13.4 Rowlandson Westminster Election 1808

MONTHLY BLOG 78, WHO CARES? GETTING PEOPLE TO VOTE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2017)

Elections again! And public moodiness at being asked to decide on weighty matters once more. The last thing that Britain’s campaigners for a democratic franchise ever imagined was that electors, once enfranchised, would not use their votes. Was it for nothing that the democratic campaigners known as the Chartists in the 1840s were thrown into gaol? or that imprisoned suffragettes in the 1900s were force fed? But it’s turned out that achieving a flourishing democracy, defined as the full participation of all citizens in the political process, requires more than simply legislating to extend the franchise.
2017-06 No1 who-cares-1-620x250
People have to want to use their vote. One immediate possibility is to adopt the Australian system, where since 1924 it been compulsory for all citizens to register for elections and to cast a vote.1 Spoiling the ballot paper, to cast a non-vote, is allowed. It amounts to ‘abstaining in person’, to borrow a resonant phrase from Frank McGuire (an independent Irish Republican MP), when he travelled to the House of Commons from Belfast on 28 March 1979 but declined to vote to save the Callaghan government. It then fell by a margin of one vote, ushering in eleven years of Margaret Thatcher.

I personally hanker after the benefits of compulsory voting, provided that the system always gives scope for returning a blank paper. On the other hand, there are arguments against as well as for this process. Voters don’t always like it – their democratic choice? Hence some countries have switched from compulsory to optional systems. Take, for example, the Netherlands: in 1917, it introduced compulsory voting, along with the advent of a universal adult franchise; but in 1967 it abolished this requirement.

Another complication comes when voters resist compulsion, even while it remains their legal duty. That’s reported as happening in Brazil, which is the world’s largest country to have compulsory voting. Nonetheless, at the presidential election in 2014, over 30 million electors (about 21 percent of all those registered) did not vote. It’s still a good turnout but the sheer number of people flouting the law is very high. In effect, their aggregate non-participation means that compulsory voting has been de facto sidelined.

Anyway, in Britain this option is not on the political agenda. So what else might be done to encourage voting? One answer is instrumentalist. Tell young people in particular that their interests are being overlooked because their percentage participation has fallen steeply from the levels once taken as the norm in the postwar years. In 1992, 66% of young adults aged 18-24 and on the electoral register voted, compared with 38% in 2005 and 44% in 2015.2 And the decline is even larger, if the number of young people who are not on the electoral register is taken into account. No wonder politicians have turned their attention to the older generations and there is talk of ‘intergenerational warfare’.

It’s true that there are no reserved ‘student seats’, so young people’s votes are widely scattered across many constituencies. Hence many say (rather than ask): why bother? Nevertheless, politicians will get their statisticians to pore over survey data to see which demographic groups bothered to vote. So the answer is: you have to bother, to get noticed politically.

Yet it’s clearly not good enough to view the questions in purely instrumentalist terms. Voting means contributing to the full democratic community, not just calculating ‘what’s in it for me?’ So it’s sad and even sinister for the good health of a democracy to have lots of young people who are either apathetic or alienated. Spoiling one’s ballot paper is one thing. Not bothering to turn out to vote is bad news for society as a whole and also for the absentee young voters themselves. They are depriving themselves of constitutional involvement (no matter how dry and dusty) in the world in which they live: as it were, consigning themselves to victimhood.

So what can be done to encourage voting among the won’t-vote brigades of all ages? Some of the answers point to the politicians. Their campaigning styles, for example. Electors are alienated if those seeking their votes appear too robotic, lacking spontaneity and authenticity. Even more depends on politicians’ achievements in office. If they offer high and perform low, then cynicism becomes rife. (A degree of scepticism is good – but not corrosive cynicism).

There’s an additional major problem from the mainstream press, which loves melodrama. It slams politicians as robotic if they conform boringly to the party line but equally attacks them as confused or ignorant or dastardly if they stray the tiniest bit off-message. Let alone the problems generated and multiplied endlessly by the social media, which encourage an unsavoury mix of either undue adulation or venomous personal hostility.3

Another big looming question focuses upon how much governments themselves can buck the big impersonal trends of global history. So many things – like international finance markets, international businesses, international social media, international terrorism, international crime, world-wide climate change, environmental pollution, and so forth – seem to operate beyond the current scope of democratic control and regulation, which is depressing, to say the least.4 If politicians in a national forum seem powerless, then no wonder that individual voters at grass roots level feel even less in control of their own or the nation’s destiny. But, in response to such challenges, the answers have to be more, not less, democratic engagement.

It’s not just the politicians who are responsible. So what about the voting process itself? Can the system be made more user-friendly? In the eighteenth century (in the minority of large constituencies with a wide franchise), voters cast their votes publicly.5 An election was a community occasion, with elements of the carnivalesque. Crowds turned out to hear the candidates speak from the open hustings and to cheer or boo the electors as they voted. Flags were flown and party favours sported. The fact that voters literally stood up to be counted, before all their friends and neighbours, made open voting the purest form of voting, in the opinion of the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill. It would force citizens to think of the public good, and not just their personal self-interest: ‘The best side of their character is that which people are anxious to show’.6

13.4 Rowlandson Westminster Election 1808

Fig.2 Rowlandson’s 1808 view of a Westminster parliamentary election, where candidates address the crowds from the specially constructed wooden hustings, erected in front of St Paul’s Covent Garden.

But, ever since the introduction of the secret ballot (1872 in Britain), the process of voting lost its element of community participation. And that’s become even more noticeable since the advent of postal voting on demand (2001 in Britain). The process has become not just secret but utterly individualised and secretive. No doubt that’s one of the reasons that the traditional party posters have virtually disappeared from people’s windows.

There were and are excellent reasons to protect electors from undue pressure. But it’s not good to lose the excitement and community involvement involved in an election, which is a collective event with a collective impact.

Perhaps there might be parties or at least a cup of tea on offer for those who vote in person in polling stations? And/or an on-line App for millions of people to record: ‘I’ve voted! Have you?’ And what about practice elections in schools? And constituency or regional Youth Parliaments? And networks of local societies – and/or student societies – linked for campaigning purposes? Let alone shop-floor democracy at work? And ways for isolated workers in large-scale enterprises to link up into organised networks? Plus, of course, an effective electoral registration system, which encourages rather than discourages people to get into the system.

Political life should never be a simple top-down process. Instead, democracy is an entire lifestyle and lifetime commitment to participation. Voters are invited to insert their own meanings into the processes. All the same, it’s no surprise that the Chartist demand for annual parliamentary elections is the only item of their visionary six-point programme that has not yet been adopted.7 Moreover, voters’ election-fatigue suggests that it is unlikely to gain mass support any time soon. Instead, it’s more important to revise and update the electoral processes to recover full community involvement in a true community event.

1 The information in this and the following two paragraphs comes from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compulsory_voting

2 E. Phelps, ‘Young Adults and Electoral Turnout in Britain: Towards a Generational Model of Political Participation’ (University of Sussex European Institute [SEI], Working Paper 92, 2006); ‘Why Aren’t Young People Voting?’ University of Warwick Background Paper’ (c.2006); and http://www.if.org.uk/archives/6576/how-high-was-youth-turnout-at-the-2015-general-election

3 Among a growing literature, see e.g. A. Bruns and others (eds), The Routledge Companion to Social Media and Politics (2015); T. Highfield, Social Media and Everyday Politics (Cambridge, 2016); S. Shaked (ed.), The Impact of Social Media on Collective Action (Oxford, 2017).

4 For a meditation on that theme, see J. Lanchester, ‘Between Vauxhall and Victoria’, in London Review of Books, 39/11 (1 June 2017), pp. 3.6.

5 See variously P.J. Corfield, ‘What’s Wrong with the Old Practice of Open Voting, Standing Up to be Counted?’ Monthly BLOG/53 (May 2015), in http://www.penelopejcorfield.com/monthly-blogs/; and website ‘London Electoral History, 1700-1850’, www.londonelectoralhistory.com.

6 J.S. Mill, Considerations upon Representative Government (1861), ed. C.V. Shields (New York, 1958), pp. 154-64, esp. p. 164.

7 The Chartists’ six demands were: (1) universal adult male franchise (achieved in 1918; and matched by the adult female franchise in 1928); (2) voting by secret ballot (achieved in 1872); (3) equal representation via roughly equal sized-constituencies (implemented by an independent electoral commission from 1885 onwards); (4) no property qualification for candidates to stand as MP (achieved 1858); (5) payment for MPs (achieved 1911); and (6) annual parliamentary elections (not achieved). See M. Chase, Chartism: A New History (Manchester, 2007); D. Thompson, The Dignity of Chartism: Essays by Dorothy Thompson, ed. S. Roberts (2015).

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 78 please click here

2016-11-no1-lets-take-back-control-dover-cliffs

MONTHLY BLOG 71, HOW IS GROWING INEQUALITY DIVIDING THE BRITISH TORIES FROM WITHIN?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

How will history interpret the views of millions of Tory voters who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum on the EU? It’s a good question that merits further attention. Since June, many commentators have defined the motivations of the Labour supporters who voted Leave – 37 per cent of all those who voted Labour in 20151 – as an angry rejection of the status quo by the socially and economically ‘left behind’. These electors have justified concerns about the impact of globalisation in eroding traditional industries and of immigration in undercutting working-class earnings. It’s a perception specifically acknowledged by the new PM Theresa May. At the Conservative Party Conference on 5 October 2016 she promised to remedy past injustices with the following words: ‘That means tackling unfairness and injustice, and shifting the balance of Britain decisively in favour of ordinary working-class people’.2

It’s a significant political ambition, albeit complicated somewhat by the fact that a majority of Labour voters in 2015 (63%) actually voted for Remain. May was clearly trying to shift the post-Referendum Conservative Party closer to the centre ground. And it’s a long time since any front-line British political leader spoke so plainly about social class, let alone about the workers.

