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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

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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)

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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.

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2015-5 No1 Detail from Hogarth Election 1754

MONTHLY BLOG 53, ELECTION SPECIAL: WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE OLD PRACTICE OF OPEN VOTING, STANDING UP TO BE COUNTED? 1

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

Vote early! Generations of democratic activists have campaigned over centuries to give the franchise to all adult citizens. (Yes, and that right should extend to all citizens who are in prison too).2  Vote early and be proud to vote!

So, if we are full of civic pride or even just wearily acquiescent, why don’t we vote openly? Stand up to be counted? That is, after all, how the voting process was first done. In most parliamentary elections in pre-democratic England (remembering that not all seats were regularly contested), the returning officer would simply call for a show of hands. If there was a clear winner, the result would be declared instantly. But in cases of doubt or disagreement a head-by-head count was ordered. It was known as a ‘poll’. Each elector in turn approached the polling booth, identified his qualifications for voting, and called his vote aloud.3
2015-5 No1 Detail from Hogarth Election 1754

William Hogarth’s Oxfordshire Election (1754) satirised the votes of the halt, the sick and the lame. Nonetheless, he shows the process of open voting in action, with officials checking the voters’ credentials, lawyers arguing, and candidates (at the back of the booth) whiling away the time, as voters declare their qualifications and call out their votes.

Open voting was the ‘manly’ thing to do, both literally and morally. Not only was the franchise, for many centuries, restricted to men;4  but polling was properly viewed as an exercise of constitutional virility. The electoral franchise was something special. It was a trust, which should be exercised accountably. Hence an Englishman should be proud to cast his vote openly, argued the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill in 1861. He should cast his vote for the general good, rather than his personal interest. In other words, the elector was acting as a public citizen, before the eyes of the world – and, upon important occasions, his neighbours did come to hear the verdict being delivered. Furthermore, in many cases the Poll Books were published afterwards, so generating a historical record not only for contemporaries to peruse, and for canvassers to use at the following election, but also for later historians to study individual level voting (something impossible under today’s secret ballot).

Especially in the populous urban constituencies, some of the most protracted elections became carnival-like events.6  Crowds of voters and non-voters gathered at the open polling booths to cheer, heckle or boo the rival candidates. They sported election ribbons or cockades; and drank at the nearby hostelries. Since polling was sometimes extended over several days, running tallies of the state of the poll were posted daily, thus encouraging further efforts from the canvassers and the rival crowds of supporters. Sometimes, indeed, the partisanship got out of hand. There were election scuffles, affrays and even (rarely) riots. But generally, the crowds were good-humoured, peaceable and even playful. In a City of Westminster parliamentary by-election in 1819, for example, the hustings oratory from the candidate George Lamb was rendered inaudible by incessant Baaing from the onlookers. It was amusing for everyone but the candidate, though he did at least win.7

Performing one’s electoral duty openly was a practice that was widely known in constitutionalist systems around the world. Open voting continued in Britain until 1872; in some American states until 1898; in Denmark until 1900; in Prussia until 1918; and, remarkably, in Hungary until 1938.

Not only did the voter declare his stance publicly but the onlookers were simultaneously entitled to query his right to participate. Then the polling clerks, who sat at the hustings to record each vote, would check in the parish rate books (or appropriate records depending each variant local franchise) before the vote was cast.8  In the event of a subsequent challenge, moreover, the process was subject to vote-by-vote scrutiny. One elector at a parliamentary by-election in Westminster in 1734 was accused by several witnesses of being a foreigner. He was said to have a Dutch accent, a Dutch coat, and to smoke his pipe ‘like a Dutchman’. Hence ‘it is the common repute of the neighbourhood that he is a Dutchman’. In fact, the suspect, named Peter Harris, was a chandler living in Wardour Street and he outfaced his critics. The neighbours’ suspicions were not upheld and the vote remained valid. Nonetheless, public opinion had had a chance to intervene. Scrutiny of the electoral process remains crucial, now as then.
2015-5 No2 Mynheer Van Funk - Dutch Skipper 1730

Illustration/2: British satirical cartoon of Mynheer Van Funk, a Dutch Skipper (1730)
Was this what Peter Harris, of Wardour Street, Westminster, looked like?

Well then, why has open voting in parliamentary elections disappeared everywhere? There are good reasons. But there is also some loss as well as gain in the change. Now people can make a parade of their commitment (say) to some fashionable cause and yet, sneakily, vote against it in the polling booth. Talk about having one’s cake and eating it. That two-ways-facing factor explains why sometimes prior opinion polls or even immediate exit polls can give erroneous predictions of the actual result.

