No one has given politics a bad name more than professional politicians – they never tire of trotting out the inane comment, whenever some important event is unfolding, that “we must leave politics out of this.” Perhaps what they mean is that on those occasions they should stop for a moment trying to score points against other parties, but politics is precisely what they should be engaging in.
Unfortunately, politicians have alienated the public so much that more and more people just give up on politics – they are consumed by an ever-present sense of futility, and they are convinced nothing they do would make any difference.
But that of course is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once people give up on politics – and I don’t just mean voting, but sharing ideas and collaborating on bringing about changes – we cease to be a body of citizens, and become fragmented, isolated, vulnerable individuals.
Politics is in fact the only antidote to powerlessness. It is the practice whereby citizens in a shared domain come together and work out what is to be done for their common wellbeing.
If one or a few simply impose their decisions on everyone else, there is dictatorship, not politics.
If everyone goes his or own way and never accepts any general rule as binding on them, we have anarchy, not politics.
Only politics give us the opportunity to deliberate as a group, to dispute and agree without resorting to violence, and establish common rules and policies.
And one of the most pressing tasks of lifelong learning is to remind everyone what politics has helped us achieve, and why we must act politically to protect our common interests. And the more powerful the opponents we face, the more necessary it is to tackle them through effective political engagement.
Let us look back at six examples and see what we have had to rely on politics to achieve for us. And as we’re often told that it’s important for our national identity to remember key dates, we’ll pick out 6 years that hold a special place in our political history:
One. 1215 (Magna Carta)
In the past, people who were displeased with their ruler would try to seize the throne from them, or force them to abdicate, or even kill them. But a group of barons in the 13th century decided to use a political approach instead. They devised a charter and collectively pressed King John to agree to it. John gave his consent and though he rejected it soon afterwards, it became a focus for a shift in structural power, leading to the election of representatives in the Parliament championed by Simon de Montfort.
Political Achievement 1: Limit the Abuse of Power
Two. 1605 (The Advancement of Learning)
As late as the 15th and 16th centuries, there was no systematic science or technology to speak of. There would the odd inventions or discoveries made by individuals working on their own. Francis Bacon, a leading politician who would become the Lord Chancellor, put forward a comprehensive reform programme in his book, The Advancement of Learning, and presented it to King James I, who sarcastically dismissed it as “Like the peace of God, it passes all understanding.” But Bacon did not rely just on the King; he networked extensively, and it led to the founding of the Royal Society, with a royal charter from Charles II (James’ grandson). It became a model for the cultivation & promotion of cooperatively tested empirical knowledge.
Political Achievement 2: Improve Knowledge & Rationality
Three. 1776 (Common Sense)
The so-called Glorious Revolution was a settlement between the monarch and the wealthy elite of the country. And after 1688, the government refused to listen to any request for allowing every adult to have a vote in electing their representative in Parliament. One political activist turned to pamphlet and book writing to stir up popular demands. And when Tom Paine went to America, his ideas provided just the catalyst the people who had settled there needed. They would not accept some hedged settlement with King George III, but cut their links with the monarchy altogether, and became a democratic republic instead. Paine then used the success of the new political system in America to promote change in France and Britain. And while extremists in France and ultra reactionaries in Britain derailed progress in their different ways, democracy was to advance through the 19th century in both countries.
Political Achievement 3: Open the Door to Democracy
Four. 1851 (The Sheffield Female Political Association)
Back in America, the slaves were not given a vote. And when Anne Knight joined the campaign to end slavery, she discovered two things: one was the importance of changing public attitudes about slavery when slave owners would go on and on about the economic costs of abandoning it; and the other was that the problem of deep-seated prejudice affected women too.
When she went to the World Anti-Slavery Convention in London in 1840, she found out that women were not allowed to participate in the discussions. She established in 1847 the first organisation to campaign for women suffrage and inspired subsequent feminist demands to eradicate unequal treatment of women (it was 1918 that women over 30 with property got the vote, and only 1928 that women aged 21+ got the vote).
