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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What is the House of Lords for?

House of Lords

House of Lords

Ninety-nine years ago today the British Parliament passed the Parliament Act. It limited the powers of the House of Lords and set up as official the idea that the chamber should be democratized. The Parliament Act 1911 also changed the way the House of Commons operated by reducing the maximum term of that chamber from seven to five years and introducing MP’s salaries (then at £400 p.a.). These Commons measures were along the lines of what the Chartists and others had long been campaigning for: shorter terms to give the electorate greater voice (because we can vote more often), and wages for MPs so that a private income is not needed to take up the political ‘hobby’.

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Persecution or privilege: the Church Defensive

Not PersecutedDuring Holy Week, I had a couple of episcopal moments. On Palm Sunday, six bishops signed a letter in the Sunday Torygraph that didn’t use the word ‘persecution’, but the resulting headlines did, and one sermon I’ve heard since has. Archbishop Rowan felt it necessary to say publically that they should get things in perspective in his Easter Letter: hear, hear!

The next day, on Maundy Thursday, the Bishop of London felt it necessary refute ‘persecution’ claims in his chrism sermon, but then he went on to talk about how Christians have to fight against the discrimination aimed at us and battle the tide of secularism (this clunkily segued into the twice-repeated materialist motto ‘love is not an emotion’).

On Easter Sunday evening, Nicky Campbell brought out a TV documentary asking whether Christians are persecuted. The show gave fairly free reign to those who wanted to ramp up the persecution fears, but also got the sane voices of the Bishop of Oxford and Theos think-tank in there. I quite liked the clear outline of why the persecution fear exists: that it is based on

  1. the complex secularising of hegemony,
  2. increased non-Christian immigration
  3. and human-rights legislation.

Whereas the fearmongers, like Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, would point to the secularisation of society as the cause, and crusade for the re-Christianisation of our public spaces, the documentary’s outline gives us more substantial handles for what is happening.

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