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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.
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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 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.
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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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