Posts Tagged ‘Kenneth Mackenzie’

The Unemployed and Disabled Need an Elected ‘Guardian and Protector’

March 11, 2014

131109doublespeak

I received this interesting comment from Gay Mentalist to my post on Kenneth Mackenzie’s book on Parliament as a vital resource in this time of constitutional change, and the Coalition’s contempt for representative democracy:

Really interesting post, as you point out, there has been more of a presidential theme in British politics for some years now. I’m often struck by how sometimes people forget that a general election is a series of local elections rather than just 1 national election. Quite often you used to hear people saying “I’m voting for Blair” in the past. They weren’t generally voting for Blair, Brown, Thatcher, Major, Cameron or any of the other leaders, they were voting for a local candidate, with these tv debates, I fear that is something that is getting lost even more. If they want that style of politics then maybe we should have an elected PM? In fact why not go the whole hog and have an elected cabinet? That could make for interesting results!

Unelected Ministers Causing Problems for Unemployed and Disabled

I was thinking about something like that myself, although it was about a very specific set of ministers. I wonder if we actually need the ministers dealing with the unemployed and the disabled to be elected. Left-wing bloggers like Mike over at Vox Political, Another Angry Voice, The Void, Daepac Leicester, Jaynelinney, Stilloaks, Pride’s Purge, myself and so many others have reported the terrible effects the government’s policies have had on the poor, the unemployed and the disabled. You can read about the immense hardship suffered by ordinary people on Diary of a Benefit Scrounger, London Food Bank and Benefit Tales, to name just a few. In addition to the hardship they face is the fact that they have no voice in parliament. The ministers that should be guaranteeing them some dignity, a living income and the hope of something better – the ministers for the disabled and people in charge of the DWP, are those, who are responsible for the creation and implementation of the policies that are the direct cause of their suffering.

No Help from Information Commissioner

And it seems no redress is possible from other branches of the government Simply getting the statistics of the number of people, who’ve died as a result of government policy is nearly impossible. Mike and the other people, who have asked for this information under the Freedom of Information Act, have been refused. Why? When they asked as individuals, it was deemed to difficult and expensive to provide the information for just one person. When others asked for the information, the government decided that this was a concerted policy to inconvenience the government, and therefore ‘vexatious’. More cynically, the government has blatantly stated it will not provide the information as this would cause more people to oppose the policy and block its implementation. In other words, they know the public would find it unpleasant, cruel and immoral, and so the public must now be allowed to know about it.

Workless Camps

Forced Labour Camps for British Unemployed in 1920s

It’s all rather like the forced labour camps set up for the unemployed in the 1920s, about which Unemployed in Tyne and Wear reported on his blog. Most of the records of that truly horrible little piece in British history were destroyed after the policy was abandoned. One cannot help but compare it to the way the Nazis carefully hid the details of their extermination of the Jews and other racial desirables in the death camps. It also raises very awkward questions of how fundamentally different we British are to the continental nations. We tend to see ourselves as more freedom-loving, and so fundamentally freer and more moral than just about everyone else, but the fact that these camps were set up raises questions about whether, if the First World War had gone the other way, and Britain had been defeated and suffered punitive reparations by a victorious Germany, we would also have seen a vicious, Fascist-style dictatorship, complete with the incarceration of political dissidents and the murder of the Jews and other racial or social undesirables in England’s Green and Pleasant Land.

IDS and McVey, two of the ministers responsible, can get away with this as they are not directly responsible to the people, who are the subjects and victims of their legislation. They are appointed by the Prime Minister, and are essentially responsible for carrying out his policies. Hence IDS on Sunday could get away with issuing a tissue of lies about how successful his policies were to Andrew Neil on the Daily Politics.

This cannot go on. It is failing people. Tens of thousands are dying each year as a result, but this is ignored and covered up by this aristocratic government. 23 out of 29 of the ministers in Cameron’s first cabinet were millionaires. 51 per cent were privately educated, and only three per cent went to comprehensives. Cameron believes he was born to rule, and so treats us like serfs.

It’s time this changed.

Guardian and Protector of Slaves Possible Model for Minister to Protect Unemployed and Disabled?

