Posts Tagged ‘Combination Acts’

Pitt’s Speech Demanding the Suspension of Habeas Corpus During the French Revolution

March 2, 2016

Also going through the book, Your MP, by the pseudonymous ‘Gracchus’, I found Pitt’s speech of the 16th May 1794, asking parliament to pass a bill suspending Habeas Corpus in order to allow the government to round up subversives during the French Revolutionary War.

Now I’ve written a number of pieces on this blog about the origins of democracy in certain strands of theology that stressed the need for representative assemblies and which permitted Christians to overthrow a tyrant. One of the criticisms of this type of history, however, is that it misrepresents how difficult and arduous the process by which democracy emerged in the West actually was. Instead of a being a smooth development in which democracy finally flowered from long, historic constitutional roots, at each stage of the process valuable constitutional freedoms had to be fought for, and were only painfully won. And historians have pointed out that for much of its history, Britain was an authoritarian state, which was all too ready to dispense with its citizens’ ancient freedoms when it suited the governing classes. The classic example of this was the 18th century, when fear of the Revolution across le Manche spreading over here moved the British government to suspend Habeas Corpus and pass range of legislation severely limiting free speech and banning a variety of ‘seditious combinations’, including the nascent trade unions.

Here’s Pitt’s speech:

The monstrous modern doctrine of the Rights of Man … threatens to overturn the government, law, property, security, religion, order and everything valuable in this country, as it has already overturned and destroyed everything in France, and endangered every nation in Europe …

That great moving principle of Jacobinism, the love of plunder, devastation and robbery, which now bears the usurped name of liberty … the arrogant claims of the same class of men as those who lord it now in France, to trample upon the rich, and crush all; the dark designs of a few, making use of the name of the people to govern all; a plan founded in the arrogance of wretches, the outcasts of society …

With some qualifications because of its florid 18th century, this has a peculiar contemporary ring about it. The attack on the ‘Rights of Man’ for example. If you replace that with the European convention on Human Rights, which is based on the French Revolutionary tradition of les droits du l’homme, (excuse my French), then the sense is more or less the same. As is the rant about the ‘arrogant claims of the same class of men as those who lord it now in France, to trample upon the rich.’ With a few alterations, you could put this in the pages of the Daily Mail today and no-one would notice. Really. A few years ago the Mail took it into its tiny collective skull to publish a rant against the French education system. It particularly attacked the elite state schools, which educated the French technocratic and governmental elite. They were nasty, horrendous, undemocratic, and excluded the French hoi polloi. Which is probably true, I dare say. It then started to compare them negatively with the British public schools, which were supposed to be better, and the mark of a freer society. Some of us would argue that it actually shows the alternative.

In fact before the introduction of democracy over here in the form of the acts finally extending the franchise to women and the rest of the working class, the doctrine of universal human rights really wasn’t widely adopted over here. The ruling classes thought it was too abstract, and too French. Instead, they linked political rights to property qualifications and the ability to pay certain levels of tax and rates. And you can see that today. It’s carefully hidden, but there is definitely an attitude that if you’re rich, you should have more rights than the rest of us. Willie Whitelaw in the 1980s said that business owners ought to have two votes, as they were responsible not just for themselves, but for their employees. One of the High Tories about twenty years ago wrote a book arguing that we should ditch all the horrendous reforms of the 1960s, and get back to a more stable age before gender equality, the legalisation of homosexuality, when there was better respect for property. He wanted the property qualification restored for jury service, so that people with a responsible attitude to the protection of property would fill the court rooms, passing guilty sentences on those caught infringing the country’s property rights.

So it really doesn’t come as a surprise, given the long history of suspicion by the ruling classes against any doctrine of equality and universal rights, that Theresa May now wants to extend the powers of the surveillance state. Or even that in the last parliament the Tories and their Lib Dem enablers passed legislation providing for secret courts and massively extending the length of time a suspect could be held for trial during their investigation.

