Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Whose Foreign Policy Is It?

My article, "Whose Foreign Policy Is It?", was published on The Guardian's website yesterday.

The article talks about the "democratic deficit" whereby the fundamentals of British foreign policy are consistently at odds with the wishes of the public. It discusses the way in which policymaking is disproportionately subject to pressures from vested interests, and describes some of the ways in which that influence is exerted.

Here's an excerpt:

"While few people would expect every government policy to precisely reflect majority public opinion, it is hard to see what is democratic about a British foreign policy whose very fundamentals – agreed by both Labour and the Conservatives – are consistently opposed by voters.

In February 2003, more than 90% of Britons opposed Tony Blair's government joining the invasion of Iraq in the absence of a second UN resolution. As we know, the invasion went ahead the following month without such a resolution being passed. Three years later, 63% thought Blair had tied Britain too closely to the Bush White House. In the same poll, 61% opposed the assault on Lebanon that Israel was undertaking at that time – an assault that was nevertheless effectively supported by Britain."

You can read the whole article here.

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Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Venezuela: Inside the Revolution

My review of the documentary film "Inside the Revolution", a look at recent political trends in Venezuela, is published by The Samosa.

An exerpt:

"What is the nature of the political change that has been taking shape in Venezuela since the election of President Hugo Chavez in 1998? This has become one of the central questions in world politics over the past decade. Why? Because events in that South American country have direct relevance to the key global trends of the moment: the waning power of the United States, the fading credibility of the neo-liberal economic model, and the slow replacement of the zombified ‘Washington Consensus’.

Inside the Revolution, a film by the documentary-maker Pablo Navarrete, is a serious, insightful and thought-provoking review of Venezuelan politics over recent years. With a particular focus on the perspectives of the poorest and an admirable willingness to let them tell their own story, Navarrete analyses the roots of the transformation taking place in Venezuela, the obstacles it faces, and the prospects for the future."

You can read the whole piece here, and go here for more information on screenings of Inside the Revolution.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Demanding a New British Foreign Policy

My article, "We Must Demand a New Foreign Policy", was published on The Guardian's website earlier this week.
The article set out to do three things:
First, to point out that at the next election the political system will not be offering us any alternative government that presents the clean break in UK foreign policy that the public desires, following the Blair-Bush years.
Second, to try and describe some of the main features of what a progressive transformation in Britain's relations with the rest of the world might look like.
Third, to encourage the public to get involved in activism that challenges current UK policy and aims to change it for the better.
You can read the article here.
Many comments were made by readers (I believe it was one of the top five most commented-upon pieces in the 24 hours it was prominent on the site, and the editors were kind enough to nominate it 'Thread of the Day'). Some of the input was good, some less so, as is always the way in these forums. One comment I thought particularly valuable was this from Paul Lambert in which he cites polling evidence backing up my point about the democratic deficit on foreign policy.
It was good to get the opportunity to publish in the Guardian and get some of these ideas out to a much wider audience than I get here (no offence to either of you, my faithful and valued readers). Hopefully this will be the shape of things to come.

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Saturday, June 27, 2009

What's happening in Iran?

A few words about what's been happening in Iran the past couple of weeks. The two main candidates in the Iranian presidential election - Mir-Hossein Mousavi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - were both essentially establishment figures. Both had been vetted and approved by Iran's 'Guardian Council' before being allowed to stand, as is the normal procedure. Mousavi had been Iran's Prime Minister during the early days of the revolution, during the Iran-Iraq war where the US backed Saddam Hussein. As President he may have taken a less belligerent rhetorical stance toward the West than Ahmadinejad, but the substance would have remained: opposition to Israel on the Palestinian issue and an insistence on Iran's right to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Poliferation Treaty. However, though Mousavi's establishment credentials were pretty much impeccable, he did hint at a relaxation of the various restrictions of personal liberties within the Islamic Republic, attracting him some support from Iran's overwhelmingly young population (over 60 per cent are under 30). Exactly how much support in the final instance is, of course, the question.

