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.
It is possible that Prime Minister Theresa May is the luckiest British politician of our time. She seems to have completely dodged any responsibility for the debacle surrounding the instigation of the Independent Inquiry on Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA). The fact that May has emerged politically unscathed with a reputation of businesslike competence is nothing short of remarkable, due in no small part to the Labour Party obsession with its leader rather than providing opposition. Needless to say. the people who have been forgotten appear to be the people in desperate need of closure, the abuse survivors.
A Weak Notion of Independence
As neither an abuse victim myself nor someone who has experience of supporting victims I am not qualified to begin to comment on the specifics this most sensitive of areas. But looking at the IICSA in an organisational context is a different matter and much is revealed about the attitude of the authorities, which casts doubt on a succesful outcome. I start by encouraging you to view the IICSA website. Looking at the About Us section we find the following statement:
Being independent means the Inquiry is not part of government and not run by a government department.
This seems a particularly weak interpretation of ‘independent’. It should go much further with a statement that it is neither subject to government influence nor censorship. The notion of independence is further weakened since much of the suspicion falls on establishment institutions which are outside the technical boundaries of Government such as the Police, Lords, the Church of England and the Judiciary. To this list can be added those members of the Royal Family aside from the Queen and Prince of Wales who are not part of the Government but most certainly part of the establishment. I shall return to this issue later.
Last week I posted about the Royal Oath of Allegiance and why it needs replacing. The post proved popular and I thought another look at some other issues surrounding royal oaths was useful. Firstly, it is worth reminding ourselves of what an oath entails, especially for young people who are encountering such things for the first time. Essentially an oath requires the individual to possess the ability to make and keep a promise and to understand what it means in terms of personal integrity to break that promise. Psychologists actually regard it as one of the highest moral achievements in a young adult. It means that the individual understands that the promise made in an oath is offered seriously, to be taken at face value and to clearly understand the distinction from other sorts of promises which may be only a polite gesture (we’ll keep in touch when the holiday is over!!), not necessarily to be taken earnestly.
The Alternatives to a Royal Oath
In my previous post I highlighted the issue of MPs being forced to take the oath of allegiance. It has often been noted that in the Parliamentary oath there is no swearing to the democratic principle or upholding the traditions of the institution. But down the years there have been suggestions for a more suitable replacement. I particularly like this one by Tony Benn in 1988:
I, Firstname Lastname, Do swear by Almighty God (or Solemnly declare and affirm) That I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the peoples of the United Kingdom, according to their respective laws and customs; preserving inviolably their civil liberties and democratic rights of self government, through their elected representatives in the House of Commons, and will faithfully and truly declare my mind and opinion on all matters that come before me without fear or favour.
What About The Queen?
So what about the monarch, what do they swear? The actual oath is in the form of answers to a questions put by the Archbishop of Canterbury, itself a problematic issue for people of other faiths and denominations or no faith. Here is the interaction from the 1952 Coronation of Elizabeth Windsor:
Archbishop: Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan, and Ceylon, and of your Possessions and the other Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs?
Queen: I solemnly promise so to do.
Archbishop: Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements?
Queen: I will.
Archbishop: Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?
The legality of calling for abolition of the monarchy is sometimes raised as a concern by fellow Republicans. The source of the worry is an archaic piece of legislation, the 1848 Treason Felony Act which was rumoured to have been repealed in 2013, a fact later denied by the Government. The period immediately preceding 1848 was marked by active campaigning by Chartists, many of whom were Republicans. Despite the fact that Chartist activity was in decline at that point the Government was still concerned that juries were reluctant to convict advocates of republicanism since the Treason Act itself carried a potential capital punishment. Thus the Treason Felony Act was passed with a lesser penalty of life imprisonment aimed at increasing the conviction rate.
In 1891 the Treason Felony Act was partly repealed and it bacame legal to verbally advocate abolition. This was for largely technical reasons involving problems associated with rules of evidence. But what about written advocacy of abolition? Although articles advocating republicanism appeared in print throughout the 20th Century, in 2003 the editor of The Guardian newspaper Alan Rusbridger instigated a legal challenge to the 1848 Act with the aim of clarifying whether his paper was within the law in advocating Republicanism. The verdict can be viewed here but the Law Lords actually threw out the Guardian’s case saying that obviously The Guardian could run articles advocating abolition. Like many countries in the West the UK operates a system of Common Law (judge made) which historically predates the system of Statute Law enacted by Parliament. This means that the precedent has been set that advocating abolition in writing will not end in a jail sentence. By the way, If you are in any doubt about Common Law, try finding Acts of Parliament dealing with the purchase and ownership of Property, which is almost wholly dependent on precedence.
The 2003 Law Lords made clear that their judgement was based in large part on the 1998 Human Rights Act (HRA). This is of interest to us as republicans since the Government has been threatening to replace the HRA with a British Bill of Rights (which is proving to be a millstone around their neck!). This means there is a possibility of the 2003 judgement being rendered null and void. Repeal of the HRA would of course still leave recourse to the European Convention of Human Rights, provided that the Government does not take the monumentally stupid decision to withdraw from the treaty. Finally, it must be noted that there have been no prosecutions under the Treason Felony Act since 1883, over a century before the passing of he HRA.
Nevertheless, for republicans the 2003 judgement still means that the HRA is important as a front line of defence and its repeal must be viewed with suspicion. As Tom Paine observed since the constitution determines how the political and legal system is organized any discussion of constitutional change should not be outlawed on principle!
