In a recent post I considered a comment by Thomas Rainborough from the 1647 Putney Debates and explained just why it articulates a crucial point still relevant today. Rainborough was expressing an egalitarian ideal not just in terms of wealth but in terms of the election of representatives. As a recap here is the essential core of his speech:
..I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he;
All progressive contemporary thinking accepts in some form this basic idea of equality. To place the quote in a wider context you can read an expanded version of his speech on this Guardian newspaper webpage. So is there really any more we can learn from Rainborough’s speech from over three centuries ago? I think plenty. Lets start with Rainborough’s central point of just who is eligible to vote. For much of English and British history you needed to own property before you could vote in an election. But Rainborough says:
I do think…the main cause why Almighty God gave men reason, it was that they should make use of that reason, and that they should improve it for that end and purpose that God gave it them.
As the qualification for voting in elections, Rainborough was specifically detaching the requirement for possession of physical property and substituting an inalienable personal quality of every person, namely the ability to reason. Yet today the homeless are not encouraged or given support to vote, despite expecting them to adhere to the laws passed by Parliament and Local Authorities.
Political Equality: Reality Falls Short of Expressed Values
Effective disenfranchisment of the homeless (through a mistaken perception that you need a fixed address to register) is a clear case where political process falls far short of the supposed ideal of political equality. Other examples are the introduction of Individual Voter Registration which disenfranchised up to 800,000 people in the UK along with the distortions delivered by a First Past the Post electoral system which gives disproportionate power to a minority of voters (37% at the last election). Similarly we can point to the recent US presidential election where the Electoral College system gave Donald Trump victory despite losing the popular vote.
Although no electoral system can deliver a perfectly fair result there is a deeper question we can ask about the practical outcome of Rainborough’s (and our) concern over political equality. The right to a vote means the right to influence public policy which in turn means the right to have a say in Government. This right lies at the foundation of a free society. But a society is omly genuinely free if it does not fall into the hands of an individual or small class or group who rule for their own good. In Rainborough’s day during the 1640s it was the possession of lordships:
…a gentleman lives in a country and has three or four lordships – as some men have (God knows how they got them) – and when a parliament is called he must be a parliament-man.
Incredibly, hereditary and traditional power still holds undue influence over the public policy process. There is the ability of the Queen and Prince of Wales to prevent debate in Parliament (Queen’s and Prince’s Consent), the ninety-two hereditary peers in the lords and twenty-six bishops of the Church of England. Added to this are the powerful commercial forces as highlighted in a number of my previous posts on the threat of oligarchy highlighted by US Senator Bernie Sanders and the secretive and manipulative actions of Bank of England Governor Mark Carney. Taking all this into account our cherished idea of a society of politically equal citizens is looking forlorn.
But What About Policy Formation?
So far we have considered participation in the form of voting which means the selection of policies which are already on offer, normally from the main political parties. But we should go further. In the last quote Rainborough is drawing our attention to the fact that the creation of policy is in the hands of relatively few people. So what about political equality in the formation of policy in the first place. Although this can be effected via pressure groups (Republic Campaign is an example) it normally means membership of a major political party. But the difficulty which that causes to our system can be seen in the great expansion of Labour Party membership where the new members are active in formulating party policy. Setting aside political party admin and constitutional arrangements an individual is still faced with significant barriers. Consider the basic resources required in terms of literacy, health and access to IT resources. Furthermore there is the issue of possessing enough time and income to take an active part. Time and income are interrelated as those who are trying to support a family working two minimum wage jobs testify. So as Rainborough recognized, various rights require resources if you are to exercise them effectively.
The establishment speaks of ‘British values’ but they are ignoring the values of some of the greatest Britons who lived. Considering the extent to which our political system falls woefully short of the ideals expressed by those such as Rainborough it is not surprising they are purposefully sidelined. In Britain the ideal of political equality is a bad joke and the solutions to the problems outlined are neither easy nor quick. But if an equal ability to influence public policy through political activity is to be more than an aspiration, possessing the legal right to vote or take part in a political organization must be supplemented by the capacity so to do. This involves necessary skills and resources such as education, income, health and IT literacy which are themselves dependent upon a measure of equality. As a practical illustration we could mention help for the homeless; for example, by making it easy for them to register and access policy information. Next, an increase of the National Living Wage to a Real Living Wage Vitally, we need to teach children about their rights and responsibilities in our political system. Quite apart from the controversial issues of British values we can teach them hard facts about the role of political parties, voting, Parliament and Government. Use of reason by an active citizenry – Thomas Rainborough would have approved!