Friday, 30 June 2017

Symbolic of the System at Large

There are those who find this confusing; some may say, archaic.

But nothing could be more British, and perhaps especially more English, then to have the criticism and even the mockery built in and expected.

The tradition that is Radical and republican, populist and at least de facto pacifist, largely (but not exclusively) Celtic and regional, is an integral part of the organic Constitution.

In and with the full ceremony and pageantry of the parliamentary and municipal processes, that Constitution, including that tradition, has delivered social democracy before, and could deliver social democracy again.

Hence the octogenarian figures of the Queen and Dennis Skinner at the State Opening of Parliament, each with a specific role, and each the latest, but not the last, in a long, long line.

The regime that executed Charles I also persecuted the Levellers and the Diggers for their appeals to “the Ancient Constitution” and “time out of mind”.

That regime anticipated the bourgeois capitalist Revolutions of 1688, 1776 and 1789. Our own Radical tradition does not derive from those Revolutions.

Rather, it predates them, and it opposed them and their consequences, making common cause with Tories for the abolition of slavery (by very specific appeal to the Ancient Constitution), for factory reform, for the extension of the franchise, for action against substance abuse and gambling, and so on.

Something similar presents itself in opposition to the neoconservative war agenda, and through that to the neoliberal economic order. But that opportunity has yet to be taken.

The ostensibly irreverent, undeniably irascible, utterly indispensable tradition of Radicals and populists, republicans and pacifists, is as old as anything else in these Islands, and it is a great deal older than the present reigning dynasty.

That tradition is as much a safeguard of our liberty and democracy as is the Crown, and as is the full pageantry and ceremony of the parliamentary and municipal processes. No more so. But no less so, either.

In his memoirs, Skinner correctly points out that both his opposition to Scottish and Welsh devolution in the 1970s, and his opposition to European federalism from the very start, have turned out to have been correct.

Everything that he and others predicted has come true.

One should add in the current climate that the Radical tradition is an ongoing product of an uncountable number of what turn out to be illegal exercises of “undue spiritual influence”.

Without such influence, we should still have opium dens, a limited franchise, sweatshops, and slavery. Indeed, without such influence, forms of all of those are rapidly returning.

That Skinner should have become an expected and celebrated aspect of the State Opening of Parliament is entirely as it should be, and not at all a betrayal or even a dilution of his position.

Related to his working-class strand is a decidedly posh one, of Tony Benn, of Tam Dalyell, of Michael Foot, of Jeremy Corbyn, and, beyond the House, of figures ranging from Foot’s nephew Paul, to Auberon Waugh, to Richard Ingrams and to Ian Hislop.

Paul Foot identified as a Trotskyist, and he was even a member of the SWP. But beyond his party card, he showed not the slightest sign of being anything other than an upper or upper-middle-class Radical, predating Marx by an enormously long way.

Such are distrustful of those who exercise authority, but they are profoundly convinced of its inherent value, and they are therefore determined that those who hold office be held to account and found worthy of their eminence.

Thus was Paul Foot like the rest of the Private Eye boys, at least back in the day. Like his uncle and several other relatives. Like Benn. Like Dalyell. Like figures from different backgrounds, such as Alan Watkins and Michael Wharton (Peter Simple).

Radicals and reactionaries are often closer to each other than either is to the centre as conventionally and conveniently defined.

Both in its Common Room and its dead common room aspects, there is the unshaking and unshakable sense that if Ministers, MPs and others are not good enough, then they damn well ought to be, and that there is a positive duty to call them out for not being.

Parliament, especially, is worthy only of those who are worthy of Parliament, and Ministerial office is worthy only of those who are worthy of Ministerial office.

That is because of those institutions’ capacity to do harm in the wrong hands. But it is also because of those institutions' capacity, and therefore their duty, to do good in the right hands.

Skinner has devoted his adult life to Parliament, just as Foot and Benn did.

It was three of the other working-class warriors who sat on the bench below the gangway with him – Ronnie Campbell (who still does), Dennis Canavan and the late Bob Parry – who flew to Baghdad to secure the release of British hostages in 1990.

In April 1992, Parry, whom the “anti-totalitarian” Oliver Kamm describes as “among the thickest parliamentarians I can recall”, was arrested in Tiananmen Square for unfurling a banner in protest against the 1989 massacre there.