Overwhelmingly, however, the secret ballot was introduced to allow individual voters to withstand external pressures, which might otherwise encourage them to vote publicly against their true inner convictions. In agricultural constituencies, tenants might be unduly influenced by the great local landlord. In single-industry towns, industrial workers might be unduly influenced by the big local employer. In service and retail towns, shopkeepers and professionals might be unduly influenced by the desire not to offend rich clients and customers. And everywhere, voters might be unduly influenced by the power of majority opinion, especially if loudly expressed by crowds pressing around the polling booth.

For those reasons, the right to privacy in voting was one of the six core demands made in the 1830s by Britain’s mass democratic movement known as Chartism.10 In fact, it was the first plank of their programme to be implemented. The Ballot Act was enacted in 1872, long before all adult males – let alone all adult females – had the vote. It was passed just before the death in 1873 of John Stuart Mill, who had tried to convince his fellow reformers to retain the system of open voting. (By the way, five points of the six-point Chartist programme have today been achieved, although the Chartist demand for annual parliaments remains unmet and is not much called for these days).

Does the actual voting process really matter? Secrecy allows people to get away with things that they might not wish to acknowledge publicly. They can vote frivolously and disclaim responsibility. Would the Monster Raving Loony Party get as many votes as it does (admittedly, not many) under a system of open voting? But I suppose that such votes are really the equivalent of spoilt ballot papers.

In general, then, there are good arguments, on John Stuart Millian grounds, for favouring public accountability wherever possible. MPs in Parliament have their votes recorded publicly – and rightly so. Indeed, in that context, it was good to learn recently that a last-minute bid by the outgoing Coalition Government of 2010-15 to switch the electoral rules for choosing the next Speaker from open voting to secret ballot was defeated, by a majority of votes from Labour plus 23 Conservative rebels and 10 Liberal Democrats. One unintentionally droll moment came when the MP moving the motion for change, the departing Conservative MP William Hague, defended the innovation as something ‘which the public wanted’.11

Electoral processes, however, are rarely matters of concern to electors – indeed, not as much as they should be. Overall, there is a good case for using the secret ballot in all mass elections, to avoid external pressures upon the voters. There is also a reasonable case for secrecy when individuals are voting, in small groups, clubs, or societies, to elect named individuals to specific offices. Otherwise, it might be hard (say) not to vote for a friend who is not really up to the job. (But MPs choosing the Speaker are voting as representatives of their constituencies, to whom their votes should be accountable). In addition, the long-term secrecy of jury deliberations and votes is another example that is amply justified in order to free jurors from intimidation or subsequent retribution.

But, in all circumstances, conscientious electors should always cast their votes in a manner that they would be prepared to defend, were their decision known publicly. And, in all circumstances, the precise totals of votes cast in secret ballots should be revealed. The custom in some small societies or groups, to announce merely that X or Y is elected but to refrain from reporting the number of votes cast, is open to serious abuse. Proper scrutiny of the voting process and the outcome is the democratic essence, along with fair electoral rules.

In Britain, as elsewhere, there is still scope for further improvements to the workings of the system. The lack of thoroughness in getting entitled citizens onto the voting register is the first scandal, which should be tackled even before the related question of electoral redistricting to produce much greater equality in the size of constituencies. It’s also essential to trust the Boundaries Commission which regularly redraws constituency boundaries (one of the six demands of the Chartists) to do so without political interference and gerrymandering. There are also continuing arguments about the rights and wrongs of the first-past-the-post system as compared with various forms of Alternative Voting.

Yet we are on a democratic pathway …. Hence, even if parliamentary elections are no longer occasions for carnival crowds to attend as collective witnesses at the hustings, let’s value our roles individually. The days of open voting showed that there’s enjoyment to be found in civic participation.
2015-5 No3 Rowlandson Westminster 1808

Thomas Rowlandson’s Westminster Election (published 1808), showing the polling booths in front of St Paul’s Covent Garden – and the carnivalesque crowds, coming either to vote or to witness.

1 With warm thanks to Edmund Green for sharing his research, and to Tony Belton, Helen Berry, Arthur Burns, Amanda Goodrich, Charles Harvey, Tim Hitchcock, Joanna Innes, and all participants at research seminars at London and Newcastle Universities for good debates.

2 On this, see A. Belton, BLOG entitled ‘Prisoners and the Right to Vote’, (2012), tonybelton.wordpress.com/2012/12/04/prisoners-and-the-right-to-vote/.

3 See J. Elklit, ‘Open Voting’, in R. Rose (ed.), International Encyclopaedia of Elections (2000), pp. 191-3; and outcomes of open voting in metropolitan London, 1700-1850, in www.londonelectoralhistory.com, incl. esp. section 2.1.1.

4 In Britain, adult women aged over 30 first got the vote for parliamentary elections in 1918; but women aged between 21 and 30 (the so-called ‘flappers’) not until 1928.

