Memorable Uprisings and Protests in Britain
Political protests whether violent, peaceful and downright peculiar form part of our rich historical tapestry. We look back on protests in history with interest because regardless of their success in accomplishing what they originally set out to do they serve as social markers. Many historical protests serve to show how society and expectations have altered.
From villain to hero
Once considered a villain and now widely considered a hero, Guy Fawkes, shows how our views have altered and our loyalties changed. On the night of November 5th, 1605, Guy Fawkes and his cohort of co-conspirators had plotted to remove King James from the throne. Fawkes was caught and arrested after the British royalty had been alerted by an anonymous letter, he was then tortured until he confessed and gave information leading to the arrest of other the conspirators. On 31st of January, the day of his execution, he jumped from the scaffolding he was to be hanged from and broke his neck. Throughout the following 400 years, the 5th of November was celebrated in Britain as a day to remember the thwarted plot. It became known as Bonfire Night, with fireworks and bonfires in which effigies of Fawkes (and later other unpopular leaders. I may need a big bonfire this year!) were burnt. However, in the last 100 years, the image of Fawkes has dramatically transformed. Now instead of being characterised as a murderer and terrorist he is now often seen as a hero and often referred to as “the last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions”. Today, the 5th of November has become a day of commemorating Fawkes’ subversive ideas and we are less likely to ask for a penny for the guy and more likely to ask for a penny for effigies’ of leading parliamentary figures.
No women at Cambridge, 1897
In a protest that would shock today’s student feminists, male students at Cambridge held a protest against a decree that would allow women to receive full degrees from the university. They suspended an effigy of a woman riding a bicycle, representative of the stereotypical female Cambridge student from a window whilst brandishing banners with slogans such as “No Gowns for Girtonites”. With the name Girtonites deriving from the all-women college called Girton. Upon hearing that the ruling had fallen, students then maimed and decapitated the effigy before pushing it through the gates of the all-women college, Newnham. It would take over two decades for women to be granted full degrees, with it finally being asserted in 1921.
Dressed as Batman, Superman, Spider-Man and any other comic-book avengers for which a costume could be acquired, Fathers4Justice have livened up many news bulletins by defiantly scaling a roof or landmark and waving a home-made banner. The group’s message was clear that children needed both parents and that they wanted fair access rights to their offspring. Their plight and comic book demonstration techniques got attention, but also received critics, most memorably from the then Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone who responded to their 2004 stunt on London’s Tower Bridge by saying it showed “why some men should not have access to their children”. I think it’s fair to assume that their message had been lost in translation.
In protest to the plans for the third runway at Heathrow, Leila Deen, the anti-Heathrow campaigner slimed Lord Mandelson, with green paint laden custard. It’s not the action of throwing the custard that is important, but the sentiment behind it that matters, when questioned about the Lord Mandelson incident, Miss Deen said: “I don’t want to wake up early to throw green custard over Peter Mandelson. But something has to protect our children’s future… We can’t let the Prince of Darkness cast his shadow over west London.”
This incident joins part of a proud tradition of people throwing things at Labour ministers. The aforementioned Fathers4Justice caused a terrorism scare when they hurled purple flour at the then Prime Minister Tony Blair in the House of Commons. Whilst former Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott got some sizeable media coverage when he retaliated against a protester with a left jab after having an egg thrown at him.
The WI is commonly known for its authority on jam making and baking, but it has a long history of campaigning on a wide range of issues that matter to women and their communities. Jamie Oliver may have thought he was leading the way in his school dinner campaign, but back in 1926 the WI first campaigned for school dinner provision. Whilst during the 1970s the WI lobbied for the introduction of breast screening clinics, this campaign resulted in the government introducing a number of mobile screening clinics followed by a national screening programme. It just goes to show that the British can achieve great things with a cup of strong tea, it’s just a pity we don’t unite in protest more often.