But Theresa May’s pledge strangely omits to mention the rebellious Tory Leavers. After all, the majority of the national vote against the EU in 2016 came from the 58% of voters who had voted Conservative in the General Election of 2015. They voted for Leave in opposition to their then party leader and his official party policy. In the aftermath of the Referendum, many known Labour supporters, such as myself, were roundly scolded by pro-EU friends for the Labour Party’s alleged ‘failure’ to deliver the vote for Remain. But surely such wrath should have been directed even more urgently to Conservative supporters?

Either way, the Referendum vote made clear once again a basic truth that all door-step canvassers quickly discover. Electors are not so easily led. They don’t do just what their leaders or party activists tell them. Politics would be much easier (from the point of view of Westminster politicians) if they did. That brute reality was discovered all over again by David Cameron in June 2016. In simple party-political terms, the greatest ‘failure’ to deliver was indubitably that of the Conservatives. Cameron could possibly have stayed as PM had his own side remained united, even if defeated. But he quit politics, because he lost to the votes of very many Conservative rank-and-file, in alliance with UKIP and a section of Labour voters. It was ultimately the scale of grass-roots Tory hostility which killed both his career and his reputation as a lucky ‘winner’ on whom fortune smiles.

Divisions within political parties are far from new. Schematically considered, Labour in the twentieth century drew ideas, activists and votes from reform-minded voters from the professional middle class and skilled working class.3 That alliance is now seriously frayed, as is well known.

So what about the Conservatives? Their inner tensions are also hard to escape. They are already the stuff of debates in A-level Politics courses. Tory divisions are typically seen as a gulf between neo-liberal ‘modernisers’ (Cameron and Co) and ‘traditionalists’ Tory paternalists (anti-EU backbenchers). For a while, especially in the 1980s, there were also a number of self-made men (and a few women) from working-class backgrounds, who agreed politically with the ‘modernisers’, even if socially they were not fully accepted by them. It remains unclear, however, why such divisions emerged in the first place and then proved too ingrained for party discipline to eradicate.

Viewed broadly and schematically, the Conservatives in the twentieth century can be seen as a party drawing ideas, leadership and activists from an alliance of aristocrats/plutocrats with middle-class supporters, especially among the commercial middle class – all being buttressed by the long-time endorsement of a considerable, though variable, working-class vote. Common enemies, to weld these strands together, appear in the form of ‘socialism’, high taxes, and excessive state regulation.

Today, the upper-class component of Toryism typically features a number of socially grand individuals from landed and titled backgrounds. David Cameron, who is a 5th cousin of the Queen, seems a classic example. However, he also has a cosmopolitan banking and commercial ancestry, making him a plutocrat as much as an aristocrat. In that, he is characteristic of the big international financial and business interests, which are generally well served by Conservative governments. However, appeals and warnings from the political and economic establishment cut no ice with many ‘ordinary’ Tory members.

Why so? There’s a widening gap between the very wealthy and the rest. The Conservative Leave vote was predominantly based in rural and provincial England and Wales. (Scotland and Northern Ireland have different agendas, reflecting their different histories). The farming communities were vocally hostile to regulation from Brussels. And, above all, the middle-aged and older middle class voters in England’s many small and medium-sized towns were adamantly opposed to the EU and, implicitly, to recent trends in the nation’s own economic affairs.

Tory Leavers tend to be elderly conservatives with a small as well as large C. They have a strong sense of English patriotism, fostered by war-time memories and postwar 1950s culture. They may not be in dire financial straits. But they did not prosper notably in the pre-crisis banking boom. And now the commercial middle classes, typified by shopkeepers and small businessmen, do not like hollowed-out town centres, where shops are closed or closing. They don’t like small businesses collapsing through competition from discount supermarkets or on-line sales. They regret the winnowing of local post-offices, pubs, and (in the case of village residents) rural bus services. They don’t like the loss of small-town status in the shadow of expanding metropolitan centres. They don’t like bankers and they hate large corporate pay bonuses, which continue in times of poor performance as well as in booms. With everyone, they deplore the super-rich tax-avoiders, whether institutional or individual.

Plus, there is the issue of immigration, which puts a personal face on impersonal global trends of mobile capital and labour. Tory-Leavers are worried about the scale of recent immigration into Britain (though tolerant of Britons emigrating to foreign climes). It is true that many middle-class families benefit from the cheap food and services (notably within the National Health Service) provided by abundant labour. But sincere fears are expressed that too many ‘foreigners’ will change the nation’s character as well as increase demand for social welfare, which middle-class tax-payers have to fund.7

A proportion of Tory Leavers may be outright ethnicist (racist). Some may hate or reject those who look and sound different. But many Leavers are personally tolerant – and indeed a proportion of Tory Leavers are themselves descendants of immigrant families. They depict the problem as one of numbers and of social disruption rather than of ethnic origin per se.

Theresa May represents these Tory-Leavers far more easily than David Cameron ever did. She is the meritocratic daughter of a middle-ranking Anglican clergyman, who came from an upwardly mobile family of carpenters and builders. Some of her female ancestors worked as servants (not very surprisingly, since domestic service was a major source of employment for unmarried young women in the prewar economy).8 As a result, her family background means that she can say that she ‘feels the pain’ of her party activists with tolerable plausibility.

Nevertheless, May won’t find it easy to respond simultaneously to all these Leave grievances. To help the working-class in the North-East and South Wales, she will need lots more state expenditure, especially when EU subsidies are ended. Yet middle-class voters are not going to like that. They are stalwart citizens who do pay their taxes, if without great enthusiasm. They rightly resent the super-rich individuals and international businesses whose tax avoidance schemes (whether legal, borderline legal, or illegal) result in an increased tax burden for the rest. But it will take considerable time and massive concerted action from governments around the world to get to serious grips with that problem. In the meantime, there remain too many contradictory grievances in need of relief at home.

Overall, the Tory-Leavers’ general disillusionment with the British economic and political establishment indicates how far the global march of inequality is not only widening the chronic gulf between super-rich and poor but is also producing a sense of alienation between the super-rich and the middle strata of society. That’s historically new – and challenging both for the Conservative Party in particular and for British society in general. Among those feeling excluded, the mood is one of resentment, matched with defiant pride. ‘Brussels’, with its inflated costs, trans-national rhetoric, and persistent ‘interference’ in British affairs, is the first enemy target for such passions. Little wonder that, across provincial England in June 2016, the battle-cry of ‘Let’s Take Back Control’ proved so appealing.
2016-11-no1-lets-take-back-control-dover-cliffs

Fig.1 Slogan projected onto White Cliffs of Dover
by Vote Leave Cross-Party Campaign Group
(June 2016).

1 See http://lordashcroftpolls.com/2016/06/how-the-united-kingdom-voted-and-why/

2 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/theresa-may-speech-tory-conference-2016-in-full-transcript-a7346171.html

3 What’s in a name? In US politics, the skilled and unskilled workers who broadly constitute this very large section of society are known as ‘middle class’, via a process of language inflation.

4 See A. Windscheffel, Popular Conservatism in Imperial London, 1868-1906 (Woodbridge, 2007); and M. Pugh, ‘Popular Conservatism in Britain: Continuity and Change, 1880-1987’, Journal of British Studies, 27 (1988), pp. 254-82.

5 Queen Elizabeth II is descended from the Duke of Kent, the younger brother of monarchs George IV and William IV. William IV had no legitimate offspring but his sixth illegitimate child (with the celebrated actor Dorothea Jordan) was ancestor of Enid Ages Maud Levita, David Cameron’s paternal grandmother.

6 One of Cameron’s great-great-grandfathers was Emile Levita, a German Jewish financier and banker, who became a British citizen in 1871. Another great-grandfather, Alexander Geddes, made a fortune in the Chicago grain trade in the 1880s: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_of_David_Cameron

7 This sort of issue encouraged a proportion of Conservative activists to join the United Kingdom Independence Party UKIP), which drew support from both Left and Right.

8 https://blog.findmypast.co.uk/famous-family-trees-theresa-may-1406260824.html

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 71 please click here

2016-10-no5-angela-merkel

MONTHLY BLOG 70, WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE EUROPEAN UNION’S HYBRID CONSTITUTION?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

I voted REMAIN in the great Europe-referendum of June 2016, and was sorry (though not distraught) to find myself in the minority. At the same time, I had reservations about the European Union, not least for its lack of clear political accountability. In particular, I worry about the anomalous position of the EU’s European Parliament, whose impotence makes a mockery of democratic constitutionalism. So what precisely is wrong? The constitution of the European Union is a peculiar hybrid, which has emerged through a series of eclectic compromises. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that. That’s history. Even the most carefully wrought constitutions need amendment from time to time, to take account of changing times and new or altered expectations. But, if the contradictions are too glaring, then problems follow. Currently, the EU seems not only leaderless but rudderless. And there’s no easy way for Europe’s electorates to put democratic pressure on the system for structural changes, other than by expressing negative responses to Euro-referenda. Britain in June 2016 has done exactly that.

There has long been a disjuncture between the Euro-rhetoric of ‘ever closer Union’, and the actual system of highly complex political horse-trading between the (currently) 28 sovereign member states of the European Union.1 Not only are there frequent exemptions and national opt-outs from every rule, but there are different sub-groupings with separate rules for specific purposes. As a result, it’s already established practice for variegated combinations of countries to negotiate over diverse policies, under a broad Euro-umbrella.

One of the two most important sub-groupings is the Schengen Area, which has no passport controls within its boundaries. It covers 22 member states from the EU, plus four further countries from the European Free Trade Area (EFTA): viz. Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland. From the start, Great Britain and Ireland had negotiated opt-outs; and very recently (2016) temporary controls have been restored by Austria, Denmark, Germany, Norway, Poland and Sweden. It seems probable that the Schengen policy won’t survive unscathed.

