Who Cares About Democracy?

In a series of indicative votes in the Commons, 184 MPs voted to revoke Article 50, to simply ignore the biggest democratic mandate in the country’s history. What is even more shameful is that 111 of those MPs were Labour MPs. At the recent EU elections, the Liberal Democrats ran on an aggressive ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ ticket. In effect, bollocks to democracy, to all you 17.4 million Leave voters. The Labour party, always covertly a party of Remain seems set to publicly link arms with them. Ask a Leave voter if they believe in democracy and they invariably reply unequivocally: of course, that’s why I voted leave. Ask someone who post the referendum result still thinks we should Remain the same question, the reply is often equivocal at best: yes, but it depends…etc. It is perhaps a little reassuring that few people including politicians, won’t openly declare they are opposed to democracy per se, but in practice increasing numbers of people, at the behest of the political class, are taking anti- democratic positions, not just in relation to Brexit but in relation to banning and closing down points of view they disagree with. Democracy is suddenly not the article of faith it once was, it is has instead become one of a number of competing values.

Among its new foes is also its oldest: profit; currently in the shape of global capital. Amazon naturally prefers to deal with one set of regulations and tax arrangements as opposed to twenty- seven. Coincidentally its UK Chief has predicted there will be riots on the streets if Britain leaves the EU without a deal. For their part the EU are considering moving to a ‘harmonisation’ on corporation tax across its member states. Hard on the heels of the economics comes the politics. Cameron’s and Osborne’s mantra during the referendum campaign was that there would be dire economic consequences if people voted Leave. When we did there wasn’t, but then they could hardly argue that people should vote Remain in the interests of democracy. The interests of the economy have always been put above questions of civil liberty. For two decades William Wilberforce’s bills before parliament on the abolition of slavery were voted down in the interests of trade. In 1804 it should be noted, by the Lords alone.

What it new of our times is that anti-democratic politics is growing among people who think of themselves as left wing or liberal, who claim to stand in a tradition associated with the struggle for democracy, but who clearly do not. In the UK a contemporary self-declared progressive would likely be ambivalent, hostile even to the concept of national sovereignty, lazily equating it with nationalism. In France Macron refuses to allow a referendum on EU membership because he is worried he will lose it. He sees no contradiction in calling himself a liberal whilst keeping his country locked into an empire he thinks they want to leave. Just as in the UK, he smears political opposition as racist. To do so de-legitimises opponents no matter how much support they may have, no matter how many votes. Democracy as a value, as an ethic is now not only competing with the interests of the economy, it is held up against notions of political correctness, most notably allegations of racism, much like an individual tried in the court of social media. It is the Labour Party that has most vociferously slandered Leave voters as racist and more recently as supporting the far right by voting for The Brexit Party. Some have compared us to Nazis. They want to demoralise and demonise people who support democracy but it is also how they give themselves the moral authority to ignore the mandate; the accusations are as much for themselves as for us.

Recently the refusal to accept to the referendum result migrated to the result of the EU elections. Many in the media and on the left claimed that we witnessed a ‘remain surge.’ One wonders if this trait will continue to future elections. Acceptance of electoral defeat is fundamental to democracy, or as playwright Tom Stoppard put it, it’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting and some in the establishment are happy to present the numbers creatively. Much in the discourse of the last three years is reminiscent of the Victorian era when extending the franchise was denied on the grounds that working people were too irresponsible, to ill-informed and impressionable to be trusted with the vote. That and the paternalism of Victorians that pitied and feared the poor in equal measure. There is something of Dickens’ self-righteous Mr Bumble in so many of our politicians who preach one thing in manifestos and then practice the opposite in office.

Democracy is important not just as a civil liberty but because of the responsibility it endows us with. How we vote affects others, it encourages us to think of society as a whole, notions of equality around race and gender followed on from this most basic equality; we are all equal before the ballot box. Although it is a private act it is also a collective act and it was won through collective action. If the referendum result is negated it will not only destroy what little trust remains in government but it will break a connection that exists between citizens cooperating together to improve their lives peacefully through the ballot box. Fewer people will vote as a result, it will induce apathy as well as anger. It was once unthinkable that a politician on the left would do such a thing as to vote for the revocation of Article 50. Indeed, the origin of the division between left and right comes from the very birth of the struggle for democracy in Europe, for during the French Revolution Robespierre and others who demanded universal suffrage sat on the left of the assembly and the Girondists who wanted to keep political power within the nobility, on the right. But now in the UK the left so called, sit where the right once did and many who are thought of, and think of themselves as on the right, are for democracy.

At heart of the confusion is the way politics is used by many as a personal brand. Many on the Remain side see the EU as a more attractive brand than Leave, which they see as old and uncool. They do not consider how or whether the institution is steadily de-democratising Europe. The left is generally more vocal about their brand, uncontrollably self-righteous at times. And for all of us social media has diminished the space between private and the public spheres. The practice of keeping a diary developed during the Reformation when people would privately examine their conscience against the demands of living a Christian life. It was an entirely personal matter. Does anyone believe that Alistair Campbell kept a diary during the Blair years for any purpose other than publication?

Those of us in support Brexit will continue to be denigrated and lied about and I expect there is worse to come. However, for the last three years the Leave electorate has remained incredibly resilient and it now has a party to vote for, if only on this issue. It may not be perfect but at this point, it alone stands for democracy. The political establishment may have most of parliament, the judiciary and much of the media on their side. It seems daunting. But we have hundreds of years of struggle to inspire us and our forefathers overcame far greater obstacles than we are facing. We owe it to them to stand our ground.

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A Very Real British Coup Why Britain is no longer a democracy

In Chris Mullin’s 1982 novel A Very British Coup, left wing Labour prime minster Harry Perkins and Member of Parliament for Sheffield, is overthrown by a conspiracy of spooks, capitalists and media moguls. For many of us in the UK it feels like we are living through a coup ourselves. Except it is not one executed by a secret state against an elected government, rather it is one conducted by a government against its own electorate. And at the heart of the conspiracy is a Labour Party which is apparently left wing from top to bottom. Its role in this, the anti-Brexit coup, has been a canny one. During the referendum campaign its leader, not Harry from Sheffield but Jeremy from Islington, was somewhat ambivalent. When the result came through he called for Theresa May to trigger Article 50 immediately. During the 2017 election campaign he promised to honour the referendum result (see page 24 of the manifesto) and then after securing the biggest increase in seats since Atlee, very quickly reneged. Labour is now the party of Remain.