I wonder if we don’t need a ‘Guardian and Protector’ of the unemployed and disabled as a vital, established and directly elected government official, similar to the officials the British government established in their Caribbean slave colonies during the 1820s. This was a period when the government was trying to ameliorate, rather than emancipate the slaves. As a result of a series of truly horrific cruelty cases, the British government passed a series of legislation intended to improve conditions for slaves. This regulated the amount of food they were to be given by their masters, and limited the punishments that were to be inflicted. They also set up a series of commissions to investigate the condition of the slaves, talking not just to their masters, but also to the slaves themselves. The resulting parliamentary reports make fascinating reading. Many of the slaves had quite strong views about their masters, and weren’t afraid to make them known.

The British government also set up specific government post to deal with cases of cruelty and neglect. This was the ‘Guardian and Protector of Slaves’, modelled somewhat on the office of the alcalde in the Spanish colonies. These were responsible for investigating cases of cruelty and neglect upon the request of the slaves themselves. If they judged that the case was ‘frivolous’, the slave would be punished by whipping. If they found in his favour, however, they could punish the slave-owner, and order the slave to be compulsorily sold to a better, more humane master.

Minister for Women in Greek City States

I also read while at College that some of the ancient Greek city states also had a similar official to ensure better treatment and conditions for women. Ancient Greek society was extremely masculine and patriarchal, and the status of women was very low. Nevertheless, as series of strikes by women, similar to the sex strike in the play Lysistrata, had forced at least one of the ancient Greek city states to set up a special government figure to investigate incidents of abuse against them.

Pressure to Guarantee Proper Representation and Treatment of Women and Ethnic Minorities

All the parties are naturally under increasing pressure to increase the representation of women in parliament, and indeed throughout society, including business, science and the arts. There is also similar pressure to ensure that members of ethnic minorities also receive their fair share in our society and government.

Do We Need A Similar Official for Unemployed and Disabled?

I strongly believe that we need an elected official to represent the unemployed and the disabled at Westminster, and that this official should be elected by the unemployed and disabled themselves. There are any number of organisations pressing for their better treatment, like the CAB, but these are seeing their budgets cut, or their findings ignored. I think a way of solving this problem would be to make the ministers, or a minister for them directly accountable, to ensure that their interests were not side-lined, or simply subordinated to general government policy. So that someone like Ian Duncan Smith or Esther McVey can once again bluster and cover up their cruelty and incompetence with smooth lies without fear of tough questions.

Like how many have been killed or died from despair and starvation through the government’s policies.

This is just a suggestion, but I do wonder if others agree. Any ideas?

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Resources for Constitutional History: Kenneth Mackenzie’s The English Parliament

March 9, 2014

Parliament Book Cover

Mike over at Vox Political has several times mentioned that there’s a need for books on parliament because of the way the Coalition has repeatedly interfered with it, or ignored it, when MPs have had the audacity to do something it didn’t like. Like demand a cumulative assessment on the impact of the government’s welfare reforms on the poor and disabled. Mike blogged on this live, as the debate was broadcast from parliament. What emerged from that debate was the government’s absolute and complete contempt for those who didn’t agree with it. They sent about three members of the Tory party to defend the government’s policies during the debate, which shows you precisely how far they feel they have to justify themselves to the nation’s elected representatives at Westminster.

I strongly agree with Mike about this issue. The past two decades have seen profound changes to the British constitution. The most obvious of this was Blair’s reform of the House of Lords, which has resulted in a partly appointed upper house. Other changes have been in the way consecutive prime ministers since Blair have begun side-lining or ignoring parliament. Blair’s administration was strongly criticised for the way he reduced Prime Minister’s Question Time to once a week, and appeared to attempt to stage manage his appearances before parliament as carefully as his other, public appearances were choreographed. The most notorious example of the offhand way Blair treated parliament was in his refusal to hold a proper debate in Westminster prior to the invasion of Iraq. Blair’s regime has been described, with more than a little justification, as ‘presidential’, which causes problems as this is a parliamentary democracy. The Coalition have continued this transformation of the office of Prime Minister into a quasi-presidency. This needs to be stopped, and more power restored to parliament as the expression of the people’s political will, and a check to the growing, arbitrary powers of the prime Minister.

