In 1799 and 1780 William Pitt, the Prime Minister, decided to take action against political agitation among industrial workers. With the help of William Wilberforce, the Combination Laws were passed making it illegal for workers to join together to press their employers for shorter hours or may pay. As a result trade unions were thus effectively made illegal. As A. L. Morton has pointed out: "These laws were the work of Pitt and of his sanctimonious friend Wilberforce whose well known sympathy for the negro slave never prevented him from being the foremost apologist and champion of every act of tyranny in England, from the employment of Oliver the Spy or the illegal detention of poor prisoners in Cold Bath Fields gaol to the Peterloo massacre and the suspension of habeas corpus." (1)
In the House of Commons, men such as Joseph Hume and Sir Francis Burdett led the fight against this legislation. The Combination Laws remained in force until they were revealled in 1824. This was followed by an outbreak of strikes and as a result the 1825 Combination Act was passed which again imposed limitations on the right to strike. (2)
The campaign against the Combination Acts was led by the trade union leader, Francis Place. "He pulled the Act to pieces; complained of it as an anomaly. It not only repealed the statute law, but forbade the operation of the common law, which had thus introduced a great public evil... The bill had been hurried through the House without discussion. He... predicted the most fatal consequences. Liberty, property, life itself was in danger, and Parliament must speedily interfere." (3)
Even in the darkest war years the democratic impulse can still be felt at work beneath the surface. It contributed an affirmation of rights, a glimpse of a plebeian millennium, which was never extinguished. The Combination Acts (1799-1800) served only to bring illegal Jacobin and trade union strands closer together. Even beneath the fever of the "invasion" years, new ideas and new forms of organization : continue to ferment. There is a radical alteration in the subpolitical political attitudes of the people to which the experiences of tens of thousands of unwilling soldiers contributed. By 1811 we can witness the simultaneous emergence of a new popular Radicalism and of a newly-militant trade unionism. In part, this was the product of new experiences, in part it was the inevitable response to the years of reaction.