The second big sub-grouping is the Eurozone Area, established in January 1999, sharing a common currency. It embraces 19 of the 28 member states of the European Union.2 Denmark and the United Kingdom have negotiated opt-outs, but all new EU members are expected to join automatically. The Eurozone Area has the backing of a new European Central Bank. It seeks to manage the currency, with the aid of suitable fiscal and economic policies.3 Currently, however, the Eurozone is facing severe challenges; and it too may not survive unscathed.4

Constitutionally, the European Union operates as a close alliance or quasi- federation of sovereign states, which pool some of their powers in different combinations for different purposes. But there is a profusion of overlapping component institutions, with no clear lines of authority, while the sovereign states continue to protect their own interests, as their electorates expect.5 There is no collective legal body known as the United States of Europe. Nor is the European Union (the federation’s title as adopted in 1993 under the Maastricht Treaty) organisationally anything like either a fully federal body or a unitary state.

In terms of policy debates, law-making, and budget-setting, one prime forum is the Council of the European Union, attended by government ministers from all member countries. Its Presidency has no executive power but chairs meetings and helps to coordinate the agenda. Each country (currently Slovakia) holds this post in turn, on a six-month rotating basis. There is also a separate European Council, when EU leaders meet quarterly to set the broad agenda. This body appoints its own President (currently Poland’s Donald Tusk), who seeks to coordinate the different EU institutions and also represents the Union in foreign affairs. This post has prestige but, again, no executive powers. Nonetheless, insofar as constitutional comparisons can be made, this post is the nearest EU-equivalent to the post of President in a fully federal system, such as that of the USA.

Incidentally, these two Councils should not be confused with the Council of Europe, founded in 1949, which now includes as many as 47 European countries. Its remit, focusing chiefly upon the rule of law, provides the constituent authority for the European Court of Human Rights.6 Hence one key component of the judicial arm of the postwar European project operates at one remove from the European Union, although in the public debates (eg. over Brexit in June 2016) they are often linked. There is also a further Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), which adjudicates over the rival status of national and European laws.

Separated entirely from all the above bodies is the European Commission. It is the equivalent of the executive branch of the EU’s constitution, implementing policy decisions, setting financial priorities, providing regulatory frameworks for governance, proposing new laws, and also representing the EU in foreign affairs. Yet – a key proviso – the Commission does not itself run the day-to-day government in any of the member states. It remains a sort of transnational super-executive, which attracts criticism for its high claims and controversial budgeting whilst being unable to win praise by running things efficiently at grass-roots level.

Today there are 28 Commissioners (one for every member state), each with a specialist brief. They are appointed by the European Council; and led by a Commission President (currently Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker), who allocates portfolios between the Commissioners. There are a number of areas of obvious overlap: for example, in foreign affairs, both the President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission have a claim to speak for the EU, whilst one Commissioner, who is also one of the Vice-Presidents, has the specific title of High Representative for the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. The media sometimes describes this post as the EU’s Foreign Secretary, and the holder (currently Italy’s Federica Mogherini) is buttressed by a new European External Action Service, established under the Lisbon Treaty in 2010. A simplified model of all these interlinking authorities is shown in Fig.1.2016-10-no1-political_system_of_the_european_union-svg

Organisational Chart © wikipedia.org/wiki/Institutions_of_the_European_Union (2016)

Nonetheless, despite the formalities, on many issues it’s the leading politicians of the dominant sovereign states who make the real running. They meet in their own conclaves. The German Chancellor and the French President (from the two big countries at the core of the alliance) confer frequently. And in late August 2016 they met with the Italian Prime Minister at Ventotene, near Naples, for a trilateral mini-summit, in the wake of Britain’s Brexit vote.7 Immediately after that, the German Chancellor made diplomatic visits to Tallinn, Prague, and Warsaw, before returning to Germany to host individually the leaders of seven more EU states, as well as, no doubt, telephoning all the others. In other words, the uncrowned EU President is (currently) Angela Merkel – a role that she and her successors are likely to retain as long as German economic dominance within the EU is particularly upheld by the workings of the Euro currency union.

Where does all that leave the European Parliament? It is by no means democratically supreme. It does approve (or reject) the nominee for the post of European Commissioner, although it does not on its own authority choose a government or run an executive. Its budget-setting and law-making powers are also shared with the Council of the European Union, whilst proposals for new laws come from the Commissioners. But the Parliament does have a President (currently Germany’s Martin Schulz), further signalling the EU’s love of presidential titles.tusk-juncker-schulz

Europe’s Presidents – Official and Unofficial:
Above (L) Donald Tusk, President of the Council of the European Union
(Centre) Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission
(R) Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament
Below: Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, Europe’s unofficial linchpin.

2016-10-no5-angela-merkel
It’s hard not to consider the European Parliament as anything more than a democratic fig-leaf, although it has been given more powers in recent years. The institution was invented late in the European project (in 1979) to redress the lack of popular input. Its 751 members (MEPs), representing in aggregate (in 2009) a potential electorate of 375 million people, have the legitimacy of a direct European-wide mandate.8 In EU parlance, they constitute the ‘first institution’ and take ceremonial precedence. Yet this democratic mechanism was added onto existing structures, rather than gaining anything like paramount authority.

Hence, if the Euro-Parliament voted (say) to assume full taxative and legislative powers, to abolish the EU’s Council, and to choose the Commissioners from its own short-list, there would be an immediate crisis. Fierce objections would come not only from EU officialdom but also from the national parliaments/governments of the 28 member countries. Who really represents the people of Europe?

A notable weakness in the current arrangements is the lack of synchronisation and answerability between the national parliaments and the quasi-federal European Parliament. Were there to be a direct conflict, the sovereign states would always win. True, their parliaments are not always heeded between elections, but eventually their electorates can vote Europe’s politicians out of office. And, from time to time, they do just that. It would therefore make more sense to align the national and European Parliaments by inviting each national institution to send a politically representative cross-section of its MPs to act also as MEPs. That arrangement already governs the relationship between the 47 sovereign states in the Council of Europe (reminder: not to be confused with the EU’s two Councils) and the Council of Europe’s own Parliamentary Assembly (not to be confused with the European Parliament).9

So far, it’s been impressive how the European Union has not only held together but also expanded to the east. The fertility of ideas and the institutional inventiveness on the part of the Euro-enthusiasts has been similarly remarkable. It’s also heartening that there is still much goodwill towards the ideal of European cooperation, although it’s far from universally shared. Nonetheless, it’s time now for some fresh inventiveness – plus a willingness to abolish outmoded institutions, costs, and overlaps – to reconnect the EU with the national parliaments and their electorates. Getting the political and constitutional structures right is the best first step towards the difficult task of getting everything else right too.

1 They include (since July 2013): Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Ireland, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

2 They include (currently): Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Spain.

3 The EU also has a separate European Investment Bank, covering a wider range of countries.

4 See e.g. J.E. Stiglitz, The Euro and its Threat to the Future of Europe (2016).

5 See, for the EU’s institutions, the European Union’s own website https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/institutions-bodies_en; and, for a severe critique of its constitution and policies, J.R. Gillingham, The EU: An Obituary (2016).

6 P.J.C., ‘Britain and Mainland Europe Viewed Long: From Concert of Europe to the Council of Europe’, BLOG/69 (Sept. 2016).

7 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/21/ventotene-summit

8 See R. Scully, Becoming European? Attitudes, Behaviour, and Socialisation in the European Parliament (2005); and many tracts urging reforms, such as P. Schmitter, How to Democratise the EU … And Why Bother? (2000).

9 See P.J.C., ‘Britain and Mainland Europe’, as above n.6.

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 70 please click here

2016-09 No1 Very-well-alone-David-Low-Evening-Standard-1940

MONTHLY BLOG 69, BRITAIN AND MAINLAND EUROPE VIEWED LONG: FROM CONCERT OF EUROPE TO COUNCIL OF EUROPE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Britain has long had a yoyo-relationship with mainland or continental Europe. Its fluctuating nature has many well-known roots. One is geography, which maintains a maritime barrier between the British Isles and mainland Europe; or at least has done so since sea levels last rose significantly after the most recent Ice Age (c.6,200 BCE), inundating the ancient Doggerland between East Anglia and the Netherlands to create the North Sea.1 Another is the history of many generations of travel, settlement, and colonisation/decolonisation, which directs British attention to a global array of destinations in the Americas, Africa, India, the Far East and Australasia, as well as some parts of Europe (Spain’s Costa del Sol). Yet another is the cultural effect of shared language. That allows Britons to feel quick kinship with their fellow-English speakers anywhere around the world, in contrast to more laboured contacts with non-English speakers close at hand (although as English is fast becoming the world’s new lingua franca that barrier is diminishing).3

And the list could go on. As well as big general factors, there are particular symbolic moments too. The epic case remains that of Britain standing alone against the power of Hitler’s Germany and his allies in the summer of 1940, after Dunkirk. The story of the collective heroism of that generation remains deep, deep in the national sub-conscious, particularly since, after acquiring new allies of our own, we eventually won the war. Had we lost, then British resistance might have appeared as merely futile and foolhardy. But, as it is, there is a magic resonance still within the simple words: ‘Very Well, Alone!’

2016-09 No1 Very-well-alone-David-Low-Evening-Standard-1940

Fig.1: David Low’s most famous cartoon, ‘Very Well, Alone!’
expressing Britain’s national mood post-Dunkirk:
Evening Standard, 18 June 1940. Copyright © David Low.

Nonetheless, the history between Britain and continental Europe both was and is far more intricate than easy stories of isolationism imply. This short BLOG is not the place for a detailed history.4 Instead, I want to give two examples of positive British involvement with pan-European cooperation, to counteract the simple myth-history which claims that plans for ‘uniting Europe’ have always come from Britain’s enemies. Hostile examples often cited are: Charlemagne, Napoleon and Hitler. An unlikely trio, in that their aims, methods and historical epochs were very different. And none of them works as anything like a prototype for the European Union, which (whatever one thinks of it) remains a democratic project, which is not being undertaken by warfare.

