9 Famous Moments in British Protest History
We’re living at a time when the rights, wrongs and impact of protesting is once again a key topic of debate.
There’s the question of whether violence is ever justifiable, as the internet went wild over a video of neo-Nazi Richard Spencer being punched during the presidential inauguration. There’s debate over when freedom of speech ends and incitement to crime begins, in particular in relation to the cancelled speaking engagements of alt-right extremist Milo Yiannopoulos. And there’s the enduring question of how much of a difference public protest really makes, as – to date – 1.8 million people have signed a petition to rescind Donald Trump’s invitation to make a state visit to the UK, and the response of the British government has been not to cancel, but to consider moving the main location of the visit from London to Birmingham – in order to avert further anticipated protests.
Though the British are generally viewed as less inclined to protest than their European neighbours – especially the French – there has in fact been a long history of protests in the UK; some effective, others less so. In this article, we take a look at protests throughout British history, what they sought to achieve, what their immediate aftermath was and what lasting impact they made, if any.
1. The Poll Tax Riots (1381 and 1990)
Taxation is seldom popular. However, probably the form of taxation that has caused the greatest unrest in the UK is the poll tax. The concept behind a poll tax is simple: everyone pays the same amount, regardless of their wealth. The unfairness of this – where the poor are affected disproportionately to the rich – has struck people throughout history.
In 1381, political tensions in England were running high. Since the Black Death in the 1340s had killed a third of the English population, peasant labour had become increasingly valuable, giving the peasant class greater social and political power than they had previously known. But – to summarise a complex issue – this was not taken lightly by the upper classes they served, who put in place a series of laws intended to keep the peasantry in their place. The Hundred Years’ War caused a series of tax rises that compounded this, including the imposition of a series of poll taxes.
This all came to a head when the poll tax was to be collected in Essex in June, with a rebellion breaking out and rapidly spreading across the South East, and then throughout the country. Rebels marched on London, and were violently suppressed. At least 1,500 were killed of the approximately 60,000 rebels across the country. While most of the peasants’ demands were ignored, the poll tax was not reinstituted, and the ruling classes became somewhat more cautious in their restrictions on peasants’ freedoms.
However, 1381 isn’t the end of the story of poll tax protests. In 1990, Margaret Thatcher’s government attempted to introduce a new poll tax to change the way local government was funded in Britain. A rally of 200,000 people in London in opposition to the move turned into a riot, with 113 people injured and 339 arrests. The riots contributed to Thatcher’s resignation, and the poll tax was abandoned by her successor, John Major.
2. Kett’s Rebellion and the Prayer Book Rebellion (1549)
1549 was not a good year for keeping the peace. Edward VI – then just 12 years old – had not one but two major rebellions to deal with. Smaller, but marginally longer-lived, was the Prayer Book Rebellion. While Henry VIII had wavered between Protestantism and Catholicism, his son Edward was a staunch Protestant, and in 1549 the Protestant Book of Common Prayer was introduced (which is still used today). In Catholic areas of the country – especially Devon and Cornwall – it proved immediately unpopular. In June 1549, an army of 7,000 rose in rebellion – but by August they had been brutally suppressed. At least 2,000 were killed by the king’s troops.
At the same time, in July 1549, rebels in Norfolk were protesting for a different reason. This was the time of enclosure, when local landowners were fencing off what had been common land for private use; thereby depriving those with no land of their own of a space to graze their animals, pushing them further into poverty. Rebels opposing this tore down fences – when they came for local landowner Robert Kett, he offered to lead them instead. The assembled army of 16,000 rebels succeeded in capturing the city of Norwich, but once they came up against a well-trained and disciplined force, their strength broke and they were defeated; Kett was hanged for treason, and the process of enclosure continued.
3. The Levellers (1647)
While the protestors of 1549 never got what they wanted, most of the Levellers’ demands have since come to pass – it just took them a few hundred years to get there. The Levellers were a group who arose during the English Civil War, a time of political and religious radicalism of many different shades. Much of what the Levellers believed now seems quite reasonable: for instance, that everyone should be treated equally by the law; that punishments should be proportionate to criminal offences so that no one would be executed for a minor offence; and that no one should be imprisoned perpetually for debt.
In 1648, their beliefs were presented in a petition to Parliament, allegedly signed by a third of the population of London – a very modern-sounding way to wage a political campaign. Their allegiances were with Parliament rather than the King during the Civil War, but their views were too radical for the Parliamentarians too, and along with other radical groups such as the Diggers, they were first ignored and then suppressed.