He, Canavan and Campbell were all pro-life Catholics, a stance that Campbell maintains, just as he, like other resolutely working-class figures such as Joe Benton and George Mudie, voted to uphold the traditional definition of marriage.

That is all a long way from Skinner's views, yet Campbell speaks of Skinner as a lost Leader.

The Irish Catholic heritage does of course coalesce very well with English, Scots or Welsh Radicalism in many cases.

Parry turned up to vote against Maastricht one day after he had had quadruple heart bypass surgery. He had discharged himself for the purpose.

His Liverpool constituency neighbour, Eric Heffer, turned up to speak against the first Gulf War in the final stages of terminal stomach cancer, and to vote against it in a wheelchair.

Heffer straddled the two wings of the Radical tradition, in that he could have passed at times for Skinner, or for another of that brotherhood, yet, in a shining example of the vanished world of worker-intellectualism, this joiner son of a boot-maker, who had himself left school at 14, had a personal library of some 12,000 books.

That’s right. Twelve thousand.

That said, Skinner is better-read than he often lets on, in the way that Benn was possibly a touch less so than his accent and demeanour might sometimes have led one to assume.

Yet both belonged to the tradition that Skinner continues to make felt by everything from State Opening one-liners to searing questions of swanky Cabinet Ministers.

I say again that that tradition is as old as anything else in these Islands, and that it is as much a safeguard of our liberty and democracy as anything else is, including the Crown. No more so. But no less so, either.

It was Margaret Thatcher who mounted an assault on the monarchy, since she scorned the Commonwealth, social cohesion, historical continuity and public Christianity.

She called the Queen “the sort of person who votes for the SDP”, and she arrogated to herself the properly monarchical and royal role on the national and international stages, using her most popular supporting newspaper to vilify the Royal Family.

Whereas the movement that delivered social democracy was replete with MBEs, OBEs, CBEs, mayoral chains, aldermen’s gowns, and civic services.

That movement proudly provided a high proportion of Peers of the Realm, Knights of the Garter, members of the Order of Merit, and Companions of Honour, who had rejoiced in their middle periods to be Lords Privy Seal, or Comptrollers of Her Majesty’s Household, or so many other such things, in order to deliver the social democratic goods within the parliamentary process in all its ceremony.

The Silver Jubilee was held under the Callaghan Government. The Queen had famously good relations with Wilson and Callaghan, in stark contrast to her famously bad relations with Thatcher.

Peter Shore denounced the Major Government’s decision to scrap the Royal Yacht, and unlike John Redwood he did it at the time.

Shore also supported Canadian against Spanish fishermen not least because Canada and the United Kingdom shared a Head of State.

Labour MPs opposed Thatcher’s cutting of Canada’s last tie to the Parliament of the United Kingdom, so opposing for the sake of the Aboriginal peoples and of the French-Canadians specifically as Her Majesty’s subjects.

Both King George VI and the Queen Mother were honorary members of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, which the latter accepted from her great friend, Ron Todd, with specific reference to her late husband’s great admiration for Ernest Bevin.

Bernie Grant vociferously supported the monarchy because of its role in the Commonwealth, and that is probably also the view of Diane Abbott.

Efforts to cut constitutional ties to Britain have been a white supremacist, and an anti-Catholic, cause ever since Thomas Jefferson.

Which is to say, ever since Dr Johnson asked, “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”

That wretched tradition has continued down through the foundation of Irish Republicanism by those who regarded their own Protestant and “Saxon” nation as the only true nation on the Irish island, through anti-monarchist attitudes to Australian Aborigines from the Victorian Period to the present day, through Hendrik Verwoerd and Ian Smith, through attempts to abrogate the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand, and through the patriation of the Canadian Constitution against the wishes, both of the Aboriginal peoples to whom the Crown had numerous treaty obligations, and of the government of Quebec.

The fact is that only a movement steeped in royal, parliamentary and municipal pageantry and charity, could preserve and celebrate the pageantry and charity of the City of London while ending its status as a tax haven and as a state within the State, Europe’s last great Medieval republican oligarchy, right where the United Kingdom ought to be.

The liberties of the City were granted to a city properly so called, with a full social range of inhabitants and workers.

The Crown should explicitly guarantee the hereditary economic and cultural rights of, for example, the Billingsgate fish porters in the same way as it guaranteed or guarantees those of Aboriginal peoples elsewhere in the Empire and the Commonwealth.

Although there are those who find all of this confusing; some may say, archaic.

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