By now you will be familiar with the fact that the presidential election result is under dispute, with Mousavi and thousands of protesters claiming fraud and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei insisting that the announced result is legitimate and will stand. Based on the expert analysis I've seen, it seems reasonably clear that fraud is likely to have taken place. Though it should be noted that no hard proof exists of this, the point is that those who have crunched the numbers and those who know Iranian politics and society have examined the purported election results and see them not just as surprising but as wholly implausible. See this report by researchers at St Andrews University, edited by Iran historian Ali Ansari, or these three posts by the University of Michigan's world renowned Middle East historian Juan Cole. Statistician Walter Mebane, also of the University of Michigan, has examined the data and concluded that "the results suggest very strongly that there was widespread fraud in which the vote counts for Ahmadinejad were substantially augmented by artificial means".

So why fake the election result, if that is indeed what happened? As I've pointed out, Mousavi was hardly going to lead a revolution to topple the regime since he is, after all, a long-standing part of it. Indeed, its also worth reminding ourselves that Ahmadinejad is not unpopular, and its possible that he may have run Mousavi close and prompted a run off election if the actual votes had been counted. The Guardian's editorial shortly after the "result" was announced has what to my mind is the best explanation. Mousavi had been attracting mass rallies of energised young people to the point where any victory for him would have looked like a rejection of the regime from the Iranian youth, even if Mousavi hadn't intended it as such. The Supreme Leader could not allow such a serious undermining of the regime's credibility, fearing where it might lead, and so the hopes of those who had voted for Mousavi were, it appears, summarily crushed. Opponents were then arrested, massive demonstrations though largely peaceful were met with violence, and journalists were targeted.

Has it worked? Its hard to say, but one doubts it. If anything, the Iranian establishment now looks split down the middle. Iran's most senior cleric Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri has openly said that "no one in their right mind can believe" the official results. This may reflect growing disquiet amongst Iran's clerical elite, who perhaps never wholly bought into the regime's radical innovation of direct religious rule, adhering instead to the Islamic tradition that the clergy should keep out of politics. Meanwhile, even the hardline conservative Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani has said that a 'majority' of Iranians dispute the election results and, though he disagrees with them, they should be respected - not a tone that's entirely aligned with that of the Supreme Leader.

So allow me to speculate briefly about what will happen next. Say the stability of the regime over the past three decades has been based on a mixture of legitimacy (by which I mean a sufficient level of public perception that the regime is a legitimate one) and fear. The two pillars of legitimacy are the electoral system on the one hand and the religious character of the system on the other. The fear element is inspired by the security services and their known history of abuses. People either think the regime is legitimate, or are too afraid of it to challenge its existence, or both. Hence it stays in place.

What we can now see is potentially the two pillars of legitimacy crumbling. On the one hand, as Larijani has said, a majority believe the election result was a fabrication and many of those actively refuse to let this stand.

On the other hand, the late Ayatollah Khomeini's radical innovation of clerical rule may now be coming under renewed scrutiny within the clerical establishment. Khamenei's weak religious qualifications for the post of Supreme Leader don't help to uphold the credibility of vilayet-i faqih (clerical rule). This, it appears, is some of the background to Montazeri's strong remarks.

If the pillars upon which the regime's legitimacy rests are crumbling then the fear element is all that's left. That's not nothing. But still, unless the regime is now prepared not only to quell unrest with extreme violence, but to follow this up with a general, lasting (i.e. years long) crackdown on persistent dissent, then its hard to see how major changes can be escaped.

But if the dissidents are an uneasy alliance of privileged elites and disadvantaged citizens, what are the prospects going forward? If Mousavi stitches up a deal with Khamenei to end the whole thing (after all, this is a system that has generally treated him more than fairly) what happens to the demonstrators on the street? We'll learn the answers to these questions in the weeks and months ahead.

A final word about Western involvement. Britain and the US have a long history of interference in Iranian affairs, leading right up until the present day (I've reviewed the historical record in a bit of detail here). The crucial concern has been to deny or counter Iranian independence and retain it within or return it to the Western sphere of influence, for obvious reasons that include Iran's vast reserves of oil and natural gas. We can therefore assume that London and Washington are not indifferent to what happens next in Iran. This does not mean that hundreds of thousands of Iranian protesters have somehow been manufactured or brainwashed by the West, as the Supreme Leader is rather pathetically attempting to claim. However, we should be alive to the strong possibility that if some sort of new Iranian revolution does break out, the US and Britain will be using all the considerable tools at their disposal to ensure that the Iran that emerges from that process will be the Iran they would want to see, irrespective of the wishes of the Iranian people themselves. It may be that for now London and Washington have calculated that their best bet is to stay well out of things lest they taint the Iranian protesters with their unwanted attentions. But don't bet on that staying the case. The reason events in Iran deserve our attention is precisely because of our governments' lamentable role in that country's affairs. Our concern should now be that the Iranian public are allowed to choose their own path free both from internal tyranny and foreign interference.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

