Waiting for Democracy

An English civil war reenactment in Loseley Park, on May 25, 2009.

Finally, the May government has been challenged on its Brexit plans, but not in the way many of its opponents would hope. The challenge has come in the form of a ruling by the High Court. The decision means that the House of Commons may have to vote on the country’s EU membership and the government cannot invoke Article 50 without winning a vote to do so. Many see this as an opportunity to reverse the June 23rd vote.

The situation in the UK is increasingly absurd. You can hear the Leave crowd denigrating the role of a sovereign Parliament, and even the independent judiciary, in shaping public life. Yet the Leave vote was won on appeals to national sovereignty. Meanwhile the Remainers are looking to Parliament to “save us” from the people who voted for Brexit. But it was the Remain camp who takes so much faith in the European Union as a civilising force in British life.

The truth is it’s not much of a democratic process at all. We don’t have an elected head of state and we still have the House of Lords, all predicated on an unwritten constitution. We can elect MPs, but only by a very flawed electoral system – which means we now have a government voted in by less than 25% of the eligible electorate. The Levellers were demanding equal constituencies and yearly elections back in the 17th century. We’re still not there yet.

The UK has very flawed, partially representative institutions. These institutions predetermined the context for the referendum. Britain is now caught between two poles: the support of the referendum as “a pure expression of democracy”, on the one hand, and the recourse to flawed partially representative institutions on the other. The British establishment is thoroughly rotten, and yet we find well-meaning liberals finding sanctuary in the dark shadows of this edifice.

The World Turned Upside Down

It didn’t have to be this way. It’s too often said that England is a conservative country. As if the European continent is the home of all radical ideas and revolutionary thought begins at Calais. However, it was the English civil wars (1642-1649), which created an opening for radical-progressive thought, with the first regicide in history. King Charles I was found guilty of treason and his head was promptly separated from his body.

For a brief moment, England was a commonwealth with the abolition of the monarchy and the state church. Oliver Cromwell filled the void left over by the monarchy. He went on to consolidate his power and stamp out the revolutionary forces sweeping the country. These progressive forces wanted more than a military dictatorship. The Levellers wanted a democratic system, where elections are held every year and legislators can only run once every two years.

At the same time, the Leveller movement wanted to limit the use of the death penalty to murder and treason, as well as the end of imprisonment for debt and the end of the constant wars. But this could be seen as the bourgeois wing of the English revolution. Another more radical group claimed the mantel of the True Levellers for themselves, but they would be remembered as the Diggers. These non-conformist Christians were proto-communists and hoped to establish a new social order based on common ownership.

Not just content with debate, the Diggers actively set out to occupy common land and use it as the basis for an egalitarian community. The first attempt was at St. George’s Hill in Surrey, and it would not be the last as the movement spread. By contrast, the Levellers wanted a democracy for small property owners. These experiments were dispersed by armed force. Eventually the revolutionary opening would be closed by Cromwell. But this just ensured the return of the monarchy.

The counter-revolution won in the end, but England was never the same again. Absolute monarchy was dead in the British Isles and the mother of all parliaments was established. The restoration led to the fusion of parliamentary power with royalty into what we now call a constitutional monarchy. Nevertheless, the left can claim the radical heritage of English dissent. This is what the reactionaries cannot ever lay claim to.

The great socialist Tony Benn put together the Commonwealth of Britain bill to address the problems of British institutions. It advocated a secular federal republic with greater democracy. The House of Lords was to be replaced with the House of the People, it would be elected and composed of equal representation of men and women. Benn wanted to extend democracy to the courts to ensure judges and magistrates were elected.

Reinventing England

Now more than ever the legacy of the English revolution is worth examining. So many problems would have been solved, preemptively, had the Levellers and Diggers got what they wanted. Yet these radical forces were driven underground. Without a written constitution, the English ruling class pursued another course merging with Scotland and conquering Ireland. The Unionist settlement and its empire was born.

By the time the empire collapsed, Britain moved to become a social democratic European state. However, this shift was not to last as the thirty golden years came to a close. Managerial politics and market liberalism took hold and became the new centre ground. Around this centre ground the right and left would be defined for decades, but it is now collapsing. Theresa May hopes to reinvent the centre through popular nationalism.

With the prospect of Scottish independence and Brexit, what is left of the UK will have to redefine itself. The May government cannot do this without questioning the basis of its appeals to national unity. What happens in England is a key issue. Either the nationalist forces will triumph and reshape the English body politic to fit its fantasies. Or, the left will win concessions with an alternative vision of what England should look like.

A radical regionalism is necessary to redistribute wealth and power in England. The North and the Midlands need a say. But the danger is that the ruling class will continue to shape England in its image. If this happens, you can expect power and wealth to remain concentrated in the hands of a few. Meanwhile the right and its pernicious values will come out on top. Nationalism will mean blocking regional voices in favour of an English Parliament.

Creating an English Parliament out of the House of Commons would be a failure. It would preserve the old democratic deficit for generations to come. Not only does the House of Lords need to be abolished, the Commons cannot hold total power in this country. If we want to prevent the worst outcome, we have to fight for regional assemblies and democratic reform. It’s not enough to demand sovereignty, as the right does, and then condemn the institutions left behind.

Photograph courtesy of Paul Drummond. Published under a Creative Commons license.