Early Modern Political Thought and C21 Century Politics: A Workshop

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As part of my British Academy Fellowship I organised a workshop at Newcastle's Literary and Philosophical Society on Wednesday 16 May 2018, on the relationship between early-modern political thought and twenty-first-century politics. The Lit and Phil is an ideal place to host such a discussion, having been a vibrant centre for thought and learning in the heart of Newcastle for more than 200 years. Although its founders eschewed discussion of religion and politics, its forerunner - the Philosophical Society - debated such issues as 'Whether a National Religion, or a variety of Sects, is of greater advantage to the State?', 'Whether the Civil War in the reign of Charles I and the present conflict with America be similar?' and 'Which is the better form of government, a limited monarchy as in Great Britain, or a republic?' 

I invited four distinguished speakers to the workshop each to speak on a different theme. 

Image of Thomas Rainsborough from a mural in the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Image of Thomas Rainsborough from a mural in the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

John Rees, author of The Leveller Revolution, talked about political organisation and mobilisation during the Civil War. He focused on the Putney Debates arguing that it was in that forum that some of the arguments deployed ever since for and against democratic change were laid down. Thomas Rainsborough set out his famous plea for the right to representative government and democratic accountability. He argued that: 'the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he' and therefore that 'every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government' (The Clarke Papers, ed. C. H. Firth, London: Royal Historical Society, 1992, p. 301). Against him General Henry Ireton asserted that only those with property should have the vote. Moreover, as Rees noted, the organisation of those debates themselves hinted towards a more direct notion of democracy, with ordinary soldiers acting as the voices of their regiments. Drawing on his own experiences in opposing the regime of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Rees showed that these arguments retain relevance and resonance today.

Professor Ann Hughes speaking at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley.

Professor Ann Hughes speaking at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley.

Ann Hughes, Emeritus Professor of History at Keele University, engaged with the question of religious liberty and toleration. The period of the mid seventeenth-century witnessed the articulation of arguments both for and against toleration. The Presbyterian Thomas Edwards rejected toleration, citing the dangers that full religious liberty would bring. By contrast, in Areopagitica, John Milton celebrated the acceptance and even encouragement of (moderate) division and variety. Hughes highlighted the fact that Edwards and Milton essentially had different conceptions of the truth. Edwards believed that he knew what the truth was and that the task was to enforce it. By contrast, Milton emphasised the need for openness in order to discover the truth. Once again, we can see how these two views remain in conflict among us today with figures on both sides of the secular-religious divide in danger of being closer to Edwards than to Milton.

Image from Dr Ariel Hessayon's talk at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley.

Image from Dr Ariel Hessayon's talk at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley.

Ariel Hessayon, of Goldsmiths College, discussed environmental issues, noting that while we worry today about global warming and its implications for competition over scarce resources, people in the seventeenth century were anxious about the impact of a cooling climate in what has become known as the 'little ice age'. Building on Geoffrey Parker's important work on this topic, Hessayon considered the sources that seventeenth-century men and women used to make sense of what was going on, and their responses to environmental change and challenge.

Dr Gaby Mahlberg speaking at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley

Dr Gaby Mahlberg speaking at the workshop. Taken by Rachel Hammersley

Finally, the historian and journalist Gaby Mahlberg opened with Berthold Brecht poem Thoughts on the Duration of Exile in order to address the issue of refugees and exile. She reminded us that exile is generally a matter of necessity rather than choice, and explored the ways in which seventeenth-century English republican exiles were affected by the people and ideas with which they came into contact in the nations that gave them shelter. She also spoke of the difficulties they faced in attempting to maintain and pursue their political activities abroad.

The four papers were linked in my mind by the fact that fear seems to have been a pervasive and constant presence in mid-seventeenth-century England. Ireton was afraid of the social anarchy he thought would inevitably arise from giving the poor and propertyless the vote (while those poor and propertyless were of course endlessly fearful of what the authorities would do to them). Edwards was fearful that tolerating certain religious positions would be a slippery slope that would again result in anarchy. The idea of the religious sects of the time as a canker eating away at society is a powerful image of the intensity of this fear. At the same time, members of those religious sects must have been constantly fearful of repression. Extreme weather events and other natural phenomena then, as now, bred fear as human beings grappled with the question of how to deal with what is beyond their control. Finally, exiles and refugees today, as in the past experience great fear for their lives and prospects, and at the same time have the potential to provoke a fearful reaction in others: their 'otherness' makes them suspect and a threat.

Frontispiece from the pamphlet  The World Turned Upside Down  (1645) taken from https://open.conted.ox.ac.uk/resources/images/early-media-role-woodcuts and shared on the basis of a creative commons license.

Frontispiece from the pamphlet The World Turned Upside Down (1645) taken from https://open.conted.ox.ac.uk/resources/images/early-media-role-woodcuts and shared on the basis of a creative commons license.

