Ninety-nine years ago today the British Parliament passed the Parliament Act. It limited the powers of the House of Lords and set up as official the idea that the chamber should be democratized. The Parliament Act 1911 also changed the way the House of Commons operated by reducing the maximum term of that chamber from seven to five years and introducing MP’s salaries (then at £400 p.a.). These Commons measures were along the lines of what the Chartists and others had long been campaigning for: shorter terms to give the electorate greater voice (because we can vote more often), and wages for MPs so that a private income is not needed to take up the political ‘hobby’.
Essay warning: this is a long article in three parts.
Recently, I wrote an article here on POWER2010 and the People’s Charter. In passing I mentioned how I didn’t support the proposed policy for POWER2010 of ‘English votes on English laws’, something I now realise is a bit of a mantra among English nationalists, with its own camel-case acronym EVoEL (deliver us from…?)!
There were a lot of important ideas in that post, but was surprised by the complete focus on English nationalism in the comments. I was even more surprised by the poor quality of their argument, much of which was ad hominem (‘you are trash’ said one, another found me a traitor, another suggested that I was being anti-English and thus racist!). Then there was the misquoting and misrepresentation of my thoughts. For instance, I had written ‘In general, the promotion of English nationalism by a few fringe groups is very dodgy’. I should have been clearer about what I meant: that English identity and the nationalism based on it, promoted by a few fringe groups, is a minefield of problems that should be treated with care rather than emotional flag waving. However, the nationalists tweeted this as my saying ‘the English are dodgy’ (hmm, nice misquote there)! Aside from this there was demonstrable lack of understanding of our political constitution (I had to direct a commenter to read the 1911 Parliament Act). However, overall, I was shocked by the need to depict the English as persecuted, restricted and disempowered within a UK in which we make up around 83% of the population. If nationalism is about national liberation, nationalists feel the obvious need to conjure up an imagined captivity from which to liberate us.
I am English and proud to be English. I own an English football shirt (somewhere), but I’m not the flag waving type. Many of my friends are not English, and I find their perspective on Englishness very useful. I believe that it’s important to approach the issue dispassionately and practically, against the surging romanticism that can leave one delusional.
A number of political campaigning organisations of which I am a part are supporting POWER2010. It is part of a desire to put political reform high on the agenda in post-New-Labour Britain. The idea is to choose five policies to put at the centre of the POWER2010 Pledge and campaign for their adoption by the government as a 21st-century Chartist movement. Continue reading
Thomas Paine was born this day in 1737. He virtually invented the idea that the power of a nation should ultimately rest with the commonality of its people, and that elected politicians should be answerable to the people. Tom Paine is the father of rational values as the basis of a political constitution: that our government, legal system and political engagement should all make sense to average citizens so that they might fully participate. Naturally, Paine had no time for monarchs and monarchy: he wanted values at the heart of a nation rather than a dodgy personality cult. Neither did he think much of the British ‘compromise’ of parliamentary sovereignty, in which we elect politicians using an outdated electoral system who, once elected, are not accountable to the electorate and may do whatsoever they will. The MPs expenses are just the tip of the iceberg of a political system that creates a political class separate and above the people.
From the first page of Thomas Paine’s famous pamphlet Common Sense, I take the following quote
A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom.
This coming Sunday, 29 November, the citizens of the Swiss Confederation vote in referendum whether to ban the building of minarets. The referendum was constitutionally triggered by a successful public petition launched by the Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP), a right-wing party with around 23% of the Swiss popular vote and the largest party in the Nationalrat. However, the ‘no’ vote is being urged by the three other main parties and the leaders of Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups across the country.
A major plank of SVP domestic policy is a belief that the country is experiencing Überfremdung, and become ‘overly foreign’. Quite similar claims are trolleyed out by British tabloids on a regular basis, and it is now the general policy of the BNP, becoming that of Ukip and has some resonance in Tory rhetoric. The SVP’s public platform on Überfremdung won them a surge of votes and a new raft of seats in the Nationalrat in the general election two years ago.
Switzerland’s Muslim population is surprising large, around 4% of the population. Back in 1980, their number was less than 1%. Such rapid demographic change is clearly a shock to a small, conservative country. Some have taken Swiss citizenship and other naturalised. Turkish, Albanian and Bosniak migrants are the largest Muslim ethnic groups, the latter two groups a result of Balkan civil wars during the 90s. Concentrations of the Muslim population are found in the large cities of Zürich, Geneva and Basel, but, unlike the UK, the Muslim population of Switzerland is fairly evenly distributed throughout the country. Continue reading
I just came across this little video of Noam Chomsky speaking on the trend in US politics throughout its history to keep the people somewhat removed from their democracy. I can’t embed it here, so you’ll have to follow the link to watch it.
There are two things that come to mind watching this. The first is that the US has a greater quantity and quality of democracy than the UK. The US has a directly elected executive and clear checks on it by the legislature, unlike the mush of monarch, prime minister and parliament in the UK. The US has subnational entities, the states, which have a large degree of independence from central government, unlike the mostly powerless UK councils. The US at least starts from the idea of popular sovereignty (“We, the people”), where the UK has the useless compromise of ‘parliamentary sovereignty’. Therefore, any sense in which the US has consistently denied the right of the people to engage in their own government over the history is amplified in the UK context. Continue reading
We, the elite, do not believe in the kind of constitution most other advanced nations have — those that boast a belief in popular sovereignty; with resounding declarations such as ‘we, the people’, and that tend to contain rules about how government should act.
We describe ours as the ‘unwritten constitution’. It is a collection of laws, fictions, powers left over from the old monarchy and powers that we make up as we go along. It allows us to decide what governments can do; and best of all, only we have the power to change it.