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The party’s coup against an overwhelmingly working class leave electorate is justified to itself on the grounds that the electorate is right wing and most of all racist. The party sees itself as internationalist and the EU as the same, it sees the Leave vote as backward. It isn’t the kind of internationalism of French trade unionists burning coal lorries bound for Dover during the miners’ strike, nor of the International Brigades. It is the new internationalism of global markets and open borders, providing skilled and inexpensive labour straight to a workplace from a labour pool of 500 million and rising. The left idea of internationalism was hijacked by neo-liberal ideas a long time ago and Corbyn and co are on board to the degree that they think British workers are obliged to have their wages lowered and their jobs taken by workers from lower wage economies. If you complain you are defamed as racist. This is the twentieth week of the yellow vest protests in France and I am yet to hear of a statement from anyone in Labour in support of those workers. Despite all the street cred they are more Macron than gilet jaune. It is this ethic that underpins Corbyn’s determination to keep the free movement of labour, regardless of the consequences to the poorest workers. That and his gormless narcissism that compels him to declare his pious anti-racism with every sound-bite. “Many Congratulations done to our diverse England football team.” Just watch the match and give it a rest.

The wider coup began the day after the referendum result when the political class as a whole began to turn on the electorate. They have been supported by the judiciary, the media and a significant section of the middle classes. Despite it being a very British coup it is also chilling how unsubtle it has been. Cash bunged Gina Miller whose lawyers handed the decision back to a Remain parliament; Bercow and his precedent from James I; the Jeremy Vine phone-in cheerily explaining to the recently retired why they should lose the vote. Within a week of the result the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg was pushing the demographics as if who is really why. Leave is old, white, uneducated ergo angry. Nothing to do with the possibility that older voters may value democracy more than students, having had parents who had to fight for its survival, who can remember the tanks rolling into Prague in ‘68. The BBC created a Leave archetype, gave a platform to Terry Christian, among the most vitriolic of elitist Remainers who has publicly called for Leave voters to be thrown out of work. The BBC, the state broadcaster, gave its permission for a bigoted backlash.

Polly Toynbee of The Guardian made a count of the dead until she could announce there were now more Remainers than Leavers alive. The liberal’s Pravda has always been Janus-faced; the bleeding heart social worker and vicious reactionary. During the miner’s strike they backed Thatcher and McGregor then ran a full page article after the miners’ defeat insisting there should be no victimisation – as 200,000 redundancy notices began to be issued. They supported the invasion and occupation of Iraq and were then strident about the need for an enquiry. The want to block Brexit, disenfranchise millions of working class voters, at the same time as running opinion pieces about how parliament must listen to the north.

Out in the Remain constituency revoking Article 50, calling the whole thing off, is a casual click away. Nice people do it. 111 Labour MPs voted to revoke Article 50. This is in effect supporting the end of universal suffrage, for the right to vote is not just the act of putting a cross on a piece of paper but having the vote mean something. What the electorate is currently faced with is soviet democracy – different candidates with the same politics. If 52% of a 72% turnout doesn’t mean anything to some, what does? It’s more than Atlee achieved, Thatcher or Blair. And there has never been a plebiscite where it has been clearer what we were voting for. What do they imagine we thought leave meant…leave the pencil on the string? Atlee didn’t mention in advance he was going to nationalise the commanding heights of the economy, Thatcher de-industrialise at a rate just as fast, Blair invade Iraq.

As we have approached the wire the temperament inside the Remain camp has become hysterical and fascistic. Saving the electorate from themselves has become saving the country from a horde and parliament is duplicitously refusing to implement Brexit. Britain has ceased to be a functioning democracy. We are living under a parliamentary dictatorship.

The current MP for Sheffield was born a year before Chris Mullin’s novel was published. He was elected as a Labour MP but now sits as an independent after an unseemly expulsion. There is no sign of a by-election. Sheffield, like the rest of the country, voted to leave the EU, yet their MP wants a second referendum. What does one do when you wake up to find you’re not living in the democracy you once thought you were? What can one do in a two party system both of which have proven themselves opposed to democracy? One can easily give up. The turnout yesterday in the Newport West by-election was 37%. In 2017 it was 67.5%. It’s a Leave constituency by a significant margin. The new Labour MP got just 39% of the 37% turnout but will now join parliament to help block Brexit. Let’s not pretend the political class are disappointed with low turnouts. In elections mathematics are morality and what’s occurring is wicked.

Coups come on the back of plebiscites that don’t go as planned (see Spain, Chile, Turkey) and always authoritarians use the cover of ‘the crisis’ ‘saving the country’ ‘the national interest’ to shut down democracy. In truth though this is a specific moment, it is also acceleration in the longer term direction of travel. Local government long since had any autonomy worth voting for as more and more services were contracted out. National government has followed suit, in part that’s what the EU membership is about, the contracting out of economic and political decision making. And let’s face it, we were an unresolved democracy to begin with an archaic unelected second chamber.

Historically the situation reminds me of the great betrayal of 1832 which led to the Chartist movement of 1838 to 1848. A new charter is needed. Whatever happens to Brexit, British politics is never going to be the same. Parliament, the mainstream media and the judiciary have been exposed as corrupt, contemptuous of the electorate; sections of the middle classes contemptuous of democracy. Millions of working class voters are without a home. Thatcher laid waste to industries and communities, Blair stole their party, Corbyn sold out their vote. Tragically this is where the far right like to come along to pick up the pieces – and it doesn’t help matters if everyone has been calling you a right wing racist for the last three years. For my part I have just joined the SDP. It feels like a new start whilst at the same time being part of a history play, reliving something that happened a century and a half ago.

