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From the 1661 Tumultuous Petitioning Act to 38 Degrees: the role of petitions

In Uncategorized on February 8, 2017 by kmflett

Petitions

april10

The Chartists at Kennington Common April 10th 1848

The petition remains a device of political protest in 2017 perhaps partly because it can now be done on-line, a case in point being petitions to Parliament, rather than having to be done by signing in ink in person. Of course the physical petition still exists and you can see people out on High Streets asking people to sign for this or that important cause, against cuts, for better air quality and so on.

Politicians will tell you that some people will sign anything, and point to examples where people have signed petitions for and against similar matters. Indeed this does occur and can be understood by the fact that some will sign to get rid of a persistent petitioner or to avoid an argument.

Through political history petitions have been bedevilled by this. The huge Chartist petitions for the vote in the 1840s were sometimes derided because obviously false names were included.

Yet the petition has remained a significant strategy of those pressing for political change, and this is perhaps the most interesting thing, part of what Charles Tilly called the repertoire of contention of politics since at least the seventeenth century. The repertoire ranges from the petition, through to demonstrations, strikes and risings and examples of all of them are the stuff of recent political history.

However the petition has a specificity to it. The one perhaps most in the current mind is that calling on the Government not to allow any visit Donald Trump makes to the UK to be a State occasion. That gathered towards two million signatures in a few days underlining the power of the on-line petition. It will, under current rules, now be debated in Parliament on 20th February and it will be accompanied by a protest outside of the House of Commons.

There are campaigning organisations, perhaps the best known is 38 Degrees, whose central political focus is the petition. They see it as a way not only to influence opinion but also to mobilise active support for causes.

It is the petition plus physical protest that has most worried the authorities over the centuries however. In 1661, under the newly restored monarchy of Charles 11, The Tumultuous Petitioning Act as passed. It was not repealed until 1986.

Parliament had been inundated by petitions relating to disputes over land confiscated under Cromwell from 1649 and then restored from 1660. The Act required any petition to Parliament to be agreed by Justices of the Peace before it could be presented.

The importance of the petition continued despite the 1661 Act primarily because it was one of the few legal ways of making a political protest. Gatherings of more than 49 people for the purpose of considering political change required permission under various Seditious Meetings Act passed from 1795 onwards and again only repealed in 1986. One way around this was to demonstrate in support of a petition that was to be delivered to Parliament.

The Chartist petitions for adult male suffrage in 1839, 1842 and 1848 are probably the most well- known examples of the use of the petitioning strategy.

The final Chartist petition was to be presented to Parliament on Monday 10th April 1848. Gathering in Kennington Common, the Chartists planned a mass march to the Commons with the petition. The authorities had other ideas and the army was called out to prevent the procession from crossing over the Thames at Blackfriars Bridge.

It is an example of how a petition, often seen as the most low-key campaigning tool, can make a real impact. Theresa May and President Trump, beware.

This post appeared in the Morning Star 6th February 2017

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