After Grenfell We Need A Complete Rethink of Rights and Resources – Not a Government Whitewash

The attacks in Manchester and Borough Market, the Grenfell Tower Fire. Confidence in Theresa May is now plummeting faster than the Pound after the Brexit vote. But Theresa May is not solely to blame.  Remember that the Conservative Party made her leader with no contest and Conservative MPs voted for a Government destabilising election on the eve of Brexit talks.  But beyond that there are issues of rights and resources in society which we must all confront.

The events of the past few weeks illustrate some vital points about the rights and resources wielded by different groups in this country.  During the election the Government, of course, tried to pretend that it was planning a great extension of rights while in reality presiding over a de facto trashing of them.

Firstly the terrorist attacks.  As usual following a terrorist attack various Ministers put in an appearance in front of the cameras and pretended to talk tough.  Once again the spectre of the repeal of the Human Rights Act was mooted along with withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights.  Dark threats of yet more snooping powers were mooted. Yet, it emerged that the terrorists were already known as a danger by the authorities.  The problem was much less to do with lack of information and much more a problem of lack of resources and, crucially, the reduction of 20,000 police officers which has hit local community policing hard. Despite what Theresa May and Amber Rudd say, the authorities are calling for more resources not more powers.  Judging by the election result it seems that people are getting this message.

Now look at the issue of the Grenfell Tower fire. Again, it was not a problem of lack of information, the residents were well aware of the dangers and local representatives tried to raise the issue of fire safety on numerous occasions.   Although far too early to tell there is every likelihood of criminal prosecutions being brought when the facts are assessed.  But while the idea of ‘Corporate Manslaughter’ is an attractive one it will almost certainly mean a fine and nothing will really change.  What is needed is a nationwide culture shift

So again, it is an issue of resources.  The wealthy, including those of Kensington and Chelsea can afford to buy the resources they require including legal assistance to get things don./ The less well-off cannot. We can do some things immediately. These include recourse to systems of contestability we have lost.  Access to Industrial Tribunals (removal of punitive fees) and restoration of widespread Legal Aid is imperative, especially after Grenfell.  Far beyond that there must be systems which allow for the support of groups and resources to take concerns to the highest level and get action.  The methods of putting such systems of support for local groups and enabling them to have proper and meaningful representation in the corridors of power are not unknown and cities around the world have been developing techniques such as citizens panels, peoples tribunals and active participation for years (although far from perfect, in the UK  the Peabody Trust points to a possible route forward as I suggest in this post).

Enough of the meaningless platitudes of an authoritarian Government and their ripoff landlord allies.  Time for true methods of contestability in this country.

Exceptionalism Corrodes the Relationships Which Drive Progress for Everyone

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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!

Politicians Are Lying To Us – Terrorism Is Affecting Our Way of Life!

All right minded people were shocked by the events at Westminster last month (22nd March) where 6 people were killed. Despite the fact that for for much of the rest of that day only the bare facts were known, journalists and some politicians were willing to make extravagant assumption regarding the nature and motive of the attack. As more details emerged, however it became increasingly clear that terrorism was indeed the motive.

A few hours after the attack Prime Minister Theresa May appeared outside Number 10 to claim, as all leaders do, that the terrorists cannot win and nothing will change our way of life. She was not telling the truth and, moreover, I believe she was willfully lying.  Here are my reasons for this assumption and the dangers such lies conceal.

Firstly, look at what Theresa May wants to achieve, namely a removal of Human Rights. Fear of terrorism plays into a public sense of insecurity, an environment in which they are more susceptible to having their rights infringed in the guise of enhanced safety. The Investigatory Powers Act (known informally as the Snooper’s Charter) was passed into law last November giving the Government as much power as any authoritarian state. The reason? Counter-terrorism. But the technology could be used for any purpose as leaks from the US CIA clearly illustrate.

In a previous blog I pointed to a strong tendancy of modern authoritarian programmes to isolationism, termed the Retreat to the Citadel. Fear of the ‘outsider’ feeds directly into this narrative which is already heightened by the acrimonious debates surrounding Brexit, fuellung resentment and hatred toward immigrants. As a consequence, if a British Bill of Rights ever does see the light of day it must be pored over for any dilution of overall citizen rights along with any attempt to remove the rights of minorities. Moreover we must not accept the removal of rights from people who are labelled as being ‘not like us’.

