On Easter Sunday, May 6 1867, the Reform League pressure group had a difficult decision to make. Would they obey the diktat of the Home Secretary, Spencer Walpole, and not hold a huge meeting in Hyde Park to call for Reform, or would they defy him?
Founded only two years before, they campaigned for the franchise for all ratepayers, as well as secret ballots and an equal numerical distribution of seats in parliament, the basis of our modern democracy. Yet the police were padlocking the gates to the Park, which in those days was surrounded by high iron railings.
The Prime Minister and Cabinet urged caution and predicted dire consequences if the meeting went ahead; the police were called out en masse, and there was a run on the pound. With 200,000 supporters of Reform marching towards the park, the decision was nonetheless taken by the League’s leaders simply to pull down the railings and allow the vast surge of humanity to hold their (in the event, entirely peaceful) meeting.
Spencer Walpole burst into tears under the pressure and resigned; 10 speakers addressed the crowds, and the Second Reform Bill was passed later that same year. The railings never went back up.
Almost every single agency of the international Establishment was deployed to thwart them – the CBI, IMF, Bank of England, OECD, big business, Goldman Sachs, all but one party leader, the World Bank, Presidents Obama, Hollande and Abe, the EU Commission, two-thirds of the cabinet, the Treasury, The Guardian, Davos, The Times, and so on – yet over 17.4 million people told them precisely what they could do with their expert opinion.
It is the British people who have now sent Obama “to the back of the queue”.
In Melvyn Bragg’s fine novel about the Peasant’s Revolt, Now is The Time, one sees a template for the uprising of ordinary people that resulted in the Brexit vote, much as the pro-EU Lord Bragg might like to deny it. The huge groundswell of ordinary people’s opinion led rather than followed their own leaders.
Today’s insurgent leaders were themselves a ragbag bunch: a half-albino Classicist whose friends called him “the truffle-pig”; a German-born female Labour MP; a beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking man of the people; and an infinitely courteous intellectual with a razor-sharp brain, who had nevertheless been sacked as education secretary a few years earlier. It wasn’t much to set against the combined forces of the Establishment, yet they won.
Just as the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (founded in 1897) and its more militant offshoot the Women’s Social and Political Union (founded 1903) took on the Establishment and won, and as the Anti-Corn Law League had a generation earlier, so the Brexit movement enlisted armies of supporters across the country whose motives were traduced and posters defaced and supplications ignored, until the vote was taken and their voices finally had to be heard.
The popular uprising campaign was therefore not like the Poll Tax riots of 1990 but much more firmly in the mainstream of the long British tradition of legitimate peaceful protest.
In this way, too, it was a more impressive achievement than the French Revolution, soaked as that was in blood. This popular uprising has toppled the established order without calling upon the tumbrel, the scaffold and the guillotine. It will secure its place in history as a result.
And when that history of the Brexit movement comes to be written later this century, there will be a number of people who are by no means household names but who kept alight the torch of British independence ever since it was so nearly extinguished by Ted Heath in 1973.
Michael Ivens, Douglas Jay, Alan Sked, Patrick Robertson, Jimmy Goldsmith, Bill Cash, Robert Oulds, Nigel Lawson, Rodney Leach, the McWhirter twins, Bill Cash and many others did as much to keep the popular insurgency alive over more than four decades as Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, who had the honour of lighting the blue touchpaper this year.
Their contribution should not go unmarked, even though not all of them are famous. Similarly, organisations like the Freedom Association, British Weights and Measures Association and Bruges Group deserve recognition in keeping the flame kindled.
The Establishment ignores legitimate popular insurgency at its peril, as it found out yet again.