MONTHLY BLOG 102, ARE YOU AN OPTIMIST? HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW YOUR OWN TEMPERAMENT?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

The Cheshire Cat, famed for its indestructible grin …
from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,
as depicted by John Tenniel for the book’s classic 1865 edition.
© image in public domain

 Are you an optimist? This question is one of my favourite opening gambits when launching into longish conversations with strangers. It’s a pleasant enquiry. It’s open-ended. It implies personal interest but it’s not overly intrusive. In response, people can talk about whatever they wish. They don’t have to reveal any secrets. Often, they talk about their health or work or families. In rare cases, frank individuals confide details of their hopes or fears for their love-life. And, increasingly these days, people take the question as an invitation to hold forth about politics, Brexit, and the state of the nation/world.

I’m also fond of asking questions that can go ‘round the table’, as it were. Those need to be open questions which don’t require a great deal of specialist information to answer. Getting a response from everyone, going round the group, is a great way of fostering a collective dynamic. (I enjoy this process not only in an educational context; but socially too). However, I have learned from experience that asking ‘Are you an optimist?’ really works best in one-to-one conversations. In groups, the cultural pressure to be up-beat in public militates against frank answers.1 Most people will claim, even if evasively, to be cheery – whilst allowing one or two individuals to seize the chance to play the dissident roles of ‘grumpy old men/women’. Their responses quickly lead everyone into debating ‘country going to the dogs’, Brexit, and the state of the nation/world.

However, such arguments have an increasingly stereotypical quality these days, which the question Are you an optimist? is designed to avoid. So it works best in one-to-one encounters, when there’s time to steer away from the perennial Brexit and to explore new terrain. By the way, when asking others to make whatever limited confidences they wish, it’s important to reciprocate. I have no desire to recount my life-story; but I do have some self-reflective comments about my own attitudes, which I am willing to share. Often, the question prompts an absorbing discussion, even with a newly–met stranger. It certainly is more probing than the standard gambit reportedly used by the Queen: ‘Have you come far? Or the academic’s predictable: ‘What’s your research field?’

Talking about optimism also encourages a quest for further definitions. What exactly is meant by the term? It covers a range of permutations from the mildly hopeful: ‘Well, something will turn up’ to an unshakable Panglossian faith that ‘all is for the best in the best of possible worlds’.2 And then people seek further clarification: optimistic over what sort of timespan: one year? five years? a lifetime? And with reference to what: oneself? one’s profession? one’s country? It’s very common these days for almost all educationalists across the spectrum to be deeply pessimistic about the state of the education system. By contrast, true  believers who have just discovered a great good cause tend to be highly optimistic in the early days of their faith, although over time their hopes of rapid success may become muted as they encounter obstacles and opposition (for example to feminism or to environmentalism).

Generally, however, optimists tend to skate over the complexities. Their glasses are rose-tinted. Their glasses are half full, not half empty. They see the potential in everything. And they believe, if not quite in universal ‘Progress’, at least in the positive chances of progressive betterment.3 And, as they wait in hope for things to develop favourably (even if events don’t always oblige), optimists claim to get more enjoyment out of life than do neutral observers. Milton long ago praised such feelings in L’Allegro, his hymn to mirth, jollity, dancing, nut-brown ale, good fellowship and everything that unchains ‘the hidden soul of harmony’.4

Meanwhile, lurking within every discussion about optimism is the countervailing stance of pessimism. Milton was there too. ‘Hence, vain, deluding joyes …’, he urges in Il Penseroso, his rival hymn to meditative gloom: ‘Hail divinest Melancholy …’ Pessimism in turn embraces many possibilities. Options may range through mild scepticism to world-weary disillusionment to acidic negativism to despairing self-harm.

Many pessimists, however, don’t actually accept that self-description. They prefer to call themselves ‘realists’. Whilst optimists can often be disappointed when their high hopes don’t come true, pessimists can always claim not to be surprised at any outcome, short of ecstatic and universal bliss (which is undeniably rare). It’s true that waiting for disaster to strike can seem depressing. Yet serious pessimists positively enjoy their misery. And they certainly believe that they see life more clearly than do the blinkered optimists.

At its simplest, the optimist/pessimist dichotomy can be interpreted as a function of individual psychology and basic personality traits.5 However, it’s as well to recall that changing circumstances are also liable to affect people’s template attitudes. It’s hard to remain cheerful at all times when suffering from acute pain over a long period of time. And it’s difficult to remain perennially optimistic when suffering from a relentless torrent of externally-inflicted major disasters which are entirely beyond one’s own control. So the optimist/pessimist dichotomy is by no means a rigid one. People may be pessimistic about the state of their profession (for example), whilst remaining personally optimistic about (say) their life and loves.

Crucially, too, mental states are not dictated purely by emotions and personal psychology. Considered reason plays a significant role too. The greatest expression of that truth came from Antonio Gramsci (1893-1937), the Italian Marxist who died in a Fascist prison in Rome under Mussolini. While incarcerated, he continued with stoic fortitude to analyse the state of politics and the prospects for radical change.6 What was needed, he concluded, was: ‘pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will’. It summarised powerfully the conscious yoking of reason and emotion. Gramsci’s formula can be applied to many causes, not just his own. Equally, it can be inverted by those who have optimistic intellects but suffer from pessimistic sapping of the will. Moreover, Gramsci’s formula can be reshuffled to allow room also for super-pessimists of both intellect/will as well as for super-optimists whose smile may outlast reality.

The Cheshire Cat faded
until nothing was left but the smile …

The significant factor, in all these permutations, is that reason is reinstated into human responses to their lives and times. Intellectual attitudes draw upon many sources, rational and emotional alike. For all analysts of the human condition, it’s as well to be aware of one’s own evolving template. A reflex optimism, for example, may lead one astray, unless tempered by rational cogitation and debate with others. I write as a perennial optimist who tries to make analytical adjustments to offset my biases. This process is based upon what I’ve learned from experience – and from many ad hoc conversations with others. So readers, should we be sitting together with a good chance of open-ended discussion, I’m liable to ask my favourite question: are you an optimist?

ENDNOTES:

1 For a polemic against mindless good cheer, see B. Ehrenreich, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America (New York, 2009), publ. in the UK as Smile of Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World (2009). See also S. Burnett, The Happiness Agenda: A Modern Obsession (New York, 2012).

2 Referencing Dr Pangloss in Voltaire’s satirical Candide: ou l’optimisme (Paris, 1759), immediately transl. into Eng. as Candide: Or, the Optimist.

3 See e.g. discussions in K.H.M. Creal, The Idea of Progress: The Origins of Modern Optimism (Toronto, 1970); W. Laqueur, Optimism in Politics: Reflections on Contemporary History (2017).

4 Compare J. Milton, L’Allegro with Il Penseroso (both written 1631; 1st publ. 1645), in J. Milton, The Poetical Works (Oxford, 1900), pp. 20-8.

5 There is a massive literature on these themes. See e.g. E. Fox, Rainy Brain, Sunny Brain: The New Science of Optimism and Pessimism (2012); P.B. Warr, The Psychology of Happiness (2019); W.C. Compton, Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness and Flourishing (Los Angeles, 2019); plus countless manuals of self-help.

6 From A. Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (1971). See also context in P.D. Thomas, The Gramscian Moment: Philosophy, Hegemony and Marxism (Leiden/Boston, 2009); A. Davidson, Antonio Gramsci: Towards an Intellectual Biography (1977; 2016); L. Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism, Vol. 3: The Breakdown (1971); N. Greaves, Gramsci’s Marxism: Reclaiming a Philosophy of History and Politics (Leicester, 2009).

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MONTHLY BLOG 100, CONTROLLING STREET VIOLENCE & LEARNING FROM THE DEMISE OF DUELLING

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

Young men carrying knives today can’t simply be equated with gentlemen duelling with rapiers in the eighteenth century. There are very many obvious differences. Nonetheless, the decline and disappearance of duelling has some relevant messages for later generations, when considering how to cope with an increase in violent street confrontations.

Both themes come under the broad rubric of controlling public expressions of male violence. By the way, such a proposition does not claim violence to be purely a masculine phenomenon. Still less does it imply that all men are prone to such behaviour. Yet it remains historically the case that weaponised acts of aggression in public and semi-public places tend to be undertaken by men – and, often, by young men at that.

Duelling developed in Europe from the sixteenth century onwards as a stylised form of combat between two aggrieved individuals.1 In terms of the technology of fighting, it was linked with the advent of the light flexible rapier, instead of the heavy old broadsword. And in terms of conflict management, the challenge to a duel took the immediate heat out of a dispute, by appointing a future date and time for the aggrieved parties to appear on the ‘field of honour’.     At the appointed hour, the meeting did not turn into an instant brawl but was increasingly codified into ritual. ‘Seconds’ accompanied the combatants, to enforce the set of evolving rules and to see fair play. They were there as friendly witnesses but also, to an extent, as referees.2 In the eighteenth century, too, surgeons were often engaged to attend, so that medical attention was available if required.

