Suits, Poetry and Megaphones; My Experience with Shelley at #TakeBackBrum 2016

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People’s Austerity Birmingham (Daily Mirror)

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.

Continue reading “Suits, Poetry and Megaphones; My Experience with Shelley at #TakeBackBrum 2016”

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

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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.

As Charles Windsor Proves, Voltaire’s Idea of Enlightened Monarchy is Best Forgotten

voltaireIf you have read some of my previous posts you may be aware that I rarely write about foreign radical thinkers.  Even when I do they are mainly in the Anglophone tradition such as American Thomas Jefferson, the major exception being Niccolo Machiavelli.  There are two reasons for this bias. Firstly, other countries such as France with a less moribund and self-protective establishment than Britain tend to be more open about radical proponents of the past and are better known as a consequence. Secondly, possessing woefully poor foreign language skills I am dependent upon published translations of major works.  Where nuance and opinion are all important, the subtleties of language are vital and easily lost or distorted as they cross language barriers.

Voltaire: Some Good ideas, Some Not so Good

I am making an exception in this post to make a couple of observations about François-Marie Arouet, better known to us as Voltaire.  Even more unusual for me, Voltaire was essentially a constitutional monarchist who also toyed with absolutism! But it is rare to find a radical thinker with whom I am in complete agreement, partly because of drastic changes in society over the past century. For example, many 17th Century English Republicans such as Algernon Sidney actually argued for a form of aristocratic rule, tempered by democracy. On the other hand, Chartist Ernest Jones was a constitutional monarchist.  To dismiss every thinker who holds one or two contrary opinions would simply lead to an impoverished and shrivelled view of how society may be improved. In few other individuals, however, is the sense of contrariness in such sharp relief than in Voltaire.  But I want to see how one of his ideas stacks up to contemporary reality in the shape of the present heir to the United Kingdom throne, Charles Windsor.

A hazard when considering Voltaire’s work is the polemical and satirical style he adopted.  Voltaire actually lived in Britain between 1726 and 1729 and formed a favourable view of the British Constitutional Monarchy in comparison with France’s pre-revolutionary autocratic ancien régime. As I mentioned in this openDemocracy article, Voltaire  was a prominent figure during the Age of Enlightenment and a leading figure in the associated Republic of Letters network.

Continue reading “As Charles Windsor Proves, Voltaire’s Idea of Enlightened Monarchy is Best Forgotten”

Rousing Rebels and Motivating Movements; Why the Establishment Controls the Historical Narrative

petermemeWhen I was 11 years of age I had a wonderful history teacher. We studied the Anglo-Saxons and he did his best to give us an idea of what it was like to live about 1,500 years ago.  It was compelling stuff but sadly it did not last. By age 14 I had given up on history, my early inspirational teacher being replaced by a boring and lifeless one who made us learn facts and dates by rote. It would be many years before I started to realise that to understand our present situation we need to understand where we have come from.  I also realised that the history I wanted to grasp was not the history taught in schools or on the TV and there were few monuments to the events I found significant. I learned quickly about the way in which the establishment controls the historical narrative. I wanted to understand the fight to be a free citizen, the struggle for liberty, the campaigns for equality and a fair wage. But the overwhelming narrative was about monarchs, wars, generals and empires. It was easy to find out why the Duke of Wellington was a hero of Waterloo, but not that he was despised in many places and physically attacked on the streets for his repressive attitude and support for the 1819 carnage in Manchester at the Peterloo Massacre.  Many people have heard of Abraham Lincoln, but far fewer of the Englishman William Wilberforce who fought a long and courageous campaign to abolish the British slave trade in 1807. So why the blatantly one sided treatment of history?

The Necessity of Controlling the Historical Narrative

It turns out that there are a number of reason. Firstly it goes against the still prevalent so-called Whiggish theory of history.  Briefly this says that the social history of first England and then Britain is one of gradually increasing liberty being handed by the government to the people at the point when they have developed the sophistication to handle the responsibility. ‘Don’t worry’, this narrative reads, as we are on a one-way journey to freedom.  The reality is very different. Freedoms have been fought for and won, not benevolently bequeathed us by a kindly establishment.  Here are just a few of the more prominent examples.  The Thirteenth Century Magna Carta was signed because the barons threatened (yet another) bloody civil war; the autocracy of kingship was ended in the Seventeeth Century as a result of an armed Revolution; the increased franchise and social developments of the nineteenth century took place because the government feared another revolution following the growth of popular movements such as Chartism.  But it was not a one way trip and freedoms could be taken away!

Continue reading “Rousing Rebels and Motivating Movements; Why the Establishment Controls the Historical Narrative”

‘Ye are many, they are few!’; More Inspiration From the Poet Shelley

shelley masqueThe anniversary of two events of primary importance in our radical history occur in August; the birth of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley on the 4th (in 1792) and the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, England on the 16th (in 1819).  Last week my thoughts Shelley’s great Poetical Essay on the State of Things was published on openDemocracy and it is a suitable moment to consider the relevance of another of his great works inspired by events in Manchester, the Masque of Anarchy (you can read it here).  Like the openDemocracy article, this post is neither intended as a literary study of Shelley’s work nor an account of the origins of Shelley’s radical opinions. There are many people far better qualified for this task and I can only draw your attention to two examples, Paul Foot’s excellent article from 2006 or the materials on this fascinating blogsite by Graham Henderson. In both my openDemocracy article and the present post I have two aims. Firstly to outline my claim to Shelley as part of the tradition with which I identify and secondly to assess the importance of Shelley’s work and the invaluable lessons it has for us now.

