Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The right to vote

Readers of this blog have noticed, no doubt, that I have not commented on the vote in the House of Commons yesterday. The main reason for that is that as far as I am concerned the only important news in this country of the last several days was the definite identification of Richard III's skeleton. Chris Huhne? Vicky Price? Who on earth cares or will remember them in a month's time let alone five and half centuries later?

Still, it is time to turn to matters nearer in time. Well, sort of, as I intend to go back to the seventeenth century in a minute.

I shall not discuss the rights and wrongs of same-sex marriage, being more interested in some of the other issues around it. Firstly, I should like to point out that the Bill has not been passed. It has merely had its Second Reading in the House of Commons and because of that MPs, as the Boss said,"MPs allowed (nay, encouraged) to vote". They usually vote on Second Reading but not necessarily in a general non-legislative debate. (Before we go any further, I should like to point out that the Lords very rarely divide on Second Reading, preferring to do so at the later stages. I have no doubt, that, too will be wrongly reported.)

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill is now going to Committee stage. It will not be debated by the Committee of the Whole House but the Public Bill Committee, which has been instructed to present a report by March 12 or before. So far neither composition of the Committee nor the date of the sittings have been announced but there has hardly been time for such matters.

If you scroll about half-way down this page you will read the future programme for the Bill. It comes almost immediately below the vote on the substantive issue.

Why bother to go into these picky little details that are of little interest? Why not spend time roaming through the emotional and other arguments that surround this whole question? Why not follow up the hint given by the Boss in the same posting that this Bill is merely fulfilling obligations to our real government in Brussels? The last of these I shall follow up at some later stage but the other questions answer themselves. It is because people do not know or understand these picky details of parliamentary procedure that it is so easy for those who wish to undermine the process to do so. I am extremely weary of people who whoop with joy or dissolve into tragic tears because some controversial piece of legislation "has been passed" when it has had its Second Reading in one House or another.

This brings me rather neatly to the seventeenth century and an article in History Today by Philip Baker, co-editor of The Agreements of the People, the Levellers and the Constitutional Crisis of the English Revolution about the Levellers, possibly the first political organization in England that called for political rights and, particularly, the vote for all men.

There is a tendency among some political groups to claim the Levellers as their predecessors, often inappropriately. In particular the various Occupy movements whose main slogan seemed to be more control by the government which is the exact opposite of what the Levellers wanted, a move away from the gathering of power centrally that had been happening in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century.

The Levellers were what we might call on the Left of Cromwell's New Model Army and had a good deal of civilian support. They were, men and officers, well educated and could speak and write clearly and cogently. The Putney Debates of 1647 - 49 that followed the First Agreement of the People, that is the first attempt of a more or less democratic constitution are a pleasure to read. The fact that these took place at a time when the English language was at its most glorious heights, helps.

Among other matters under discussion was the question of universal male suffrage. The Levellers were not radical enough to extend this to women despite the relatively high level of education and political involvement among women of those groups.

Philip Baker quotes one of the best known officers of the group, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, a vehement opponent of any deal with the King:
For really, I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first, by his own consent, to put himself under that government.
That raises a number of issues, with which we are more familiar than the constitutional theoreticians of the seventeenth century were, quite apart from the question of women giving consent. What of the men who, having been given the right to consent to the government, that is to vote, refuse to do so or cannot quite be bothered? What of those who, having voted and whose candidate lost, then announce that the elected ones do not represent him? Does the mere voting indicate consent to the government? What of those, no doubt unthinkable individuals for Colonel Rainsborough, who vote not according to their conscience but according to what benefits they might receive?

In a way, Philip Baker shows the problems that lie within the admirable views of the Levellers, problems that we, some centuries later, have to face and are, apparently, unable to deal with.
Although the Agreements have long been lauded for their influence on modern constitutionalist debate, recent research has sought to relocate them within their immediate historical context. The result has been to shed important new light on their origins and influences, such as the way in which the everyday contemporary practice of oath swearing provided an important model for the attempt to reformulate the social contract through a literal agreement of the entire adult population. Meanwhile, the common perception of the Agreements as, in some sense, ‘forward-looking’ has been challenged on the grounds that it ignores the extent to which their authors were arguing for constitutional reformation and the restoration of historic, native birthright.

Closer study of the documents themselves also has much to tell us about contemporary perceptions of political life. For example, their desire to ensure greater political accountability can be related to the new freedom surrounding the reporting of parliamentary debates and investigative journalism and their revealing of corruption and factionalism. Similarly, their demand for the devolution of power to local communities was a clear reaction against the increasing centralisation and growth of ‘big government’ that was an intrinsic feature of the Civil War period but can be traced back to earlier decades, too. The corollary of decentralisation was the notion of political participation and active citizenship that lay at the heart of the Agreements. This was clearly seen as being central to political life, both in terms of the duty incumbent on the individual to serve in local office and the need for the collective and continuous oversight of those holding public positions of trust. In this fashion the Agreements combined successfully the language of civic responsibilities and duties with that of popular rights and liberties.
Our problem is (and this was foreseen by a number of post-Leveller political thinkers) that while we persist in using the language we have long ago lost the meaning; what might have worked for the few people Colonel Rainsborough really had in mind (would he really have accepted a freely voted in pro-Stuart government?) does not seem to work when spread across the many who find it difficult even to understand the very simple facts of Parliamentary procedure.

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