Sometimes, to be sure, there were variants in the fighting format. On one occasion in 1688 two aristocratic combatants arrived, each supported by two seconds. At a given signal, all six men launched into an uninhibited sword-fight, in which all were wounded and two of the seconds died. However, such escalations were exceptional. The seconds often began the encounter by trying to reconcile the antagonists. If successful, the would-be duellists then shook hands and declared honour to be satisfied. Hence an unknown number of angry challenges never turned into outright fighting. Would-be violence in such cases had been deflected and socially contained.

Duels certainly remained a topic of both social threat and titillating gossip. They were dramatic moments, when individual destiny appeared heightened by the danger of imminent death. Later romantic novelists and film script-writers embraced the melodrama with unwearied enthusiasm. Yet the number of real-life duels in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain was tiny.

No accurate records are available, since such encounters were kept semi-clandestine. Nonetheless, contemporary legal records and newspaper reports provide some clues. Scrupulous research by the historian Robert Shoemaker has identified 236 duels in the metropolitan London area between 1660 and 1830.3 In other words, there were fewer than 1.5 duels per annum on average during these 170 years. The peak duelling decades were those of the later eighteenth century. Between 1776 and 1800, there were on average 4.5 duels per annum. Yet that total emerged from a ‘greater’ London with approximately one million inhabitants in 1801. Even taking Shoemaker’s figures as a minimum, they show that duelling was much rarer in practice than its legendary status implied.

In fact, the question might be put the other way round: why were there so many duels at all, when the practice was officially deplored? The answer has relevance to today’s discussions about knife carrying. Duelling was sustained by a degree of socio-cultural acceptance by men in elite society, who were prepared to risk the legal penalties for unlawful fighting, wounding or killing. Its continuance paid tribute to the power of custom, against the law.

By the early nineteenth century in Britain, when the practice was disappearing, it was pretty much confined to young elite men of military background. However, there were three high-profile cases when very senior Tory politicians rashly took to the field. In 1798 Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger exchanged shots with his Treasurer of the Navy. (Both missed; but Pitt retired to his bed for three weeks, overcome by stress). In 1809 George Canning, the Foreign Secretary, duelled with his fellow Cabinet member, Viscount Castlereagh, Minister for War. (Castlereagh was wounded but not fatally). Most dramatically of all, in 1829 the ‘Iron Duke’ of Wellington, then Prime Minister, confronted the Earl of Winchelsea, in a row over Catholic Emancipation. (Neither was hurt; and the Duke immediately travelled to Windsor to reassure the king that his government was not suddenly leaderless).

These ill-judged episodes were signs of the acute vehemence of political confrontations in highly pressurised times. However, critics were immediately scathing. They asked pertinently enough why the populace should obey the laws when such eminent figures were potentially breaching the peace? At very least, their rash behaviour did not encourage reverence for men in high office.

Fig.2 Equestrian statue of Duke of Wellington, located in Royal Exchange Square, Glasgow: capping the statue with a traffic cone has become a source of local amusement, despite continued disapproval from Glasgow City Council and police.

Public opinion was slowly shifting against duelling. There was no guarantee that the god of battle would give victory to the disputant who was truly in the right. Fighting empowered the bellicose over the irenic. Religious and civic authorities always opposed fighting as a means of conflict resolution. Lawyers were particularly hostile. Self-help administration of justice deprived them of the business of litigation and/or arbitration. Hence in 1822 a senior law lord defined duelling as ‘an absurd and shocking remedy for private insult’.

Other voices had long been arguing that case. In 1753 the novelist Samuel Richardson strove in Sir Charles Grandison to depict a good man who declined to fight a duel, despite being strongly provoked. True, many impatient readers found this saintly hero to be somewhat priggish. But Grandison stressed that killing or maiming a rival over a point of honour was actually the reverse of honourable.4 Bourgeois good sense was triumphing over aristocratic impetuosity, although the fictional Sir Charles had a title just to soothe any anxieties over his social respectability.

Another public declaration against duelling came from the down-to-earth American inventor and civic leader Benjamin Franklin (1706-90). In 1784 he rejected the practice as both barbaric and old-fashioned: ‘It is astonishing that the murderous practice of duelling … should continue so long in vogue’. His intervention was particularly notable, in that recourse to duelling was socially more widespread in the American colonies, with their ingrained gun culture.5 And Franklin stuck to his position, refusing to rise to sundry challenges

The force of such interventions in Britain helped to render public opinion decreasingly sympathetic to duellists. One pertinent example came from 1796. Early one morning, two Americans faced each other to duel in Hyde Park. But ten swimmers in the nearby Serpentine – some of them naked – jumped out of the water and ran to stop the fight. In this particular case, they were too late; and one contestant died. Nonetheless, witnesses testified in the ensuing murder trial that the crowd, many of middling social origins, had spontaneously intervened. Public attitudes were becoming hostile. And it was that shift, rather than major changes in law or policing, which caused the practice slowly to disappear. The last fatal duel in Scotland took place in 1826; the last in England/Wales (between two exiled Frenchmen) in 1852. When Prime Minister Peel was challenged to a political duel in the 1840s he immediately refused, on the grounds that such behaviour would be ‘childish’ as well as wrong.

Viewed in terms of Britain’s historical sociology, the decline of duelling was part of a complex process of everyday demilitarisation, in the context of the slow shift from a rural to an urbanised society. Gentlemen decreasingly carried swords for other than ceremonial purposes. Canes and umbrellas came into vogue instead. Sheridan’s play The Rivals (1775) poked fun at impetuous young gentlemen who are ready to fight for their honour. Yet they are aware that ‘a sword seen in the streets of Bath would raise as great an alarm as a mad dog’, as one character remarks. The combative Irish adventurer Sir Lucius O’Trigger is lampooned – a nice touch of auto-critique from Sheridan who came from Dublin and twice fought duels himself. And the country bumpkin Bob Acres, who is egged on to fight his rival, tellingly finds his valour ‘oozing away’ when it gets to the point.6 Audiences are invited to laugh, but sympathetically.

Interestingly, by 1775 Sheridan’s play was already behind the times in terms of the technology of fighting. By the 1760s duels had come increasingly to be fought with pistols. The last known sword duel in Britain occurred in 1785. This technological updating, supplied by industrious Birmingham gun-makers, had two paradoxical effects. On the one hand, it demonstrated that the art of duelling was quick to move with the times.

On the other hand, the advent of the pistol inadvertently saved lives. The statistics collected by Robert Shoemaker showed that unequivocally. Duels with swords, among his 236 recovered examples, resulted in deaths in 22 per cent of all cases; and woundings in another 25 per cent. By contrast, it was tricky to kill a man standing at a distance, especially with early pistols which lacked rifle sights for precise aiming. Among Shoemaker’s 236 cases, as few as 7 percent of duels with pistols resulted in death; while a further 22 percent led to woundings.

Or, the point can be put the other way round. A massive 71 percent of combatants were unharmed after an exchange of pistol shots, compared with 53 per cent of duellists who were unharmed after crossing swords. In neither case did a duel guarantee a bloodbath. But pistols were a safer bet, especially after conventions established that the combatants had to stand at a considerable distance from one another and had to wait for a signal, in the form of a dropping handkerchief, before taking aim and firing. No ‘jumping the gun’. Indeed one test case in 1750 saw a duellist on trial for murder because he had fired before his opponent was ready. So the victim had testified, plaintively, on his deathbed.

It was the unavoidable proximity of the combatants rather than their martial skills which led to the greater proportion of killings by swordsmen than by gunsmen. That fact is relevant to the experience of knife-carrying today. The number of fatalities is not a sign of a special outcrop of wickedness but rather the consequence of the chosen technology. Knife-wielding in anger at close quarters is intrinsically dangerous, whatever the level of fighting expertise.

Needless to say, the moral of this history is not that combatants should switch to guns. The much-enhanced technology of gunfire today, including the easy firing of multiple rounds, makes that option ever less socially palatable, if it ever was.

Instead, the clear requirement is to separate combatants and to ritualise the expression of social and personal aggression. Achieving such policies must rely considerably upon systems of law and policing. Yet socio-cultural attitudes among the wider public are highly relevant too. As the history of duelling indicates, even august Prime Ministers allowed themselves upon occasion to be provoked into behaving in ways that put them at risk of criminal charges. But changing social mores eventually removed that option, even for the most combative and headstrong of politicians today. Community attitudes at first ritualised the personal resolution of conflicts and eventually withdrew support for such behaviour entirely.

So today multiple approaches are required. Police actions to discourage young men from carrying knives constitute an obvious and important step. Ditto effective policies to curb the drug culture. Equally crucial are strong and repeated expressions of community disapproval of violence and knife-carrying. Yet policing and public attitudes can’t work without complementary interventions to combat youth alienation and, especially, to provide popular non-violent outlets for energy and aggression. Leaving bored young people feeling fearful and at risk in public places is no recipe for social order.

