Call me naive, but politics in the UK (and elsewhere) has become a toxic affair, tainted by career politicians corrupted by commercial and media interests who are more concerned with maintaining the status quo than acting in the best interests of Britain, Europe or, indeed, the world.
For some time I’ve been convinced that at the heart of this are not the social divide between haves and have-nots, but the ideological war between socialism and capitalism. Political parties are based on ideology, and ideologues always put their beliefs before the wellbeing of the people that they wish to impose them upon.
For a long time I struggled with this. Why, I always asked myself, can society not operate on two tiers. A top, capitalist tier, focused on merit and growth, and a lower, socialist tier, offering an equitable baseline that determines the minimum standards that a civilised society is prepared to accept. Obviously, by utilising both ideologies the links between them become corridors of social mobility. Or maybe siphons.
Of course everyone argues you can’t have two ideologies working in tandem, even though that’s exactly what the Labour Party was doing between 1997 and 2010.
I’m not a capitalist. I’m not a socialist. I recognise the values and the flaws in both, and I have always sought to find the middle ground. But In not exactly a liberal either.
Surely, I reasoned, a political party can be based on principles rather than ideologies. There must be some universal rights that everyone would want to sign up to. Or at the very least, most people.
The more I thought about this the more I realised that the answer lay under my nose, here in Birmingham.
The 15th of June 2015 was the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta, and to celebrate I had visited the British Library’s Exhibition. It needed a good three hours to get through, but it was worth it.
One thing that occurred to me as I saw, and learned, just how widely Magna Carta had influenced the political landscape of the western world, was that something wasn’t right. It was there, but such scant attention was given to the Chartist Movement and the reforms of 1832 that it’s own impact seemed minor. Yet the more I think on today’s political problems the more I feel that Chartism might be the way forward. A new but simple charter of enshrined rights that reflects the spirit of Magna Carta is exactly what we need again today.
Particularly because Chartism was a cause, rather than an ideology. A movement rather than a political institution.
UK politics has lacked a cause for some time, with the exception of one: the cause of ending our EU membership. The one goal cause that not only swelled the UKIP vote, but also won them Brexit.
So while Labour and the Tories tore themselves apart, Goldsmith’s UKIP was a one-issue unifier that drew so many people – the old, the poor, the working class, the disenfranchised – to its cause.
And even without a credible voice in Parliament, they achieved their objective.
Just like the Chartists of 1832.
Had UKIP learned lessons from the most successful political movement in British history? Perhaps, or perhaps it was coincidence. Either way, it demonstrated to me that Chartism could still work today, in the 21st Century.
Chartism allows for the creation of the very British values those pesky politicians blather on about incoherently. Right now they’re a euphemism.
However, if Charter review were tied to an enshrined referendum process embedded in the long-term parliamentary timetable, there would never be a need for spontaneous referendums ever again. Charter issues could be revisited periodically by statute. All those things we have seen eroded – from sovereignty to the NHS to freedom of speech to privacy to human rights – could be key Charter issues that would prevent every future government from claiming false mandates and perverting the very fabric of our society.
Even better, Chartism is a broad church. You can follow opposing ideologies it still subscribe to the core principles of a Charter. I can see how everyone supporting it would understand exactly what was meant by “I am a Chartist” as opposed to “I am a socialist” or “I am a capitalist”
So who were the Chartists? From the first meeting in Bradford Street, Birmingham in 1838 through until their displacementby mainstream political reformers just ten years later they were almost forgotten by the time their proposed reforms were eventually enacted – not all as stated to the letter, but certainly in spirit.
They may only ever have had one MP, but their loud voices shook the nation, forced the resignation of a Prime Minister, changed the nature of ten parliamentary landscape, and Doubtless paved the way for the decline of Imperialism and the rise of the Labour movement.
So what were their aims? What objectives dos they seek to enshrine? Well…
1. A vote for every person of sixteen years of age, of sound mind, and not undergoing punishment for a crime.
2. The Secret Ballot – To protect the elector in the exercise of his vote.
3. No Property Qualification for Members of Parliament – thus enabling the constituencies to return the man of their choice, be he rich or poor.
4. Payment of Members, thus enabling an honest trades-man, working man, or other person, to serve a constituency; when taken from his business to attend to the interests of the country.
5. Equal Constituencies, securing the same amount of representation for the same number of electors, instead of allowing small constituencies to swamp the votes of large ones.
6. Annual Parliament Elections, thus presenting the most effectual check to bribery and intimidation, since as the constituency might be bought once in seven years (even with the ballot), no purse could buy a constituency (under a system of universal suffrage) in each ensuing twelvemonth; and since members, when elected for a year only, would not be able to defy and betray their constituents as now.
Chartists also explored new ways of living in communes to reduce costs and enable people to own land to secure their electoral voice. They infiltrated the pulpits of the Church and created the great political preachers of the nineteenth century. They championed emancipation and influenced many of the politicians that followed, from John Bright (the man who arguably convinced Lincoln to oppose slavery) to Marx and Engels.
The protests of the modern age are issue specific. Anti-Austerity, Occupy, Pro-EU. They may have many of the same members and activists, but they don’t speak with a single voice. Not like the Chartists.
So I ask myself what, if such existed, might a modern chartist manifesto look like? What principles might it espouse?
My first thought is that ideological principles would have to be avoided. So no nationalism, socialism, no capitalism, no anarchy, no religion, no pacifism, no militarism, no republicanism. These are the issues that divide reasonable people, and that open the door for agitators and for agents provocateur. They shouldn’t be things that can polarise, they should be the things that reasonable people can agree on.
To me it should cover the basics: Citizenship & Democracy, Constituency & Representation, Education, Health & Welfare, Election & Representation, Freedom & Privacy, Insurance and Taxation, Public Service, Sovereignty and Parliament.
It isn’t about reform so much as transparency. Many hard-won reforms to basic human rights are being revised or reversed without political mandate, and campaigning for a Charter
If we can enshrine our expectations in a modern People’s Charter, and if we can campaign for a charter, and for a process that allows the people to challenge it’s violation, has a very real chance of making democracy work.