It is perhaps not surprising that a period of great change and revolution was marked by fear. Thomas Hobbes commented that he and fear were twins (it was said that his mother went into labour on hearing news of the Spanish Armada) and fear certainly played a central role within his political thought. Similarly the title and frontispiece to the pamphlet The world turned upside down of 1645 reflects the sense of fear and strangeness that seems to have been palpable at the time. Historians typically focus on the changes that were introduced, the debates that were played out, and the ideas that emerged, but perhaps refocusing on the fear would prove fruitful. 

Image said to be of Gerard Winstanley from a mural in the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

Image said to be of Gerard Winstanley from a mural in the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle. Image by Rachel Hammersley.

It is also important to remind ourselves that fear need not always provoke a violent, destructive or exclusive response. On this point I was struck by Ariel Hessayon's comment that Gerrard Winstanley's answer to the climactic problems of the seventeenth-century (and indeed to those of poverty and division too) was in essence peaceful, communal and constructive. He set about planting beans and turnips on St George's Hill in Surrey in a bid by himself and the members of his community to feed themselves.

Speaking of Winstanley brings me back to the poster I produced for the event and the image on it depicting a slightly quirky quartet of figures. Winstanley and Rainsborough are there joined by the nineteenth-century Chartist William Cuffay and the "King of the Hippies" Sid Rawle, under a banner stating 'This Land is your Land' 'Take it'. This mural can be found painted on to an artists' studio at the top end of the Ouseburn Valley in Newcastle. It would seem that I, and those attending the workshop, are not the only current residents of Newcastle who can see the relevance of seventeenth-century political ideas.

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Ouseburn Valley mural with our four speakers: Gaby Mahlberg, Ann Hughes, John Rees and Ariel Hessayon.

You can find another blogpost on this event by Liam Temple, complete with audio recordings of the papers at:http://theosophicaltransactions.com/conference-report-early-modern-political-thought-and-twenty-first-century-politics-16th-may-2018/

Popular Initiative in a Parliamentary System

The internet has already started to transform our democracy. For instance, websites like change.org, which claims to be the world's largest petition platform, allow members of the general public to mount campaigns, generate - or express - support for particular proposals, and initiate political debate.

Some years ago I signed a petition on change.org which asked the Health Secretary to lower the screening age for bowel cancer to 50 - I had just lost my husband (aged 54) to that devastating disease. Since then I have keenly observed the progression of this issue through the labyrinthine passages of the UK parliamentary system, coming to respect the persistence and tenacity of Lauren Backler, who initiated the petition following the death of her mother to bowel cancer aged just 55. This is a good example of an initiative for the wider public good that was born of individual pain and suffering, and facilitated by this type of website.

Yet there are, of course, problems with online petitioning platforms. Issues are rarely clear cut and open to simple solutions. Even in the case of lowering the screening age for bowel cancer, it is necessary to weigh up the potential benefits, in lives saved, against the costs. These include not just the financial costs of screening more people and providing treatment to those who are diagnosed, but also the cost of the anxiety generated by screening and by the higher number of diagnoses it inevitably brings. Moreover, given the open nature of the website, not all change.org petitions are necessarily wise, properly informed, or in the wider public interest. Finally, one might wonder about the business model of change.org itself which is, after all, a for-profit company.

'A True Copy of the Petition of the Gentle-women, & Trades-men wives in, and about the City of London', reprinted from the LSE Digital Library, class mark R(SR) 11/L23, under a Creative Commons License.

'A True Copy of the Petition of the Gentle-women, & Trades-men wives in, and about the City of London', reprinted from the LSE Digital Library, class mark R(SR) 11/L23, under a Creative Commons License.

Petitions were also a common feature of seventeenth-century political life, especially during the period of the English Revolution. Like those of today, they varied greatly in focus and scope. Some were drawn up by an individual or small group of people and focused on a very specific case. James Harrington's sisters petitioned the authorities on his behalf in February 1662 asking that they and their tenants be allowed access to their brother who was then being held in the Tower of London.

Petitions could also be drawn up on behalf of particular interest groups. The 'Petition of the Gentle-women, & Trades-men wives in, and about the City of London', which was presented to the Commons on 4 February 1642, for example, expressed the fears of these London-based women about the presence of 'popish lords' in Parliament and the continuing performance of the Catholic mass at court. These women proved particularly adept at exploiting their 'frail condition' and their position as wives and mothers as grounds for their intervention in politics, justifying their call for action against the Irish Rebellion with reference to their fear that they would be raped or their children massacred.

Some also used petitions to advance their own political ideas. Harrington and his friends produced The Humble Petition of Divers Well Affected Persons, which was delivered to Parliament on 6 July 1659, and which called for a new constitution to be established modelled on Harrington's ideas. The Levellers, too, made much use of petitioning, setting up networks to facilitate the collection of signatures and subscriptions, and submitting at least one petition that boasted almost ten thousand names.

