Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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Peterloo remembered

PeterlooOn this day, 16 August, 191 years ago (1819), a peaceful rally of around 60,000 pro-democracy reformers gathered at St Peter’s Fields in Manchester. The crowd of men, women and children were charged by sabre-wielding cavalry, resulting in 15 deaths and 600 injuries. The horrific event is known as the Peterloo Massacre: a macabre, ironic inversion of the heroism of the Battle of Waterloo, met four years earlier, the shame of Peterloo.

After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain was in a financial crisis. There were food shortages, wages were slashed and there was massive unemployment. Many British soldiers and sailors returned home to nothing after years of arduous campaign. The food shortages led to increased import of foreign crops, which drove the price of British cereals down. The government’s response was to introduce the first Corn Law, controlling and curtailing the import of crops. This helped keep the price of British cereals artificially high, but severely exacerbated the food shortage. In Parliament, it was argued that steady prices for British crops would protect the wages of agricultural labourers, a rather flimsy excuse for keeping landowners’ incomes high.

Parliament was considered out of touch, elected by a severely antiquated system. Lancashire as a whole, including the great industrial city of Manchester with its surrounding townships, elected two MPs. However, only those who owned land could vote, and they had to travel to Lancaster to cast their vote by public acclamation. In contrast, there were a handful of ‘rotten boroughs’ in which a handful of electors elected two MPs. Reform was clearly needed, yet the ruling class feared the radicalism seen in the French Revolution, and entrenched against it.

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What is the House of Lords for?

House of Lords

House of Lords

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’.

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When politicians swear

It’s been about twelve years since I last had a fulsome swear.

I do swear
that I will be faithful
and bear true allegiance
to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II,
her heirs and successors,
according to law:
So help me God.

All Church of England clergy have to make this Oath of Allegiance on the taking up of most church posts. The same oath is made by MPs at the beginning of the parliamentary term. Our MPs began swearing their new oaths last Wednesday (19 May), which just happens ironically to be the anniversary of the Declaration of the English Commonwealth (1649).

A pile of sacred tomes is deposited beside the government despatch box in the Commons for those who wish to hold something sacred while they swear. An alternative form of the oath that affirms rather than swears is available for those who object on principle to the swearing of oaths. The alternative was originally introduced to allow Quakers, who do not swear oaths, to take seats in Parliament. No Sinn Féin MP has taken their seat as there’d be no way they’d swear allegiance to the British monarchy. Some others cross their fingers, some add ‘and all who sail in her’, as a compromise of taking up their seats as duly elected without taking the forelock tugging too seriously.

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Alternative Vote and other animals

Visualisation of electoral outcomesIt seems that our new ConDem government will be offering us a referendum on changing the electoral system used for general elections from First Past The Post to Alternative Vote (FPTP → AV). The pre-election manifesto status was that the Tories wanted to keep FPTP, the Lib Dems wanted proportional representation (PR), while it was Labour who were the party suggesting a move to AV. A few times the BBC made the mistake of suggesting that AV is a proportional system, but this is not surprising from reporters who are more concerned with personalities than electoral geekery.

There is some self-interest in the parties’ various stances. On the basis of votes cast in this last general election, the Tories would probably lose seats given any of the other systems, Labour would probably gain a few seats under AV, and the Lib Dems would probably gain around a score of seats under AV and over a hundred under PR. Of course, these are hypothetical results, because we can’t be sure how a different system might change the way electors cast their votes (for the data, see this Grauniad article). All the different systems would still have resulted in a hung parliament, but oddly both AV and PR might have made a Lib-Lab coalition more appealing with a stable majority (mainly because the Lib Dems would have more seats). The ConDems offer of AV is a compromise in that the Tories would possibly lose seats but not as many as under PR, and the Lib Dems would gain seats but not as many as under PR.

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On Englishness and English nationalism

Essay warning: this is a long article in three parts.

All Hallows

The flag of St George flying from my church's tower.

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.

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POWER2010 and the People’s Charter

POWER2010If you haven’t visited the POWER2010 website and voted for the political reforms you would like to see, please do so. Polls close on 22 February.

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


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Happy birthday, Tom!

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine (9 February 1737, Thetford, Norfolk – 8 June 1809, Greenwich Village, New York City)

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.

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