E-petitions: in the name of the people?

E-petitions are only the latest example in a long history of British petitioning, says Ted Vallance

A second petition of 800,000 signatures, protesting against the abolition of the basic petrol ration, being presented to the House of Commons, 10 December 1947. (Photo by Harry Todd/Fox Photos/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the November 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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Under the UK government’s new policy, announced this July, e-petitions that receive more than 100,000 signatures could be considered for debate by parliament. Soon, hundreds of petitions had been lodged, and one calling for rioters to lose their benefits had broken the 100,000 barrier in a matter of days.

While the UK government has only had an official e-petitioning site since November 2006, parliament has been receiving petitions from the public since medieval times. The practice appears to have originated in the reign of Richard II and, by that of Elizabeth I, parliamentary committees were created to consider them.

Petitioning allowed even the lowliest of subjects to address parliament but was hemmed in by customary rules: petitions were to be written in respectful language paying due deference to parliament’s authority; they were not to comment on matters already being discussed by the two Houses; petitioners themselves should be those affected by the grievances raised; and, most importantly, petitions should not be published as they were meant to be a private communication between petitioner and parliament.

These customs came under strain in the 16th century as the Reformation saw both supporters and opponents of Protestantism making use of petitions as weapons in a religious controversy. But it was during the English Civil War that political mass petitioning really came to the fore, as royalists and parliamentarians alike made use of printed petitions to mobilise opinion and give the impression of widespread support for their cause. Radical groups too, especially the Levellers, exploited the power of petitioning to demonstrate the popularity of their ideas: the Levellers’ petition of 11 September 1648 opposing a personal peace treaty with the king was subscribed by some 40,000.

The revolutionary potential of mass petitioning was recognised by the restored monarchy which in 1661 passed an act against Tumultuous Petitioning. This ordered that petitions to parliament be presented by no more than ten people, thereby countering the threat posed by petition-wielding mobs. With amendments, this act remains in force today. Nonetheless, mass petitioning continued to be used as a political weapon. The Whig ‘Monster’ petition of 1680 – which called for Charles II to allow parliament to sit so that the alleged perpetrators of the ‘Popish Plot’ could be prosecuted – was signed by almost 16,000 Londoners. The right of subjects to petition was affirmed in the Bill of Rights of 1689.

In the 19th century, petitioning became part of the day-to-day business of parliament: the number of petitions received rarely dipped below 10,000 per session. But petitioning was also linked to major political causes such as the abolition of slavery and right to vote. Three major waves of petitioning activity demanded the abolition of the slave trade, culminating in 1828–30 when parliament was swamped with some 5,000 separate petitions on the subject. The Chartist national petitions in support of male suffrage were signed by millions (the largest by some 3,315,752 people).

Petitioning went into decline after the advent of mass democracy, seemingly confirming the connection between it and the campaign for the vote. However, the history of mass petitioning reminds us that this can be a vital form of political communication, especially for the disenfranchised.

The internet has revived petitioning, but some fear the new system will force debates on ‘crazy ideas’. Yet history suggests we should not dismiss mechanisms that ensure mass petitions get a fair hearing. While current e-petitions range from the seemingly mundane (‘Stop putting traffic lights on roundabouts’) to the downright wacky (‘Let’s be best friends forever with Germany’), the success of campaigns against the privatisation of public forests and NHS reforms illustrates the value of petitions. As the Commons’ rejection of Chartist and suffragist petitions in the 19th century remind us, parliament has not always been so willing to listen to the people.

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Ted Vallance is a reader in early modern history at Roehampton University and author of A Radical History of Britain: Visionaries, Rebels and Revolutionaries (Little, Brown, 2009).