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.
Thomas Jefferson was a leader of the American Revolution, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and a principal author of the 1776 Declaration of Independence. He became the second Vice-President (under John Adams) and the third President. He was a significant thinker and proponent of democracy and republicanism and there are many quotes expounding his ideas of liberty which resonate with us today. One I find significant is:
All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.
Something which we can also identify with is Jefferson’s warning of the dangers of corporatism, which was sadly ignored:
I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.
But the practical working out of his republicanism had a flaw which limited its application as the United States developed through the 19th Century. He was at heart an agrarian and influenced by the Country Party tradition of British politics. He saw society working best when it was a free collection of planters, small traders and smallholders which in many ways was a regressive concept harking back to a perceived agrarian golden era. Lest this be considered a criticism based on hindsight we can compare his ideas with his great friend and contemporary, Thomas Paine. Paine was an urbanite and correctly perceived that in the future land would be used for many purposes other than agriculture. Moreover republican theory would have to deal with the fast emerging capitalist culture. Paine’s solutions were very different and included, for example, the introduction of a Universal Basic Income to compensate the majority of citizens alienated from land ownership.
On Monday evening I listened to a radio news report about the Washington gunman. During the piece two American women were interviewed during which they stated that they were in the city on a tour of national institutions including the Supreme Court. It was a powerful reminder of how many Americans value their rights under the constitution. Now, despite not being a fan of the US Constitution, I wondered just how many Britons people were aware of their rights and how much value they place on them. This is in the context of a disingenuous UK Government who eternally seem to promise a British Bill of Rights ‘by next Thursday’! The fact that the government itself places such a low priority the reformulation of our rights calls into doubt their motives in government.
It was in the summer of 2013 during the Abu Qatada saga that the government considered a plan to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). During that incident and through the subsequent discussion on repealing the implementation of the ECHR in the UK, the Human Rights Act (HRA), it was often forgotten that the rights it asserts protects all of us: black, white, gay, straight..etc. Take an example from my personal experience. The fact that I advocate abolition of the monarchy in writing is clearly protected by the HRA as established in the 2003 Judicial Review brought by Alana Rusbridger and the Guardian newspaper. Although I value my right to freedom of expression very highly, but it is still relevant to consider the problems with enshrining human rights in an International Convention backed by a Court.
For much of our history property ownership was an essential prerequisite to exercise your full rights as a citizen, but now you need an internet connection! To be a citizen can mean a variety of things. At its most basic it is merely a synonym for being a national of a particular country, thus possessing a right of abode. As a consequence of mass migration the question of what it means to be a citizen in this sense is of burning importance at the current time. But the broader concept of a citizen is actually very old, dating back to the ancient Greeks and is closely related to the idea of freedom and political agency.
Later, being a citizen to the ancient Romans meant not being a slave and this idea carries potent implications to the present time. In Renaissance Europe the idea of a citizen was linked military service for your city or state, where you may be expected to serve part-time in a militia or reserve force. As today, much debate took place in seventeenth century England as to the definition of a citizen and whether everyone should enjoy the same rights. The highest level almost always involved the ownership of substantial property and conferred Parliamentary voting rights. At the bottom and often regarded as foregoing citizenship were the poor who received alms or worked for wages (much less common in pre-industrial societies) The emerging idea of a citizen being of independent means is an important one and is acutely relevant today. Crucially, very few definitions at that time included women, unless they were also property holders by widowhood or inheritance.
If citizen is a word plagued by ambiguity then the associated citizenship suffers similar problems. Again, it could mean simply the state of being a citizen, but that gets us little further forward. It is more useful to consider citizenship as a process; of how we take our part as an active member of society. On that basis, citizenship implies that we have various rights and responsibilities, some of which may be withdrawn permanently or temporarily. For example we may consider prisoners as being citizens, but of lesser kind without some rights, such as the ability to vote in elections (though this is being reviewed). In general, as societies developed, so the concept of the rights possessed by a citizen have similarly evolved. In modern western democratic states citizenship brings with it not only a right (or responsibility) to vote, but rights to welfare, education, health care, security etc. This means the necessity for the state to ensure that its people possess the knowledge, skills and means to take advantage of their rights and responsibilities. Moreover citizens must have the confidence to use the knowledge and skills effectively. The responsibilities of citizenship have also evolved, becoming ever more complex. If we take a wider view of citizenship as being actively involved in politics (in its broader sense, not just party based) the situation is similarly involved with a plethora of campaigns which may easily straddle international and even continental boundaries.
Over the past two centuries one political philosopher has divided people more than any other: Karl Marx died today in 1883. You either love him or you hate him. But to simply reject or accept en bloc the ideas of this great man is to do him (and yourself) a disservice. Although I am not a disciple of Marx, there are occasions where I find his ideas are right, or at least enlightening. I’d like to take just one, wage slavery; as a Civic Republican anything which deals with slavery attracts my immediate attention!
Although Marx used it as a fundamental plank in his theory, the comparison between wage earners and slavery is an old one, being mentioned by the great Roman Republican theorist Cicero. In his De Officils he says:
…vulgar are the means of livelihood of all hired workmen whom we pay for mere manual labor, not for artistic skill; for in their case the very wage they receive is a pledge of their slavery.
