americanism. It was published in England in 1922. I wrote a review on Goodreads and repeat it below. The quotation from the book is shown in italics. One had to remember that this was written a century ago, but, in the age of Trump (and Brexit / Farage) you have to pinch yourself to realise how much pertains to 2019. It is a sombre realisation that, while we may have, the much of the world, benefitted materially in the past century and progress has been made in the areas of human rights, so much of the underlying tensions in society remain as they did when William T Colyer wrote this book:

When William T Colyer wrote Americanism, he was an Englishman in the United States, having emigrated there with his wife, Amy, in 1915. They had fled England a week after they married, wishing to have no place in a land that was willing to go to war to defend the ruling class against similar others (like the Prussians). William and Amy saw England as the old land, ruled by the wealthy few and they saw the United States of America, the land of Independence, of Tom Paine, of the Declaration of Independence, of the Constitution as a free land where they could be free.

William and Amy were, in 1915 when they boarded the Carpathia, socialists. They believed that the land of freedom would welcome them. By the time William wrote Americanism, they had become Communists, joining the newly-formed Communist Party of America in 1919, just two years after the Russian Revolution. They worked with Communists like John Read to expand the following in the country in a era now known as the Progressive Era, when, up to and just beyond WWI, the trend was to human rights over big business and corruption. This all changed when the Soviets took control of Russia and fear took over America. The Red Raids of the Attorney General Charles Palmer in 1919 and 1920, when crowds of American police and federal agents (under the control of the 24 year-old J Edgar Hoover) rounded up alien Communists throughout the USA and sent them into prison, bound for deportation.



William and Amy were arrested in their home in Wellesley, Massachusetts on the morning of 2nd January, 1920 and detained in Deer Island Prison in that state. They were held separately and amongst the hundreds in over-crowded and infested prison facilities. They were then subject to detailed questioning and sentenced for deportation. A band of human rights lawyers then managers to overturn that ruling but they had always accepted that they were Communists and, in 1922, mere membership of that organisation went against them and they were deported back to England, where William completed the book and had it published.

Americanism is a polemic, aimed at showing how the United States was a profound let-down to William and Amy, where the powerful aims of Paine and those that fashioned the American ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution have been derailed. Perhaps a quote is the best measure of the book’s aims (page 158-59):

“Preceding chapters have given us the picture of a country in which democracy has become a synonym for machine politics; in which liberty, if not dead, is ant any rate hibernating; in which ‘law and order’ walk hand-in-hand with the foulest corruption; in which the working-class is deprived of what are elsewhere regarded as elementary human rights; in which the schools and colleges are definitely given over to the task of preparing the young to accept these conditions without complaint; in which religion avows itself a mere bulwark of invested capital; in which the prevailing ethical standards are dictated by the requirements of salesmanship, and cheap sentimentalism stands cheek by jowl with almost unbelievable grossness; in which the natives supposed themselves a chosen people and reject with contempt whatever of good is brought to their shores by aliens; and in which the capitalist class is now more powerful than anywhere else in the world.”

William proposed that Communism, as he saw the future under Lenin, would conquer such evils. In the same way that he and Amy were naive about the potential in the USA, they shared a naivety about Communism and, when Stalin replaced Lenin after the latter’s death in 1924, they left the Communists Party and rejoined the Labour Party in England. William stood as a candidate in general elections for it and the Independent Labour Party.

The book is well summarised in the quote above, showing a range of examples that enlarge on the proposition: that Americanism is as potentially destructive as Prussianism, the precursor to WWI, had been. It is a powerful proposition and many of the issues that William outlines (shown above) remain to this day. Yet, against those detriments, the America of the 1940’s that, eventually, came to Europe’s aid in WWII against the tyranny of Naziism and the Japanese, the America of human rights that William saw for himself in the 12 lawyers that helped him (for a time) to oppose deportation is not called up in his story. Amy and William had strong beliefs developed over many years that they had hoped to see fulfilled in America. Their dreams were dashed and this book portrays that sense of expectations destroyed.

Yet, its focus on the demons that, one hundred years after the Red Raids of 1919-20, have been rekindled under Donald Trump (the hatred of aliens, corrupt politics, democracy in chains) highlight problems that remain in the wealthiest country on the planet. That this is now amplified by a short-termism and business ethic that refuses to acknowledge the climate destruction that it is engendering, simply amplifies the issues that William T Colyer portrays in Americanism. It is a book that is almost 100 years’ old yet its story is surprisingly current.