How can energies and aggression be either ritualised and/or channelled into other outlets? It’s for young people and community activists to specify. But many potential options spring to mind: youth clubs; youth theatre; participatory sports of all kinds; martial arts; adventure programmes; community and ecological projects; music-making festivals; dance; creative arts; church groups; … let alone continuing educational access via further education study grants. It’s true that all such plans involve constructive imagination, organisation, and expenditure. But their benefits are immense. Violence happens within societies; and so, very emphatically, does conflict resolution and, better still, the redirection of energies and aggression into constructive pathways.

1 See variously S. Banks, Duels and Duelling (Oxford, 2014); U. Frevert, Men of Honour: A Social and Cultural History of the Duel (Cambridge, 1995); V.G. Kiernan, The Duel in European History: Honour and the Reign of the Aristocracy (Oxford, 1988; 2016); M. Peltonen, The Duel in Early Modern England: Civility, Politeness and Honour (Cambridge, 2003); P. Spierenburg (ed.), Men and Violence: Gender, Honour and Rituals in Modern Europe and America (Columbus, Ohio, 1998).

2 S. Banks, ‘Dangerous Friends: The Second and the Later English Duel’, Journal of Eighteenth-Century Studies, 32 (2009), pp. 87-106.

3 R.G. Shoemaker, ‘The Taming of the Duel: Masculinity, Honour and Ritual Violence in London, 1660-1800’, Historical Journal, 45 (2002), pp. 525-45.

4 S. Richardson, The History of Sir Charles Grandison (1753; in Oxford 1986 edn), Bk.1, pp. 207-8.

5 B. Franklin, ‘On Duelling’ (1784), in R.L. Ketcham (ed.), The Political Thought of Benjamin Franklin (Indianapolis, Ind., 1965; 2003), p. 362. For context, see also W.O. Stevens, Pistols at Ten Paces: The Story of the Code of Honour in America (Boston, 1940); D. Steward, Duels and the Roots of Violence in Missouri (2000); and C. Burchfield, Choose Your Weapon: The Duel in California, 1847-61 (Fresno, CA., 2016).

6 R.B. Sheridan, The Rivals (1775), ed E. Duthie (1979), Act V, sc. 2 + 3, pp. 105, 112. For the Irish context, see J. Kelly, ‘That Damn’d Thing Called Honour’: Duelling in Ireland, 1570-1860 (Cork, 1995).

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MONTHLY BLOG 99, WHY BOTHER TO STUDY THE RULEBOOK?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

Joining a public committee of any kind? Before getting enmeshed in the details, I recommend studying the rulebook. Why on earth? Such advice seems arcane, indeed positively nerdy. But I have a good reason for this recommendation. Framework rules are the hall-mark of a constitutionalist culture.

Fig.1 The handsome front cover of the first edition of Robert’s Rules of Order (1876): these model rules, based upon the practices of the US Congress, remain widely adopted across the USA, their updating being undertaken by the Robert’s Rules Association, most recently in 2011.

Once, many years ago, I was nominated by the London education authority – then in the form of the Inner London Education Authority or ILEA – onto a charitable trust in Battersea, where I live. I accepted, not with wild enthusiasm, but from a sense of civic duty. The Trust was tiny and then did not have much money. It was rumoured that a former treasurer in the 1930s had absconded with all the spare cash. But anyway in the early 1970s the Trust was pottering along and did not seem likely to be controversial.

My experience as a Trustee was, however, both depressing and frustrating. The Trust was then named Sir Walter St. John’s Trust; and it exists today in an updated and expanded guise as the Sir Walter St. John’s Educational Charity (www.swsjcharity.org.uk). It was founded in 1700 by Battersea’s local Lord of the Manor, after whom it is named. In the 1970s, the Trust didn’t do much business at all. The only recurrent item on the agenda was the question of what to do about a Victorian memorial window which lacked a home. The fate of the Bogle Smith Window (as it was known) had its faintly comic side. Surely somewhere could be found to locate it, within one or other of the two local state-sector grammar schools, for which the Trust was ground landowner? But soon the humour of wasting hours of debate on a homeless window palled.

I also found it irksome to be treated throughout with deep suspicion and resentment by most of my fellow Trustees. They were Old Boys from the two schools in question: Battersea Grammar School and Sir Walter St. John School. All the Trust business was conducted with outward calm. There were no rows between the large majority of Old Boys and the two women appointed by the ILEA. My fellow ILEA-nominee hardly ever attended; and said nothing, when she did. Yet we were treated with an unforgiving hostility, which I found surprising and annoying. A degree of misogyny was not unusual; yet often the stereotypical ‘good old boys’ were personally rather charming to women (‘the ladies, God bless’em’) even while deploring their intrusion into public business.

But no, these Old Boys were not charming, or even affable. And their hostile attitude was not caused purely by misogyny. It was politics. They hated the Labour-run ILEA and therefore the two ILEA appointees on the Trust. It was a foretaste of arguments to come. By the late 1970s, the Conservatives in London, led by Councillors in Wandsworth (which includes Battersea) were gunning for the ILEA. And in 1990 it was indeed abolished by the Thatcher government.

More than that, the Old Boys on the Trust were ready to fight to prevent their beloved grammar schools from going comprehensive. (And in the event both schools later left the public sector to avoid that ‘fate’). So the Old Boys’ passion for their cause was understandable and, from their point of view, righteous. However, there was no good reason to translate ideological differences into such persistently rude and snubbing behaviour.

Here’s where the rulebook came into play. I was so irked by their attitude – and especially by the behaviour of the Trust’s Chair – that I resolved to nominate an alternative person for his position at the next Annual General Meeting. I wouldn’t have the votes to win; but I could publicly record my disapprobation. The months passed. More than a year passed. I requested to know the date of the Annual General Meeting. To a man, the Old Boys assured me that they never held such things, with something of a lofty laugh and sneer at my naivety. In reply, I argued firmly that all properly constituted civic bodies had to hold such events. They scoffed. ‘Well, please may I see the Trust’s standing orders?’ I requested, in order to check. In united confidence, the Old Boys told me that they had none and needed none. We had reached an impasse.

At this point, the veteran committee clerk, who mainly took no notice of the detailed discussions, began to look a bit anxious. He was evidently stung by the assertion that the Trust operated under no rules. After some wrangling, it was agreed that the clerk should investigate. At the time, I should have cheered or even jeered. Because I never saw any of the Old Boys again.

Several weeks after this meeting, I received through the post a copy of the Trust’s Standing Orders. They looked as though they had been typed in the late nineteenth century on an ancient typewriter. Nonetheless, the first point was crystal clear: all members of the Trust should be given a copy of the standing orders upon appointment. I was instantly cheered. But there was more, much more. Of course, there had to be an Annual General Meeting, when the Chair and officers were to be elected. And, prior to that, all members of the Trust had to be validly appointed, via an array of different constitutional mechanisms.

An accompanying letter informed me that the only two members of the Trust who were correctly appointed were the two ILEA nominees. I had more than won my point. It turned out that over the years the Old Boys had devised a system of co-options for membership among friends, which was constitutionally invalid. They were operating as an ad hoc private club, not as a public body. Their positions were automatically terminated; and they never reappeared.

In due course, the vacancies were filled by the various nominating bodies; and the Trust resumed its very minimal amount of business. Later, into the 1980s, the Trust did have some key decisions to make, about the future of the two schools. I heard that its sessions became quite heated politically. That news was not surprising to me, as I already knew how high feelings could run on such issues. These days, the Trust does have funds, from the eventual sale of the schools, and is now an active educational charity.

Personally, I declined to be renominated, once my first term of service on the Trust was done. I had wasted too much time on fruitless and unpleasant meetings. However, I did learn about the importance of the rulebook. Not that I believe in rigid adhesion to rules and regulations. Often, there’s an excellent case for flexibility. But the flexibility should operate around a set of framework rules which are generally agreed and upheld between all parties.

Rulebooks are to be found everywhere in public life in constitutionalist societies. Parliaments have their own. Army regiments too. So do professional societies, church associations, trade unions, school boards, and public businesses. And many private clubs and organisations find them equally useful as well. Without a set of agreed conventions for the conduct of business and the constitution of authority, there’s no way of stopping arbitrary decisions – and arbitrary systems can eventually slide into dictatorships.

As it happens, the Old Boys on the Sir Walter St. John Trust were behaving only improperly, not evilly. I always regretted the fact that they simply disappeared from the meetings. They should at least have been thanked for their care for the Bogle Smith Window. And I would have enjoyed the chance to say, mildly but explicitly: ‘I told you so!’

Goodness knows what happened to these men in later years. I guess that they continued to meet as a group of friends, with a great new theme for huffing and puffing at the awfulness of modern womanhood, especially the Labour-voting ones. If they did pause to think, they might have realised that, had they been personally more pleasant to the intruders into their group, then there would have been no immediate challenge to their position. I certainly had no idea that my request to see the standing orders would lead to such an outcome.

Needless to say, the course of history does not hinge upon this story. I personally, however, learned three lasting lessons. Check to see what civic tasks involve before accepting them. Remain personally affable to all with whom you have public dealings, even if you disagree politically. And if you do join a civic organisation, always study the relevant rulebook. ‘I tried to tell them so!’ all those years ago – and I’m doing it now in writing. Moreover, the last of those three points is highly relevant today, when the US President and US Congress are locking horns over the interpretation of the US constitutional rulebook. May the rule of law prevail – and no prizes for guessing which side I think best supports that!

