ENGLAND’S DEMOCRACY – ST. PAULS TO ST. MARYS
The following piece has been written by Steve Freeman of the Bermondsey Republican Socialists for the Occupy Times.
“I think the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he……and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to the government that he has not put himself under.” These words of the republican Leveller, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, addressing the Army Council on 28 October 1647 at St Mary’s Church in the Putney, still speak to us over three hundred years later.
The struggle for democracy has continued ever since, by revolution and reform, with victories and defeats. Far from ending the struggle for democracy, capitalism has steadily generalised it across the world. As Banks and Corporations exploit their power so people revolt and seek democratic solutions. International finance and people’s democracy stand as mortal foes.
The latest phase, the Arab Spring, began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria and recently appeared in Moscow and China. This triggered the Occupy movement in September 2011 which hit the headlines when people began to occupy Wall Street. ‘Occupy’ has become an international protest movement against financial capital and social inequality which has spread to over ninety five cities including Madrid, New York, London, Tel Aviv, Tokyo, Sao Paulo, and Paris.
At first sight the Occupy movement seems distinct from the political and democratic struggles in the Middle East. It would be wrong simply to contrast the Arab democratic revolutions with ‘Occupy’s’ economic demands. Whilst the movement’s slogan “We are the 99%” refers to the distribution of income it expresses democratic values. It has been rightly described as a “democratic awakening” – if not yet Spring at least the end of hibernation. The central feature of our movement is participatory democracy in “General Assemblies”.
This takes us back to that historic and revolutionary, if largely forgotten, general assembly of the New Model army in occupation at St Mary’s church Putney. In 1647 the active section of the England’s young people were armed and organised in the New Model Army. Each regiment elected its own ‘shop stewards’ known as the agitators. As the first civil war ended the army became effectively a people’s parliament or republic, inside the defeated Stuart monarchy.
This parliament or general assembly met to debate a new constitution. The republican Levellers proposed an “An Agreement of the People” in opposition to the Army’s ‘Grandees’ – landowning generals – such as Fairfax, Ireton and Cromwell, backed by the wealthy City bankers and merchants. History has shown the Levellers were right but Cromwell and the City had the might. Soon they used it to suppress the Levellers, and the Diggers, who in 1649 began to occupy land at St Georges Hill in Surrey.
England has turned full circle. Today’s young people are not in a revolutionary new model army. But its students and ‘redundant’ youth are rebelling on the streets. Occupy has been led by young people trying to peacefully occupy the City in solidarity with similar protests across the world. The forces of the Crown barred the route to the Stock Exchange and we ended up camped outside St Paul’s. Now, like some Macbethean witches prediction, it is time for St Paul to meet St Mary.
Steve Freeman (Real Democracy Working Group)
THE ENGLISH QUESTION
British-England needs to address its own democratic deficit and national identity
In autumn 2014 Scotland will have a referendum on the issue of independence which may lead to the break up of the UK. Such a major shake up of British politics would end British national identity as we know it. Of course the SNP is hardly a revolutionary party and Alex Salmond is no Lenin. He has been at pains to calm fears of the ruling class – Scotland will remain under the British monarchy and continue to pay its dues to the Bank of England. It will be a great place for multinationals to do business.
Salmond told an audience in London on 26 January that an independent Scotland would be “a beacon for progressive opinion south of the border”. He pointed to free university tuition fees and free medical care for senior citizens and more would come. An independent Scotland would exit NATO and the nuclear submarines would leave their base in Faslane. Friendship between Scotland and England would be “reinvigorated”.
In this scenario there is nothing for progressive politics in England to worry about. A liberal-social Scotland would be little different from today. Perhaps cast adrift from Tory England it would move more to the left. May be this would waken the English working class to fight for better deal. Either way the left in England has surely enough generosity of spirit and democratic internationalism to wave good bye.
Tory England is not going to take this lying down. The old dog will not give up without a fight. Public opinion in England is already being primed with resentment. There is plenty of dormant chauvinism to be mobilised as witnessed on radio phone-ins – ‘the Scots are like welfare dependents being subsidized by taxpayers down south, these ungrateful recipients of state handouts are damaging all of us’.
The SNP has its own answer. The Scottish state can rely on North Sea oil and doesn’t need taxes from England. But there are massive debts, over £1 trillion, to be divided up. This redistribution of wealth will drive the inevitable battle. Czechoslovakia broke up peacefully but the battle for Yugoslavia fuelled a violent aggressive nationalistic-fascism. Whether a break up will be progressive or not depends on the state of class struggle.
The Yugoslav scenario does not seem likely at the present, not least because England and Scotland have a different history to the Balkans. However, we must not be too complacent or think that some kind of national-fascism could not gain momentum. Future politics may seem an extension of current trends, but sometimes it undergoes sharp and unexpected developments. Flagging up an unlikely scenario is not designed to create fear but constitutes an appeal to the left in England to take this matter with the utmost seriousness.
