Thursday, 1 October 2009

"Everything is fine today - that is our illusion." - Voltaire

It is a widely promulagted fiction that Britain's political system is the fruition of centuries of linear development towards a liberal democracy: we arrogantly grant our Houses of Commons and Lords the title "The Mother of Parliaments". No gory French Revolution for us; no Latin American military juntas or Nazi dictatorship. The British people have over centuries of graceful partnership, moderation and, well, plain jolly good sense worked out the wonderful paragon of freedom and democratic practice we are today.

The truth is very different - both today and in history.

Today, we are ruled by a Government that, thanks to our voting system, holds 60% of the seats in Parliament with just 35% of the votes cast - would Mugabe have got away with this? A Government which rules as "King-in-parliament". This means that the constitutional legitimacy of the Government stems from its appointment by the monarch, the Queen, rather than by the choice of the people. We all are, in any case, subjects of the monarch. In most European countries, the Constitution establishes the rights of the citizen; in the United Kingdom of Great Britain, our rights and freedoms are granted by the Monarch, and able to be removed at any time. Unlike most Europeans, the USA and many, many others, we have no written constitution - only rules and precedents established over time, open to wide interpretation and fairly arbitrary change.( )

Surely it doesn't matter that much? It is just theory - in practice, we are free. But consider this: in the last 8 years, buoyed along by the USA after 9/11 and showing no sign of stopping, the British Government has established hundreds of new criminal offences and state powers to spy on you and arrest you for nothing more than the suspicions of some petty official.

A protest exclusion zone around Parliament has led to the arrest and prosecution of peace activists for nothing more threatening than reading out the names of British soldiers killed in Iraq at the national Cenotaph; terrorist law has been used to confiscate green activists' toothbrushes as dangerous weapons and arrest a teenage girl for riding her horse in a suspicious manner; and notoriously, Labour Party member Walter Wolfgang survived Nazi persecution arriving in the UK in 1937 as a Jewish refugee only to end up being arrested and held by police for several hours for booing the Home Secretary during his speech at the 2005 Labour party conference. You may even now be arrested for handing out leaflets in town centres without a proper licence - in some, you cannot do it at all as many of our public spaces have been sold off to prviate landowners and, as such, are private property.

In themselves, these instances may seem obstructive and nonsensically counterproductive - the laws have even been used to spy on the incorrect use of dustbins - but the return of Binyam Mohamed from Guantanamo earlier this year to the UK reminds us of the more sinister side of this. ( ) This man was held for seven years, tortured by proxy by Pakistan and Moroccan security services using questions provided by the UK. The most damning evidence against him? That he had read a joke article by a leftwing magazine about how to make your own nuclear bomb from the contents of your kitchen cupboard - ( ). Detained without charge or trial, he is home now, a broken man. And in the UK, horrendously, a raft of people - mainly wanted by the security services in such free countries as Jordan and Algeria - are held in indefinite home arrest.

And coming soon...a national database of every email, telephone call and text message you send, preserved by the State and its tens of thousands of officials to inspect, interpret and act upon as they decide; a database of the details of every child in the UK (let's put the vulnerable at as much risk as possible!); and then the greatest of all - the National Identity Card - not compulsory, but required if you want medical treatment, social security and just about any service requiring proof of identity. The Government has already admitted the ID scheme will not work against terrorism, but is throwing up to £18 billion into it - a little know fact is that one of the the private companies bidding to be involved has on its Board the former Home Secretary who introduced the scheme - David Blunkett. ( )

The current Government claims of course that all this is simply to protect us from the allegedly innumerable threats against our peace and security; our way of life, it is said, is at threat. Yet what are we left defending when we surrender the freedoms we have fought for centuries in a matter of months?