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MONTHLY BLOG 97, WHY IS THE REMARKABLE CHARLOTTE DESPARD NOT BETTER KNOWN?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2019)

Fig.1 Charlotte Despard speaking at an anti-fascist rally, Trafalgar Square, 12 June 1933:
photograph by James Jarché, Daily Herald Archive.

Charlotte Despard (1844-1939) was a remarkable – even amazing – woman. Don’t just take my word for it. Listen to Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948). Visiting London in 1909, he met all the leading suffragettes. The one who impressed him most was Charlotte Despard. She is ‘a wonderful person’, he recorded. ‘I had long talks with her and admire her greatly’.1 They both affirmed their faith in the non-violent strategy of political protest by civil disobedience. Despard called it ‘spiritual resistance’.

What’s more, non-violent protest has become one of the twentieth-century’s greatest contributions to potent mass campaigning – without resorting to counter-productive violence. Associated with this strategy, the names of Henry Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, all controversial in their day, have become canonised.2 Yet Charlotte Despard, who was also controversial in her day, has been substantially dropped from the historical record.

Not entirely so. On 14 December 2018 Battersea Labour unveiled a blue plaque in her honour, exactly one hundred years after the date when she stood as the Labour Party candidate in North Battersea in the 1918 general election. She was one of the feminist pioneers, when no more than sixteen women stood. But Despard lost heavily to the Liberal candidate, even though industrial North Battersea was then emerging as a Labour stronghold.3

And one major reason for her loss helps to explain her disappearance from mainstream historical memory. Despard was a pacifist, who opposed the First World War and campaigned against conscription. Many patriotic voters in Battersea disagreed with this stance. In the immediate aftermath of war, emotions of relief and pride triumphed. Some months later, Labour swept the board in the 1919 Battersea municipal elections; but without Charlotte Despard on the slate.

Leading pacifists are not necessarily all neglected by history.4 But the really key point was that Charlotte Despard campaigned for many varied causes during her long life and, at every stage, weakened her links with previous supporters. Her radical trajectory made complete sense to her. She sought to befriend lame dogs and to champion outsiders. Yet as an independent spirit – and seemingly a psychological loner – she walked her own pathway.

Despard was by birth an upper crust lady of impeccable Anglo-Irish ancestry, with high-ranking military connections. For 40 years, she lived quietly, achieving a happy marriage and a career as a minor novelist. Yet, after being widowed at the age of 40, she had an extraordinary mid- and late-life flowering. She moved to Battersea’s Nine Elms, living among the poorest of the poor. And she then became a life-long radical campaigner. By the end of her career, she was penniless, having given all her funds to her chosen causes.

A convinced suffragette, Despard joined the Women’s Social and Political Union and was twice imprisoned for her public protests. In 1907, however, she was one of the leading figures to challenge the authoritarian leadership style of Christabel Pankhurst. Despard resigned and founded the rival Women’s Freedom League. This smaller group opposed the use of violence. Instead, its members took symbolic action, like unfurling banners in parliament. They also advocated passive resistance, like non-payment of taxation and non-cooperation with the census. (I recently discovered, thanks to the research of a family member, that my great-grandmother was a would-be WFL supporter. So the 1911 census enumerator duly noted that Mrs Matilda Corfield, living in Sheffield, had given information only ‘under Protest (she wants the vote)’.5 This particular example of resistance was very muffled and inconsequential. Nevertheless, it indicated how unknown women across the country tried to respond to WFL advice. It was one way of slowly changing the climate of public opinion.)

However, the energetic Charlotte Despard did not confine her efforts solely to the cause of the female suffrage. Her life in Battersea radicalised her politically and she became a socialist. She was not good at detailed committee work. Her forte was activism. Indefatigably, she organised a local welfare system. She funded health centres for mothers and babies, exchange points for cots and equipment, youth clubs, and halls for local meetings. And the front room of her small premises in Nine Elms was made available to the public as a free reading room, stocked with books and newspapers. It was a one-woman exercise in practical philanthropy. What’s more, her 1918 election manifesto called for a minimum wage – something not achieved until 1998.

Among the Battersea workers, the tall, wiry, and invariably dignified Charlotte Despard cut an impressive figure. A lifelong vegetarian, she was always active and energetic. And she believed in the symbolic importance of dress. Thus she habitually wore sandals (or boots in winter) under long, flowing robes, a lace shawl, and a mantilla-like head-dress. The result was a timeless style, unconcerned with passing fashions. She looked like a secular sister of mercy.
2019-01-No2-Charlotte-Despard-in-slumland

Fig.2 Charlotte Despard in the poor tenements of Battersea’s Nine Elms, where she lived from 1890 to the early 1920s, instituting and funding local welfare services. Her visitors commented adversely on the notorious ‘Battersea smell’ of combined industrial effluent and smoke from innumerable coalfires; but Despard reportedly took no notice.

For a number of years, Despard worked closely with the newly founded Battersea Labour Party (1908- ), strengthening its global connections. She attended various international congresses; and she backed the Indian communist Shapurji Saklatvala as the Labour-endorsed candidate in Battersea North at the general election in 1922. (He won, receiving over 11,000 votes). Yet, as already noted, the Battersea electorate in 1918 had rebuffed her own campaign.

Then at a relatively loose end, Despard moved to Dublin in the early 1920s. She had already rejected her Irish Ascendancy background by converting to Catholicism. There she actively embraced the cause of Irish nationalism and republicanism. She became a close supporter of Maud Gonne, the charismatic exponent of Irish cultural and political independence. By the later 1920s, however, Despard was unhappy with the conservatism of Irish politics. In 1927 she was classed as a dangerous subversive by the Free State, for opposing the Anglo-Irish Treaty settlement. She eventually moved to Belfast and changed tack politically to endorse Soviet communism. She toured Russia and became secretary of the British Friends of the Soviet Union (FSU), which was affiliated to the International Organisation of the same name.

During this variegated trajectory, Despard in turn shocked middle-class suffragettes who disliked her socialism. She then offended Battersea workers who rejected her pacifism. She next infuriated English Protestants who hated her Irish nationalism. And she finally outraged Irish Catholics (and many Protestants as well) who opposed her support for Russian communism. In 1933, indeed, her Dublin house was torched and looted by an angry crowd of Irish anti-communists.6

In fact, Despard always had her personal supporters, as well as plentiful opponents. But she did not have one consistent following. She wrote no autobiography; no memorable tract of political theory. And she had no close family supporters to tend her memory. She remained on good terms with her younger brother throughout her life. But he was Sir John French, a leading military commander in the British Army and from 1918 onwards Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. The siblings disagreed politically on everything – although both shared the capacity to communicate on easy terms with people from many different backgrounds. To the Despards, ‘Aunt Lottie’ was thus an eccentric oddity. To other respectable family friends, she was ‘a witch’, and a dangerous one at that.7

These factors combined together to isolate Despard and to push her, after her death, into historical limbo. There are very few public monuments or memorials to her indomitable career. In north London, a pleasant pub on the Archway Road is named after her, on land which was owned by her husband Colonel Despard. On Battersea’s Doddington Estate, there is an avenue named after her, commemorating her welfare work in the area. And now there is the blue plaque outside the headquarters of Battersea Labour at 177 Lavender Hill, SW11. These memorials are fine but hardly enough.

Fig.3 Blue plaque to Charlotte Despard, outside 177 Lavender Hill, London SW11 5TE: installed 14 December 2018, on the precise centenary of her standing for parliament in 1918, as one of only 16 women pioneers to do so.

Why should she be remembered? The answer is not that everyone would have agreed (then or later) with all of Charlotte Despard’s political calls. As this account has shown, she was always controversial and, on Russia, self-deceived into thinking it much more of a workers’ paradise than it was (as were many though not all left-leaning intellectuals in the West). Nonetheless, she is a remarkable figure in the history of public feminism. She not only had views but she campaigned for them, using her combination of practical on-the-ground organisation, her call for symbolic non-violent protest and ‘spiritual resistance’, and her public oratory. And she did so for nigh on 50 years into her very advanced years.

Indomitability, peaceful but forceful, was her signature style. She quoted Shelley on the need for Love, Hope, and Endurance. When she was in her mid-sixties, she addressed a mass rally in Trafalgar Square (of course, then without a microphone). Her speeches were reportedly allusive and wide-ranging, seeking to convey inspiration and urgency. One onlooker remembered that her ‘thin, fragile body seemed to vibrate with a prophecy’.8

Appropriately for a radical campaigner, Charlotte Despard’s last major public appearance was on 12 June 1933, when she spoke passionately at a mass anti-fascist rally in Trafalgar Square. At that time, she was aged 89. It was still unusual then for women to speak out boldly in public. They often faced jeers and taunts for doing so. But the photographs of her public appearances show her as unflinching, even when she was the only woman amidst crowds of men. Above all, for the feminist feat of speaking at the mass anti-fascist rally at the age of 89, there is a good case for placing a statue on Trafalgar Square’s vacant fourth plinth, showing Despard in full oratorical flow. After all, she really was there. And, if not on that particular spot, then somewhere relevant in Battersea. Charlotte Despard, born 175 years ago and campaigning up until the start of the Second World War, was a remarkable phenomenon. Her civic and feminist commitment deserves public commemoration – and in a symbolic style worthy of the woman.

