Posts Tagged ‘Poaching’

English History through the Broadside Ballad

December 24, 2019

A Ballad History of England: From 1588 to the Present Day, by Roy Palmer (London: BT Batsford 1979).

From the 16th century to the 20th, the broadside ballad was part of the popular music of British working people. They were written on important topics of the day, and printed and published for ordinary people. They would be sung by the ballad sellers themselves while hawking their wares. This book is a collection of popular ballads, assembled and with introductory notes by the folklorist Roy Palmer. It begins with the song ‘A Ioyful New Ballad’ from 1588 about the Armada, and ends with ‘The Men Who Make The Steel’ from 1973 about the steelworkers’ strike. Unlike the earlier songs, it was issued as a record with three other songs in 1975. The ballads’ texts are accompanied by sheet music of the tunes to which they were sung. Quite often the tunes used were well-known existing melodies, so the audience were already familiar with the music, though not the new words which had been fitted to them.

The ballads cover such important events in English and wider British history as a Lincolnshire witch trial; the draining of the fens; the Diggers, a Communist sect in the British Civil War; Oak Apple Day, celebrating the narrow escape of Charles II from the Parliamentarians in 1660; the defeat of the Monmouth Rebellion; the execution of Jacobite rebels in 1715; the South Sea Bubble; Dick Turpin, the highwayman; the Scots defeat at Culloden; emigration to Nova Scotia in Canada; Wolfe’s capture of Quebec; the enclosures; the Birmingham and Worcester Canal; the 18th century radical and advocate for democracy, Tom Paine; the mechanisation of the silk industry; the establishment of income tax; the death of Nelson; the introduction of the treadmill in prison; the Peterloo Massacre and bitter polemical attacks against Lord Castlereagh; Peel’s establishment of the police; body snatching; the 1834 New Poor Law, which introduced the workhouse system; poaching; the 1839 Chartist meeting at Newport; Queen Victoria’s marriage to Albert; Richard Oastler and the factory acts; the repeal of the Corn Laws; Bloomers; the construction of the Oxford railway; Charles Dickens¬†visit to Coketown; the Liverpool Master Builders’ strike of 1866; agitating for the National Agricultural Union of farmworkers; the introduction of the Plimsoll line on ships; an explosion at Trimdon Grange colliery in County Durham; a 19th century socialist song by John Bruce Glasier, a member of the William Morris’ Socialist League and then the ILP; the Suffragettes; soldiers’ songs from the Boer War and the First World War; unemployed ex-servicemen after the War; the defeat of the General Strike; the Blitz; Ban the Bomb from 1958; and the Great Train Robbery.¬†

It also includes many other songs from servicemen down the centuries commemorating the deaths of great heroes and victories; and by soldiers, sailors and working people on land protesting against working conditions, tax, and economic recessions and exorbitant speculation on the stock markets. Some are just on the changes to roads, as well as local disasters.

This is a kind of social history, a history of England from below, apart from the conventional point of view of the upper or upper middle class historians, and shows how these events were viewed by tradesmen and working people. Not all the songs by any means are from a radical or socialist viewpoint. The ballad about Tom Paine is written against him, though he was a popular hero and there were also tunes, like the ‘Rights of Man’ named after his most famous book, celebrating him. But nevertheless, these songs show history as it was seen by England’s ordinary people, the people who fought in the navy and army, and toiled in the fields and workshops. These songs are a balance to the kind of history Michael Gove wished to bring in a few years ago when he railed against children being taught the ‘Blackadder’ view of the First World War. He’d like people to be taught a suitably Tory version of history, a kind of ‘merrie England’ in which Britain is always great and the British people content with their lot under the benign rule of people like David Cameron, Tweezer and Boris. The ballads collected here offer a different, complementary view.

Gun Rights, the Second Amendment and Early 20th Century Preparations for Revolution in Britain

March 6, 2016

One of the major issues that concerns the Republicans, and particularly the extreme right-wing of that party, is gun rights. They point to the Second Amendment in the Constitution guaranteeing American citizens the right to bear arms, which they view as one of the key democratic freedoms in America. They see it as the article in the Constitution that enables Americans to fight back against a tyrannical government. Hence the hysterical rage amongst the NRA and people like the conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, at the mere mention of gun legislation. This is always greeted with cries of ‘They’re coming for our guns!’ and the defiant snarl that they’ll only be able to take the weapon, ‘from my cold, dead hand’.

I’ve also seen a quotation from George Orwell trotted out to support gun rights. I can’t remember the exact quotation, but it’s something like the household gun on the wall being the mark of the free worker. Now Orwell’s quote could be a remark on many things. In the 19th century the poaching laws introduced by the wealthy farmers during the Napoleonic Wars were bitterly resented, because many agricultural workers believed they had the right to poach rabbits on their employer’s land as part of the perks of the job. And this became more important as the economic situation deteriorated and poverty and starvation more common.