The Word Turned Upside Down. The strange death of the Left’s opposition to the EU

If the Labour Party had accepted the referendum result, had embraced it, we would have left the EU by now and might also have a Labour government. There would also be less social division abroad than is currently the case. But they have reneged on their election promise of 2017, perpetuated and fed off the social division and set their teeth against Brexit from the Momentum foot soldiers up to the leadership. They now campaign for a second referendum, against a no deal option and there isn’t a deal they would vote for save their own which would leave us in the customs union and the single market, i.e. in the EU. In doing so they have not only betrayed their overwhelmingly working class leave constituency but democracy itself. And it’s a historic betrayal, not only in the sense of its magnitude but also in the narrative of the wider labour movement’s struggle for universal suffrage beginning at the Putney debates and spanning the centuries to the suffragettes. It is a rejection of the principle that ordinary people should strive to exercise political authority through the vote. We have now a Left in Britain that likes to toddle off to see Mike Leigh’s film Peterloo and then despair in the pub afterwards at the poor of 2019 who voted for political independence.

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In the Labour movement that I was part of from the late seventies until a few years ago opposition to pan European economics and government was mainstream. Now it is extremely marginal, virtually extinct. By the very definition of the term (see the French Revolution) the Left side of politics is about widening access to political power and the Right is about the narrowing of authority. The EU by definition is a project of the Right. At my final Labour Party branch meeting I was roundly booed for saying I had voted leave and was called ‘Tory scum’ by a member who looked to be in the midst of retaking his A levels. Many in the room were completely unaware of the social democratic case against the growing power of the EU, nor were they aware that until very recently Corbyn had been an opponent of the EU for all of his career, hanging on to the coat tails of Tony Benn. I went to see Corbyn at Leeds during his first leadership campaign. Half way through he told the more than 2000 assembled, ‘…if the EU isn’t delivering for ordinary working people we will consider our membership.’ I wasn’t the only one who stood up to clap. Now the serial rebel is imposing the whip on MPs to stop Brexit. So how did he and the rest of the labour movement learn to love the oligarchy?

In Corbyn’s case it is because he has become increasingly opportunist and sees frustrating the Brexit mandate as a means to force a general election. It seems obvious to him to put party above country, above democracy. The Left has always been a curious cocktail of principled stands and popular posturing. I joined the Socialist Workers Party at the time of punk and the Anti Nazi League, a lot of teenagers did. Initially I didn’t understand why thereafter ‘the party’ made a virtue of unpopularity. But Corbyn wants power. To his credit he is far more serious about it than Miliband was. He and his shadow cabinet appeared so intoxicated by the scent of it during the 2017 general election that the following morning he repeatedly proclaimed Labour had won. What was darker was his response to the atrocity of the Manchester bombing which took place during the campaign. I was in Sydney at the time and was aware that the Prime Minster had called a halt in campaigning. We switched on ABC to see Corbyn proselytising to reporters that Britain’s foreign policy was to blame for the murder of 22 mainly teenage girls at the Manchester Arena. The fact that the bomber was the son of a refugee taken in by Britain is only part of the point here. What I saw was a politician so desperate to make ground he was prepared to exploit an atrocity before the names and scale of the victims were even known, during the nearest this country ever gets to mourning. Corbyn has put in a shift on the back benches and now at last he feels cometh the hour. The 2017 manifesto was an un-costed utopian basket case that had students queueing to have their debts written off. Now he is mapping every move back and forth across the Brexit board game. A former comrade said to me “Jezza is playing a blinder on Brexit.” The most radical domestic political event of our lives isn’t something Labour leaders should be playing with.

To explain the wider Left’s opposition to leaving the EU, even after the referendum result, you have to go back to the Thatcher years, from 1984 onwards. After the defeat of the miners and a second Tory election victory the Left had to reconcile themselves to the fact that the emancipation of the working class was not an act of the working class itself, but was something that the council might do on their behalf. Then Thatcher’s legislation and Kinnock’s purge put paid to that so they looked to Brussels instead. Whilst in Britain workers were reading tabloids, crossing picket lines and buying Filofaxes, the French and other continentals were electing socialists. Europe was cool and was providing European law to protect workers in Britain in place of the unions. There was TUPE for when you were privatised, the working time directive when you needed a break from your VDU. I was a shop steward during this period and was sent on day long courses by my union to gen up on European health and safety law. I became a full time irritant to management not because I had a militant workforce behind me but because I had a handbook of progressive regulations to quote from. A Bleak House version of Scargill.

In the face of declining working class support the Left became managerial in outlook and the Labour Party increasingly a party of managers in spirit if not in occupation. Fast forward to Corbyn’s Labour Party and the influx of numerous ex Trots in mid-life, a lot of young people and an aggressive form of identity politics. Prioritising and defining all things by race or age or gender etc is inherently managerial and undemocratic. It is not hard to see how the party membership gets behind the House of Lords, John Bercow or Gary Linekar to support what is in effect an anti-democracy movement.

Democracy has never been something the Left has valued for its own sake. The very idea has always been viewed as a sham. Believing instead that the real contest lies in the power relations of capital or as Corbyn refers to it ‘a rigged system’ doesn’t lend itself to respecting the result of plebiscites. Furthermore one is taught early on that the voters are rigged as well, that they possess a ‘false consciousness’. In short everyone who disagrees has been brainwashed. Politics for the Left and the managerial classes is not a matter of opinion, of real and perceived interest, it is a matter of right and wrong. Throw in the Left’s new Stalinist handbook that states unless proven otherwise white working class people are racist and leave voters are obviously nothing more than malign and stupid. A discussion with them regarding the merits or otherwise of the EU goes nowhere. If you want to end the free movement of labour because it suppresses the wages of those in unskilled work, you’re a racist. If you’re concerned about unprecedented and unsustainable population growth in the UK, you’re a racist. If you think people should be governed by consent, you’re a Tory. In many ways the contemporary Left bear many of the hallmarks of the far Right. They are censorious to the point of banning speech, books and removing paintings; they make a virtue of segregation based on race and gender and many loathe and fear the working class. The Guardian ran an article in the wake of the referendum arguing that voters should pass an intelligence test; the very same strategy that was used to disenfranchise black people in America.

