Last March (2016) I visited the Houses of Parliament for the launch of the We The People campaign for a Citizens Constitutional Convention. Like most visitors I entered through the Cromwell Gate right past the statue of the man himself. It was a moment of reflection, with Levellers Day approaching (on 14th May 2016, more here) and the issue of democracy and accountability which it inevitably raises.
There is much popular misunderstanding about Oliver Cromwell and people are often confused about his place in history, asking whether he should be viewed in a positive or negative light. The unhelpful answer is both, depending on which aspect of his career is under consideration. As a reformer of the English Civil War Parliamentary forces during the creation of the New Model Army he was invaluable. In particular his organisation of the cavalry wing, the Ironsides was a crucial development in the eventual triumph of Parliament. But increasingly after 1648 he behaved in an autocratic manner, crushing tolerant and democratic forces (such as commemorated at Levellers Day) and culminating in the replacement of the Commonwealth by the Protectorate.
The increasingly repressive methods of Cromwell and his associates such as son-in-law Henry Ireton can be illustrated clearly in one event, which also serves as a warning to us. On March 28th 1649 four Levellers, John Lilburne, Richard Overton, Thomas Prince and William Walwyn were arrested for publishing (on February 26th 1649) a pamphlet called England’s New Chains Discovered (you can read a transcript here). It was a clear and unambiguous criticism of Cromwell and outlined the dangers to liberty of the military government. A crucial worry for the Levellers was the status of the so-called Council of State, the body set up to replace the Privy Council following the execution of the King and declaration of a Commonwealth in 1649. Set up by the Rump Parliament (you can view a transcript of the Act here), its 41 members were appointed rather than elected and Cromwell was its first Chairman. The dangers of such an arrangement were clearly laid out and included the ability of the Council to dissolve Parliament (then consisting of just the House of Commons, the Lords having been abolished) without the necessity to immediately call the next. Another grievance involved the ability of the Commons to create or abolish Law Courts and so subvert the jury system which was regarded as the bedrock of justice. Likewise, the ability of MPs to be the ‘highest final judgement’ was viewed as particularly heinous as it placed them beyond the control of the laws they were enacting. That lawmakers should be subject to the laws they enact is regarded as a vital brake on any system of representative government. Central to all of this was the way in which senior army officers could sit in the Commons thus supporting military rule.
It is sometimes difficult to decide whether a Government decision was the result of incompetence or an unscrupulous attempt to suppress debate. Since we are frequently kept in ignorance, the viewpoint I take often depends of the charity of my current mood. It was revealed by the Observer newspaper in 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 has partly backed down (report here). The problem is that the wording of the exemption is so imprecise that a researcher may be tempted to abandon a funding application for fear of contravening the rules. Likewise the sanction for such a contravention was not made clear
Why is this important? Firstly, it is the duty of all Governments to protect their citizens, not least from their own policies and evidence of such harm must be made public. The attempt to control and suppress such information is redolent of corrupt totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. Secondly, the Government Minister (in this case Matthew Hancock) seems to have forgotten that it is our money – there is no such thing as Government money. As I argued in an earlier postThe Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th Centuries was built upon the ability to question and challenge authority using reason and argument. This remains true today and public bodies have a duty not to restrict the ability of its citizens to access information which informs such debate. There are many topics at the present time where the evidence is hotly contested, not least in Climate Change, Defence and Social Policy. So do I think the Government is bring incompetent or acting with malice? The original decision to muzzle scientists could be viewed as incompetent but the way in which the Cabinet Office is confusing the situation rather than making a clean retraction is inclining me to view the aim as yet another devious attempt to stifle opposition.
In two earlier posts this week I blogged about the pernicious effect of sycophancy towards the royals and the way in which their Public Relations machine has positioned them within the celebrity culture. So what is the aim of all this, what is the end game? Once again the visit of William Windsor and his wife Kate to India and Bhutan gives us a clue. On a very short tour to Bhutan they spent one day on a personal climb up to the Tiger’s Nest monastery. Incredibly this provoked a very rare criticism from the BBC royal reporter Nicholas Witchell who pointed out that the Bhutan trip was at taxpayers expense and thus it was not a holiday but a business trip.
So what was the justification for what was a sightseeing jolly? As mentioned in a previous blog, William views himself in the role of a country squire (evidence the move to Norfolk) living at the expense of someone else, but it seems his education failed to impress on him a fundamental constitutional fact. The royals get to retain their privilege, wealth and residual influence in exchange for the Government using Royal Prerogative powers and a large measure of control over them for political and diplomatic purposes. It is on this basis, for example, that Charles Windsor is sent at frequent intervals to deeply unpleasant and autocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia to secure lucrative arms deals – though there is no reason to suspect that Charles objects to a knees-up with his privileged mates. So if politicians send William to Bhutan at our expense they must see some advantage (note that it occupies a very strategic position bordered by both India and China!). They are not going to be pleased at the perceived waste of money when they are already under fire for punitive austerity measures.