Yet the myth-history does offer a just reminder that the foreign policy of Britain (and of England, before the 1707 Act of Union) has always been determined to prevent one hostile super-power bestriding continental Europe, leaving Britain in isolation. Even in those (comparatively rare) periods when the country was not deeply engaged in cross-Channel politics and alliances, it kept a watching brief on the state of play.

My two examples of positive initiatives both date from periods immediately after devastating warfare across continental Europe as well as in wider battlefields. The motives for intervention were obvious. The first was the Concert of Europe, also known as the Congress System. It was a system, established after the battle of Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna in 1815 by Britain, Austria, Russia, Prussia, and (later) France, which was designed to maintain the balance of power.5 It did not set up new international institutions. Instead, it provided that, in the event of problems, a trouble-shooting Congress would be convened to iron out differences; and for some years such Congresses duly met. The only agreed rule was that the current state boundaries in 1815 could not be altered without agreement of the treaty powers.

In the long term, the Concert dwindled into abeyance. The system had no enforcement powers; and no agreed timetable for regular meetings. It remained ad hoc. And eventually its own member states began to flout its rules, as the national interests of the component members diverged. In July 1914, Britain (which had never been consistently sympathetic to the scheme) belatedly proposed to convene a Congress – but Austria-Hungary and Germany refused to attend.6 Nonetheless, the Concert of Europe can be seen as a potential move towards a framework of inter-national pan-European collective security. It also had made some moves, under pressure from campaigners, to support various humanitarian causes, such as abolition of the slave trade.7 However, the Congress system ultimately lacked any institutional timetable or authority. Before long, it seemed to represent a purely conservative force, and an inefficacious one at that. The frequency of the set-piece Congresses declined markedly from the 1830s onwards.8 In practice, therefore, the system had lost good will and support long before 1914.

Some of the same problems afflicted the League of Nations (1920-46), which was an international organisation, seeking to preserve world peace, but which again fell foul of great power rivalries. The challenges facing cooperation across one world-region were much multiplied when applied to the entire world.

For my second case-history, however, I am focusing specifically upon Europe – this time in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Having stood alone in 1940, British ministers were well aware of the perils of isolation. Hence they took a prominent role in the postwar creation of a new Council of Europe, launched by the Treaty of London (1949). Initially signed by ten member states, the number of signators has grown to 47,9 with only three independent state units not having membership.10 That total makes the Council much more representative of greater Europe, in contrast to the 28 states which are currently members of the European Union (of which more later). Its creation drew upon cross-party hopes in postwar Britain for better relationships with its closest neighbours. Winston Churchill was one who had floated the concept of some form of federation of the European states – an idea which had a lengthy prehistory.11

Based in Strasbourg, the Council of Europe has a Secretary General, who is elected by a Committee of Ministers (comprising the Foreign Secretaries of all member states, usually acting via a Permanent Ambassador) and its own Parliamentary Assembly (comprising parliamentarians from all member states, reflecting each country’s balance of political parties). This structure, which directly reflects the politics of its members, seeks to reduce the risks of conflict between the Council and the participant democracies.

Its core remit is the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The Council itself makes no laws, working instead via conventions or codes of common legal standards.12 It does have, however, the task of upholding agreements made between the participant states. That role led to its most important achievement, the European Convention of Human Rights (1950), and its most powerful creation, the European Court of Human Rights (also located in Strasbourg). That body is composed of a judge from each member state, elected by the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly for a non-renewable period of nine years.

From this account, it’s apparent that the system is much more complex and thorough-going than the primitive arrangements, made under the Concert of Europe almost one hundred and fifty years earlier. But there is a recognisable legacy from one to the other – trying to uphold common values, seeking cooperative mechanisms, whilst not infringing upon the powers of the participant states. Today one set of criticisms comes from some British Conservative right-wingers, who object to judicial overview from Strasbourg (even though one key designer of the European Convention of Human Rights was the Conservative MP and lawyer Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe).13 However, the latest indications are that Prime Minister Theresa May does not wish to complicate further the tasks facing her. Withdrawal from the Council of Europe was not an option on offer in the British Referendum in 2016. So there is no electoral mandate for such a change. Hence it is likely that Britain may succeed in withdrawing, either wholly or partly, from the European Union, but will remain decisively within the Council of Europe.

Overall, it is remarkable that, since the Second World War, there have been not one but two creations of pan-European institutions, side by side. (In 2007, they resolved to cooperate more closely; but no amalgamations are envisaged). Cross-party British political leadership was highly important in founding the Council of Europe, although little effort has been made, during the last sixty-six years, to inform the British public about the Council’s work. It is a silent achievement.

No doubt that’s because the second of the two new pan-European institutional creations has stolen its thunder. The European Economic Community, or Common Market, was established in 1958, under the Treaty of Rome (1957), with six founding members.14 The new body immediately adapted the Council of Europe’s flag (see Fig.2) and (later) shared its chosen theme tune: Schiller’s Ode to Joy (1785), as set to music in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (1824).

Fig. 2: Closely associated flags
(L) Council of Europe (1950)
and (R ) European Economic Community (1958), later European Union (1993).
Neither flag was flown much in Great Britain, pre-Brexit Referendum.

Such close overlappings have distracted public attention. The major difference between the two pan-national organisations lies in the fact that the European Economic Community (EEC) has developed from its origins as a trading bloc into a hybrid form of closer integration, named as the European Union (EU). The new identity was instituted by the Maastricht Treaty (1993), at a time of optimism, even euphoria, at the success of democracy and the collapse of the old Soviet Union. However, there are many permutations of membership. Great Britain was cautious from the start. As is well known, it was slow to join the EEC (1975), and has since stayed outside the 1985 Schengen Area (no passport controls) and outside the 1999 Eurozone (common currency). Thus while all countries in the European Union have transferred some powers to the central institutions of the EU, they have not done so equally. Consequently, the EU’s hybrid organisation, and the uncertain constitutional relationship between its organising Council and Commissioners with the democratic parliaments within the membership states, together generate continuing tensions.

But this BLOG has not set out primarily to discuss the problems facing the European Union. Instead, it highlights the yoyo relationship of Britain with its nearest continental neighbours (separation/convergence); and notes that Britain has played a positive role at various times in creating new organisations to express pan-European solidarity. Historically, these bodies come and go, with changing efficacy in changing times. Clearly, too, this story is not yet concluded. Britain will not want to witness one powerful pan-European super-state, just across the North Sea, with which it has no relationship. Moreover, whatever happens to British plans for Brexit and to the internal development of the European Union, Britain still remains within the Council of Europe. Plus, all future generations of Britons will still have to work with the countries on the other side of Doggerland.

2016-09 No4 Doggerland

Fig.3 Doggerland before the sharp rise in sea levels c.6,200 BCE, named after today’s submerged Dogger Bank: based upon the work of marine archaeologists Gaffney, Fitch and Smith (2009).

1 V. Gaffney, S. Fitch and S. Smith, Europe’s Lost World: The Rediscovery of Doggerland (Council for British Archaeology: York, 2009).

2 C. Drew and D. Sriskandarajah, Brits Abroad: Mapping the Scale and Nature of British Emigration (Institute for Public Policy Research, 2006).

3 D. Crystal, English as a Global Language (Cambridge, 1997).

4 See e.g. B. Simms, Britain’s Europe: A Thousand Years of Conflict and Cooperation (2016); and J.R. Gillingham, The EU: An Obituary (2016).

5 T. Chapman, The Congress of Vienna, 1814-15: Origins, Processes, Results (1998); M. Jarrett, The Congress of Vienna and its Legacy: War and Great Power Diplomacy after Napoleon (2013).

6 D. Stevenson, 1914-18: The History of the First World War (2005), p. 5.

7 B. Fladeland, ‘Abolitionist Pressures on the Concert of Europe, 1814-22’, Journal of Modern History, 38 (1966), pp.  355-73.

8 The list includes: Vienna (1814-15), Aix-la-Chapelle (1818); Carlsbad (1819); Troppau (1820); Verona (1822); London (1832); and Berlin (1878).

9 Alphabetically: Albania, Andorra, Armenia, Austria, Azerbeijan, Belgium, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Malta, Moldova, Monaco, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, San Marino, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, Ukraine, and the United Kingdom.

10 They are Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Vatican City. In addition, various other disputed territories, such as Kosovo, do not have independent membership.

11 P. Pasture, Imagining European Unity since 1000 AD (New York, 2015).

12 Many of these have gained international recognition; and the Council works closely with the United Nations on a range of humanitarian issues.

13 David Maxwell-Fyfe, 1st Earl of Kilmuir (1900-67), was a prosecutor at the Nuremburg Trials (1946), later Conservative Home Secretary and Lord Chancellor (until 1963).

14 Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany.

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 69 please click here

2017-08 No1 Adams Telegraph_cartoon

MONTHLY BLOG 68, REFERENDA VIEWED LONG

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Referenda seek to answer big questions with big answers: let the people speak. But they also constrain voters. They are called upon to choose between simple either/or alternatives. In practice, however, referenda are not always easy to answer. There are plenty of cases when many would reply: yes to the proposition, in this or that given set of circumstances; but no, in the event of another set of circumstances. And there is no scope (other than spoiling the ballot paper) for those who would reply to the options: neither of the above. In other words, referenda are unsubtle.

2017-08 No1 Adams Telegraph_cartoon

Fig.1 Daily Telegraph cartoon © Christian Adams (2015), satirising the Greek Bailout Referendum (2015) as a desperate choice between two equally disastrous options: either Scylla, the ravenous monster, or Charybdis, the fatal whirlpool.

The art of governance entails much more than answering a sequence of binary questions: yes/no. The complex arts of politics, balancing, assessing and deciding between often conflicting requirements, are still required.

For that reason, there are good, practical reasons for avoiding too many referenda; and, when they are deemed necessary, for ensuring that choices are posed with reference to one big clear issue, which, if it is to be accepted, requires the whole-hearted support of the people.