“Intellectuals are more totalitarian in outlook than the common people. Most of them are perfectly ready for dictatorial methods, secret police, systematic falsification of history, etc. so long as they feel that it is on ‘our’ side.”

George Orwell.

The vilification of the leave constituency has been unprecedented and the vast majority of the barrage, indeed the worst of it comes from the Left. In many of the missives if one replaced the words leave voter with Jew, Muslim or Gay there would quite rightly be outrage. But there isn’t. A colleague of mine who works in arts production was hounded out of work when he spoke up for Brexit. I know others who work in the media, including the BBC, who realistically fear being sacked if management find out they voted leave. Some remain voters I speak to think this is fine. My impression of much of the wider remain vote is that it was based on fear of economic catastrophe. Much of the Left’s motives boil down to a matter of self-image, of virtue signalling as being anti-racist, pro-immigration for its own sake rather than any analysis or understanding of how the EU operates and what it means for democracy across the continent. For if Britain cannot leave the EU, a wealthy island with a commonwealth, then how can the landlocked?

Corbyn will lose votes in Leave constituencies, he may well lose constituencies. He knows this but has decided to throw his lot in with the pro EU middle classes. Brexit was a working class revolt. Labour’s betrayal of its election promise feels like a watershed but there is a much greater schism upon us. Millions of us have come to the conclusion that the UK is no longer a democracy. The system is rigged and it is Labour who have helped to rig it. They have run to the House of Lords to Macron and to the EU to prevent Brexit. The Speaker of the House, a man who has a Bollocks to Brexit sticker on his car bumper has today found a caveat from 1605 that says we can’t leave the EU. Corbyn happened because of Iraq; Brexit happened because of Iraq. The electorate do not trust parliament, politicians are self-evidently not people of their word and they are impossibly remote. I predict a riot and I predict a sharp fall in turnout at the next election, if as it seems, we don’t leave the EU. If voting doesn’t change anything, why vote? People will find other ways to make their point.

The hope here for me, as Winston Smith put it, lies with the proles. Despite approaching three years of EU propaganda from the political class and the state broadcaster, the leave constituency hasn’t buckled, if anything it has grown as many who voted remain have become disgusted with the behaviour of the establishment. I suspect that increasing numbers of people want to leave the EU, want the House of Lords abolished. All the advances toward universal suffrage were as a result of demands by the people. It may be that we will have to revive the struggle once more. But while I no longer think politicians can be trusted I still think the people can.

 

English Drama and the English Civil War

My Sky Arts commissioned play on the English Civil War, The Battle of Heptonstall opens on February 28th. Research for the piece led me in a number of directions and recently out of interest rather than necessity, to looking at what happened to English drama in the period and why, considering the magnitude of the historical events, the English Civil War continues to be so seldom dramatised on stage and screen.

 Publike sports do not well agree with Publike Calamities, nor Publike stage-playes with   the Seasons of Humiliation…it is therefore thought fit and Ordained that stage-playes     shall cease.’

In 1642 playhouses were closed. They were to stay closed for the next eighteen years though no one foresaw that at the time. There was not one order issued by parliament but rather a series based on reports and complaints and the reasons for the closures changed with the progress of the Civil War. In 1642 it was about the need to pray rather than play. The wording of the order invited the public into common cause with parliament, to set sport and leisure to one side at a moment of unprecedented crisis shortly before the war began. The major concern at the time was invasion by an Irish army. After the rising of 1641 coastal areas were rife with rumours of invasion. London was in political turmoil inside and outside parliament, Christmas of 1641 was punctuated by rioting in Whitehall and the breakdown of links between London and the King. The order of 1642 is passed on 2nd September, the very cusp of war; on the 9th the Earl of Essex takes command of a parliamentary army to confront Charles I.

An order of 1647 contrastingly emphasised suppression and punishment of offenders, it gave sheriffs jurisdiction to arrest actors and ‘imprison rogues’. Eventually in 1648, with the puritan revolution in full vigour an order was issued to pull playhouses down. Just as the Civil War had its roots in the years prior so did the suppression of theatre. In 1639 a play was produced in London, The Cardinal’s Conspiracy which satirised the clergy and resulted in the arrest of the actors. If theatre had a side in the period, it was by and large royalist. Imaginative spectacle never sat well in the puritan psyche that in the end banned Christmas and maypoles and had boys whipped for playing football on Sundays. Theatre responded to the suppression by working at the edges and by going underground. Short plays known as ‘drolls’ popped up in taverns on the outskirts of towns. There is evidence from pamphlets that street theatre takes on a new significance whilst mainstream plays that would otherwise be at the Cockpit or the Salisbury Court are performed in private houses. What emerges in 1660 is Restoration drama, defining itself as a rebellion against the interregnum.

The best-known fact about the Restoration drama is that it is immoral. The dramatists did not criticize the accepted morality about gambling, drink, love, and pleasure generally, or try, like the dramatists of our own time, to work out their own view of character and conduct. What they did was, according to their respective inclinations, to mock at all restraints. Some were gross, others delicately improper….The dramatists did not merely say anything they liked: they also intended to glory in it and to shock those who did not like it.

From George Clark’s The Later Stuarts 1660 – 1714.

The new drama is more commercial, playhouses that are built are smaller than those of renaissance theatres and women are not only on stage, they are writing plays. Charles II not only brought an entourage over France he brought cultural influences as well and one of the most successful women playwrights of the Restoration dramatist Susannah Centlivre made a career of adapting French theatre for the English stage.

