The Government is Patronising Voters by Laying Claim to a Chartist Legacy

People’s Charter 1838

On 13th September 2016 BBC Newsnight ran an item on the proposals for changes to Parliamentary constituencies issued by the Boundary Commission for England . One of the interviewees was Chris Skidmore MP, Minister for the Constitution, who referred to the People’s Charter of 1838 to lend legitimacy to the proposals. During the course of the interview he made the statement:

‘The Chartists, who are heroes to some people on the Labour benches’.

Unwarranted Legitimacy

It would be positive, but possibly naïve, to think that the 19th Century Chartists should be heroes to all who claim to be democrats, meaning not only all the Labour Party but MPs of any party, including the Conservatives themselves. But there is a problem. The Chartists demand for equal sized constituencies and a much wider suffrage was an integral part of the demands for comprehensive socio-economic reforms to alleviate deprivation and oppression suffered by most working people at that time. Then, as now, political reform was was an essential corollary to social reform and it is disingenuous of Mr Skidmore to merely pluck one of the six points of the Charter and ignore the spirit of the movement behind it.

Skidmore can get away with appropriating Chartists aims for a narrow political point because of the lack of knowledge about our radical history which I posted about a few weeks ago. But it may surprise him to learn  that genuine support for Chartists and other radical groups is far from unknown within his own Conservative Party. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli expressed sympathy with Chartist aims and in 2013 David Skelton of the Conservative Party’s Renewal group published this call for greater education about the history of radicalism including Levellers and Suffragettes as well as Chartists.

The issues surrounding the Boundary Commission proposals which the Government is determined to pursue are complex,  including disputes over how to measure the size of a constituency.  There have been claims that it represents gerrymandering on the part of the Government but I argue that it goes much further than this, serving to distort the very nature of democratic representation while showing profound disregard for social justice. Even allowing for the shrinkage in the number of MPs from 650 to 600 the Conservatives on some estimates would have an increased majority of 22 in the Commons based on the new boundaries. This increase would serve to exacerbate an already unfair system where a Government elected by only 37% of actual voters command a disproportionate amount of power, with an even more pronounced marginalization of Green and UKIP voters To enforce these boundary changes without instituting some form of Proportional Representation as an absolute minimum is undemocratic bordering on reckless.

Political Change is Integral to Wider Social Change

The fact that systems of voting are integrally bound up with socio-economic problems was brought into focus during the Brexit vote where many disaffected people took the opportunity of registering a protest vote. But it is not the job of the Boundary Commission to take wider political factors into account. That is the job of the government and they must not dodge their responsibilities to fairness and democracy. During the 1830s the Chartists chafed against the petty pretensions of the property owning classes which aped the mores of the aristocracy, debasing workers socially as well as economically. Demands for a voice in Parliament had an egalitarian as well as an economic base.   Society has changed radically and deference to the aristocracy has declined, being replaced by the overt greed of owners such as Philip Green and Mike Ashley who debase their workers by flaunting knighthoods, peerages and gross conspicuous wealth. The malaise is now affecting public bodies as this article on the activities of Coventry University and its Vice Chancellor testify. So the sense of injustice persists and Mr Skidmore will be well advised to consider it in his plans. As Paul Mason points out in his book Postcapitalism the Chartists confronted an industrial economy trapped within an aristocratic state. Today we have a low-wage service and knowledge economy trapped within an oligarchic state. Simply manipulating the electoral system to pursue an ideal of fairness within a narrow definition will lead to further instances of protest which may make the Brexit vote appear a mere inconvenience by comparison.

As Sean Monaghan in Jacobin Magazine writes::

A renewed Chartist movement would, for starters, demand the extension of the franchise to all those who lack it. But it would also embrace one of Chartism’s seminal contributions to the history of working-class movements: the necessity of political struggle for popular emancipation.

Government Ministers would do well to remember this rather than cherry pick ideas for narrow party gain.

As Charles Windsor Proves, Voltaire’s Idea of Enlightened Monarchy is Best Forgotten

voltaireIf you have read some of my previous posts you may be aware that I rarely write about foreign radical thinkers.  Even when I do they are mainly in the Anglophone tradition such as American Thomas Jefferson, the major exception being Niccolo Machiavelli.  There are two reasons for this bias. Firstly, other countries such as France with a less moribund and self-protective establishment than Britain tend to be more open about radical proponents of the past and are better known as a consequence. Secondly, possessing woefully poor foreign language skills I am dependent upon published translations of major works.  Where nuance and opinion are all important, the subtleties of language are vital and easily lost or distorted as they cross language barriers.

Voltaire: Some Good ideas, Some Not so Good

I am making an exception in this post to make a couple of observations about François-Marie Arouet, better known to us as Voltaire.  Even more unusual for me, Voltaire was essentially a constitutional monarchist who also toyed with absolutism! But it is rare to find a radical thinker with whom I am in complete agreement, partly because of drastic changes in society over the past century. For example, many 17th Century English Republicans such as Algernon Sidney actually argued for a form of aristocratic rule, tempered by democracy. On the other hand, Chartist Ernest Jones was a constitutional monarchist.  To dismiss every thinker who holds one or two contrary opinions would simply lead to an impoverished and shrivelled view of how society may be improved. In few other individuals, however, is the sense of contrariness in such sharp relief than in Voltaire.  But I want to see how one of his ideas stacks up to contemporary reality in the shape of the present heir to the United Kingdom throne, Charles Windsor.

