1848: Springtime of Revolution-but was Britain exceptional?

In Uncategorized on March 9, 2011 by kmflett


With the inspiring events in the Middle East, comparisons have been made to 1848, a year of democratic revolutions throughout Europe.

Those revolutions were mostly defeated over the following two years by a vicious and bloody wave of reaction. But there was unfinished business in Poland and Ireland and political democracy was left firmly and unavoidably on the agenda for the decades to come.

Britain however is often cited as an exception to this.

In my view what is known by historians as ‘exceptionalism’ that is the argument that this or that country or movement is somehow unique is nearly always just bad history.

As a matter of fact there was no revolution in Britain in 1848 but the underlying trend was actually very similar to the rest of Europe.

Driven by economic slump over the winter of 1847/8 and inspired by the revolutionary events in France in February 1848, the Chartist movement revived following its decline after the defeat of the 1842 General Strike.

Demonstrations influenced by but not called by Chartists took place in central London in February and March 1848 and ended in riots.

The pressure for political reform became unavoidable. A new Chartist petition for democratic rights was launched and it was to be presented to Parliament following a mass demonstration on Kennington Common on Monday 10th April 1848.

The events of that day are well known. The Government, and indeed the monarchy, feared a French style Revolution and London was turned into an armed camp with troops and special constables mobilised and key buildings guarded.

While elsewhere in Europe the forces of the old order had disappeared from the streets and Government melted, mostly temporarily, away in Britain the ruling class, just about, stood firm.

The Chartist march on Parliament was abandoned amidst fears of bloodshed, although historians have rather overlooked the serious fighting between Chartists and troops on the south side of Blackfriars Bridge that took place on the afternoon of 10th April. A sharp downpour of rain ended that.

10th April however was not the end but the beginning of the Chartist challenge in 1848.

For the period until July Chartists and Irish nationalists launched a succession of demonstrations and meetings that often led to confrontations with authority.

Several of these came close to succeeding.

For example in Bradford in June 1848 Chartists were able to take control of the town for several days. A Times Editorial noted ‘that if fighting with pluck and courage could make a revolution then the Chartists in Bradford ought to have succeeded’.

Ultimately they did not, and a wave of repression quite similar to that which seized the rest of Europe saw key Chartist leaders like Ernest Jones arrested and jailed.

The difference in Britain was that the level of bloodshed was very significantly less than elsewhere. This does not need to be explained as something exceptional but rather by understanding that the country already had some of the elements of political democracy- the right to meet in public- which did not exist elsewhere. Hence a safety valve was in place.

The politics of the European Revolutions of1848 also extended far beyond democratic demands and led to the development of working class political organisation and programmes.

Exactly the same trend took place here.

While the Chartists were ultimately defeated in 1848, a strong left had emerged that meant by the early 1850s they were campaigning not just for the vote but for the Charter and Something More. That is political, economic and social democracy.

One Response to “1848: Springtime of Revolution-but was Britain exceptional?”

  1. Very interesting, and not something covered in the local Chartist history (I’m four miles from “The Welsh Oak” and eight from the Westgate Hotel in Newport)

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