Doughnut Economics – Quam Oeconomica

The Search for Oeconomica Phase III

The essence of Kate Raworth’s excellent book, Doughnut Economics, is that economics has to move from an understanding of the world in 18thor 19thC terms (based on a mechanical set of analogies) to a 21stC understanding based on how we understand evolution, our knowledge of systems theory and complexity.


In simple terms, the book suggests, that in order to develop from a perpetual journey to increase GDP and move to a world economy that “Thrives in balance”, we focus on critical issues such as inequality, changes in banking, CO2, new metrics and many other changes via a vast number of small experiments that will, under conditions of complexity, generate changes in our direction and potentially move us from this Phase of our economic experience (Phase II) via a phase transition to another. However, the range of changes that may be needed (this vast number of small experiments) do not appear to be extremely hopeful and each one is tiny compared to the enormous background material in which it exists. Any one may be successful or not and many, if successful together, may generate enough traction to propel society to the phase transition that it needs. However, it, or they, may not!


The dynamic set of changes that forged the industrial revolution, the move from a rentier society based around the ownership of land, to a capitalist-driven society based on the ownership of ideas, of speeding up production, of creating demand for goods and services, took on the form of a phase transition (if the continued use of analogies can be permitted). This dramatic change occurred over many years, but traction was firmly in place by the 1830’s in England. Years after this, by the time Karl Marx was writing das Kapital, capitalism had transformed the countries of western Europe and would do the same for the USA and elsewhere. While land remains a high value commodity, the demand for goods and services and the ability to pay for them has transformed most of the world and continues to do so.


However, this phase transition (Phase II) remains, even today, in a variety of stages of development. In the USA and western Europe, it is well entrenched. In India and China, it is feverish in its intensity. In sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan, it is well hidden. This means that prescriptions for moving beyond this Phase are unclear as different sections of the globe are at such different stages. No mention was made in the book of the Maslow hierarchy (that provides at least some analysis of the individual’s search for sustenance, from meeting purely physical needs to those of mental well-being) and it would be useful to seek some sort of understanding based on regional access to the Phase Transition of the industrial revolution before experimentations can be determined as useful.


This is because, while so much attention is given in the media, universities and in books, to the second and third industrial revolutions (supposed to be via computing and then via robotics, AI and bio-engineering), the real focus of Doughnut Economics is beyond this towards a third Phase – a post-capital-only phase. In driving towards that new Phase (if humans are to make it successfully), Doughnut Economics properly focuses on the Georgescu-Roegen notion of entropy being sufficiently understood so that the world  focuses on energy use and utilisation as the crucial underlaying of society, rather than the traditional notion of productivity (the making of goods and services in progressively more ‘economical’ ways). This is right but it is debatable whether this is the prime driver for change, at least from a human viewpoint. Humans exhibit potentially destructive tendencies when caught in a particular way of thinking. Kate Raworth described this in within the book (Easter Island as one example) and it seems that humans need to actually see and feel danger before they react. A good analogy is how the UK reacted to Germany before 1939. Rearmament did not take place until the enemy was rampaging through Europe. Why? Possibly, because the human tendency is not to give up on ways of life (having reached a reasonable plateau) unless forced by external change. Complexity theory would suggest that a plateau of living is only change when externalities require it – with ‘require’ being highly operative.


Phase II was driven by, as the book states, the notion of economic gain for those in charge of capital and ideas, focused on the desire of perceived need. This economic gain argument has been transformed over the last 200 years to permeate all of society not just through the notion of GDP at the macroeconomic scale but through accounting at the micro-level. Thus, financialization of the world at both micro- and macro-scales underpin everything that we do. Everything is priced and our utility (our desire for something) is only respected when it has a number against it. Recently, a charity worked out the value we place on parks. This notion of £974 per person per year is then used somehow to justify spending on parklands. The whole notion of natural capital flows from a need to show value of the aspects of life that make life worth living so that even companies and accountants can evaluate them in discounted cash flow techniques. This is where Phase II shows it has conquered the world or it may be showing that Phase II is nearing its end.


Changing this is an enormous challenge but Doughnut Economics, while preparing the way, seems to suggest that the world can be redirected by an understanding by economists about how the world is different to their theories and through the use of diagrams.


