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Tolpuddle: one of the first times the State bent the law to attack working people but not the last

In Uncategorized on July 20, 2018 by kmflett

Tolpuddle: one of the first times the State bent the law to attack working people but not the last

The law in a capitalist state favours the rich. The better off are more likely to be able to afford to pursue justice and perhaps more likely to get a better outcome when they do.

At the same time of course since at least the 1860s the labour movement has exerted considerable pressure and energy on pushing for changes to the law (and sometimes for the law not to apply in some employment matters) and it still does. The latest piece of Tory anti-trade union legislation was passed in 2017. It was opposed and hopefully when Labour returns to Office it will be repealed.

There is a difference however between class law and occasions when the law is deliberately bent with hand picked judges and juries to give the State the result it wants on a particular occasion.

The case of the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834, six farm labourers tried in Dorchester in March 1834 and sentenced to seven years transportation to Australia for administering an illegal oath is a case in point.

The labourers were prosecuted under a 1797 Illegal Oaths Act which had been aimed at naval mutinies. It was unclear at best why it should apply in Tolpuddle and the judge in the case spent some time in legal argument justifying why it should.

Since the convictions were later overturned on appeal it seems reasonable to suggest that it actually did not apply but the Government rightly judged that it could get away with it for a period when it was concerned about growing trade union organisation.

The Times Editorial on the case (21st March 1834) makes interesting reading. It said (in part):

The offence of swearing agricultural labourers, and binding them to the observance of an illegal oath, by ceremonial partaking of mingled folly, superstition and ferocity was brought home to the accused and the conviction was followed by a sentence of transportation for seven years against the whole of them, six in number. This sentence as regards the poor deluded men who are the objects of it seems to us too severe, but it may be useful if spreads alarm among those more powerful and acute disturbers of the town populations throughout England who combine in spite of high wages and whose combinations are as destructive to honest workmen as they are to all but the richest masters.

It could not be clearer that while the Times thought the Dorchester convictions were doubtful it also thought they served a useful purpose.

The State was at it again in 1848. On 10th April 1848 it passed the Crown and Government Security Act apparently designed to deal with unrest in Ireland. It was used however against the Chartists particularly a passage on ‘open and advised speaking’, that is a pre-meditated attack on the Government. Numbers of Chartists were arrested and jailed including the leader of London Chartism William Cuffay who was also sentenced to be transported to Australia.

There have been other instances since and one thinks for example of Orgreave during the 1984/5 miners strike where, were an inquiry ever to be held, it would be interesting to see what is made of issues around political policing and political courts.

 

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