Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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Peterloo remembered

PeterlooOn this day, 16 August, 191 years ago (1819), a peaceful rally of around 60,000 pro-democracy reformers gathered at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester. The crowd of men, women and children were charged by sabre-wielding cavalry, resulting in 15 deaths and 600 injuries. The horrific event is known as the Peterloo Massacre: a macabre, ironic inversion of the heroism of the Battle of Waterloo, met four years earlier, the shame of Peterloo.

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain was in a financial crisis. There were food shortages, wages were slashed and there was massive unemployment. Many British soldiers and sailors returned home to nothing after years of arduous campaign. The food shortages led to increased import of foreign crops, which drove the price of British cereals down. The government’s response was to introduce the first Corn Law, controlling and curtailing the import of crops. This helped keep the price of British cereals artificially high, but severely exacerbated the food shortage. In Parliament, it was argued that steady prices for British crops would protect the wages of agricultural labourers, a rather flimsy excuse for keeping landowners’ incomes high.

Parliament was considered out of touch, elected by a severely antiquated system. Lancashire as a whole, including the great industrial city of Manchester with its surrounding townships, elected two MPs. However, only those who owned land could vote, and they had to travel to Lancaster to cast their vote by public acclamation. In contrast, there were a handful of ‘rotten boroughs’ in which a handful of electors elected two MPs. Reform was clearly needed, yet the ruling class feared the radicalism seen in the French Revolution, and entrenched against it.

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Happy birthday, Tom!

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine (9 February 1737, Thetford, Norfolk – 8 June 1809, Greenwich Village, New York City)

Thomas Paine was born this day in 1737. He virtually invented the idea that the power of a nation should ultimately rest with the commonality of its people, and that elected politicians should be answerable to the people. Tom Paine is the father of rational values as the basis of a political constitution: that our government, legal system and political engagement should all make sense to average citizens so that they might fully participate. Naturally, Paine had no time for monarchs and monarchy: he wanted values at the heart of a nation rather than a dodgy personality cult. Neither did he think much of the British ‘compromise’ of parliamentary sovereignty, in which we elect politicians using an outdated electoral system who, once elected, are not accountable to the electorate and may do whatsoever they will. The MPs expenses are just the tip of the iceberg of a political system that creates a political class separate and above the people.

From the first page of Thomas Paine’s famous pamphlet Common Sense, I take the following quote

A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom.

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