What is there in the way of contemporary drama about the Civil War? By way of the theatre, there is Light Shining in Buckinghamshire by Caryl Churchill (1976). More recently Howard Brenton’s 55 Days. In film, there is a biopic of Cromwell, of Winstanley, and more recently To Kill a King. On television, By the Sword Divided from the early eighties, more recently Peter Flannery’s excellent The Devil’s Whore. There are one or two others perhaps: A Field in England and Witchfinder General which use the war as a back drop but the specific dramas are not that hard to bring to mind. In comparison with the ubiquitous Tudor’s there is relatively little. And yet, more people died per head of the population than in any other war in our history, including the First World War. Ireland suffered a loss of up to 41% of its population. Putting these numbers into the context of other catastrophes helps to understand the devastation to Ireland in particular. The Great Hunger of 1845–1852 resulted in a loss of 16% of the population, while during the Second World War the population of the Soviet Union fell by 16%. Those two events are burned into the psyche of the national narratives, the Civil War is largely absent from England’s.

It is admittedly a difficult narrative to dramatise. It’s a complex if not complicated subject. It was not a class war and though the completion of the reformation, it was not protestants versus Catholics either but rather many persuasions of Protestantism against Catholic affectations. Furthermore, it is not a pretty sight, particularly if you’re English. English writers find it easier to write about the Spanish Civil War, a subject best avoided in Spain. Perhaps we want to be reassured by history; that it’s composed of an inevitable continuum that leads to here, the right path. The Civil War was a detour that no one had a map for.

The fact that artistic expression during the period was so meagre hasn’t helped subsequent representation. There is Milton of course and there is Andrew Marvell but I know of no outstanding drama and the novel has not yet emerged. The theatre director Max Stafford Clark said that the closure of theatres during the interregnum created the space for the development of the novel, but Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is not published until 1678 and Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is 1719. The novel begins when you can read them. There are few literary and no particular dramatic style from our period that writers can draw from.

When dramatists do tackle the subject they often go in through the door of the revolution, the latter stages of the conflict and the Levellers. Playwrights mostly shoot from the left and one of the consequences of this is that the Levellers are framed as proto socialists which in reality they were not. They were of their time and if one has to, and I don’t think we should interpret them in terms of today they are classical liberals committed to the rights of the individual. There is no doubt though, that the demand that they raise at the Putney debates of 1647, universal male suffrage more or less, is revolutionary. It’s an extraordinary moment as Cromwell describes it in The Devil’s Whore, “a form of government unknown on this earth.”

 ‘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; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.’  

Colonel Sir Thomas Rainsborough, Leveller and MP for Droitwich, The Putney Debates.

The Brutish Multitude

The Brutish Multitude

Rehersals with Sky TV filming

In Heptonstall in 1643 there are no Levellers, victory is up for grabs, the King could have easily won the day and I have gone in through the door of a man who wants to avoid the conflict. John Cockcroft is as was said at the time like most men in England, ‘neither hot nor cold’.  But he knows it will destroy his livelihood, already at risk because of his failing eyesight and his feckless son. He does what he can to prevent the war entering his family’s life but fails, which he has to because otherwise there wouldn’t be a play. I have entered the national conflict through the personal lives of characters, it lays its eggs in a love affair between the weaver’s son who does not want to follow his father and an orphan girl Rose, who lives with two other women upon the moor, independently of men. And it had to be a community play. One could with the budget from Sky make a play with half a dozen professional actors but I felt a community play is much more apposite to the context and the timing and indeed what happened here in 1643. For the battle, the skirmish here, involved people of the village, and the war, as wars do impacted on those who wanted no part of it

The Battle of Heptonstall St Thomas the Apostle Church, Heptonstall 28th Feb – March 2nd, & Saturday March 9th Halifax Minster. Tickets £10 at eventbrite.co.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The James Ruse Story: An Epic Tale of Everyman

In 1782 at the age of twenty-three, farm labourer James Ruse was sentenced to hang for stealing two silver watches in the village of South Petherwin, Cornwall. He was reprieved and sentenced instead to transportation to one of his Majesty’s settlements on the coast of Africa for the term of seven years. He wasn’t taken to Africa because the convict settlement was almost immediately doomed by climate and disease. He was sent instead to a prison hulk off Devonport and then four years later to Sydney Cove, New South Wales. Ruse acquired some prominence in the history of transported convicts and that of his adopted country by being awarded the first land grant on the continent. He is Australia’s first self-sufficient farmer. But it does not end there for he was at the cusp of several significant moments of the infant colony, to such an extent that it appears almost strange.

He was reputedly the first ashore in 1788 at Botany Bay, ferrying the officers up on the beach on his back. He was among the first emancipated. As well as being given the first land grant at Parramatta he went and laid claim to plot number one on the Hawkesbury River, placing him at the apex of a conflict with indigenous Australians that at the Hawkesbury escalated to a war. His wife, convict Elizabeth Perry was the first woman emancipated. The description of Ruse’s process of composting and fertilising the soil in Watkin Tench’s memoir 1788, is apparently the first ever written record of such a process. Captain Tench who was uninterested and generally unsympathetic to convicts, devotes more than a page of prose to Ruse and singles him out for praise.

I am not aware of any historian suggesting an explanation for the repeated cameo roles that Ruse performed, for I suspect there is no research out there to be found. Let’s face it, European settlement was at its very beginning so it is hardly surprising that an individual, anyone that survived long enough, could be at the forefront of one endeavour after another. Yet even as we begin to look more closely, at one poetic moment: Ruse carrying the officers on his back up the beach, we learn that he had rowed the longboat from the ship Supply, a ship that officially carried no convicts, a ship that carried only marines including the Commodore, the future Governor of Australia. Why was he on board?

It is left to fiction to explain, to the art of story to tell us why. The James Ruse story needs the causality of plot and likewise historical fiction has an ongoing vacancy for the story of James Ruse. For another feature of this man’s life, are the pendulous changes of fortune, his long physical struggle against man and nature, and against man’s nature itself, including his own.

Those that know his story, including his many descendants, will each have their own James Ruse, constructed upon what biographical facts we can be sure of. His character is formed in Cornwall, that we know. In all probability brought up on a farm. But my James, the twenty three-year old that steals the silver watches is not a farmer, he is a landless labourer, a cottager dependant on common land fast becoming enclosed. He might even be a squatter on the edge of woodland living in a hovel he has built himself. He knows how to eke out a living, a food supply from a narrow strip of land, a kitchen garden, the few livestock he has on commons pasture. He is near the bottom of an economic system that dates back to the Norman Conquest, some say the Roman invasion. An agricultural system and an agricultural community that was taken apart at the end of the eighteenth century, as England went from a country of commons and common fields to a land of individualist agriculture and large enclosed farms. He is someone who dreams of establishing himself as a farmer, of securing a tenancy, of following his father. It is this ambition to escape common land farming that drives my James to steal the watches and it is also his cottager’s ability to live off scraps of land that enables him to succeed at Parramatta.

