Ethical Patriotism: Making a Home for Liberty

‘wherever they enjoyed liberty, there they thought themselves at home’

John Toland

In pursuit of radical politics and UK republicanism I hate ceding ground to the opposition. But it seems that all too often we avoid certain issues in a misplaced idea that they are ‘bad territory’ for us. History and tradition is one such issue.  The establishment controls the historical narrative to the extent that most popular history is about monarchs, empires and generals. So a huge area is left uncontested, leaving people ignorant of the great deeds of Levellers, Chartists and Suffragettes to name but a few.

It would be churlish not to recognise that things are changing. For example, we now have an English Civil War Centre at Newark (so Republicans can at last start talking about it!) and an increasing number of excellent books on radical and people’s history. But, alas, the media is largely silent and education is often woeful. Similarly with art and literature. I am happy to join with others to promote the great work of the poet Shelley, but even so the Chartist poets remain largely forgotten and there are excellent contemporary poets such as Spike the Poet from Corby struggling for recognition.. Their work is inspirational.

Another subject is patriotism.  I have blogged previously about an alternative, and I consider correct, view of patriotism to the popular one which owes too much to nationalism and jingoism. But I want think about extending that concept of patriotism to involve a love of your country as a home for liberty.  Patriotism in this sense strives not only for a just and free society at home, but seeks to make sure we act justly beyond our borders (what price arms sales to Saudi!), Writing about the ideas of Marcia Baron (more here) who worked on this ethical patriotism, Igor Primoratz said:

A patriot of this, distinctively ethical type, would want to see justice done, rights respected, human solidarity at work at any time and in any place….She would be proud of the country’s moral record, when it inspires pride.

But thee are other aspects to this view of patriotism. Now, obviously, you can only enjoy liberty at the place where you are currently and not where you were born, assuming they are different. This feature makes it ideally suitable for a world where so many people are moving around, both within and between nations and continents. Maurizio Viroli put it another way. Writing about the author of my opening quote, John Toland,  he pointed out that in his conception:

As long as the fundamental value that inspires love of country is liberty, one can find this country elsewhere. 

Am I a patriot? Yes. I believe that we in these islands can develop a genuinely free and just society, but we have a long way to go. I am a patriot because I am prepared to work towards that day and not give up.  I guess that places me in the ‘ethical patriotism’ camp. But here is the thing.  I believe that there are Irish people, French people and people in every nation who wish the same thing. I encourage, support and applaud them   Tom Paine also believed this kind of internationalism and I think he was correct.

Lastly, if Martin Luther King can have a dream, so can I. My dream is that one day the the current international race based on resources and war is replaced by a new one.  This new race will be to extend ever greater liberty to their citizens. One of the criteria for winning the race will be to assist other nations with their goals of liberty, to free citizens from domination by hunger, debt and violence. To free them from religious persecution, homophobia, sexism or any number of other prejudices That this race is endless and cannot be won but must be run.…

OK, so MLK had a better dream than me.  I can handle that!

What Does the Grenfell Tragedy Tell Us About the Health of Representative Democracy?

SParticipatory DemocracyThat the Grenfell Tower disaster was a profound human tragedy is beyond dispute. Likewise, by general consent, the response of the non-emergency authorities was far from acceptable.  A remote and out-of-touch local council which suppressed opposition by disregarding it or actively mocking the attempt of representatives to challenge decisions. An inability to fully grasp the enormity of the problem and slapping away offers of help was mirrored by a central Government slow to react and seemingly incapable of displaying any understanding for the plight of homeless and bereaved citizens.

Now that a period of reflection is setting in, many officials are still in denial, repeating the mantra that we need to wait for a full inquiry before we know the cause of the blaze.  Within a narrow remit of the local conditions in Kensington and wider building regulations there is some sense in this, but you cannot escape the feeling that the aim is to delay and hope that by the time an inquiry reports back someone else will be in charge.

Representative democracy alone is failing us.