A more detailed analysis of the changes that induced the phase transition in England in the industrial revolution to Phase II would indicate the scale of the challenge now. The doughnut diagram is highly useful and the concepts that underpin Doughnut Economics are highly positive in that they speak in the language of the new century, even if hampered by the limits to our knowledge that such analogies provide.


However, if a phase transition in our model of living is required, and the book strongly argues in that way, then we need to assess how this can be done successfully in a world that it markedly at variance region by region and where, as a result, different nations and regions will adopt different attitudes. For example, those countries lower on the Maslow hierarchy (if it or something similar can be utilised on a national scale) will retain their pursuance of basic needs via growth in GDP for far longer than those countries that have reached higher levels of economic maturity, where post-quantitative norms may be considered. If this is the case, and it is highly likely to be, then how do the latter set of nations decide how to remain sufficiently competitive in productive means, assuming that they will not simply give up their desire to at least maintain a level of economic security in a world that will reward economic gains for many years because it is measurable?


Doughnut Economics posits, amongst many other things, repeated changes in GDP, up, down, level in no particular order and through a variety of changes in taxation from income and employment to energy usage or externalities. However, different countries will adopt different measures and taxes and there will be a vast range of unintended consequences in such a complex environment that will continue to drag down the impact of the desired moves to a new phase.


Of course, we do not even know what a new phase will look like. Doughnut Economics suggests some thoughts on this and they relate to the quality of life beyond the quantity of life that mature economies are building, where, having gained the basics (food, shelter, clothing), we have moved towards the second tier of luxuries (goods and services) and towards Maslow’s higher tiers of self-actualisation (although we would need to see this is national terms rather than individualistic).


What can economists and accountants (macro and micro) do for this future? Perhaps the role for such narrow providers of data is disappearing in the same way that the role of horses changed when the motor car appeared. To take us to the next Phase needs a whole new school of thought that understands the different levels of Phase II that has been achieved on a global scale and will address the new mix of qualitative and quantitative requirements of Phase III (against the background of natural resource despoliation and global warming). If the concept of ‘natural capital’ is the last cry of Phase II as an attempt to take a grip of the natural world by the accountants of Phase II, then Phase III has to develop a new breed of expert that can show how humans can retain the dynamism that ‘gain’ provided for many (although by no means all or even the majority) and moves us away from numeric (or financialized) gain towards a qualitative framework, from the historical meaning of economics – the art of managing a household (which, arguably, humans now understand) – to the art of managing quality of life.


This is likely to be back to the area of ‘political economics’, the relationship between the production of goods and services and the society within which they are produced and then forward towards an inclusion of the qualitative aspects of life (as individuals and communities) – ‘quam oeconomica’.

Chartists rising in Newport – 4 Nov 1839


A brass band was playing an overture that he could not quite place. He was not sure that anyone could and some of the cornet players may have wondered if the trombone was reading from the same music, while the drummer beat to a rhythm of his own choosing. Feargus O’Connor was standing very close to the stage in Carpenter’s Hall, above the orchestra pit in which the band was hidden from sight if not aurally. He would be introduced to the very large crowd that had each paid for a ticket to celebrate the birthday of the late Henry Hunt, which was two days’ later on Wednesday 6th November. Unusually for Feargus, the event, organised by the Friends of Radicalism, was in the shape of a tea party and many of those listening with stiff smiles were female, also noteworthy.


Abel Heywood, who had provided the bail for Feargus, had been elected to Chair the event and called on all present to celebrate the glorious life of Henry Hunt to which there were many cheers. He then introduced the man he called ‘the poor man’s friend’, Feargus O’Connor, who jumped on to the stage and began his oration to so much applause that the wooden building appeared to shake. If the ghost of William Cobbett could not be with him that night, although his next trip was to Oldham, where he was sure to have a visitation, he thought, then he would surely raise the ghost of Henry Hunt. As soon as he called himself a ‘Huntite’, then the spirit of the great man roused him to a great performance that enraptured the crowd. “Whatever I do will come to nothing compared to Henry Hunt, for he was the first, alone when he started his agitation for universal suffrage and the rights of the poor. I am simply in his footsteps.” The applause was far more than the tinkling of spoons on cups that one might have expected in a tea party. It was substantial and gave Feargus time to view his audience, especially the multitude of young ladies that were of constant distraction.


