Monday, 8 October 2007

Gordon Brown & The Levellers

Election or no election? In a sense it’s a storm in a teacup:

Brown never said there would be an autumn election and I can’t really imagine that anyone thought he would call one – so when Cameron challenged him to come off the fence – it was always going to be a non-event. Tactically you could say that Brown blundered by even appearing to contemplate it.

But media circus and parliamentary chicanery aside, there is a fundamental issue of democracy at stake, and it shouldn’t need take the Lib Dems to point it out. Under our archaic ‘non-constitution’ a government can manipulate the timing of an election for their own political advantage.

Marx had a name for this – he called it Bonapartism based on Napoleon III’s use of plebiscites to get a popular mandate for essentially anti-democratic purposes. A more recent example would be Thatcher’s timing with the ‘Falklands election’ – massively unpopular at home but using a heady wave of popular nationalism to get an endorsement.

The only solution to this is fixed term parliaments and a written constitution.

Of course this idea is nothing new. The idea was first forward as early as 1647 in the Levellers “Agreement of the People’. Some, but not much, of it would need updating from the seventeenth century – so keeping within the spirit of it I have added my own twenty first century comments in italics:

• Power to be vested in the people: We still need to abolish the monarchy and the use of crown prerogative.

• One year Parliaments, elected by equal numbers of voters per seat. The right to vote for all men who worked independently for their living and all those who had fought for the Parliamentary cause: OK we have universal suffrage now – but the one year parliament would really shake things up.

• Recall of any or all of their MPs by their electors at any time: Not as outrageous as it sounds – think of all those sleaze inquiries …

• Abolition of the House of Lords
: Overdue and we don’t need a nominated second chamber of Blair’s mates either.

• Democratic election of army officers: So we aren’t in the middle of a civil war and maybe this one isn’t so high on the agenda – but how about trade union rights for the armed forces ?

• Complete religious toleration and the abolition of tithes and tolls: We don’t have tithes but we do still have an official Church Of England, religious education in schools and blasphemy laws – all long passed their sell by date.

• Justices to be elected; law courts to be local and proceedings to be in English: Trials might be in English but they’re still hardly accessible to ordinary people with silly wigs and archaic proceedings. The judiciary are still a self-perpetuating old boys club. And amazingly we now find ourselves defending the right to trail by jury and habeas corpus – things that weren’t in the Leveller’s Agreement because they thought they had already secured them by winning the first civil war.

• Redistribution of seized land to the common people: Dare we say re-nationalization of privatised companies ?

Depressing that it's all still radical stuff 350 years on.

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