5 J.S. Mill, Considerations on Representative Government (1861), ed. C.V. Shields (New York, 1958), pp. 154-71.

6> See F. O’Gorman, Voters, Patrons and Parties: The Unreformed Electorate of Hanoverian England, 1734-1832 (Oxford, 1989).

7 British Library, Broughton Papers, Add. MS 56,540, fo. 55. Lamb then lost the seat at the next general election in 1820.

8 Before the 1832 Reform Act, there was no standardised electoral register; and many variant franchises, especially in the parliamentary boroughs.

9 Report of 1734 Westminster Scrutiny in British Library, Lansdowne MS 509a, fos. 286-7.

10 For a good overview, consult M. Chase, Chartism: A New History (Manchester, 2007).

11 BBC News, 26 March 2015: www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-32061097.

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MONTHLY BLOG 10, WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE ARTS & HUMANITIES RESEARCH COUNCIL CITING POLITICAL SLOGANS?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2011)

Why are many Humanities researchers so angry at the conduct of the Arts and Humanities Research Council? Its chief executive Prof. Rick Rylance has not yet managed to assuage his critics. They fear that the AHRC has not kept due operational distance from the present coalition government and the David Cameron slogan ‘the Big Society’.

The ins-and-outs of what has happened are subject to dispute (see reports by Paul Jump in The Times Higher: 29 March 2011; 7 April 2011; 27 June 2011). But there is genuine concern about the AHRC’s Connected Communities project. This cross-research-council programme, led by the AHRC, appears to have become politically partisan. Its draft consultation paper in June 2010 declared that: ‘Radical new policies on the ‘Big Society’ & localism at the heart of the new Coalition Government’s strategy in England … require a step change in research engagement with local communities and groups, the third sector and local government’. That statement is in itself contentious. Should research methodologies really change with every change of government policy?

Moreover, the AHRC website features a 2010 policy context paper (pdf.2053kb) by Dr Bert Provan, Deputy Director in the Department of Communities & Local Government. His presentation quotes David Cameron extensively. It is stated as a truth, and not as a research question, that, in ‘broken Britain’, government is ‘a large part of the problem’. It has allegedly ‘drained the lifeblood’ from community life. Has it really? Internationally, Britain is often envied for its strong tradition of civil society by post-dictatorship countries, where civic associations have long been discouraged. But Provan’s presentation under the title of ‘Connected Communities or Building the “Big Society”’ seems to imply that the CC project (launched in 2008) is being refashioned to endorse and promote the ‘Big Society’ political agenda.

So what’s going wrong here?

Firstly: the terminology. The ‘Big Society’ has clear party-political connotations. It is not a general term of art. The usual phrase for voluntary activities undertaken communally is ‘civil society’. That term has a clear meaning, with historic and current traction. It is true that, in practice, the boundaries between civil society, the private sector, and central government are blurred. Yet a degree of ‘fuzziness’ attaches to many terms that sub-divide the interlocking nature of human societies. The important thing is that the term ‘civil society’ links to a body of existing research and organisational effort. For example, the South African-based international society Civicus (founded 1993) already offers a Civil Society Index and policy recommendations to enhance citizen participation.1 The term is descriptive and politically neutral – whereas the ‘Big Society’ is used specifically to advocate ‘small government’.
july001For that reason, David Cameron’s slogan enrages many people, not only on the centre and left in politics, but also on the Thatcherite right, who prefer individualist rather than communal alternatives to the state. In addition, plenty of non-political grass-roots activists dislike the term too. It appears as though a currently powerful section of one political party is trying to ‘own’ the countless manifestations of community life.2
july002But organic expressions of civil society began long before David Cameron invoked the ‘Big Society’ to purge the Tory’s anti-society image and will continue long after the current government has disappeared.3
july003Secondly: the pre-committed research framework. Programmes should not start by ruling out all the research options. In this case, it cannot be taken for granted that ‘the’ central state is ‘the’ problem for those seeking to build communities. Governments in contemporary societies are very variegated and diverse in their roles and structures. Their impact can in some circumstances be inimical or discouraging to community activism.

Yet that proposition needs to be investigated, not just asserted. At the same time, the state can foster various forms of community developments, not least by framing a helpful legal context (for example, in support of cooperatives) or by providing grants and support systems for charitable endeavours. So favourable aspects of government also need exploration and debating.

