Forget Harmless Eccentricity, the Aristocracy Still Wields Enormous Unaccountable Power

Monarchy and aristocracy are often considered as a single entity by the British public, whether positively or negatively.  Yet they are two very different animals.  Aristocrats have a love-hate relationship with the monarchy. They hate it because it has historically been a rival for power, privilege and wealth.  In fact many aristocrats have been republicans and that remains so today, though their vision for a republic is slightly different to mine! Conversely, the aristocracy love monarchy as it takes the high profile flak and provides ‘top cover’ for their activities in return for a little bit of pomp and dressing up a few times a year.

Though not being a fan of the City A.M. publication, often finding its articles superficial, one feature published last week nevertheless demonstrated the point about the continuing power of aristocracy. Writing about the vast areas of London owned by a few very old families it stated:

This select group has several significant players. The Grosvenor Estate, owned by the Duke of Westminster, manages Mayfair and Belgravia; the Cadogan Estate, owned by the Earl Cadogan, has Chelsea; the Portman Estate, owned by Viscount Portman includes fashionable Chiltern Street north of Oxford Steet (sic); while the Howard de Walden Estate, owned by the Howard de Walden family, is its neighbour on nearby Marylebone High Street.

I blogged about the Duke of Westminster tax rouse on his Grosvenor Estate when considering the undemocratic nature of investment ptential in Britain. As might be imagined, the aristocrats have their own lackey supporters for this state of affairs who cite ‘long term stewardship’ and ‘tasteful development’ as justification. But let’s look more closely at this 21st Century version of feudalism.

Back in the 1860s newsagent W.H. Smith set up a shop in Sloane Square. In 2004 they complained about their treatment by the Cadogan Estate when their lease was terminated and they were told to leave the premises after 136 years. Meanwhile, elsewhere in Sloane Square the Oriel brasserie was a local exclusive restaurant, mostly famed for its high prices.  Following a meal he didn’t care for at the establishment Earl Cadogan summarily decided to close it down, despite protests from the locals.  The Independent reported the situation as follows:

An Old Etonian, Charles Cadogan said that he “didn’t like the food and the prices were too high”, adding: “I can tell you that we won’t be renewing their lease when it expires …. We are going to have a new development there.”

Autocratically trashing business without any accountability is one issue. Perhaps not many blog readers will shed a tear for simply one shop in a major chain or a restaurant for the wealthy. But aside from the principle of the matter there is also the distorting effect on local democracy, as brought into stark focus at Grenfell. In this Guardian article Anna Minton looked at local authority registers of hospitality which detail some of the interaction between politicians and these feudal relics. In particular she points to Nick Paget-Brown, the erstwhile leader of Kensington and Chelsea who resigned following the tragedy at Grenfell.  In just one week Paget-Brown

..had breakfast with the Grosvenor Estate, the global property empire worth £6.5bn, and lunch at Knightsbridge’s Carlton Tower Hotel. This was paid for by the Cadogan Estate, the second largest of the aristocratic estates (after Grosvenor), which owns 93 acres in Kensington, including Sloane Square and the King’s Road.

Maybe if Paget-Brown had spent less time with the wealthy in expensive restaurants and more time considering the needs of the poorer of his constituents the disaster may have been averted.

In Britain we need to recognize that the old aristocratic families are not some sort of harmless eccentric relic from the past but exert real unaccountable influence on our daily lives wherever you

My Paper to the Shelley 2017 Conference on Reclaiming His Radical Republicanism

I had the great honour in September to present a paper on the radical republicanism of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and how it influences my political activity.  I reproduce it here.

Reclaiming Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Radical Republicanism

1.  Introduction

A number of works have analysed Percy Bysshe Shelley’s (PBS) poetry from a proto-left viewpoint (e.g. Paul Foot 1981*). This paper, however, considers the issue of Shelley’s radical political philosophy with specific attention to Republican principles.

Clearly, PBS could have known nothing about socialism or communism. So any analysis based solely on these principles risks misrepresenting fundamental points of his ideology.  Viewing his work within a contemporary setting not only brings his political concepts on liberty into focus but reveals a surprisingly strong relevance to current concepts of republicanism.  Over the past 40 years researchers such as Quentin Skinner have revealed aspects of republican thinking lost to us for two centuries whilst others have set about the task of evolving them for the 21st Century. When PBS was at the height of his powers liberalism was starting this process of marginalizing republicanism but Thomas Paine and William Godwin, amongst others  would have exerted a strong influence on Shelley.

To illustrate the points, the paper focusses on two of Shelley’s poems where the republican vision is most highly developed, Mask of Anarchy and Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things along with the sonnet England in 1819.

