My Dad used to be a bearded Socialist Worker, a jazz-playing psychotherapist and part of the cooperative and commune movement. When I go to see him I usually peruse his books (this is partly how I got into Wilhelm Reich). I found Paul Foot’s book on the history of the Working Class struggle for the vote since the 1700s and its subsequent undermining. ‘The Vote’ is brilliant and very readable but thought it might be handy to offer a synopsis here…
The Chartists in the 1700s tried to instigate a much fairer and democratic society but were fought back militarily and ultimately betrayed by Cromwell, who was an ultimate ‘insider’ or ‘double agent’ judging by his actions. Parliament was originally a talking shop of the rich but then gradually over the 1800s massive eruptions of public protest forced the ruling aristocracy to gradually cede the franchise to limited portions of wealthy people. To vote you had to have money. Disraeli, who was to become a Tory prime minister said this in 1867, ‘We do not live – and I trust it will never be the fate of this country to live under a democracy.’ The rich thought that if the workers gained a vote they would use it to take away their properties and privileges. So the vote was only given to selectively less rich men when it appeared that there might be a revolution in England (it has been pretty close a number of times). The vote was gradually and grudgingly given as a way of diffusing massive public hostility at inequity.
Basically in a nutshell our parliament has always been a charade and the Labour party, when it tried to actually make society fairer through the parliamentary process was undone by the banks and speculators who collapsed the value of sterling whenever the economic system was threatened. The socialists tried to make a fairer society but did not understand finance, or that the banks ultimately controlled everything industrial. If they do not like the way a government is doing things they either bully the leaders directly, like they did to Callaghan or withdraw credit and crash the economy. Crashes are good for banks because they can then buy up real equity cheap. Even Paul Foot did not appear to understand the role of the banks in creating the depression of the 1930s. At the same time, key union leaders such as Jimmy Thomas either betrayed the union movement ‘snatching defeat from the jaws of victory’ or sold out entirely.
So what did I learn from Paul Foots amazing history? That England is not a moderate country just a very efficiently suppressed one, that no significant reforms on voting came from parliament, they all came from a fear of the mass action being undertaken outside parliament. Any movement that has genuinely tried to free the people has had its leaders subverted, or perhaps were always crooked. The union leaders, who were actually organised more democratically than parliament at one time and who could have easily toppled the established order were too frightened to carry through the wishes of those who trusted them. When Labour did try to reform society through parliament after WW2 they did not understand the banking system and so were easily subverted when the banks crashed the economy by selling out sterling.
I have also learnt that massive changes in society only seem to have ever come about through mass action – civil disobedience, general strikes and so on. Those in power have long understood that parliamentary democracy can happily coexist with economic oligarchy – as long as the banks control the economy and the leaders of any unions or social movements can be bullied, co-opted or bought out. We now have a self-confessed one party state –tory labour or labour torys, a neutered union system and an essentially fascist alliance developing between big business and government. The EU itself is not harmless either. Most people do not realise that MEPs have no power whatsoever. The non-elected Commission is in charge of the EU and the parliament is a debating shop entirely subservient to it. Our other international organisations such as the WTO and the IMF are about as democratic as the Vatican. The Labour party attempted to introduce economic democracy, in tandem with the unions after WW2 but did not understand banking and so were easily co-opted by things they could not control (financial crashes).
The Magna Carta was created in reaction to mass protests against war (the withholding of tax by the people who were sick of the king’s wars and wanted a fairer society). Every extension of the franchise came from mass demonstration, or the fear of it - our parliament has always been the veil of the rich (despite noble attempts otherwise), the only difference today is parliament’s true function is much better veiled. I am not arguing against parliament – I just want to see real democracy in society, industry and our governing institutions in a way in which the people have true control over their lives and can quickly affect how our institutions behave. And an end to secret governance by vested interests.
As I think Reich said, ‘Civilisation? It ain’t been yet’.
The nut in a nutshell –
1700’s Britain is a diabolically unfair place – Cromwell is an insider/double agent/total git who sells out the gains of the civil war to the rich.
1800’s Though Britain has a Parliament it is a Parliament for the rich, only the super-wealthy can vote for their stooges.
1800-1900 Revolution is narrowly avoided a number of times by grudgingly granting the vote to successively less rich sections of male society.
1900-WW2 convinced that giving people the vote does not threaten the economic oligarchy more people are gradually given the vote – but only when threatened by mass agitation. Women supporting the war effort also convinced parliament that giving them the vote would not change the status quo.
WW2-1970 Labour party and unions attempt to make society a fairer, democratic place for the workers. Few concessions are won through parliament – mass agitation wins workers more rights through strikes but the leaders back down from near certain victory afraid of the resulting responsibility - or for other reasons.
1970 – Democratic and militant unions sell out through misinformed or crooked leaders. Labour sells out because it does not understand that the banks control the economy – and hence their governmental attempt at socialism.
Present – We have a one party pre-Fascist state with the banks in charge of all political leaders and a communist style ‘Kommittee’ controlling the EU parliamentary talking shop – a shop that has no real powers.