2019 has seen a major rise in protest action throughout Britain. Over the past few months climate change activists have been out in full force. In April campaigners from political movement Extinction Rebellion blocked numerous roads and train lines in London; Using tactics that included gluing themselves to a lorry. Elsewhere crowds of young people have been following in the footsteps of Greta Thunberg and going on strike to demand that parliament declare a climate emergency.
These environmental rallies are hardly the first protests to happen in Britain, nor will it be the last judging from current enthusiasm. The divisive debate around exiting the European Union has sparked a number of marches from both pro-Leave and pro-Remain forces. Movements around a wide variety campaigns; Everything from Palestinian solidarity to the incarceration of Tommy Robinson – are a semi-regular sight in some city centers.
Britain’s history has been shaped by mass action and protest. Whether you think of the people involved as brave fighters taking a stand against worthwhile causes or just needless time wasters. Here are ten times that activists rose up in Britain.
- 10. General Strike, May 1926
- 9. The Chartists, 1848
- 8. Poll Tax Riots, March 31st 1990
- 7. Stop The War, February 15th 2003
- 6. Student Protests, November and December 2010
- 5. Brixton Riots, April 1981
- 4. Peasants’ Revolt, 1381
- 3. Northern Ireland Conflict, 1968-1998
- 2. Miners’ Strike, 1984-1985
- 1. The Suffragettes, 1903-1918
10. General Strike, May 1926
The best part of a century ago, over one and a half million British workers took industrial action against insufficient wages and long work hours. On May 3rd 1926, a large contingency of coal miners made the decision to go on strike. Their bosses were making plans to slash their pay by 13%, whilst also adding an extra hour to their shifts.
In an act of solidarity, masses of other workers joined the miners in striking. Dock workers, builders, electricians and many more took to picket lines across the country. Without drivers, the trains and buses were brought to a standstill. Police and strikers clashed violently. A warship was sent to Newcastle to aggressively intimidate the strikers back to work.
In the end Britain’s Trade Union Congress brought the strikes to an end without any victories. By November miners were either unemployed or had returned to work under worse conditions. In the aftermath of the struggle prime minister Stanley Baldwin passed a law forbidding mass picketing, which is still in place today.
9. The Chartists, 1848
Nowadays almost every adult with British citizenship has the right to vote in elections; (Excluding prisoners and some people involved in the upper echelons of parliament). Historically this has not always been the case. From 1832 only 18% of adult men were allowed to vote. The working classes, who did not own property, were still without suffrage.
The Chartist movement aimed to bring this to an end. Their six key demands were listed in the People’s Charter, which called on votes for all men over 21 and votes by secret ballot amongst other things.
In 1848, having already been rejected twice, the Chartists presented their petition to Parliament. The petition had an estimated six million signatures, or so they claimed. The 20,000 Chartists who assembled on Kennington Common were met by 8,000 soldiers, and their petition was rejected once again.
In spite of this defeat many of those in Parliament still feared that the movement would escalate into a revolution. Riots had sprung up in Manchester and Preston. And at the time vast swathes of the working class were living in poverty and hunger. Several Reform Acts were passed throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century. And, by 1918 all but one of their demands had been met.
8. Poll Tax Riots, March 31st 1990
In her final few years in office, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced a flat-rate poll tax – officially known as the Community Charge. First instigated in 1989, the tax was met by monumental opposition. Several different campaigns urged the public to refuse payment. Droves of activists took the streets to confront what they saw as a vicious attack on the working class.
Following on from various active demonstrations that had broken out in some pockets of the country, a mass protest was scheduled for March 31st 1990. On the day more than 200,000 incensed Brits marched across central London demanding an end to the poll tax. The police reacted with a vast display of force. Officers on horseback charged at the crowds, whilst others attacked the protesters with riot shields and truncheons. In the face of this provocation, the protesters responded by hurling impromptu projectiles like bottles, sticks and placards. The total 339 protesters were arrested.
In response to the public’s hostility, the Community Charge was dropped in 1993 after only a few years and replaced with the property-based Council Tax system.
7. Stop The War, February 15th 2003
The single biggest march ever to happen in Britain. In 2003 somewhere between 750,000 and two million protesters marched across London. The march – which was held in conjunction with hundreds of similar demonstrations globally – aimed to take a stand against the planned invasion of Iraq. Protestors flocked to the capital from 250 towns and cities to join in with the rally. Waving pro-peace banners and urging Prime Minister Tony Blair not to go to war.
Despite the enormous turn-out the march proved unsuccessful in preventing war. In March that year British troops carried out a ferocious incursion of the Iraqi province Basra. Bombs from coalition forces rained down on Baghdad on the spurious claim that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Years later Iraq remains ravaged by conflict, which has been exacerbated since the emergence of militant organizations such as ISIL.
6. Student Protests, November and December 2010
In 2010 the British government announced plans to triple university tuition fees to £9,000 and abolish the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) for college students. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, who had previously promised to oppose any attempts to hike tuition fees, refused to take a stand against the proposed raise.
Outraged by the decision, tens of thousands of students came out in protest against the education funding cuts. Towards the end of 2010 the National Union of Students and University and College Union held a series of demonstrations, particularly centered on London. The most prominent marches saw activists smashing windows, clashing with the police and on one occasion storming a government building in the centre of London.