'The Humble Petition of Divers Well Affected Persons',  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington,  ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy.

'The Humble Petition of Divers Well Affected Persons', The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, ed. John Toland (London, 1737). Private copy.

When Harrington drafted his model constitution in The Commonwealth of Oceana he decided that a more formal mechanism for popular initiative would be beneficial, going beyond petitioning. Not only did he propose the establishment of a Council of Prytans 'to whom it was lawful for any man to offer anything in order to the fabric of the commonwealth' before the constitution was finalised (The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, London, 1737, p. 79), he also instituted within his model a body known as the Academy of Provosts which was to operate as a regular and permanent means by which members of the public could make legislative proposals.

 
Extract from 'The Commonwealth of Oceana',  The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington.  Private copy.

Extract from 'The Commonwealth of Oceana', The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington. Private copy.

Harrington set out his idea for an Academy of Provosts in the nineteenth order of the model of the commonwealth of Oceana, which dealt with the work of the four governing councils that were devoted to matters of state, war, religion and trade respectively. Each week three provosts would be chosen from each council to service the Academy of Provosts for that week. Since members of the council were chosen from the senate, these were men of considerable political experience and expertise. This academy was to assemble every evening in a pleasant room. All sorts of people could join the provosts for conversation on matters of government, news or intelligence, or to propose new ideas to the councils. Anything proposed would be discussed by the assembled group, unless it required secrecy - in which case it could be presented to one or more of the provosts in a separate room. Provision was also made that if a someone had advice to give 'for the good of the commonwealth', but was unable or unwilling to come in person to the Academy,  a letter could be left with the doorkeeper for the attention of the provosts. Any ideas brought to the Academy by these means that were deemed by two or more provosts to be potentially useful to the commonwealth could then be proposed by them to the appropriate council. If the council saw fit it could propose the idea to the senate, which would then be required to debate the issue. This institution ensured, Harrington explained, that 'the ear of the commonwealth be open unto all' (The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, p. 128). It was important to Harrington that the provosts governed and organised the academy in such a way 'as may be most attractive unto men of parts and good affections unto the commonwealth, for the excellency of the conversation'. Harrington was evidently pleased with his idea since he repeated it in later works that contained abridged versions of his model including Brief Directions, The Art of Lawgiving and The Rota, and he endorsed the principle behind it in Aphorisms Political, insisting: 'It is not below the dignity of the greatest assembly, but according to the practice of the best commonwealths, to admit of any man that is able to propose to them for the good of his country.' (The Oceana and Other Works of James Harrington, p. 522.)

One cannot really imagine an 'Academy of Provosts' being established at Westminster today, but a twenty-first century equivalent could adopt a virtual rather than an actual form. At the very least, Harrington's Academy of Provosts, reminds us that the internet need not simply recreate forms of popular initiative, like petitioning, that were already in existence before the digital age. Rather, just as Harrington did in his Oceana, it might be worth inventing new forms more appropriate to our political circumstances that could be made possible by advances in technology.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Holding Representatives to Account

Concerns about the accountability of members of the UK Parliament have been common in recent years. These have centred, for instance, on the expenses scandal - with claims being made that had little or nothing to do with parliamentary work. This originally broke in 2009, but continues to rumble on. Thus, in October 2017 it was revealed that sixteen peers who had not spoken at all in 2016-17 had nonetheless claimed a total of more than £400,000 in tax-free expenses over that period. Members of Parliament have also been accused of being unaccountable in appearing to challenge, or ignore, the will of the people - for example over Brexit. The reluctant response of some MPs to the referendum - reflected most recently in the voting of an amendment on 13 December 2017 which will give Parliament a legal guarantee of a vote on the final Brexit deal - has led some to accuse MPs of inhibiting the popular will. However, the accountability of those in power is by no means a new issue.

Engraving of George Wither by John Payne from  A Collection of Emblemes  (1635). Taken from Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Wither_Engraving.jpg

Engraving of George Wither by John Payne from A Collection of Emblemes (1635). Taken from Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:George_Wither_Engraving.jpg