That he is chosen for a place on the Supply, and for a chance to prove himself self sufficient at Experiment Farm, I have put down to the humanity of Watkin Tench, and to the notion that Ruse convinced Tench that he had been a farmer with acres of his own back in Cornwall. Tench wrote out his life in memoirs particularly his early adventures but there are five years missing. Some say he was, for part of that time at least, captain of a prison hulk off Devonport, the Dunkirk where James Ruse was held. An unglamorous experience he chose not to write about. The Watkin Tench in my story is there, driving a plot forward if not the ship.

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Site of Ruse’s first farm on the Hawkesbury River, New South Wales.

Until now Ruse has not had the attention of novelists or dramatists. He is perhaps seen as a little too pedestrian. The dogged farmer, clearing the bush, clod-moulding the earth. He didn’t escape, he didn’t try to, he never became a bushwhacker, and he wasn’t a highwayman to begin with. But he was a man always on the edge of calamity, his life and endeavours bound up with the very existence of the penal colony in New South Wales. He faced starvation, flooding at the Hawkesbury, losing land, beginning over, time after time, years of perilous sealing including a mysteriously ill-fated mission on the Speedwell. His story is epic because his deeds were quietly heroic. It is also an Everyman story of redemption and I have given my James a spiritual life as a Methodist. The James of us all we know became a Catholic in the end, shortly before he died.

Whenever I visit a stately home in England the guide will tell me that the property ‘was built by the Earl of Shrewsbury in 1720’. Somehow I’m never able to imagine the earl with a trowel. I look at the marble, who carved that? Who built the walls, cut the stone pillars? What were they like, how much were they paid? Or as Bertolt Brecht put it, Caesar defeated the Gauls/Did he not even have cook with him? So it is with Ruse, barely known to many Australians. Though he has a school named after him he is for me still too much on the margins of history, perhaps because of his class, his unromantic occupation. He was also someone, one among many, who tore his limbs and bent his back making farm after farm to feed the colony, to feed himself and his family, to begin the making of modern Australia.

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My novel The Stony Ground, The Remembered Life of Convict James Ruse is published by Waterside Press and is now available.

Forthcoming book launches Australia

June 23rd, Cambelltown and Airds Historical Society see here

July 8th, Hawkesbury Regional Museum see here

June 30th, Experiment Farm Cottage, Parramatta, see below.

July 1st. The descendants of James Ruse. Private function.

The-Stony-Ground-Invitation-30-June-2018-at-EFC

‘Tommy ow’s yer soul?’ Broken Soldiers and Soldiers’ Children

I’ve been working with soldiers and their children for the last few years, as a researcher and as a writer. It has been instructive, about the world I live in as much as the one they do. For a year I worked as a researcher for a university, part of a team that evaluated a drug and alcohol recovery scheme run exclusively for ex-service personnel. It meant travelling around the north interviewing mostly former soldiers who had significant problems with alcohol abuse. Many had been through other programmes that hadn’t worked and most put it down to civilians’ lack of understanding of their experiences and culture, the absence of the camaraderie that soldiers possess, people asking them questions such as Did you ever kill anyone?

Though many had left the army years before the soldier was still present and their continued drinking was testament to that. Most said the army had taught them to drink from a young age, from their twelve weeks basic training. To not go to the bar each evening, to not even drink copiously, would leave a recruit open to ridicule, to bullying from the outset, and bullying in the army isn’t like bullying at the council. People spoke of drinking rituals, one involving a glass boot filled with three different coloured liquors.

‘There were people no one wanted to run behind the next morning because they were bound to puke.’

There was for some veterans a trigger, a particular experience, usually during combat that intensified their drinking. One man, whose drinking had cost him his family, spoke to me about his experience in Basra, Iraq.

‘Nothing could have prepared us for that. For what happened. The training we did. Running round the Brecon Beacons with a pack on your back? I was put in charge of  prisoners and I couldn’t cope.’

For others no one incident was cited but there was the obvious sustained stress of tours in Northern Ireland, or in Bosnia, Iraq etc.

‘Ireland, seen a few killed. Falklands, seen a lot killed.’

As well as combat fatigue there is also combat regret. One veteran began an interview by stating, ‘You wouldn’t like me if you knew what I’d done.’  Another,

‘In the last five years…it’s been coming back to me, what I did, and why I didn’t question it, but that was your military for you. It’s later on in life I’ve learned to question what actions I did when I was a lot younger, then the dreams started coming.  Think the spring just broke.’

A recurring theme was how little preparation there was for life after the army. The army breaks down the civilian to create the solider but not the other way round. Most expressed disappointment and antipathy with the individualism of civilian life. There’s no respect, no discipline, no camaraderie, it’s all backstabbing. The discreet programme they were part of was comparatively successful because of the values that the army had taught them. They supported one another to a degree they would not have done had they not been former soldiers. They organised their own events and each local group had their selected champions who seemed akin to corporals. Their humour was predictably tough, their outlook more stoical than most, as one veteran remarked,

‘In the dictionary the word sympathy is somewhere between shite and suicide.’

They talked a great deal about the strength of comradeship amongst soldiers about friendship, pals, having one another’s back in general and specifically on patrol; how much they missed those bonds. They disliked the boastfulness, the shallow egotism of civilian life. At the conference to launch the report’s findings, an employment worker remarked that one of the problems that former soldiers had in finding work was their reluctance, their refusal even, to sell themselves. Sadly true perhaps, but for me that was an asset that they possessed and the rest of us didn’t. Even though during that time I was the paid observer and they the problematical subject, there was some things about them I envied.

