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Be not afeard. London has survived worse than pro-Palestinian marches

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Written by Freddie Hyde

The inconvenient truth about London is that it has always attracted controversial protests. Recent demonstrations on its streets remind of us of earlier mass action, often far less peaceful.

The Israel-Hamas war has led to panic in the west. Ever since Israel began its aerial bombardment of Gaza in response to the grotesque attack on Israeli civilians by Hamas militants on 7 October 2023, London has been immersed in waves of pro-Palestinian rallies. With a regularity as predictable as the protests themselves, opinion columns, accompanied by pictures of men in balaclavas waving Palestinian flags, have insisted that “as mobs cheer on Hamas, Western Civilisation is imploding around us.”

Radicalism on the streets of London, however, does not the collapse of Western Civilization make. The reports of pro-Palestinian rallies over the past six months, while forensic in their scrutiny, are a product of the occupational disease which almost all journalists suffer from: they make poor historians. This is not their fault. News, after all, as young William Boot learns in Scoop, “is what a chap who doesn’t know anything about anything wants to read. And it’s only news until he’s read it. After that, it’s dead.” But the pessimism espoused by those who see in pro-Palestinian rallies proof of Britain’s moral collapse is greatly exaggerated. London has seen worse, a fact which it urgently needs reminding of.

In 1860, the Italian republican Giuseppe Garibaldi led his followers in revolt against the tottering principalities of the Italian Peninsula. Garibaldi’s ‘Expedition of the Thousand’ caught the imagination of Britain’s radical movement and the ‘Workingmen’s Garibaldian Committee’ organised weekly sympathetic protests in Hyde Park from September. The first rally alone attracted 20,000 people. All was well until 500 Irish Catholics entered the scene. The Catholics, who feared the threat which Garibaldi’s revolution presented to the Pope’s authority in Italy, marched straight into the midst of the workingmen – accompanied, incidentally, by their wives and daughters – while singing ‘God and Rome’. The result was an hour-long riot which was only ended by a convenient rainstorm.[i]

Thereafter, regular pro-Garibaldi rallies followed in which the crowds numbered in the region of 60,000. Such numbers are admittedly smaller than the crowds which descended on London last November, but then again, the population of Britain has doubled since 1860 and that of London has trebled. When Garibaldi himself visited London in 1863, and hundreds of thousands came onto the streets to cheer him, the authorities feared the worst. Cardinal Manning thundered that Garibaldi was guilty of “invit[ing] the English people to assume the nation and office held by France in 1789”.[ii] Palmerston’s government took no chances and ‘encouraged’ the great liberal revolutionary to remove himself from the country forthwith.

Popular support for Garibaldi’s revolution might not seem as worrying as contemporary support for Hamas. The same cannot be said, however, of the wave of enthusiasm which greeted the establishment of the Paris Commune. In 1870, Emperor Napoleon III of France (nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte) abdicated after leading his army to ignominious defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. When the news reached Paris, the city erupted into revolt and a revolutionary government – the Paris Commune – was installed by a citizen army that numbered in the hundreds of thousands. The Commune then proclaimed the separation of church and state, the confiscation of all church property, and the right of workers to seize and run their employers’ businesses. Catholic churches were forcibly closed and priests were arrested, including the archbishop of Paris, who would later be shot in the dying days of the Commune. As British newspaper theNonconformist – no friend to the Roman Catholic Church – observed, nothing short of a “Communistic Revolution” had taken place less than two hundred miles from the English Channel.[iii]

Twenty-first century unease at the sight of the Palestinian flag is nothing compared to the dread which the tricolour invoked. The bloodshed of the French Revolution was still just about within living memory. Yet the tricolour was carried into the heart of London by tens of thousands of men and women in the autumn of 1871, led by English members of the First International who called openly for military intervention in support of the Paris Commune. 12,000 republican sympathisers brandishing the tricolour massed in Trafalgar Square in September.[iv]

Support for the Paris Commune soon developed into calls for republicanism at home, another oft-forgotten facet of Victorian Britain, too easily downplayed amidst sepia memories of Queen Victoria’s 63-year reign. No less than 50 separate republican clubs had been formed in Britain by 1871. Radical opposition to a dowry which Gladstone’s government had supplied for the marriage of Princess Louise, Victoria’s fourth daughter and an early supporter of the feminist movement, manifested itself in a rally of 10,000 republicans in Nottingham in which the speaker’s platform was decorated with tricolours. A republican demonstration in Hyde Park in September 1871 was led by marching bands and continental emigres brandishing the red flag of the Revolution.[v] The tirades of Victorian columnists bear a striking similarity to the fears of today’s journalists that pro-Palestinian rallies have exposed “the moral collapse” of the West. TheFortnightly Review, for example, complained in 1871 that “the spectre of socialism…that rank growth of economic ignorance” had taken root in London.[vi]

Victorian enthusiasm for European revolutions can easily appear quaint by the standards of today. But it is a part of British history which needs to be remembered if we are to avoid drowning in a slough of despond at the sight of the Palestinian flag. Londoners should be made of sterner stuff. They certainly used to be, and their newspapers did too. In the spring of 1848, when revolution erupted from Spain to Sweden, and from Paris to Naples and Vienna, panic set in that Britain would be next. 30,000 Chartists demanding universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, annual parliaments, and payment for MPs, massed in London on Kennington Common. The fear of revolution was so great that the Royal family fled to safety on the Isle of Wight.

In the end, the great Chartist rally of 10 April 1848 took place without violence and in the pouring rain. When the demonstrators, intending to present the third Chartist petition, reached Westminster Bridge they were faced on the other side by 170,000 Londoners who had enrolled as ‘special constables’. The Chartists dispersed peacefully, while their petition was carried to Westminster in a taxi. That evening, the city’s population was so delighted by the evaporation of the spectre of revolution, that the streets of Westminster were thronged with crowds singing ‘God Save the Queen’.[vii] Moreover, according to the comic newspaper Punch, when a French revolutionist “shout(ed) out that the English were all cowards”, he was promptly given “such a sound thrashing” by a butcher’s apprentice “that its echo might have been heard halfway down Charing Cross.”[viii] Should any foreign propagandist again “begin to prate his revolutionary stuff”, a gleefully sarcastic editorial commented, “we trust no one would ever think of such a thing as putting the French agitator into the fountains at Trafalgar Square”.[ix]

A “London mob”, The Times concluded, “though neither heroic, nor poetical, nor patriotic, nor enlightened, nor clean, is a comparatively good-natured and harmless body.” [x] Hysteria is no match for history.

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[i] See Margot Finn, After Chartism: Class and Nation in English Radical Politics, 1848-1874 (Cambridge, 1993), p. 211.

[ii] Ibid., p. 222.

[iii] Ibid., p. 286.

[iv] Ibid., p. 278.

[v] Ibid., p. 282.

[vi] Ibid., p. 292.

[vii] See Élie Halévy, A History of the English People in the Nineteenth Century, vol. iv, transl. E.I. Watkin (London, 1962), pp. 242-248.

[viii] Punch, or The London Charivari, xiv (London, 1848), pp. 171, 182.

[ix] Ibid., p. 181

[x] Halévy, A History of the English People, p. 242.

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Freddie Hyde

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