The UK is a multi-national state whose British national identity was forged over three hundred years ago. England is the largest country with the greatest population and resources, particularly its wealth creating working class. The national question concerns the interrelations between England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales and crucially this is not simply about external relations between nations, rather it is bound up with internal demands for democracy, sovereignty and a new national identity.
The struggle to redefine Scotland’s democracy and identity will stir up the forces of both reaction and democracy within Tory England. Last summer’s riots show that everything in the English garden is far from ‘rosy’. The alienation of young people in England is clearly connected to unemployment and the lack of real democracy which is reflected in relations with Her Majesty’s Constabulary.
The England question is very important. As yet it is neither recognised nor theorized by the English left. Yet to ignore it is to leave a major political opportunity for organisations like the English Defence League. The fascists are quick off the mark when it comes to reinforcing “Englishness” as a racial and religious stereotype which can be mobilised against perceived threats whether from Europe, Muslims or disloyal Scotland.
England is a Tory country and not just when the Tories are in government. It is built-in to our class based institutions and “British-English” identity. This includes the Tory monarchy, House of Lords, the Honours system, the constitution of the Crown and our history as an imperialist power. Official history identifies national icons such as Queen Elizabeth 1st and Sir Francis Drake defeating the Spanish armada, Nelson defeating the French at Trafalgar, the Dunkirk spirit and the battle of Britain.
The “British-English” have been one of the world’s most war-like nations over the last three hundred years. This dual identity under the British Crown is symbolised by the Union Jack, (aka the butcher’s apron), the flag of St George and the national hymn of praise “God Save the Queen”. However, in the last twenty years growing democratic demands from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have seen a search for, and the beginning of, a reinvention of the Englishness of St George.
There is of course another England. This is unofficial England, ignored, unloved and uncelebrated. It is a people’s England created out of the long struggle for popular democracy and sovereignty. This is an England fought for by the Levellers, Chartists and Suffragettes. It has many of its own heroes and martyrs including for example William Cuffy, the black republican and leader of the London Chartists who in 1848 was fitted up by the Crown’s ‘agents provocateurs’ and exiled to Australia.
The Peoples Flag
The Scottish referendum raises the question of what kind of England we live in. There is a democratic deficit in England, highlighted by the Scottish parliament’s reforms on student fees and welfare for senior citizens. It is time for Old Tory England with its British-English identity to be abolished. A new democratic England will redefine itself as republican, multi-racial, internationalist and secular country. To do this it must draw on our own popular democratic traditions which put the social and collective interests of the working class majority first.
The resurrection of English radical traditions can be symbolised by flags and banners. The flag of England’s democracy is a tricolour which symbolises a republican and secular country. It is the recognition of a future England re-founded on the sovereignty of the people. The three vertical stripes of red, violet-purple and green represent the values of liberty, equality and solidarity.
The historical roots of this flag go back to the Levellers, the democratic republican party of the English revolution. Levellers formed the most advanced pro-democratic wing in the New Model Army. Their colour was sea green. The tricolour connects with the Chartist flag (red white and green) and the suffragettes flag (green, purple and white). These colours identify with the most important struggles in England that have shaped our parliamentary democracy.
Taken separately, the three colours highlight a future England which recognises the rights of working people who produce the wealth, the rights of women to full equality and the recognition of the global environment for the future of the planet. There has never been a time when the left in England needs to show it has new ideas, new slogans and new policies that point in the right direction. Clearly the Scottish question tells us it is not a new flag we need but a new country. But symbols matter and a people’s flag which reminds us of our radical democratic traditions shows at least we are starting to think about them.
Steve Freeman and Phil Vellender
also see:- 2nd Republican Socialist Convention
THE REPUBLICAN MOVEMENT OF THE 1870s
Greenwich in South London has been declared the first Royal Borough in 80 years. In the kowtowing tradition of his party, Chris Roberts, the Labour leader of Greenwich Council, is organizing a celebratory reception. But the area, indeed the whole country, has a vastly different tradition – the struggle against the feudal anachronism of the monarchy and for a secular, democratic and social republic.
A highlight of this struggle was the republican movement of the 1870s. The fall of Napoleon III at the hands of the Prussians, and the proclamation of a French republic, led to a revival of interest in republicanism in Britain. Republicanism had flagged since the demise of Chartism as a national movement. The leading Chartist, George Harney, had called one of his papers the Red Republican. This is where the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto appeared.
