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Excellent film exposes bloody nature of capitalism through Peterloo massacre
As the bicentenary of the Peterloo massacre approaches, acclaimed director-scriptwriter Mike Leigh, from Salford himself, has created probably the first feature-length film of the circumstances of the years preceding the massacre and the terrible actions of the day itself.
The Peterloo massacre of 16 August 1819 was a heinous crime of British capitalism against its own population. In terms of its effect, recent comparisons could include such atrocities as the Marikana massacre which took place in South Africa in August 2012.
At least 60,000 mostly working-class people, mainly from what is now known as the Greater Manchester area, had assembled to hear parliamentary reformer Henry Hunt.
They came because they wanted alleviation from the terrible hunger, poverty and unemployment that had beset the region following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815.
While for some at the gathering, the vote - universal suffrage - was the primary aim, for the majority it was seen as a means to an end, a better life and conditions.
The day ended in a lethal cavalry charge on a peaceful demonstration, with 15 killed and hundreds injured.
Leigh has called for Peterloo to be taught in the curriculum. There are obvious reasons why an act showing the working class moving against the system is not widely taught!
Some commentators in the next year may seek to portray this as just a battle for parliamentary 'reform' and not of greater importance to the working class.
But the film shows the major role of the working class, newly herded into the textile factories of Lancashire.
Leigh has also been faithful to the facts, honestly portraying the feelings and interests of the different classes in the Manchester district at the time.
He clearly shows that the government and Manchester authorities were fearful of the influence of the French Revolution and 'sedition', particularly in the north west of England, even after the defeat of Napoleon. He also describes the injustices heaped upon the poor through the courts.
Some of the best scenes are those which contrast the differing approaches of various sections of the authorities, and various sections of those fighting for reform.
The polemical style is reminiscent of Ken Loach's 'Land and Freedom' at times. This I think adds to the narrative rather than detracts, as the clash of ideas is at the heart of the story of Peterloo.
On the side of the state, the possibility of buying off discontent is raised - "If we ask the factory owners to raise wages by a shilling a week..." - instead of the iron hand.
For the reformers, there is the debate between 'constitutionalists' who favour 'peaceable' and piecemeal reforms, against those who favour more radical aims and methods.
These arguments are still relevant to the political situation we face today, as are the scenes which raise warnings about the security of the protest - against the thuggery of the state and those who oppose reform for reactionary reasons.
So there are plenty of contemporary themes in Peterloo, which perhaps confirms that in 200 years, not enough has yet changed in the world.
The cast includes Rory Kinnear as Henry Hunt, and Maxine Peake, who plays the mother in a working-class Manchester family, whose son is based on a real-life participant in Peterloo itself. The whole cast is excellent.
If I had one criticism, it would be that the film does not deal with the aftermath of the massacre. The terrible repression, the decline in the reform movement for a period. And the later rise of the working class as the dominant force for change, with the rise of trade unions and later the formation and battles of the Chartists.
But this is a minor quibble. I would recommend every Socialist Party member and supporter sees this. Why not go as a group and organise a discussion around its themes? This is an excellent film about an event that has been largely hidden from the view of most people in Britain and worldwide.
- Mike Leigh's 'Peterloo' is on general release in cinemas from 2 November 2018
New pamphlet out now:
Produced by the Socialist Party north-west region, this new pamphlet brings together four new articles about the 1819 events: "The Massacre," "Revolution, War and Struggle," "The run-up to Peterloo," and "After Peterloo," together with previously published material on the Pentrich Uprising and the Great French Revolution.
The pamphlet is £2 per copy, or bulk orders 10 for the price of 7.
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 12 October 2018 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.