A hazard when considering Voltaire’s work is the polemical and satirical style he adopted.  Voltaire actually lived in Britain between 1726 and 1729 and formed a favourable view of the British Constitutional Monarchy in comparison with France’s pre-revolutionary autocratic ancien régime. As I mentioned in this openDemocracy article, Voltaire  was a prominent figure during the Age of Enlightenment and a leading figure in the associated Republic of Letters network.

Continue reading “As Charles Windsor Proves, Voltaire’s Idea of Enlightened Monarchy is Best Forgotten”

Rousing Rebels and Motivating Movements; Why the Establishment Controls the Historical Narrative

petermemeWhen I was 11 years of age I had a wonderful history teacher. We studied the Anglo-Saxons and he did his best to give us an idea of what it was like to live about 1,500 years ago.  It was compelling stuff but sadly it did not last. By age 14 I had given up on history, my early inspirational teacher being replaced by a boring and lifeless one who made us learn facts and dates by rote. It would be many years before I started to realise that to understand our present situation we need to understand where we have come from.  I also realised that the history I wanted to grasp was not the history taught in schools or on the TV and there were few monuments to the events I found significant. I learned quickly about the way in which the establishment controls the historical narrative. I wanted to understand the fight to be a free citizen, the struggle for liberty, the campaigns for equality and a fair wage. But the overwhelming narrative was about monarchs, wars, generals and empires. It was easy to find out why the Duke of Wellington was a hero of Waterloo, but not that he was despised in many places and physically attacked on the streets for his repressive attitude and support for the 1819 carnage in Manchester at the Peterloo Massacre.  Many people have heard of Abraham Lincoln, but far fewer of the Englishman William Wilberforce who fought a long and courageous campaign to abolish the British slave trade in 1807. So why the blatantly one sided treatment of history?

The Necessity of Controlling the Historical Narrative

It turns out that there are a number of reason. Firstly it goes against the still prevalent so-called Whiggish theory of history.  Briefly this says that the social history of first England and then Britain is one of gradually increasing liberty being handed by the government to the people at the point when they have developed the sophistication to handle the responsibility. ‘Don’t worry’, this narrative reads, as we are on a one-way journey to freedom.  The reality is very different. Freedoms have been fought for and won, not benevolently bequeathed us by a kindly establishment.  Here are just a few of the more prominent examples.  The Thirteenth Century Magna Carta was signed because the barons threatened (yet another) bloody civil war; the autocracy of kingship was ended in the Seventeeth Century as a result of an armed Revolution; the increased franchise and social developments of the nineteenth century took place because the government feared another revolution following the growth of popular movements such as Chartism.  But it was not a one way trip and freedoms could be taken away!

Continue reading “Rousing Rebels and Motivating Movements; Why the Establishment Controls the Historical Narrative”

The Honours System: A Subtle and Toxic Method of Control

Order of the British Empire (motto reads: For God and Empire)

Almost before the cyclists had put away their bikes and the rowing lake at Rio had returned to a mirror surface the campaign began.   With British competitors winning 27 Gold medals, some like Hockey with multiple team members, would the rules allow them all to get a New Year Honour? Doubts were assuaged by Theresa May confirming that there was no fixed quota for sporting medals and everyone who ‘deserved’ one would get one. But behind that discussion lay an assumption – that the athletes concerned actually want an honour!

An Unacceptable Compromise

Lost in the excitement of the Olympics all was another story of a sporting honour, that of Howard Gayle. Gayle is a retired footballer, the first black player to take the field for Liverpool FC and a proud Briton. In mid-August it was announced  that Gayle had rejected the offer of a MBE. Gayle’s reason was based on the title of the award, MBE standing for Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire. As Gayle stated:

The fact is that I felt it would be a slap in the face for so many to be part of that British empire [my emphasis] process. When you look at what the empire did to my family and our ancestors, it just doesn’t bear credence. I would always have felt uncomfortable writing those letters after my name.

Gayle’s view is shared by others including prominent poet Benjamin Zephaniah  In any  civilized country an honour titled ‘British Empire’ should have been consigned to the dustbin of history a great many years ago.

But, irrespective of the title of the award, a more sinister process is at work in the honours system. For those recipients clearly uncomfortable with accepting an honour (radical activists, trade Union leaders, for example) the defence is often mounted  that the award is not really a personal one, but is for their members, organization, community and so on. In some cases this may be a genuinely held belief but in some there is no doubt an element of self justification. The fact remains that by accepting an honour they are  buying into a narrative of privileged control. As the higher honours (knighthoods for example) are awarded by the establishment including the Government it means they are arbitrarily deciding which activities or individuals are worthy and which are not.

Continue reading “The Honours System: A Subtle and Toxic Method of Control”