In an earlier post I pointed out that we need a complete rethink of rights and resources which can be wielded by citizens and civil organisations. But the possibility of such a review was immediately cast into doubt by the actions of Theresa May.  A few days after the disaster and clearly feeling the weight of public anger and resentment she agreed to meet with representatives of the victims. But where was the meeting held? In the privacy of Downing Street, which presumably left May in her comfort zone but must have been at least a little daunting to the representatives.  So why not at a neutral venue? There is no doubt that neighbouring local authorities would have been willing to have hosted such a meeting at short notice given the enormity of the disaster. But I think there is something deeper at work here than just another example of the lack of insensitivity to citizens by the Prime Minister.  It displays a fundamental fear by politicians of losing power or control; an inability to share authority where it really matters most.

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Exceptionalism Corrodes the Relationships Which Drive Progress for Everyone

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Cassini’s copy of Newton’s Principia with inscription by Halley (© Observatoire de Paris)

In 1687 the great English astronomer Edmund Halley (of the comet fame) sent an inscribed copy (image left) of Isaac Newton’s freshly published Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica to Giovanni Domenico Cassini, Director of the Paris Observatory.  Think about this for a moment. A copy of the most important thesis of the day (the foundation of Gravitational Theory and Mechanics) by an English scientist sent to an Italian scientist working in a French observatory.  This pattern repeats itself decade after decade, century after century, right back to the dawn of civilisation. Indeed one theory of archeology now views Stonehenge as the epicentre of a Britano-Near European network.

Now, I am as proud as anyone of our great history of Shakespeare and Shelley, Newton and Darwin, Turner and Constable, Stephenson and Brunel, Locke and Hume.  I am also proud of the work the establishment wants to forget, by Tom Paine for example or James Harrington or Algernon Sidney. But in this post I want to place the work of these greats in context, as part of progress viewed as relationships cultivated with colleagues throughout Europe and beyond. They are classed as some of the greatest luminaries, but not exceptional in the sense that they stand apart from other greats. It is the relationships which count as much as anything.

Magna Carta was part of a pan-European movement….

My Halley-Cassini example dates from the 17th Century when the Age of Enlightenment was getting under way. But I want to briefly travel further back to 1215 and the iconic Magna Carta. A mountain of literature has been generated by the Great Charter along with some grandiose claims.  For example, it is purported to be the birth document of democracy, which it isn’t and a protector of liberties, but only for some. What is important is that it placed limits on the king’s power which was subject to the law.   But charters were common in early medieval Europe both individually in terms of personal wills and in more general terms through the granting of rights and privileges to groups of people such as towns and cities. Some included promises of protection and justice by a King but the most important charters were issued by the Pope as Papal Bulls.

Of importance was the so-called “Statute of Palmiers issued three years earlier than Magna Carta in 1212 and the earliest constitutional document of France.  Issued by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester (his son, also Simon, is more well known to us as playing a crucial role in the founding of Parliament), the Statute was sealed and guaranteed by six French bishops. It includes more than fifty clauses, prohibiting the sale of justice, dealing with the rights of heirs and widows, and promising not to enforce military service from his tenants except in return for pay. Through de Montfort and others the Statute of Palmiers was known in England and covers much the same ground. But in turn, Magna Carta influenced Europe. For example, the  Golden Bull (a Bull was a kind of seal, by the way) of 1222 was a charter issued by King Andrew II of Hungary under duress from his nobles. Like Magna Carta this was one of the first examples of constitutional limits being placed on the powers of a European monarch. So though Magna Carta was unique in scope and ambition it was fully in keeping with developments elsewhere.

….while the Age of Enlightenment was truly international collaboration.

