Following some overindulgence on turkey and mince pies it took a little while for my capacity to caary out basic arithmetic to return! But a simple analysis of the Christmas Day TV viewing figures reveals something interesting. Topping the charts (for the 3rd year running) was Elizabeth Windsor with her speech registering 7.7 million views followed by Strictly Come Dancing on 7.2 million and the Christmas Bake-off at 6.3 million. You might think that was a sound argument for the continued popularity of the Monarchy, but the figures say otherwise. Admittedly the viewing figure are something of an estimate, but with a population of about 63.1 million (2011 census, but almost certainly higher in 2016) that means only around 12% watched the speech. Allowing for those too young, too old or without access to a TV this is still a surprisingly small figure when set against a monarch with, we are told, huge personal popularity. So like most things connected with the royals, the idea that everyone watches the Queen’s speech is nothing more than a myth. Certainly, few of my family and friends, (admittedly a pretty radical and rebellious lot!) watched it. Ironically, I was one of the few, catching up on iPlayer to gain insights into the current thinking of the ‘opposition’!
A few months ago following the election of Donald Trump the ‘Loose Cannon’ Giles Fraser wrote an article where he extolled the virtues of monarchy. While I have much respect for this clergyman who gave support to the Occupy movement around St Pauls in London, this was at best a weak minded piece. Boiled down to its essence the argument was that following Brexit and Trump the world was becoming too scary and it was more comforting to simply go back to believing in princesses and fairytale castles. Lets just say that at a time when we need to come to the aid of our democratic institutions this approach did not strike a chord with me! His point was that the monarch provides a rallying point in troubled times. But the Queens Speech viewing figures suggest this is far from the case and we may as well replace our Constitutional Monarchy with Strictly Come Dancing with Queen Tess of the House of Daly as monarch!
On a more serious note, a central plank of the argument for the continuation of Monarchy is that it commands overwhelming support. But no figure for what ‘overwhelming’ means is given (surely more than 12%!) and there is establishment reluctance to consider the possibility of a Constitutional Convention or even a referendum where replacing monarchy is an option. Based on these viewing figures it is understandable. Most opinion polls give a commanding majority for the monarchy, but simply answering a question where no effort is expended or costs incurred is easy. When, however, it comes to making even a minimal effort such as listening to the Queen on Christmas Day the story is very different. On that basis, how many would make the substantially greater effort to get out and walk to a polling station to support the monarchy in a referendum? As a republican I say ‘bring it on!
For years we have been warned that Government policy was returning us to Victorian era working conditions. While things are clearly different in many respects, such as no child labour and greatly reduced physical risks to name but two, there is evidence that in the social sphere this has now happened in some areas of Britain. But it is not in terms of the palpable outward employment conditions that this manifests itself nost starkly, but in the attitude of the various layers of worker, supervisor and owner.
JD Sports: Queuing to get in and out of ‘Prison’
Following the revelations of working conditions at retailers Amazon and Sports Direct the December 14thChannel 4 News special reporton working conditions at JD Sports confirmed what we already suspected. Oppressive working conditions in many major retailers are the norm rather than the exception with practices which are at best borderline illegal. The report contained shocking footage of low wage workers being forced to queue for hours in the cold to get in and out of the Rochdale distribution warehouse. Employee contracts state that such queueing had to be undertaken in their time thus reducing the actual wage rate per hour for the job below the statutory minimum. With the cost being borne completely by the worker there is no incentive for the company to either improve its practices or review its draconian security arrangements.
Aside from the physical hardship there were two particularly disturbing aspects of the report involving the attitudes displayed by both the agency staff (supplied by Assist Recruitment) and their supervisors. As the lowest rung of management the floor supervisors themselves can be earning only a little more than the minimum wage agency staff who comprise their charges. Yet on a number of occasions in the report, bourne out by subsequent anecdotal reports, the supervisors could be seen behaving in ways both oppressive and, at times, inhuman . The second disturbing aspect was the use of the word ‘prison’ to describe conditions at the Rochdale warehouse. I consider these two aspects are related and create a toxic environment of working conditions which are similar to those of Victorian mines and factories.
The 1971 Stanford University Experiment
In 1971 a notorious psychological experiment was carried out at Stanford University in California by Philip Zimbardo. Funded by the US Government via the Navy its aim was to study the the evolution of norms and the effects of roles and social expectations in a simulated prison (actually the basement at Stanford). The details of the setting up, running and conclusions of this highly controversial experiment are beyond the scope of this blog and I can give only the briefest of outlines. Further information is freely available including this helpful website associated with a documentary film of the experiment. and this very readable desription.
Digital communications has changed the world profoundly and will continue to do so in the future. An unconscious recognition of this fact lies partly behind the triumph of Donald Trump in the Presidential election and as I pointed out in an earlier blog, could spell long term disaster for many in the United States. The fear and rejection of a fundamentally changing economic landscape can be laid partly at the door of politicians who either do not understand the problems themselves or choose to ignore the issues.
Increasingly, authors (such as Vasilis Kostakis and Michel Bauwens in their book Network Society and Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy) are pointing to the urgent choices we face in how we view intellectual property on the internet. Many problems of a deeply complex nature such as climate change may only be amenable to solution by collaborative effort involving freely available information. Essentially we can either let large corporations dominate with their highly protective store of information about almost every aspect of our lives or we can start to move towards a collective approach to the ownership of knowledge. This peer-to-peer interaction with established relationships (Commons) allows for free interaction between every member of society who wishes to participate. Understandably most of the emphasis is on the economic system and whether capitalism can be tamed to live with the new reality, or, conversely, whether it will be destroyed by it.
