Posts Tagged ‘Great Reform Act’

Bite the Ballot, The Coalition and Youth Voter Apathy

February 5, 2014

Bite the Ballot

This morning, the BBC’s breakfast TV show covered the activities of a new group, Bite the Ballot, which is attempting to combat voter apathy amongst young people and encourage them to vote. The programme showed one of their members explaining to a group of young people that unless they vote, they have no voice in determining important government issues and that somebody would be voting for them. They also interviewed one young woman, who gave the reasons she believed that young people didn’t have an interest in politics. She didn’t take much interest in it, because she felt she didn’t know enough about it. Politics, and the differences between the parties, for example, weren’t taught in schools. And without a proper grounding in these issues, young people simply had no interest in it or voting.

The programme also remarked on the influence of members of the older generation, like Russell Brand, and their cynical attitude to politics and politicians. Brand caused controversy a few months ago by telling people not to vote, because of the complete lack of interest in representing the public by politicians. I distinctly remember Billy Connolly saying much the same thing a few years ago. The Big Yin declared himself to be an anarchist, and urged his audience, ‘Don’t vote – it only encourages them!’

This cynicism and apathy is partly caused by the venality and mendacity of politicians themselves. The expenses scandal that broke out doubtless confirmed many people’s belief that politicians were all corrupt and just in it for themselves. Nor would recent revelations about Clegg and Cameron’s lies about the NHS and tuition fees contradict such opinions. Mike has blogged on the report on the Guardian, pointed out to him by one of the great commenters on his blog, that Cameron made his statement that he would not privatise the NHS, and Clegg declared that he would not raise tuition fees before the general election with the intention that they would not keep these promises once elected. The public was lied to by a pair of cynical media manipulators of whom Goebbels would have been proud.

George Sorel

Georges Sorel: Radical Syndicalist who believed all politicians were liars.

The radical anarchists of the 19th century attacked parliamentary democracy for the way they believed politicians lied to and exploited the expectations of the voting public. The revolutionary Syndicalist, Georges Sorel, declared in his work, les Illusions du Progres that

‘Democracy succeeds in confusing people’s minds, preventing many intelligent persons from seeing things as they are, because it is served by advocates skilled in the art of confusing issues, thanks to captious language, a supple sophistry, and a monstrous apparatus of scientific declamation. It is especially with respect to the democratic era that one may say that humanity is ruled by the magic power of big words rather than by ideas, by formulas rather than by reasons, by dogmas the origin of which no one ever dreams of seeking rather than by doctrines founded on observation’.

Cameron Pic

Nick Clegg

David Cameron and Nick Clegg: Two of the politicians trying to prove Sorel right.

This exactly describes the Coalition, which has indeed deceived – and continues to deceive – the British public, and whose doctrine are neither exhaustively scrutinised by the Fourth Estate, but simply repeated as obvious common sense, nor are founded on observation. In fact, IDS deliberately seeks to obstruct proper examination of his policies by dragging his feet over giving any information to the Work and Pensions Committee, and blocking release of the figures showing the number of people, who’ve died after being thrown off benefit by ATOS.

There are dangers to this cynicism. Sorel’s radical anti-parliamentarianism, and his cult of violence expressed in Reflexions sur la Violence, influenced both the Bolsheviks in Russia and Mussolini’s Fascists. When he died both countries sent delegations to pay their respects.

However, the atrocities committed by the great totalitarian regimes like the above in the 20th century have had an effect in turning many people off politics. Certainly very few now have any time for extremist political doctrines like Communism or Fascism. The result is that most of the population, rather than seek radical answers outside parliament, or the reform of politics itself to make it more representative and more responsive to the needs and desires of the electorate, simply turn away. Faced with dissimulation and corruption, people simply change channels on the TV, or turn to the celeb gossip or the sports pages in the newspapers. ‘How do you tell when a politician is lying? His lips move’, as the old joke went on the late, and very great Max Headroom show.

Which may be exactly what the politicos want. Political journalists noted that Blair’s government was highly suspicious of the general public, and was very careful to stage manage congresses and meetings with them to present Blair in the best possible light. Mass membership of the Labour party declined, as voters felt Blair was not interest in the views of the little people, only in rich donors. The same attitude pervades the Conservative and Liberal parties, which have also seen their membership decline for very much the same reasons.

Not that this bothers Cameron and Clegg. These are upper-class aristos, leading a government of upper-class aristos. I get the impression that their background and temperament makes them instinctively distrustful of modern, mass politics. They’d far prefer that of the 18th and early 19th century, when there was a proper property qualification to vote, which excluded all but 20 per cent of the population from having the vote. This left government in the hands of the aristocracy, like themselves. Mike has reported how the government’s reforms of the registration system for voting will leave many confused and so disenfranchised, which certainly seems in line with such an attitude. Possibly in dark corners of smoke-filled rooms in Whitehall or Chequers Cameron, Clegg and the rest of the old Etonians gather round to complain about how it all should have stopped with the Great Reform Act of 1833, or at least with Disraeli’s expansion of the franchise in the 1870s. After all, the rotten and pocket boroughs weren’t all bad, and at least guaranteed the right sort of people a place in parliament.

nixon

Richard Nixon: the corrupt politician’s corrupt politician. But at least he knew how he put young people off politics.