Britain considers itself one of, if not the great founding nation of political liberty. Pitt’s speech, and the ominous rise of the surveillance state under Major, Bliar and Cameron, makes you wonder how true this really is.

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Vox Political: UN Criticises Tory Scheme to Legalise Scab Labour

February 17, 2016

Fascist Book Cover pic

Cover of Adrian Lyttleton’s book, The Seizure of Power: Fascism in Italy 1919-1929, showing triumphant Fascists returning from raid on trade union headquarters.

Mike over at Vox Political has posted this piece from The Canary, reporting that the UN’s International Labour Organisation has criticised the Tories’ Trade Union Bill. The bill would legalise the use of workers from agencies to supply labour during strikes. The ILO points out that this would effectively undermine the right to strike, by allowing employers to disregard strike action.

Now cue right-wing ranting in the Daily Heil and the Express about evil foreigners hypocritically attacking noble Britain. No doubt they’ll also rant about how the unions cripple British business, and hold British workers to ransom, forcing them to pay the levy to the Labour party, etc. ad nauseam.

The Tories have always hated organised labour and the trade unions, and have tried to get rid of them since the 19th century, when they passed laws against the as illegal ‘combinations’. Then there was the Taff Vale judgement, which ruled that trade union funds had no protection under law, and so could be pilfered with impunity.

And then there’s the use of scab and blackleg labour by the employers themselves. I can remember hearing from older man I once did voluntary work with, who told me about the way union meetings had to be guarded from infiltration by the bosses’ spies.

And now here comes Godwin’s Law again. With this piece of legislation, we’re back once again with Fascism. The Fascist parties all over Europe hated independent trade unions with a passion, and did their best to destroy them. In Nazi Germany trade unions were banned, for pretty much the same reasons the Daily Heil and the Express spews: they’re evil ‘Marxist’ organisations that exploit workers. In Italy, Mussolini’s Fascists formed their own trade unions to supply blackleg labour and break strikes. Unable to convince the mainstream, Socialist trade unions to join them after the Seizure of Power, they banned them and made it compulsory for workers to join the Fascist unions.

And in Britain the copycat British Fascist groups that sprang up in imitation of Musso’s squadristi had much the same tactics. They included the British Fascisti, who used to career about in vans trying to break up strikes and workers’ demonstrations. Such organisations were extreme Right-wing Tories, rather than independent Fascists. When Oswald Mosley asked one of them what they would do about the corporate state, in which trade unions and the employers’ organisations were amalgamated into giant industrial bodies based roughly on the medieval guilds, their leaders promptly had a fit of the vapours and declared that it was ‘Socialism’. Nevertheless, the Tories continued trying to found alternative trade union organisations to break the traditional Social Democrat organisations. These included a Conservative trade union body, which was dissolved in the 1990s. Its leader then complained that the Tories were doing the work of the bosses. Well, duh! You only just noticed? And then there was the right-wing electricians union, which did the Tories’ work in the TUC and during the miners’ strike.

And if we’re really going to go to the ultimate origins of Nazism, some historians of the Third Reich have traced it to ‘Yellow’ trade unions, set up by the employers for the benefit of their ethnic German employees, and to protect them from competition from Czech and other ‘Slav’ workers.

No doubt we’ll hear a lot of Tory noise about how they’re protecting businesses and the public from the disruption of public services by wicked trade unionists and Socialists. And how they’re freeing the workers from having to enrol in trade unions, though that went long ago when they outlawed the closed shop, or having to abide by trade union decisions.

It’s just more excused to break the unions through scab labour. It also reveals how much the Tories hate the working people of this country, and how close they are to the Black Shirts, Fascists and Nazis.

Cameron’s Francoist Attack on the Unions

October 6, 2015

A few weeks ago Cameron also launched another Tory attack on the trade unions and their right to strike peacefully. Under the new legislation passed by the Tories, a strike is now illegal if a majority of the union’s members do not vote. This is even if the vast majority of those voting are in favour of strike action.