What about out in the real world?  Just before Christmas it was reported that the City of London was planning on creating a ‘ring of steel’. Note that included in the plans were:

Manned checkpoints, rising street bollards and crash-proof barricades…

Manned checkpoints? To enter the City of London (note not Westminster, this is protecting the bankers)? Would £5m be spent on a dystopian series of emplacements defacing the city if it were not for the possibility of terrorism? Though just maybe terrorism is a convenient excuse, of course.

So let us see Theresa May’s words for what they are, empty platitudes. Let us be honest, society has been changed by terrorism and that has happened since the start of time. But the more long lasting and least tangible effect is what it is doing to our perception of ourselves as a society. The questions we ask ourselves are legitimate and profound, but we must not let politicians and the wealthy distort the answer for their own ends.

Appeals for National Greatness are a Dark Delusion

Caricature_gillray_plumpuddingDonald Trump’s campaign slogan Make America Great Again has been enthusiastically adopted in a British context by UKIP and deployed in a modified form by Conservatives. But why should we be wary of this seemingly uplifting phrase?

Calls for National Greatness are Nothing New

Last week I blogged about the origins of the autocratic libertarian ideology of Donald Trump and Theresa May. In many respects their political kinship reflects the Thatcher/Reagan consensus of the 1980s but in a much more dangerous form. In fact the phrase Make Britain Great Again has a long history, one which coincidentally involves Britain’s first female Prime Minister.  It was used prominently by the Conservative Party in the 1950 General Election, notable for the first time Margaret Roberts stood for election as MP. They lost, though Roberts was to make her name famous as Margaret Thatcher.

Similarly, in the United States the idea that one person or family could ‘Make America Great Again’ long predates Trump. In fact neoconservatives such as David Brooks had been calling for it since the 1990s. Here is what he wrote in the Weekly Standard an outright neoconservative mouthpiece in 1997:

The national mission can be carried out only by individuals and families — not by collectives, as in socialism and communism. Instead, individual ambition and willpower are channeled into the cause of national greatness.

It is important to note that Brooks also mistrusted democracy, believing that it would destroy a sense of grand ambition and noble purpose unless accompanied by an aggressive imperialist foreign policy. He disdained what he called a concern with ‘radical egalitarianism’ with its concern for compassion and caring. Surprisingly, it did not actually matter how this greatness was to be achieved, (provided that it was not advancement of the individual):

It almost doesn’t matter what great task government sets for itself, as long as it does some tangible thing with energy and effectiveness. The first task of government is to convey a spirit of confidence and vigor that can then spill across the life of the nation.

National Greatness at the Expense of Rights and Compassion

Whether consciously or not, Theresa May has adopted the assertion of Brooks that it does not matter what comprises the ‘great task’.  This is what allows May, who opposed Brexit to enthusiastically embrace a Hard Brexit in pursuit of this shot at ‘greatness’.  Likewise this great national crusade comes at the expense of private concerns, of the promotion of a caring and compassionate society or fuzzy, woolly things such as rights!

Continue reading “Appeals for National Greatness are a Dark Delusion”

Resources and Relationships; Of Twitter, Coffee Bars and Mountains

Among the factors which make us free citizens, our rights and responsibilities are of primary importance. There are others of course, but these lie at the heart of citizenship and how it is exercised.  Since Christmas I have been exploring ideas of the Commons and how many of the concepts dovetail with my Republican (European, not GOP!) aims and ideals. I have put the details of some of the books I have been working with on my Books/Articles page if you want to explore further.

Mulling over some of the concepts in a coffee bar last week some ideas prompted by my surroundings sprang to mind  Significantly, the coffee bar seemed to occupy an intermediate position between Twitter and a mountain (OK, if you would be so kind to stick with me!). Secondly, the analogies seemed particularly apt for the situations we find ourselves facing in 2017.  Let me start with Twitter.

