When Replacing the House of Lords we Must Balance Democracy with Inclusive Representation

Thanks to a constitution where elections prevail throughout the system the United States now faces one of the most hazardous moments for individual liberty in its history.  It provides a warning about the dangers of a fully elected second chamber which is often suggested for the UK.

Currently in the US one party holds the Presidency and a workable majority in both houses of Congress. Moreover this is a party being dragged away from consensus politics by a charismatic leader intent on enacting policies which present a threat to the constitution itself. The situation is made worse by a willingness to appoint members to the US Supreme Court on a partisan basis which shows signs of destroying the balance of opinion for years or possibly decades.

There is now a real danger of what Alexis de Tocqueville in the nineteenth century called the ‘tyranny of the majority’, a situation where the Government takes action supported by the majority of voters which significantly harms the rights of minorities. To be strictly accurate, through a quirk in the Electoral College system the United States is in danger of falling into a tyranny of the minority! All this means that significant autocratic power (through Executive Orders and sackings of Government Officials) is being wielded by a President intent on pursuing an oppressive agenda.

It is for these reasons that while replacing the House of Lords is an urgent task, to make it a fully elected Chamber would be a mistake.  Instead a new upper-house Senate should be only part elected with the majority of Senators appointed – but by a system vastly different from the present one. This would enable us to give legislative responsibility to groups which at the present time are grossly underrepresented in Parliament.  Underrepresentation may occur for any number of reasons, for example, disability or prejudice against being selected by major political parties as candidates.

Appointed Senators will allow us to balance experiential gaps in the lower chamber. At present such groups are only consulted on specific pieces of legislation as expert witnesses.  But it would be far more effective to have the possibility of every piece of legislation reviewed by, say, a  group of blind or wheelchair-bound Senators.

Clearly the size of the new Senate must be greatly reduced from its current bloated size stuffed as it is full of toadies, oligarchs and the left-overs of an autocratic past.  For this reason the second Chamber would have specific responsibility for liaising with special interest and civil society groups outside Parliament. Finally the appointment of Senators must be taken out of the partisan political domain with citizen nominations to the Senate overseen by an appointments commission. Such a commission would have a specific remit, for example, to check that nominees are resident in the UK for tax purposes. Nominees who do not meet these criteria will not be considered further.

Final selection would be undertaken by a citizen panel which would be drawn in a similar way as a jury but on a national basis.  Appointments would be made for a fixed period, for example 8 years, which could be renewed once by agreement of the citizens panel.

The existence of such a Senate would mean the Government working much harder to ensure legislation is fair to all sections of the community. While certainly not ruling out wealthy Senators, the possibility of decisions hinging on people such as Andrew Lloyd Webber flying in for the express purpose of passing oppressive acts (such as the Tax Credit Cuts) would be eliminated. Likewise the increase in Senators committed to doing a competent job will mean the body is fully able to examine evidence on the effectiveness of enacted legislation and hold the Government properly to account. This is currently a woeful inadequacy of our system

It would also mean the feared suppression of rights which may occur in the United States over the next four years would be minimized!

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.

Zealous & Candid; The Powerful Poetry of Republican Chartist Gerald Massey

gerald_massey_1856
Gerald Massey Chartist poet

Kings are but giants because we kneel, one leap and up go we!

Percy Bysshe Shelley presents the British establishment with a conundrum. While acknowledging him as one of Britain’s greatest poets his reputation must be carefully marshalled to hide the devastating commentary he delivered on political and social conditions (as Graham Henderson points out here). For Shelley’s radical successors the situation is simpler – just pretend that they never existed.  Such a poet was Chartist Gerald Massey born 1828 in Hertfordshire.

‘A strong feeling against the British aristocracy….’

The titles of some of Massey’s poems such as The Red Republican (also the name of a publication) and The Last of the Queens and the Kings leave us in no doubt of his aims. Shelley had died in Italy in 1822 (at the tragically young age of 29), well before the rise of Chartist activity from the mid-1830s.  But being born almost 40 years later, much of Massey’s work is placed firmly in the cauldron of that political and social movement, with his early poems published from the mid-1840s onwards. The penalties for such activity could be severe, the Treason Felony Act being passed by Parliament in 1848 with the express purpose of increasing the chances of a guilty verdict being delivered against those tried for advocating the abolition of the monarchy.  A long prison term or transportation to Australia was a real possibility!

Massey came from impoverished beginnings and a scant education in a ‘penny-school’ meant that he was virtually an autodidact. He was to engage in a wide range of literary activities aside from poetry including journalism, theology, histotian and criticism. But just as with Shelley my aim is not to analyze his work as an academic exercise but to consider what insights his work holds for radicals and republicans today.  The great American poet  and essayist Walt Whitman was in no doubt about the aims of Massey’s poetry when in 1855 he observed:

I have looked over Gerald Massey’s Poems ― They seem to me zealous, candid, warlike, ― intended, as they surely are, to get up a strong feeling against the British aristocracy both in their social and governmental political capacity.

