All too often, British events centred on radicalism and injustice are airbrushed out of the school syllabus and replaced with the dank gene pool of kings and queens. The Peterloo Massacre, in which 18 people died and hundreds were maimed on the orders of local magistrates, is no exception. After Michael Gove’s sustained attack on free thinking during his tenure as Education Secretary, this depressing trend looks set to continue, which is why the annual Peterloo memorial, this year in the form of the Peterloo Picnic, is so important.

For several years, growing numbers have gathered in St Peter’s Square, where on 19 August 1819 the peaceful assembly of an estimated 60,000 to 80,000 people marched to hear speeches denouncing the harsh Corn Laws affecting the impoverished majority and to express discontent about their lack of representation in Parliament (2% of the country could vote at the time).

The memorial has seen its attendance swell since its inception and will only gain momentum as people inevitably become more politicised in the next five years of Tory rule. Ken Loach is planning a film to commemorate the 200th anniversary and there is a campaign to change the name of Piccadilly train station to Peterloo station, which would hopefully entrench this important event into the local, if not national, consciousness.

This year, the esteemed local actor John Henshaw read Henry Hunt’s rousing but unfinished speech, which in 1819 was cut short when yeomanry on horseback attacked the unarmed crowd. The reading signified a flagrant attack on free speech and is all the more powerful due to its abrupt end. Other notable actors also leant a voice, including Maxine Peake and Christopher Eccleston, who read out the names of the dead as well as graphic first-hand accounts from witnesses.

It was staggering to hear how many murders were deemed accidental killings by a corrupt court system who worked in tandem with the press to launch smear campaigns on the dead (sound familiar?) with the notable exception of the Manchester Guardian. One victim of the indiscriminate attack was himself a policeman, killed by drunken militiamen who “mistakenly sabred” him after they mistook him for one of the rabble. It is telling that, as recently as 2009, the police still describe his death as a noble accident stemming from a moral duty to break up an “illegal gathering”, as if murder is somehow lawful when civilians are the victims. This trend of impunity has only grown with time as the spate of killings in police custody will ascertain, not to mention the deaths of Mark Duggan, Charles De Menez and Ian Tomlinson.

Many parallels can be drawn between British society then and now, but whilst nuances of modern life can be lost in the maelstrom of political spin and gutter press sniping, history can provide enough distance to lend perspective to current events. This is why people were moved to tears when the names were read out. Not through some artificial sense of grief whipped up by the press, but because they feel an affinity with those people whose struggle led to the Chartists, the Unions and eventually the right to vote.

If children were taught this at school, maybe they would grow up to be less apathetic at the ballot box. Maybe not, but it is undeniable that the Tories are strategically cherry picking events in British history to invade the nation’s psyche and make jingoism and ignorance a requirement for making the grade.

The parallels with police brutality and the cosy practises between the government and the courts illustrate important lessons that frame the present. This year has seen the victims of government cuts banned from St Peter’s Square, as well as new measures that restrict the number of protesters allowed to gather in one place. Although history may always be doomed to repeat itself, that doesn’t mean we should give up and allow the hard-fought rights won by others to slip away so easily.

We cannot rely on public education to inform us of our history when it’s being spun by policy makers. At the time of Peterloo, the Tories were hell bent on preventing France’s revolution from spreading inland and even produced the ‘Six Acts’ that banned political meetings and groups. Although it is depressing to see the current government (and previously New Labour) attack personal freedoms and privacy in the name of security, it is heartening to think that, against great odds, men and women of simple means fought for personal freedoms in a similar climate and made substantive gains.

To end the sombre part of the event, just before folk musicians regaled the crowd, Maxine Peake led a chant of Shelley’s famous stanza from The Masque of Anarchy, a poetically acerbic response to Peterloo which was banned for over 30 years. For a few moments, she bridges the gap between Manchester’s radical past and its potential future, and reassures the crowd that the power is there for the taking. We just have to reach out and take it.

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number –
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many – they are few.

Nathan McIlroy