Last March (2016) I visited the Houses of Parliament for the launch of the We The People campaign for a Citizens Constitutional Convention. Like most visitors I entered through the Cromwell Gate right past the statue of the man himself. It was a moment of reflection, with Levellers Day approaching (on 14th May 2016, more here) and the issue of democracy and accountability which it inevitably raises.
There is much popular misunderstanding about Oliver Cromwell and people are often confused about his place in history, asking whether he should be viewed in a positive or negative light. The unhelpful answer is both, depending on which aspect of his career is under consideration. As a reformer of the English Civil War Parliamentary forces during the creation of the New Model Army he was invaluable. In particular his organisation of the cavalry wing, the Ironsides was a crucial development in the eventual triumph of Parliament. But increasingly after 1648 he behaved in an autocratic manner, crushing tolerant and democratic forces (such as commemorated at Levellers Day) and culminating in the replacement of the Commonwealth by the Protectorate.
The increasingly repressive methods of Cromwell and his associates such as son-in-law Henry Ireton can be illustrated clearly in one event, which also serves as a warning to us. On March 28th 1649 four Levellers, John Lilburne, Richard Overton, Thomas Prince and William Walwyn were arrested for publishing (on February 26th 1649) a pamphlet called England’s New Chains Discovered (you can read a transcript here). It was a clear and unambiguous criticism of Cromwell and outlined the dangers to liberty of the military government. A crucial worry for the Levellers was the status of the so-called Council of State, the body set up to replace the Privy Council following the execution of the King and declaration of a Commonwealth in 1649. Set up by the Rump Parliament (you can view a transcript of the Act here), its 41 members were appointed rather than elected and Cromwell was its first Chairman. The dangers of such an arrangement were clearly laid out and included the ability of the Council to dissolve Parliament (then consisting of just the House of Commons, the Lords having been abolished) without the necessity to immediately call the next. Another grievance involved the ability of the Commons to create or abolish Law Courts and so subvert the jury system which was regarded as the bedrock of justice. Likewise, the ability of MPs to be the ‘highest final judgement’ was viewed as particularly heinous as it placed them beyond the control of the laws they were enacting. That lawmakers should be subject to the laws they enact is regarded as a vital brake on any system of representative government. Central to all of this was the way in which senior army officers could sit in the Commons thus supporting military rule.
It is sometimes difficult to decide whether a Government decision was the result of incompetence or an unscrupulous attempt to suppress debate. Since we are frequently kept in ignorance, the viewpoint I take often depends of the charity of my current mood. It was revealed by the Observer newspaper in 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 has partly backed down (report here). The problem is that the wording of the exemption is so imprecise that a researcher may be tempted to abandon a funding application for fear of contravening the rules. Likewise the sanction for such a contravention was not made clear
Why is this important? Firstly, it is the duty of all Governments to protect their citizens, not least from their own policies and evidence of such harm must be made public. The attempt to control and suppress such information is redolent of corrupt totalitarian regimes such as Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. Secondly, the Government Minister (in this case Matthew Hancock) seems to have forgotten that it is our money – there is no such thing as Government money. As I argued in an earlier postThe Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th Centuries was built upon the ability to question and challenge authority using reason and argument. This remains true today and public bodies have a duty not to restrict the ability of its citizens to access information which informs such debate. There are many topics at the present time where the evidence is hotly contested, not least in Climate Change, Defence and Social Policy. So do I think the Government is bring incompetent or acting with malice? The original decision to muzzle scientists could be viewed as incompetent but the way in which the Cabinet Office is confusing the situation rather than making a clean retraction is inclining me to view the aim as yet another devious attempt to stifle opposition.
It is not often that I will jump to the defence of The Sun newspaper, in fact this may be the only occasion! So firstly, the facts in brief. On the 9th March 2016 The Sun ran a front page exclusive which claimed that the Queen supported Britain leaving the European Union (Brexit). There was speculation as to the source of this story, including ex-Deputy PM Nick Clegg and Michael Gove, both of which denied the leak. Claiming that the story was inaccurate, Buckingham Palace lodged a complaint with the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). The argument in essentially that the story must be wrong because the Queen is politically neutral and did not, indeed would never, voice such an opinion in public. The Sun has refused to name its source under journalistic confidentiality. So we await the verdict of IPSO chairman Sir Alan Moses with interest.