Before he had stepped on to the stage, a note had been passed his way that he had scarcely had time to notice but he glanced at while the audience was in such a rapturous mood, cheering and shouting his name. The note mentioned something about Newport in Wales and the word Frost appeared several times. He took it to be a joke about the Welsh weather but could not be bothered to read it fully until his speech was concluded and he stepped almost into the arms of Julian Harney. “Feargus, we have to leave quickly.”


“I know, we have a coach to Oldham.”


“No, Feargus, this is far more serious. The coach will wait.” He took Feargus into a small room and sat him down. Abel Heywood had followed them in and was asked to be silent while Harney read from some notes he had made. “Feargus, Abel, I am sorry to rob you of your time but this is a serious matter that I have for you. You will remember our own John Frost, Convention Representative from Newport, Feargus, the Chairman of the Convention meeting you attended at the Crown and Anchor?” Feargus replied: “I recall that he became very fired up that day. He was under much pressure, if I recall.” Harney nodded and went on: “His fire did not die, Feargus, for he was also one of many Chartists in Wales that had been mightily angered by the recent imprisonment of their friend, Henry Vincent, for crimes that were unproven and clearly fabricated by the local police. This was, for the working people of the Town, the last straw and the local people in Newport yesterday decided to take matters into their own hands.” Feargus’s face showed clearly his dismay as the young Londoner continued.


“I will read for you information that has come my way.” Feargus and Abel sat back in their seats, waiting for the story to be told: “From the Coach and Horses in Blackwood, the Welshmen decided to hold a mass assembly, after which they would march in three sections on Newport: Frost leading from Blackwood, a second from Brynmawr and Ebbw Vale led by Zephaniah Williams and a third from Pontypool led by William Jones. From Cefn, where they were to meet up, they would march further into Newport, stopping traffic and mail coaches and then taking the town. This had been their own plan, a Welsh plan, not coordinated with anyone outside of that country but a plan to take the Town by force!”


“You knew nothing of this?” Feargus asked Julian, who felt Feargus’s stare eating like acid into his face.


“No, Feargus, no, we knew not a jot of this. They kept this close.” He continued: “As they marched, Zephaniah’s lawlessness, always likely to be a risk, became untrammelled. Houses were broken into by his men, some of them drunk, no doubt, and adult males were forced, against their will, to join the armed Chartists on their way to Newport. With Frost at the head of the marchers, those with guns were told to go to the front, those with pikes behind. The rain was now falling heavily and the marchers were, by this time, soaked to the skin. Some asked whether they were right to attack indiscriminately but Frost’s ambition was to create havoc and what needed to be done, would be done, he said.”


Feargus feared what was coming and a small crowd had now gathered around them as Harney went on:


“By this time, it was just yesterday, Feargus, Sunday, preparations were under way in Newport to defend the town. The Mayor held hourly briefings and soldiers had been sent out on reconnoitres to find where the enemy lay. Several of them were taken prisoner by Frost’s men. Other soldiers, meanwhile, carried out local searches and many were arrested for carrying arms. They were imprisoned in the Westgate Hotel and at the new Army Barracks, the Union Workhouse. Soldiers were then also sent to the Westgate to guard the men so taken.”


“The Westgate! We have spoken there, Julian. I remember it.” Harney ignored the interruption: “The fact that there appeared to be only twelve or so soldiers at the Westgate raised the confidence levels amongst the Chartists to an extreme and encouraged them further as they began the final stage of their march to take over the Town. Frost gave the command: ‘March, march!’ and, leading the men in his heavy black coat and red cravat, he was followed by those with guns, marching five abreast, those with pikes behind them. At the back, they carried pitchforks, sticks, mandrills and whatever else they could find.”


“In the Town, many locals had come outside to see for themselves what was happening and peered from behind doors and from side streets. Frost’s men arrived at the Westgate and, at the entrance to the stable, Frost commanded that the doors be opened. Inside were Mr Hopkins, the Superintendent of Police and a number of Special Constables. A scuffle took place as demands were made for the prisoners taken the previous night to be freed.”


“The constables were armed just with staves and began to run for escape as the Chartists began their attack on the hotel. The soldiers, themselves fully armed with guns, of course, started to load and fire on the Chartists but the fire was returned in good measure. Bang!” Feargus and Abel jumped back in their seats as Harney smiled: “The Mayor had been shot and, while his arm was being bandaged, an un-named Chartist entered with a pike, which he aimed at the Mayor himself! Bang! That Chartist was quickly shot by a soldier, from point-blank range. There was much more firing but, within some minutes, the attackers withdrew and quiet was resumed. Many soldiers had already exhausted their ammunition within the fifteen or so minutes of the attack and would have likely fled if the attack had persisted for much longer. The Chartists were almost victorious.”


