The persons who retained longest the values of an earlier time were the men who lived their lives in office
This statement was made by R.L. White in his insightful book Waterloo to Peterloo. He was writing about the British Government following the years after 1815 but he could easily be writing of our present time (albeit he would need to replace ‘men’ with ‘men and women’!).
Whether it is a failure to understand the multiplicity of forces unleashed during the Brexit referendum or the alienation of people living in high rise tower blocks the remoteness of our leaders from the lives of the majority of citizens is leading Britain along a disastrous path. This is before we take into account the pace of change in technology which will eliminate a large proportion of relatively well-paid middle-class jobs within a generation. For example the availability of cheap on-the-fly and almost 100 percent accurate digital language translation services will render human translators virtually extinct within the next five to ten tears. Similar stories are to be found in many areas of technology. Yet no acknowledgement let alone preparation to meet this advancing cull of jobs is made by the Governing class.
Complacent commentators will point out that we have faced this situation before during the past three hundred years and that other jobs will inevitably appear to replace those lost. They omit, however, to mention those new jobs were directly or indirectly fostered by Government investment. The widespread development and renovation of London in the late eighteenth century, the huge boost to industrial progress via a massive naval build-up and the expansion of Government administration are merely three examples. Set against those projects, HS2 hardly rates a mention! But can we really expect toff Boris Johnson or any of the Oxbridge PPE professional political class to really understand the forces which are shaping the modern world.
It would be untrue to say that the current cabinet bore any relation to their early nineteenth equivalents of the Waterloo to Peterloo (which occurreed in 1819) period of White’s book, being composed almost entirely of upper middle class and the aristocracy (in which Boris would be the pleb!). Nevertheless, the fatal flaws of archaic attitude also pervades the current incumbents. Maybe there is something about the British political system which drags back even the most progressive of intentions. It is an issue which those who advocate the value of tradition frequently miss.
Tradition not only works for the already privileged, by definition it does so by maitaining an atmosphere of archaic smugness. It enables Theresa May to run a Government desperately trying to return to the financial rules which dominated her professional life in banking from 1977 to 1997, long before the financial crash and brutal austerity. It also provides her with a sense of self-destiny engendering an arrogance that Brexit can be delivered by a few handpicked people who are clearly out of their depth. This may precipitate as big a disaster as any which befell a nineteenth century British administration.
Wrining of the final retirement of that Government which included the disaster of the Peterloo massacre which the poet Shelley railed so passionately against in Mask of Anarchy, White wrote this equally telling statement.
They rode the whirlwind without pretense of controlling the storm. They continued to hold office with a good show of complacency and they left office at the last with unshaken self-esteem.
A similar epithet may be written about the current Government.
Between 14th and 17th July 1791 a period of sustained rioting convulsed Birmingham. The name given to the unrest, The Priestley Riots, derives from the most notable target of the violence, the chemist, religious dissenter and political radical Joseph Priestley (credited with discovering Oxygen). The trigger for the rioting was a dinner held at the Dadley Hotel in Temple Row organised by radicals and religious Dissenters to mark the success of the assault on the Bastille at the start of the French Revolution. Mobs opposed to the Birmingham Dissenters attacked and burned not only their homes and chapels, but also the homes of people they associated with Dissenters, such as members of the scientific Lunar Society. The details, however, reveals the dark nature of establishment collusion.
According to eye witness accounts local Justices of the Peace Joseph Carles and Dr Benjamin Spencer (an Anglican vicar and, along with Carles, a member of the establishment supporting Bean Club) actively encouraged the mob. Moreover the Under Sheriff of Warwickshire, John Brooke, was heard to issue a ‘guarantee’ of judicial protection to those taking part. Prior to the 14th July banquet, various incendiary posts and leaflets were published about the event, the sources of which are still unclear but highly unlikely to be the Dissenters themselves. Likewise a cartoon was published despicting Priestley holding up a platter and saying ‘The Kings head here’. Except that Priestley was not at the dinner. Today we would call it ‘fake news’!
Events following the riots were also shocking. The magistrates (remember Brooke’s ‘guarantee’) refused to arrest any of the rioters post facto and actually released those that had been arrested at the time. When the Government forced the magisrates to try the riot ringleaders, they intimidated witnesses and subverted the trials. Only seventeen of the fifty rioters who had been charged were brought to trial with four convicted.