Future echoes: the seeds of globalisation’s informal empire in Britain’s formal imperialism

[DW - I'm presenting this paper to the Duham International Affairs Conference later this week. Its the first draft of what I hope will become a journal article, so, as ever, comments are welcome]


This paper explores the evolution of Britain and its foreign policy, identifying the themes in its previous formal empire which can illuminate our understanding of the current, informal imperialism of globalisation. The paper makes three central points. First, it describes the historical continuity between the two imperial forms and how the informal imperialism of globalisation evolved out of Britain’s formal empire. Second, it notes that a key feature of this continuity is the effective ownership of both imperialisms by an identifiable socio-economic class. Third, it challenges the Liberal view that freedom for wealth and general political freedom are mutually complementary by showing how these two imperial structures have tended to privilege the first of those freedoms at the expense of the latter.


Under twenty-first century globalisation, a transnational class of investors, bureaucrats and opinion-formers work together to shape the global political economy to serve their interests, in a process that frequently involves evading or thwarting democracy and the popular will. This international governing class is bound together both by shared material interests and by a shared legitimising ideology that it characterises as favouring mutually-dependent free-markets and liberal democracy.

The foundations of modern globalisation were laid by the British Empire in the nineteenth century, but the distinction between the informal globalised imperialism of today and Britain’s earlier, formal empire is not clear cut. An examination of how Britain and its foreign policies have evolved over the past four centuries reveals the shared characteristics of the two imperial forms: the domination of a propertied class, collaborating both with the domestic state and with peers across borders to advance their individual and collective interests, and bound together by a legitimising ideology that rebrands its pursuit of material prizes as a high-minded, moral-ideological crusade. We also find that, both in bourgeois British imperialism and in the bourgeois empire of modern globalisation, the official doctrine of free-markets complementing liberal political forms masks the reality of propertied interests waging a constant struggle against democracy and popular self-determination.

Scholarly work that explores particular concepts or paradigms of understanding tends to focus on what is novel and distinct about the concept in question and what separates or differentiates it from other, ostensibly competing frames of reference. However, it is possible to value a theoretical viewpoint whilst still acknowledging where it overlaps and even complements the paradigms that it attempts to set itself apart from. That is the approach taken in this paper. Rather than discussing what is unique or distinct about “informal empire”, I propose instead to explore what an informal and a formal imperial structure have in common. My aim in doing so is not to call into question the validity or utility of the concept of “informal empire”. Rather, it is to make some observations regarding a few of the common and essential features of imperialism – formal and informal - in order to offer a reminder of why these phenomena ought to concern us as scholars on a moral as well as an analytical level. Specifically, I will explore the illiberal, anti-democratic nature of imperialism, and its role as a tool of social and economic elites, highlighting these aspects by tracing their persistence through the evolution of British imperialism from its earliest days, up until the emergence of the modern globalised world for which the British Empire laid the foundations.

The paper will take the following structure. I will begin by proposing a view of the modern global political economy as an “informal empire”, where the sovereignty of individual nations is curtailed by the power of a transnational ruling class which exercises that power through national and international structures of governance and economic institutions and activities. I will then review some key aspects of the evolution of the British empire, stressing the point that - though more state-centric than the informal imperialism we see today – the former, formal empire was also the project of a particular elite group. I will devote particular attention to the way in which democratic forms of government were explicitly rejected in favour of the rule of a propertied elite in the earliest days of the British empire, and the implications of that outcome in the evolution of the empire. I will move on to show how the British empire helped lay the foundations of today’s informal imperialism, and note some ‘future echoes’ of those modern imperial forms in the British imperialism of the nineteenth century. I will then talk briefly about the transition from British global dominance to the international political economy of the present day, noting Britain’s changing role in that changing system, before concluding with a summary of the shared characteristics of the two imperial forms.