In early March I was delighted to host a guest blog post on the subject of the EU Referendum debate by Alison Rowland. In her piece, Alison pointed out that even then the debate was being framed around the issue of sovereignty without any real content or substance to the argument. Two months later and, if anything, the level of debate has reached new depths of depressing inanity and danger in its level of superficiality. There has been no advance on the problem highlighted by Alison where people seeking answers and guidance on fundamental issues are met with politicians throwing around comments on Hitler, engaging in power games and trading personal insults.
Both sides are guilty of this approach. For the Brexiters the very autocratic power they claim to be wielded by Brussels also operates in the UK – an unaccountable monarchy system, the Privy Council and Royal Prerogative for a start. It appears they want power for the few with little accountability or control over the exercise of that power by citizens. We need to know the nature of this supposed recovery of sovereignty, how it is to be exercised and for whose benefit. Furthermore we are presented with no plans for filling the gaps in workers’ rights, LGBT rights etc.
Listening to the Remain campaign is similarly infuriating. Depending on the European Union for rights presents an equal danger. The argument that we are dependant on a benign EU for protection of citizens is not something with which we should be comfortable. What if we are entering an era where the EU is a far less benign force (as indicated by the TTIP negotiations and an autocratic Central Bank arrangement)? Furthermore, it seems that the Remain camp are not allowing for the possibility of the EU falling apart whether or not we stay; a distinct possibility with the strains of the refugee and financial crises If the rights are important let us enact them in the UK independently of the EU. To an establishment which has boasted about the Magna Carta it is incredible that we cannot set up these protections for ourselves.
For both sides there is appalling lack of planning and timetable for reform. We ask the questions but get the same stock answers seemingly culled from the playbook of Brexit and Bremain with no real thought of what is being said. I spent last Saturday at the wonderful Levellers Day in Burford (my post here) and wonder what the Levellers and other parties to the great mid-17th Century debates would make of the current superficial approach to the development of our rights. Maybe the epithet that we get the politicians we deserve is correct after all!
The sun always shines on Levellers Day. Look, I am as big a fan as anyone of Tom Paine’s The Age of Reason, but I have empirical evidence! Just in case you are new to my blog and require a little orientation as to the 17th Century Leveller movement, the Levellers Day site briefly explains what it is all about. For more details you can download a book from this site and I covered some aspects of the events of 1649 and their relevance to today in a recent blog post.
For me the day always starts with a lovely drive down from the Midlands along the Fosse Way and through the Cotswolds to Burford. I was delighted to be a ceremonial pikeman again this year so following a quick chat to my fellow Republicans it was away to the main tent to don my repro Civil War uniform. Walking down to the Church from the Recreation field is always an amusing experience with smiles mixed with some bemused looks from tourists who are unaware of the significance of the day.
At the Church I meet up with my fellow Pikeman and Pikewoman to a welcome from the Sea Green Singers who open the proceedings splendidly with songs about the fight for tolerance and civil liberties covering over three centuries! Predictably, I loved their one about William Cobbett trying to repatriate Tom Paine’s bones (Cobbett was a truly fascinating character – learn a little more here).The address by Reverend Mark Chapman was as thought provoking and inclusive as always, managing to nail the common ground between people of many faiths and no faiths. This is followed by the laying of commemorative posies, a minute silence and a prayer from the Reverend.
Then we form up for the start of the procession – everyone is friendly, relaxed and in good spirits while we wait for the road to be closed. Once again we are marching up the hill all the way to the Recreation Ground. With my fellow Pikeman, along with Rev Chapman and the Levellers Day banner bearers we closely follow the leading Morris dancers and marvel as they manage to keep going up the long drag. Extreme Morris Dancing for sure!
At the ground, a huge variety of groups are represented; Communists, Socialists, NHS supporters, Veterans for Peace, Trade Unions, the Woodcraft Folk to name but a few. This year the Republic stall was even more popular than last year and I forewent the debate to help persuade more folk of the need to end inherited privilege. This year the theme was (Un) Civil Liberties covering free speech and human rights. Friends tell me the debate was well up to the usual standard and I expected nothing less from the speakers involved! You cannot possibly agree with everyone and that is partly the point! But there is no doubt that the enthusiasm and commitment of others who have a passion for a different form of society, however they conceive it, is wonderful. There is an energy you can draw from this to recharge batteries for the campaigns in the year ahead. I am always grateful to Trish and her colleagues for the immense amount of work put into the day. A gorgeous time is finished off for me with a lovely drive back along the Fosse Way.
The inspiration from the day will last for a long time and it has already sparked fresh ideas and plans from the Republic Birmingham crew! If you’ve not experienced Levellers Day do come along to Burford next year. Its on the 20th May – put it in your calendar.
On Monday evening I listened to a radio news report about the Washington gunman. During the piece two American women were interviewed during which they stated that they were in the city on a tour of national institutions including the Supreme Court. It was a powerful reminder of how many Americans value their rights under the constitution. Now, despite not being a fan of the US Constitution, I wondered just how many Britons people were aware of their rights and how much value they place on them. This is in the context of a disingenuous UK Government who eternally seem to promise a British Bill of Rights ‘by next Thursday’! The fact that the government itself places such a low priority the reformulation of our rights calls into doubt their motives in government.
It was in the summer of 2013 during the Abu Qatada saga that the government considered a plan to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). During that incident and through the subsequent discussion on repealing the implementation of the ECHR in the UK, the Human Rights Act (HRA), it was often forgotten that the rights it asserts protects all of us: black, white, gay, straight..etc. Take an example from my personal experience. The fact that I advocate abolition of the monarchy in writing is clearly protected by the HRA as established in the 2003 Judicial Review brought by Alana Rusbridger and the Guardian newspaper. Although I value my right to freedom of expression very highly, but it is still relevant to consider the problems with enshrining human rights in an International Convention backed by a Court.