Across the country over seventy republican clubs were formed. Mass demonstrations in support of republican France were held in Trafalgar Square and Hyde Park. In September 1870 a new paper The Republican appeared. Its slogan was “Labour-The Source Of All Wealth”
In 1872 an Irish political refugee and member of the First International, John De Morgan, arrived in Middlesbrough. He became secretary of a committee of Yorkshire Republican Clubs. This committee sent out a circular to all the clubs in the country calling for a National Conference. William Harrison Riley’s International Herald had amongst its aims, universal suffrage, land nationalization and the liquidation of the national debt. (Riley was later editor a Sheffield paper The Socialist and was a political influence on Edward Carpenter.)
G. W. Foote, secretary of the London Club, which had been formed on May 12, 1871, stated that sufficient steps had not been taken to make the conference fully representative. (Foote later became founding editor of The Freethinker and was imprisoned for blasphemy.)
Nevertheless the conference went ahead in 1872, with twenty three clubs represented. James Linton’s blue-white-green republican flag was adopted (Linton had been a contributor to the Red Republican). A National Republican Brotherhood set up with De Morgan as secretary. Riley joined its council.
Charles Bradlaugh, president of the London club and founder of the National Secular Society, attacked the NRB in his weekly paper the National Reformer. He accused De Morgan of absconding with the funds of a Manchester temperance group and said the NRB was a “treasonable conspiracy” The London Club passed a resolution saying the NRB was an illegal association. This was circulated nationally by Foote.
De Morgan in turn accused Bradlaugh, in the International Herald, of being an informer. Bradlaugh threatened libel action and the NRB’s paper changed its name to the Republican Herald.
Riley now declared himself in favour of communism. Physical force would be needed to establish it he said. “The National Republican Brotherhood is striving for a Social Republic”, he wrote.
A leading member of the NRB was Thomas Smith, its treasurer and a Nottingham member of the International. In his pamphlet, Letters On The Commune, he wrote, “The first principle of the political revolution was the emancipation of the conscience, the freedom of the mind, and in the social revolution the first necessity is universal education…” He advocated the abolition of serfdom and the equality of all before the law, the emancipation of women, common ownership of land, the abolition of war and class domination.
De Morgan defined his own republicanism in an article in his De Morgan’s Monthly in September 1876, “I take it that Republicanism can be summed up in a sentence, viz that intellectual ability, ability in conjunction with moral conduct, or moral conduct alone, ought to receive the prizes of life, and no other possessions should be regarded meritorious…In practice, an entire reconstruction of society…the undeserving rich would become poor and the undeserving poor comparatively rich.”
In 1872 De Morgan visited striking Barnsley weavers offering to organize a dramatic event for their benefit.
Early in 1873, the London Republican Club, the London Patriotic Society and the West Central Democratic Society issued a circular calling for a conference to set up a National Republican Association. Forty delegates gathered in Birmingham among them Victor Le Lubez, representing the Greenwich and Deptford Secular Society. The name chosen was National Republican League. Only moral and legal means were to be used. The NRB denounced this as constitutional monarchism.
A third organization, the Universal Republican Association, was set up at a three day conference organized by the Eleusis Club in Chelsea. Among its members was Dan Chatterton, a one man revolt against gin and gospel, monarchy and capitalism. He suggested Queen Victoria be redeployed as a washer woman.
Meanwhile the Prince of Wales became seriously ill with the typhoid that had killed his father Albert. It was suggested Bradlaugh had poisoned him. On the anniversary of his father’s death he miraculously recovered. A thanksgiving service was held in St Paul’s. Pamphlets circulated saying his illness was an invention. Reynold’s News denounced “the mean, toadying spirit of so called loyalty.”
But after this the spirit of republicanism and the national organizations gradually faded out. Bradlaugh eventually became a MP for Northampton and De Morgan emigrated to America where he became a writer of fiction.
In 1874, Hackney secularist and printer, George Stranding, started The Republican Chronicle. He advocated a Metropolitan Republican Club as the forerunner of a new national organization. A conference was held at the Patriotic Club in Clerkenwell (nowadays Marx House) but it bore no fruit.
In the 1880s the cause was taken up again by newly formed Socialist groups in particular the Socialist League of William Morris, Eleanor Marx and Belfort Bax. They nicknamed Victoria the Empress Brown and alleged that after Albert’s death she found solace in the company, and possibly the bed, of her Scottish servant, John Brown.
While Keir Hardie was a republican, the Labour Party he helped to found clings to the monarchy like a manic dog. As we approach Mrs. Windsor’s Diamond Jubilee there is a need for a republican socialist movement, which can learn from the struggles of the past.
(Some of the information in this article is taken from a pamphlet The Republic Must Come First published by the South London Republican Form and republished by Black Cat Press. Copies can still be had £2 post free, cheques payable to E McArthur, from BCP c/o 83, Sowerby Close, London, SE9 6EZ)