A Life to Live; Thomas Rainborough’s Quote is of Profound Importance Today

In 1647 Leveller Thomas Rainborough (1610-1648) made this statement:

…I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.

I consider it one of the most profound statements on political philosophy uttered in the English language. Here’s why.

Rainborough was a Colonel in the Parliamentarian army during the English Civil Wars. As a leading member of the radical Levellers group he took part in the momentous 1647 Putney Debates, a series of discussions, sometimes stormy, between the grandees of the New Model Army and the Levellers regarding a new constitution for England.

Although often discussed in terms of wealth inequality, Rainborough’s choice of the phrase life to live has far greater scope and is fundamentally important today. When international bankers such as Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan can invite Theresa May or Hillary Clinton to their events or Charles Windsor as heir to the throne can simply invite the Prime Minister of the day around for tea, ir represents an influence which the poorest he cannot even contemplate bringing to bear on the UK Government. It is true that we must beware of ascribing too much of a modern interpretation to Rainbrough’s. statement. the possibility of votes for women (poorest she!), for example, would not even have been considered at that time.

Yet as a claim for an inclusive society where decisions of the powerful can be contested his quote is as powerful as ever and entails what political thinker Philip Pettit calls the ‘eyeball’ and ‘straight talk’ tests. The eyeball test means all members of a society should be able to look each other directly in the eye as equals while the straight talk test means that we can all express our reasonable opinions to those in power without fear of recrimination. Sadly many western societies are failing these tests.

Consider, for example, the current political upheavals which politicians such as Bernie Sanders in the US attribute to the rise of oligarchical power. It has been noted that contrary to popular opinion oligarchies often control governments without the direct use of money, although they are closely connected. What initially starts as unequal wealth slowly morphs into the subtle means of control characteristic of a class system. Money buys the children of the wealthy smart new clothes, a childhood in fine homes, access to exclusive education where networks can be formed and travel across the world. This breeds confidence and slowly the class structure emerges as exists in Britain, has emerged in the United States and is now emerging in Russia. An expectation, frequently granted, of political and economic influence flows from this added confidence.

So Rainborough was absolutely correct. A life to live involves more than simply wealth inequality no matter how significant that may be.

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

peoples-charter
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.

We Need a Democratic Revolution of Investment Potential

The death of one of the richest men in the UK, Gerald Grosvenor the 6th Duke of Westminster, earlier this year (August 2016) threw into relief the gross inequality of wealth in the UK. The Grosvenor estate was established by Hugh Ardley in the 17th Century, who was no shrinking violet as can be seen from this ‘way to riches’ biography of his life. The outrageous aspect of the Grosvenor estate is that via a system of trusts the Estate pays almost no Inheritance Tax! It is a strong temptation to call for the state to simply seize the Grosvenor Estate and bring it into public ownership.  While I am all in favour of abolishing hereditary titles, such a call actually reveals a much more widespread and deepseated problem with in our current neo-libertarian approach to economics, that of exactly who controls the means of investment. Supposing we did in fact ‘nationalize’ the Grosvenor Estate. That means the Government will possess over £9bn worth of property which will be practically worthless unless the assets are sold.  So an equally important question is not only who controls the assets but who controls the investment potential generated by those assets.  Clearly by avoiding taxes the Grosvenors themselves are actually enjoying the full investment potential of the estate.

Investigating the ownership of investment potential as well as the assets reveals the true extent of the gross unbalanced nature of our society. An example from a different domain is the contract for controversial nuclear power station Hinckley Point C.  The construction of an as yet unproven model of power station is being funded by the French EDF power company but only on the basis that the UK electricity consumer (yes us again) buys the electricity at much above market rates for decades to come. But what if the unproven reactor design requires extensive and expensive modification?  Will the government really hold EDF to its contract and possibly bankrupt the company? The substantial potential returns on the installation are privatised while it appears that the risk is, once again, borne by the public.

But there are other models of investment, some of which operate in the United States which is often held up as a paragon of private owner capitalism.  A closer view reveals a more complex interaction of public and private ownership, a particularly interesting example being the New York Power Authority. The NYPA is a publicly owned power generating company in New York State which claims to be one of the most efficient generators in the US, tasked with developing renewable sources and providing cheap power to not-for-profit organisations and small businesses.   But we can go further than this with the massive potential in Pension Funds and other schemes.  Open up these funds to the control of their investors and a more democratic system of investment becomes possible. The question of the democratization of investment potential is every bit as important as who actually controls wealth with which, of course, it is inextricably linked.