The globalised political economy as an informal empire

If we think of an empire as an international power structure wherein imperial subject societies have their sovereignty and capacity for self-determination curtailed by an identifiable external force that exerts its will upon its subjects in order to serve its own interests, then it can certainly be plausibly argued that the modern, “globalised” political economy fits this description in many important respects. Under this interpretation of today’s international scene, it is plainly easier to identify the subjects of imperial power than those who wield it. The subjects are those forced to contend with their vulnerability to capital flight, damaging international financial flows, foreign military interventions and (in some respects) the dictates of international governmental institutions. The extent to which a society can consider itself an imperial subject is inversely proportional to the extent to which it is capable of resisting such forces and retaining control of its own destiny. Though some societies are clearly better equipped to meet this challenge than others, the current serious disruption to the international economy highlights the vulnerability of even the most powerful societies to these external forces.

A harder question to answer is that of whose empire this is. The temptation is to fall back on familiar views of empires as state-centric. But does this adequately capture the nature of power, where it resides, and how it behaves in the present day? If the essence of imperialism is the exertion of power and the curtailment of sovereignty and self-determination across borders, then shouldn’t our understanding of empire allow room for whomsoever wields that kind of power, be it a city-state, a nation-state or, perhaps in today’s world, a social class?

Neo-Gramscians have argued that “[w]e need to move away altogether from a statist conception of hegemony ... and revert to a ... view of hegemony as a form of social domination exercised not by states but by social groups and classes operating through states and other institutions” under which “states have been captured by transnationally oriented dominant groups who use them to integrate their countries into emergent global capitalist structures” (Robinson:561 & 563).

This view of the power of transnational economic forces is not new (and indeed predates the adoption of “neo-liberal” economic philosophy by the world’s leading states, though that philosophy is today recognised as the legitimising ideology of this form of international economic power). Writing in 1979, Eric Hobsbawm noted that the world had entered a “phase of economic development ... marked by a notable re-emergence of the transnational or supranational elements in the world economy” and that “the emergence ... of forms of economic organisation which not only cut across or transcend the boundaries of national economies but compete with them and may be beyond their control, is hardly to be denied” (Hobsbawm:1979:314-5).

By 1999, Susan Strange was able to present a compelling case to the effect that the state system (described by Strange as the “Westfailure system”) was now incapable of dealing with these transnational forces effectively. Strange identified failures to prevent damage to the world’s environment, to preserve a sustainable distribution of wealth and resources worldwide, and (rather presciently) to control the international financial system, as showing that the most serious forces and dynamics affecting humanity now lie outwith the control of nation states (and therefore, one might add, outwith the realms of democratic accountability).

Strange echoes Robinson’s remarks on the role of a particular class in this system of power:

“A common assumption is that the present system is sustained by the power of a transnational capitalist class. I have no doubt that such a class exists and does exert its power over the market economy and the rules – such as they are – that govern it. ... [We might recognise] the emergence of a transnational interest group with powerful levers over national governments including that of the United States and members of the European Union” (Strange:353)

Strange does sound a note of caution regarding the use of the term ‘class’, since it “suggests far more solidarity and uniformity than in fact exists” (Strange:353). But we can accept the disparate and diffuse nature of economic power in the system whilst still also acknowledging, as Strange does, the not-inconsiderable extent to which it is able to act in a concentrated and effective manner to advance its interests and impose its will. In this respect, perhaps the most telling of Strange’s observations are those on wealth disparity:

“The discrepant and divergent figures on infant mortality, on children without enough to eat, on the spread of AIDS in Africa and Asia, and on every other socio-economic indicator tell the story. The gap between rich countries and very poor ones is widening, and so is the gap between the rich and the poor in the poor countries and the rich and the poor in the rich countries. It is not that we do not know the answer to socio-economic inequalities; it is redistributive tax and welfare measures ... . But applying that answer to world society is frustrated by the Westfailure system, so closely tied in as it is with the ‘liberalised’ market economy” (Strange:351-2)

When wealth and power are so closely interrelated as to be practically synonymous, disparities in wealth are necessarily disparities in power, and the level of global economic inequality is therefore inversely proportional to the extent that we can consider ourselves to live in a democratic world. If Strange is right to say that the answer to the problem of wealth inequality is well known, and only not implemented because nation states are subject to external forces that oppose such moves, then that would strongly suggest that many societies in the world have the status of imperial subjects: unable to pursue self-determination and improvement because they are subject to the will and self-interest of an external force.

