On 20th March 1793 William Murray, 1st Earl of Mansfield died. It is not often that I blog in support of the memory of aristocrats and bluebloods, but there are exceptions. Mansfield is one of them.
Born in 1705 he was one of the most powerful legal figures in eighteenth century Britain, at various times holding the post of Solicitor General, Chief Justice and Attorney General. His judgements echoed the Age of Enlightenment and were instrumental in paving the way for the abolition of slavery and the slave trade. One of Mansfield’s most famous cases was Somerset’s Case (1772), where he held that slavery had no basis in common law and had never been established by positive law (Parliamentary legislation) and therefore was not binding law. While not actually abolishing slavery in the British Empire it was a vital step in that direction. Mansfield stated:
The state of slavery is of such a nature, that it is incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political; but only positive law, which preserves its force long after the reasons, occasion, and time itself from whence it was created, is erased from memory: it’s so odious, that nothing can be suffered to support it, but positive law.
As a British republican I particularly appreciate the following quote from a 1769 case: Rex v. Wilkes
The last end that can happen to any man, never comes too soon, if he falls in support of the law and liberty of his country: for liberty is synonymous to law and government.
The nation of laws is a fundamental pillar of both European Republicanism and the eighteenth century Enlightenment. An example of Mansfield’s rationalist approach can be found in his Letters to the Right Honorable Lord Mansfield (1773)
As mathematical and absolute certainty is seldom to be attained in human affairs, reason and public utility require that judges and all mankind in forming their opinions of the truth of facts should be regulated by the superior number of the probabilities on the one side or the other whether the amount of these probabilities be expressed in words and arguments or by figures and numbers.
No person is wholly good and Mansfield was no exception, numbering opposition to press freedom, nepotism and support for British Government antagonism towards the American colonies on the opposite side of the balance. But his bravery in ruling against enslavement in Britain must surely warrant that he is remembered by history.
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’.
Between 14th and 17th July 1791 a period of sustained rioting convulsed Birmingham. The name given to the unrest, The Priestley Riots, derives from the most notable target of the violence, the chemist, religious dissenter and political radical Joseph Priestley (credited with discovering Oxygen). The trigger for the rioting was a dinner held at the Dadley Hotel in Temple Row organised by radicals and religious Dissenters to mark the success of the assault on the Bastille at the start of the French Revolution. Mobs opposed to the Birmingham Dissenters attacked and burned not only their homes and chapels, but also the homes of people they associated with Dissenters, such as members of the scientific Lunar Society. The details, however, reveals the dark nature of establishment collusion.
According to eye witness accounts local Justices of the Peace Joseph Carles and Dr Benjamin Spencer (an Anglican vicar and, along with Carles, a member of the establishment supporting Bean Club) actively encouraged the mob. Moreover the Under Sheriff of Warwickshire, John Brooke, was heard to issue a ‘guarantee’ of judicial protection to those taking part. Prior to the 14th July banquet, various incendiary posts and leaflets were published about the event, the sources of which are still unclear but highly unlikely to be the Dissenters themselves. Likewise a cartoon was published despicting Priestley holding up a platter and saying ‘The Kings head here’. Except that Priestley was not at the dinner. Today we would call it ‘fake news’!
Events following the riots were also shocking. The magistrates (remember Brooke’s ‘guarantee’) refused to arrest any of the rioters post facto and actually released those that had been arrested at the time. When the Government forced the magisrates to try the riot ringleaders, they intimidated witnesses and subverted the trials. Only seventeen of the fifty rioters who had been charged were brought to trial with four convicted.
The riots revealed that the Anglican gentry in collusion with the judiciary were prepared to use violence against Dissenters whom they viewed as potential revolutionaries . Bear in mind that at that time religious and political revolution were almost synonymous and the Monarch was head of the Church of England (as remains the case). Those campaigning for the religious freedom and political reforms we enjoy today had to be prepared to face uncontrollable mobs.
Following the riots Joseph Priestley was forced to flee Birmingham and set up home in London. But things were justs as bad. Vicious political cartoons continued to be published about him, In a direct parallel to today’s ‘trolling’m letters were sent to him from across the country, comparing him to the devil and Guy Fawkes. Effigies of Priestley and Tom Paine were publicly burned.
Fake news, trolling, vicious media attacks, inciting religious hatred and establishment collusion. Sound familiar?
The deal the Conservative Party struck with the Democratic Unionists to retain their Commons majority raised some interesting issues about the Neo-Conservative project. Moreover, viewed in the context of their election campaign confusion over tax cuts the deep Tory fault lines are laid bare.
In earlier blogs I described the abrupt change in the nature and direction of the Conservatives since the accession to the leadership of Theresa May. In these blogs I pointed to a close meshing of ideologies between Donald Trump in the United States and Theresa May. You can read these posts here and here but the essence of my argument is the Conservative abandonment of the pursuit of neo-Libertarianism to a largely Neo-Conservative outlook.
Although the situation is a complex one the difference hinges on the size of the Government. Neo-Libertarians want to shrink the State and cut taxes, with the austerity policies of David Cameron and George Osborne providing a perfect cover. Neo-Conservatives, however, favour a much larger state (though not at the citizen level) with higher taxes to support it. Like the Neo-Libertarians they want the state withdrawn from the business of extendeing personal rights and protections (the Welfare State) and see a big project (Brexit for example) as the best way of mobilising patriotism, maintaining social cohesion and justifying the destruction of those rights.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this
What went wrong? In my posts I pointed to an influential figure in American right wing politics, David Brooks. A central plank of his idea ifs that you cannot rely on consensus or inclusive politics to drive through a neo-Conservative programme, but instead it must be spearheaded by a closr-knit family (the Trumps) or a strong (and stable!!) individual (supposedly, Theresa May). To the disappointment of the neo-Cons, in the US Trump is proving too incoherent, unpredictable and ill-disciplined to really make an effective impact. As we have seen in our UK election, Theresa Mat has proven to be uninspiring, uncharismatic and incompetent. Any similarity between May and a Boudicca/Britannia figure evaporated very swiftly during the campaign and she proved to possess almost no talent to persuade anyone to follow her in a bonfire of rights in exchange for national greatness.