Could City States Be The Solution to Britain’s Obsolete Constitution?

When the history of our present time is written the Iraq War may not be viewed as the most significant ‘legacy’ of Tony Blair for the people of the UK itself. Instead, historians may focus on the policy of devolution and the dangerously unstable constitutional arrangement. Aside from the unresolved and patently unfair West Lothian Question we have a Scottish Parliament which can legislate unless specifically prevented from doing so, a Welsh Parliament which can only legislate unless specifically authorised to do so, and a House of Lords where Church of England Bishops can affect legislation for everyone! Devolution has left a complete mess and singularly failed to achieve Blair’s goal of heading off the momentum for Scottish independence. Part of the problem is an archaic notion of Parliamentary sovereignty which is contributing to a justifiable feeling amongst the people that our Governmental and administrative systems have a lack of control and accountability. While deriving from an understandable impulse, the addition of a specific Parliament for England will only serve to muddy the waters of accountability even further. The whole idea of devolution should be seen as a mistake and a new way urgently sought out of the mess.

Until now the people of the English regions have shown little enthusiasm for federalism within England itself, largely due to the unpalatable and ‘take or leave it attitude’ of Westminster politicians anxious to be seen to be doing something rather than possessing a real reforming zeal. But that is changing and England itself may be starting to show the way forward for our ridiculous constitution. Significant powers are being allocated to groups of local authorities in areas such as Greater Manchester and the West Midlands and prominent politicians are showing an interest in regional governance. Presently, it is not intended to create new assemblies as with London, with mayors comprising the sole directly elected component. To some extent, however, the new mayoralties resemble embryonic regions, or more realistically considering their focus, city-states. To a civic republican the current model is unsatisfactory (I do not want elected monarchies!) but, suitably evolved, it could provide the seed for a properly accountable federal system.

Continue reading “Could City States Be The Solution to Britain’s Obsolete Constitution?”

Theresa May Curtseying To The Queen – What a Con Trick!

May Queen Cartoon
Cartoon by Peter Brooks for the Times Newspaper

Following her (unelected) installation as leader of the Conservative Party, Theresa May duly travelled to Buckingham Palace to be appointed Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Pictures abounded of May curtseying to the monarch which naturally gave satirists and cartoonists like Peter Brooks (whose Times cartoon appears above) a field day.  But things are not all they seem.  In many ways a curtsey or genuflection can be classed with other acts of submission including swearing an oath which I have posted about here and here.  Bending the knee is about making yourself smaller than the other person, implicitly recognising their superior status. But Brooks was not alone in pointing to the shrunken nature of British democracy which allows a new Prime Minister without a popular mandate to be appointed by a Head of State without a mandate on any kind!  An insightful comment was made by Kelly Grovier in an article on the BBC website:

Though the photo may be accented with smiles and the glamour of designer fashions, a stony silence entombs this week’s image. It divulges nothing of what was actually discussed between the queen and the new PM.

This speaks to the wider issue about the secrecy which surrounds the upper echelons of government with Freedom of Information bans, secret weekly meetings between the Prime Minister and Queen and the necessity of obtaining permission from the Palace in certain circumstances to even hold a debate in the House of Commons! The message it sent to the British public was one thing, but to the rest of the world who may well view Brexit as a backward looking and isolationist act, such a picture serves to confirm an image of Britain as an out of date archaic irrelevance. Some posters on social media were quick to pick up on the symbolism and contrasted the stiff obeisance of the photograph with a picture of US President Obama fist bumping a floor cleaner as he walked past.  This reflects a totally different relationship of the Head of State to the citizenry.  There is no way anyone in Britain can truly identify with the Royals as the life experiences are totally alien. While not wishing a US style system for Britain, the fact that a Head of State drawn from the population and who shares at least some of the experiences of the people must be an essential requirement of the job.

A Deliberate Attempt to Deceive

But there are two ways in which the photograph is actually misleading.  At the end of her piece, Grovier makes a second telling  statement: In stooping low, [Theresa May] reaches high.  I have posted before on the fact that the powers of the Queen are largely wielded by the Prime minister in collaboration with her cabinet, termed a ‘disguised republic’ by Walter Bagehot.  So the curtseying picture is not representative and serves to perpetuate the myth of a Queen being above politics and ‘keeping them in control’. In reality the curtsey is almost a thank you by Theresa May for the transfer of power!

Continue reading “Theresa May Curtseying To The Queen – What a Con Trick!”

