We Need a Democratic Revolution of Investment Potential

The death of one of the richest men in the UK, Gerald Grosvenor the 6th Duke of Westminster, earlier this year (August 2016) threw into relief the gross inequality of wealth in the UK. The Grosvenor estate was established by Hugh Ardley in the 17th Century, who was no shrinking violet as can be seen from this ‘way to riches’ biography of his life. The outrageous aspect of the Grosvenor estate is that via a system of trusts the Estate pays almost no Inheritance Tax! It is a strong temptation to call for the state to simply seize the Grosvenor Estate and bring it into public ownership.  While I am all in favour of abolishing hereditary titles, such a call actually reveals a much more widespread and deepseated problem with in our current neo-libertarian approach to economics, that of exactly who controls the means of investment. Supposing we did in fact ‘nationalize’ the Grosvenor Estate. That means the Government will possess over £9bn worth of property which will be practically worthless unless the assets are sold.  So an equally important question is not only who controls the assets but who controls the investment potential generated by those assets.  Clearly by avoiding taxes the Grosvenors themselves are actually enjoying the full investment potential of the estate.

Investigating the ownership of investment potential as well as the assets reveals the true extent of the gross unbalanced nature of our society. An example from a different domain is the contract for controversial nuclear power station Hinckley Point C.  The construction of an as yet unproven model of power station is being funded by the French EDF power company but only on the basis that the UK electricity consumer (yes us again) buys the electricity at much above market rates for decades to come. But what if the unproven reactor design requires extensive and expensive modification?  Will the government really hold EDF to its contract and possibly bankrupt the company? The substantial potential returns on the installation are privatised while it appears that the risk is, once again, borne by the public.

But there are other models of investment, some of which operate in the United States which is often held up as a paragon of private owner capitalism.  A closer view reveals a more complex interaction of public and private ownership, a particularly interesting example being the New York Power Authority. The NYPA is a publicly owned power generating company in New York State which claims to be one of the most efficient generators in the US, tasked with developing renewable sources and providing cheap power to not-for-profit organisations and small businesses.   But we can go further than this with the massive potential in Pension Funds and other schemes.  Open up these funds to the control of their investors and a more democratic system of investment becomes possible. The question of the democratization of investment potential is every bit as important as who actually controls wealth with which, of course, it is inextricably linked.

Could City States Be The Solution to Britain’s Obsolete Constitution?

When the history of our present time is written the Iraq War may not be viewed as the most significant ‘legacy’ of Tony Blair for the people of the UK itself. Instead, historians may focus on the policy of devolution and the dangerously unstable constitutional arrangement. Aside from the unresolved and patently unfair West Lothian Question we have a Scottish Parliament which can legislate unless specifically prevented from doing so, a Welsh Parliament which can only legislate unless specifically authorised to do so, and a House of Lords where Church of England Bishops can affect legislation for everyone! Devolution has left a complete mess and singularly failed to achieve Blair’s goal of heading off the momentum for Scottish independence. Part of the problem is an archaic notion of Parliamentary sovereignty which is contributing to a justifiable feeling amongst the people that our Governmental and administrative systems have a lack of control and accountability. While deriving from an understandable impulse, the addition of a specific Parliament for England will only serve to muddy the waters of accountability even further. The whole idea of devolution should be seen as a mistake and a new way urgently sought out of the mess.

Until now the people of the English regions have shown little enthusiasm for federalism within England itself, largely due to the unpalatable and ‘take or leave it attitude’ of Westminster politicians anxious to be seen to be doing something rather than possessing a real reforming zeal. But that is changing and England itself may be starting to show the way forward for our ridiculous constitution. Significant powers are being allocated to groups of local authorities in areas such as Greater Manchester and the West Midlands and prominent politicians are showing an interest in regional governance. Presently, it is not intended to create new assemblies as with London, with mayors comprising the sole directly elected component. To some extent, however, the new mayoralties resemble embryonic regions, or more realistically considering their focus, city-states. To a civic republican the current model is unsatisfactory (I do not want elected monarchies!) but, suitably evolved, it could provide the seed for a properly accountable federal system.

Continue reading “Could City States Be The Solution to Britain’s Obsolete Constitution?”

The Child Sex Abuse Inquiry; Justice Must Be Seen To Be Done

It is possible that Prime Minister Theresa May is the luckiest British politician of our time.  She seems to have completely dodged any responsibility for the debacle surrounding the instigation of the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA).  The fact that May has emerged politically unscathed with a reputation of businesslike competence is nothing short of remarkable, due in no small part to the Labour Party obsession with its leader rather than providing opposition. Needless to say. the people who have been forgotten appear to be the people in desperate need of closure, the abuse survivors.

A Weak Notion of Independence

As neither an abuse victim myself nor someone who has experience of supporting victims I am not qualified to begin to comment on the specifics this most sensitive of areas. But looking at the IICSA in an organisational context is a different matter and much is revealed about the attitude of the authorities, which casts doubt on a succesful outcome. I start by encouraging you to view the IICSA website. Looking at the About Us section we find the following statement:

Being independent means the Inquiry is not part of government and not run by a government department.

This seems a particularly weak interpretation of ‘independent’. It should go much further with a statement that it is neither subject to  government influence nor censorship.  The notion of independence is further weakened since much of the suspicion falls on establishment institutions which are outside the technical boundaries of Government such as the Police, Lords, the Church of England and the Judiciary. To this list can be added those members of the Royal Family aside from the Queen and Prince of Wales who are not part of the Government but most certainly part of the establishment.  I shall return to this issue later.