A fine example of good referendum-politics was seen in the twin referenda in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in May 1998, following the Good Friday Agreement. In the Six Counties, the electorate was asked whether it wished to approve the deal brokered by the multi-party talks, envisaging a power-sharing executive. In a large turnout of almost a million voters, 71.1% voted in favour and 28.9% against. Simultaneously, the electorate in the Republic was asked whether it approved the British-Irish agreement, which entailed amending the Republic’s 1937 constitution to end its ‘territorial claim’ to the North. The turnout in this referendum (56% of the electorate) was much less emphatic. But the result was completely decisive: 94.39% voted yes; 5.61% no.1 That outcome still left scope for the potential reunification of Ireland, at some future date. The amended clauses express such a policy objective, but subject to consent on all sides. In other words, the victory was one for due political process, as opposed to civil war. It was a triumph for democracy, across two neighbouring countries with a shared and complicated history.

By contrast, the State of California has a long tradition of voting on ‘People’s Propositions’ which, if passed, add new and permanent clauses into the state constitution. These plebiscites enact a form of direct democracy, which functions alongside representative democracy, but not always with complete ease.

One obvious problem is what happens if two Propositions are both passed in the same year but directly contradict one another? The answer is that the referendum with the highest number (not proportion) of affirmative votes takes precedence and the other falls. But what happens if two Propositions are passed on different occasions, but still contradict or work against each other? That difficulty remains an unresolved problem.

Currently, the California state legislature has to work not only in the light of Proposition 13 (passed in 1978) which puts inflexible limits2 upon the amount of direct taxation raised upon real estate; but also with Proposition 98 (passed in 1988) which mandates specific percentages of the state budget to be spent on education. The result is that California’s politicians face severe constitutional constraints upon their budgetary flexibility. In effect, the politicians elected by today’s voters are being overruled by prior decisions made by voters a generation earlier.3 A democrat could well argue that levels of taxation and state expenditure are not constitutional fundamentals but matters of day-to-day, year-to-year politics.

Yet who is to decide what should or should not become a fundamental, unchangeable rule? If the people have solemnly so decreed, they have so decreed, unless there is some mechanism for constitutional review or updating.

Another case from California illustrates a different problem. Difficulties have followed from the ramifications of Proposition 65 (1986), which protects drinking water, and consumer products in California generally, from toxic chemicals, via a mandatory warning system. It has the beneficial effect of raising both consumer and business awareness of environmental hazards. Hard to object.

At the same time, however, the mandated system of enforcement was left deliberately open to private citizens as well as to state officials. As a result, it has opened the way to ‘bounty-hunting’ litigation, undertaken, so it is claimed, by private attorneys who prosecute any Californian businesses, which may not have listed every possible toxic element. All fees won go to the law firms, without any gain to the state’s citizens. To safeguard themselves, many businesses resort to vague general warnings, which spread alarm without providing any practical help. Here the problem is not the good intentions of the Proposition, but the mandated nature of its regulatory system.4 It deprives the state legislature of the chance to monitor its working and to adapt its procedures, if need be. Some management reforms to this Proposition were introduced by a consensus bill in the California Assembly in 2013; but further reforms, apparently being discussed by Governor Jerry Brown, have yet to materialise. There seems to be an impasse.

So what follows? For me, one immediate lesson is that the high status of a constitutional rule is such that a referendum to impose or change one should not be lightly used. Effectively, such plebiscites overrule and outrank ordinary democratic processes. In exceptional circumstances, such as in Ireland in 1998, that worked supremely well. But, at other times, it may produce conflicting answers, between the one-off verdict in a referendum and the iterative processes of daily politics, which are required to apply referendum results in practice. (As a result, there’s a possibility of eventual ‘Leave’ disillusionment after the Brexit vote in June 2016, which, when matched by continuing ‘Remain’ disappointment, will give the British electorate the worst of both options).

Secondly, there’s a good case for developing a set of conventions to regulate when and how such processes happen. Britain’s uncodified constitution benefits from its flexibility and openness to the exercise of British empiricism. Yet it can also lead to muddle, incoherence and a potential risk to fundamental principles.5 So there’s a good case for a constitutional pre-agreement between all parties about the whys and wherefores of these big popular inputs into the political system. Obviously, referenda need to be subject to clear and fair rules. They should decide on principles, and not upon administrative details and enforcement. Ideally, too, they should be accompanied by equally thorough documentation of the case for and against the proposition (provided by an independent constitutional commission), so that the electorate is not deciding in the dark. And there’s a good case for pre-agreeing the required percentage majority on a sliding scale (the greater the change the larger the proportion required?) before a decision becomes constitutionally final. Otherwise, referenda which are inconclusively close become symptoms of deep-rooted divisions – and not the answer. They tend to bring politics and politicians further into disrepute. That’s not good for democracy, especially when the outcome appears to pit different regions against one another.

Lastly, there’s much to be said for pre-agreeing the valid circumstances in which big constitutional referenda are to be held. They don’t work very well as tools of day-to-day politics. That way, there’s too much of a risk that the electorate will vote in response to the popularity or otherwise of the government of the day. Indeed, if politicians call referenda for immediate political reasons, it’s logical for the electorate to respond similarly. On the other hand, there’s an excellent case for testing major constitutional changes in the form of government – whether proposed as a matter of internal policy or in an overseas treaty with constitutional implications – by an immediate popular referendum. Not years after the event. But at the time. The twin 1998 referenda on the Good Friday Agreement showed how the deed can be done, and done well. Referenda viewed long? Yes; no; and maybe, in a fitting context.

1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Friday_Agreement#Referendums

2 That limit remains one percent of the full cash value of the property, and the Proposition, part of the so-called Taxpayers’ revolt of the late 1970s, also contained clauses requiring two-thirds majority votes in both Houses of the Californian state legislature for any future increases in rates of state tax on income, sales or property.

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_ballot_proposition

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_Proposition_65_(1986)

5 See I. McLean, What’s Wrong with the British Constitution? (Oxford, 2010)

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 68 please click here

2016-06 No3 Woman not inferior to man titlepage

MONTHLY BLOG 65, HOW DID WOMEN FIRST MANAGE TO BREAK THE GRIP OF TRADITIONAL PATRIARCHY?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Talking of taking a long time, it took centuries for women to break the grip of traditional patriarchies. How did women manage it? In a nutshell, the historical answer was (is) that literacy was the key, education the long-term provider, and the power of persuasion by both men and women which slowly turned the key.

But let’s step back for a moment to consider why the campaign was a slow one. The answer was that it was combating profound cultural traditions. There was not one single model for the rule of men. Instead, there were countless variants of male predominance which were taken absolutely for granted. The relative subordination of women seemed to be firmly established by history, economics, family relationships, biology, theology, and state power. How to break through such a combination?

The first answer, historically, was not by attacking men. That was both bad tactics and bad ideology. It raised men’s hackles, lost support for the women’s cause, and drove a wedge between fellow-humans. Thus, while there has been (is still) much male misogyny or entrenched prejudice against women, any rival strand of female misandry or systematic hostility to men has always been much weaker as a cultural tradition. It lacks the force of affronted majesty which is still expressed in contemporary misogyny, as in anonymous comments on social media.

Certainly, for many ‘lords of creation’, who espoused traditional views, the first counter-claims on behalf of women came as a deep shock. The immediate reaction was incredulous laughter. Women who spoke out on behalf of women’s rights were caricatured as bitter, frustrated old maids. A further male response was to conjure up images of the ‘vagina dentata’ – the toothed vagina of mythology. It hinted at fear of sex and/or castration anxiety. And it certainly dashed women from any maternal pedestal: their nurturing breasts being negatived by the biting fanny.
2016-05 No1 Picasso Femme (1930)

Pablo Picasso, Femme (1930).

Accordingly, one hostile male counter-attack was to denounce feminists as no more than envious man-haters. If feminists then resisted that identification, they were pushed onto the defensive. And any denials were taken as further proof of their cunningly hidden hostility.

Historically, however, the campaigns for women’s rights were rarely presented as anti-men in intention or actuality. After all, a considerable number of men were feminists from the start, just as a certain proportion of women, as well as men, were opposed. Such complications can be seen in the suffrage campaigns in the later Victorian period. Active alongside leading suffragettes were men like George Lansbury, who in 1912 resigned as Labour MP for Bow & Bromley, to stand in a by-election on a platform of votes for women. (He lost to an opponent whose slogan was ‘No Petticoat Government’.)

Meanwhile, prominent among the opponents of the suffragettes were ladies like the educational reformer Mary Augusta Ward, who wrote novels under her married name as Mrs Humphry Ward.1 She chaired the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League (1908-10), before it amalgamated with the Men’s National League. Yet Ward did at least consider that local government was not beyond the scope of female participation.

Such intricate cross-currents explain why the process of change was historically slow and uneven. Women in fact glided into public view, initially under the radar, through the mechanism of female literacy and then through women’s writings. In the late sixteenth century, English girls first began to take up their pens in some numbers. In well-to-do households, they learned from their brothers’ tutors or from their fathers. Protestant teachings particularly favoured the spread of basic literacy, so that true Christians could read and study the Bible, which had just been translated into the vernacular Indeed, as Eales notes, the wives and daughters of clergymen were amongst England’s first cohorts of literary ladies.2 Their achievements were not seen as revolutionary (except in the eyes of a few nervous conservatives). Education, it was believed, would make these women better wives and mothers, as well as better Christians. They were not campaigning for the vote. But they were exercising their God-given brainpower.
2016-05 No2 Eighteenth-century women's literacy

Young ladies in an eighteenth-century library, being instructed by a demure governess, under a bust of Sappho – a legendary symbol of female literary creativity.

