Remembering William Murray: ‘Slavery… it’s so odious that nothing can be suffered to support it’

On 20th March 1793 William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield died. It is not often that I blog in support of the memory of aristocrats and bluebloods, but there are exceptions. Mansfield is one of them.

Born in 1705 he was one of the most powerful legal figures in eighteenth century Britain, holding the post of Solicitor General, Chief Justice and Attorney General. His judgements echoed the Age of Enlightenment and were instrumental in paving the way for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. One of Mansfield’s his most famous cases was Somerset’s Case (1772), where he held that slavery had no basis in common law and had never been established by positive law (Parliamentary legislation) and therefore was not binding law. While not actually abolishing slavery in the British Empire it was a vital step in that direction. Mansfield stated:

The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.

As a British republican I particularly appreciate the following quote from a 1769 case: Rex v. Wilkes

The last end that can happen to any man, never comes too soon, if he falls in support of the law and liberty of his country: for liberty is synonymous to law and government.

The nation of laws is a fundamental pillar of both European Republicanism and the eighteenth century Enlightenment. An example of Mansfield’s rationalist approach can be found in his Letters to the Right Honorable Lord Mansfield (1773)

As mathematical and absolute certainty is seldom to be attained in human affairs, reason and public utility require that judges and all mankind in forming their opinions of the truth of facts should be regulated by the superior number of the probabilities on the one side or the other whether the amount of these probabilities be expressed in words and arguments or by figures and numbers.

No person is wholly good and Mansfield was no exception numbering opposition to press freedom, nepotism and support for British Government antagonism towards the American colonies on the opposite side of the balance. But his bravery in ruling against the established enslavement in Britain must surely warrant that he is remembered by history.

‘The Citadel’; it may be fiction but the warnings it carries are real.

I had always intended to read The Citadel, the 1937 novel by doctor and writer A.J. Cronin. Now, having received a copy as a Christmas present I have finally got around to it.  So why is it important?

One of Cronin’s first posts in the medical profession was in Tredegar in South Wales during the 1920s and a large portion of The Citadel novel is directly based on his experiences. Now an exile, I was born and raised in the town (though a little while later!),  but quite apart from the personal connection, it is a vital read for anyone interested in protecting a freely available citizen-centred Health Service.

The novel tells the story of a young assistant doctor, Andrew Manson who cares for the miners and their families. Later in the story, Cronin candidly examines the ethical background to the dysfunctional system by having his protagonist move to London and falling to the temptation of money.

The Citadel pulled no punches in detailing the iniquities and incompetence of the medical profession as encountered by Cronin. Greed and quackery is rife. Predictably, the book was controversial and made enemies in the medical profession. The British Medical Association was driven to reply to Cronin’s accusations and there was a determined effort by one group of specialists to get The Citadel banned. One critic dismissed it as “dramatized pamphleteering.” But A.J. Cronin was insistent, telling the Daily Express in an interview:

I have written in The Citadel all I feel about the medical profession, its injustices, its hide-bound unscientific stubbornness, its humbug … The horrors and iniquities detailed in the story I have personally witnessed. This is not an attack against individuals, but against a system

Today we take it for granted that there is a large cadre of dedicated doctors and consultants. Whilst private patients are still with us the clinicians have a good reputation and the men and women in the white coats generally are highly respected.  But Cronin’s work reveals a dangerous aspect of a privatised health service; greedy and lazily incompetent doctors. In such an environment the rich may be able to take them to court for malpractice, but what of the rest of us?

Warnings of a fully privatised health service where the only protection was afforded by working men grouping together to collectively purchase medical services must not be dismissed lightly. They are stark. The Citadel may be fiction, but the evidence from the United States demonstrates that the warnings are real.

Aside from all that, it is also a cracking read!

Carillion; Corporatism and the Establishment Racketeers

Tax Dodgers

A series of delusional characters maintained that everything was hunky dory until it all went suddenly and unforeseeably wrong

Rachel Reeves MP and Frank Field MP following evidence given by former Carillion executives

The collapse of Carillion has revealed the ways in which members of the British establishment work to the detriment of its citizens. Intriguingly, some of these racketeers have even campaigned hard for Brexit while their commercial activities have served to undermine a major British company, putting at risk the jobs and services of millions of Britons!

