South of the River – White Riot

Compass-SouthComment logo 2I’ve been studying a rather wonderful online map this week. It’s called the Leeds Riot Map and it marks civil disturbances in the city going back centuries.

The map includes more recent riots such as those in Chapeltown in 1975, 1981 and 1987, but it also goes back to 1643 and the Civil War. You may, or may not, be pleased to know that South Leeds has played a prominent role in many of the city’s riots down the centuries.

For example, in 1753 we have the Turnpike Riots. The rioting itself took place in Briggate, but the arrests that led to riot took place in Beeston where the toll booth on the new turnpike road was destroyed by locals who couldn’t afford to pay to travel along Elland Road.

Eighty years ago the good people of Holbeck physically stopped Moseley’s fascist Blackshirts in what became known as the Battle of Holbeck Moor. Local author Chris Nickson has just written one of his historical novels set against this event. As an aside can I just say that The Clash would have thoroughly approved of this action despite attempts by the far right to appropriate the song of my headline.

My favourite riots however are the Plug Riots of 1842. These featured a crowd of 10,000 marching to Marshall’s Mill and closing it, by literally pulling the plug on the boilers. Everything was of course steam powered at this time. More factories and collieries were closed the next day and a meeting on Hunslet Moor was broken up by 600 Police and troops.

What was going on? Why were people so upset about plugs?

I’ve always felt that this was one of the smarter moves by the ruling class. The victors write history and by downplaying events they help hide our history from us. In fact the ‘plug riots’ were the world’s first general strike. Pickets spread the dispute from one mill to the next and as well as economic demands the workers supported the Chartist cause to give everyone the vote.

The bosses saw the action as riotous because it seemed to have sprung from nowhere. There were no trade unions then, they were still illegal. But the strike wasn’t unorganised rather it created its organisation as it went along. Starting in Ashton Under Lyne, it spread through Manchester and then right across the north.

Does any of this resonate for you with today’s events? After all we’ve seen massive changes in the three weeks since the EU referendum, seen by many as an act of rebellion by the great unwashed.

Every time you turn on the news there seems to be another political certainty overturned. You might almost call the change revolutionary … almost, but not quite.

I’ve been a socialist for as long as I can remember and I was convinced many years ago that real change could not be achieved gradually through the Parliamentary process – that’s why I’m not a member of the Labour Party. One of the objections to revolutionary politics has always been that it couldn’t happen here, things move slowly in Britain. Well I think the last three weeks events put paid to that idea.

Marx’s definition of a revolutionary situation was when the ruling class cannot continue to rule in the way they did, and the working class won’t let them. Some have argued that that is what happened with the referendum, but I disagree.

The political class has certainly been rattled and the slow pace of change, for example in appointing a new Prime Minister, has had to be short-circuited. But has anything fundamentally changed? There may be more political disputes, but there are few economic disputes. People may want higher wages, but they are not fighting their employers for them. Instead they are blaming immigration for ‘holding down’ pay.

The biggest difference between 1842 and today is the leadership. Ordinary people voted to leave the EU but the campaign wasn’t led by ordinary people as the Plug Riots were. Boris and Michael and Nigel are card carrying members of the old order, which is perhaps why they’ve left the field at what should be a pivotal point.

Perhaps I should have headlined this column Eton Rifles instead of White Riot.

I’ll be on back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.

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