Cicero’s view that wage earners were dominated by their masters was also common in Seventeenth Century England where many radicals (including Levellers) regarded them as having foregone their freeborn status and thus to be disenfranchised. In their defence, this was long before the industrial revolution changed the sheer scale and nature of earning a wage. Later, Tom Paine took a more collective approach to try and eliminate the problem of wage slavery by support through state funds.
Christmas Day 1642 saw the birth of a baby who would grow up to affect our world in ways unimaginable even to himself. His name was Isaac (subsequently Sir Isaac) Newton. Why does this interest me as a republican? Because as a giant of the Age of Enlightenment his achievement symbolises a way of thinking which was becoming universal. His birth date was, to some extent, ironic. For most of his life Newton was a mystic interested in alchemy and the goal of spiritual purification it represented. Such was the astonishing success of his Theory of Universal Gravitation, however, that by the time of his death in 1726, there are indications that Newton himself had started to consider that a purely mechanical explanation of the Universe was possible.
So what were these new ways of thinking which caused a profound change? The Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th Centuries in Europe entailed the view that an understanding of the world could come from human reason. Enlightenment thinking influenced almost all areas of human intellectual activity including the emerging sciences, art, philosophy and politics. Vital to the movement was an eagerness to question assumptions, to accept no authority as sacrosanct. As JGA Pocock put it:
…the Enlightenment generally [was] based on a complete rejection of prophecy, revelation and the Hebrew mode of thought at large.
J.G.A Pocock: The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition
What form did this new thinking take in the political arena? Before the Enlightenment, monarchs were considered to be the representation of the eternal truth of god which lay beyond time itself. From this we get the idea of a Divine Right of Kings. The notion of a time-bound head of state was literally inconceivable throughout much of Europe following the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise in dominance of Judeo-Christian orthodoxy. The century before the Enlightenment, however, saw rapid developments in political philosophy by a group of thinkers in Florence, Italy and, to a lesser extent, the ‘Serene Republic of Venice’. This explosion of thought in the late 15th and early 16th Centuries, (of which the most famous contributor today is Niccolo Machiavelli) slowly spread through Europe, fostering the idea that a nation could persist without its head of state being linked to an eternal god. Closely associated was a humanist concept which led to a concern during the Enlightenment with ending the abuses of church and state. From now on, liberty, progress and tolerance were to be underpinned by reason. But the move to a separation of Church and State was also attractive to many religious communities. It was all very well the monarch being a representative of god, but what happens if is is not your god? In England this all led to the effective ending of the concept of Divine Right in 1688-9 with the Glorious Revolution and the English Bill of Rights which I have blogged about here. This was only one year after the first publication of Newton’s theory in his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica.
On January 4th 1642 an event happened which, more than any other, propelled England to Civil War. On that day King Charles I entered the Chamber of the House of Commons with an armed guard to arrest five Members of Parliament accused of high treason. They wre forewarned and escaped. Although tensions between Parliament and monarch over finance and religion had been building since the days of Charles father, James I, this event was significant. From this point forward both sides start preparing for conflict. The event is commemorated today during the ceremony of the Opening of Parliament each year. As the monarch is not allowed in the Commons, the queen summons MPs to the Lords chamber. As he approaches the Commons chamber, the queen’s messenger, Black Rod has the door slammed firmly in his face. Sadly history provides numerous occasions since 1642 when the monarch has continued to interfere with parliament.
The poor folk of Cumbria have enough to deal with at the present time and the fact that Atos has the contract for providing the IT Services for decommissioning their local Sellafield nuclear plant is probably fairly well down the list of their concerns. But when the floods have subsided and some semblance of normality returns the one constant in their lives along with the rest of us is the relentless march of unaccountable Corporate interests.
Atos has a well-documented track record of public sector failures including the spectacular termination of the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) contract for the Department of Work and Pensions and the failure of a critical UK Border Agency IT system. Considering one of the criteria for awarding public contracts such as this one for nuclear decommissioning contain elements such as technical capability and experience, the fact that contracts continue to get awarded to these companies is a mystery. Significantly, it is also a mystery to MPs as the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has been heavily critical of the Government in this report (see Section 2 from Page 9 onwards). The fact that nothing has changed is an indictment of our system of democracy.
In December 1776 the American War of Independence was going badly for the rebel Continental Army. Led by a seemingly incompetent commander (George Washington) and in apparently endless retreat, morale was fast draining away. To raise spirits for the struggle ahead the leadership turned to one of the greatest political pamphleteers in history. Tomas Paine published his work The Crisis (or The American Crisis as it came to be known) on 16th December and it was read aloud to the assembled soldiers of the Continental Army on 23rd December. It commences with one of the most famous lines in the history of political activism:
Have you ever wondered why we have a British Army and not a Royal Army or what happened to the Divine Right of Kings?
On December 16th 1689 the Bill of Rights was finally passed as an Act of Parliament (although it had been declared in statutory form since February of that year). This effectively established England as a Constitutional Monarchy with the King or Queen under firm Parliamentary control. Although there were many consequences of the Act I want to point to just two.
Firstly the Bill specifically prevents the monarch from raising an army unless Parliament agrees. The Bill states:
That the raising or keeping a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with consent of Parliament, is against law;