Reclaiming a Positive Idea of Patriotism

Some time ago I came across a wonderful definition of patriotism which defined it as a vibrant celebration of community.  I must confess that I cannot recall just who said it; I’m pretty sure he was a poet and if anyone out there is reading this post and can remind ne I’d be very grateful.!  I like this definition for many reasons.  Firstly it is scalable.  Your community can be a tower block or a village, a town, city, region, nation, continent or even conceivably the whole world. Furthermore, this idea of celebrating your community is not exceptional and does not prevent an understanding that other people have a right to celebrate their community. Strong confident communities are less prey to the fears and inadequacies which breeds intolerance  These features also make it an inclusive concept as opposed to many ideas of nationalism which so often cast it in an exclusive light, where by necessity a clear distinction is made between one group and another.

But this definition also implies a measure of responsibility, a fact pointed out by one of our great poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley (no surprise for my blog followers!). In his Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things (for more details see my OpenDemocracy article) Shelley uses the words “patriot” and “patriotism” three times. Each time he makes it clear that the duty of a patriot is to attempt to shine a light on the corruption and secrecy that bedevils parts of our society. For example, speaking of Government he says:

 And shall no patriot tear the veil away
Which hides these vices from the face of day?

This idea of patriotism is closely related to the idea of English lexicographer and author Julian Barnes who adds a dash of justice and wisdom to Shelley’s sense of virtue.

 The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonourably, foolishly, viciously.

This harks back to the first definition since strong communities are open and just communities.  As a republican I am used to being labelled unpatriotic, as someone who hates Britain or is at best naïve and idiotic. But my sense of patriotism makes me deeply  concerned about growing inequality  which may fatally weaken our society, along with a ramshackle constitution which endangers all of us whether we realise it or not.

Definitions of patriotism have changed over the centuries, most being evolutions of its root as the middle French word for a countryman. On very many occasions it has been used as a synonyms for nationalism or, worse, jingoism. But I think the spirit is very different and expresses something valuable.

Republicanism and Democracy; Two Ideas Not To Be Confused

Politicians are fond of throwing aeound the word ‘democracy’ as though it is a talisman, warding off tyranny in the same way as a clove of garlic drives back Count Dracula.  But it is in fact a tricky and complex concept, as spectacularly demonstrated by the fallout from the Brexit vote. So lets clear up some confusions.

As a republican (in the European sense for any US followers so I’m not thinking of the GOP here) it is important for me to understand the part played by democracy.  There are some people who simply equate republicanism with democracy as though they were the same thing, but the situation needs clarification. Lets dispense with the more obvious differences. For example, North Korea styles itself the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Although nominally a republic (just), it is far from democratic and proof that you can call yourself what you like, it is the Constitution which counts! In this case North Korea is an Autocratic Republic  Also consider Iran, or the Islamic Republic of Iran, in this case  it is a Theocratic Republic. So strictly speaking all Republicans I know are Democratic Republicans. So far, so good.

Now, leaving aside the convoluted and discarded historical theories in which monarchs can actually be part of a republic (such as Rousseau’s idea) we can ask what is the status of democracy in a republic. In fact the Brexit vote illustrates the issues quite well. Consider that the vote told the Government what to do (withdraw from the EU), but did not tell the Government how to do it (how much sovereignty, if any, must we share in any trade deal)! So the role of democracy is as a means of controlling and holding the Republic to account by the people, but it is actually quite poor at what is known as ‘deliberative’ decision making. Furthermore, the idea that democracy enables everyone to have a say in Government is far from clear, as the 48% who voted Remain may possibly have no say at all in the final settlement.  By the way, this would also have been true if the 48% had been on the Leave side. This also raises the question of just who participates in the formation of policy in the first place, a point I considered in a post on radical Thomas Rainborough.

This means that a Republic must have some non-democratic elements to rein back a Government pursuing aims for which it actually has no mandate, no matter what it tries to claim. So, for example, we do not know how many UK citizens would be happy to remain inside the Single Market. Assuming all 48% Remainers, we cannot know precisely how many Leavers would be happy to do so, if it retained jobs and educational opportunities.  In the UK the justice system can be regarded as part of this non-democratic brake, although it is an imperfect piece of machinery being dependent upon citizens having the resources or sponsorship to bring a case. Also in this category is the totally unsatisfactory House of Lords as I blogged about here.

So we must be careful when using words such as republic and democracy as they are very different concepts and a well regulated Republic will ensure steps are taken to ensure democratic processes do not actually become a tool of oppression. Likewise we must be aware of the unthinking correlation of democracy and direct elections and appreciate the positive role which non-elective means of democracy can play in our brave modern Republic.  But I’ll leave that for a future post.

A Sobering Reminder; There Is No Future in England’s Dreaming

God save the queen
She ain’t no human being
And there’s no future
In England’s dreaming.

God Save The Queen – The Sex Pistols.

On Thursday evening I was reminded that sleep and dreaming has been a recurring theme when describing England, more specifically Southern England. The trigger was Republic Birmingham’s second poetry evening. This event contained a twist as it started with a debut standup comedy routine from Pete, a new member of our group. Sadly, due to traffic congestion I missed the first part but the ease with which he took the interruption of my late arrival completely in his stride belied his inexperience. A unique and valuable comedy talent in the making.  Then on to the main event, Spike the Poet making a return visit to our evening. Once again he did not disappoint with an intelligent mix of humour, passion and biting comment on the farce of monarchy.  Some wonderful anecdotes by way of background to a few of the poems reflected the depth and complexity of human relationships in the modern world. Find out more about Spike on his Facebook page.

My contribution was next and eschewing my beloved Shelley I read a poem (abridged for length) by Chartist Gerald Massey. My choice,  Tradition and Progress, written in the mid 19th century, intertwines republicanism and anti-war protest with rage at the poverty experienced by many working people.  You can read more about Massey in an earlier post.

So what about the dreaming? The last item was a prose reading by Alex Simpson. He chose the last paragraph of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia which recounts Orwell’s experience in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. In my Orwell readings I had not got around to this book so the tract was fresh and had impact. Having returned to England Orwell despairs of the complacency he perceives, concluding:

Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen–all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs. 

From Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell

Orwell and the Sex Pistols are simply two of many, poet Philip Larkin a notable example, who have used sleep and dreaming imagery to describe the state of England.  With a ramshackle constitution, increasing intolerance, and a seeming acceptance of ever more authoritarian inclined politicians talking of Empire 2.0 we are still sleeping and dreaming – and jeopardising our future!

Give a wrong time, stop a traffic line
Your future dream has sure been seen through.

Anarchy in the UK – The Sex Pistols

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”