‘Put no faith in kings, nor merchant-princes trust’

In this short post it is not possible to do justice to the whole of Massey’s substantial output so I shall focus on just three of Massey’s poems Progress and TraditionThings Will Go Better Yet and Kings are but Giants Because we Kneel from which the following is the opening stanza:

Good People, put no faith in kings, nor merchant-princes trust,
Who grind your hearts in mammon’s press, your faces in the
    dust,
Trust to your own stout hearts to break the Tyrant’s dark, dark
    ban,
If yet one spark of freedom lives, let man be true to man,
We’ll never fight again, boys, with Yankee, Pole, and Russ,
We love the French as brothers, and Frenchmen too, love us!
But we’ll join to crush those fiends who kill all love and liberty,
Kings are but giants because we kneel, one leap and up go we.

We can learn much from this verse alone. The themes are similar to those which exercised Shelley, the people are good and monarchs are not worthy of trust. The term merchant-princes is telling and points to the autocratic nature of mid-Victorian trading companies with their lack of accountability and democratic control. This was the era when the activities of the British East India Company (EIC) were finally being acknowledged as a danger to even the British government (it was nationalised in 1858 and finally dissolved in 1874).  As I mentioned in this post the EIC was an effective forerunner and model for many of todays multinational Corporations who present such a danger to us. In the far less deferential 21st century, however, even the eager consumers of the products of corporations such as Microsoft and Apple would regard trusting those organisations as a little naive! Massey’s work is essentially internationalist in tone reflecting Tom Paine’s sentiment in his comment My country is the world which was to find expression in the realisation of the proto-socialist movements in the 1820s and 1830s that the problems faced by the people had a commonality throughout Europe.

Continue reading “Zealous & Candid; The Powerful Poetry of Republican Chartist Gerald Massey”

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”

In a World of Peer-to-Peer Collaboration the End of Monarchy is Inevitable

Digital communications has changed the world profoundly and will continue to do so in the future.  An unconscious recognition of this fact lies partly behind the triumph of Donald Trump in the Presidential election and as I pointed out in an earlier blog, could spell long term disaster for many in the United States. The fear and rejection of a fundamentally changing economic landscape can be laid partly at the door of politicians who either do not understand the problems themselves or choose to ignore the issues.

Increasingly, authors (such as Vasilis Kostakis and Michel Bauwens in their book Network Society and Future Scenarios for a Collaborative Economy) are pointing to the urgent choices we face in how we view intellectual property on the internet.  Many problems of a deeply complex nature such as climate change may only be amenable to solution by collaborative effort involving freely available information.  Essentially we can either let large corporations dominate with their highly protective store of information about almost every aspect of our lives or we can start to move towards a collective approach to the ownership of  knowledge.  This peer-to-peer interaction  with established relationships  (Commons) allows for free interaction between every member of society who wishes to participate. Understandably most of the emphasis is on the economic system and whether capitalism can be tamed to live with the new reality, or, conversely, whether it will be destroyed by it.

But in the UK we have our own anachronistic and regressive arm of Government.  The Royal Family have absolutely no interest in engaging in such a collaborative future. The interaction is all one way and instinctively secretive. Whether it is tightly controlled media interviews with no independent editorial control or confidential ‘black spider’ memos from Charles to Government Ministers. the Windsors are clearly not interested in collaboration, only lecturing us.  They speak but do not listen and as a consequence peer-to-peer interaction which relies on a flexible attitude of equal privilege cannot take place. At the beginning of the 20th Century the Russian Romanov’s found that being perceived as remote from their people was, surprisingly, more deadly to their future prospects than vast wealth inequality. The rapid technological; advances of the 21st Century are inevitably doing the same for their Windsor cousins. Considering the nature of the monarchy precludes such interaction it would be easier if we accept the inevitable and start the transition now to a modern and accountable Head of State.

‘A Powerful Hand’; Innovative Radical Journalist Peter Finnerty

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

British Republicanism Must Stop Defining Itself By What It Is Not

In an earlier post I pointed to the fact that in popular consciousness at least modern British Republicanism has a habit of defining itself in terms of not being Monarchism.  It was not always so, as in past centuries republicans tended to argue their anti-monarchy stance as a natural outcome of their positive beliefs in causes such as the Sovereignty of Parliament in the Seventeenth Century and Chartism or Socialism in the Nineteenth, to mention but two. A brief look at the Home Page of Republic campaign highlights the problem, with one of the main images actually displaying the Windsor clan in Parliament in all its finery (as of 3rd October)  – as if they needed publicity from Republicans!  Whilst fully supporting the drive to highlight the iniquities of our current archaic system there needs to be a positive message for success.

