Posts Tagged ‘‘Rights of Man’’

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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Radical Balladry and Prose for Proles: Tom Paine on the Evils of Aristocratic Rule

May 20, 2014

Common Sense Cover

One of the pieces collected by Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove in their anthology of democratic, republican, Socialist and radical texts, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport, is an excerpt from Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man. Paine was a committed democrat and revolutionary. He was born in Thetford, and made his living from making ladies’ stays, before emigrating to Pennsylvania in 1774. IN 1776 he published Common Sense, attacking British rule in America and demanding a revolutionary, republican government. He became a firm supporter of the French Revolution when it broke out, writing the Rights of Man in 1791 to answer the criticisms of the Revolution made by Edmund Burke in his Reflections of the Revolution in France. He was arrested and imprisoned as a suspected counter-revolutionary for arguing against the execution of the king. He was eventually released, and moved back to Britain.

Rickman, Paine’s friend, described him in 1819 was

In dress and person very cleanly. He wore his hair cued with side curls and powder like a French gentleman of the old school. His eye was full brilliant and piercing and carried in it the muse of fire.

The Rights of Man is the first complete statement of republican political ideas. In the passage included by Firth and Arnove, Paine argues against aristocratic rule and a House of Lords:

Title are but nicknames, and every nickname is a title. The thing is perfectly harmless in itself, but it marks a sort of foppery in the human character which degrades it…

Hitherto we have considered aristocracy chiefly in one point of view. We have now to consider it in another. But whether we view it before or behind, or sideways, or anyway else, domestically or publicly, it is still a monster.

In France, aristocracy had one feature less in its countenance than what it has in some other countries. It did not compose a body of hereditary legislators. it was not ‘a corporation of aristocracy’, for such I have heard M. de la Fayette describe an English house of peers. Let us then examine the grounds upon which the French constitution has resolved against having such a house in France.

Because, in the first place, as is already mentioned, aristocracy is kept up by family tyranny and injustice.

2nd, Because there is an unnatural unfitness in an aristocracy to be legislators for a nation. Their ideas of distributive justice are corrupted at the very source. The begin life trampling on all their younger brothers and sisters, and relations of every kind, and are taught and educated to do so. With what ideas of justice or honor can that man enter a house of legislation, who absorbs in his own person the inheritance of a whole family of children, or metes out some pitiful portion with the insolence of a gift?

3rd, Because the idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges, or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet-laureate.

4th, Because a body of men, holding themselves accountable to nobody, o8ught not to be trusted by anybody.

5th, Because it is continuing the uncivilized principle of governments founded in conquest, and the base idea of man having property in man, and governing him by personal right.

6th, Because aristocracy has a tendency to degenerate the human species.

(Colin Firth and Anthony Arnove, The People Speak: Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport (Edinburgh: Canongate 2012) 108-9.)

More than 200,000 copies of the Rights of Man were sold in England, and Paine denounced by the authorities. The book was banned and its printer arrested. Nevertheless, the book continued to circulate underground, especially in Ireland and Scotland. It even inspired a hornpipe tune, a Scots version of which was included by Robin Williamson of the Incredible String Band, in his collection of folk melodies, English, Welsh, Scottish & Irish Fiddle Tunes (New York: Oak Publications 1976). Here it is:

Tom Paine Hornpipe

Paine’s arguments are clear very relevant today, when reform of the House of Lords is very much on the political agenda following Tony Blair, and with a cabinet of Tory and Tory Democrat aristos, like David Cameron, Nick Clegg, George Osborne, and Iain Duncan Smith, who have no knowledge of and absolutely no sympathy for ordinary people. They seem to see us very much as their ancestors did: as proles, peasants and ‘rude mechanicals’, to be exploited, whilst government should be very firmly held in the hands of an aristocratic elite.

An edition of Paine’s Common Sense, edited and with an introduction by Isaac Kramnick, was published by Penguin Books in 1976.