Richard Nixon had the self-awareness to recognise that his attempts to overthrow the American constitution had put the young and idealistic off politics. In his interview with the late David Frost, ‘King Richard’ said he’d like to apologise to the young kid, who now felt all politicians were liars and frauds. His apology wasn’t sincere. Rather than being spontaneous, he’d carefully prepared it in order to gain public sympathy and wrongfoot Frostie. But even if he said it for purely selfish reasons, he at least was honest about the effects of his actions. There has been no such honesty from Cameron and Clegg. Mind you, they’ve got away with it. Nobody’s impeached them. But we live in hope.

Bite the Ballot are doing an excellent job of encouraging young people to take an active interest in politics. Public turn out at elections is declining alarmingly, to the point where I feel there is a real danger of politics simply becoming the preserve of an elite managerial class, which is funded and co-opted – not elected -from their friends in industry, with the masses kept a very poor second, if at all. If politicians really want people to start turning out at elections and give them a mandate for their policies, then the tenor of much modern politics needs to be changed. The political parties need to turn their attention to recruiting and representing the public, not rich donors. We also need politicians and governors, who can speak simply, clearly and without the management jargon that has now got into modern politics. People with a more ordinary background, who know what it is like to be a member of the working and lower middle classes, who have worked 9 to 5 jobs worrying about take home pay, rents and mortgages, and the difficulties of getting the kids into a good school, rather than the ambitious young things straight out of politics, philosophy and economics courses, and who understand that world only from the statistics they’re given by think tanks, Special Advisors and whichever management consultants or financial firm is the current governments flavour of the month.

But most of all, they can start by actually telling the truth to the public, and not cynically lying just to get a few more votes.

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Books on Radical History, the Working Class and British Democracy: Popular Movements c.1830-1850

January 19, 2014

edited by J.T. Ward (Basingstoke: MacMillan 1970)

Popular Movements 19thc

This discusses the major reform movements in the second quarter of the 19th century, which touched on nearly every aspect of British politics and society. There are individual chapters examining

1. The Agitation for Parliamentary Reform, discussing the campaign for the 1833 Great Reform Act, which expanded the franchise, and attempted to remove some of the most notorious rotten and pocked boroughs.

2. The Factory movement, which campaigned for lower working hours and prohibitions on employing children, or limiting their working hours, and improving conditions for factory workers.

3. The Anti-Poor Law legislation, which attacked the Workhouses set up by the Liberals.

4. Trade Unionism.

5. Chartism. This was the great working and lower middle class movement demanding the establishment of democracy. All men over the age of 21 were to be given the vote, there were to be equal electoral districts, annual parliaments, and MPs were to be paid, so that politics was no longer the province a wealthy elite. Much of their campaigning consisted in the presentation of giant petitions to parliament. It finally collapsed after the mid-19th century, when most of the signatures in its ‘monster petition’ were found to be forgeries, like ‘Queen Victoria’ and ‘The Duke of Wellington’. Nevertheless, it was a vital episode in the campaign for the expansion of the franchise.

6. The Agitation against the Corn Laws. These had been imposed at the time of the Napoleonic Civil War to keep the price of corn high and so ensure large profits for the farmers by excluding foreign imports. The Liberal politicians Cobden and Bright formed the Anti-Corn Law League to attack them, as they made bread and corn expensive for the working class, and so led to misery and starvation.

7.The Irish Agitation. Most famously led by John Stuart Parnell, this campaigned for Home Rule in opposition to the poverty and oppression experienced by ordinary Irish people under British government. One of the most notorious issues, bitterly resented by the Irish were the absentee landlords, who demanded extremely high rents from their tenants while enjoying life across the Irish Sea.

8. The Public Health Movement. This was another reaction against the disgusting squalor and foetid conditions in the Victorian slums, which led to horrific epidemics of diseases such a cholera. It led to the establishment of local boards of health, subordinate to a central board of health, which were to provide help and advice to the poor on problems with food, clothing, ventilation, drainage and cleanliness. It also resulted in a series of studies and commissions investigating the problems of disease, sanitation and living conditions in towns across Victorian Britain. Much of this was done or inspired by the Benthamite Radical, Owen Chadwick.

These movements gradually transformed industrial Britain. Instead of the laissez-faire philosophy towards government that officially informed government policies and ideology, state interference in the economy and society was increasingly accepted as a necessary means to improve conditions in the new, industrial society that was then emerging. This marked the beginning of a new, collectivist approach to politics that gradually became stronger and led to increasing legislation granting increasing political freedoms and improving conditions for the working and lower middle classes.