But in the UK we have our own anachronistic and regressive arm of Government. The Royal Family have absolutely no interest in engaging in such a collaborative future. The interaction is all one way and instinctively secretive. Whether it is tightly controlled media interviews with no independent editorial control or confidential ‘black spider’ memos from Charles to Government Ministers. the Windsors are clearly not interested in collaboration, only lecturing us. They speak but do not listen and as a consequence peer-to-peer interaction which relies on a flexible attitude of equal privilege cannot take place. At the beginning of the 20th Century the Russian Romanov’s found that being perceived as remote from their people was, surprisingly, more deadly to their future prospects than vast wealth inequality. The rapid technological; advances of the 21st Century are inevitably doing the same for their Windsor cousins. Considering the nature of the monarchy precludes such interaction it would be easier if we accept the inevitable and start the transition now to a modern and accountable Head of State.
It has been a long time since British politics was in such a confusing state. The old certainties have collapsed and there is doubt whether Labour really represents working people or that the Conservatives represent traditional shire interests. So it is perhaps unsurprising that the most hotly contested political events in recent years have been the Scottish and EU referendums with their simple straightforward choice, Yes or No, In or Out. But with the ascendancy of right-wing libertarianism allied to an aggressive alt-right populism, it is understandable that opposition parties should rethink their strategy.
The defeat of Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond by-election was an event which I warmly welcomed. The argument that he should be supported as a man of integrity in triggering the by-election seemed small compensation set against a London Mayoral campaign where Goldsmith at times mounted deeply unpleasant racist attacks which helped feed a growing climate of intolerance. But the issue I have is with the use of the term Progressive Alliance to describe the coalition of Liberal Democrat, Green and Women’s Equality Party which triumphed in Richmond. Progressive Alliance can only serve to add to the fog of confusion regarding the platform on which the candidates are standing. Missing from the coalition was the Labour Party, apparently divided as to the strategic advantage of entering into pacts with other parties.
The Danger: Ineffective Liberalism and a Discredited Centre-Ground
So what is the problem with Progressive Alliance? To be a progressive you must advocate improvement or reform, as opposed to working to maintain the status quo. But improvement or reform can take many different paths and even when limited to the anti-Zac parties there will be a multitude of approaches as implied by the use of ‘Alliance’. In Richmond the Progressive Alliance very effectively mobilized a strong anti-Brexit feeling on the part of the electorate. But remaining in the EU currently represents the status quo and even arguing the case that remain represents a progressive position leaves the problem of how to deal with the broader disaffection with institutions such as the EU. It is argued (such as in this letter by Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas) that the core principle of a Progressive Alliance is the election of as many candidates as possible who support a change in the voting system to Proportional Representation. PR really does represent a progressive position which aims to end a deeply unrepresentative system which gives enormous power to a single party agenda based on the wishes of a minority of voters (37% voted Conservative in 2015). But in fact PR is also the aim of UKIP, a major player in the pro-Zac (no pun intended) coalition.
Fiercely contested court cases, attacks on the judiciary, personal abuse and subversion of Parliament. Sounds like 2016, but this was over 200 years ago in 1811. At the centre of it was Irish journalist Peter Finnerty. Almost unknown today, Finnerty was the beneficiary of one of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s great early works Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things (you can read more about the radicalism of Shelley’s Poetical Essay here), but his influence at the time was far greater. Finnerty possessed a keen perception of how state institutions could be utilized to gain public attention and saw many opportunities for advancing his radical ideas in novel ways, some of which are applicable today.
Born sometime between 1766 and 1778 (sources vary) in Lochrea, Ireland, Finnerty became a printer in Dublin and published The Press, a nationalist paper founded 1797 by Arthur O’Connor. That same year the British government prosecuted The Press and Finnerty was tried for seditious libel following strong criticism of the judges who sentenced United Irishman William Orr to death along with Lord Camden, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland who turned down an appeal for clemency. Finnerty was tried in early 1798 and sentenced to two years imprisonment and time in the pillory. On his release, Finnerty moved to London and worked as a reporter on the Morning Chronicle newspaper while engaging in radical activism. This included the Robin Hood Society, notorious amongst establishment figures for, amongst other things, actively campaigning against the George III Golden Jubilee celebrations of 1809. In 1811 Finnerty was again sentenced to prison, this time receiving eighteen months for libeling Minister of War Lord Castlereagh during a highly critical report on British military command during the 1809 Walcheren campaign against Napoleon. Incredibly, Finnerty used the imprisonment to keep the issue of Castlereagh in the public spotlight and repeated the libel on a number of occasions. In 1811 jail was a tough place and inmates had to provide for themselves. As a result, Finnerty’s friends and associates organized events to raise money for his maintenance inside jail with Shelley’s contribution being the proceeds from his poem Poetical Essay.
Finnerty is fascinating for a number of reasons. Firstly he was one of the first activists to use journalism as a method of developing and promoting a radical political platform. Secondly. Finnerty missed no opportunity in trying to destabilize government by petitioning Parliament on all kinds of issues including the conditions of his imprisonment. Thirdly his use of court cases, even ones he lost, as a means of keeping issues in the public gaze was masterly.
Finnerty was a thorn in the side of Government using investigative journalism to cast doubt on the veracity of Governments officials and even witnesses in trials. Finnerty’s aim was the emancipation of the Irish people and the promotion of a mainland radical and republican agenda and the techniques he used can still be deployed today. But they are as equally available to reactionary and oppressive forces as to progessive ones. We need only look at the virulent attacks on the High Court and Supreme Court judges by the Daily Mail which briefly included drawing attention to the fact that one of them was a gay Olympic Fencer! These disgusting and scurrilous articles are serving the aims of an oppressive oligarchy which are very different from those of Peter Finnerty