The attacks in Manchester and Borough Market, the Grenfell Tower Fire. Confidence in Theresa May is now plummeting faster than the Pound after the Brexit vote. But Theresa May is not solely to blame. Remember that the Conservative Party made her leader with no contest and Conservative MPs voted for a Government destabilising election on the eve of Brexit talks. But beyond that there are issues of rights and resources in society which we must all confront.
The events of the past few weeks illustrate some vital points about the rights and resources wielded by different groups in this country. During the election the Government, of course, tried to pretend that it was planning a great extension of rights while in reality presiding over a de facto trashing of them.
Firstly the terrorist attacks. As usual following a terrorist attack various Ministers appeared in front of the cameras and pretended to talk tough. Once again the spectre of the repeal of the Human Rights Act was mooted along with withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. Dark threats of yet more snooping powers were mooted. Yet, it emerged that the terrorists were already known as a danger by the authorities. The problem was much less to do with lack of information and much more a problem of lack of resources and, crucially, the reduction of 20,000 police officers which has hit local community policing hard. Despite what Theresa May and Amber Rudd say, the authorities are calling for more resources not more powers. Judging by the election result it seems that people are getting this message.
Now look at the issue of the Grenfell Tower fire. Again, it was not a problem of lack of information, the residents were well aware of the dangers and local representatives tried to raise the issue of fire safety on numerous occasions. Although far too early to tell there is every likelihood of criminal prosecutions being brought when the facts are assessed. But while the idea of ‘Corporate Manslaughter’ is an attractive one it will almost certainly mean a fine and nothing will really change. What is needed is a nationwide culture shift
So again, it is an issue of resources. The wealthy, including those of Kensington and Chelsea can afford to buy the resources they require including legal assistance to get things done. The less well-off cannot. We can do some things immediately. These include recourse to systems of contestability we have lost. Access to Industrial Tribunals (removal of punitive fees) and restoration of widespread Legal Aid is imperative, especially after Grenfell. Far beyond that there must be systems which allow for the support of groups and resources to take concerns to the highest level and get action.
The methods of putting such systems of support for local groups and enabling them to have proper and meaningful representation in the corridors of power are not unknown and cities around the world have been developing techniques such as citizens panels, peoples tribunals and active participation for years (although far from perfect, in the UK the Peabody Trust points to a possible route forward as I suggest in this post).
Enough of the meaningless platitudes of an authoritarian Government and their ripoff landlord allies. Time for true methods of contestability in this country.
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!
In her letter to the European Commission formally giving notice of the UK triggering Article 50 to withdraw from the EU, Theresa May made specific reference s to two areas of policy, economics and security. Linking these was widely interpreted as a veiled threat to ensure a more benevolent negotiating position from the EU countries. While this may be correct it is far from the whole story. There was another audience – us! Economics and security go to the heart of the disastrous policies which this amoral government is intent on pursuing.
Focussing on economics and security as a combination (as opposed to say, social policy or the environment) is entirely consistent with Theresa May’s pursuit of the kind of autocratic neo-Conservatism I have alluded to in anearlier post. The implicit threats of a ‘bonfire’ of red tape presents a real danger to the rights and conditions of working people. This means that Sports Direct and JD Sports warehouse conditions will become the norm rather than the exception. Add this to Chancellor Philip Hammond’s threat turn Britain into an offshore tax haven, effectively ending the possibility of adequately funding public service provision and the scene is set for wage slave conditions and the return of the workhouse. May’s clever move was to present such a prospect up front in an attempt to gain misplaced patriotic support at the expense of individual rights, as I pointed out here. The argument will be that we shall need to work in this manner in order to show the big bad EU that we can run a ‘successful economy’. You can almost hear the rhetoric now; cutting red tape to unleashing the creative potential of plucky Brits in the ‘gig economy’ to thrash those Johnny foreigners in the EU! In reality the only things unleashed will be the size of the bank accounts for the likes of Philip Green and Mike Ashley.
Consider the second point of emphasis, security. As a result of the events in Westminster Parliamentary attacks, Home Secretary Amber Rudd is already proposing breaking into encrypted messaging services in the name of ‘security’. This is in spite of the evidence to suggest that it was a lone wolf attack, the most difficult to stop using correspondence surveillance. But the revelations from the CIA reveals that without strict and accountable line of authority such technology cans be used for more than just extremist terrorism. There is nothing to stop future governments (also conceivably led by that nemesis of Human Rights, Theresa May) broadening ‘threat’ to include the EU itself if negotiations go wrong (as seems likely) or ‘environmental activists’ as has already happened in local instances. As I mentioned in a previous blog, Government can harness the natural instincts of people to gather closer together for protection.
The autocratic part? Aside from continued attempts to exclude Parliament from taking an active part in Brexit, todays white paper on the Great Repeal Bill makes specific reference to the Government taking ‘delegated powers’. Even as it stands it is anticipated that up to 1000 instances of Ministers making alterations to statute while bypassing Parliament will occur. The likelihood is that number will explode with ample opportunity for the Government to sneak through legislation which is only remotely related to EU separation.
Make no mistake, the Article 50 letter was as much for our consumption as for the EU Commission. Brexit has provided the perfect opportunity for the Government to pursue its neo=Conservative policies. But they were going to be pursued anyway. If Brexit had not happened another pretext would have been found.