This article, published on the 27th anniversary of the attack by the Metropolitan Police Service on the Poll Tax demonstration in London on 31 March 1990, is dedicated to Ian Bone, class warrior and comrade. The illustrations of the Peasants’ Revolt are by Clifford Harper.
When looking back on an historical event it’s useful to compare the social conditions in which it occurred with those of the present day – not, as our history lessons inevitably do, in order to show how much more advanced, just, equal, wealthier and democratic society is under capitalism, but to reveal just how contingent, unjust, exploitative, impoverished and elitist our present economic, political and legal structures are.
In England we are constantly told by foreigners stupefied by our entrenched class structure that it survives because we never had a social revolution – such as they had in North America or France or even Germany, let alone like those in Russia or China – and therefore retain the anachronism of a monarchy, even if under a parliamentary democracy. It’s slightly odd that so many people, and not only from abroad, are unaware that in 1640 England had the first revolution of any Modern nation, nearly 150 years before the French Revolution, that like it was a revolution of the middle classes, and which – following the Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 – gave birth to our current system of constitutional monarchy. Long before even the English Revolution, however, the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was the first large-scale uprising of the English working classes, and therefore the most significant social event in England during the Middle Ages; and in this centenary of the Russian Revolution it’s the conditions from which that revolt arose, rather than those ten days in October 1917, that I’ve been looking at and comparing with the England of the present.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is now the most unequal country in Europe, and one of the most unequal countries in the world, worse even than the United States of America. The wealthiest 1 per cent of our population of 65 million people own nearly 24 per cent of the UK’s total wealth: equivalent to that of the poorest 55 per cent, and more than 20 times the wealth of the poorest 20 per cent. The richest 10 per cent of our population owns 54 per cent of the national wealth, with the poorest 20 per cent owning just 0.8 per cent, and the poorest 40 per cent just 14.6 per cent of wealth – the lowest proportion of any Western country. Just 34 per cent of the population owns the UK’s £9 trillion of private wealth, with the remaining 66 per cent holding no positive financial assets. 21 per cent of the population, 13.4 million people, are living in relative poverty – that is, they earn less than 60 per cent of the median income; and 17 per cent, 4.5 million households, are living in fuel poverty – meaning that to heat their homes they have to fall below the poverty line. Over 1 million provisions of three days’ worth of emergency food were handed out at food banks last year. There has been a 71 per cent increase in hospital admissions for people suffering from malnutrition, with 391 people dying from it in 2015. Cases of scarlet fever have doubled in recent years, and we have the fifth highest infant mortality rate in Europe. Yet as home to 120 billionaires the UK has the most per capita of any country in the world, including the USA. The wealth of our richest 1000 people has doubled in the past decade to £547 billion, more than a third of the annual economic output of the entire UK, and we have the fifth largest economy in the world. It seems useful to ask, therefore, not how far we have come from the England of 1381, but how close we still are to a time that may seem unimaginably backward, corrupt and violent to us today, but to which we are not so much returning, as is often said, but seeking to emulate under the conditions of monopoly capitalism. If we don’t think the vast inequalities, social oppression and political violence of England’s Middle Ages could ever return to these isles, we haven’t been paying attention to history.
That’s hardly surprising, since history isn’t something that happened in the past, but something that’s written, or more accurately different texts competing to become the official version of the past. As George Orwell rightly wrote: ‘Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.’ It’s not by chance that so few English children have even heard of the Peasants’ Revolt, with history only being compulsory up to year 3 of secondary school. Nor that until fairly recently in our history what accounts there were of it served the ruling class of the past the better to ensure the continuation of their descendants’ rule in the future. That’s changed slightly over the past few decades, but the control of the ruling class over the present has made sure that few of the children of the ruled classes will ever read a history book or take an interest in the repressed history of their oppressed class. In an effort to take back this control of our future, I’ve been looking at the Peasants’ Revolt, its causes, their similarities to today, and what lessons from history we can learn about changing our present from what happened in the south-east of England in the summer of 1381.