At this time of flag-waving, when the government hopes the upcoming Jubilee and Olympics will create a ‘feel-good-factor’ to hide the devastating impact of their unfair and unnecessary cuts programme, we must question and debate what this country is really about and what we, as a society, with progressive, democratic values, want it to be. This is the second in a series of special blogs published this week on why we must take action now to fight against the cuts.
Keep up the fight and remember past struggles, by Owen Jones
Wandering around the centre of London, it’s hard to miss the gigantic Union Jacks draped over the main shopping centres. In a country not known for flag-waving zeal, it’s certainly a striking sight. But, as the Jubilee approaches, we are being offered a very narrow view of what constitutes ‘Britishness’. It’s often reduced to Kings and Queens, Empire, aristocracy and class privilege.
Let’s be clear, that is one very real form of Britishness – but it belongs to the Britain of the ruling elite. There are other traditions, too, which are intentionally airbrushed out of existence: of struggle from below against injustice, oppression and exploitation.
There was the Peasants Revolt of 1381, one of the greatest rebellions of medieval Europe. After King Richard II imposed a crippling poll tax, rebels marched on London. As they gathered on Blackheath, the priest John Ball addressed them and questioned the very existence of a class system: ‘When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?’
A century and a half before the French Revolution, our own King was deposed and a Commonwealth established. Radical groups flourished: such as the Levellers, pioneering proponents of the sovereignty of the people; and the Diggers, who were early communists.
In the 19th century, the Chartists were formed to campaign for far-reaching political reform, such as universal male suffrage and the right of all men to stand for Parliament. They were the world’s first mass working-class political movement.
We have a long tradition of trade unionists fighting for the right of workers, despite frequent attempts by those with power to crush them – such as the Taff Vale legal judgement in 1901, which made trade unions liable for losses during a strike, effectively bankrupting them if they took industrial action.
And then there were the struggles of suffragettes and suffragists for women to have the right to vote. They were demonised in their time: take one sensationalist article from The Times in the early 20th century attacking the movement. At the top of the piece were four headlines: ‘MORE SUFFRAGIST CRIME’, ‘ASSAULT AND OUTRAGE’, ‘FURTHER MUTILATION OF PICTURES’, and ‘THE TALE OF DESTRUCTION.’ On the eve of World War I, Lord Robert Cecil railed against ‘suffragist outrages’, denouncing them as a ‘very serious evil’.
There are countless other struggles, too: against racism and fascism (such as the Battle of Cable Street in 1936); for women’s rights; for gay rights; and for peace.
In recent years, hundreds of thousands have taken to British streets: against the invasion of Iraq; the trebling of tuition fees; or the biggest cuts since the 1920s. Through peaceful civil disobedience, UK Uncut has helped force the one-time fringe issue of tax avoidance to the top of the political and media agenda.
Like previous struggles, these movements are often demonised and savaged by those with power. But those who battled for democracy, equal rights and against injustice often ended up victorious eventually, despite the many odds stacked against them.
These struggles are traditions of another Britain, and we should celebrate them. By the simply act of fighting back, UK Uncut help uphold the memory of those who, before us, battled against oppressors and elites. It should be a source of pride for us all.
Photo credit: Jim Shannon
This summer- celebrate our tradition of resistance by Billy Bragg
In a country like ours, with no written constitution to uphold common values, the role of unifying the nation has traditionally been taken by institutions such as the church or the monarchy. With church attendance falling away, this summer will see a big campaign to place the monarchy at the centre of what it means to be British.
Happily, for those who find the Diamond Jubilee nothing more than a celebration of power and wealth, there are other traditions in these islands that we can celebrate.
In many ways the British have been defined in their opposition to absolute power. Magna Carta was the first attempt by any nation to hold the monarch to account. The Reformation sought to break the power of the Papacy.
The Civil War was fought over the principle that none are above the law, not even the monarch – the Roundheads called it ‘The Good Old Cause’. And when King Charles I refused to be held accountable for his actions, our parliament became the first ever to put a monarch on trail for treason against the people.
The republic that legally tried and executed Charles I did not last, but the restored monarchy was no longer able to exercise executive power. When James II tried to bypass parliament, he was deposed and a new settlement that made the monarch accountable to parliament was signed in 1688.
Absolute power now passed to parliament and so the British people focused their energies on holding the Executive to account. The Chartists, the world’s first working class movement, campaigned for voting reform, the Suffragettes for votes for women. In the middle of the 20th century, the British people voted to mitigate the destructive power of capitalism by setting up the first universal welfare system.
Under the globalisation agenda, absolute power has passed to the financial markets, who seek to dictate the terms on which we run our economies. While the monarchists celebrate their tradition this summer, we should celebrate ours by campaigning to hold the markets to account – after all, it’s a good old British tradition.