“Hundreds of Chartists now ran back up the hill from which they had come into Newport. Zephaniah Williams had been leading his own laggards into the town, delayed by all his pillaging and they were now passed in the other direction by those fleeing before he had even become part of the fray. The rebels were, lucky for them, not pursued by the soldiers but hundreds of weapons were seized at the Westgate. Amongst those weapons were found the dead bodies of fifteen Chartists.”


Feargus and Abel both gave out audible sighs at the thought of the deaths. Harney read from a note he had in his hand:


“That they believed that they were fighting for a just cause is shown by a letter, written by one of those dead and I have it here,” as he waved it over his head, “I will read it and it will bring tears to the eyes of grown men,”


‘Pontypool, Sunday Night, November 4th, 1839.


Dear Parents,


I hope this will find you well, as I am myself at present.


I shall this night be engaged in a struggle for freedom, and should it please God to spare my life, I shall see you soon; but if not, grieve not for me. I shall fall in a noble cause. My tools are at Mr Cecil’s, and likewise my clothes.


Yours truly,


George Shell.’


“George Shell, a cabinetmaker, was but nineteen years’ old when he died, shot by the military at the Westgate.”


Feargus asked: “How many men died, Chartists and soldiers and police?”


Harney looked at his notes: “Twenty-two bodies were eventually found, although not one had been born in Newport. Twenty-two bodies, more even than died at St. Peter’s Fields.” Feargus could somehow feel the spirit of Henry Hunt as it drifted away.


A People’s Charter for Fair Voting



Fair Voting

Changes in the way we vote operate on a geological scale in this country. The ‘40 shilling   franchise’, that gave the vote to all men in England and Wales who were property freeholders valued at or above 40 shillings, was introduced under Henry VI in 1430 and was not overturned until the ‘Great Reform Act’ of 1832, a wait of 402 years!

185 years’ later, on 30th October, 2017, there was a parliamentary debate in Westminster Hall on the merits of Proportional Representation. It was inspired by a public petition of one hundred thousand electronic signatures via email. Petitions to the King in England were introduced under the reign of Edward I around 1275, another ancient method. Yet, they were not commonly used by the general public on any large scale until the Chartists’ pursuit of the People’s Charter. After Peterloo, which will commemorate its 200th anniversary on 16th August, 2019, the Chartists attempted to gain universal suffrage with the 6 demands of the People’s Charter and brought forward several petitions to the House of Commons. These included millions of signatures, written on vast sheaves of paper and carried to the House of Commons by armies of volunteers that stretched several miles along the route to Parliament. These marches were major events in themselves, bringing out tens or hundreds of thousands of working people, waved on by large street crowds, still disenfranchised by the 1832 Act that gave the vote only to around 5% of the population (adding the capitalist class to the landowners). Each petition resulted in a debate in Parliament but, each was summarily dismissed by a ruling elite that would not relinquish power to those that they considered beneath them. The last Chartist Petition under their ‘leader’, Feargus O’Connor, was in 1848 and the cry for universal suffrage was defeated with no further extension to the vote until 1867.

Move forward 150 years and the result of the latest petition will, in the short term, be no change and no parliamentary debate on the floor of the House of Commons but the arguments for PR that were heard in Westminster Hall clearly outflanked those (mainly C/conservative) opponents.

It was not just the voting system but it is clear that democracy itself was being debated just as it was 200 years ago when Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt was speaking to a crowd of one hundred thousand in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester. The resultant charge of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry that murdered around twenty and injured hundreds was named ‘Peterloo’ to resonate with the battle of Waterloo in 1815.

It is now ‘First Past the Post’ (FPTP) system that is on trial. FPTP has been our system for election to the Commons from at least 1430 but where, as the six demands of the People’s Charter of 1837 showed, democracy was only available to a few. In the 180 years after the People’s Charter was written, gradual changes have been made so that, once registered, every citizen of eighteen years and over has the right to vote in a local constituency, of which there are 650. The candidate with the most votes wins a constituency – a situation that remains the same as in 1832 (or even 1430) except that the votes are now by secret ballot. The winner of most ‘seats’ has a majority in the House of Commons. What could be wrong with that?

