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Combination Laws and revolutionary trade unionism

Todd Webb


Passed by the British parliament in 1799 and 1800, the Combination Laws were meant to curtail the early trade union movement in England and to stamp out what the government perceived as the danger of lower-class revolution. In the event, these laws had the opposite effect: increasing the danger of subversion in the short term and the level and effectiveness of English trade unionism in the long term. The Combination Laws of 1799 and 1800 came out of the crisis of legitimacy that shook the British state during its war against revolutionary France. The war effort was accompanied by episodes of scarcity and popular unrest, a naval mutiny in 1797, a rebellion in Ireland in 1798 , and by what the Tory government of William Pitt the Younger believed was a rising tide of pro-Jacobin sentiment across England. Between 1792 and 1800 Pitt's government passed a series of draconian measures in an effort to clamp down on such political radicalism, suspending habeas corpus and severely limiting freedom of speech and association. The Combination Laws were enacted just as this Reign of Terror, as some historians have called it, was coming to a head. In this context it is readily apparent that the 1799 law was aimed squarely at the lower class. It simplified a series of laws against workers' combinations that stretched back to the 1300s, allowing owners to move quickly against any attempts by ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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