One thing I point out to non-Republicans is that I am an anti-monarchist because I am a Republican and not the other way around.  So what are the fundamental tenets of Republicanism which I advocate?  Here is the briefest of outlines for the main points:

  1. Popular Sovereignty. This means that we all have a stake in the laws and policies which our Government makes. I touched on this issue in a blog post dealing with the ‘taking back control’ rhetoric during the Brexit campaign.  Likewise the boundary changes supported by the Government serve to take even more power away from the ordinary voter.
  2. The Common Good,  A society is healthy when the institutions and economic system is arranged to promote the good of everyone in society. At present this is clearly not the case with a dysfunctional system being kept afloat with vast sums of created money which serves to only inflate asset prices for the wealthy.  There are alternative ways of rebalancing the economy away from elites such as democratising the control of capital.
  3. Liberty.  This is closely bound up with the first two points.  We can only be free when there is no possibility of being subject to the arbitrary will of another person or an organisation. Without the means of controlling our lawmakers we cannot be said to be truly free. Likewise an economic system which increasingly serves to trap people in zero-hours contracts and poverty wages with little means of escape, giving employers disproportionate powers.  This also results in millions of people being dependant on the state (thus sacrificing more freedom) to supplement their income. I consider it is the state’s responsibility to enhance the freedom of its citizens, not collude in its suppression!
  4. Civic Participation. It is the duty of the state to encourage as many of its participants as possible to take part in decision making.  But the way our system has evolved actively serves to prevent participation. There is a widespread feeling of being powerless in the face of major political power blocks and large corporations which is damaging our society.

This is clearly a broad brush assertion of principles and in some cases politically contentious in a party sense. But for me each of these four points stand in opposition to hereditary privilege.  To take an example from each. Popular Sovereignty. The residual power of monarchy such as Queens and Prince’s Consent (to prevent debate in the House of Commons) is simply unacceptable. The Common Good. The Windsors possess or otherwise control large assets with the power to seize the mineral wealth under people’s homes or come to advantageous tax arrangements with HMRC! Liberty. Though not used since 1707, Royal Assent to bills must go, as must immunity for the Head of State from legal action.  Civic Participation.  Monarchy actively promotes an outsider, voyeuristic attitude to public life rather than promoting and welcoming input from people.

It is true that many of these issues afflict other parts of our system and consequentially I am in favour of wholesale changes such as reform of the House of Lords, to name but one.  But ultimately it is my belief that mere anti-monarchism will not get the job done.  Republicans need to sell a vision of a society to our fellow citizens which makes abolition not merely desirable but natural and unavoidable!

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”

Could City States Be The Solution to Britain’s Obsolete Constitution?

When the history of our present time is written the Iraq War may not be viewed as the most significant ‘legacy’ of Tony Blair for the people of the UK itself. Instead, historians may focus on the policy of devolution and the dangerously unstable constitutional arrangement. Aside from the unresolved and patently unfair West Lothian Question we have a Scottish Parliament which can legislate unless specifically prevented from doing so, a Welsh Parliament which can only legislate unless specifically authorised to do so, and a House of Lords where Church of England Bishops can affect legislation for everyone! Devolution has left a complete mess and singularly failed to achieve Blair’s goal of heading off the momentum for Scottish independence. Part of the problem is an archaic notion of Parliamentary sovereignty which is contributing to a justifiable feeling amongst the people that our Governmental and administrative systems have a lack of control and accountability. While deriving from an understandable impulse, the addition of a specific Parliament for England will only serve to muddy the waters of accountability even further. The whole idea of devolution should be seen as a mistake and a new way urgently sought out of the mess.

Until now the people of the English regions have shown little enthusiasm for federalism within England itself, largely due to the unpalatable and ‘take or leave it attitude’ of Westminster politicians anxious to be seen to be doing something rather than possessing a real reforming zeal. But that is changing and England itself may be starting to show the way forward for our ridiculous constitution. Significant powers are being allocated to groups of local authorities in areas such as Greater Manchester and the West Midlands and prominent politicians are showing an interest in regional governance. Presently, it is not intended to create new assemblies as with London, with mayors comprising the sole directly elected component. To some extent, however, the new mayoralties resemble embryonic regions, or more realistically considering their focus, city-states. To a civic republican the current model is unsatisfactory (I do not want elected monarchies!) but, suitably evolved, it could provide the seed for a properly accountable federal system.

Continue reading “Could City States Be The Solution to Britain’s Obsolete Constitution?”