Exceptionalism Corrodes the Relationships Which Drive Progress for Everyone

Cassini’s copy of Newton’s Principia with inscription by Halley (© Observatoire de Paris)

In 1687 the great English astronomer Edmund Halley (of the comet fame) sent an inscribed copy (image left) of Isaac Newton’s freshly published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica to Giovanni Domenico Cassini, Director of the Paris Observatory.  Think about this for a moment. A copy of the most important thesis of the day (the foundation of Gravitational Theory and Mechanics) by an English scientist sent to an Italian scientist working in a French observatory.  This pattern repeats itself decade after decade, century after century, right back to the dawn of civilisation. Indeed one theory of archeology now views Stonehenge as the epicentre of a Britano-Near European network.

Now, I am as proud as anyone of our great history of Shakespeare and Shelley, Newton and Darwin, Turner and Constable, Stephenson and Brunel, Locke and Hume.  I am also proud of the work the establishment wants to forget, by Tom Paine for example or James Harrington or Algernon Sidney. But in this post I want to place the work of these greats in context, as part of progress viewed as relationships cultivated with colleagues throughout Europe and beyond. They are classed as some of the greatest luminaries, but not exceptional in the sense that they stand apart from other greats. It is the relationships which count as much as anything.

Magna Carta was part of a pan-European movement….

My Halley-Cassini example dates from the 17th Century when the Age of Enlightenment was getting under way. But I want to briefly travel further back to 1215 and the iconic Magna Carta. A mountain of literature has been generated by the Great Charter along with some grandiose claims.  For example, it is purported to be the birth document of democracy, which it isn’t and a protector of liberties, but only for some. What is important is that it placed limits on the king’s power which was subject to the law.   But charters were common in early medieval Europe both individually in terms of personal wills and in more general terms through the granting of rights and privileges to groups of people such as towns and cities. Some included promises of protection and justice by a King but the most important charters were issued by the Pope as Papal Bulls.

Of importance was the so-called “Statute of Palmiers issued three years earlier than Magna Carta in 1212 and the earliest constitutional document of France.  Issued by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester (his son, also Simon, is more well known to us as playing a crucial role in the founding of Parliament), the Statute was sealed and guaranteed by six French bishops. It includes more than fifty clauses, prohibiting the sale of justice, dealing with the rights of heirs and widows, and promising not to enforce military service from his tenants except in return for pay. Through de Montfort and others the Statute of Palmiers was known in England and covers much the same ground. But in turn, Magna Carta influenced Europe. For example, the  Golden Bull (a Bull was a kind of seal, by the way) of 1222 was a charter issued by King Andrew II of Hungary under duress from his nobles. Like Magna Carta this was one of the first examples of constitutional limits being placed on the powers of a European monarch. So though Magna Carta was unique in scope and ambition it was fully in keeping with developments elsewhere.

….while the Age of Enlightenment was truly international collaboration.

Now back to my first example.  The Age of Enlightenment was a supreme example of natural philosophers, political thinkers and artists collaborating across international boundaries, this time including North America. For example, American founding father Benjamin Franklin visited Europe frequently and contributed actively to scientific and political debates here, returning with the latest ideas to Philadelphia. Vital to the development of the Age of Enlightenment was a separate but associated phenomenon which has been termed the Republic of Letters.  It started in the literary sphere and was initially a purely intellectual exchange consisting of a network of thinkers such as Voltaire and John Locke. The Republic of Letters was facilitated by more efficient transport in the Seventeenth Century and secure postal services grew rapidly New associations such as the Royal Society provided centres where ideas could be presented and promulgated. Similar societies sprang up in France and Germany and were vital in helping local intellectuals contact like-minded thinkers elsewhere in the Republic of Letters

The political and social transnational effects were cataclysmic. The English  Revolution of 1642-1649, combined with the work of emigrant Englishman Tom Paine was a vital influence on the American Revolution which in turn hugely influenced events in Europe during the French Revolution. In science the aforementioned Edmund Halley travelled all over Europe before influencing Newton’s decision to publish his ideas on gravitation which changed the course of science, helping to bring about our modern world. English and Scottish thinkers were crucial participants, but were dependant on ideas gathered through the relationships with workers in other parts of the world.