There is also a personally vindictive and totalitarian element in the legislation. Picketers are now required to give their names to the police. It shows very much how the Tories regard strikers and trade unionists as potential, if not actual criminals. Clearly, it’s so the rozzers can keep tabs on them, ready to arrest them the moment someone in the Tory party or the CBI decides that this has gone too far.

The Tories have, no doubt. made noises about how they’re increasing democracy in the trade unions and accountability. It also shows the amazing double standards operating within the Tory party. Cameron is claiming this is democratic, despite the fact that under the same principle, his government is also invalid. The vast majority of the British people did not vote for his government. I suspect that, if past general elections are anything to go by, the majority of British voters decided that there wasn’t much between the political parties, and so didn’t vote at all. If the same principle was applied to Cameron’s government, then it would have to be dissolved, and his nibs face prosecution under the law. But as the old saying has it, ‘The Conservative party is an organised hypocrisy’, and so no such logic has been applied.

The Tories have, of course, hated trade unions since the days of the Combination Acts in the 19th century. They were illegal on the grounds that they were a threat to the operation of the free market. Then, after they were repealed, there was the Taff Vale judgement, which made trade unions liable for damages caused by picketing.

And the Tories have been particularly keen to smash the unions since the coal miners defeated Heath’s government. Their resentment fuelled their determination to destroy the unions and their power utterly with the miner’s strike in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher. Following the highly militarised suppression of that strike, the Tories have passed increasingly restrictive legislation. This is just the latest, and nastiest, to date.

Even David Davies, one of the most right-wing of the Tories, recognised its totalitarian implications. He denounced it as ‘Francoist’. And indeed it is, if not actually Nazi.

Adolf Hitler

Adolf Hitler: Banned Trade Unions as he claimed they exploited the German worker

I know this is close to becoming another example of Godwin’s Law, which states that whenever there’s an argument on the internet, sooner or later someone will accuse the other of being a Nazi or like Adolf Hitler, but in this instance, this is exactly what it is. Under the Nazis trade unions were banned, and their members and organisers sent to concentration camps. Hitler justified his attack by claiming that he was defending the working class from being exploited by them.

And the Tories have made exactly the same arguments. In the 1980s the Sunday Express made much the same arguments in its violent attacks on trade unions. It demanded tough legislation against them on the ground that union bullying was exploiting the honest, British, Tory-voting worker. In particular, it praised the American laws that made strikes in certain vital industries illegal, and which was used to break a strike by American air traffic controllers. It hardly needs to be said that you can read the same kind of arguments, with the same Nazi attitudes, in the Daily Mail.

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David Cameron and the Tories: want to ban trade unions because they are undemocratic and exploit the British worker

As for taking the names of strikers, this is similar to the tactics used against demonstrators and social activists in that beacon of Asian democracy, Singapore. Under their laws, you can make speeches in public about nearly any topic you like at their equivalent of Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park. In order to do so, however, you have to notify the police when you will be speaking, what you will be speaking about, and give your name and address. So far there have been very few people willing to make use of their democratic freedom. Somehow I don’t think the similarity of the Tories’ trade union legislation with this piece of anti-democratic legislation is at all coincidental. The Tories have, after all, told us in the page of Britannia Unchained, that British workers should prepared to work under pretty much the same conditions as the Developing World in order for the country to compete globally. Singapore was one of the Asian ‘Tiger’ economies, whose massive economic growth was admired in the 1990s. Clearly the Tories have decided that if they can’t make the economy grow like theirs, they can at least import their highly illiberal legislation and attitudes.

And once it’s been done to lock up strikers and trade unionists, you can bet it will be used against peaceful demonstrators. They’ve already passed legislation against them on the pretext that they are protecting neighbourhoods from the nuisance caused by masses of people marching through their areas.

It’s another nail in the coffin of British democracy and the destruction of British political freedom and free speech.