Figs 4 + 5: Photos showing Despard, speaking in Trafalgar Square, without a microphone:
(L) dated 1910 when she was 66, and (R) dated 1933 when she was aged 89.
Her stance and demeanour are identically rapt, justifying one listener’s appreciative remark:
Mrs Despard – she always gets a crowd’.

1 Quoted in M. Mulvihill, Charlotte Despard: A Biography (1989), p. 86. See also A. Linklater, An Unhusbanded Life: Charlotte Despard, Suffragette, Socialist and Sinn Feiner (1980); and, for Battersea context, P.J. Corfield in Battersea Matters (Autumn 2016), p. 11; and PJC with Mike Marchant, DVD: Red Battersea: One Hundred Years of Labour, 1908-2008 (2008).

2 A. Roberts and T. Garton Ash (eds), Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-Violent Action from Gandhi to the Present (Oxford, 2009); R.L. Holmes and B.L. Gan (eds), Nonviolence in Theory and Practice (Long Grove, Illinois, 2012).

3 1918 general election result for North Battersea: Richard Morris, Liberal (11,231 = 66.6% of all voting); Charlotte Despard, Labour (5,634 = 33.4%). Turnout =  43.7%.

4 P. Brock and N. Young, Pacifism in the Twentieth Century (New York, 1999).

5 With thanks to research undertaken by Annette Aseriau.

6 Mulvihill, Charlotte Despard, p. 180.

7 Ibid., pp. 46-7, 78-9.

8 Account by Christopher St John, in Mulvihill, Charlotte Despard, p. 77.

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MONTHLY BLOG 95, ‘WHAT IS THE GREATEST SIN IN THE WORLD?’ CHRISTOPHER HILL AND THE SPIRIT OF EQUALITY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

Text of short talk given by PJC to introduce the First Christopher Hill Memorial Lecture, (given by Prof. Justin Champion) at Newark National Civil War Centre, on Saturday 3 November 2018.

Christopher Hill was not only a remarkable historian – he was also a remarkable person.1 All his life, he believed, simply and staunchly, in human equality. But he didn’t parade his beliefs on his sleeve. At first meeting, you would have found him a very reserved, very solid citizen. And that’s because he was very reserved – and he was solid in the best sense of that term. He was of medium height, so did not tower over the crowd. But he held himself very erect; had a notably sturdy, broad-shouldered Yorkshire frame; and was very fit, cycling and walking everywhere. And in particular, Christopher Hill had a noble head, with a high forehead, quizzical eyebrows, and dark hair which rose almost vertically – giving him, especially in his later years, the look of a wise owl.
Christopher-Hill-1-&-2

Christopher Hill (L) in his thirties and (R) in his seventies

By the way, he was not a flashy dresser. The Hill family motto was ‘No fuss’. And, if you compare the two portraits of him in his 30s and his 70s, you could be forgiven for thinking that he was wearing the same grey twill jacket in both. (He wasn’t; but he certainly stuck to the same style all his life).

Yet even while Christopher Hill was reserved and dignified, he was also a benign figure. He had no side. He did not pull rank. He did not demand star treatment. He was courteous to all – and always interested in what others had to say. That was a key point. As Master of Balliol, Hill gave famous parties, at which dons and students mingled; and he was often at the centre of a witty crowd. But just as much, he might be found in a corner of the room discussing the problems of the world with a shy unknown.

As I’ve already said. Christopher Hill believed absolutely in the spirit of equality. But he did know that it was a hard thing to achieve – and that was why he loved the radicals in the English civil wars of the mid-seventeenth century. They were outsiders who sought new ways of organising politics and religion. Indeed, they struggled not only to define equality – but to live it. And, although there was sometimes a comic side to their actions, he admired their efforts.

When I refer to unintentionally comic aspects, I am thinking of those Ranters, from the radical and distinctly inchoate religious group, who jumped up in church and threw off their clothes as a sign. The sign was that they were all God’s children, equal in a state of nature. Not surprisingly, such behaviour attracted a lot of criticism – and satirists had good fun at their expense.

Well, Christopher Hill was far too dignified to go around throwing off his clothes. But he grew up believing a radical form of Methodism, which stressed that ‘we are all one in the eyes of the Lord’. As I’ve said, his egalitarianism came from within. But he was clearly influenced by his Methodist upbringing. His parents were kindly people, who lived simply and modestly (neither too richly nor too poorly). They didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t swear and didn’t make whoopee. Twice and sometimes even three times on Sundays, they rode their bikes for several miles to and from York’s Central Methodist Chapel; and then discussed the sermon over lunch.

In his mid-teens, Hill was particularly inspired by a radical Methodist preacher. He was named T.S. Gregory and he urged a passionate spiritual egalitarianism. Years later, Hill reproduced for me Gregory’s dramatic pulpit style. He almost threw himself across the lectern and spoke with great emphasis: ‘Go out into the streets – and look into the eyes of every fellow sinner, even the poorest beggar or the most abandoned prostitute; [today he would add look under the hoods of the druggies and youth gangs]; look into these outcast faces and in every individual you will see elements of the divine. The York Methodists, from respectable middle class backgrounds, were nonplussed. But Hill was deeply stirred. For him, Gregory voiced a true Protestantism – which Hill defined as wine in contrast with what he saw as the vinegar and negativism of later Puritanism.

The influence of Gregory was, however, not enough to prevent Hill in his late teens from losing his religious faith. My mother, Christopher’s younger sister, was very pleased at this news as she welcomed his reinforcement. She herself had never believed in God, even though she too went regularly to chapel. But their parents were sincerely grieved. On one occasion, there was a dreadful family scene, when Christopher, on vacation from Oxford University, took his younger sister to the York theatre. Neither he nor my mother could later remember the show. But they both vividly recalled their parent’s horror: going to the theatre – abode of the devil! Not that the senior Hills shouted or rowed. That was not their way. But they conveyed their consternation in total silence … which was difficult for them all to overcome.

As he lost his faith, Hill converted to a secular philosophy, which had some elements of a religion to it. That was Marxism. Accordingly, he joined the British Communist Party. And he never wavered in his commitment to a broad-based humanist Marxism, even when he resigned from the CP in 1956. Hill was not at all interested in the ceremonies and ritual of religion. The attraction of Marxism for him was its overall philosophy. He was convinced that the revolutionary unfolding of history would eventually remove injustices in this world and usher in true equality. Hill sought what we would call a ‘holistic vision’. But the mover of change was now History rather than God.

On those grounds, Hill for many years supported Russian communism as the lead force in the unfolding of History. In 1956, however, the Soviet invasion of Hungary heightened a fierce internal debate within the British Communist Party. Hill and a number of his fellow Marxist historians, struggled to democratise the CP. But they lost and most of them thereupon resigned.

This outcome was a major blow to Hill. Twice he had committed to a unifying faith and twice he found its worldly embodiment unworthy. Soviet Communism had turned from intellectual inspiration into a system based upon gulags, torture and terror. Hill never regretted his support for Soviet Russia during the Second World War; but he did later admit that, afterwards, he had supported Stalinism for too long. The mid-1950s was an unhappy time for him both politically and personally. But, publicly, he did not wail or beat his breast. Again, that was not the Hill way.

He did not move across the political spectrum, as some former communists did, to espouse right-wing causes. Nor did he become disillusioned or bitter. Nor indeed, did he drop everything to go and join a commune. Instead, Hill concentrated even more upon his teaching and writing. He did actually join the Labour Party. Yet, as you can imagine, his heart was not really in it.

It was through his historical writings, therefore, that Hill ultimately explored the dilemmas of how humans could live together in a spirit of equality. The seventeenth-century conflicts were for him seminal. Hill did not seek to warp history to fit his views. He could not make the radicals win, when they didn’t. But he celebrated their struggles. For Hill, the seventeenth-century religious arguments were not arid but were evidence of the sincere quest to read God’s message. He had once tried to do that himself. And the seventeenth-century political contests were equally vivid for him, as he too had been part of an organised movement which had struggled to embody the momentum of history.

As I say, twice his confidence in the worldly formulations of his cause failed. Yet his belief in egalitarianism did not. Personally, he became happy in his second marriage; and he immersed himself in his work as a historian. From being a scholar who wrote little, he became super-productive. Books and essays poured from his pen. Among those he studied was the one seventeenth-century radical who appealed to him above all others: Gerrard Winstanley, the Digger, who founded an agrarian commune in the Surrey hills. And the passage in Winstanley’s Law of Freedom (1652) that Hill loved best was dramatic in the best T.S. Gregory style. What is the greatest sin in the world? demanded Winstanley. And he answered emphatically that it is for rich people to hoard gold and silver, while poor people suffer from hunger and want.          