What is wrong is that ‘Winner-takes-all’, constituency-by-constituency, disenfranchises the vast majority of voters. The Electoral Reform Society calculated in 2015 that 74% of votes cast in the General Election were completely wasted as they are either votes for the losing party or votes for the winning party that exceeds the amount needed to win. Since I was first able to vote (at the 1974 General Election, when living in Manchester, when the Party I supported, the Liberals, gained 19.3% of the votes and only 13 seats!), I have not, at any General Election since, believed that my vote counted for anything – my preferred candidate has always lost! This is a form of disenfranchisement that results in reduced voter turnout, tactical voting that requires voters to vote for a second party to unseat their least favoured, protest voting in bye-elections and referendums (the Brexit vote has been viewed as, at least in part, such a protest) and a sense of voter irrelevance. So, despite having the ability to place a cross against a political party, the feeling is that the action is useless. At a time when the traditional two-party system is under siege, this results in the largest two parties obtaining government with lower votes than ever. It is a reason that Non-governmental organisations (NGO’s) are more popular than before because people believe that the political party system is not one where their vote counts and that pressure points have to be obtained through other means.

Of course, it is even worse than this because many of the individual constituencies are in areas where particular parties have had complete control for many years: Labour in inner-city heartlands, Tories in rural areas. Voting in these areas is akin to the rotten boroughs of the 1820’s so that anointed individuals take up their seats without the need to strive for election.

This leads to parties putting their efforts primarily in those constituencies that are properly contestable, where the luck of location means that more than one party has a chance of success. In these seats, just a change of a few percentage points can mean success. It can be easily argued that just a few thousand people in the whole country decide general elections. The fight for votes in the UK comes down to far less than 5% of the population, the situation that existed prior to 1832.

Of course, no system is perfect. The UK needs a system where every vote can count but there is a desire in this country to hang onto constituency representatives that work for that constituency. That entails a well-thought out plan for a form of proportional representation. The Jenkins Commission in 1997 produced a system that attempted to combine the benefits of constituency and proportionality but, after support from the Labour opposition, came to nothing when Labour gained power.

Will the UK ever achieve an improved form of democracy when those in power get there through FPTP? Is there enough pressure from the public that will drive politicians to proportional representation and change the system that has endured since 1430? Perhaps we need a charter for democracy in 2017. The People’s Charter of 1837 did not bring the Chartists universal suffrage but all except one of its demands (annual elections) have been met. What the People’s Charter did not envisage was that better forms of communication (even O’Connor’s Northern Star newspaper was no match for today’s online communication revolution) would engender the ability of so many viewpoints to be held and argued over that leads to the increased number of political parties. We now need a voting system that re-enfranchises all the people and also motivates people to become active participants in the election process.


We need a People’s Charter for Fair Voting.


Science as a Candle for Democracy


July 14th celebrates the storming of the Bastille in Paris on that day in 1789. After the War of Independence in America, it was a second revolution to bring democracy to a kingdom, this time in Europe. For Thomas Paine, writing The Rights of Man shortly thereafter (a quote used by the great Christopher Hitchens in his biography of Paine:

“Never did so great an opportunity offer itself to England, and to all Europe, as is prodiced by the two Revolutions of America and France.”

Whether, over two hundred years’ later, the success of the revolutions is properly signalled by the visit to France of the popularist Donald Trump is highly questionable for his visit signifies a distinct darkening of how democracy is faring in the USA, Europe (post-Brexit referendum), Turkey, the Phillipines, India, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Israel where serious strains are being felt and ‘strong man’ politics is under way.

It may be straining credibility to equate these dark concerns on democracy with the election of Norman Lamb, a Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament, to the position of Chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, a Committee whose purpose is to scrutinise the UK Government on its strategy and programmes in this area. Yet, this linking of science and democracy is central to the changes we are currently seeing in the world of politics.

Science in the Soul‘ is a collection of the writings of Richard Dawkins, where he shows his distinct ability to reason and explain to the full.  In the book, Dawkins commends the science populariser, Carl Sagan, as a man that should have won the Nobel Prize: not for science but for literature and it made me re-read his excellent book ‘The Demon-Haunted World‘, published around twenty years ago.