Unfortunately, there appear to be very, very few books actually on the shelves of bookshops on parliament. Looking around the ‘Politics’ section of Waterstones, I can’t remember seeing a single book on it. There are any number of books on other, important political issues, such as the situation in the Middle East, Islamic radicalism in the UK, analyses of the structure of British politics, the European Union, the global policies towards the Developing World, analyses of race relations and tensions in Britain, and questions of poverty, entrepreneurship and so on, as well as books on various political philosophies and tendencies, like Neo-Liberalism. But no book could I see on parliament, what is and does.

One book on the subject I did manage to find was Kenneth Mackenzie’s The English Parliament (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1951). Subtitled ‘A survey of the historical development of parliament describing how and why it has come to work in the way that it does today’, it does indeed trace the rise and development of the English parliament from its emergence from the feudal grand conseil of the king’s feudal lords during the Middle Ages and its foundation by Simon de Montfort.

It has the following chapters:

1. A Court Becomes a Parliament, with sections on the feudal nature of parliament and the arrival of the House of Commons;

2. The Commons Become Legislators, with sections on the position of the commons, and petition and bill;

3. Liberty from Tyranny, with sections on freedom of speech, freedom from arrest, and the power to commit;

4. Rules, Clerks, Records, with sections on the early history of procedure, clerks and journals, and the publication of proceedings and debates;

5. Consent to Taxation, with sections on the final establishment of the consent of parliament to taxation, and the Commons’ gain of sole control over taxation;

6. The Ministry Becomes Responsible to the Commons, with sections on early attempts to control policy, and ministerial responsibility.

7. The Commons Represent the People, with sections on the early history of representation, the reform of the electoral system, and the party system;

8. The Modernisation of Procedure, with sections on procedural reform, 1800-72, obstruction and disorderly conduct, 1877-88, the pressure of business, and the government takes the time of the House.

10. The Commons Control Expenditure, with sections on the history of the attempt, and the modern system;

11. Parliament Delegates Power to Make Law;

12. The Second Chamber, on the House of Lords, which has sections on its composition, its financial and legislative powers, and its jurisdiction.

There is also a concluding chapter 13, The Secret Garden of the Crown, which assesses it history and considering some of the problems facing the future of parliament.

Each chapter is prefaced with a suitable quotation from that age’s leading politicians and constitutional theorists. The two quotes for the first chapter on the origins of parliament give a very good summary of its feudal origins and the role they have played in keeping Britain free from tyranny. The first is by the great 19th century Liberal constitutional historian, Lord Acton. Acton said

The one thing that saved England from the fate of other countries was not her insular position, nor the independent spirit nor the magnanimity of her people – for we have been proud of the despotism we obeyed under the Tudors, and not ashamed of the tyranny we exercised in our dependencies – but only the consistent, uninventive, stupid fidelity to that political system which originally belonged to all the nations that traverse the ordeal of feudalism.

Acton was an ardent advocate of constitutional liberty and an enemy of absolute tyranny. It was Lord Acton who coined the phrase, ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

The second quote comes from the Anglo-Norman legal writer, Bracton. Bracton was one of the magistrates responsible for founding the British common law tradition, in which law is influenced not just by abstract legislation, but also by custom and precedent. This quote runs

Moreover, the King has over him a court, that is to say the earls and barons; for the earls, as their name (comites) implies, are the companions of the king, and he who has a colleague has a master.

The word ‘comites’, which is translated as ‘earls’ in the above passages, is the origin of the modern English word ‘count’. it comes from the Latin word comes, companion. This became a technical term for a very senior Roman governor, as it stood for someone, who was the companion of the emperor.

That passage shows how, even during the Middle Ages when kings had massive powers and could rule for years without calling parliament, there was nevertheless a feeling that there were constitutional checks to the power of the monarch. Indeed, after John’s defeat by the barons at Runnymede and the issuing of the Magna Carta, there appeared a saying in Norman French. Translated into modern English, this read ‘This is the Commune of England, in which everyone has his own opinion’. ‘Commune’ was the term used in the Middle Ages for a town, which had acquired the freedom to govern itself. It’s a classic summary of English political liberty as it has descended from the Middle Ages. The monarchy has gradually been the subject of even further checks, so that they liberty of people under parliament has grown since the time that was uttered. Unfortunately, the Coalition are doing their level best to undermine it.

The book is very dated, but nevertheless it gives a good introduction to parliament in England. We need more books like this as parliamentary procedure is increasingly attacked under the guise of reform.