Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt
The Stop Trump rally in Parliament Square on 20th February had a good turn-out of supporters of the London Socialist Historians Group. That’s not unusual. Such protests are the raw stuff of socialist history and casting an historical eye on matters never hurts.
Discussion turned to radical leadership, particularly in London, the Great Wen. As some may know the opposition to Donald Trump in the UK although mostly united is not quite fully so. The post-1945 left has something of a history of this. On one anti-Vietnam War demonstration in the late 1960s the Socialist Labour League turned up to hand out a leaflet ‘why we are not marching’. Whether the issue really was a genuine political difference or just an attempt to build a particular political brand is another matter.
We then turned our thoughts to one of the great early nineteenth century radical leaders, Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt. Hunt was jailed for his speech at Peterloo in Manchester in August 1819 (where numbers of protesters for the vote were killed or injured by the army) so his radical leadership was not in doubt. But it was very much ‘his’.
Here is what EP Thompson wrote of London radical leadership in the 1820s:
The Radicalism of Manchester, Birmingham or Leeds bore a direct relationship to the structure of each community. It is less easy to indicate an authentic London Radicalism driving from its industrial structure or community patterns. Everyone who aspired to Radical leadership or influence had a London following..
There is a sense of impermanence about the London leadership. Prominent national personalities, orators, wire-pullers, journalists or tavern demagogues succeeded each other in favour and often engaged in bitter internecine polemics in full public view.
(Making of the English Working Class, 1963)
Still we concluded that was before the time when the labour movement was subject to democratic structures and controls which have been a feature since the Chartists appeared in the late 1830s. Henry Hunt could be excused. Anyone who fancies copying him today might be looked upon less favourably- unless they want to re-start the organic brewery Hunt ran in Bristol in the early nineteenth century anyway.