The collapse of Carillion a few weeks ago again revealed the dangers of the control of large sectors of state activity by powerful private interest groups. It is clear that the company borrowed heavily whilst aggressively grabbing more and more contracts in a bid to squeeze competition out of the marketplace.

The situation culminated in a company which we are told was ‘too big to fail’. But this claim implies that we are left with no option but to help it out in some way. As with the banks, this should ring alarm bells; moreover the Government is complicit in creating these unaccountable behemoths which can hold a gun to the heads of taxpayers. It would seem that some of the biggest losers will be small businesses providing valuable employment and services which are often operating on narrow margins.

The Public Finance Initiative artful tax dodgers

The whole issue of Corporatism and the dangers it presents is now, thankfully, a matter of public debate. But in this post I want to look more closely at the activities of Carillion and the financial casino system which has become a corrosive part of the economy.

Let’s start with the selling of PFI contracts. The debate around corporatism has focussed around Private Finance Initiatives (PFI) and the enormous drag they are now having on our public services. What is less well known is that PFI contracts can be traded in the same way as other assets. So even if the Government has good reason for allocating a contract to a particular company it cannot be sure that the contract will not be sold on to someone else. This is exactly what Carillion has done and (surprise, surprise) involves tax dodging.

According to analysis by the European Services Strategy Unit (ESSU), Carillion made £500m from selling PFI projects, the most profitable being the sales of three NHS hospital buildings in Staffordshire, Swindon and Glasgow in 2007. These netted Carillion a 38.7 per cent annual return, Several of the purchasers are based offshore meaning they pay no UK corporation tax on the profits they derive from the schemes, which are ultimately paid for by all of us. An article in The Independent Newspaper pointed out that:

Several projects were bought by Secondary Market Infrastructure Fund and Land Securities Trillium, both of which are earlier names for what is now Semperian, a company based in Jersey and part-owned by the Daily Mail Senior Executives Pension Fund.[My italics]

Equitix, which also bought PFI projects from Carillion, was previously based in the UK but has now been sold to offshore funds.

Just to be clear about this, executives from the Daily Mail are benefitting from a company receiving public money but pay no UK tax on the profits.

What links Elizabeth Windsor’s banker to schools in East Dumbartonshire?

Though not related to Carillion it is instructive to consider the East Dunbartonshire Schools PFI project. This contract is currently half owned by Innisfree Nominees Ltd, which is in turn owned by Innisfree Group Ltd. The main shareholders in this firm is Jersey based Coutts and Co Trustees (Jersey) Ltd, and a part of the taxpayer-owned Royal Bank of Scotland group Coutts, the bank used by the Queen. Moreover as the Scottish Herald points out:

Coutts, whose chairman is Tory peer Lord Waldegrave, was named recently in the leaked Panama papers for asking offshore law firm Mosack Fonseca to set up almost 500 offshore companies for its clients.

Semperian PPP Holdings, which has a parent company also registered in Jersey, holds the other 50% stake in this project, which built six new schools in East Dunbartonshire including Bearsden Academy, Douglas Academy and Bishopbriggs Academy.

Semperian again! But it is hardly surprising since they now own many PFI contracts. So Daily Mail executives, the Conservative party chairman and peer of the realm and Elizabeth Windsor’s bankers. What a cabal!! But that’s not all, lets look at a side issue of the Carillion collapse involving hedge funds.

A hedge fund is an investment vehicle, often administered by a company. Amongst its socially useless activities is what is known as short selling where fund managers gamble that a company’s share price on the stock market will fall. As this Guardian article reports:

The biggest winner from July’s share price crash was hedge fund Marshall Wace, whose co-founder Sir Paul Marshall was a major backer of the leave campaign in the Brexit referendum.

Another institution that took out big bets on Carillion’s downfall is BlackRock, the US-based investment institution that hired former chancellor George Osborne as an adviser last year, on a £650,000 salary.