As time elapsed, however, the diffusion of female literacy proved to be the thin end of a large wedge. Girls did indeed have brainpower – in some cases exceeding that of their brothers. Why therefore should they not have access to regular education? Given that the value of Reason was becoming ever more culturally and philosophically stressed, it seemed wise for society to utilise all its resources. That indeed was the punchiest argument later used by the feminist John Stuart Mill in his celebrated essay on The Subjection of Women (1869). Fully educating the female half of the population would have the effect, he explained, of ‘doubling the mass of mental faculties available for the higher service of humanity’. Not only society collectively but also women and men individually would gain immeasurably by accessing fresh intellectual capital.3

Practical reasoning had already become appreciated at the level of the household. Throughout the eighteenth century, more and more young women were being instructed in basic literacy skills.4 These were useful as well as polite accomplishments. One anonymous text in 1739, in the name of ‘Sophia’ [the spirit of Reason], coolly drew some logical conclusions. In an urbanising and commercialising society, work was decreasingly dependent upon brute force – and increasingly reliant upon brainpower. Hence there was/is no reason why women, with the power of Reason, should not contribute alongside men. Why should there not be female lawyers, judges, doctors, scientists, University teachers, Mayors, magistrates, politicians – or even army generals and admirals?5 After all, physical strength had long ceased to be the prime qualification for military leadership. Indeed, mere force conferred no basis for either moral or political superiority. ‘Otherwise brutes would deserve pre-eminence’.6

2016-06 No3 Woman not inferior to man titlepage
There was no inevitable chain of historical progression. But, once women took up the pen, there slowly followed successive campaigns for female education, female access to the professions, female access to the franchise, female access to boardrooms, as well as (still continuing) full female participation in government, and (on the horizon) access the highest echelons of the churches and armed forces. In the very long run, the thin wedge is working. Nonetheless, it remains wise for feminists of all stripes to argue their case with sweet reason, as there are still dark fears to allay.

1 B. Harrison, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain (1978; 2013); J. Sutherland, Mrs Humphry Ward: Eminent Victorian, Pre-Eminent Edwardian (Oxford, 1990).

2 J. Eales, ‘Female Literacy and the Social Identity of the Clergy Family in the Seventeenth Century’, Archaeologia Cantiana, 133 (2013), pp. 67-81.

3 J.S. Mill, The Subjection of Women (1869; in Everyman edn, 1929), pp. 298-9.

4 By 1801, all women in Britain’s upper and middle classes were literate, and literacy was also spreading amongst lower-class women, especially in the growing towns.

5 Anon., Woman not Inferior to Man, by Sophia, a Person of Quality (1739), pp. 36, 38, 48.

6 Ibid., p. 51.

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 65 please click here

2016-04 No2 Despard and Women's Freedom League

MONTHLY BLOG 64, WHY IS IT TAKING SO LONG TO NORMALISE THE ROLE OF WOMEN AT THE TOP IN POLITICS?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Women can certainly make it to the top of the political greasy pole. Indira Gandhi (India), Margaret Thatcher (UK), Angela Merkel (Germany) and Aung San Suu Kyi (Myanmar) are just four among several eminent examples, in very different political systems. Nonetheless, such women are still comparatively rare. Their political pre-eminence, past or present, is not ‘normal’ and taken for granted. But … why ever not? In liberal democracies it’s now a fairly long time since women got the vote and became able to stand for office. So what factors have slowed down the transition from electoral rights to political eminence?

Put like that, one fundamental answer replies that ‘these things take time’. Getting the vote is not the same as getting power. It was/is quicker and easier to change the franchise (and that took some doing) than it was/is to change the day-to-day practice of politics, which paves the way for individual participation and advancement. Over the long term, it can be argued that democracies have become relatively ‘feminised’ in the sense that issues concerning women are now routinely part of the agenda. Yet that is not the same as female participation.

Between them, women usually carry out a range of customary tasks within the household, such as childcare, dependent-adult care, home-provisioning, and housework. All of these are time-consuming and preoccupying chores, often round-the-clock. Hence, to accommodate the political participation of women, the timetables and practices of political life need to be adjusted, as does the habitual allocation of tasks within the household – and/or the delegation of some tasks to other bodies outside the household.

A very long history lies behind the assumption of an ingrained specialisation, originating in biology and sustained by cultural expectations. Women were and often still are expected to focus upon the domestic and the familial. Men take care of the ‘outside world’. A traditional phrase pronounced that: ‘Ladies have nothing to do with politics’. Such attitudes were early challenged by feminist writers. In 1834, the feisty Maria Edgeworth denounced that attitude as ‘namby-pamby’ and ‘little missy’, in her novel entitled Helen. The heroine of the story was admonished: ‘You can hardly expect, Helen, that you, as a rational being, can go through the world as it now is, without forming any opinion on points of public importance.’1

Nonetheless, great numbers of women traditionally did and do leave such things to ‘the men’. And in Edgeworth’s novel, disappointingly, her staunchly self-denying heroine does not rise to the challenge, whether by campaigning for the female franchise or for anything as halfway radical. It was very difficult, in that era, for women to propose proto-feminist views without being satirised or pilloried; and the convention against women speaking on public platforms was almost universally upheld, by women as well as by men.2

One of the central arguments against giving the vote to women was that they were ‘virtually’ represented by their menfolk. Civic activities by husbands were taken to articulate the views of the entire household. It was specialisation in practice. Man and wife were one. She had tasks at home; he spoke for both in the wider world. On such grounds, many Victorian conservatives opposed giving the vote to women, on the grounds that such a move would give married men two votes and thus be unfair to bachelors, who were left with just one. (Spinsters, meanwhile, were supposed to be ‘virtually’ represented by their fathers).

Such views depended upon an ideal-type of ‘the household’. However, in nineteenth-century Britain (as long before), there were plenty of women who either lived alone or who lived in female-headed households. And, of course, many married couples held divergent views – or followed the lead of the wife, not the husband. (Such men were unmanly and known as ‘hen-pecked’).

Yet the ideal type was precisely that, an ideal whose power did not depend upon individual case histories. Instead, it appeared founded upon biology, tradition, culture, and, for those with committed religious views, divine will. One term for this set of attitudes is ‘patriarchy’, although this concept is not a timeless verity which stands outside history, as some argue. Yet the concept and its supporting social structures certainly had enough continuing plausibility for the idea of specialist roles and separate spheres to become convincing for many, including for those women who campaigned against the female franchise.

Eventually, however, the anti-suffragists – constituting both men and women who opposed ending the traditional male monopoly – lost the argument. At a guess, most of the female vote-deniers did in time hold their noses and exercise their new electoral rights. But such attitudes showed that ‘women’ were not and are not a single social category, speaking with one voice. They may be divided by age, wealth, social class, religion, ethnicity, politics, gender orientation, marital status, maternity or childlessness, and/or their attitudes towards feminism and to men. However, the case for women’s rights does not depend upon any need for unity or homogeneity. They participate as citizens, no more or less, sharing the range of concord and disagreements that are found within any body politic.

Today, the old arguments of the anti-suffragists are being repeated and updated by a very similar mixture of venom and ridicule on the part of the anti-feminists (both male and female), who flourish with vigour, especially on social media. They express themselves sometimes ironically, sometimes amusingly, sometimes with violent misogyny.

Detail from Thomas Rowlandson’s partly affectionate, partly brutal satire of an all-woman Bluestocking Club (1815) as an unbridled cat-fight.

The mix of backlash, uncertainty, and a confused sense of upheaval, indicates how fundamental are these long-unfolding changes in the respective roles of men and women – but also how ultimately flexible are social organisations. There are some crucial biological constants, like the fact that it is women (though not all women) who give birth to children. Yet the social arrangements for child rearing are not immutable over time. Things are not set in stone – but they don’t get transformed overnight either.

So, given that, any changes designed to help women to participate fully in political life should be matched by changes to relationships and the distribution of tasks within the household. The two ‘spheres’ are not separate, but integrally linked. If one variable is to be adapted, then the others have to adapt too. And the same applies to all areas of public and private life.
2016-04 No2 Despard and Women's Freedom League

Battersea’s Charlotte Despard, leading a march of the Women’s Freedom League (1907), campaigning for the vote with her fellow sisters, in company with a representative of the next generation, in the form of a decorously dressed young boy in the front row.

Lastly, it’s important for women to press for structural changes to help women. History needs a helping hand. And female solidarity is a good antidote to anti-feminism. At the same time, however, it’s best not to be too dogmatic about the merits of all women, simply because they are women. I’m sure that there’s no female consensus on the respective political ratings of Indira Gandhi; Margaret Thatcher; Angela Merkel; and Aung San Suu Kyi. Onwards; not always upwards; but still, yes, onwards.

1 M. Edgeworth, Helen (1834; in 1890 edn), p. 260.

2 See P.J. Corfield, ‘Women and Public Speaking’, Monthly BLOG/47 (Nov. 2014).

3 For rival perspectives, see G. Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford, 1986); J. Bennett, History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (Manchester 2006); and S. Goldberg, Male Dominance: The Inevitability of Patriarchy (1979).

4 B.H. Harrison, Separate Spheres: The Opposition to Women’s Suffrage in Britain (2013); A.M. Benjamin, A History of the Anti-Suffrage Movement in the United States, from 1895 to 1920: Women against Equality (Lewiston, 1991).

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 64 please click here

2016-03-Election-placard1784

MONTHLY BLOG 63, THE VALUE OF VOTING – AND WHY THE PRACTICE SHOULD NOT BE MOCKED

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

Many more voters than previously realised cast their votes in local and national elections in eighteenth-century England. They were thereby creating – sometimes riotously and casually, but generally decorously and seriously – a culture of constitutionalism. It amounted to an emergent proto-democracy. It was not yet a full democracy, in which all adult men and women have a vote. Yet it was a culture which, importantly, chose to decide certain key disputes by casting equal votes and by then accepting the verdict of the majority.
2016-03-Election-placard1784

Satirical sketch of election placard in Westminster (1784), showing opposition candidate Charles James Fox as a wily fox with his slogan ‘the Rights of the Commons’.
Despite the brickbats and satire, Fox won.

This procedure was much safer and more rational than deciding by fighting; much more effective in winning wider consent than deciding by bribery; and much more involving for all participants than deciding by the casting of lots. Even if not all the eligible electorate actually chose to use their vote (and there were invariably some non-participants), they always had the option.