Once political slogans begin to be taken as axiomatic, then the research rot commences. Subjects atrophy, if they are forced into pre-determined moulds. The extreme example – taking the extreme to make the case – can be seen in the fate of biological sciences in Stalin’s Russia. Elevating ‘practice’ above abstract academic theory, Trofim Lysenko (1898-1976) claimed to have pioneered a new genetics that would raise agrarian productivity dramatically, without investment in fertilisers. Stalin was delighted. [See the following photo, which shows his approving gaze at Lysenko’s 1935 Kremlin speech] Lysenko was lauded as an authentic ‘barefoot professor’, his peasant wisdom outwitting the ‘bourgeois’ academics. From 1940, Lysenko led the USSR’s Institute of Genetics. Critics were dismissed or imprisoned. Lysenkoist biology based upon environmental-manipulation rather than slow evolution was taught as a new orthodoxy.
july004But it didn’t work. Long before Lysenko’s teachings were officially discredited as fraudulent in 1964, they were sidelined in practice. In wartime, Stalin learned the hard way that he had to trust his generals to fight the war. Yet he did not get the message in science, or indeed in other subjects, like history, where he intervened to support one argument as Marxist orthodoxy against another as ‘bourgeois’ revisionism. Between them, Stalin and Lysenko halted Russian biological studies and palpably harmed Soviet agriculture for over a generation, greatly weakening Soviet Russia as an international power.4

Of course: this example is the extreme case. But it constitutes the classic warning. As soon as powerful politicians want one result from research and researchers are tempted to provide it, then knowledge halts.

Thirdly and lastly: research hubris.

A programme for Connecting Communities is tempting fate, not only by invoking a partisan slogan but also by promising too much. Its Vision hopes ‘To mobilise the potential for increasingly inter-connected communities’ by promoting connected research.5 Fragmented information from many sources and authorities will be united. And a sequence of benevolent Aims follow upon the generation of ‘world-leading’ research. One is the desire to ‘Create attractive, resilient, safe and sustainable environments in which communities can thrive and adapt successfully to the environmental, economic and social challenges that they will face in the twenty-first century’.6 Amen to that – but hang on a minute …

Such an aspiration does not just sound like a political manifesto, it is a political manifesto. It is not just providing research but it highlights desired research outcomes that no research council can possibly deliver. Even politicians, with their hands on the levers of power, fail to mould society to their wishes. It is certainly helpful for academic researchers to be aware of the practical applications of their work. And it would be splendid if politicians took notice of such studies.

However, communities have an organic life of their own. They can be encouraged or discouraged. But they do not depend upon politicians or upon researchers eager to please politicians.

Alas, the Connected Communities programme has fallen into a heffalump trap. It is true that successive governments would not like it if all scholars were suddenly to specialise in ‘The Economic Influences of Developments in Ship-Building Techniques 1450-1485’. (No disrespect to fifteenth-century ship-building, by the way. The example has been chosen because, as readers of Kingsley Amis will remember, it was the historic target of his anti-intellectual satire in Lucky Jim (1954).)7 Yet the remit of research in the Humanities stretches far and wide in chronology and location. It is generally researcher-led, in the interests of creativity and innovation (and including the risk of routine and dullness). Some big themes are encouraged by the research councils, which influence patterns of funding. But they take advice in choosing such themes, which usually reflect rather than create intellectual growth areas.

We don’t want to fall into the Lucky Jim trap of a researcher hating his research task, in which he had absolutely no interest. That’s clearly not productive, either intellectually or socially. Yet we don’t want to fall into the opposite trap of claiming to effect grandiose plans, which fall beyond researchers’ competence to deliver, in order to please political pay-masters.

Talking of the vogue for Localism on the part of a repentant central government, I remember Hazel Blears, then Labour’s Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, proudly informing a group of local community activists in Putney (2008) that: ‘It has fallen to me to regenerate Britain’s communities’. She got a collective raspberry from her audience, who daily struggled to promote citizen engagement. They were not impressed. Voters weren’t enamoured either. While politicians necessarily include some hot air in their armoury, it should be good quality rhetoric. And researchers should avoid it entirely.

1 This World Alliance for Citizen Participation is self-defined as ‘an international alliance of members and partners which constitutes an influential network of organisations at the local, national, regional and international levels, and spans the spectrum of civil society’, committed to expanding democracy and citizen participation: see www.civicus.org. The interesting website is, however, insufficiently clear about the actual leadership and membership of Civicus.

2 David Cameron presenting 2010 Big Society awards: issued by the Prime Minister’s office, number10.gov.uk.

3 The illustration shows the hand-drawn advertisement for village fete on 6 May 2011 at Hernhill Village (Kent): see hernhill.net.

4 See N. Roll-Hansen, The Lysenko Effect: The Politics of Science (2006); and V. Soyfer, Lysenko and the Tragedy of Soviet Science, transl. L. and R. Gruliow (1994).

5 AHRC website: Connected Communities Revised Draft Outline for Consultation (July 2010) – Vision.

6 Ibid: Aims – the second of seven bullet-points.

7 Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim (1954; in Penguin 1977 edn), p. 15.

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