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.
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 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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!
If 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”
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?”
As a Republican trying to persuade my fellow Britons of the need to remove the monarchy I sometimes encounter a kind of fatalism which says that even if we get rid of the queen we will still be controlled by rich and powerful elites essentially beyond our control. This is partly a problem of powerlessness, a kind of despairing acceptance of fate which the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis has termed ‘oh dearism’. Now while I fully agree that the removal of monarchy must only be the beginning to the reform of our system, I nevertheless believe that it makes an excellent starting point. This is for a number of reasons, some constitutional and some psychological. I want to look at just two in this blog.
Firstly, the existence of a monarchy entrenches the position of a powerful political elite via the Privy Council. In fact, the system actually views the British Cabinet (supposedly our Government) as a sub-committee of the Council (I’ve written more about these arechaic powers in this post) and we can see the importance of this to the financial elite in one example. The Crown Dependencies are managed under the auspices of the Privy Council and thus the tax havens of the British Virgin Island and the Caymen Islands to name but two are allowed to thrive. More widely the relationship between politicians and royals facilitates a taxpayer funded Prince Andrew (then supposedly a Trade Envoy) the opportunity to try and broker the selling of state assets to foreign oligarchs, thus cementing his position amongst a wider, global elite.
Continue reading “‘Oh Dearism’; Start to Tackle it by Abolishing the Monarchy”