A proto-democratic culture of constitutionalism promoted public debate about the candidates and the issues, as well as a basic respect for other points of view, which might turn out to have majority support.

In the eighteenth century, the franchise was unfair and unequal, which made it a valid target for reformers. Nonetheless, in a few large constituencies with ‘open’ electorates, the number eligible to vote, via an urban freeman or rate-payer franchise, was very great. The key examples were the cities of London, Westminster, Norwich and Bristol. They had many voters (all men in this era), from a wide range of social backgrounds: from aristocrats to artisans, shopkeepers, and even some labourers. Votes were cast publicly – which meant that votes were open to challenge if the witnessing crowd doubted the eligibility of the voter – and the results were taken as registering public opinion, in the nearest the eighteenth-century constitution offered to a serious test of the views of political ‘outsiders’.

Historically, the fact that Georgian England already had a voting tradition helps to explain how the country later made the transition into full democracy so bloodlessly. Already in the eighteenth century the rudiments of the electoral process were evolving: candidate speeches; party manifestoes; electoral slogans and placards; party colours; door-to-door election canvassing; ward organisations; celebrity endorsements; shows of public support in rival demonstrations and mass meetings; close scrutiny of the voting process; declaration of the results with, upon occasion, a formal challenge and recount; and, finally, acceptance of the outcome. (The Georgian custom of chairing the successful candidate around town was not always implemented then and is today not considered obligatory).

Not only were parliamentary and civic elections contested in these large open constituencies, but during these years the practice of constitutional voting was becoming adopted in many other, different circumstances. It pointed away from the troubled civil wars of earlier times towards a calmer, safer society. Many different non-governmental institutions used the mechanism of voting, for example to determine their own membership.

For example, in numerous private clubs and societies, potential recruits had first to be nominated by one or more existing members. Then votes were cast secretly, for or against; and any candidate who was ‘blackballed’ (negatived) was declared to have lost. This practice continues in some private clubs to this day. It was (is) a particularly severe test, since the excluded candidate might have won a large majority of all votes cast. In that case, it could be accused of being anti-democratic, allowing a small group to negative the will of the majority. The moral, in all cases, is that the rules for voting are crucial in framing how each voting system works.

Other non-governmental organisations which used some version of balloting in the eighteenth century included bank management boards and charitable institutions like London’s Foundling Hospital, established in 1739. That body used voting by its Trustees to recruit new Trustees, when existing ones died or retired. Clearly, these were socially exclusive bodies. But they were upholding the convention that each vote from a valid voter has equal value and that the will of the majority should prevail.

Importantly, too, it’s known that some middling- and lower-class groups used the mechanism of voting to resolve disputes over appointments. For example, a number of Nonconformist churches chose their ministers by such means. The Congregationalists in particular valued this procedure. Potential candidates would appear before a congregation, preach a sermon, and then submit to a vote, no doubt after further behind-the-scenes canvassing and enquiries. In these ways, many people had the experience of participating equally in a collective decision to find out what the majority (including those who were not so vociferous) really wanted.

So what follows? Firstly, the culture of voting is one to be appreciated – and used. Secondly, the constitutional rules for each system of voting really matter. They should be clearly framed to allow each system to operate fairly within its remit – and the rules, once established, should not be tampered with for partisan advantage. And lastly, electors should not be summoned frivolously to the polls. That way, disillusion and apathy develop.

Look at the low turnout for elections to the European Parliament. And there’s a good reason for that. Electors know that the institution has no real power. It is not a supreme legislative or tax-raising body; and, unlike a national Parliament, no executive government is either constituted from its ranks or is scrutinised closely by it. The current arrangements do no good for either the European Union or participatory democracy. Sham elections are destructive of a genuinely civic process, which needs to be cultivated, valued, and made real – not mocked.

1 P.J. Corfield, ‘Short Summary: Proto-Democracy’, section 1.7, in E.M. Green, P.J. Corfield and C. Harvey, Elections in Metropolitan London, 1700-1850: Vol. 1 Arguments and Evidence (Bristol, 2013), pp. 55-67; also in www.londonelectoralhistory.com, section 1.7.

2 See P.J. Corfield, ‘What’s Wrong with the Old Practice of Open Voting: Standing Up to be Counted?’ BLOG no. 53 (May 2015).

3 BLOG illustration from Rowlandson’s Procession to the Hustings after a Successful Canvass (1784) in http://www.magnoliasoft.net/ms/magnoliabox/art/547698/procession-to-the-hustings-after-a-successful-canvass-no14 (detail).

4 Over time, however, the clergy’s professional qualifications tended to be emphasised over the power of congregational election: see J.W.T. Youngs, The Congregationalists: A History (New York, 1990; 1998), pp. 69-70.

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 63 please click here

2015-10 No2 Lady Hester_Stanhope

MONTHLY BLOG 58, LIVING INTENSELY IN THE EYE OF THE STORM: WHY DO PEOPLE QUIT THEIR DAILY LIVES AND GO TO JOIN CRUSADES IN DISTANT LANDS?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

My previous BLOG/ 57 wrote about political leaders who might hope to ride and direct the tides of History.1 But it’s not only leaders. Historical outcomes are the sum of all the actions and inactions of everybody, combined together. We don’t all have the same power to direct. Yet everybody plays some part, even if by way of abstention. Hence we can all try, if we want, to change the roles which might seem allocated to us. It’s not a very simple thing to do, certainly. As is well known, it’s much easier to make good resolutions than to achieve them. Furthermore, good intentions can also, proverbially, achieve the reverse of the effect intended. Yet things can, upon occasion, be very different.

This BLOG is about the motivations of people who make dramatic changes, quitting their daily lives and going to join crusades in distant lands. Obviously the precise combination of reasons varies from individual to individual. There are usually strong ‘push’ factors, impelled by dissatisfaction with daily life at home. At the same time, however, there’s generally one or more strong ‘pull’ factor as well, attracting via the appeal of a distant cause that’s on the side of History.

Political commitment can have that effect. The thousands of left-wingers from across the world (and especially across Europe), who went in the 1930s to fight for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War, were a case in point.2 They were attracted by the lure of action, as well as by their support for Spain’s democratic government. Many were communists. Even if not drilled in the niceties of Marxist theory, they were accustomed to thinking of their own great cause as marching inevitably through History towards a triumphant outcome.

2015-10-No1-Hammersmith&Fulham-International-Brigade

Fig. 1. Memorial to Hammersmith & Fulham volunteers, who fought for the International Brigades in Spain, 1936-9 – installed in Fulham Palace Gardens SW6 in 1997.

The fact that the great cause of anti-Fascism needed an urgent helping hand was not an obstacle. For the many communists in the International Brigades their commitment was encouraged by the Marxist analysis of History, which saw the processes of change as a constant struggle. Of course, there is always opposition and conflict. But it is precisely through complex conflicts that fundamental change will emerge.3 Thus the role of struggle, if need be in the form of real fighting, was not an impediment for those of high spirits and with an active temperament.  Religious motivations are even more common in calling people to action. What can be more powerful and exhilarating than fighting, either literally or symbolically, in God’s cause? It is not even necessary to be highly spiritual to heed that message. It is the call to action which is the lure, with the double promise of fighting in the winning cause of righteousness and, while so doing, of gaining divine goodwill. The rewards, whether spiritual or this-worldly (or both), will follow. It’s a high promise which provides sustenance through the possible times of loneliness, boredom, and confusion which often afflict people who are uprooted from their homes. Indeed, the promise of divine reward encourages those seriously dissatisfied with their current life to take drastic action to put things right.

Particularly electrifying in religious motivation is the call to action that comes when ‘the End is Nigh’. Generally, people muddle on from day to day without worrying about long-term trends. But religious teachings, particularly those which view History as a linear journey from the creation of the world to the last judgment, provide such a mental framework. There was a beginning. There will be an ending, often after a phase of apocalyptic upheaval and turmoil, when God’s final judgment will be revealed.

Believers should accordingly be prepared. They might also look, anxiously or eagerly as the case might be, for signs of the imminent unfolding of these great events. All attempts at second-guessing divine intentions have been consistently discouraged by orthodox religious leaders in all the great linear faiths. Nonetheless, predictions of the imminent End of the World recur in every generation, and especially in times of turmoil.4 The message, for believers, is intensely exciting and empowering.5 It overshadows all routine matters. And heeding the call provides a chance for changing lifestyles. It encourages some to leave home to follow a special teacher or leader. It sometimes leads to violence, when believers fight against unbelievers. And it can even result in mass suicides/murders, if embattled cultists decide to take their own lives and those of their young.

These were all dramatic ways of ‘bearing witness’, to alert an unbelieving world. One non-violent move was undertaken by an aristocratic English lady named Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839). In her youth, she had a busy social life, becoming hostess for her unmarried uncle, the Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. But, with his death, she lost her role. What to do? She travelled in the Near East, causing a sensation among the Bedouins when visiting Palmyra. She dressed in an exoticised eastern costume, with a turban and Turkish slippers (see Fig.2). And, above all, in 1810 she announced that the End was nigh; that the Messiah would soon return to the Holy Lands; and that she would be waiting. Which she did. She lived for the next 29 years until her death in Sidon (on the Lebanon coast), at first in grand style, later in desperate poverty, still waiting.6

2015-10 No2 Lady Hester_Stanhope

Fig. 2 Lady Hester Stanhope, in her own version of oriental garb, who lived in Lebanon, for almost thirty years, awaiting the return of the Messiah and the Last Judgment.

Stanhope’s experience, extraordinary as it was for a woman of her social class, was nonetheless a classic example of what can happen when an apocalyptic vision is not immediately realised. Generally, dashed hopes turn into disillusionment. Ordinary life resumes. Yet not always. Sometimes, people turn to dogged waiting. In Stanhope’s case, she left no cult behind her. Indeed, she may have realised, by the end of her life, that her hopes had been in vain. Nonetheless, she probably found consolation in the sheer pertinacity of her waiting. And that’s what can happen, not just for individuals but across generations. A group of followers can take up the cause, even after the leader has died, not only waiting but also recruiting successors to hand down the message through time.