This view directly contradicts the notion of “free-markets” as complementing liberal political forms. The central argument in Naomi Klein’s recent book “The Shock Doctrine” is that the economic philosophies of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School which have been most closely associated with “globalisation” in recent years are often implemented in public policy through a subversion or evasion of democracy. Klein provides a number of well-documented examples – Chile in the 1970s (Klein:75-115), post-apartheid South Africa (Klein:194-217), post-Communist Russia (Klein:218-262) and Sri Lanka after the Asian Tsunami (Klein:385-405) – of neo-liberal economic policies being put into effect in situations, be they exploited or deliberately engineered, where democratic scrutiny and accountability was either weak or absent. These were instances (most obviously in the case of the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile) where “states have been captured by transnationally oriented dominant groups who use them to integrate their countries into emergent global capitalist structures” (returning to our earlier quote from Robinson).

No discussion of empire or hegemony in the early twenty-first century could credibly ignore the role of the United States, especially given the vast military resources at that country’s disposal. But it is not to deny the existence of an American imperialism of some description to point out that this particular international power does not operate in a narrowly state-centric fashion. As Robinson notes:

“The result of US military conquest is not the creation of exclusive zones for ‘US’ exploitation... . Rather, the beneficiaries of US military action are transnational capitalist groups and the US state has, in the main, advanced transnational capitalist interests. Shortly after taking control of Iraq in 2003, for instance, the US occupation force unveiled ‘Order 39’, which provided unrestricted access to Iraq for investors from anywhere in the world” (Robinson:569, see also Klein)

The global role of the US state, in other words, is the maintenance of a broad global economic and political system (from which it of course expects to benefit).

“[Since 1945] the US has shouldered the responsibility for protecting the interests of the “satisfied nations” whose power places them “above the rest,” the “rich men dwelling at peace within their habitations” to whom “the government of the world must be entrusted,” as Winston Churchill put the matter after World War II” (Chomsky:33)

In this analysis, the state functions not in the interests of the nation as a whole so much as in the interests of a class of people and institutions located both nationally and internationally. We need not therefore discard all references to the state when analysing the current imperial forms. The state plays a crucial role; the key is to understand what precisely that role is.

In summary, we have an imperial system where state and economic institutions work on the behalf of a broad but nonetheless recognisable socio-economic class to exert power and influence across international borders. This class power may be concentrated in some locations more than others, and some states may take a more leading role in the system than others, but the system remains transnational and class dominated.

Also, since direct territorial control is a rarity, and since the legitimising ideology of liberal democratic forms and “free markets” plays as important a role in persuading national elites to draw their nations into this global system (by whatever means) as material pressure or military might, this empire can then be classified as informal.

But to what extent is this really a departure? I would argue that though the current informal imperialism of the globalised international political economy has undeniably unique and novel characteristics, it is nevertheless the product of historical processes, and many of its key features as identified above are very much recognisable in earlier, more formal empires. To illustrate this point, I will review some pertinent aspects of the evolution of Britain and its empire.

Democracy vs Property in the English Civil War

The question of in whose interests the British state should be run was a live one in the earliest days of the British empire. This was not purely a question of which particular social elite would take the reigns of governance. The question of whether the public as a whole should be enfranchised was openly debated, with the notion firmly rejected by the propertied classes on the explicit grounds that democracy would run counter to their interests.

The English Civil war of the mid-seventeenth century is most commonly understood as a struggle between the Puritan oligarchs of Parliament and the monarchists who were, broadly speaking, not unsympathetic to Catholicism. The Puritans’ increasing willingness to insist on their version of Christianity, the Parliament’s insistence on its rights as a constitutional body, and King Charles I’s insistence on his own divine right to rule, all combined to produce a bloody, full-scale civil war which eventually saw the monarchy overthrown and replaced by an oligarchical republic headed by a dictator, Oliver Cromwell.

What is less widely known is that towards the end of the civil war, with the Royalists essentially beaten and minds turning to what form of government would replace the monarchy, there was, momentarily, a real chance that events might conspire to produce Western Europe’s first recognisable democracy (or at least, proto-democracy) in Britain. The fact that this did not come to pass had fundamental implications for the country Britain would become, the empire it would go on to build, and the global political economy that would emerge from that empire.