Political Achievement 4: Rally Against Prejudice
Five. 1905 (Progressive Government)
Through the 19th century, even as there was growing acceptance (though slow it was) that everyone, men and women, should have the vote, and be given equal respect politically, there was a parallel trend that not only condoned, but celebrated the widening gulf between the rich and the poor – and dismissed that there should be any equal respect when it came to economic interactions.
The turning point came with the Liberal victory of 1905, which heralded the systematic redistribution of common resources to bridge the divide between the haves and have-nots. For example:
• Free school meals
• Workers compensation for suffering from accidents at work
• In 1908, introduced pensions for those over 70.
• Spending significantly increased to alleviate unemployment.
• The National Insurance Act (Part I) passed in 1911 gave workers the right to sick pay
It was by no means easy, as Lloyd George remarked: "the partisan warfare that raged around these topics was so fierce that by 1913, this country was brought to the verge of civil war."
Political Achievement 5: Build Economic Solidarity
Six. 1942 (Beveridge’s Report - The Slaying of Giants)
Beveridge’s Report set out a vision for slaying the five giant evils of Want, Idleness, Disease, Squalor, and Ignorance. In tackling ignorance, there continued to be many obstacles. For example,
• teachers were from time to time threatened with pay cut of 10% or more;
• women teachers were not only paid less but had to stop teaching once they were married;
• & parents could stop sending their children to school once they were 14.
The National Union of Teachers campaigned in public, organised strikes where necessary, and also collaborated with politicians to change the law, and the status of teachers and respect for education reached a high point.
Political Achievement 6: Safeguard Education
Since 1980s, market individualism has grown and collective politics declined.
Now all six political achievements are under threat.
It is important to remember what they are and that we should revive politics to defend them.
• Magna Carta inspired the development of human rights; now this government is planning to abolish the Human Rights Act and withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights.
• Instead of supporting the general advancement of learning, research grants are increasingly directed to meet corporate interests.
• Democracy is put into reverse – stopping people voting is the new game in town: prisoners, changing registration system which could reduce the number of people who can vote, and look at America, where the Republicans have concocted numerous ways to stop the poor and ethnic minorities from voting.
• Prejudice against immigrants, against disabled people, against the poor are stoked on a daily basis. And equal pay for women is still a battle to be won.
• Economic solidarity is being jettisoned, the welfare state is being dismantled, and income inequalities, after falling in the post-war years, have kept widening since the 1980s.
• And education is reduced to a sifting machine to pick out the few for top jobs and package the rest for compliance and low expectations.
For those of us who live in the six counties within the East of England, there is a further significance to the six examples we considered:
• Before the Barons presented the Magna Carta to King John to seal in 2015, they gathered in the previous year before the shrine of St Edmunds to discuss and agree their tactics in dealing with John. The shrine was of course in Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk.
• The great political advocate for ‘The Advancement of Learning’, Francis Bacon, was ennobled as Viscount St Albans, because his family home was in St Albans, Hertfordshire.
• And arguably the most influential political writer of all times, Tom Paine, was born in Thetford, Norfolk.
• The tireless critic of slavery and champion of women rights, Anne Knight, came from Chelmsford, Essex.
• The Liberal Government that came into office in 1905 was led by Henry Campbell Bannerman, one of 14 Prime Ministers who graduated from the University of Cambridge in Cambridgeshire.
• And the man who led the National Union of Teachers as their General Secretary from 1931 to 1947 was Frederick Mander, who earlier on in his career was the headmaster of a school in Luton, Bedfordshire.
We have in the East of England an immensely rich political heritage, and we should with confidence and pride build on it and extend political education to as many people as possible so that they can exercise their power as citizens to counter money interests and corrosive prejudices, and help enhance our common wellbeing.
[This is a summary paper based on the speech I gave to the WEA (East of England) Annual Meeting, on 8 November 2014]