The riots revealed that the Anglican gentry in collusion with the judiciary were prepared to use violence against Dissenters whom they viewed as potential revolutionaries . Bear in mind that at that time religious and political revolution were almost synonymous and the Monarch was head of the Church of England (as remains the case). Those campaigning for the religious freedom and political reforms we enjoy today had to be prepared to face uncontrollable mobs.
Following the riots Joseph Priestley was forced to flee Birmingham and set up home in London. But things were justs as bad. Vicious political cartoons continued to be published about him, In a direct parallel to today’s ‘trolling’m letters were sent to him from across the country, comparing him to the devil and Guy Fawkes. Effigies of Priestley and Tom Paine were publicly burned.
Fake news, trolling, vicious media attacks, inciting religious hatred and establishment collusion. Sound familiar?
Fiercely contested court cases, attacks on the judiciary, personal abuse and subversion of Parliament. Sounds like 2016, but this was over 200 years ago in 1811. At the centre of it was Irish journalist Peter Finnerty. Almost unknown today, Finnerty was the beneficiary of one of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s great early works Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things (you can read more about the radicalism of Shelley’s Poetical Essay here), but his influence at the time was far greater. Finnerty possessed a keen perception of how state institutions could be utilized to gain public attention and saw many opportunities for advancing his radical ideas in novel ways, some of which are applicable today.
Born sometime between 1766 and 1778 (sources vary) in Lochrea, Ireland, Finnerty became a printer in Dublin and published The Press, a nationalist paper founded 1797 by Arthur O’Connor. That same year the British government prosecuted The Press and Finnerty was tried for seditious libel following strong criticism of the judges who sentenced United Irishman William Orr to death along with Lord Camden, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland who turned down an appeal for clemency. Finnerty was tried in early 1798 and sentenced to two years imprisonment and time in the pillory. On his release, Finnerty moved to London and worked as a reporter on the Morning Chronicle newspaper while engaging in radical activism. This included the Robin Hood Society, notorious amongst establishment figures for, amongst other things, actively campaigning against the George III Golden Jubilee celebrations of 1809. In 1811 Finnerty was again sentenced to prison, this time receiving eighteen months for libeling Minister of War Lord Castlereagh during a highly critical report on British military command during the 1809 Walcheren campaign against Napoleon. Incredibly, Finnerty used the imprisonment to keep the issue of Castlereagh in the public spotlight and repeated the libel on a number of occasions. In 1811 jail was a tough place and inmates had to provide for themselves. As a result, Finnerty’s friends and associates organized events to raise money for his maintenance inside jail with Shelley’s contribution being the proceeds from his poem Poetical Essay.
Finnerty is fascinating for a number of reasons. Firstly he was one of the first activists to use journalism as a method of developing and promoting a radical political platform. Secondly. Finnerty missed no opportunity in trying to destabilize government by petitioning Parliament on all kinds of issues including the conditions of his imprisonment. Thirdly his use of court cases, even ones he lost, as a means of keeping issues in the public gaze was masterly.
Finnerty was a thorn in the side of Government using investigative journalism to cast doubt on the veracity of Governments officials and even witnesses in trials. Finnerty’s aim was the emancipation of the Irish people and the promotion of a mainland radical and republican agenda and the techniques he used can still be deployed today. But they are as equally available to reactionary and oppressive forces as to progessive ones. We need only look at the virulent attacks on the High Court and Supreme Court judges by the Daily Mail which briefly included drawing attention to the fact that one of them was a gay Olympic Fencer! These disgusting and scurrilous articles are serving the aims of an oppressive oligarchy which are very different from those of Peter Finnerty
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.
…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.
In previous posts and articles I have described some of the ways in which the works of the great philosopher and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley have stood the test of time. My central point is that beneath the establishment whitewash, Shelley’s work is as relevant to radical politics now as it was two centuries ago; his concerns are our concerns. So it has been an idea of mine to take Shelley back to where he belongs – the streets of Britain, via a megaphone!
Protest and Poetry
This year the Conservative Party held its annual conference in central Birmingham between the 2nd and 5th October. As a means of protesting the Government’s austerity measures which has seen the poorer and more vulnerable members of society paying for the excess and incompetence of a broken financial system, the People’s Assembly organized a weekend of protest in the city. With our presence at the start of the Sunday protest march, the Birmingham branch of Republic Campaign drew attention to the fact that monarchy is one of the few institutions completely shielded from the cuts inflicted on the rest of society. This presented the perfect opportunity to debut my ‘Street Shelley’ plan especially as between 10,000 and 20,000 people would be queuing up to march past.
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’.
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.
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.