A year prior I was commissioned to write a play for Burnley Youth Theatre to commemorate the First World War. The project would also involve working with children from Preston Barracks, home of the Lancashire Regiment. My first thought was, how am I going to do this without derivation? After Oh What a Lovely War the most well-known stage play concerning WW1 is The Accrington Pals, the story of the Lancashire Regiment at the Somme. So I went to Gallipoli, to Cape Helles where six Lancashire fusiliers won VCs on the same morning and I went to an imaginary munitions factory. The young people from Burnley Youth Theatre were terrific as I already knew, the children from the barracks, who had never been in a play before, also. They had taken the greater step and soldiers and family members from the barracks attended the shows and I sensed there was more than family pride at work, both in the performances and in the audience. A little later an army welfare worker contacted me to say they wanted to make a film about the impact of soldiering upon soldiers’ children. It wasn’t something that Arts Council England was going to throw money at so it took some time to raise the money, but we’ve recently started work on the project.

The barracks have a youth club and it is there that I work with the children to devise, to write dialogue and poetry for the film. A few things have struck me at the outset. Firstly, how much their education is disrupted by families repeatedly moving home. An eleven year old I spoke to was currently on her sixth school, starting a seventh in September.  This is not unusual. Also, the number of children whose fathers had experienced combat.

‘My daddy was shot and he almost died but’s he’s better now.’

‘My dad was in Afghanistan and in a jeep behind another jeep and a boy came up to the one in front and blew himself up and my dad got out to help the people that were injured.’

‘I’ve seen some medals round the house, I don’t know what he did for them, but his knee doesn’t work properly now. He says he won’t have me joining the army because it’s dangerous and he’s thinking about getting out.’

Children are without their fathers for long periods of time during which their fathers are in harm’s way. The children talk a lot about missing friends they made at previous postings. A couple of children said they were frightened of terrorists killing their fathers in the UK. One lad said he was getting in fights at school because his father was a soldier but wouldn’t say exactly why. And there is also resilience and pride. One youngster said that moving around the UK and abroad was interesting and she was smarter and stronger for it. Being an army kid is special and early days it may be, but there is agreement that whilst the narrative of what will probably be a twenty minute film, will deal with separation and anxiety, the tone will not be one of pathos but rather validation if not celebration.

During the Blair years there was an overt attempt to promote the armed forces in the context of the unpopular war in Iraq. Soldiers seemed to be popping up at presentations at half-time, Crufts and elsewhere, a tin rattled for Help the Heroes in every shopping centre. The veterans I spoke to during the research project wanted no part of that but neither did they want the grief they got from the Stop The War crowd on Poppy Day. They desired a degree of respect and meaningful employment. The employment they had come from had been overwhelmingly physical, the terrain of work beyond it, increasingly non-physical, requiring ‘soft skills’. Like a lot of working class men in mid-life, they don’t fit in any more.

More than anything they wanted what is increasingly rare in Britain today: solidarity at work and in their community, which is why they hung out with their old comrades, drinking or struggling not to drink. Many of them were in the process of repairing relationships with their own children. Former soldiers are far more likely than other occupations to commit crime, in particular violent crime. They are more likely to become homeless and experience poor mental health. Assisting veterans adjust to civilians life isn’t just about putting them at the front of the job centre queue. It might be about recognising that they have different values, values that should not be seen as redundant or to be mocked even, but might in fact be worth learning from.

Squaddie

He meets his regiment mates every week,
not at the Legion – not no more after what he said
to a former officer there.

They make plans over pints to occupy themselves,
short hikes and long distance footpaths
days plotted from a to b.

He’s worked out how to go from Sheffield to London by bus,
the routes, times, numbers all listed,
he briefs them on the expense the excursion will incur.

Under his shirt his back wears a relief map
of burns where a petrol bomb splashed across him
one Saturday in Derry.

They sit at the back of the bus sipping cans,
talk about the coppers coming
for something that was done in Ireland,

what that Asian lad said to him on Poppy Day,
about six am on the parade ground
before he became someone else’s job
and had to rely on people who don’t show up on time.

Is the Genie out of the Bottle? Brexit and the future of democracy in Britain

One cannot help but feel that democracy is in trouble here. It’s not on the ropes but it is getting the pounding that could leave it bloodied and reeling, ready for the count. It has many assailants: the Judiciary, the House of Lords, faithless politicians, television and radio, all scurrying to try and undo the biggest political mandate in British history. After Parliament asked the demos a straightforward question, congratulating itself for placing such trust in the people, the wrong answer came back. Since then, much of the political class have done little else bar seeking to have the question asked again, or advocating the answer that 17.4 million people gave, be ignored. Lately Leave voters have been treated to the undignified seething contempt of Vince Cable, a contempt that I suspect he and his kind have held much of their lives.

Cable

The over reaction to the referendum result cannot be divorced from who voted which way and the most likely indicator of how people voted, beyond geography and race, is class. As someone in north Manchester told John Harris of The Guardian, ‘If you’ve got money you’re in, if you haven’t you’re out.’ Bradford, a famously multiracial City, voted Leave. It’s a predominantly working class place, and it’s in the north, which is why that happened and why you won’t have seen that mentioned in the TV debates. It is the factor of class above all others that drives those that now stand opposed to the implementation of the mandate, and in truth to democracy. The BBC and indeed many Labour politicians repeatedly remind us that it was the ‘less educated’ who voted Leave. Dianne Abbot wasted no time in describing the Leave vote as a racist vote.