And fought we did. Not just in the war against Hitler, which is usually meant when people say that. The fact is, we had to fight tooth and nail for our freedoms against an instransigent, often violent and oppressive state which sought to demonise, exclude and destroy any and every threat to the Establishment that runs our society. For centuries, Church and State combined to keep the Order of things intact through a mix of faith and fear. And when with the passage of time that became harder, they did not change their method, but rather refined it - controlling "freedom" of speech and arresting those too radical to be accommodated within the system.
The Magna Carta is often touted as the start of constitutional government in England; yet this was little more than a Baron's Charter. It retained the feudal order intact, while the Parliaments of de Montfort incorporated the new merchant classes into the Established way of things. These were instruments which maybe rearranged the existing order a little, allowed some "New Men" in, but ultimately left the system untouched. Even Cromwell suppressed the first socialist stirrings of the Levellers and Covenanters during our short-lived Republic and the "Glorious Revolution" of 1689 simply enshrined bigotry and hierarchy in spite of the titles given to laws such as the "Bill of Rights".

In the late 18th century, Thomas Spence emerged as a radical thinker who advocated land redistribution, freedom of the press, voting rights for men and women, and social security for those unable to work. Under slogans such as "The Land is the People's Garden", he and his supporters advocated social reform which quickly gained popularity, so much so that the Government quickly took to arresting many and closing down the pamphleteers who spread their ideas - this, a foretaste of today, was done for the sake of national security and public order, with France rather than Islam as its bogeyman. Spence himself was imprisoned several times.

After his death in 1814, Spencean societies were formed as part of a widespread, decentralised movement, with public houses as their meeting places and social and economic equality their watchwords. Government spies inflitrated them and in 1816 the authorities violently suppressed a rally and charged several leaders of the movement with high treason, with death as the penalty. Fortunately, the jury system meant they were acquitted. (The jury system is one of the few mechanisms that seems rooted in British thinking, though in recent years even this has come under threat from the current Government).

In 1819, at Peterloo in Manchester, a rally by people demanding the right to vote for Parliament (a right at that time granted to a tiny handful of the richest members of society) was charged by cavalry, killing 15 and injuring as many as 700 people. The Government followed this up by a strikingly familiar raft of new laws called the "Six Acts". These made it possible to arrest someone suspected of undertaking irregular military training; allowed homes to be searched arbitrarily for weapons; reduced the opportunities for bail; required public meetings to be registered if more than 50 people attended; imposed stiffer penalties for publishing material held to be seditious; and taxed newspapers which published opinions as well as facts. ( )

Unsuprisingly, this did nothing to reconcile the Spenceans to the Government, and during the succession crisis following the death of the King in 1820, twelve of the most radical attempted an ill-conceived plot to muder the entire Cabinet at dinner - later known to history as the Cato Street Conspiracy after the site of their shortlived base of operations. This ended in a sword and gunfight and the execution or exile of the leaders.( )( )

Over the rest of the century, trade unions, socialist societies and many religious reformers struggled hard for change - and slowly won changes, however grudgingly surrendered by the Establishment. As late as 1884 many men did not have the vote and a further 45 years (and several deaths of suffragettes) were to elapse before all women were to enjoy that right too. And every step of the way, the Establishment resisted - even when overt violence declined and political debate did become more established, the incumbent Order continued to resist any changes or challenges to how things are - even now, with the collapse of the banking system and the economy of the world in disarray, it kicks back and resists any suggestions of real, deep seated change.

So Britain remains prey to those who would limit and remove the rights we have won over centuries of struggle. And our lack of a written constiution and the fact of our Monarchy combine to make us ever more vulnerable to those who would hold our freedom in their hands, to dispense with as they please. If this is not quite entirely the intention of the current Government, what guarantee might we have of the motives of a future one, perhaps of different hue? How much easier has this Government made the path to Britain's future concentration camps?

We need a written constitution and a republic if we are to have any chance of establshing a truly fair and free society and changing the rotten core of inequality, greed, excess and waste that is at the heart of capitalism. Violence, actual and implied, has been at the heart of the struggle for rights for all for centuries - most of it instigated by the Government of the day, the agent of the status quo. Our political masters, in the Name of the King, are all-powerful, their police state mentality cleverly concealed in a cloak of liberalism. If we allow, it could soon just as easily be a shroud, a winding-sheet for democracy and freedom.