Resisting Cameron’s Contempt for Parliament: Books Giving a Historical Perspective on British Democracy and Constitution

January 17, 2014

This evening I’ve reblogged Mike’s piece over at Vox Political commenting on the Coalition’s response for parliament’s call for an inquiry into the alarming rise of poverty in the UK. Cameron has ignored it, despite the fact that it was passed by a majority of 127 to 2. Mike and the commenters to his blog have justifiably viewed this as the death of democracy, the day when parliament’s ability to the hold the government of the day to account was finally suppressed. At the moment this isn’t quite true, but it does not bode well for the future. Tony Blair’s tenure as prime minister was harshly attacked by the Conservative press for its very presidential style. The Tories particularly objected to the way Blair ignored parliament when it suited him, quite apart from his reform of the House of Lords. The Conservatives saw him as a real danger to the British constitution and our ancient liberties, and there were a number of books by right-wing authors and journalists proclaiming this very clearly on their covers. Cameron is continuing and possibly accelerating this process and the transformation of the post of prime minister into something like the American presidency, and in so doing running over the constitutional checks to the power of the prime minister.

One of Mike’s commenters has said that for people to be able to challenge this gradual accumulation of power by the prime minister, without recourse to or check by parliament, they need to be informed of how parliament actually works. I haven’t quite been able to find a book I bought a while ago on parliament. I have been able to find a number of books, which give an important historical insight into the development of democracy and the extremely long struggle for a truly representative, democratic parliament. Here are the books I recommend:

Eric J. Evans, The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain 1783-1870
(London: Longman 1983)

Forging Modern State

This is a general history of Britain. I’ve selected it here because of its chapters on the constitutional changes which vastly increased the electorate in the 19th century. These were the Great Reform Act of 1833, and then Disraeli’s further expansion of the franchise in 1870, and the agitation and popular movements that demanded them, such as the Chartists. These show just how hard won the vote was, though it wasn’t until 1918 that every adult in Britain had the vote. The 1870 electoral reform enfranchised most, but certainly not all, working class men, and still excluded women from the franchise.

The book also describes the other major events and crises of that part of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including the establishment of something like a public educational system in Britain, the enfranchisement of religious Dissenters so that they could participate in politics, the repeal of the Corn Laws, industrialisation, the Factory Acts, and poverty. The 19th century is very much a part of political discourse today by both the Left and Right because it was the age in which modern Britain really took shape, and the debate over ‘Victorian Values’ introduced by Maggie Thatcher. Evan’s book as an overview of Britain in the period offers valuable information on that crucial period.

John Miller: The Glorious Revolution (London: Longman 1983)

Glorious Revolution

This was an other vital period in the creation of British parliamentary democracy. It was when the Roman Catholic, Stuart king, James II, was overthrown and the crown given instead to William of Orange. It is obviously an immensely controversial topic in Northern Ireland, because of the way it cemented the exclusion of the Roman Catholics from power, which was held by a very narrow, Protestant elite. Back in 1988, the year of its tricentennial, Margaret Thatcher’s government deliberately chose not to celebrate it because of its highly divisive legacy in Ulster. It’s importance to British democracy lies in the fact that it gave real power to parliament. True, Britain was still a monarchy, not a republic, but its kings and queens now ruled by the consent of parliament. Furthermore, William of Orange was forced to reassure his British subject that he would not override parliament and the traditional constitutional checks and liberties by issuing a Bill of Rights. This became one of the founding documents of the British Constitution during the 18th and early 19th century.

J.W. Allen, A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (London: Methuen)

16th Century Politics

This was first published nearly a century ago in 1928. Nevertheless, it’s still a very useful book. The 16th century was the period when politicians, theologians and philosophers across Europe began to inquire into the origins of their countries’ constitutions, and debate the nature of political power. It was an age of absolute monarchy, when it was considered that the king had total power and whose subjects had no right to resist him. This view was attacked by both Protestant and Roman Catholic political theorists, who developed the idea of popular sovereignty. St. Augustine had introduced into Christianity the ancient Greek theory of the idea of the social contract. The theory states that right at the beginning of human society, people came together to elect a leader, who would rule in order to protect their lives and property. As well as claiming a divine right to rule, medieval kings also claimed the right to rule as the people’s representative, given power through this original contract between the primordial ruler and his people. Under theologians and philosophers like the Spanish Jesuit, Suarez, this became the basis for a true theory of national sovereignty. Just as kings owed their power to the will of the people, so the people had the right to depose those kings, who ruled tyrannically.

These are just three of the books I’ve found useful in presenting the history and development of some of the aspects of modern British theories of constitutional government and parliamentary democracy. I intend to post about a few others as well, which I hope will keep people informed about our democracy’s origins, how precious it is, and how it must be defended from those modern politicos, like Cameron, who seem intent on overthrowing it.