A brief history of protest - from Magna Carta to 1960s 'flower power' and the Arab Spring

20th Mar 19 | Lifestyle

Angry at the state of the nation? Join the very large, very old club, says Luke Rix-Standing.

people demonstrate against encrease of GEMA fees for music

“The people are revolting!” “You can say that again!”

This joke has been attributed to almost every comedy writer of the 20th century (though it probably predates them all). It’s usually in reference to the infamous Louis XVI – the feckless monarch ousted by one of the most famous protests of our times, the French Revolution.

Pro and anti brexit supporters
United in protest (Matt Dunham/AP/PA)

Now in 2019, rival demos engulf the Houses of Parliament on a near-daily basis and protest is firmly back on the menu. Gone are the simpler days of the Noughties, when the fashion was disillusionment and the main complaint was that ‘the parties are all the same’.

Here,we take a march through some key moments of public anger, to see how protest has changed over time…

1. Magna Carta – a challenge to authority

John signing Magna Carta
In Robin Hood he is not a nice man. The reality may genuinely have been worse (PA)

The history of protest starts with 1215’s Magna Carta, the same way modern British history starts in 1066. Neither were really ‘the beginning’ but they are useful markers.

The British Isles has seen its share of mediocre monarchs, but rarely even in Game Of Thrones do you find a king so royally rancid as our aptly-nicknamed ‘bad King John’. John’s barons got so sick of him that they forced him into a series of short-lived but hugely progressive agreements, now widely known as Magna Carta.

The myth that it protected individual liberties is just that, a myth (its strictures were solely concerned with the rights of nobles and barons), but it was a watershed moment. Magna Carta is an historic benchmark for one straightforward concept – that power must be held to account.

2. The Peasants’ Revolt – first of many, not for the few

Richard II
Richard II: Not one of our more beloved monarchs (PA)

Outraged by Richard II’s poll tax, the charismatic but boorish Wat Tyler led thousands of peasants against the full might of the throne in 1381. They massacred some merchants, kill a few noblemen, and decapitated the Archbishop of Canterbury before meeting with the king’s delegation. In a rare canny move, Richard promised their demands would met, waited for them to return to their farmsteads, then promptly had all the leaders rounded up and killed.

The Peasants’ Revolt was an unmitigated failure but retains monumental importance as the first significant popular uprising in British history. We’re not sure how much comfort this would have been to Tyler – he was stabbed, dragged into the town square, beheaded, and then mounted on a spike.

3. Martin Luther – rebelling against God
When Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg – excoriating perceived Catholic greed – he was taking his grievances right to the top. He wasn’t rebelling against God, but by taking on the Pope he was rebelling against God’s representative on Earth, a distinction lost on many of his contemporaries.

Luther’s act of defiance kick-started the Protestant Reformation, changing the face of Europe and showing that, in the right conditions, one small act of protest can cast an extremely long shadow.

4. The Russian Revolution – when the pendulum swings too far

Petrograd protests
Protests in Petrograd during the February Revolution in 1918 (PA)

The Russian Revolution in 1917 was also a ‘successful’ protest – assuming that your definition of ‘successful’ is limited to a regime change.

Yes, the tsar was deposed, arrested, and then executed in a cellar, but the undoubtedly popular uprising created a power vacuum that allowed Lenin and chums to stage a power grab. The same narrative has played out elsewhere in the world at various points in history, but it does beg the question: What really makes a protest ‘successful’ – short-term aims or long-term change?

5. 1960s activism – a protesting culture

A 1966 CND march
A 1966 CND march – a hotbed of creativity (PA)

Thanks to burgeoning movements such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the early-1960s were a great time to be a protester. Partly because of the causes, yes, but mostly because of the music.

Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin, Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come, P.F. Sloan’s Eve Of Destruction – the hits just piled on top of each other, culminating in Woodstock in 1969.

Early-Sixties protesters successfully launched a counter-cultural movement, and inspired some terrific music and art. They just didn’t do much about nuclear weapons.

6. Protesting Vietnam – the ‘television war’

Venessa Redgrave at an anti-Vietnam protest
Actress Vanessa Redgrave at an anti-Vietnam demo in Trafalgar Square (PA)

Thanks to the marvels of modern television, Vietnam was the first time the horrors of war properly penetrated people’s front rooms. With napalm, death and destruction permeating the evening news, protests against Vietnam were informed, opinionated and global, in a way few had ever been before.

During World War One, entire battalions of young men raced each other to the recruitment office, cheerfully volunteering for a war that became a byword for death and futility. In the late-1960s, they watched the news, took to the streets, and burned their draft papers.

7. The modern march – vast, peaceful, and futile?

Anti war protests from 2003
The scene on London Piccadilly, circa 2003 (Fiona Hanson/PA)

Unfortunately, if the modern protest march tells us anything, it’s that numbers alone are not enough. In 2003, hundreds of thousands of people marched through central London to protest Britain’s entry into the Iraq War. Estimates ranged from 750,000 to two million people taking part, and either figure would made it the largest gathering of its kind in UK history.

The record had previously belonged to the pro-fox hunting march held by the Countryside Alliance the year before, when around 400,000 people had gathered in the capital, with placards bearing slogans such as: ‘Blair, ban hunting and we will boot you out.’

What happened next? Fox-hunting was banned, Iraq was invaded, and Tony Blair was re-elected at the 2005 general election.

8. The Arab Spring – social media revolutions
If television democratised the awareness needed to protest, social media allowed it to co-ordinate. Facebook campaigns fired the 2011 protests in Tunisia and Egypt, and many Syrian protests followed suit.

Since then, social media has often been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons – caught up in controversies surrounding fake news, propaganda and misinformation. Well-developed media may democratise protest; it can also misdirect it.

© Press Association 2019