Now back to my first example.  The Age of Enlightenment was a supreme example of natural philosophers, political thinkers and artists collaborating across international boundaries, this time including North America. For example, American founding father Benjamin Franklin visited Europe frequently and contributed actively to scientific and political debates here, returning with the latest ideas to Philadelphia. Vital to the development of the Age of Enlightenment was a separate but associated phenomenon which has been termed the Republic of Letters.  It started in the literary sphere and was initially a purely intellectual exchange consisting of a network of thinkers such as Voltaire and John Locke. The Republic of Letters was facilitated by more efficient transport in the Seventeenth Century and secure postal services grew rapidly New associations such as the Royal Society provided centres where ideas could be presented and promulgated. Similar societies sprang up in France and Germany and were vital in helping local intellectuals contact like-minded thinkers elsewhere in the Republic of Letters

The political and social transnational effects were cataclysmic. The English  Revolution of 1642-1649, combined with the work of emigrant Englishman Tom Paine was a vital influence on the American Revolution which in turn hugely influenced events in Europe during the French Revolution. In science the aforementioned Edmund Halley travelled all over Europe before influencing Newton’s decision to publish his ideas on gravitation which changed the course of science, helping to bring about our modern world. English and Scottish thinkers were crucial participants, but were dependant on ideas gathered through the relationships with workers in other parts of the world.

So what is my point? It is not to belittle the contributions of British (or English/Welsh/Scots/Irish in earlier eras) thinkers and politicians to world developments.  But much of the rhetoric of the British press in papers such as the Daily Mail, The Times and The Sun is now devoted to an exceptionalist view of Britain as being unusual or extraordinary in every way. It is tied to an agenda which I drew attention to in an earlier post. For individuals a sense of exceptionalism damages personal relationships and the same is true of nations. This can only harm our position with the rest of Europe and the world which can only do us (and them) harm. Ironically one of the conscious aims of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters was a measure of independence from Governments and overbearing authority (partly why it was called a Republic).  Whatever the outcome of Brexit and the current sweep of neo-conservative nationalism it is vital not to lose sight of the crucial role of transnational relationships, no matter how brilliant or able the individuals of particular countries prove to be. Mutual respect is vital, relationships matter!

A Progressive Alliance; Short Term Expediency, Not a Long Term Prospect

progallIt has been a long time since British politics was in such a confusing state. The old certainties have collapsed and there is doubt whether Labour really represents working people or that the Conservatives represent traditional shire interests.  So it is perhaps unsurprising that the most hotly contested political events in recent years have been the Scottish and EU referendums with their simple straightforward choice, Yes or No, In or Out.  But with the ascendancy of right-wing libertarianism allied to an aggressive alt-right populism, it is understandable that opposition parties should rethink their strategy.

The defeat of Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond by-election was an event which I warmly welcomed. The argument that he should be supported as a man of integrity in triggering the by-election seemed small compensation set against a London Mayoral campaign where Goldsmith at times mounted deeply unpleasant racist attacks which helped feed a growing climate of intolerance.  But the issue I have is with the use of the term Progressive Alliance to describe the coalition of Liberal Democrat, Green and Women’s Equality Party which triumphed in Richmond. Progressive Alliance can only serve to add to the fog of confusion regarding the platform on which the candidates are standing.  Missing from the coalition was the Labour Party, apparently divided as to the strategic advantage of entering into pacts with other parties.

The Danger: Ineffective Liberalism and a Discredited Centre-Ground

So what is the problem with Progressive Alliance? To be a progressive you must advocate improvement or reform, as opposed to working to maintain the status quo.  But improvement or reform can take many different paths and even when limited to the anti-Zac parties there will be a multitude of approaches as implied by the use of  ‘Alliance’.  In Richmond the Progressive Alliance very effectively mobilized a strong anti-Brexit feeling on the part of the electorate.  But remaining in the EU currently represents the status quo and even arguing the case that remain represents a progressive position leaves the problem of how to deal with the broader disaffection with institutions such as the EU.  It is argued (such as in this letter by Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas) that the core principle of a Progressive Alliance is the election of as many candidates as possible who support a change in the voting system to Proportional Representation. PR really does represent a progressive position which aims to end a deeply unrepresentative system which gives enormous power to a single party agenda based on the wishes of a minority of voters (37% voted Conservative in 2015). But in fact PR is also the aim of UKIP, a major player in the pro-Zac (no pun intended) coalition.

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