So what is my point? It is not to belittle the contributions of British (or English/Welsh/Scots/Irish in earlier eras) thinkers and politicians to world developments.  But much of the rhetoric of the British press in papers such as the Daily Mail, The Times and The Sun is now devoted to an exceptionalist view of Britain as being unusual or extraordinary in every way. It is tied to an agenda which I drew attention to in an earlier post. For individuals a sense of exceptionalism damages personal relationships and the same is true of nations. This can only harm our position with the rest of Europe and the world which can only do us (and them) harm. Ironically one of the conscious aims of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters was a measure of independence from Governments and overbearing authority (partly why it was called a Republic).  Whatever the outcome of Brexit and the current sweep of neo-conservative nationalism it is vital not to lose sight of the crucial role of transnational relationships, no matter how brilliant or able the individuals of particular countries prove to be. Mutual respect is vital, relationships matter!

The Grand Scale of the Neo-Conservative Achievement

At this moment radical politics is flat on its back having been hit with a devastatingly effective neo-Conservative programme. Donald Trump in the United States and Theresa May in the UK are following an aggressive reactionary programme and in mainland Europe the hope is that Centre Right politicians can hold out against Far Right and Neo-Fascist politicians.  But the scale of the victory is no fluke, a kind of lucky break by reactionary politics.  The Neo-Conservatives have thoroughly prepared for this moment and their success is down to making a very specific political philosophy acceptable to a great many people. The road forward for radical politics is rocky and long.  I want to briefly explain why, using a classic example from an earlier post.

In that previous blog I pointed to the work of David Brooks back in the 1990s.  Very briefly, here is what he proposed. The pursuit of national greatness  is all-imporant and is the fundamental pillar of the project.  All else depends upon its successful articulation. How to do this? Here are just some of the ways and how they are being given real world form by the UK Government:

  • Firstly associate yourself with a golden age of the past.  This may mean building physical objects. So in the UK promoting Empire 2.0 may be useful but not nearly as effective as, say, building a new Royal Yacht!
  • There must be great programmes for government to pusue.  Brexit! A perfect opportunity seized upon with glee by Theresa May giving the Government a heaven sent opportunity to use the rhetoric of independence and  national exceptionalism. But if not Brexit then something else would have been adopted.
  • Explicitly tie naked ambition and willpower into the programme. Hence the insistence on Grammar schools, despite Justine Greening vainly attempting to promote them as engines of social mobility!
  • Persuade a poplulation bouyed up by the pursuit of greatness that a strong government has better things to do than strengthen comminities and individual liberties. Note that Conservatives have quiety dropped the rhetoric of smaller Government. So trash the laws and programmes which support services. But quietly forget about ‘balancing the budget’.
  • Promote an iron discipline to achieve the greatness. In the UK if this means putting up with falling wages and living standards, then the price is worth paying!

Brooks was interviewed recently, The expectation was that he would be ecstatic, with Trump scoring a devastating victory for his ideology.  But not so. Apparently what he envisaged was someone more focussed and disciplined to implement the programme than the erratic and vainglorious Trump!

It is important to note that this is not a purely political issue. The scale of the problem is huge with highly influential cultural vehicles such as newspapers (the Daily Mail, Express, etc), TV news and reality programmes (see my post on this from a Neo-Liberal perspective) mobilised in the promotion of the neo-Conservative line.  Add to this, of course, Banks and Multinational Corporations. Radical and progressive politics can and will recover but it will take time to develop from new foundations.  Political philosophies of equal potency do exist but we must not be afraid of adopting them and translating them into a programme. But remember the neo-Conservatives spent decades achieving their hegemony here so the sooner we start the better!