          What Hill would say today, at the ever widening inequalities across the world, is not hard to guess. But he would also say: don’t lose faith in the spirit of equality. It is a basic tenet of human life. And all who believe in fair does for all, as part of true freedom, should strive to find our own best way, individually and/or collectively, to do our best for our fellow humans and to advance Hill’s Good Old Cause.

1 For documentation, see P.J. Corfield, ‘“We are all One in the Eyes of the Lord”: Christopher Hill and the Historical Meanings of Radical Religion’, History Workshop Journal, 58 (2004), pp. 110-27. Now posted on PJC personal website as Pdf5; and further web-posted essays PJC Pdf47-50, all on www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk

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MONTHLY BLOG 90, CELEBRATING HUMAN DIVERSITY AMIDST HUMAN UNITY

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

Tree of Life
How do we combat racism, which does exist, without endorsing the idea of separate human ‘races’, which don’t exist? All humans share one big world-wide family-tree. Maybe squabbling, maybe prejudiced, maybe many things, lots of good as well as bad – but all sisters and brothers under the skin.1 So let’s celebrate human diversity amidst human unity.

Three thoughts. Firstly, it’s very right and proper for any group who are wrongly discriminated against to protest in full human dignity. It’s not only a duty which people owe to themselves. But they owe it to their children, whose entire upbringings can be blighted by a baffled sense that they are unappreciated in the wider world, without any fault of their own. A sense of inner worth is a vital gift to give to every child. ‘Of all our infirmities, the most savage is to despise our being’ (Montaigne).

Campaigns like ‘Black Pride UK’2 and ‘Black Lives Matter’3 are honourable and deserve support from everyone, though, as within all cultural/political popular movements, there are valid debates over tactics and strategy. The general point is not to disparage others but to affirm the dignity and importance of the lives of all descendants of the African diaspora. In particular, a celebration of human pride is intended not only to hearten the young but to alert authority figures in general and the police in particular. Since anthropologists tell us that all branches of humanity come ultimately ‘out of Africa’, these are campaigns that everyone can value.

Secondly: We also need cultural space to celebrate people of mixed heritage, with diverse ethnic and national backgrounds. Having written last month on the under-acknowledgement of this very common feature of human history, I was initially surprised at the number of people who hastened to tell me about their own mixed families. Yet I shouldn’t have been. Huge numbers of people, from all round the world, have mixed parentage. And as travel and migration spread, that experience is likely to become ever more common.

Among my own family, I already have an Indian/English niece, whose partner is a Catalan/Irishman. Two of my step-nieces are Japanese/English; two others are one-quarter Danish. Two first cousins are Italian/English. Another first cousin is Scottish/English (and supports Scottish nationalism). Another branch of second cousins are French-speaking, of English/French descent. And my partner has recently been told by a relative, who is investigating their south London family tree, that they have an Indian great-grandmother, who met and married their great-grandfather when he was on military service in India.

Similarly, among my close ‘English’ friends, it turns out that one has a Chinese father (whom she has never met). Someone else has both Portuguese and Spanish ancestors, whose families she meets regularly. Other friends have close family links which are (separately and variously) Algerian, American including indigenous American, Argentine, Australian, Brazilian, Canadian, Columbian, Czech, Dutch, Egyptian, Filipino, French, German, Iranian, Irish, Israeli, Italian, Jamaican, New Zealand, Nigerian, Pakistani, Polish, Portuguese, Roma (gypsy), Romanian, Russian, Serbian, South African, Spanish, Swedish, Taiwanese, Thai and Turkish.

Continuing the diversity, one of my close friends among my former students, who herself studies how people travelling in the past met and reacted to ‘different’ peoples, has Bajan/Scottish family roots.

In the wider world, an American woman of mixed parentage has just married into Britain’s royal family, which has German/Danish/Greek/English ancestry. The US President before the current incumbent has Kenyan/American roots. The current US incumbent has Scottish/German/American roots and declared in 2008, when visiting his mother’s birthplace in the Outer Hebrides, that he ‘feels Scottish’.4 And a relatively recent leader of the British Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith MP, is one-eighth Japanese: his maternal great-grandmother was a Chinese lady living in Beijing when she met and married his Irish great-grandfather.5

Some of these mixed family ancestries are apparent to the eye – but many, equally, are not. But it’s manifestly open to all people of mixed heritage to celebrate all their family lines; and to refuse repeated attempts on official forms to compartmentalise them into one so-called ‘race’ or another.

Collectively, all peoples of mixed heritage (including not least the English with their historically hybrid Celtic, Viking, Anglo-Saxon, Norman-French, Huguenot, and Irish roots) represent the outcome of historical population mobility. Humans are a globe-trotting species, and people from different tribes or ‘folk groups’ intermarry. It seems too that many of the separate species of very early humankind also interbred. Hence some but not all branches of homo sapiens have small traces of Neanderthal DNA, following meetings from at least 200,000 years ago.6 Diversity within unity is the norm.

So thirdly and finally: It’s overdue to accept the teachings of world religions, biological science, and philosophical humanism, which proclaim that all humans are sisters and brothers under the skin. In particular, it’s even more overdue to reject socially-invented pigment-hierarchies which claim that some shades of skin are ‘better’ and more socially desirable than others.

By the way, sometimes people ask me why I write on these matters. I have fair skin and hair (though others among my siblings don’t). And I am relatively socially privileged, though I do have the handicap of being a woman. (That last comment is meant ironically). Such questions, however, miss the point. They wrongly imply that combating racism is an exclusive task for people with dark skins. But no, it’s a matter for everyone. Indeed, it weakens campaigns for ‘Black Pride’, if others are not listening and responding.

Humans are one species which contains diversity. Our skin hues are beautifully variegated shades of the ancestral brown.7 What’s needed is not so much ‘colour blindness’ as ‘colour rejoicing’.

1 See P.J. Corfield, Talking of Language, It’s Time to Update the Language of Race (BLOG/36, Dec. 2013); PJC, How do People Respond to Eliminating the Language of ‘Race’? (BLOG/37, Jan.2014); PJC, Why is the Language of ‘Race’ Holding On for So Long, when it’s Based on a Pseudo-Science? (BLOG/38, Feb. 2014); and PJC, As the Language of “Race” Disappears, Where does that Leave the Assault on Racism? (BLOG/89, May 2018).

2 Founded 2005: see https://ukblackpride.org.uk.

3 Black Lives Matter is an international chapter-based campaign movement, founded in July 2013. See: https://blacklives matter.com.

4 Reported in The Guardian, 9 June 2008.

5 https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2001/sep/03/conservatives.uk

6 Research by Sergi Castellano and others, reported in Nature: International Weekly Journal of Science (May 2018), https://www.nature.com/news.

7 N.G. Jablonski, Skin: A Natural History (Berkeley, Calif., 2006) and idem, Living Colour: The Biological and Social Meaning of Skin Colour (Berkeley, Calif., 2012).

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MONTHLY BLOG 89, AS THE LANGUAGE OF ‘RACE’ DISAPPEARS, WHERE DOES THAT LEAVE THE ASSAULT UPON RACISM?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2018)

 
2018-05 No1 circle-holding-hands - Copy
Hands around the Globe:
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Many people, including myself, have declared that the language of ‘race’ should become obsolete.1 (Indeed, that is slowly happening). Talk of separate human ‘races’ is misleading terminology, since all humans belong to one species: homo sapiens. It’s unscientific, as geneticists have repeatedly shown that all people share the same deep biological inheritance and genome.2

Putting people into arbitrary ‘racial’ categories is also unjust to the many people with multiple ethnic heritages.3 And the terminology is confusing even for those who still believe in it, since there has never been agreement about fundamental questions, such as how many ‘races’ there are.

So this BLOG asks what is happening next, as the old terminology slowly disappears? For certain purposes societies need to acknowledge the range of diversity (alongside the common features) within the human species. Yet it is evident that the world has not yet agreed upon satisfactory alternative terminologies.

The first general answer is that language innovation will find a way. It’s not just for one individual to prescribe, but for usages to adapt incrementally. These days, references are usually made in terms of cultural ethnicity (or folk allegiance)4 and/or in terminologies derived from world-regional locations, or a mix of the same (as in African American).

Language innovation also needs to acknowledge the very many people around the world who have multiple inheritances. It’s not satisfactory to refer to ‘mixed race’ or ‘multi-racial backgrounds’. Those phrases smuggle the scientifically meaningless but culturally divisive concept of ‘race’ back into the picture. World regional terms have the advantage here, in that they can easily be doubled up to indicate multiple roots. However, mixings over many generations can make for cumbersome and overloaded terminologies. Often, new collective terms emerge over time. So the ancestrally hybrid Celtic/Viking/Anglo-Saxon/Norman-French population of England after 1066 became eventually ‘English’, and continue to adapt to later generations of population turnover.

One technical change that’s certainly needed is the updating of language on official forms, such as census returns. People are often still invited to self-classify into a separate ‘race’ by ticking a box. When scrutinised closely, such forms often use a very unsystematic mix of classifications, sometimes by ethnicity and sometimes by skin colour. People of multiple heritages usually have to make do with ticking ‘Other’. But sometimes they don’t even get that option. And people who reject the classification of humans into bogus ‘races’ don’t have anywhere to express their dissent.

