Wednesday, May 18, 2011

There must be a price

Returning once more to the issue of our new "ism", the discussion on the forum proceeds apace, raising many interesting points which need to be addressed - and will be in time.

Last week, readers will recall, we had a quick look at the Chartist Movement which effectively peaked in 1848, and one cannot help but contrast the great meeting of that year, on Kennington Common, with the happy little band of 350 who came away from their "demonstration" last Saturday, having prided themselves on the friendly atmosphere and the lack of violence.

The contrast here is with the earlier TUC march, which was used as cover by unrelated groups of vandals to cause damage to diverse property. That violence was absent last week is laudable, but there may be another way of looking at this. One could observe that, had last Saturday's meeting presented any serious (or any) challenge to government, with the potential to force change, it would not have been peaceful. But the violence would have come from the State.

Such was the fate of the Chartists in 1848, where a crowd estimated between 150-300,000 assembled on Kennington Common in South London with a view to marching to Westminster, there to present a petition to parliament. The authorities' response was to mount a large-scale display of force, recruiting over 100,000 thugs, whom they impressed as special constables to bolster the standing police force.

To the frustration of these hirelings, the meeting was peaceful, but those marchers who had made their way to the Common were left in no doubt that any attempt been made to cross the Thames would trigger military intervention. And this was to resist – it should be recalled – the idea of universal suffrage, then considered a revolutionary concept, but one of the main aims of the movement.

The response to this, and much else, tells us that whenever the establishment feels threatened, it will always initiate the violence, as it did with the Countryside Alliance demonstration in London in August 2004. There is no such thing as a peaceful demonstration if you want to change things – the government will ensure that.

Another example of this is the 1932 National Hunger March, held four years before the more famous Jarrow March, where the Communist-inspired National Unemployed Workers' Movement organised a march against the means test. It comprised initially some 3,000 people in eighteen contingents, mainly from depressed areas such as the South Wales valleys, Scotland and the North of England. They planned to meet in Hyde Park in London.

The first contingent left Glasgow on 26 September, and were greeted by a crowd of about 100,000 upon their arrival at Hyde Park on 27 October (pictured above). Before then, they had received little by way of publicity from an establishment media but, on reaching the capital, "...they met an almost blanket condemnation as a threat to public order, verging upon the hysterical in the case of some of the more conservative press".

With the marchers intending to present a petition of a million signatures to parliament, Stanley Baldwin's government used force to stop it being delivered, directing the police to secure its confiscation.

Then to suppress any dissent, the most extensive police deployment since the Chartist demonstration was mobilised. Lord Trenchard, the then Metropolitan Police Commissioner, arrayed 70,000 police against the marchers and their supporters. Predictably, serious violence erupted in and around the park, with mounted police being used to disperse the crowd. It took several days before order was restored, with 75 people badly injured.

Interestingly, the march led directly to the formation of the National Council for Civil Liberties. Its founder, Ronald Kidd, set it up after concern about the use of agent provocateurs by the police to incite violence during and after the marches. Nothing ever changes.

Neither this, nor the later Jarrow March in 1936 achieved a great deal directly, although the campaigning continued and paved the way for the Labour Party landslide victory in 1945. But the treatment of the marchers, and of the Chartists before them, remain as left-wing folk memories. They in part explain the hatred of the "ruling classes", who are with us today and find their modern incarnation in the Cleggeron coalition.

What these historic experiences also do is underline the aphorism that power is never given – it has to be taken. While the current administration will happily proffer silly little cosmetic concessions, it no more than its predecessors is inclined to give away any meaningful power.

However, it has to be said that, while neither the Chartists nor the hunger marchers succeeded in their immediate aims, both movements were ultimately successful, so much so that their demands are now regarded as entirely unexceptional.

The establishment response, though, has been to move the goalposts. With universal suffrage being conceded by 1918, it has redesigned and reinvented government, to make the vote irrelevant. By the combination of cabinet government, delegated powers and massive areas, they have reduced the impact of local council votes. At national level, the self-reinforcing combination of the quangocracy and the European Union has effectively lifted much of government out of the reach of the voter.

Whatever their airs and pretensions, though, the establishment always needs our money and labour. The ruling class which was so disdainful of the hunger marchers, and then of the Jarrow marchers four years later, was three years after that embarking on a major European war. But when Churchill in the following year offered nothing but "blood, sweat and tears", not all were impressed. For many working men and their families, that was nothing new.

It was then hardly surprising that Churchill's increasingly strident calls for more production and longer hours were met with significant industrial unrest. By early 1942, almost the entire coal industry was on strike. And despite the strongest encouragement from Churchill personally, thousands of workers bluntly refused to work after air raid sirens had sounded. For many, it was the "bosses' war", and not a few were openly saying that the working man would be better off under Hitler.

While the hagiographies have the poulation in the grip of patriotic fervour, therefore, the real situation was very different. Rather than Churchill's great oratory - which had a mixed response at the time - one of the more important influences which mobilised the population behind the war was the promise of a post-war welfare state. That came with  the Beveridge Report of November 1942, and even then the electorate did not trust Churchill to implement it. The memories of pre-war Conservative repression, and broken promises after the First World War, were too strong and too recent.

The point that emerges from this is that, during the war, the normal peace-time status quo was reversed. The government needed the wholehearted support of a united population. And only then, when there was a very real likelihood that the people would refuse to co-operate - in the context of more powerful unions which by had acquired the ability to bring the nation to a halt - were concessions forthcoming.

Those conditions, currently, do not apply. Government does not yet fear the population to the extent previously, and neither does it seek its active participation in activities such as wartime-level production, or post-war reconstruction.

But what the government will surely need, sooner rather than later, is our co-operation in an austerity programme of unprecedented severity – the same progressively being demanded of the citizens of Ireland, Greece and Portugal, plus many others. Currently though, the population neither recognises the scale of the problem, nor accepts ownership of it.

There can be no question, though, that the government is going to have to come clean about the debt problem. It will then have to enlist popular support on the scale equivalent to that of the last war. But, for any co-operation, there must be a price.

For centuries, the government has maintained the ultimate right to determine levels of expenditure, taxation and borrowing, without reference to the people and with only the slender fig-leaf of supposedly democratic elections. The price must be that the people take direct charge of the nation's finances, controlling how much is spent and how much is tax is charged.

In 1848, the people were not thought competent to elect their own government, and even to ask for the right was considered a revolutionary act, legitimising brutal repression.

Less than a hundred years later, basic employment rights for workers were also considered sufficient to legitimise violent repression by the state. To ask for control over the purse strings – the right to control our own money – will doubtless invite a similar response. By the clever and sophisticated people who currently run our affairs, the people will be judged incompetent to perform such a function.
But this is the direction in which we are heading. That is where Referism takes us. The days when we can afford to allow the government, any government, unfettered power to manage the finances of this nation are gone. If we want the job done properly, we must control the beast that is our government, and make it conform to our will.

The power of the idea is unstoppable.