Are petitions pointless? A historical viewpoint

Richard Huzzey

14 May 2014

Petitions may have worked against slavery but things are different today – says Dr Richard Huzzey, Lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool.

Should Jeremy Clarkson be Prime Minister? About half a million Britons thought so, judging by an online petition they signed in 2008.

Today the Downing Street website desperately encourages citizens to vent their frustrations and support their passions by signing petitions. A whole host of charities and campaign groups offer their own petitions on every issue imaginable, including climate change. But are those petitions worth the pixels they are written on?

Pressure points

In embracing social media, online signatures, and e-mails to MPs, environmental campaigners are treading a well-worn path. The abolitionists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries broke the rules of their time by petitioning on a moral, social issue rather than one where they had a direct economic stake.

The anti-slavery campaigners argued that as British subjects they were responsible for the laws and evils committed under their flag. Their efforts proceeded in surges, first from 1787-92 and later at key moments in the parliamentary process.

Popular petitions attracted signatures from as many as 1 in 5 adult men. This is the equivalent of 10 million people today, since women are now politically empowered as voters and activists. That would equal the number of votes cast for the Conservative party at the 2010 general election. It is 200 times the number of people signing a recent 38 Degrees petition on human trafficking and 20 times the number of people signing the “Save Our Forests” e-petition.

The power of petitions

The Act abolishing the slave trade in 1807 came during a period when Britons were not petitioning, thanks to restrictions on political activism during the Napoleonic Wars. However, the popular campaigns had left their mark on parliamentarians and electoral contests during the war saw public pressure for abolition.

In a time of limited rights to vote, an uneven distribution of MPs, and elite rule, the petitions gave Britons a voice that parliamentary representation did not.

Petitions remained the principal tool of abolitionist efforts until the emancipation of West-Indian slaves in 1834, because:

  • Petitions were presented by MPs during parliamentary sessions, allowing them to make a speech on the topic on the floor of the House of Commons;
  • Signing a petition was a community intervention, inviting supporters to demonstrate their virtue before their neighbours;
  • Petitioning took place through local town halls, with mayors asked by residents to hold meetings where the issue could be discussed and a petition launched;
  • Campaigners largely prevented the young and the very poorest from signing, reserving this right for respectable inhabitants whose judgement would not be questioned by elites.

The direct link between petitions and a particular town or constituency gave them weight with the local Member of Parliament and, in those areas where elections were contested, anti-slavery emerged as an issue at the polls too. The procedures for bringing petitions into the House of Commons and disrupting the flow of business gave them a far more direct impact on MPs than the government’s internet petitions today.

No historians of this period doubt that petitions transformed the fortunes of the anti-slavery cause, which had little prospect for political attention before them.

Lessons for campaigners

As radicals seeking to transform the establishment, campaigners against both Atlantic slavery and climate change have struggled to find effective methods of translating outrage into action.

It would be morally offensive and wholly misleading to equate the causes motivating these campaigns. Atlantic slavery was a personalised, violent exploitation of enslaved Africans, while human carbon emissions are a depersonalised, mundane monopolisation of intergenerational wealth.

Moreover, 250 years of political change also makes direct comparisons dangerous. Petitions rocked the political establishment in the 50 years after 1787. This was because elites feared revolution, from men (and, by the nineteenth century, women) who doubted that the representative system worked well.

Today, petitions from voters do not tend to work through local institutions and rarely threaten MPs with an eye on re-election. They do still build some sense of solidarity and momentum.

Warnings for history

In a democracy, with universal suffrage, we have ballot papers to pressure MPs. Recent online campaigns have started to re-focus efforts from petitions and towards individual e-mails to MPs from their constituents.

This is closer to the anti-slavery campaigns in effect, if not in method, than online petitioning, because it makes politicians fear for their own future.

Petitions are likely to play more of a role building a sense of community amongst campaigners than influencing parliament or Whitehall. So, they can still play an important role in mobilising support for other action.

The abolitionists’ tactics proved so popular that campaigns for extending the right to vote, for free trade, and for countless other causes. But as men and women slowly won the right to vote, petitions retreated from the frontline of political struggle.

Today, as NGOs and governments hope online petitions will fire people power or revive flagging democratic engagement, we should look at the uneasy, tangled histories of voting and petitioning.

History never really repeats itself. But understanding the past can help clarify questions for the present day. And differences between abolitionist petitioning and online petitions suggest some challenges for anyone in the business of social change today.

Petitions no longer scare individual MPs, fearing for their own seats, or intervene in the business of parliamentary debate. The Downing Street petition site is nothing like the insurgent petitions of 200 years ago.

So, whether it is petrol heads hoping for Clarkson as premier or climate change campaigners saving the planet, it might be wiser to look to elections not petitions to raise campaigns up a gear.


This is a guest blog for Big Ideas Change The World – a Friends of the Earth project investigating how we can make the world a fairer place; healthier and happier to live in.

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Signing a petition