Continue reading “The Child Sex Abuse Inquiry; Justice Must Be Seen To Be Done”

‘Ye are many, they are few!’; More Inspiration From the Poet Shelley

shelley masqueThe anniversary of two events of primary importance in our radical history occur in August; the birth of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley on the 4th (in 1792) and the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, England on the 16th (in 1819).  Last week my thoughts Shelley’s great Poetical Essay on the State of Things was published on openDemocracy and it is a suitable moment to consider the relevance of another of his great works inspired by events in Manchester, the Masque of Anarchy (you can read it here).  Like the openDemocracy article, this post is neither intended as a literary study of Shelley’s work nor an account of the origins of Shelley’s radical opinions. There are many people far better qualified for this task and I can only draw your attention to two examples, Paul Foot’s excellent article from 2006 or the materials on this fascinating blogsite by Graham Henderson. In both my openDemocracy article and the present post I have two aims. Firstly to outline my claim to Shelley as part of the tradition with which I identify and secondly to assess the importance of Shelley’s work and the invaluable lessons it has for us now.

Although popular pressure had been building for reform since the start of the French Revolution in 1789, economic depression and high unemployment following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 intensified demands for change. In 1819 a crowd variously estimated at being between 60,000 and 100,000 had gathered in St Peters Field in Manchester to protest and demand greater representation in Parliament. The subsequent overreaction by Government militia forces in the shape of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry led to a cavalry charge with sabres drawn. The exact numbers were never established but about 12 to 15 people were killed immediately and possibly 600-700 were injured, many seriously. For more information on the complex serious of events, go to this British Library resource and this campaign for a memorial.

Shelley was in Italy when news reached him of the events in Manchester and he set down his reaction in the poem Masque of Anarchy (sometimes Mask of Anarchy) which contains the immortal lines contained in the title of my post. The work simmers over 93 stanzas with a barely controlled rage leading to a call to action and a belief that the approach of non-violent resistance (an approach followed by Gandhi two centuries later) would allow the oppressed of England to seize the moral high ground and achieve victory. Such was the power of the poem that it did not appear in public until 1832, the year of the Great Reform Act which extended the voting franchise.

Anarchy – Chaos and Confusion as a Method of Control

An excellent place to start thinking about the relevance of the poem is with the eponymous evil villain, Anarchy. He leads a band of three tyrants which are identified as contemporary politicians, Murder (Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh),  Fraud ( Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon) and Hypocrisy (Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth).  But Shelley widens the cast of villains in his description to include the Church, Monarchy and Judiciary.

Last came Anarchy : he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood ;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown ;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone ;
On his brow this mark I saw—

The promotion of anarchy with its attendant fear of chaos and disorder was one of the most serious accusations which could be levelled at authority. The avoidance of anarchy was also a concern of English radicals ever since the Civil War in the 1640s and Shelley was making the gravest personal attack  with his explicit individual accusations.  But Shelley’s attack is pertinent, the implicit threat of confusion and chaos to subdue a population for political ends is something which we experience today.   The feeling of powerlessness which can result from an apparently confusing and chaotic situation is something which the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has termed ‘oh dearism’.  In our own time he has identified recent Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne as deliberately using such a tactic. Likewise the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been variously accused of being a threat to national security or a threat to the economy .

The 1819 Peterloo massacre occurred at a time of hightened external tension with fear that the French revolution would spread to Britain. The fear was not unfounded and various groups around the country emerged with such an intent, in many cases inspired by Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man which the Government had been trying to unsuccessfully suppress. The existence of an external threat combined with homegrown radicals was explicitly used as a reason for a policy of political repression and censorship. Likewise today an external threat, Islamic State combined with an entirely separate perceived internal threat (employee strike action) has been cited as justification for a whole range of measures including invasive communication monitoring (so called ‘Snoopers Charter’) without requisite democratic controls and a repressive Trade Union Bill seeking to shackle the ability of unions to garner support and carry out industrial action.

The Nature of Freedom

The nature of freedom is a problem which has bothered both libertarians and republicans for generations. In Masque of Anarchy where Shelley is enumerating the injustice suffered by the poor he clearly defines freedom in terms of the state of slavery, a core republican premise:

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 essence of freedom which has financial independence as a core component is clearly articulated over a number of stanzas, starting with:

‘’Tis to work and have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day
In your limbs, as in a cell
For the tyrants’ use to dwell,

‘So that ye for them are made
Loom, and plough, and sword, and spade,
With or without your own will bent
To their defence and nourishment.

In our own time freedom is frequently constrained by insufficient financial resources as a result of hardship caused by issues such as disability support cuts, chronic low wages and a zero-hours contract society. Shelley would have no problem with identifying Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley, playing with multimillion pounds football clubs while his workforce toil in iniquitous conditions for a pittance; or Sir Philip Green impoverishing British Home Stores pensioners to pile up a vast fortune for his wife in Monaco. Disgustingly the only thing we need to update from Masque is the cast of villains, the substance  is unchanged!.

Non-Violent Resistance – A Way Forward

I pointed out that in the 1811 Poetical Essay, Shelley was searching for a peaceful way to elicit change in an oppressive hieracrchical society.  By 1819 Shelley has settled on his preferred solution of non-violent resistance.

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war,

‘And let Panic, who outspeeds
The career of armèd steeds
Pass, a disregarded shade
Through your phalanx undismayed.

Nonviolent resistance is not an instant solution and takes years of persistent and widespread enactment to be successful. A partial victory was secured in the 1830s with the Great Reform Act (1832) and the Abolition of Slavery Act (1834). But history has proved that it is a viable strategy, the independence of India being an eloquent testament.