Although popular pressure had been building for reform since the start of the French Revolution in 1789, economic depression and high unemployment following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 intensified demands for change. In 1819 a crowd variously estimated at being between 60,000 and 100,000 had gathered in St Peters Field in Manchester to protest and demand greater representation in Parliament. The subsequent overreaction by Government militia forces in the shape of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry led to a cavalry charge with sabres drawn. The exact numbers were never established but about 12 to 15 people were killed immediately and possibly 600-700 were injured, many seriously. For more information on the complex serious of events, go to this British Library resource and this campaign for a memorial.

Shelley was in Italy when news reached him of the events in Manchester and he set down his reaction in the poem Masque of Anarchy (sometimes Mask of Anarchy) which contains the immortal lines contained in the title of my post. The work simmers over 93 stanzas with a barely controlled rage leading to a call to action and a belief that the approach of non-violent resistance (an approach followed by Gandhi two centuries later) would allow the oppressed of England to seize the moral high ground and achieve victory. Such was the power of the poem that it did not appear in public until 1832, the year of the Great Reform Act which extended the voting franchise.

Anarchy – Chaos and Confusion as a Method of Control

An excellent place to start thinking about the relevance of the poem is with the eponymous evil villain, Anarchy. He leads a band of three tyrants which are identified as contemporary politicians, Murder (Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh),  Fraud ( Lord Chancellor, Lord Eldon) and Hypocrisy (Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth).  But Shelley widens the cast of villains in his description to include the Church, Monarchy and Judiciary.

Last came Anarchy : he rode
On a white horse, splashed with blood ;
He was pale even to the lips,
Like Death in the Apocalypse.

And he wore a kingly crown ;
And in his grasp a sceptre shone ;
On his brow this mark I saw—
‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’

The promotion of anarchy with its attendant fear of chaos and disorder was one of the most serious accusations which could be levelled at authority. The avoidance of anarchy was also a concern of English radicals ever since the Civil War in the 1640s and Shelley was making the gravest personal attack  with his explicit individual accusations.  But Shelley’s attack is pertinent, the implicit threat of confusion and chaos to subdue a population for political ends is something which we experience today.   The feeling of powerlessness which can result from an apparently confusing and chaotic situation is something which the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has termed ‘oh dearism’.  In our own time he has identified recent Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne as deliberately using such a tactic. Likewise the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been variously accused of being a threat to national security or a threat to the economy .

The 1819 Peterloo massacre occurred at a time of hightened external tension with fear that the French revolution would spread to Britain. The fear was not unfounded and various groups around the country emerged with such an intent, in many cases inspired by Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man which the Government had been trying to unsuccessfully suppress. The existence of an external threat combined with homegrown radicals was explicitly used as a reason for a policy of political repression and censorship. Likewise today an external threat, Islamic State combined with an entirely separate perceived internal threat (employee strike action) has been cited as justification for a whole range of measures including invasive communication monitoring (so called ‘Snoopers Charter’) without requisite democratic controls and a repressive Trade Union Bill seeking to shackle the ability of unions to garner support and carry out industrial action.

The Nature of Freedom

The nature of freedom is a problem which has bothered both libertarians and republicans for generations. In Masque of Anarchy where Shelley is enumerating the injustice suffered by the poor he clearly defines freedom in terms of the state of slavery, a core republican premise:

What is Freedom? Ye can tell
That which Slavery is too well,
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own

The essence of freedom which has financial independence as a core component is clearly articulated over a number of stanzas, starting with:

‘’Tis to work and have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day
In your limbs, as in a cell
For the tyrants’ use to dwell,

‘So that ye for them are made
Loom, and plough, and sword, and spade,
With or without your own will bent
To their defence and nourishment.

In our own time freedom is frequently constrained by insufficient financial resources as a result of hardship caused by issues such as disability support cuts, chronic low wages and a zero-hours contract society. Shelley would have no problem with identifying Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley, playing with multimillion pounds football clubs while his workforce toil in iniquitous conditions for a pittance; or Sir Philip Green impoverishing British Home Stores pensioners to pile up a vast fortune for his wife in Monaco. Disgustingly the only thing we need to update from Masque is the cast of villains, the substance  is unchanged!.

Non-Violent Resistance – A Way Forward

I pointed out that in the 1811 Poetical Essay, Shelley was searching for a peaceful way to elicit change in an oppressive hieracrchical society.  By 1819 Shelley has settled on his preferred solution of non-violent resistance.

Stand ye calm and resolute,
Like a forest close and mute,
With folded arms and looks which are
Weapons of unvanquished war,

‘And let Panic, who outspeeds
The career of armèd steeds
Pass, a disregarded shade
Through your phalanx undismayed.

Nonviolent resistance is not an instant solution and takes years of persistent and widespread enactment to be successful. A partial victory was secured in the 1830s with the Great Reform Act (1832) and the Abolition of Slavery Act (1834). But history has proved that it is a viable strategy, the independence of India being an eloquent testament.

Levellers Day; Radical Politics, Sunshine & Extreme Morris Dancing!

Levellers plaque

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.