It was also an attitude shared by the Social Democratic Federation, an early British Socialist party, which was one of the organisations that formed the Labour party. The SDF was Marxist, although its founder, Hyndeman, had fallen out with Marx himself as he had not credited Marx with the party’s programme. Pelling in his ‘Short History of the Labour Party’ notes that in period running up to the First World War and the debate about rearmament, several members of the SDF, most notably Will Thorne, believed

in a form of conscription known as ‘the citizen army’, which was based on the idea that a revolution could best be effected when all members of the working class had some training in the use of arms. (p. 29).

Now I’ve no doubt that the idea of radical, working-class Marxists bearing arms ready to start the revolution is something that scares the right witless. Gun rights are all right for right-wing Whites, but when Blacks and the radical Left get them, it’s a major threat to decent American society. The Young Turks and Secular Talk have pointed out that the authorities in America suddenly became interested in limiting access to guns after the Black Panthers started walking around with them. The Panthers had read the Constitution, and found that nowhere in it did it say that only Whites could carry firearms. And so even before they started shooting people the American government got very alarmed, and started passing laws to limit gun ownership.

Back in the 1990s parts of the Survivalist movement grew so concerned about what they saw as the new Communist threat and the imminent collapse of society, that they started forming informal ‘militias’. Somehow I doubt very much that the same people, who formed and joined these, would be comfortable knowing that their opponents on the radical left back in the very beginning of the 20th century, shared their ideas and desire to acquire firearms training to overthrow a tyrannical government. The only difference being that it was a right-wing, economically conservative government that they viewed as oppressive. I can’t see them being terribly enthusiastic about that little episode of British history at all.

Historical, Constitutional and Philosophical Observations on the Tories’ Plans to Privatise the Courts

July 28, 2013

I have to say that I’m still somewhat stunned by the Conservatives’ suggestion that the court service should be privatised. This seems to be absolutely barking mad, and attacking the most fundamental, basic duty of the state, at least as it has existed in the West since the ancient world. In the Middle Ages the basic function of the state was to provide military protection and promote justice. There were private courts on the manors of the feudal aristocracy, along with the system of royal courts that also dispensed justice at local and county levels. These were the hundred and shire courts of Anglo-Saxon England. After the Norman Conquest, Henry I introduced the ‘justices in eyre’, judges that went on regular set circuits around England hearing cases. I believe the assize system was introduced by that other ‘lion of justice’, Henry II. One of the reasons England never developed the more extreme versions of feudal serfdom that existed on the Continent was because Henry I insisted on his right as king to govern and enforce his laws over the peasantry through the royal courts, thus preventing the aristocracy having the absolute control over their tenants and villeins that their counterparts in the rest of Europe had.

It was during the Middle Ages that the system of royal courts, such as the Court of King’s Bench, developed. In the Middle Ages and 16th and 17th centuries, kings were expected to dispense justice as they were God’s anointed through the coronation ceremony. This did have a very authoritarian aspect to it, as in the views of some constitutional theorists in the Tory party, it meant that as the king was the fountainhead of justice, he was above the law. This view was gradually altered and finally rejected with the growth of constitutional checks on the crown and the Glorious Revolution. Social Contract theory also supplied a rationale for royal government: the king was the people’s representative. Kings had been chosen and set up by their subjects at the very beginning of human society, in order to protect them, their livelihoods and property. As their representative, he had the right to rule them, preserving their freedom and protecting them from injustice and attack. Finally, in an age when all government is personal government, kings had a right to rule because the countries they ruled were literally theirs. It was their property, in the same way landowners lower down the social scale owned their estates, and administer justice over the serfs there.

Clearly the decline of feudalism has removed these circumstances as the basis of royal government, just as centuries of secularisation means that extremely few people would argue for the return of an absolute monarchy on the grounds that they had a sacred right to govern through their coronation. They did, however, act as the core of the modern state through their establishment of the central institutions of justice. Since the time of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth, at least, the state has been recognised as a separate institution to the kings that governed it. Hence Charles I was executed for his crimes against England, an idea that was so radical that it was almost unthinkable then. Nevertheless, the execution established the fact that Crown and state were separate, and that the judicial system, as part of the state, had the power to judge the monarch. Justice and the courts thus became the core feature of the modern concept of the state.

This is threatened by the privatisation of the courts. The ancient conception of the state was t6hat it was something that belonged to the public. For the Romans it was the res publicum, the public thing. The term has survived in the modern English word ‘republic’ and similar terms in the other European languages, including the Russian respublik. 16th and 17th century political theorists, like Locke, used the term ‘commonwealth’, from the words ‘common weal’, the common benefit or wellbeing. The state is therefore something that belongs to and affects everyone, even if it is effectively governed by a very select view, as it was before the extension of the franchise in the 19th century. This is threatened by the privatisation of the courts, which places justice in the realm of the private, rather than the public.

