Social movements are important agents of change. Whether they are historical movements or ongoing ones, their importance to society cannot be understated. With the rise of Donald Trump in America, and with Brexit here in Britain, there is no denying that popular social movements can shift public attitudes.
Here are five social movements that have altered public opinion in the last 100 years and have resultantly changed the course of history.
Power to Women – Women’s suffrage
Academics continue to have lively discussions over who was more important in getting the vote for women – the suffragettes or the suffragists.
In the early 1900s, “women seeking the vote were only ‘suffragists’.” They were portrayed as more peaceful protestors. “The Times used ‘suffragette’ for the more militant movement in England, until 1908” states Merill Perlman.
But there was much disagreement about which group was more effective, the peaceful protestors, or the militant ones who drew attention to the movement.
Both groups undoubtedly had a role to play, while they differed on their methods, their actions meant the cause of women’s suffrage was heard. In 1918, the Liberal-led government of the day granted women over 30 the right to vote which was extended to all women by 1928. Before women’s suffrage, opinion was strongly set against such as prospect. Women’s suffrage activists were portrayed as dangerous and illogical.
But today, anyone now suggesting women should lose the right to vote would be widely condemned, showing the strength of the women’s rights movements in changing public attitudes.
Blairism – New Labour’s Rise
Fast forward to the end of the century to the dawn of a new age where – supposedly – ‘things could only get better’. With such animosity now routinely directed towards Tony Blair, and the word ‘Blairite’ being used as an insult, it’s hard to believe that Britain’s former prime minister was ever viewed in a positive light at all. But around twenty years ago, Tony Blair headed a mass movement, one that went on to win power for Labour in 1997.
After John Smith’s death, Tony Blair won the Labour leadership election with over half a million votes (57%). Luke Akehurst, a candidate for Labour’s NEC, recently argued that Blair’s Labour was a popular social movement. After Blair’s 1994 victory, party membership doubled to over 400,000. This led to an extensive groundwork operation and a rebranding of Labour, one that led to a staggering election victory three years later. The New Labour movement, one fed up with seemingly endless Tory-rule led the party to its highest ever seat share. Though many would not associate with it now, New Labour was one of the last century’s most impressive social movements.
Scotland’s ‘Yes’ movement
Scottish nationalists have not yet convinced the public that independence is right for Scotland, but the independence movement is one that drastically changed public opinion. When the Scottish independence vote was called, polls suggested that only around 25% of Scots supported the idea of independence. As the campaign began, with ‘Yes’ pushing a positive message about Scotland’s future compared to the so-called ‘Project Fear’ of ‘Better Together’, the polls shifted towards a ‘Yes’ vote.
Pro-independence campaigners did not win, but public opinion changed dramatically. In the final result, 44.7% of people were in favour of independence, much closer than initially predicted. And soon after, the SNP went on to win all but three Westminster seats in Scotland, on the back of the ‘Yes’ movement. If that is not a ground-moving shift in public opinion within a short time frame, I don’t know what is.
Next up, the one and only, Brexit. The idea of leaving the EU was once, considered an absurd fringe idea, one mainly espoused by a barely relevant party called UKIP, and some Tory rebels. Fast-forward to 2016, and the UK is set to leave the European Union. And while there are many factors that arguably contributed to this, there is no doubt that what we witnessed with Brexit was a social movement. It shifted public opinion and what resulted will probably be remembered as one of the biggest geopolitical shocks of the century.
Corbynism- Rise of Jeremy Corbyn
That takes us nicely to the present, and with it, Labour’s civil war. With the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, having cemented his position at the head of the party once again, it is worth noting the social movement surrounding him.
This is the effect of Jeremy Corbyn’s speech on one supporter in the hall. pic.twitter.com/FefsFj5OTt
— Jim Waterson (@jimwaterson) September 28, 2016
His fans are deeply loyal, and with hundreds of thousands of new members joining the Labour party since his ‘initial’ becoming of Labour leader, there is no denying that the Corbynistas are an energetic, committed movement. From coming out of nowhere as the favourite to lose the leadership election in 2015, the fact that Jeremy Corbyn is where he is shows the strength and determination of the movement around him. His victories have shifted Labour in a historically significant direction.
However, with Corbyn promising radical government, and the fact that we are likely four years out from a general election, it remains to be seen whether or not Jeremy Corbyn’s movement can win over public opinion.
The social movement century
Social movements are fascinating to observe. The coming together of peoples behind one unifying ideal, whether you agree with it or not, is a great social phenomenon. On top of that, with the internet linking people from across the world to different causes, this century might just be the social movement century.
What do you think has been the greatest social movement of the century?
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Social Jungle.