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!

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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.

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

rain
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.

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The Child Sex Abuse Inquiry; Justice Must Be Seen To Be Done

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.

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More About Monarchy and Swearing!!

Oath

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?

Queen: All this I promise to do.

Continue reading “More About Monarchy and Swearing!!”

Why UK Republicans should oppose a British Bill of Rights

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!