There is so much in the saga that is depressing and injurious for our democracy, our civil society. The Gina Miller shenanigans, liberals and the Left cheering on high court judges and their new found comrades in the House of Lords, the perpetual exploitation of Jo Cox’s murder, the routine vitriol heaped on working class Leave voters by politicians who are handsomely paid to represent them. But arguably the worst of it is this: the voice of chattering class Remain voters proclaiming that there are more important things than democracy. This increasingly outspoken and growing authoritarianism is a new phenomenon, or perhaps an Edwardian one reborn, and one that emerged prior to the referendum under the managerialism of the Blair years. Politics is no longer a matter of belief or opinion, it is about being right or wrong and the technocracy always knows best.

your decision

The more important things can be broadly divided into ‘the economy’ and increasingly ‘racism’ or more precisely, the necessity of avoiding any accusation of racism at all costs. That George Osborne’s economic forecasts for the aftermath of a Leave majority have proven to be nonsense, is apparently besides the point, project fear is constantly renewing itself and we are in the words of Sadiq Khan, about to fall off a cliff. Again. The argument follows that the referendum result is meaningless because the point of voting,  the point of the electorate, is to serve economic growth and any decision that doesn’t do that is technically off side. Leave voters being less likely to have attended a university is in this argument, both cause and result: economic failures turning their backs on economic opportunity. You don’t have to go far on social media or elsewhere to find that people who voted Leave are morally and intellectually inferior to ‘the rest of us,’ and to hear that some of them, particularly older people, should have the right to vote taken off them. When I first heard this said on Radio Four, I was shocked. Now the Liberal Democrats say it at press conferences. Neither is it unusual to hear members of The Guardian club question whether ‘the uninformed’ should be allowed a say in such important matters, by which they mean removing the vote from the poor. The progressive discourse is moving fast, it’s now moved on to who gets to decide who doesn’t vote. And all this, in the centenary year of the Representation of the People Act of 1918.

Brexit is racist

The other trump card played alongside the first, is that those who oppose unlimited and indefinite mass migration from the EU are motivated only by racism. It doesn’t matter what they say about sovereignty, about being a socialist since you were seventeen, you’re a little Englander. Indeed the Brexit backing Morning Star itself was described as such, the Stalinist handbook rewritten to be used against its very authors. The upshot is, that the denunciation alone invalidates the referendum result because racism now has the position that original sin once did; unless proven otherwise we are all damned by the worst of all offences. All white people that is. The paranoia around racism and the accusation of it, is corrupting public life and personal lives, as well as trivialising people’s very real experiences of racial discrimination.

In the last couple of days, a news story has broken about child abuse and related murders in Telford , grave crimes that have continued for decades involving children as young as eleven. The victims were and are white working class girls, the perpetrators Pakistani men. It is the latest, and it appears the largest of many such cases across England. Like in so many of the others, police and social workers are reported as looking the other way because they were frightened of being accused of racism. People more worried about what that would do to their reputation than the sexual exploitation of children. This is where the power of identity politics ends up, shovelling obscenity upon obscenity at the graveyard of human decency. Telford stands out because of its longevity, the number of children, the murders, the magnitude of the suffering. What’s also fast become a related secondary story, is that two days after it was on every other news channel and even in The Guardian, BBC coverage was scant and MPs were not talking about it much either. Indeed, on the day after the story broke, MP Caroline Lucas took the opportunity to ask an emergency question in the commons to discuss harassment and bullying of MPs by other MPs.

Lucas

Caroline Lucas’s emergency question is where self-regarding bourgeois feminists end up: thinking that an MP touching another MP’s knee warrants an emergency question in Parliament, instead of the largest and longest case of child abuse in the country’s history, one that has lasted for nearly forty years and has finally got the authorities’ attention. Lucas’s response to criticism was inevitably that people were using Telford to ‘whip up racial hatred.’ If the alleged sin of racism can make the police blind, MPs deaf and the BBC silent, it can and is being used to undo the referendum result and undo democracy. I’m 60 next year, I’ve never been called racist in my life, not until I voted Leave, and now I’m running out of fingers to count on. I do take it personally but often it isn’t meant as such. It is just part of a paradoxical narrative that believes the vote to leave the EU is part of a far right surge in British public life, that the white working class are a pogrom waiting to happen and the only way to stem this is to put democracy on hold. Historically, authoritarianism in Europe and fascism in particular, was borne from a fear of the working class power.

The notion of Leave voters’ racism and mass stupidity is not merely abuse, or mythology, it is for some a cast iron belief, a fact as real as the moral and intellectual superiority of the Remain case. Such certainty is dangerous to democracy and if you want an historical example, you should read Ronald Fraser’s Blood of Spain, an Everest of a book. It is a mosaic of personal accounts from interviews with 300 participants of the conflict from either side, skirmish by skirmish. One is faced with common enmity and humanity on facing pages. Fraser takes us right inside both camps listening to how people lived the war. Leave and Remain need to look at the facing pages of the referendum, look into each other’s camp, and I have to say, Remain more than Leave because switching on the TV or radio these days is like listening to Pathe news for the EU. Whether we exit the EU or not the managerialism that has become authoritarianism will not leave the scene. It has found its feet in the anti-Brexit movement and I fear has them under the table at the Labour Party. From proposals for all women train carriages to the no platforming of speakers, the banning of newspapers on trains, the media witch hunts to the undermining of the biggest popular vote in our history, something rotten, something deeply reactionary is abroad. If the vote to leave the EU is betrayed it will inevitably undermine the legitimacy of future governments, for no one, not Atlee, Thatcher or Blair, gets 52%. And each of those in their way, made greater changes to this country than leaving a free trade outfit. Even if we do leave the EU, the authoritarian genie is out of the bottle.

But there are other movements afoot as well. I went to the first meeting of Artists for Brexit last week in London. There were some great artists there, including novelist Helen Dale, songwriter and former Culture Club member Phil Picket, and painter Michael Lightfoot. We’re not re running the debate, we’re bi partisan, open to Leave and Remain voters and looking at very practical issues like visa regulations for artists post Brexit. This is in regard of both EU artists and artists from elsewhere, who are currently disadvantaged. We will be contacting the Department of Exiting the EU with our proposals. We have a mission statement, the last few lines of which reads, We want to continue to live and work in a society that, even when the decisions to be made are difficult, respects democracy as our most important value. A country that is tolerant and politically independent, innovative in its art and ideas, reaching out and welcoming to the world. We are Artists for Brexit.

If you’re an artist and you want to get on with the future, no matter how you voted, you should think about joining our growing network. There is work to be done so that artists can get the best deal out of Brexit, and Britain post Brexit, gets to see wonderful artists and their work, from the EU and the rest of the world. Get in touch on Twitter here.