Reclaiming a Positive Idea of Patriotism

Some time ago I came across a wonderful definition of patriotism which defined it as a vibrant celebration of community.  I must confess that I cannot recall just who said it; I’m pretty sure he was a poet and if anyone out there is reading this post and can remind ne I’d be very grateful.!  I like this definition for many reasons.  Firstly it is scalable.  Your community can be a tower block or a village, a town, city, region, nation, continent or even conceivably the whole world. Furthermore, this idea of celebrating your community is not exceptional and does not prevent an understanding that other people have a right to celebrate their community. Strong confident communities are less prey to the fears and inadequacies which breeds intolerance  These features also make it an inclusive concept as opposed to many ideas of nationalism which so often cast it in an exclusive light, where by necessity a clear distinction is made between one group and another.

But this definition also implies a measure of responsibility, a fact pointed out by one of our great poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley (no surprise for my blog followers!). In his Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things (for more details see my OpenDemocracy article) Shelley uses the words “patriot” and “patriotism” three times. Each time he makes it clear that the duty of a patriot is to attempt to shine a light on the corruption and secrecy that bedevils parts of our society. For example, speaking of Government he says:

 And shall no patriot tear the veil away
Which hides these vices from the face of day?

This idea of patriotism is closely related to the idea of English lexicographer and author Julian Barnes who adds a dash of justice and wisdom to Shelley’s sense of virtue.

 The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously.

This harks back to the first definition since strong communities are open and just communities.  As a republican I am used to being labelled unpatriotic, as someone who hates Britain or is at best naïve and idiotic. But my sense of patriotism makes me deeply  concerned about growing inequality  which may fatally weaken our society, along with a ramshackle constitution which endangers all of us whether we realise it or not.

Definitions of patriotism have changed over the centuries, most being evolutions of its root as the middle French word for a countryman. On very many occasions it has been used as a synonyms for nationalism or, worse, jingoism. But I think the spirit is very different and expresses something valuable.

Categorising the UK as a ‘Full Democracy’? Maybe the Expert-Bashers Were Correct After All!

Passing_of_the_Parliament_Bill,_1911_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_19609Occasionally a statement is made which is so far removed from reality it is rendered  meaningless. Such a moment occurred last week when The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in its Democracy Index 2016 once again categorised the UK as a ‘Full Democracy’. In fact they regarded it as more of a democracy in 2016, rating it 8.36/10 than in 2015, when it scored 8.31/10, largely as a result of the EU referendum. This is enough to rate the UK at number 16 out of more than 160 countries examined and the anomaly is of such glaring proportions that it lends credence to the campaign tactics of populist movements around the world (most notably during the 2016 UK EU Referendum campaign by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson) of discrediting experts.

The full report can be accessed from The Economist website, but you have to sign your life away to get to it (they want to grab the details of as many professionals as they can, hence a telephone number etc). Alternatively, you can read a summary of the report on the World Economic Forum site.  Although the overall results are clear it is worth digging in a little to examine just how they came to this seemingly bizarre conclusion.  It is not necessary to sign up with the devil to do this as last year’s report for 2015 is freely available.

Stretching the definition of ‘Full Democracy’ beyond reasonable bounds!

For a start I am not sure what is meant by a ‘full democracy’ in the first place So here is the EIU definition:

Countries in which not only basic political freedoms and civil liberties are respected, but also tend to be underpinned by a political culture conducive to the  nourishing of democracy. The functioning of government is satisfactory. Media are independent and diverse. There is an effective system of checks and balances. The judiciary is independent and judicial decisions are enforced. There are only limited problems in the functioning of democracies.

Part of this definition applies (e.g. an independent judiciary) but lets compare it with the obvious basic anti-democratic features of the UK.  Our constitution (unwritten) allows for an uncontestable Monarchy, a House of Lords (including 92 hereditary peers and 26 Church of England Bishops), an autocratic Privy Council and a Royal Prerogative through which the government can bypass Parliament and judiciary.  On top of this there is a first past the post electoral system which has handed power to representatives elected by only 37% of people who voted, a hugely biassed press and a sophisticated corporate lobbying industry.  Bearing in mind this list could have been many times longer and a democracy score of 83.1% is already absurd.

Continue reading “Categorising the UK as a ‘Full Democracy’? Maybe the Expert-Bashers Were Correct After All!”