2.  What is Republicanism?republicanMag

In popular conception Republicanism has become synonymous with anti-Monarchism.  But its history and development is vastly richer and it is more accurate to characterise it as ‘anti-Slavery’. The seeds date back over two and a half thousand years when the Roman Republic was established following the defeat of the ruling Tarquin Kings in 509BCE. Indeed our modern word is derived from the Latin res publica meaning ‘public matter or affair’.  The early Roman republic bears little similarity to our current idea of Republicanism but we, along with PBS, owe a great debt of gratitude to that great statesman and lawyer Marcus Tullius Cicero (106BCE-43BCE) for codifying the fundamental tenets.  Predictably for a society heavily dependent on slavery it was important to define just what a constituted a free person.  It is this formulation as an individual free from domination which provides a golden thread right from that era, through Shelley’s time to the present day.

The goal of early Republicanism was to establish the political; system which most effectively liberated citizens to protect their city-state. But around four hundred years ago a significant mutation occurred and republicans began to reformulate the ideas of non-domination explicitly in terms of citizen rights.

So how can we characterise modern republicanism? Professor Stuart White of Jesus College Oxford suggests four overarching principles:

1. Individual freedom defined as not living at the mercy or largesse of another (the famous nondomination doctrine).

2. An economic and social environment promoting and serving the Common Good.

3. Popular sovereignty, appropriately inclusive of all citizens and excluding oligarchic rule.

4, Inclusive and widespread civic participation by citizens.

I shall show how each of these principles are present in the works by PBS under consideration. These ideas were radical in the early eighteenth century and, I argue, are still radical today.

3.  Freedom as Non-Domination; Core RepublicanismLibertySlavery

At the heart of republican philosophy lies a definition of freedom as non-domination or the absence of the condition of slavery.  Non-domination is a far stricter doctrine than non-interference which forms the basis of liberal and libertarian ideology. Non-domination asserts that not only must an individual or group be free from arbitrary influence by another, but further, there must be no possibility of such influence. This guards against the benevolent master condition who allows his slaves latitude and possibly wealth, but could change his attitude at any moment. It is in these terms of slavery which PBS grounded his idea of liberty.  So in the Mask of Anarchy we find:

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 late Paul Foot in The Poetry of Protest asserted that slavery is economic exploitation. For a republican this is a narrow and incomplete view which fails to take into account the myriad other ways which slavery can occur, for example gender oppression which concerned PBS. Again in Mask of Anarchy we find:

‘Tis to be a slave in soul
And to hold no strong control
Over your own wills, but be
All that others make of ye.

4, The economic and social environmentwordcloud

But republicans do agree with socialists that sufficient economic resources are essential to individual freedom.  At first, however, republicans took a hardline stance.  Cicero, for example, says this in de officiis:

..vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labour, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery.

But as the Industrial Revolution evolved along with the concept of the Free Contract, wage-earning per se was not viewed as slavery in itself but rather the lack of agency to contest the conditions of the contract. This is what concerned PBS and economic hardship is a frequent theme in the works under consideration.

Continue reading “My Paper to the Shelley 2017 Conference on Reclaiming His Radical Republicanism”

Knowledge Must Be Decided by Investigation and Debate, Not Determined By Government

The enemies of freedom have always charged its defenders with subversion. And nearly always they have succeeded in persuading the guileless and well-meaning.

Karl Popper: The Open Society and its Enemies

Since Theresa May was appointed Prime Minister in the summer of 2016 we have seen an unprecedented attack on citizens and organisations legitimately voicing opinions counter to Government policy. There was the spectacle of Theresa May claiming from the steps of Number 10 that anyone opposing her view of Brexit was a ‘saboteur’. This was followed by the horrendous traducing of Gina Miller for exercising her legitimate right to ask the judiciary whether the Government was acting within its remit to bypass Parliament when triggering EU Article 50. Judicial Review is a fundamental freedom which everyone enjoys.

Now we have Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris, a Government Whip no less, demanding that Universities divulge the names of any of their academics working in the field of humanities who may lecture on the possible implications of Brexit. This chilling and dangerous move is the most recent of Government attempts to stifle academic examination of their policies.  During the Brexit campaign there was Michael Gove attempting to trash the value of expert opinion.  A little earlier in 2016 it was revealed by the Observer newspaper (during February in this article) that the Cabinet Office was imposing new rules from May 1st 2016 which would effectively censor recipients of Government grants from using their results to lobby for a change in policy.  After a high profile protest by senior scientists, including the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees, the Government partly backed down (report here).

The Heaton-Harris attack bears a depressing similarity with the others.  The victim whether it be Gina Miller, an economics academic or simply a citizen exercising their rights of free expression, is accused of dark motives, of sabotage or subversion. The implication, often made explicit, is that the accuser, unlike the victim, is patriotic, democratic and the true defender of liberties.