Sagan’s book is about how “scientific thinking is necessary to safeguard our democratic institutions and our technical civilisation” and is so apt in an era of Donald Trump and Brexit (with its Govian taunts about how not to believe experts) that it should be read and re-read by anyone with a desire to understand our current problems and what is needed to extricate ourselves from the hole that we are digging for ourselves. It was also frighteningly prescient. I reprint here, word for word, a sizeable paragraph from the book that accurately forecasts a significant chunk of our world in 2017:

“….science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agenda or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance. As I write, the number one video cassette rental in America is the movie Dumb and Dumber. Beavis and Butthead remains popular (and influential) with young TV viewers. the plain lesson is that study and learning – not just of science, but of anything – are avoidable, even undesirable.”

If an afterlife existed, Carl Sagan would be looking down at the events of 2016, and tut-tutting knowingly, shaking his head and pulling at his long, white beard (all sages have long, white beards in heaven, don’t they?): “I did tell you guys!” he would be shouting, hoping that some mystical ripple would resonate from his screams of despair into our heads, deaf and dumb to all sense.

In the so-called developed world, technology moves forward at a great pace so that major phase transition events bypass us with alacrity. The whole ‘fake news’ environment washed over us only in the last few years as the networked world provided everyone with the ability to be journalists and have an opinion that all can see. As always with new technology, those most capable of utilising it to advantage included the criminally-minded who not just sent emails from Nigeria asking for your money, or emails and texts that would lock up your computer or cellphone if you replied but, more subtly, perverted voting systems and swayed voters by their ability to infiltrate the social networks with lies, distortions and manipulations to a precision that a few thousand votes in the right States resulted in a Trump presidency.

Sagan wrote further on this:

“We’ve arranged a global civilisation in which most crucial elements – transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting – profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

“The scientific way of thinking is at once imaginative and disciplined. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which best fit the facts. It urges on us a delicate balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous sceptical scrutiny of everything – new ideas and established wisdom. This kind of thinking is also an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change.”

Carl Sagan was a sceptic and the book shows how scepticism, used pro-actively, not as a tool to doubt everything for doubt’s sake, is central to understanding. He provided a toolkit for guarding against a fallacious or fraudulent argument. In summary:

  • Where possible, independently verify the facts
  • Encourage debate on this by opponents and proponents of views expressed
  • Discount ‘authorities’ who generally carry no weight; in science there may be experts, not authorities. In politics, beware such experts.
  • Spin more than one hypothesis
  • Don’t get over-attached to an hypothesis just because it’s yours
  • Quantify where you can
  • If there’s a chain of argument, show that every link works
  • Occam’s Razor – if two solutions exist, choose the simplest
  • Always ask if the hypothesis can be disproved (e.g. Brexit will save British taxpayers £350m a week!)

Now, not everyone has the time to go out and do all this. So, we rely on journalists and others to do so. This brings me back to Norman Lamb, a man who has gained tremendous respect across all parties for his honesty and campaigning zeal (in the area of mental life as an example). He is a democratically-elected member of a Parliament often thought of as the home of democracy (Thomas Paine might have doubted that and the first-past-the-post system of elections means that most in the UK are, effectively disenfranchised) and now Chairs a Committee on Science and Technology. We should be using such institutions to galvanise the linkages between science, technology and democracy to challenge ourselves in how we think so that crass assertions made during the Brexit referendum and by Donald Trump and others (that might lead to the USA’s desertion of the Paris Agreement on environment as just one example) are challenged by not just politicians but by all those that should hold us to scientific thinking.

This means that we should understand why those that wish to believe in such perversions of reality actually do so and why scientific thought processes are so easily overturned, that ‘rigorous scrutiny’ is accepted as the norm. A recent article in the Financial Times, by John Gapper on how CP Snow identified the gap in thinking on science by intellectuals in the 1950’s shows that this is not new, but it is not just intellectuals that have the vote in the 21st Century, it is all the people.

So, a plea to Norman Lamb and his Committee, whatever the Terms of Reference have historically been, it is time to challenge our lack of scientific thinking, the lack of awareness of science and technology throughout the population and how this “combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces” – if it hasn’t already.

Democracy took many lives and many years to establish in the western world and elsewhere. It is not yet extinguished but, like a candle that has been burning for many hours, the light is in danger of failing. Sagan’s book was sub-titled: “Science as a Candle in the Dark”. On the day the French commemorate its own democracy, we should not let that candle flutter to extinction.