Marshall was actually employed by the Government and was a board member at the Department of Education (yet another one – how big is this ‘board’). Given a knighthood for services to charity and education he has been busy making money out of the collapse of a major British Company. That should improve the ‘educational outcomes’ for the children of laid off workers no end!

We should also mention his long association with leading Liberal Democrats (until he became a Brexiteer), co-authoring the Orange Book which advocated choice and competition. No wonder the LibDems jumped into power with the Conservatives in 2010!

If we look past the superficial aspects of the Carillion collapse we find the vultures of the British establishment syphoning off public money for their own gain or betting on the collapse of major companies, making money out of misery. Whether the Carillion executives are delusional or not, the company was both perpetrator and victim. But this just shows the closely interconnected nature of the problems we face ending this disgusting charade.

Forget Harmless Eccentricity, the Aristocracy Still Wields Enormous Unaccountable Power

Monarchy and aristocracy are often considered as a single entity by the British public, whether positively or negatively.  Yet they are two very different animals.  Aristocrats have a love-hate relationship with the monarchy. They hate it because it has historically been a rival for power, privilege and wealth.  In fact many aristocrats have been republicans and that remains so today, though their vision for a republic is slightly different to mine! Conversely, the aristocracy love monarchy as it takes the high profile flak and provides ‘top cover’ for their activities in return for a little bit of pomp and dressing up a few times a year.

Though not being a fan of the City A.M. publication, often finding its articles superficial, one feature published last week nevertheless demonstrated the point about the continuing power of aristocracy. Writing about the vast areas of London owned by a few very old families it stated:

This select group has several significant players. The Grosvenor Estate, owned by the Duke of Westminster, manages Mayfair and Belgravia; the Cadogan Estate, owned by the Earl Cadogan, has Chelsea; the Portman Estate, owned by Viscount Portman includes fashionable Chiltern Street north of Oxford Steet (sic); while the Howard de Walden Estate, owned by the Howard de Walden family, is its neighbour on nearby Marylebone High Street.

I blogged about the Duke of Westminster tax rouse on his Grosvenor Estate when considering the undemocratic nature of investment ptential in Britain. As might be imagined, the aristocrats have their own lackey supporters for this state of affairs who cite ‘long term stewardship’ and ‘tasteful development’ as justification. But let’s look more closely at this 21st Century version of feudalism.

Continue reading “Forget Harmless Eccentricity, the Aristocracy Still Wields Enormous Unaccountable Power”

My Paper to the Shelley 2017 Conference on Reclaiming His Radical Republicanism

I had the great honour in September to present a paper on the radical republicanism of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and how it influences my political activity.  I reproduce it here.

Reclaiming Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Radical Republicanism

1.  Introduction

A number of works have analysed Percy Bysshe Shelley’s (PBS) poetry from a proto-left viewpoint (e.g. Paul Foot 1981*). This paper, however, considers the issue of Shelley’s radical political philosophy with specific attention to Republican principles.

Clearly, PBS could have known nothing about socialism or communism. So any analysis based solely on these principles risks misrepresenting fundamental points of his ideology.  Viewing his work within a contemporary setting not only brings his political concepts on liberty into focus but reveals a surprisingly strong relevance to current concepts of republicanism.  Over the past 40 years researchers such as Quentin Skinner have revealed aspects of republican thinking lost to us for two centuries whilst others have set about the task of evolving them for the 21st Century. When PBS was at the height of his powers liberalism was starting this process of marginalizing republicanism but Thomas Paine and William Godwin, amongst others  would have exerted a strong influence on Shelley.

To illustrate the points, the paper focusses on two of Shelley’s poems where the republican vision is most highly developed, Mask of Anarchy and Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things along with the sonnet England in 1819.