Fixed Term Parliaments; Reform Needs To Go Much Further

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on the unwholesome contract between the royals and senior politicians which lies at the heart of our unwritten constitution. Briefly, the monarch retains certain powers which in practice are exercised by Government, sometimes directly and sometimes via the Privy Council. In exchange for these so-called prerogative powers the monarchy gets to retain its remaining wealth and privileges. The royal prerogative thus allows the Government to exercise arbitrary control of dubious legality without the authority of Parliament. In a 2007 report, Gordon Brown’s government attempted an audit of these outrageous anti-democratic powers and concluded that their extent was effectively unknown. One, however, was known for certain: the ability to dissolve Parliament and appoint a new Prime Minister which gave the incumbent a great advantage. It allowed him or her to take full advantage of serendipitous events (a small war, for example) to catch the opposition off-guard and call a snap election.

The 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act changed all this and removed the power for the first time. It was sometimes claimed by opponents of the Coalition Government that the 2011 Act was a dark deed intended to shore up an unpopular administration for 5 years. Against this two points must be noted. Firstly, fixed term Parliaments were also a 2010 Labour Party manifesto commitment (along with starting work on a written constitution). Secondly, with the dual powers of dissolution given to Parliament nothing has happened thus far which would not have happened under the old system. It is, however, interesting to speculate whether a Fixed Term Parliament played a part in the Government deferring to the Commons over bombing Syria in 2013 (the first vote, which it lost) knowing that it could not take advantage of a temporary patriotic surge in popularity! The present concern is with the opposite problem. With the recent transfer of power from David Cameron to Theresa May and the appointment of a wholly new Government without submitting a manifesto and subsequent test at a General Election there are objections raised about the democratic legitimacy of the present arrangement. But this transfer would have also happened under the old prerogative arrangement!

Unfortunately there are other anomalies which the 2011 Act did not address. Some of these are highlighted in this excellent 2010 report from the Constitution Unit at University College, London. Importantly, although the focus has been on the term of Parliaments, other election and transition arrangements need to be formalised. The writ for calling an election is currently issued by government ministers rather than an independent body such as the Electoral Commission. Similarly the monarch under advice appoints the incoming Prime Minister who decides the date of the first sitting of Parliament. This must be regularised by making the first sitting a fixed time after the election during which an ‘Investiture Debate’ decides who forms the Government and implicitly appoints the Prime Minister. As the UCL document affirms, these changes would actually insulate the monarchy by further distancing it from possible electoral controversy. But in this case the concern is with misuse of arbitrary prerogative powers not by the monarch but by a Government or Prime Minister.

With numerous difficulties confronting our democratic system including poor representation, lobbying, corporate control of media outlets, etc, fixed term Parliaments might not have been top of the list of remedies. But Fixed Term Parliaments have been demanded by reformers since the 17th Century and my main criticism is that it did not go far enough! Clearly I continue to demand the removal of the monarchy in this country. In the meantime any steps taken to regularise and remove arbitrary powers are welcome. This would include the posited War Powers Act following two votes in the Commons on bombing Syria!

The Queen; 50 Years of Trying to Subvert the Commonwealth!

Royalists were unable to contain themselves during the summer of 2013. Apart from the birth of George Windsor there was also this report in the Daily Mail.  According to the article the Queen was ‘discreetly’ campaigning to make the Head of the Commonwealth a hereditary position. Apparently this included getting David Cameron to speak to the other Commonwealth leaders at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2013 (CHOGM13).  Now, it must be said that the Daily Mail has been known to get things wrong! There was certainly nothing in the final communique, but maybe that was because it was very discreet. But lets make the entirely reasonable assumption the story is correct. Such an assumption is supported by the royals own website which deliberately confuses matters by having a Role of the Monarchy on its Commonwealth page. The Queen may currently be Head of the Commonwealth as a person but that is not true of monarchy as an institution. The idea that anyone could be promoting the extension of hereditary privilege in the 21st Century is simply disgusting. Furthermore, the fact that a change in the constitution of an international organisation would be attempted ‘discreetly’ shows the complete lack of respect that the Windsor family has for Commonwealth citizens.

The Mail was indeed correct in stating that the words ‘does not pass automatically to her heir’ had been removed from the Governance section of the Commonwealth Secretariat. The site, however, still emphasises the fact that the Head is chosen collectively by the member states.  What gives the story credence is that the Queen had already attempted to make the Head of the Commonwealth a hereditary position.  When the Letters Patent were issued in 1958 to make Charles the Prince of Wales it was intended that he, along with his heirs and successors, shall be future Heads of the Commonwealth!

Continue reading “The Queen; 50 Years of Trying to Subvert the Commonwealth!”