There are important constitutional problems with this. Courts have had the right to impanel juries, and try and punish offenders because they received their legitimacy from the state, either through itself or as a crown institution. If privatised, the courts would not have this source of legitimacy. They would be a private company, acting in its own interest. They would have the administration of justice as their function, but like other companies their main role would be to provide profit to their shareholders. Essentially, the justice they dispensed would be private justice, albeit administered on behalf of the res publicum. Now I can imagine that some traditional Conservatives would object to this. Peter Hitchens on his blog for the Mail on Sunday has stated that he objects to private prisons on the grounds that only the state has the right to persecute and punish crime. This is a very good point. If the courts are privatised, it raises the question of the difference between them and, say, a protection racket run by a local gangster. Both can claim to be providing protection for the people under their rule, and both are equally acting in the interest of private individuals. A privatised judicial system might still have the claim to be providing public justice if it has a contractual relationship with the state, or some other constitutional tie that establishes it as the legitimate source of justice. Nevertheless, its constitutional legitimacy as a public institution would still be considerably weakened.

The idea that courts can be privatised is something that the Tories have taken over from American minarchism and Anarcho-Capitalism. One of the founders of modern Libertarianism, E. Nozick, believed that the functions of the state should be reduced to the barest minimum. This was to be enforcement of contracts. Rothbard, the head of the American Libertarian party, argued that the courts should be privatised and opened up for competition. They would have no power beyond the voluntary acquiescence of the parties in dispute in the courts’ decisions. It’s a small detail, but it also shows the difference between American Anarcho-Capitalism and the libertarianism now promoted by the Tories. Anarcho-Capitalism is peculiar, in that although it promotes capitalism to its fullest extent, it shares many of the same concerns and features as left-libertarianism, such as Anarcho-Communism. Both forms of Anarchism share a common belief in the absolute sovereignty of the individual. Both also view the state as inherently oppressive. The great Russian anarchist, Mikhail Bakunin, declared ‘He, who says ‘the state’, says oppression’. Both types of libertarianism also stress individual’s sexual freedom. They consider that people should be able to engage in whatever kind of sexual relationship they choose, provided that it is reciprocal and between consenting adults. Thus Right Libertarians tend to differ from other Conservatives in their acceptance of homosexuality and free love. There is also a tendency in Right Libertarianism to demand the legalisation of drugs, on the grounds that the individual should have the right to consume whatever recreational substance they choose. Again, this is in marked opposition to traditional forms of Conservatism, which tends to be far more puritanical.

Now it seems to me that the Tories here have lifted some of the ideas of Anarcho-Capitalism but have very definitely rejected the ethos behind them. Margaret Thatcher believed very strongly in ‘the strong state’, reinforcing the powers and providing more funding for the police force and the security services. In doing so, she alienated many Libertarians, who bitterly resented her authoritarianism. Robin Ramsay, the editor of the parapolitical magazine, Lobster, wrote a piece on the death of one of the founders of the Libertarian Freedom Association a little while ago. Ramsay is a member of the Labour Party, although very critical of New Labour and the influence of the transatlantic Right in the Party since the Second World War. He stated in this article, however, that he had been supported in publishing Lobster by the aforementioned Libertarian. This gentleman regarded him as another Libertarian, albeit socialist, rather than capitalist, but felt that he had a common cause with him against the growth of state power. And he bitterly resented Margaret Thatcher for what he saw as her betrayal of libertarian principles. It thus seems to me that if and when the Conservatives privatise the courts, they will nevertheless retain and possibly extend their powers as the agents of state control.

And this raises a further point on the legitimacy of these courts derived from Anarchist theory. 19th century Anarchism and its predecessors denounced the state and its system of justice, particularly because of its class basis. Europe was governed by the very rich – the aristocracy and the rising middle classes – and the laws they passed protected and enforced their power. During the early 19th century, for example, the British government passed a series of punitive legislation curtailing working class dissent and protest in order to prevent a popular uprising, similar to that which had occurred just across the Channel. The governing class was composed of rich landowners, who passed laws heavily penalising poaching. At the time poaching was regarded as a traditional right held by rural labourers. It allowed them to feed themselves during times of famine and economic depression. It did, however, represent a threat to landed property, who responded by passing laws prescribing long sentences and transportation for poachers. Most of the legislation passed in 18th century England was designed to protect property, not human life. Hence the enactment of the death penalty for crimes like sheep stealing. It was in this legal environment that the Anarchists attacked state justice as aristocratic, capitalist justice, and believed that only through the destruction of the state would a truly classless society emerge.

Since the extension of the franchise in the 19th century and the gradual ascension of the House of Commons over the House of Lords, the state and its institutions have had a greater claim to be genuinely impartial. This has been especially true since the rise of the classless society in the 1960s. This would, however, be undermined by a privately-run court system. The courts would be run by their shareholders and investors, who are by definition capitalists, for their own profit. Justice would mean private justice on behalf of the rich. And almost certainly it would lead to corruption and conflicts of interests. How would a system of private courts successfully prosecute a leading shareholder or the chairman of the company that runs them? Everyone is supposed to be equal before the law, but in those cases there would be great opportunity for the accused to interfere with the judicial process in his favour. In short, he could put pressure on the judge, as a friend or employee, and gain acquittal.

The Conservatives have claimed that they are rolling back the frontiers of the state. They aren’t. They are privatising its institutions, but these still have all the authority and coercive power of the state, but are far more likely to be partial in their decisions.

The privatisation of the courts is a profoundly immoral idea, that completely undermines the idea of the state as the dispenser of impartial justice regardless of social origin. It should be rejected without hesitation.