Ultimately Parliament refused to meet the protesters demands. The cost of an undergraduate degree for home students now stands at up to £9,250 per year in England and EMA has faded to a long distant memory. On top of this the maintenance grant for students from low-income backgrounds was scrapped in 2016, and the education budget cuts show no sign of slowing down.
5. Brixton Riots, April 1981
Brixton in Lambeth, South London is one of the most multicultural and poorest districts in Britain. Over the past seventy years a large population of immigrants, particularly Irish, West Indian and Afro-Caribbean, have settled in the area. In the 1980s poverty there was rife. The borough of Lambeth was marred by poorly built and often dangerous housing and the levels of employment were worryingly low.
By spring 1981, following a step up in the use of stop and search, the strained relationship between black youths and white police officers in Brixton was threatening to spill over. These tensions reached breaking point on Friday April 10th 1981 when a group of black locals attacked a police vehicle, launching glass bottles at the windscreen.
Disturbances escalated over the course of the weekend. Protesters were set upon with police dogs, police vans were attacked with petrol bombs and bricks, and over a hundred businesses and vehicles sustained damage. An inquiry into the violence recommended that police should liaise more with Brixton locals to ease the animosity.
4. Peasants’ Revolt, 1381
Another British rebellion sparked in opposition to a poll tax, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 saw artisans, villeins, laborers and the working classes conspire against young King Richard II. The protests broke out in May of that year and by June 13th had spread to the capital. Under the command of Wat Tyler, English rebels stormed into London, slaughtering several merchants and demolishing the palace of the Duke of Lancaster.
Over the following days the Archbishop of Canterbury Simon Sudbury was killed, as was Wat Tyler. However the momentum was short lived. After only a few days the king persuaded the rebel army to leave London, and by June the movement had been extinguished altogether.
In response to the revolt Richard II vowed to eliminate forced labor and encourage free trade, but he quickly went back on his promises. The only real success of the Peasants’ Revolt was to halt the spread of the poll tax.
3. Northern Ireland Conflict, 1968-1998
For thirty years nationalist and loyalist forces in Northern Ireland faced off in a volatile armed conflict that, at times, verged on civil war. During the so-called ‘Troubles’, Irish nationalists and other republican movements, most notably the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), fought against the Ulster constabulary and British Army for a unified Ireland. Meanwhile unionists and loyalists clashed with the republicans in favor of continuing the political relationship between Ireland and Britain.
Violent action including rioting, house burnings, shootings and bombings were performed by all sides. In 1972 alone, 480 people died at the hands of the conflict. On January 30 of that year the British Army massacred fourteen republicans in the city of Derry. This attack has since come to be known as ‘Bloody Sunday‘ and paved the way for a step up in militancy from all sides. Car bombings became a favored tactic of the IRA, who had killed over 100 British soldiers by the end of the year. In total more than 2,000 people died over the course of the 1970s, and despite several attempted ceasefires fierce battles continued for years afterwards.
Officially the conflict was brought to an end in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement. That said, in recent years a New IRA has started to emerge, signaling that disputes over the status of the six counties are far from over.
2. Miners’ Strike, 1984-1985
For Britain the 1980s were a time of intense political action. Of all the movements that stood against the neoliberal policies of Margaret Thatcher‘s government, the miners’ strike is one of the most commonly remembered.
On March 6th 1984, it was announced by the National Coal Board (NCB) that twenty pits would be closed down, putting 20,000 workers out of a job. In response miners called a national strike, laying down their tools and demanding job security.
The constabulary were relentless in trying to quash some of the striking miners, and their extreme actions remain a contentious topic to this day. One mass picket line in the Yorkshire village of Orgreave was charged by police riding horses and dressed in riot gear. On the other hand the strikers could also be brutal in their treatment of ‘scabs’; Anyone who decided to cross on the picket lines into work. A taxi driver died in South Wales. He died after a concrete post was dropped onto his car for driving a pair of scabs to the Merthyr Vale Colliery.
By the start of 1985, unable to afford to continue the industrial action, large numbers of miners were forced to head back to work. Mass pit closures followed and the coal mining industry fell into a rapid decline. Kellingley Colliery, the last remaining deep coal mine in Britain, ceased operation in December 2015.
1. The Suffragettes, 1903-1918
The Suffragettes were not the first movement to demand votes for women in Britain. However, they played a vital role in ensuring that demand was delivered. In 1903 the Pankhurst family; Mother Emmeline and her daughters Christabel and Sylvia – started up the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU), one of the most militant organizations in the history of British politics.
For the first few years the Suffragettes’ actions were actually fairly non-violent. The main shift came in 1905 when Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney forcibly disrupted a political meeting in Manchester. From this point forwards the campaign became far more extreme in its actions. Protesters chained themselves to the gates of Buckingham Palace. They set churches ablaze, smashed windows on Oxford Street and attacked politicians all in the name of securing women’s suffrage. Their most notorious act of protest came in June 1913, when activist Emily Wilding Davison died after throwing herself under the horse of King George V.
By the end of the First World War suffrage had been granted to all women over 30 with property. While many in the movement saw this as a resounding success, Sylvia Pankhurst continued to fight. Her East London Federation believed in fighting for decent rights for women of all classes. Whereas other movements at the time were noticeably centered on the middle classes.