Petitioning and People Power in Twentieth-Century Britain

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: History

Abstract

Twentieth-century Britons petitioned a lot: Petitioners ranged from children opposing caning in the classroom, residents resisting new supermarkets on their streets, or campaigners seeking to abolish nuclear weapons around the globe. 79% of British respondents told the 1999 European Values Survey that they had signed a petition - a higher rate than turned out to vote in the 1997 General Election. Yet historians and social scientists have focused on elections as the primary experience of politics, missing the ways in which petitioners initiated personal protests to councillors, parliamentarians, monarchs, and almost every other imaginable figure of authority.

The project brings together experts in the history of petitioning, in political studies of public engagement, and in twentieth-century British society to investigate petitioning as an activity and an institution. This enables the team to analyse the core challenge of mass democracy: how should direct, participatory, and representative democracy mix in a larger, more diverse political community? By identifying new meanings and contexts for the familiar, accessible practice of petitioning, we can assess changing social relations and political cultures beyond particular institutions or themes as a level of analysis. The project's broad chronology and interdisciplinary team permit investigation of the shift from paper to e-petitioning, enabling the first historical account of what might be gained and lost in transitions from analogue to digital politics.

This research will test how particular campaigners embraced - or rejected - petitions at particular points in their activities. For example, at the outset of our period we suspect that an older tradition of parliamentary petitioning was waning in favour of addresses to the monarch or the government. However, in the decades after the Second World War campaigners took the initiative outside of any formal systems inviting or receiving their petitions, forcing their own petition sheets upon elected representatives or responsible authorities. The project also identifies both the local mechanics of activism and the changing technologies behind it. By the end of our period, a paper-based Jubilee 2000 petition to G8 leaders circulated in churches and schools, just as NGOs and the Scottish Parliament experimented with early internet petitions. Moreover, petitions have often offered their organisers an easy way to harvest contact details and personal data on supporters for future mobilisation. The project will explore how this practice developed alongside the professionalisation of political parties and pressure groups, as well as how they evaded successive data protection laws. Doing so will clarify and query contemporary dilemmas about e-petitions by understanding our recent past.

A multidisciplinary team is able to assess the trends, range, and meanings of petitioning in twentieth-century Britain by using archival records from individuals, voluntary groups, and the government, alongside existing and new interviews of campaigners and those receiving petitions. For the later decades of our period we can add quantitative social survey data and study the shift to digital activism, connecting the history of petitioning to contemporary research on e-petitioning. Findings will be shared with practitioners in the UK's legislatures, local government, and NGOs. Academic articles and a monograph will analyse the variety and contexts of petitioning through case studies of particular signatory groups (such as young people), particular causes (such as environmentalism), and particular encounters with petitioning (such as newspaper and television images of petitions being presented). By exploring a widespread form for political expression - petitioning - this project will reveal the dynamics of representation, voluntary association, and popular sovereignty over a century of reinvention and change in British citizenship.

Planned Impact

Our research into the history of petitioning will improve the operation, exploitation, and development of petitioning systems in twenty-first-century Britain. It will also enhance debates over the extent to which petitioning is a form of 'slacktivism' or 'clicktivism', fabricating a sense of participation rather than offering an alternative or additional form of political engagement by active citizens. We are studying the transition from paper to digital petitioning as part of our research into twentieth-century society, but our work with non-academic beneficiaries will prompt further reflection on the role that petitioning does - or should - play in contemporary democracy. In particular, our work explores continuing dilemmas: When and how should elected representatives or responsible authorities react to the claims of petitioners rather than rely on their own judgement and mandate? Do petitioners expect to see their requests fulfilled and how do experiences of rejection or success shape their political activities in the future? How do campaigners use petitions to recruit supporters, elicit contact data on petition-signers, and otherwise benefit from signature lists beyond the stated aims of the petition?

The project engages the staff overseeing some major public petitions systems in the UK today, as well as campaigners using petitions as part of their work, and the wider public. With clerks from the House of Commons and staff from two NGOs on our advisory board, we can share our findings with practitioners during the project and ensure our impact activities are co-designed to address their experience and concerns. We will also offer impact workshops for staff working for the House of Commons, the Scottish Parliament, and the National Assembly for Wales, encouraging them to consider the varied historical aims, experiences, and outcomes of petitioning campaigns, as well as the way institutions and their staff have received their petitions. This will permit them to place their current and potential future practices in a long-run historical perspective with a particular awareness of the ways in which 'precedent' and practice have mutated in the context of mass democracy. We will offer a similar workshop for local government officers and campaigners as part of Huddersfield's annual #NotWestminster event on new approaches to local democracy. A parliamentary reception hosted by our project partner, the History of Parliament, will share our findings with MPs, their staff, and a public audience in the Palace of Westminster.

We will also spread our findings with a wider audience. We have the chance to reach contemporary petition-signers through a series of 'petition of the month' articles for the House of Commons Petitions Committee's website. These will not only share case studies from our research but also disseminate our major conclusions relating to the role of local/national/international organisations, the grassroots agency of those signing petitions, the ways in which authorities and representatives receive them, and the extent to which people found petitions to be effective. A printed report, offered for online co-publication by the charity Hansard Society and the non-partisan campaign group Unlock Democracy, will disseminate our findings on how how petitioning has interacted with electoral democracy and how petitioning relates to other forms of active citizenship. The report will reveal the ways in which a transition from paper to electronic petitions has changed the function and meaning for those signing, organising, and receiving them. In particular, it will raise questions about the ways in which petitions, analogue and digital, have been an overlooked source for secondary use of personal data; even since the introduction of data laws in the 1980s, many of those signing petitions have not and do not realise they are consenting to this.

Publications

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