Aside from the fear of persecution which this engenders, the general intellectual climate which this is producing is complete cynicism and disrespect for open debate. Attacks on academics damages a belief in independent inquiry and conviction arrived at by rational means. This means that knowledge becomes a political issue to be decided by Government rather than investigation and debate.

Heaton-Harris has been condemned and described as an ‘idiot’ for demanding information from University Vice-Chancellors.  But such ignorance cannot be accaptable for a democratic representative and Government Whip.  It is not often that you will find me mentioning classical liberal theorist F.A Hyek in this blog But in this case I think he was absolutely correct when he wrote in The Road to Serfdom (in a chapter entitled the End of Truth):

That in the disciplines dealing directly with human affairs and therefore most immediately affecting political views, such as history, law, or economics, the disinterested search for truth cannot be allowed in a totalitarian system, and the vindication of the official views becomes the sole object, is easily seen and has been amply confirmed by experience.

It is a mark of just how far liberal voices have been sidelined in  the modern Tory party to be replaced by an aggressive authoritarian conservatism. The fact that Heaton-Harris has not been relieved of his post is a testament to this fact.



Reform or ‘Revolutionary Acts’

In a short but hard-hitting recent post titled Our rotten state will be replaced, Richard Murphy advanced the thought that the economic impact of leaving the EU without a deal will be finally too great for many people to bear. Citing the example of Jacob Rees-Mogg he wrote:

The real opposition will come when people have simply had enough of the imposition upon them by a corrupt elite hanging on to power in an obviously illegitimate democracy that hands them authority in a way that society clearly does not want.


…peaceful demonstration that makes clear that those who have thought themselves able to rule must give way to those with the publicly backed authority to do so will become too strong to resist.

Murphy goes on to fervently hope that the revolution will be peaceful.  I agree, but what I think he is getting at is not a revolution per se but  ‘revolutionary acts’. This is why.

It is popular on social media for people to call for a revolution. But as the comments on Murphy’s post point out, revolutions have a very low success rate when it comes to delivering a comprehensive lasting transfer of power and improvement in conditions for the majority. Revolutions which involve mass popular uprisings are bloody affairs, Syria being an example.  Although estimates vary it is likely that between 5% and 10% on the population was killed during the English (more correctly British) Civil Wats of the Seventeenth Century. That equates to between 3 and 6 million people in today’s terms. Alternatively, a revolution can come in the form of a coup enacted by a small powerful elite. But the chances of you or I benefitting are vanishingly small with a high risk of it resulting in a state which is tightly controlled and oppressive.  Finally there is the almost guaranteed counter-revolution which may come very quickly or many years later.  As examples look at the restoration of the English Monarchy while the American Constitution as sometimes regarded as a counter revolution which handed power back to a small elite following the egalitarian instincts of 1776..

So  revolution is often associated with violence or open warfare.  But a revolution means changing the way a country is governed. This implies we can consider ‘revolutionary acts’ as involving the transfer of power from one person or group of people to another larger and more inclusive group. In Britain today this would mean a transfer of away from those who have usurped it (a Government elected on a minority of the vote; powerful ‘too big to fail banks’, to take merely two examples) or inherited it (the aforementioned Rees-Moggs or the oft-overlooked British aristocracy) to genuinely accountable representatives.

I agree with Richard Murphy.  Iceland, along with many other examples in recent history clearly shows that peaceful revolutionary change is possible. But it must start soon. Remember that our system is not broken.  It is working exactly as intended. It simply never was set up to deliver real power to you or I!

The Great Repeal Bill Irony; Not only Dangerous but Deeply Unpatriotic

L0019663 Burke and Hare suffocating Mrs Docherty for sale to Dr. Knox
Burking Poor Old Mrs Constitution by Wm Heath

But they who subvert free states, and reduce them to the power of a few, are to be deemed the common enemies of all the zealous friends of liberty.

Demosthenes: The Oration for the Rhodians

In previous posts (here and here) I considered the idea of patriotism as a vibrant sense of community along with the idea of patriotism as making your country a home for liberty.   In both cases I emphasised a clear distinction between patriotism and nationalism, pointing to a strong international and inclusive idea which patriotism emgemders. But while the ideas sound great, are they enough to support a robust sense of patriotism?

The Poet Shelley Laid Down the Principles of Patriotism……..

In my first post I showed how some lines from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley cut through to the central issues of patriotism. I want to do so again but flesh out the ideas a little more fully and apply them to our situation today. Here is Shelley, once again from Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things:

Patriot, dissolve the frightful charm,
Awake thy loudest thunder, dash the brand
Of stern Oppression from the Tyrant’s hand

What is Shelley saying?  He is pointing out that citizens often need to be proactive in protecting their liberty. What is more, with the phrase dissolve the frightful charm he is alerting us to the fact that oppression can arise unseen until it is too late, something very relevant to our current situation. Now compare the above quote with the one from Mask of Anarchy which I used in my earlier blog post. Here is what Shelley wrote:

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

I argued that this version of patriotism views citizens as committed to a principle of openness and justice which requires strong accountable institutions to assist them. Further, this concept is inclusive because ethnicity is irrelevant while still anchoring us to a particular community with no prejudice to other communities. Note that in Shelley’s time two hundred years ago ethnic diversity was only a tiny fraction of what it is today and ethnicity issues were less prominent. So if anything this line has grown in significance. Citizens can join us as immigrants from other regions or countries and instantly be regarded as patriotic as long as they share our ideals of justice and liberty.