4. The Peterloo Massacre (1819)
The name of this protest gives an indication of the tragic way that it ended. In August 1819, a crowd of around 70,000 people had gathered in Manchester to hear a speech calling for reforms to parliamentary representation. Suffrage in Britain at this point was restricted to wealthy men, and constituencies were often of wildly different size. A million people in the North West were represented by just four MPs, while in other parts of the country, the system was so corrupt that one voter in Wiltshire was solely responsible for the election of two MPs. The cause of reform was growing increasingly popular; the attendance of 70,000 represented about half the population of the local area.
But instead of allowing the crowd to hear the speeches peaceably, the military were called in to disperse them. Cavalry charged into the crowd, killing eleven people and injuring hundreds of others. The government passed a bill immediately afterwards to prevent future calls for reform, but political pressure steadily continued until the passage of the Great Reform Act in 1832, which went some way to addressing the injustices in the political system.
5. The General Strike (1842)
Nearly half a million people protested in the General Strike of 1842, which is particularly remarkable given that this represented about one in fifty people in Britain at the time. The workers who went on strike, mostly from factories, mills and coal mines, were protesting the harsh cuts to their pay (up to 25% in some cases) that had resulted from an ongoing economic downturn. The strike was a modest success in that respect, as workers were granted a pay rise to persuade them back into the factories.
But it wasn’t solely pay that was their focus. The strike also became connected to the Chartist movement, a working-class movement for political reform that called for suffrage for all adult men, a secret ballot, payment for members of parliament (so that those without independent means could also become MPs), constituencies of equal size and annual elections. With the exception of annual elections – for reasons of practicality – everything the Chartists called for became law over the course of the next eighty years.
6. Emily Wilding Davison throws herself in front of the King’s horse (1913)
There’s a demand that’s noticeably missing from the Chartists’ list; while they called for suffrage for all adult men, they were much less concerned about adult women. Calls for votes for women increased throughout the nineteenth century in the form of the suffragist movement, but by the dawn of the 20th century progress was too slow for some. They became the suffragettes – a more militant group who favoured radical techniques including chaining themselves to railings, setting fire to postboxes, smashing windows and, once arrested and imprisoned, going on hunger strike.
One such suffragette was Emily Wilding Davison, an old member of St Hugh’s College, Oxford, where she had gained first-class honours in her exams but, as a woman, not been permitted to take a degree. In one stunt, she hid in a cupboard in the House of Commons on the night of the 1911 census, so that she could list it as her address on the form. In 1913, in another stunt, she threw herself in front of the horse owned by the King at Epsom Derby – but was struck by the horse at speed, and died four days later from her injuries. Respect for her courage helped spur support for the women’s suffrage movement, and women were granted the vote just five years later.
7. The Kinder Scout Mass Trespass (1932)
In the 1930s, huge areas of countryside were closed off to most people, preserved for the landed gentry to enjoy hunting and shooting undisturbed. This did not seem right to many of those excluded from walking in many parts of the countryside.
One such person was Benny Rothman, who said that “We ramblers, after a hard week’s work, in smokey towns and cities, go out rambling for relaxation and fresh air. And we find the finest rambling country is closed to us.” He was one of several hundred people who was moved to engage in civil disobedience in the form of a mass trespass on the moorland of Kinder Scout, now in the Peak District.
Benny Rothman and a handful of others were arrested and jailed for several months for trespassing, but they started a movement in favour of the right to roam that contributed to the establishment of the National Parks – including the Peak District – and ultimately, the principle of ‘the right to roam’, enshrined in law in 2000 in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which Benny lived just long enough to see come into force.
8. The Bristol Bus Boycott (1963)
Racial discrimination was widespread in the UK in the 1960s, particularly in employment. One company that discriminated on racial grounds was the Bristol Omnibus company, which refused to employ black or Asian bus crews, supported by the Transport and General Workers’ Union, who feared that employing non-white workers, who were usually immigrants, would drive down wages. This was particularly hypocritical given that the union in question was a vocal opponent of apartheid in South Africa.
The local West Indian community, students and the local Labour party set out to oppose this racist attitude, and mounted a boycott of the bus company that lasted for four months, until the company backed down and agreed to hire employees irrespective of their race. Over the next five years, two Race Relations acts banned discrimination on the basis of race in employment and housing.
9. The London March against the Iraq War (2003)
Probably the largest protest march in British history took place in 2003. Approximately a million people marched through the streets of London in protest at the Afghanistan war and especially the intention to go to war in Iraq as well. Despite its enormous size, the march passed without major incident, even from the Londoners whose travel plans it disrupted.
The plan to go to war, based on the mistaken belief that the dictator Saddam Hussein had access to nuclear weapons, was highly controversial; supported by a slim majority of the population, many of those who opposed it did so passionately. The march took place in February; by late March, Britain had launched its bombing campaign in Iraq. But the tide of public opinion turned rapidly against the war, and it contributed significantly to the then Prime Minister Tony Blair’s resignation in 2007.