The Newport rising of November 1839, when a few thousand men from the south Wales valleys, many of them armed, marched in protest at working-conditions and for the right to vote, was the subject of a recent BBC documentary presented by actor Michael Sheen.
Sheen’s brief was to explore the reasons behind political apathy (e.g. very low turnouts in elections) in a place otherwise known for its restlessness and radicalism. Retracing and walking one of the routes taken by the rebels into Newport, Sheen retells the story of the Welsh Chartism which inspired the Rising which ended in violent repression, 22 rebels were killed and 200 were arrested.
Sheen didn’t have that much to say for himself. He let a mix of local people, politicians (of all stripes), a token lefty of national importance (Owen Jones!) and historians do most of the talking.
But even a relatively uninformed programme and partial, uncritical retelling of one of the most important working-class social movements that have ever existed is a good thing. Judging by the number of ordinary people in the film who had heard of the Peoples Charter — the Chartists’ set of six points for democratic reform — radical and socialistic views in South Wales are not entirely dead.
From 1838 to 1848 (and a little after) the Chartist movement combined local economic grievances (the brutal and brutalising conditions of newly-industrialising Britain) and a national political campaign to win a political voice for working people (their demand was for universal male suffrage but there were many women Chartists).
Earlier in 1839 delegates from Chartist associations had met at a General Convention in London. The Convention was highly politically differentiated; some of the leaders were inspired by the most radical wing of the French Revolution others were more moderate. But in general the mood outside the Convention was more militant. In many areas where Chartists were organising, men were arming themselves. (Women were involved in some of the mass demonstrations which ended in repression, but not I think, the Newport Rising). Much of the debate and feeling in the movement at this time was for going beyond the six demands of the Charter.
Sheen’s documentary did not try to reconstruct the political world view of the south Wales Chartists. This is in many ways exemplified by their decision to arm themselves, to organise in a clandestine way (necessary as the local ruling class had many ways intimidate and victimise rebels). The arming and drilling was never going to be a stronger force against soldiers on horseback but it was a ritualistic means to create a disciplined movement. And that must have been a way to overcome the fear and insecurity of life. The film describes this well.
These were “the precariat” of the 19th century. People who had mostly lived on the land, had come to South Wales to work in its many iron works. Most newbies had to wait three months before they were paid and only to be ripped off at the company store. People who work in extractive industries around the world today lead very similar lives.
In South Wales today, things are not so very different, as people endure in-work and out-of-work poverty. What did Sheen say about the politics of the area? Unfortunately he failed to comment critically on the views of his interviewers. David Davies the Tory MP for Monmouth advised the jobless of South Wales to “get on their bike”. Sheen just listened politely. One very articulate and class-conscious barber opined about how there was very little for the “working man” in South Wales. Hmm, not much for the working woman either? Owen Jones repeated the words of Tony Benn, “people need hope”. Yes, but how to get that?
Sheen, who seems like a decent leftish person, could have talked a little more about those organisations which rest on the legacy of the Chartist movement — the trade unions. In the first place the people who are voted in to lead those unions could get off their collective backsides and fight for higher wages, challenge the economic order of joblessness and poverty benefits.
But even if the unions just lent their weight to the many community projects that the people of south Wales are organising for themselve, step-by-step hope can be rebuilt.