I’ve just been chatting to Dr Dan Plesch about a new project he’s leading called Our Democratic Heritage. It sounds like an interesting venture, also backed by historian-turned-MP Tristram Hunt, and supported by the Hansard Society.
The idea, if I understand correctly, is to make us all more aware of the history of democracy in the UK. The view of the Our Democratic Heritage team is that we regularly get fed a diet of kings and queens history but that democracy gets overlooked. Presumably the upcoming media-hogging nuptials of Prince William and Kate Middleton will offer them little succour. Plesch wants to address this imbalance. Among other ideas, he plans to encourage people to visit places associated with the democracy story, and to devise democracy heritage trails that pull in the wider narrative.
At the same time, plans for the commemoration of the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015 are swinging into place.
Seen by many as the vital step in the onward march to democracy, the Magna Carta octo-centenary will be a useful hook for anyone aiming to put this story more firmly in front of modern eyes. And yet, aside from a few modest memorials, there isn’t that much to see at Runnymede meadows on the Berkshire/Surrey border, where King John put his seal to the great charter.
It’s a calm, relaxing sort of place, with a certain strain of Englishness – the Thames and the tea rooms – running through it, so a lovely spot to visit, but not somewhere that shouts of the dramatic dawning days of democracy. So where else comes to mind for visiting our democratic heritage? The British Library in London is a good place to view Magna Carta, and Lincoln Castle has a well-displayed copy, along with its lesser known brother the Charter of the Forest. Up in Scotland, Arbroath Abbey, from where the Declaration of Arbroath was issued in 1320, makes a bit more of a fuss of its place in the story. The Declaration was the letter that articulated the contractual theory of monarchy and there’s a decent interactive presentation on it in one of the abbey’s standing buildings.
As you come forward towards more modern struggles for rights and liberties, you’ve got Putney Church, where civil war soldiers started talking in a decidedly democratic way in 1647. As a result of a national campaign in the Guardian in 2006, fronted by none other than Tristram Hunt (before he was elected to parliament), there is now a small, though information-packed, exhibition in an alcove in the church.
That’s a lot more than you get at the site of the Peterloo massacre in Manchester. It was here in 1819 that 60,000 people came to protest for a more inclusive electoral system. The British army charged them and 15 people were killed and hundreds injured. There is a small plaque on the wall of the Radisson Edwardian Hotel, and not much else, though a campaign continues to argue for a more fitting memorial and the area is under redevelopment.
The People’s History Museum however, just down the road from the Peterloo site in Manchester does do a good job of presenting the story of struggle for rights.
‘The mother of parliaments’, as the Houses of Parliament in Westminster are often labeled, is well worth a visit. Though the tour that you’re taken on does follow a well-worn and crowded route, you are busied through both chambers of the house and can get a feel for the great events of democracy in action that have taken place there (though with the caveat of course that it’s in large part a Victorian interpretation of a medieval building, following the disastrous fire of 1834). In Scotland, the Old Parliament Hall sits encased within a later stonework façade off the side of the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. You can go inside today but as it’s now a working law court, it’s not the easiest task to get the measure of what went on here before the parliament was merged with that of England in 1707.
So, it’s probably a fair assessment to say that presentation of Britain’s democratic heritage is patchy, and the Our Democratic Heritage team are taking on quite a job to get the word out. Anything that encourages an interest in any aspect of history is to be applauded. As to the idea of democratic trails, perhaps I can humbly suggest BBC History Magazine’s Where History Happened features on Chartism and the Suffragettes.