Having been prompted into rebellion by the actions of an unaccountable monarch, who had ruled for an unprecedented eleven years without calling Parliament, the English revolutionaries of the mid-seventeenth century were particularly concerned with the issue of accountability. Some, such as the parliamentary propagandist Henry Parker, insisted that a parliament would, by its very nature, embody the wisdom of the nation and so could not betray the interests of the people, (Henry Parker, Observations upon some of his Majesties late Answers and Expresses, London, 1642, especially p. 22). But, by the mid-1640s, a number of commentators were becoming concerned about the accountability of Parliament itself. The Puritan poet George Wither addressed this issue directly in his Letters of Advice: Touching The Choice of Knights and Burgesses of November 1644. According to Wither, the Houses of Parliament had resolved to call 'false and apostate' members to just account and to disable them from returning to parliamentary trust, so fresh elections were expected. Wither's aim in the work was to advise the knights and burgesses on the kinds of men to choose. In doing so he expressed specific concerns about MPs being unaccountable and therefore becoming distanced from their constituents:

by heedlesnesse in this dutie, they shall make Tyrants and Fooles, Lords over them, who will fawne and court them, till they are elected, and then, scorne and trample them under feet, putting such an immeasurable distance, betwixt themselves and others, of that Body whom they represent, and out of which they were chosen, as if they had forgotten what they were (George Wither, Letters of Advice: Touching the Choice of Knights and Burgesses, 1644, p. 4).

Not surprisingly, fears about lack of accountability only seem to have increased after the regicide enacted by a purged 'Rump' Parliament.

   Those concerned with accountability had various ideas as to how the problem could best be addressed. A common solution was to call for regular elections, as the Levellers did in The Agreement of the People. They insisted that 'to prevent the many inconveniences apparently arising from the long continuance of the same persons in authority' the Parliament that was then sitting should be dissolved on 30 September 1648 and a new Parliament elected every two years. (The Agreement of the People, clauses II and III). Others worried that the mere threat of not being re-elected would not be sufficient to ensure the good behaviour of those in power and so called for those stepping down from office to be required to give a public account of their actions on the basis of which they could then be judged, and if necessary punished. Wither advocated precisely this measure in the postscript to Letters of Advice. He described MPs as: 'servants and inferiours to their respective Counties and Burroughts; and that, by them, they may be called to account, for every omission or commission worthie questioning: either before the present Parliament whereof they are members, or before the next that shall be summoned.' (Wither, Letters of Advice, p. 13). He even toyed with the idea of dismissing those who proved to be 'unfaithful in trust' mid-term. (p. 14). De-selection no less.

John Milton, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, NPG4222. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

John Milton, by unknown artist, National Portrait Gallery, NPG4222. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

   Not all seventeenth-century political commentators, however, believed that such accountability measures were an unalloyed good. Some acknowledged that there was a tension between making rulers accountable (especially by means of frequent elections) and the need for them to develop experience and expertise. John Milton in The Readie and Easie Way, a last-ditch attempt in 1660 to avoid the restoration of the monarchy, questioned the idea of limited terms of office: 'For it appeers not how this can be don, without danger and mischance of putting out a great number of the best and ablest: in whose stead new elections may bring in as many raw, unexperienc'd and otherwise affected, to the weakning and much alterning for the wors of public transactions.' (John Milton, Selected Prose, Harmondsworth, 1974, p. 341). Similarly, the Calvinist minister Richard Baxter argued that: 'To have the ignorant and unexercised introduced, and then turned out before they can grow wise' was not a sensible means of operating. (Richard Baxter, A Holy Commonwealth, ed. William Lamont, Cambridge, 1994, p. 140 )

Richard Baxter, after Robert White, oil on canvas based on a work of 1670. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 521. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

Richard Baxter, after Robert White, oil on canvas based on a work of 1670. National Portrait Gallery, NPG 521. Reproduced under a creative commons license.

 Both Milton and Baxter were responding directly to Harrington's concern with accountability and his distinctive proposals for how this might be secured. Harrington insisted that members of both legislative houses, along with most office holders within the commonwealth, should hold their positions for a period of three years after which they would be required to spend an equivalent period out of office. Elections, though, would occur annually, with one third of the members of each assembly being replaced each year. This system had some advantages. Not only did it mean that there would be no hiatus between the ending of one parliament and the opening of the next, but it also meant that at any time the assemblies would be composed of one third of members with two years' experience who could speak as experts, one third who were in the process of developing their expertise, and one third who would bring new ideas and approaches to national government.

Harrington, and many of his contemporaries, would have identified severe problems with our modern parliamentary system as regards accountability. Holding elections just once every five years would have seemed foolish and dangerous to many of them. Moreover, the idea that at the end of a given parliament the same MPs could immediately be re-elected, without any official scrutiny of their conduct, would certainly have been condemned by Wither and Harrington. They would have derided the fact that it is possible for an MP to sit for more than 40 years without any time out of office - as the 'father of the house' Tam Dalyell did. While it is necessary to balance accountability against the benefits derived from experience, a major problem with our system, as Harrington would have recognised, is that because they are not forced to spend time out of office, members of Parliament can quickly become separated from the interests and concerns of the general public. Moreover, their ability to make laws means that they can prescribe different rules for themselves than for the rest of the population. They do not, as Harrington would have put it, have to live under the laws that they make. Perhaps a move to a system in which there are more frequent elections (perhaps on a rotational basis), with the requirement of regular terms out of office, would increase their accountability?