In England, the Muggletonians survived from the mid-seventeenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.7 Their views were kept in semi-secrecy, circulated only between families and close friends. Others, by contrast, wait in full public view. The Seventh-Day Adventist church was founded in the aftermath of the ‘Great Disappointment’ of October 1844, when the world was supposed to end but didn’t. An American group, initially known as Millerites after the first prophet William Miller, decided to continue waiting, Today the huge movement, renamed as Seventh-Day Adventist, has millions of adherents world-wide.8

Three comments to conclude. Firstly, the confidence that one is fighting, whether literally or symbolically, on the side of History and/or God is individually empowering, especially when worldly as well as other-worldly hopes/grievances are intertwined. Such beliefs can get people to do surprising things. For those without any previous certitudes, moreover, doing something drastic can seem the best way of gaining new faith through action.

Secondly, the force of such beliefs may be creative and affirmative, but may also unleash powers of destruction, especially when encountering opposition. Because the stakes are so high, so are the passions.

Lastly, curbing a militant commitment to fighting on the side of God or history is not easy. The main antidote is disillusionment, when the euphoria fades. Yet that can take a long time. Hence the secular authorities, generally cautious in matters of private belief, may intervene in cases of violence or potential violence. Currently, various governments are running ‘deradicalisation’ programmes, seeking to get militant Islamists to renounce armed struggle and/or to prevent others from joining them. That can’t be simply done, however, by flatly opposing the great cause. The empowering and exhilarating nature of commitment needs full acknowledgement. Only then, can it potentially be diverted into an alternative re-empowerment, in the cause of everyday, not apocalyptic, action. Different outlets for strong energies – calmer ways of navigating the tides of history.

1 See P.J. Corfield, ‘Riding the Tides of History: Why is Jeremy Corbyn like Napoleon Bonaparte?’ BLOG/57 (Sept. 2015).

2 Details in K. Bradley, International Brigades in Spain, 1936-9 (1994); A. Castells, Las brigadas internacionales de la Guerra di España (Barcelona, 1974); and M.W. Jackson, Fallen Sparrows: The International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War (Philadelphia, 1995).

3 See G.A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence (Oxford, 1978).

4 See listings in www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dates_predicted_for_apocalyptic_events; and discussions in E. Weber, Apocalypses (Cambridge, Mass., 1999); P.J. Corfield, ‘The End is Nigh’, History Today, 57 (March 2007), pp. 37-9.

5 P.J. Corfield, End of the World Cults (Historical Association Podcast, 2015) – available via www.history.org.uk/podcasts/#/p/504.

6 See K. Ellis, Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope (2008).

7 C. Hill, B. Reay and W. Lamont, The World of the Muggletonians (1983).

8 R.W. Schwarz and F. Greenleaf, Light Bearers: A History of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church (Nampa, Idaho, 2000); M. Bull and K. Lockhart, Seeking a Sanctuary: Seventh-Day Adventism and the American Dream (San Francisco, 1989).

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 58 please click here

Jeremy-Corbyn-with-bike

MONTHLY BLOG 57, RIDING THE TIDES OF HISTORY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2015)

Having BLOG-speculated about the Labour Party transforming itself by changing its name,1 I am intrigued to find instead that the Labour Party is transforming itself by broadening its membership, with a massive grass-roots surge since the general election in May 2015. It’s one step towards marshalling a broad coalition of anti-Conservative forces. But this development brings with it some obvious risks, like the dangers of chronic divisions and organisational splits. It will require great skill and team leadership, and goodwill on all sides, to weld together those in the political centre-Left with all those further Left.

Riding the turbulent tides of history is not an easy task. Without the benefits of hindsight (which helps historians but is not available to immediate political commentators), people have to do the best they can and hope that the outcome vindicates them. This BLOG is about the current upheaval within the Labour Party, now that the initially unfancied outsider Jeremy Corbyn has won the leadership.

It must be both a strange and exhilarating experience for a back-bencher aged 66, now to be riding the tides of history. Corbyn has been an assiduous MP for Islington North since 1983 but has never been a minister or previously stood for high office in the Labour Party. Instead, he has focused his efforts upon left-wing lobby groups and public campaigns.2 He is famous for the number of times that he has defied the Labour Party whips in parliament. Now, however, he is articulating a set of attitudes within the Left which have been without a senior voice on mainstream platforms for many years. The result has been a great surge of enthusiasm for his campaign, which no other candidate for the leadership showed any sign of matching.

Here are three thoughts about the Corbyn phenomenon. First, he is articulating something of importance. The fulminations of his opponents within the Labour Party hierarchy make that clear. He is the man of the moment. For Corbyn, his views are not at all new. He is not announcing a conversion. But the novelty for his growing band of supporters comes from hearing such views articulated passionately at a time, after the disastrous 2015 election defeat, when there is widespread disillusionment with Labour’s centrist trimming and when there is a novel opportunity, with a Labour leadership contest not only without a clear centrist front-runner but also conducted under a new populist franchise.

In the olden days, History scholarship candidates used to write essays debating the relative importance of the individual and the deep trends of history. The answer is always a key combination of both. People are the active agents who crystallise the trends; and key individuals, inside or outside formal organisations, are those who are able to seize and to personify the moment.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, whose historical philosophy firmly enshrined the importance of grand trends, was stirred by viewing in the flesh one of these significant ‘world-historical’ personages. It was at Jena, in mid-Germany, in October 1806. The French had decisively defeated the fabled might of the Prussian army. Hegel, who then resided in Jena, described in a letter how he witnessed a small hunched man ride by, seated on a grey horse. 3

2015-9 No1 Detaille Evening after Jena

Fig. 1: Captured Prussian flags being presented by French troops to the Emperor Napoleon after the Battle of Jena (1806), as depicted by Édouard Detaille in the late nineteenth century.

He was the victorious Napoleon, then aged 37. ‘It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it . . . this extraordinary man, whom it is impossible not to admire’, confessed the usually calm and reticent Hegel, an unknown scholar who was also aged 37. The small figure of Bonaparte was the incarnation of France’s post-revolutionary expansionism in both ideas and military force, which was routing traditional authority across Europe. Later, of course, Napoleon’s star waned decisively. Yet for a while he not only represented but moulded history, aided by his generals, his army, the dynamic energy unleashed by the French Revolution, and the disarray of France’s opponents.

Corbyn is no Napoleon. He seems personally too pleasant and downbeat in style; plus he rides a bicycle. In 2013 he explained to a local journalist his avoidance of seeking high office in the Labour Party on the grounds that ‘I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror’.4 Nonetheless, Corbyn is today the person of the moment on the British Left. He was the comrade who was bold enough to stand for the Labour leadership this time round. His bold, clear ideas have resonance after years of cautious compromise. And his casual unbuttoned persona makes him an attractive antidote to most of today’s overly tailored and straight-jacketed Westminster politicians. So it’s Corbyn’s time to benefit from the historical tides, and thus to have the chance also to mould events.

Jeremy-Corbyn-with-bike

Fig. 2: A casual Jeremy Corbyn, with bike and mug of tea.

Secondly, it is equally obvious that the tides can ebb as well as flow. The careers of Napoleon in exile, and of many other ‘world-historical’ figures in eclipse after their great days, stand eloquent testimony to that truth. People, who have held the levers of power, frequently find it difficult to realise when their ‘magical’ time has passed. Look at Tony Blair, now aged 62. He commanded the British political stage from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, when things began to go wrong for him. As a result, his appeal is now spent, as everyone but he appears to realise, to such an extent that his political interventions are now proving to be counterproductive. The best thing to do, if the tide has ebbed decisively, is to retire from the hotspot with dignity (ideally, finding good deeds to undertake, out of the limelight) and to wait for history to give its ultimate verdict.

But there is a third important reflection: a favourable tide gives a great opportunity if used constructively. It usually benefits best not just from a charismatic leader but also from a good set of long-term organisers on the team; enthusiastic and committed foot soldiers; an energising cause, well articulated; timely ideas; plus a tactical flexibility as well as a good strategic ability to wrong-foot all opponents. Another very helpful component is the support of an able successor, who comes from the next political generation but who is not a rival. As that list reveals, it takes a lot of favourable factors to ride the tides of history successfully, especially over the long term. Nonetheless, it can be done; and the attempt itself is exhilarating.

For any individual, to figure at the heart of history, successfully commanding the ‘Now’ of the present moment, is a great, almost dizzying, experience. It’s a sensation most commonly open to leaders or those vying for leadership positions. But it can happen excitingly for anyone ‘great or small’, in a spiritual or political sense, who believes that they have had a personal ‘call’ to action, as in a spiritual awakening or mission. A thrilling sense of being personally at the heart of history can (for example) get individuals to do amazing and abnormal things, like travelling to far off lands to fight in distant wars.

History’s grand trends often seem impersonal and remote. Yet they are simultaneously the product of countless actions and inactions by countless individuals and groups. So history is also close at hand and personal – not least for leaders who emerge to ride and maybe to redirect the tides. Stirring times.

1 See PJC BLOG/ 55 (July 2015) ‘Post-Election Meditations: Should the Labour Party Change its Name?’ and BLOG/ 56 (Aug. 2015), ‘More Post-Election Meditations: On Changing the Labour Party’s Name’.

2 For details see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeremy_Corbyn.

3 For G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831) on Napoleon, see T. Pinkard, Hegel: A Biography (Cambridge, 2000), p. 228. See also J. McCarney, Hegel on History (London, 2000); and S. Houlgate, An Introduction to Hegel: Freedom, Truth and History (Oxford, 2005).

4 P. Gruner, ‘As He Reaches 30-Year Milestone, Islington North Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn Reflects on his Career in Politics’, Islington Tribune, 7 June 2013.

For further discussion, see

To read other discussion-points, please click here

To download Monthly Blog 57 please click here