…..But Was it Enough?

Such a commitment to our freedom is essential but does it have sufficient motivation for citizens to act if their liberty is threatened? If it cannot stir the emotions then maybe something more is needed. To be fair to Shelley the second passage is prescriptive of what a committed patriot should do, but inspiring a spirit of patriotism in the first place is a different issue.  This is why the first extract is so important. Having revealed the vices by tearing the veil away then the second step is to take action.  It is a political imperative dashing the brand of stern oppression from the tyrants hand’.

Continue reading “The Great Repeal Bill Irony; Not only Dangerous but Deeply Unpatriotic”

The Last Night of the Proms; A Dash of Ancient Feet, Religious Dissent and Republicanism

Opinion over the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms becomes ever more polarised. Increasingly, you either revel the naive jingoism of the second half of the event or it repels you. But I wonder how many of those lauding it as a ‘major cultural treasure’ really know the background of one of its centerpieces, Hubert Parry’s setting of Jerusalem.

The lyrics are from a poem by William Blake, one of the most controversial artists in British history.   He was a religious dissenter and no lover of the established Church of England.  Like many dissenters he held radical political views and was a republican.

A few weeks ago I blogged about the appalling treatment of Eighteenth and Nineteenth religious dissenters such as the scientist Joseph Priestly by the establishment backed ‘King and Church’ faction. Interestingly, despite religion playing a prominent part in most of his works, Blake was a firm friend of revolutionary thinker Tom Paine.

So what about Jerusalem? The symbolism behind the words is shrouded in considerable mystery and the dark satanic mills are a particular point of contest.  They are popularly taken to refer to the oppressive conditions of factories endured by the lower classes during rapid industrialisation. But another interpretation suggests the satanic mills are the Anglican churches and cathedrals, yet another insisting that they represent the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

The published setting for Jerusalem, more correctly known as And Did Those Feet in Ancient Times is an issue rooted in republican history.  Written in 1804 the poem is part of a preface to a two volume poetic work called Milton: A Poem in Two Books.  The Milton in question is none other than the great republican poet John Milton who was at the height of his powers during the Commonwealth and Protectorate of the 1650s following the English Civil Wars.

So when the Prommers are bursting their lungs to Jerusalem they are indulging in a work with its roots deep in religious dissent and republicanism.  Personally, Blake is not the radical I warm to most, with his firebrand advocacy of religion I am more at home with the secular sympathies of Paine.

I would like to think that including the piece in the Proms is an acknowledgement of the importance of dissent to British society. Alas that would be self-delusion and it is likely that the majority of revelers couldn’t care less about the words and are genuinely ignorant of our radical or dissenting past. But they are hardly to blame, living in a culture which promotes a historical narrative of monarchy, privilege and empire and marginalizes the story of the long struggle for rights and freedoms for us all.

No Time for Modern Art? That is What Politicians are Counting On!

Impossible Cube from Belvedere   by M.C Escher

A  few weeks ago I wrote about the Duchy of Lancaster and how this institution uses ambiguity as a tool in its armoury of protecting privilege.  Then, last week Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator David Davis made the following claim about Britain’s negotiating position.  Responding to criticism that the Governments position is unclear he said:

You will find it difficult sometimes to read what we intend, That’s deliberate. I’m afraid in negotiations you do have constructive ambiguity from time to time.

So it seems a good time to revisit the idea of ambiguity in politics. As some of the more destructive ideas have emerged from the world of contemporary art it is useful to see how ambiguity, disguise and misperception is exploited in this domain. We can then see more clearly how they have been deployed to unsettle and confuse us.

Potential Images; Imprecise and Disturbing

In his book Potential Images: Ambiguity and Indeterminacy in Modern Art, Dario Gamboni writes that

Ambiguity may be defined as the character of what is susceptible to different interpretations. It can also be said to express the character of ‘what belongs to two interpretations’ and of ‘what lacks precision and disturbs’.

Lacks precision and disturbs will be recurring themes.  Gamboni was writing about the visual arts but makes it clear that ambiguity is widespread and present in all contemporary art to some degree.  Partly as a result of the methods of communication employed and partly due to greater familiarity with sonic art on my part I shall focus on how the ideas work out in music.

Continue reading “No Time for Modern Art? That is What Politicians are Counting On!”