Another key question is what happens to concepts like ‘racism’ and ‘racist’, if ‘race’ is dropped from the lexicon? Does that move let people who embrace racism off the hook?

To that pertinent question, the answer is: No. People who discriminate against other ethnic groups still need to be opposed just as firmly. But not by using their language. Rejecting the reality of ‘race’ strengthens criticism of racist prejudices. Such attitudes are not only humanly obnoxious but they are based upon non-sense: a combination of myths, pseudo-science, and a not very well disguised form of self-interest. Racists are the equivalent of flat-earthers, denying reality for their own tribalistic benefit.

En route, here’s a small point in the general scheme of things but a relevant one in this context: the United Nations should keep its International Day for the Elimination of ‘Racial’ Discrimination. It’s scheduled annually on 21 March – the anniversary of the Sharpeville killings of protestors against the infamous South American Pass Laws.5 Yet it needs a better name. Or at least ‘Racial’ in its title should be put into quotation marks, as I’ve just done. Otherwise, its subtext seems to affirm that there are separate ‘races’, when there aren’t. Indeed, one of the practical problems of implementing the South African Pass Laws sprang from the complexities of historic interminglings: many individual classifications into the stipulated camps of ‘White’ or ‘Native’ [black African] or ‘Coloured’ proved to be highly contentious.6

Following that, it’s also worth asking whether rejecting the concept of ‘race’ might imply that people shouldn’t take an interest in their own genetic and cultural/ethnic backgrounds? Here the answer is equally: No. But this time, the effect is positive. Rejecting ‘race’ liberates people from trying to fit their personal histories into false categories, which don’t exist.

Instead, individuals can investigate the ethnic identities of all their family branches with pride. Rejecting separate ‘races’ improves the potential for personal and cultural understanding of our pluralistic humanity. That’s particularly important for people from multiple heritages. Those historic legacies all merit attention, without any false rankings of one group being intrinsically ‘above’ another group of fellow humans. It’s culturally and psychologically important for people to know about their roots. (And in some cases it’s medically relevant too). Yet that exercise should be done in a democratic spirit. Pride in roots is not racist but a due acknowledgement of authentic pluralism.

In many countries, these themes are lived daily. For example, in the great ethnic melting pot of Brazil, there are rival pressures. On the one hand, there are subtle decodings of status and hierarchy by reference to an unacknowledged pigmentocracy, based upon skin colour. Lighter skinner people tend to be in positions of power, although not in all walks of life. On the other hand, there is great pride in country’s multicultural legacies. Hence there is a notable social impulse to ‘be cordial’ (in a favoured phrase) by not drawing attention to outward differences (say) in appearance and skin colour.7 Visitors report on a society where people seem admirably comfortable in their own bodies. In short, the collective dynamic may be evolving beyond older fixations upon ‘race’.

Nonetheless, Brazil’s current policies of affirmative action, to help disadvantaged groups, are running into major difficulties in classifying ethnic affiliations. Specifically, the ‘Race Tribunals’, appointed to undertake this delicate task for appointments to government posts, are struggling with the instability of ‘racial’ boundaries.8 Hence the policy, undertaken with good intentions, has already become controversial.

It may well be that in future the challenges to inequality, in Brazil as elsewhere, will turn to focus instead upon class. And ‘class’, whilst also a socio-cultural-economic concept with its own definitional fuzziness, does not purport to be pre-ordained by human biology. Achieving a full and fair democracy is no easy task; but it will be boosted by finding fresh terms for ethnic diversities within a common humanity – and fresh ways of both assessing and rectifying social disadvantage.

Lastly, the best egalitarian rejection of racism is not to urge that: ‘all “races” should be treated equally’. Such a declaration falls back into the trap of racist pseudo-science. The best statement is straightforward: ‘We are all one human race’. That’s the seriously best starting point from which to combat discrimination.

1 P.J. Corfield, See P.J. Corfield, Talking of Language, It’s Time to Update the Language of Race (BLOG/36, Dec. 2013); idem, How do People Respond to Eliminating the Language of ‘Race’? (BLOG/37, Jan.2014); and idem, Why is the Language of ‘Race’ Holding On for So Long, when it’s Based on a Pseudo-Science? (BLOG/38, Feb. 2014).

2 See L.L. and F. Cavalli-Sforza, The Great Human Diasporas: The History of Diversity and Evolution, transl. S. Thomas (Reading, Mass., 1992); and M. Gannon, ‘Race is a Social Construct, Scientists Argue’, Scientific American (5 Feb. 2016), with the strap line: ‘Racial categories are weak proxies for genetic diversity and need to be phased out’.

3 See M.P.P. Root’s Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage (1993), www.drmariaroot.com/doc/BillOfRights.pdf: which includes the declaration: ‘I have the right to have loyalties and identification with more than one group of people’.

4 Ethnicity is defined as the state of belonging to a distinctive group with a shared cultural and/or national tradition. Shared religion, language and genetic markers may also contribute. The classification is not a precise one.

www.un.org/en/events/racialdiscriminationday.

6 D. Posel, Race as Common Sense: Racial Classification in Twentieth-Century South Africa’, African Studies Review,  44 (2001), pp. 87-113.

7 J. Roth-Gordon, Race and the Brazilian Body: Blackness, Whiteness, and Everyday Language in Rio de Janeiro (2016).

8 C. de Oliveira, ‘Brazil’s New Problem with Blackness’ (2017), in Foreign Policy Dispatch: http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/04/05/brazils-new-problem-with-blackness-affirmative-action/

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MONTHLY BLOG 83, SEX AND THE ACADEMICS

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

Appreciating sex means appreciating the spark of life. Educating numbers of bright, interesting, lively young adults is a sexy occupation. The challenge for academics therefore is to keep the appreciation suitably abstract, so that it doesn’t overwhelm normal University business – and absolutely without permitting it to escalate into sexual harassment of students who are the relatively powerless ones in the educational/power relationship.

It’s long been known that putting admiring young people with admirable academics, as many are, can generate erotic undertones. Having a crush on one’s best teacher is a common youthful experience; and at least a few academics have had secret yearnings to receive a wide-eyed look of rapt attention from some comely youngster.1 There is a spectrum of behaviour at University classes and social events, from banter, stimulating repartee and mild flirtation (ok as long as not misunderstood), all the way across to heavy power-plays and cases of outright harassment (indefensible).
2017-11 No1 Hogarth_lecture_1736

Fig.1 Hogarth’s Scholars at a Lecture (1736) satirises both don and students, demonstrating that bad teaching can have a positively anti-aphrodisiac effect.

If academics don’t have the glamour, wealth and power of successful film producers, an eminent ‘don’ can still have a potent intellectual authority. I have known cases of charismatic senior authority figures imposing themselves sexually upon the gullible young, although I believe (perhaps mistakenly – am I being too optimistic here?) that such scenarios are less common today. That change has taken place partly because University expansion and grade escalation has created so many professors that they no longer have the same rarity value that once they did. It’s also worth noting that single academics don’t hold supreme power over individual student’s careers. Examination grades, prizes, appointments, and so forth are all dealt with by boards or panels, and vetted by committees.

Moreover, there’s been a social change in the composition of the professoriat itself. It’s no longer exclusively a domain of older heterosexual men (or gay men pretending publicly to be heterosexual, before the law was liberalised). No doubt, the new breed of academics have their own faults. But the transformation of the profession during the past forty years has diluted the old sense of hierarchy and changed the everyday atmosphere.

For example, when I began teaching in the early 1970s, it was not uncommon to hear some older male profs (not the junior lecturers) commenting regularly on the physical attributes of the female students, even in business meetings. It was faintly embarrassing, rather than predatory. Perhaps it was an old-fashioned style of senior male bonding. But it was completely inappropriate. Eventually the advent of numerous female and gay academics stopped the practice.

Once in an examination meeting, when I was particularly annoyed by hearing lascivious comments about the ample breasts of a specific female student, I tried a bit of direct action by reversing the process. In a meaningful tone, I offered a frank appreciation of the physique of a handsome young male student, with reference specifically to his taut buttocks. (This comment was made in the era of tight trousers, not as a result of any personal exploration). My words produced a deep, appalled silence. It suggested that the senior male profs had not really thought about what they were saying. They were horrified at hearing such words from a ‘lady’ – words which struck them not as ‘harmless’ good fun (as they viewed their own comments) but as unpleasantly crude.

Needless to say, I don’t claim that my intervention on its own changed the course of history. Nonetheless, today academic meetings are much more businesslike, even more perfunctory. Less time is spent discussing individual students, who are anyway much more numerous – with the result that the passing commentary on students’ physiques seems also to have stopped. (That’s a social gain on the gender frontier; but there have been losses as well, as today’s bureaucratised meetings are – probably unavoidably – rather tedious).