These salient details are enough to draw a number of conclusions about the iniquity of Monarchy in the 21st century. Lets start with the fact that a free press has not only the right but the responsibility to report stories which are in the public interest. But specifically, there is an inherent unfairness at the heart of judging such a complaint. Firstly any investigation will require the Sun to divulge the source of the story. The paper has every right to defend its source. Roy Greenslade has pointed out the fact that both of the main suspects have vehemently denied the claim together with the fact that the Palace will field a number of other witnesses besides means that the odds are stacked against The Sun. But IPSO will certainly be denied the possibility of calling the one witness who could clarify just what was said at the event, the Queen herself! Consider if it were you or I who complained to IPSO and then refuse to turn up to state our case. We would almost certainly lose – so why should it be any different for the Head of State? At the very worst IPSO should find that the claim was unproven and throw out the compaint. Here is an example of the injustice of a private individual who uses privilege to avoid accountability.
On March 27th 1668 an event took place which has an important lesson for us today with the possibility of a free Trade Agreement between the United States and the UK replicating parts of the stalled Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement making democratically elected Governments subject to Corporate interests. I have written a post about how TTIP would work in practice. Back in March 1668, the restored British monarch Charles II leased Bombay (now called Mumbai) to the East India Company (EIC) for £10 a year. Charles acquired the Bombay islands from the Portuguese as part of a dowry payment when he married Catherine of Braganza. This was all part of a strategy to give extensive autocratic powers to the EIC and over the next couple of years Charles issued five Charters allowing the company rights to autonomous territorial acquisitions; to mint money; to command fortresses and troops and form alliances; to make war and peace, and to exercise both civil and criminal jurisdiction over the acquired areas. The Bombay islands was just one event in a series of significant events over the next 100 years which led to the EIC virtually monopolizing India (except for some minor areas of local control in the South) and becoming so powerful as to rival the British Government itself. This led to a series of Parliamentary Acts during the 1770s and 1780s which separated the commercial and administrative/political functions of the EIC and reasserted the supremacy of Parliament over the corporation. Apologists of the British Empire will point to the economic and administrative benefits of the EIC while avoiding the awkward facts of endemic corruption; massacres; looting of Indian treasures resulting in poverty; numerous famines including the Great Bengal of 1770; and exploitative systems of agriculture including the forced cultivation of opium in place of foodstuffs.
I am delighted to welcome guest blogger Alison Rowland to the Radical I-Pamphlet with a post containing her thoughts on the EU Referendum debate. Alison is a jewellery maker, advocate for social justice and an enthusiast for Labrador dogs and Ancient History. She can be found on twitter as @Rowland35Alison and on Facebook at BlueForestJewellery1
A referendum sounds like such a lovely fair and democratic thing, doesn’t it? Like something the British might have proudly created during that brave experimental time when we had de-capitated one King, and not yet replaced him with another equally as bad. Sadly, history is an object lesson in not learning from our mistakes. Granted, we have evolved to a situation in which our monarch has relatively little political influence, despite retaining obscene levels of wealth and privilege. But we still regularly vote into power people whose background allows them to control and influence the media and effectively buy their power, and then let them use that power to pervert the notion of democracy. And we are about to launch into a ‘debate’ which is already being defined around the notion of ‘sovereignty’ without any real hope that what that actually means will ever really be allowed to surface.
With all this jockeying about for power, its like they’re playing at kings
We have only managed two major referendums, the original EU one in 1975, and the Alternative Vote one in 2011. The first allegedly an exercise in gauging support for the EU which would never be legally or constitutionally binding; the second a bad tempered spat between the then coalition partners over an alternative many didn’t understand, with a disproportionate amount of debate focussing on whether voting Yes would lead to yet more dreadful coalition governments.
If the case of Jeremy Hunt was unique then we could deal with it. But dissembling and evasion appears to be the default approach of Government, one which is not just limited to the Conservatives. I spoke with two people yesterday, one 20 year old and one of 50 who simply view all politicians as devious, narcissistic money grabbers. They considered these vices to be endemic, a basic fact of life which meant there was little point in trying improve the situation. Now, like many other people I fully accept that Government has to keep certain information and discussions confidential. National security is the obvious example. But the UK Government assumes secrecy as a default.
Back to Jeremy Hunt for an illustration. On 8th February The Independent newspaper reported in this article that both the NHS Employers and Hunt’s own Department of Health were prepared to accept a proposal from the British Medical Association (BMA) thus averting the impending Junior Doctors strike. Here it gets a little murky as the paper reports it was ‘sources’ close to the BMA which claimed that Hunt personally intervened to block the deal and crashed the negotiations. ‘Sources’ means that the claim was unattributed and thus not subject to public verification. The following day, however, Hunt was asked directly about the assertion in the House of Commons by Shadow Health Minister Justin Madders. You can view the interaction here.
Instead of answering the question put to him, Hunt takes the usual path of answering his own question. If he did veto the deal then we need to know the reasons. The Department of Health is not his personal fiefdom to do with as he likes. It is not as if Jeremy Hunt hasn’t had other opportunities to set the record straight. For example he could have dealt with it in this article a few days later on 12th February for Conservative Home.