2.  What is Republicanism?republicanMag

In popular conception Republicanism has become synonymous with anti-Monarchism.  But its history and development is vastly richer and it is more accurate to characterise it as ‘anti-Slavery’. The seeds date back over two and a half thousand years when the Roman Republic was established following the defeat of the ruling Tarquin Kings in 509BCE. Indeed our modern word is derived from the Latin res publica meaning ‘public matter or affair’.  The early Roman republic bears little similarity to our current idea of Republicanism but we, along with PBS, owe a great debt of gratitude to that great statesman and lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero (106BCE-43BCE) for codifying the fundamental tenets.  Predictably for a society heavily dependent on slavery it was important to define just what a constituted a free person.  It is this formulation as an individual free from domination which provides a golden thread right from that era, through Shelley’s time to the present day.

The goal of early Republicanism was to establish the political; system which most effectively liberated citizens to protect their city-state. But around four hundred years ago a significant mutation occurred and republicans began to reformulate the ideas of non-domination explicitly in terms of citizen rights.

So how can we characterise modern republicanism? Professor Stuart White of Jesus College Oxford suggests four overarching principles:

1. Individual freedom defined as not living at the mercy or largesse of another (the famous nondomination doctrine).

2. An economic and social environment promoting and serving the Common Good.

3. Popular sovereignty, appropriately inclusive of all citizens and excluding oligarchic rule.

4, Inclusive and widespread civic participation by citizens.

I shall show how each of these principles are present in the works by PBS under consideration. These ideas were radical in the early eighteenth century and, I argue, are still radical today.

3.  Freedom as Non-Domination; Core RepublicanismLibertySlavery

At the heart of republican philosophy lies a definition of freedom as non-domination or the absence of the condition of slavery.  Non-domination is a far stricter doctrine than non-interference which forms the basis of liberal and libertarian ideology. Non-domination asserts that not only must an individual or group be free from arbitrary influence by another, but further, there must be no possibility of such influence. This guards against the benevolent master condition who allows his slaves latitude and possibly wealth, but could change his attitude at any moment. It is in these terms of slavery which PBS grounded his idea of liberty.  So in the Mask of Anarchy we find:

What is Freedom? Ye can tell
That which Slavery is too well,
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own.

The late Paul Foot in The Poetry of Protest asserted that slavery is economic exploitation. For a republican this is a narrow and incomplete view which fails to take into account the myriad other ways which slavery can occur, for example gender oppression which concerned PBS. Again in Mask of Anarchy we find:

‘Tis to be a slave in soul
And to hold no strong control
Over your own wills, but be
All that others make of ye.

4, The economic and social environmentwordcloud

But republicans do agree with socialists that sufficient economic resources are essential to individual freedom.  At first, however, republicans took a hardline stance.  Cicero, for example, says this in de officiis:

..vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery.

But as the Industrial Revolution evolved along with the concept of the Free Contract, wage-earning per se was not viewed as slavery in itself but rather the lack of agency to contest the conditions of the contract. This is what concerned PBS and economic hardship is a frequent theme in the works under consideration.

Continue reading “My Paper to the Shelley 2017 Conference on Reclaiming His Radical Republicanism”

Knowledge Must Be Decided by Investigation and Debate, Not Determined By Government

The enemies of freedom have always charged its defenders with subversion. And nearly always they have succeeded in persuading the guileless and well-meaning.

Karl Popper: The Open Society and its Enemies

Since Theresa May was appointed Prime Minister in the summer of 2016 we have seen an unprecedented attack on citizens and organisations legitimately voicing opinions counter to Government policy. There was the spectacle of Theresa May claiming from the steps of Number 10 that anyone opposing her view of Brexit was a ‘saboteur’. This was followed by the horrendous traducing of Gina Miller for exercising her legitimate right to ask the judiciary whether the Government was acting within its remit to bypass Parliament when triggering EU Article 50. Judicial Review is a fundamental freedom which everyone enjoys.

Now we have Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris, a Government Whip no less, demanding that Universities divulge the names of any of their academics working in the field of humanities who may lecture on the possible implications of Brexit. This chilling and dangerous move is the most recent of Government attempts to stifle academic examination of their policies.  During the Brexit campaign there was Michael Gove attempting to trash the value of expert opinion.  A little earlier in 2016 it was revealed by the Observer newspaper (during February in this article) that the Cabinet Office was imposing new rules from May 1st 2016 which would effectively censor recipients of Government grants from using their results to lobby for a change in policy.  After a high profile protest by senior scientists, including the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees, the Government partly backed down (report here).