One important reason for the changed atmosphere is that more specific thought has been given these days to the ethical questions raised by physical encounters between staff and students. It’s true that some relationships turn out to be sincere and meaningful. It’s not hard to find cases of colleagues who have embarked upon long, happy marriages with former students. (I know a few). And there is one high-profile example on the international scene today: Brigitte Trogneux, the wife of France’s President Emmanuel Macron, first met her husband, 25 years her junior, when she was a drama teacher and he was her 15-year old student. They later married, despite initial opposition from his parents, and seem happy together.

But ethical issues have to take account of all possible scenarios; and can’t be sidelined by one or two happy outcomes. There’s an obvious risk academic/student sexual relationships (or solicitation for sexual relationships) can lead to harassment, abuse, exploitation and/or favouritism. Such outcomes are usually experienced very negatively by students, and can be positively traumatic. There’s also the possibility of anger and annoyance on the part of other students, who resent the existence of a ‘teacher’s pet’. In particular, if the senior lover is also marking examination papers written by the junior lover, there’s a risk that the impartial integrity of the academic process may be jeopardised and that student confidence in the system be undermined. (Secret lovers generally believe that their trysts remain unknown to those around them; but are often wrong in that belief).

As far as I know, many Universities don’t have official policies on these matters, though I have long thought they should. Now that current events, especially the shaming of Harvey Weinstein, have reopened the public debates, it’s time to institute proper professional protocols. The broad principles should include an absolute ban of all forms of sexual abuse, harassment or pressurising behaviour; plus, equally importantly, fair and robust procedures for dealing with accusations about such abusive behaviour, bearing in mind the possibility of false claims.

There should also be a very strong presumption that academic staff should avoid having consensual affairs with students (both undergraduate and postgraduate) while the students are registered within the same academic institution and particularly within the specific Department, Faculty or teaching unit, where the academic teaches.

Given human frailty, it must be expected that the ban on consensual affairs will sometimes be breached. It’s not feasible to expect all such encounters to be reported within each Department or Faculty (too hard to enforce). But it should become an absolute policy that academics should excuse themselves from examining students with whom they are having affairs. Or undertaking any roles where a secret partisan preference could cause injustice (such as making nominations for prizes). No doubt, Departments/Faculties will have to devise discreet mechanisms to operate such a policy; but so be it.

Since all institutions make great efforts to ensure that their examination processes are fairly and impartially operated, it’s wrong to risk secret sex warping the system. Ok, we are all flawed humans. But over the millennia humanity has learned – and is still learning – how to cope with our flaws. In these post-Weinstein days, all Universities now need a set of clear professional protocols with reference to sex and the academics.
2017-11 No2 Educating Rita

Fig.2 Advertising still for Educating Rita (play 1980; film 1983), which explores how a male don and his female student learn, non-amorously, from one another.

1 Campus novels almost invariably include illicit affairs: two witty exemplars include Alison Lurie’s The War between the Tates (1974) and Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (1975). Two plays which also explore educational/personal tensions between a male academic and female student are Willy Russell’s wry but gentle Educating Rita (1990) and David Mamet’s darker Oleanna (1992).

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MONTHLY BLOG 79, 2017 – ANOTHER SUMMER OF LOVE?

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

Youth, youth: ‘it’s wasted on the young’, etc. But not this time. Having in my BLOG/78 (June 2017) chastised the young for not voting,1 it’s only right now to applaud their mass re-entry into electoral politics at the June 2017 General Election. It makes a huge difference across the board. And I’m not writing that purely as a Labour Party grass-root (though the majority of new young voters did vote Labour). I’m writing that because systemic non-participation of those who can potentially play a role is bad for the wider community, generating a simmering mood of distrust, cynicism, negativism and alienation. Are we ready for another summer of love, fifty years after 1967?
2017-07 No1 Aurora Goddess of Dawn by Heidi Wastweet 2003

Aurora Goddess of Dawn
© Heidi Wastweet (2003)

Of course, there is an electoral proviso. In 2017, youth turnout was 57 per cent among 18 to 19 year-olds, 59 per cent among 20 to 24 year-olds, and 64 per cent among 25 to 29 year-olds.2 All those figures marked significant increases over comparable levels in 2015, when turnout by those aged 18-24 was somewhere between 43-44 percent.3 Yet there is still room for more. And there was no doubt much regional variation, with especially high youth participation in constituencies with many students on the electoral roll, and lower participation elsewhere. But, hey, no complaints: it is a great development, from the point of view of a properly functioning democracy, full stop. And the return to the language of solidarity and love, after recent atrocities, is a splendid antidote to years of political emphasis upon atomised individuals.

Many of the young electors in their 20s who joined the Labour campaign in Battersea 2017 remind me of my own peer group in our 20s when we joined the Labour Party in the later 1960s.4 We too were full of energy and optimism. Also slightly naïve, in retrospect. But full of collective and individual confidence that we could resolve the problems of the world.5

In sociological terms, there are similarities too: lots of well educated activists, coming from middle-class backgrounds or from rising families, one generation up from the working class. However, one visible difference now, in London at any rate, is a welcome one: the ethnic composition of young Labour activists is much more relaxedly mixed than it was in our youth – reflecting long-term changes in the broader society – and changes among our friends and within our own families too.

What happened to the current of youth optimism and participation in the 1960s? It achieved quite a lot, especially in cultural, gender and ethnic politics. But it got diverted in the 1970s into a rampant individualism in lifestyles (‘tune in, drop out and do your own thing’) which eventually led to a form of anti-politics. Youth protests fizzled out. Moreover, the leftish youth politics of the 1960s triggered a militant counter-cultural resistance from the right, which fostered the successes in the 1980s of Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the USA. Their hostility to ‘the Sixties’ was, in its way, a compliment to the impact of youth culture. Their successful counter-attack, however, simultaneously revealed how vulnerable, divided, and disorganised the Sixties cultural moment was and remained. It lacked the capacity to organise and survive.

Will the current youth involvement also fade away and eventually become dissipated? It’s an obvious risk. It’s hard for a mass movement to remain radiantly optimistic all the time, especially when encountering defeats as well as victories. On the other hand, there’s no necessity for history to repeat itself. The anti-state, anti-regulation, laissez-faire nostrums of the hard political right are now in trouble. The time is ripe for a Zeitgeist shift, which is already happening.

Furthermore, the young electorate today has a lot of really practical issues upon which to focus: the cost of education; the lack of available housing; the degradation of work conditions in the gig-economy; the need to surmount ethnic, class and religious divisions; and so forth. Such issues should help to keep the political focus strongly upon the immediate and the practical. I hope that lots of youthful activists will stand for office, locally and nationally; and/or work in community and political organisations on the ground, to prevent the current surge of involvement from becoming atomised and dissipated.

Oh yes, and another thing: those who really want to achieve changes have to dig in for the long haul. It means getting into organisations and sticking with them. And that means working with the continuing ‘golden oldies’ from successive generations, who were once themselves optimistic youth. Let everyone, who wishes to be a youthful activist, be allowed to be one, without age discrimination.

Battersea Labour provides a sterling example. Charlotte Despard (1844-1939) campaigned for many causes during her long lifetime, after becoming triggered into grass-roots activism at the age of 40. Among other things, she was a suffragette, a founder of Labour in Battersea, and an advocate of non-violent resistance, who influenced Gandhi and Martin Luther King.6 Charlotte Despard’s last public engagement saw her addressing a mass anti-fascist rally in Trafalgar Square in June 1933. She was then a young old lady aged 89. Let’s hope that we all stay as committed and indefatigable as was Despard, so that Solidarity and Love last for more than a summer.

2017-07 No2 Despard in Trafalgar Square 1933

Charlotte Despard, at the age of 89, addressing an Anti-Fascist Rally in Trafalgar Square in June 1933: photo by James Jarché for the Daily Herald

1 P.J. Corfield, ‘Who Cares? Getting People to Vote’, Monthly BLOG/78 (June 2017)

2 Voters by Age from YouGov survey, as reported in The Independent, 14 June 2017: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/election-2017-labour-youth-vote-under-40s-jeremy-corbyn-yougov-poll-a7789151.html

3 From Ipsos/MORI survey, as reported by Intergenerational Foundation (2015): http://www.if.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/How-did-young-people-vote-at-the-2015-general-election.pdf

4 We appear in DVD Red Battersea: One Hundred Years of Labour, 1908-2008 (2008), directed by M. Marchant; scripted by P.J. Corfield. Available on YouTube: http://youtu.be/ahKt1XoI-II; and also via Battersea Labour Party website: http://www.battersealabour.co.uk/redbattersea

5 A. Marwick, The Sixties: Cultural Revolution in Britain, France, Italy and the United States, c.1958-74 (Oxford, 1998); T. Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York, 1993); J.S. Baugess and A.A. Debolt (eds), Encyclopedia of the Sixties: A Decade of Culture and Counterculture (Oxford, 2012).

6 See P.J. Corfield, ‘Commemorating Battersea’s Charlotte Despard … in Battersea’, Battersea Matters, ed. J. Sheridan (Autumn, 2016), p. 11; M. Mulvihill, Charlotte Despard: A Biography (1989).

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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).

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