A Sobering Reminder; There Is No Future in England’s Dreaming

God save the queen
She ain’t no human being
And there’s no future
In England’s dreaming.

God Save The Queen – The Sex Pistols.

On Thursday evening I was reminded that sleep and dreaming has been a recurring theme when describing England, more specifically Southern England. The trigger was Republic Birmingham’s second poetry evening. This event contained a twist as it started with a debut standup comedy routine from Pete, a new member of our group. Sadly, due to traffic congestion I missed the first part but the ease with which he took the interruption of my late arrival completely in his stride belied his inexperience. A unique and valuable comedy talent in the making.  Then on to the main event, Spike the Poet making a return visit to our evening. Once again he did not disappoint with an intelligent mix of humour, passion and biting comment on the farce of monarchy.  Some wonderful anecdotes by way of background to a few of the poems reflected the depth and complexity of human relationships in the modern world. Find out more about Spike on his Facebook page.

My contribution was next and eschewing my beloved Shelley I read a poem (abridged for length) by Chartist Gerald Massey. My choice,  Tradition and Progress, written in the mid 19th century, intertwines republicanism and anti-war protest with rage at the poverty experienced by many working people.  You can read more about Massey in an earlier post.

So what about the dreaming? The last item was a prose reading by Alex Simpson. He chose the last paragraph of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia which recounts Orwell’s experience in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. In my Orwell readings I had not got around to this book so the tract was fresh and had impact. Having returned to England Orwell despairs of the complacency he perceives, concluding:

Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen–all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs. 

From Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

Orwell and the Sex Pistols are simply two of many, poet Philip Larkin a notable example, who have used sleep and dreaming imagery to describe the state of England.  With a ramshackle constitution, increasing intolerance, and a seeming acceptance of ever more authoritarian inclined politicians talking of Empire 2.0 we are still sleeping and dreaming – and jeopardising our future!

Give a wrong time, stop a traffic line
Your future dream has sure been seen through.

Anarchy in the UK – The Sex Pistols

Zealous & Candid; The Powerful Poetry of Republican Chartist Gerald Massey

Gerald Massey Chartist poet

Kings are but giants because we kneel, one leap and up go we!

Percy Bysshe Shelley presents the British establishment with a conundrum. While acknowledging him as one of Britain’s greatest poets his reputation must be carefully marshalled to hide the devastating commentary he delivered on political and social conditions (as Graham Henderson points out here). For Shelley’s radical successors the situation is simpler – just pretend that they never existed.  Such a poet was Chartist Gerald Massey born 1828 in Hertfordshire.

‘A strong feeling against the British aristocracy….’

The titles of some of Massey’s poems such as The Red Republican (also the name of a publication) and The Last of the Queens and the Kings leave us in no doubt of his aims. Shelley had died in Italy in 1822 (at the tragically young age of 29), well before the rise of Chartist activity from the mid-1830s.  But being born almost 40 years later, much of Massey’s work is placed firmly in the cauldron of that political and social movement, with his early poems published from the mid-1840s onwards. The penalties for such activity could be severe, the Treason Felony Act being passed by Parliament in 1848 with the express purpose of increasing the chances of a guilty verdict being delivered against those tried for advocating the abolition of the monarchy.  A long prison term or transportation to Australia was a real possibility!

Massey came from impoverished beginnings and a scant education in a ‘penny-school’ meant that he was virtually an autodidact. He was to engage in a wide range of literary activities aside from poetry including journalism, theology, histotian and criticism. But just as with Shelley my aim is not to analyze his work as an academic exercise but to consider what insights his work holds for radicals and republicans today.  The great American poet  and essayist Walt Whitman was in no doubt about the aims of Massey’s poetry when in 1855 he observed:

I have looked over Gerald Massey’s Poems ― They seem to me zealous, candid, warlike, ― intended, as they surely are, to get up a strong feeling against the British aristocracy both in their social and governmental political capacity.

‘Put no faith in kings, nor merchant-princes trust’

In this short post it is not possible to do justice to the whole of Massey’s substantial output so I shall focus on just three of Massey’s poems Progress and TraditionThings Will Go Better Yet and Kings are but Giants Because we Kneel from which the following is the opening stanza:

Good People, put no faith in kings, nor merchant-princes trust,
Who grind your hearts in mammon’s press, your faces in the
Trust to your own stout hearts to break the Tyrant’s dark, dark
If yet one spark of freedom lives, let man be true to man,
We’ll never fight again, boys, with Yankee, Pole, and Russ,
We love the French as brothers, and Frenchmen too, love us!
But we’ll join to crush those fiends who kill all love and liberty,
Kings are but giants because we kneel, one leap and up go we.

We can learn much from this verse alone. The themes are similar to those which exercised Shelley, the people are good and monarchs are not worthy of trust. The term merchant-princes is telling and points to the autocratic nature of mid-Victorian trading companies with their lack of accountability and democratic control. This was the era when the activities of the British East India Company (EIC) were finally being acknowledged as a danger to even the British government (it was nationalised in 1858 and finally dissolved in 1874).  As I mentioned in this post the EIC was an effective forerunner and model for many of todays multinational Corporations who present such a danger to us. In the far less deferential 21st century, however, even the eager consumers of the products of corporations such as Microsoft and Apple would regard trusting those organisations as a little naive! Massey’s work is essentially internationalist in tone reflecting Tom Paine’s sentiment in his comment My country is the world which was to find expression in the realisation of the proto-socialist movements in the 1820s and 1830s that the problems faced by the people had a commonality throughout Europe.

Continue reading “Zealous & Candid; The Powerful Poetry of Republican Chartist Gerald Massey”

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.