The Heaton-Harris attack bears a depressing similarity with the others.  The victim whether it be Gina Miller, an economics academic or simply a citizen exercising their rights of free expression, is accused of dark motives, of sabotage or subversion. The implication, often made explicit, is that the accuser, unlike the victim, is patriotic, democratic and the true defender of liberties.

Aside from the fear of persecution which this engenders, the general intellectual climate which this is producing is complete cynicism and disrespect for open debate. Attacks on academics damages a belief in independent inquiry and conviction arrived at by rational means. This means that knowledge becomes a political issue to be decided by Government rather than investigation and debate.

Heaton-Harris has been condemned and described as an ‘idiot’ for demanding information from University Vice-Chancellors.  But such ignorance cannot be accaptable for a democratic representative and Government Whip.  It is not often that you will find me mentioning classical liberal theorist F.A Hyek in this blog But in this case I think he was absolutely correct when he wrote in The Road to Serfdom (in a chapter entitled the End of Truth):

That in the disciplines dealing directly with human affairs and therefore most immediately affecting political views, such as history, law, or economics, the disinterested search for truth cannot be allowed in a totalitarian system, and the vindication of the official views becomes the sole object, is easily seen and has been amply confirmed by experience.

It is a mark of just how far liberal voices have been sidelined in  the modern Tory party to be replaced by an aggressive authoritarian conservatism. The fact that Heaton-Harris has not been relieved of his post is a testament to this fact.



Reform or ‘Revolutionary Acts’

In a short but hard-hitting recent post titled Our rotten state will be replaced, Richard Murphy advanced the thought that the economic impact of leaving the EU without a deal will be finally too great for many people to bear. Citing the example of Jacob Rees-Mogg he wrote:

The real opposition will come when people have simply had enough of the imposition upon them by a corrupt elite hanging on to power in an obviously illegitimate democracy that hands them authority in a way that society clearly does not want.


…peaceful demonstration that makes clear that those who have thought themselves able to rule must give way to those with the publicly backed authority to do so will become too strong to resist.

Murphy goes on to fervently hope that the revolution will be peaceful.  I agree, but what I think he is getting at is not a revolution per se but  ‘revolutionary acts’. This is why.

It is popular on social media for people to call for a revolution. But as the comments on Murphy’s post point out, revolutions have a very low success rate when it comes to delivering a comprehensive lasting transfer of power and improvement in conditions for the majority. Revolutions which involve mass popular uprisings are bloody affairs, Syria being an example.  Although estimates vary it is likely that between 5% and 10% on the population was killed during the English (more correctly British) Civil Wats of the Seventeenth Century. That equates to between 3 and 6 million people in today’s terms. Alternatively, a revolution can come in the form of a coup enacted by a small powerful elite. But the chances of you or I benefitting are vanishingly small with a high risk of it resulting in a state which is tightly controlled and oppressive.  Finally there is the almost guaranteed counter-revolution which may come very quickly or many years later.  As examples look at the restoration of the English Monarchy while the American Constitution as sometimes regarded as a counter revolution which handed power back to a small elite following the egalitarian instincts of 1776..

So  revolution is often associated with violence or open warfare.  But a revolution means changing the way a country is governed. This implies we can consider ‘revolutionary acts’ as involving the transfer of power from one person or group of people to another larger and more inclusive group. In Britain today this would mean a transfer of away from those who have usurped it (a Government elected on a minority of the vote; powerful ‘too big to fail banks’, to take merely two examples) or inherited it (the aforementioned Rees-Moggs or the oft-overlooked British aristocracy) to genuinely accountable representatives.

I agree with Richard Murphy.  Iceland, along with many other examples in recent history clearly shows that peaceful revolutionary change is possible. But it must start soon. Remember that our system is not broken.  It is working exactly as intended. It simply never was set up to deliver real power to you or I!