It Is Almost 50 Years Since Jack Ashley Became the World’s Only Totally Deaf Lawmaker – But What Has Changed?


Last month (March 2017) Dawn Butler made history by becoming the first MP to use British Sign Language (BSL) to pose a question in the House of Commons. She asked whether the Government would give BSL a legal status alongside other recognised languages.  As Ms Butler said in a subsequent article :

We need to make parliament representative of wider society. One important part of this is to make parliament as open and accessible as possible.

Representation Means More Than Voting and Consultation

This is a crucial point. Vital in any inclusive political system is the ability for all groups in society to be represented and influence every aspect of Government policy, not just be called into committees when the members feel like it! Inclusion means having an input in the formulation of policy in the first place rather than being limited to commenting and voting on the agendas of others. In a review of political representation of women and BME communities Karen Bird quoted researcher Melissa Williams:

“…the only hope that marginalised group presence will have a lasting effect on policy outcomes is that decisions are based not only on the counting of votes but also on the sharing of reasons.”

The same argument, of course, applies to any other community group. But consider the figures. In the current House of Commons (April 2017) between 2 and 5 MPs are considered physically disabled, depending on the criteria applied.  Yet to be representative, on even the more narrow of definitions of diability, there would need to be 65 MPs.

Continue reading “It Is Almost 50 Years Since Jack Ashley Became the World’s Only Totally Deaf Lawmaker – But What Has Changed?”

Republicanism and Democracy; Two Ideas Not To Be Confused

Politicians are fond of throwing aeound the word ‘democracy’ as though it is a talisman, warding off tyranny in the same way as a clove of garlic drives back Count Dracula.  But it is in fact a tricky and complex concept, as spectacularly demonstrated by the fallout from the Brexit vote. So lets clear up some confusions.

As a republican (in the European sense for any US followers so I’m not thinking of the GOP here) it is important for me to understand the part played by democracy.  There are some people who simply equate republicanism with democracy as though they were the same thing, but the situation needs clarification. Lets dispense with the more obvious differences. For example, North Korea styles itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Although nominally a republic (just), it is far from democratic and proof that you can call yourself what you like, it is the Constitution which counts! In this case North Korea is an Autocratic Republic  Also consider Iran, or the Islamic Republic of Iran, in this case  it is a Theocratic Republic. So strictly speaking all Republicans I know are Democratic Republicans. So far, so good.

Now, leaving aside the convoluted and discarded historical theories in which monarchs can actually be part of a republic (such as Rousseau’s idea) we can ask what is the status of democracy in a republic. In fact the Brexit vote illustrates the issues quite well. Consider that the vote told the Government what to do (withdraw from the EU), but did not tell the Government how to do it (how much sovereignty, if any, must we share in any trade deal)! So the role of democracy is as a means of controlling and holding the Republic to account by the people, but it is actually quite poor at what is known as ‘deliberative’ decision making. Furthermore, the idea that democracy enables everyone to have a say in Government is far from clear, as the 48% who voted Remain may possibly have no say at all in the final settlement.  By the way, this would also have been true if the 48% had been on the Leave side. This also raises the question of just who participates in the formation of policy in the first place, a point I considered in a post on radical Thomas Rainborough.

This means that a Republic must have some non-democratic elements to rein back a Government pursuing aims for which it actually has no mandate, no matter what it tries to claim. So, for example, we do not know how many UK citizens would be happy to remain inside the Single Market. Assuming all 48% Remainers, we cannot know precisely how many Leavers would be happy to do so, if it retained jobs and educational opportunities.  In the UK the justice system can be regarded as part of this non-democratic brake, although it is an imperfect piece of machinery being dependent upon citizens having the resources or sponsorship to bring a case. Also in this category is the totally unsatisfactory House of Lords as I blogged about here.

So we must be careful when using words such as republic and democracy as they are very different concepts and a well regulated Republic will ensure steps are taken to ensure democratic processes do not actually become a tool of oppression. Likewise we must be aware of the unthinking correlation of democracy and direct elections and appreciate the positive role which non-elective means of democracy can play in our brave modern Republic.  But I’ll leave that for a future post.