The idea of a Commons relies on two features. Firstly a resource or group of resources which all the members of a community can freely access, modify and use. Secondly, a set of relationships between the participants in a Commons which may be overtly or covertly agreed.  Despite outward appearances, considered in these terms Twitter falls way short of a Commons, in fact almost the complete opposite! Firstly the participants of which I am one have no control over the platform. It could be simply closed at the whim of the owners. Secondly we have almost no control over the rules of transaction and Twitter is notorious for simply amending the application to suit their own corporate goals. Finally like many people I have been suspended (for a week) without any means of appeal and no explanation. So much for freely accessible resources. Likewise, there are almost no rules governing the relationship between the participants with the well-documented episodes of threats and abuse an ever present reality. So Twitter is really a public space rather than a Commons. This, as I have discovered, is an important distinction.

What about the coffee bar, my ‘intermediate environment’.  True, the participants do not control the space and it could be closed at the whim of the owner.  But at least getting suspended (barred) is slightly less arbitrary in that I could demand an explanation and lodge some sort of appeal!  What about the relationships? Within the space of the bar people congregate in groups comprising family members, friends or work colleagues.  The rules of the relationship change from group to group but they are there.  Again it’s not perfect as the environment is still at the mercy from ant-social behaviour by external agents. So, again, better but not perfect.

Lastly, the mountain analogy.  I am no mountaineer but was intrigued by an explanation given by Jacques Paysan in an essay entitled My Rocky Road to the Commons (it can be found in the excellent book The Wealth of the Commons, details again on the Books/Articles page).  I grew up in a South Wales valley and mountains (though ones I could walk in!) remain important to me which is why I found Paysan’s idea intriguing. Firstly the mountain is there as a resource for all. No one can be said to ‘own’ Everest or El Capitan in the private sense.  So they exist as a resource freely accessible by climbers (barring wars, etc).  Importantly, in addition to barriers imposed by equipment and ability, the climbers adhere to a common set of rules for using and developing the resource. As Paysan points out, without this community relationship between climbers there is no Commons, merely a very high lump of rock! There are codes of conduct, rules of climbing, taking care of the routes and drawing sketches. Paysan does say there there is occasionally conflict, but that is true of any community and, again, rules need to exist for its resolution..

I am finding new ideas about an old concept a stimulating experience. I have not even begun to think seriously about its relationship to Republicanism but  it is providing me with new perspectives on the idea of citizenship as an expression of the rights and responsibilities necessary for the good management  of an open society.

Fake News; Still Damaging Our Liberty After All These Years

fakenewsFake news is often presented to us as being a new development. but in fact the phenomenon has been around for a long time (so false information about fake news!). It is only the source and speed of media dissemination which has altered. So why is it a problem and why should we worry about it now?

A Very old Threat Wearing New Clothes

Looking back in history we can see many of the features of fake news familiar to us today. During the 17th Century printing technology had evolved to the point where news-sheets were published to bring information to an increasingly curious public.  During the English Civil Wars (ECW) of the 1640s fake news was a standard tool of highly partisan pamphlets with both Parliamentarian and Royalist armies employing officials to engage in what we would call today ‘spin doctoring’. Beyond the official sources any number of presses dodged legal restrictions to present the views of a myriad different groups. For example, The Moderate presented news and views from a Leveller perspective and frequently employed writers and editors from their ranks.  Beyond mere interpretation, some facts were simply made up and it was a regular occurrence for Charles Stuart to be pronounced dead by Parliament-biassed sheets. That is, of course, until January 30th 1649 when fake news became factual news! Some of the fake news was the result of poor communications and was published in good faith so should more properly be categorised as misinformation. Some, however, was deliberately fabricated as described in this this excellent article by Andrew Hopper of the University of Leicester.  As Hopper points out, this also included nationalist overtones with one 1643 pamphlet painting Prince Rupert of the Rhine, commander of the Royalist army, as a cruel German barbarian having committed any number of unspeakable atrocities.

The ECW was in reality no different from more recent wars where, as the saying goes, the first casualty is truth.  The fact that official Government sources disseminate fake news, not only during wartime, is generally accepted and it is the reason why a free press is regarded as a central requirement of an open society. But in 2017 fake news can arise out of any number of sources and, as this New York Times article illustrates, can have a complex history from generation to dissemination.

Continue reading “Fake News; Still Damaging Our Liberty After All These Years”

What Thomas Rainborough Said Next; More Crucial Lessons We Need to Learn

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Thomas Rinborough

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.

Continue reading “What Thomas Rainborough Said Next; More Crucial Lessons We Need to Learn”