It is a recurring line amongst royalists that they would prefer to pass quickly over Charles as the next king (or even bypass him altogether) since he is perceived as being eccentric, meddling and downright unpopular. It is likely that he would soon grate with politicians who would resent his constant interventions. Although less of an activist, a lazy and idle King William with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement would present a different by no less pointed set of problems. Hugely more interested in pursuing his own interests rather than fulfilling his duties he would be perceived by the establishment as superfluous and his removal would be sought. From my point of view this presents an opportunity, but only if the have a well worked out plan to move to a republic. Maybe the recent spate of problems raised for the Windsors by the press (such as the Sun Brexit story – my post here) are the first moves of an establishment with their media allies preparing for such an eventuality
The grotesque 20% pay increase to £14 million per year awarded to BP Chief Executive Bob Dudley has surprised even business organizations such as the Institute of Directors (IoD) who now rightly fear that the government will take action on corporate governance. But this act of naked greed illustrates a number of problems with our broken socio-economic model. First lets look at the tired old excuse that has been trotted out once again for Dudley’s award by a BP spokesperson:
BP’s performance surpassed the board’s expectations on almost all of the measures that determine remuneration – and the [pay] outcome therefore reflects this.
In a nutshell here is the application of possessive individualism in a pure form – the arrogance of assuming that the individual at the top has achieved an organizational target solely on their own abilities without the help and co-operation of their staff. So they alone deserve the rewards of extra millions! But Dudley is not the only one, the attitude is endemic – just look at Martin Sorrell at WPP for another example.
A few days ago I published a postabout the nauseating spectacle of sycophancy surrounding the royal family. But there is another crucial weapon which the Palace Public Relations machine deploys in the 21st Century – celebrity culture. During the Middle Ages court jesters or troupes of entertainers were retained to perform for the king. Now, in an apparent reversal of roles, it is the royals who display themselves via mass media for our entertainment! But the outcome is the same, the monarch remains at the top of the tree.
The low point for the UK monarchy in recent times came in 1997 immediately after the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. In some respects the danger for the Windsors was similar to the circumstances which led to the demise of the Russian Romanovs in 1917. Somewhat surprisingly it is not the ostentatious display of wealth alone which alienates the people, but wealth combined with a perception of remoteness. Correctly perceiving the danger, royal public relations after Diana has been successful in harnessing the power of mass media to embed the royals in the celebrity culture.
Thomas Jefferson was a leader of the American Revolution, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and a principal author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence. He became the second Vice-President (under John Adams) and the third President. He was a significant thinker and proponent of democracy and republicanism and there are many quotes expounding his ideas of liberty which resonate with us today. One I find significant is:
All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.
Something which we can also identify with is Jefferson’s warning of the dangers of corporatism, which was sadly ignored:
I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.
But the practical working out of his republicanism had a flaw which limited its application as the United States developed through the 19th Century. He was at heart an agrarian and influenced by the Country Party tradition of British politics. He saw society working best when it was a free collection of planters, small traders and smallholders which in many ways was a regressive concept harking back to a perceived agrarian golden era. Lest this be considered a criticism based on hindsight we can compare his ideas with his great friend and contemporary, Thomas Paine. Paine was an urbanite and correctly perceived that in the future land would be used for many purposes other than agriculture. Moreover republican theory would have to deal with the fast emerging capitalist culture. Paine’s solutions were very different and included, for example, the introduction of a Universal Basic Income to compensate the majority of citizens alienated from land ownership.
The visit of William Windsor and his wife Kate to India has been accompanied by the usual fawning British press coverage. Nauseating images of quite senior and successful local businessmen applauding enthusiastically when William manages to turn a steering wheel on a virtual racing car as though he were Lewis Hamilton all too familiar. The Collins English Dictionary defines a sycophant as ‘a person who uses flattery to win favour from individuals wielding influence; toady’ and it would clearly be absurd to claim that sycophancy was limited to the British royals. Prime Ministers, Presidents, sports stars and TV celebrities are all objects of this kind of adulation. Yet it is with the royals that this trait appears most pronounce and most baffling. We are told, for example that this visit is part of the projection of British ‘soft power’ around the world. But it appears that this projection of power relies on generating and reporting a sycophantic feeling amongst local people, a patently absurd situation where foreign nationals try to ingratiate themselves with an alien royal family who care not a jot for them as individuals.
It is not often that I will jump to the defence of The Sun newspaper, in fact this may be the only occasion! So firstly, the facts in brief. On the 9th March 2016 The Sun ran a front page exclusive which claimed that the Queen supported Britain leaving the European Union (Brexit). There was speculation as to the source of this story, including ex-Deputy PM Nick Clegg and Michael Gove, both of which denied the leak. Claiming that the story was inaccurate, Buckingham Palace lodged a complaint with the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). The argument in essentially that the story must be wrong because the Queen is politically neutral and did not, indeed would never, voice such an opinion in public. The Sun has refused to name its source under journalistic confidentiality. So we await the verdict of IPSO chairman Sir Alan Moses with interest.
These salient details are enough to draw a number of conclusions about the iniquity of Monarchy in the 21st century. Lets start with the fact that a free press has not only the right but the responsibility to report stories which are in the public interest. But specifically, there is an inherent unfairness at the heart of judging such a complaint. Firstly any investigation will require the Sun to divulge the source of the story. The paper has every right to defend its source. Roy Greenslade has pointed out the fact that both of the main suspects have vehemently denied the claim together with the fact that the Palace will field a number of other witnesses besides means that the odds are stacked against The Sun. But IPSO will certainly be denied the possibility of calling the one witness who could clarify just what was said at the event, the Queen herself! Consider if it were you or I who complained to IPSO and then refuse to turn up to state our case. We would almost certainly lose – so why should it be any different for the Head of State? At the very worst IPSO should find that the claim was unproven and throw out the compaint. Here is an example of the injustice of a private individual who uses privilege to avoid accountability.