Parliament at this time was not a democratic body, its members in the Commons were elected only by those owning estates worth 40 shillings or more (Foot:7). This excluded all but a small fraction of adult males, and the entirety of the female population. The distribution of seats bore no relation to the distribution of population.

“Of the Commons’ 492 members, 265 came from tiny boroughs too small for any meaningful election, many of them nominated by the King. Add to this ... the widespread buying of seats, routine bribery and the power of the rising monopolists of industry and trade, and the representative element in Parliament was next to nothing. ... . The glaring truth about Parliament was that it was an assembly of rich men chosen overwhelmingly by rich men for the purpose of safeguarding and extending the property of rich men” (Foot:8)

When in the aftermath of war the Parliamentarians airily dismissed growing discontent amongst the Republican army’s ranks over pay and conditions, they would not have expected this dispute to lead to a fundamental challenge to their own authority, which they would have assumed to be secure following the King’s defeat. But the army had become increasingly influenced by a political movement known as the Levellers, which demanded radical democratisation. The statement of Leveller leader Richard Overton in 1645 that “[a]ll men are equally alike born to like propriety, liberty and freedom” (Foot:9) preceded similar statements from the American founding fathers by nearly a century and a half. Specifically, the Levellers called for:

* annual Parliaments,
* an end to secret Parliamentary proceedings with these instead to be recorded and published,
* payment of MPs so as not to limit this job to those of independent means, and
* Parliamentary reform to equalise constituencies and remove the “rotten boroughs” where Commons a seat was secured through some corrupt means rather than free election.

When the rank and file of the army, through its elected representatives, echoed the Levellers demands in October of 1647, they did so without even the specification (which one might well have expected in the extremely socially conservative England of the 1640s) that votes be limited to the male population. When the army marched on London, at one point seemingly holding in its power the ability to dismiss Parliament and impose its demands without negotiation with its supposed masters, the Generals of the army (who, with the exception of Admiral of the Fleet, Thomas Rainsborough, lined up with the Parliamentary oligarchs) realised that those demands would have to be addressed. There followed one of the key episodes of British history: the Putney debates.

The Putney debates offer a clear challenge to the notion – central to the legitimising ideology of “globalisation” – that freedom for wealth and general political freedom are mutually complementary. At Putney in October 1647, property and democracy clashed head on.

Speaking for the democrats, Thomas Rainsborough said:

“For really 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 at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under...” (Foot:28).

For the rights of property, Henry Ireton, Commissary-General and Cromwell’s son-in-law, replied:

“I think that no person has a right to an interest or share in the disposing of the affairs of the kingdom, and in determining or choosing those that shall determine what laws we shall be ruled by here – no person has a right to this, that has not a permanent fixed interest in the kingdom” (Foot:29).

By a “permanent fixed interest” Ireton meant substantial property. He went on to say that only “the persons in whom all land lies, and those in corporations in whom all trading lies” should be able to vote, because if “we shall go to take away this, we shall plainly go to take away all property and interest that any man hath” (Foot:29).

Ireton’s position was that universal enfranchisement was a threat to privilege and property – an anarchist’s charter. Rainsborough countered that accusation by saying (and here Foot paraphrases) that “the rule of the rich, unchecked even by the votes of the poor, was far more anarchic than any threat to property from votes for the poor” (Foot:30).

As the debate went on, the fears of property were expressed more openly. Colonel Nathaniel Rich said “It may happen, that the majority may by law, not in confusion, destroy property; there may be a law enacted that there shall be equality of goods and estate” (Foot:30) while Ireton at one pointed blurted out, “I have a property ... and this I shall enjoy”. To be deprived of this was “a thing evil in itself and scandalous to the world” (Foot:32).

In respect of the fears of Ireton and Rich, it should be noted that the Levellers and those who sided with them at Putney were not, unlike some of their contemporaries (like Gerald Winstanley and the Digger movement), proto-communists. The stress they placed was on political rather than economic equality. But the implications, the threats posed by democracy were well understood by those who enjoyed the benefits of an economically unequal system (Foot:34).

Though the democrats are thought to have won a formal vote on these principles at the Putney debates (Foot:34), a combination of cajoling, bullying and outright violence ensured that the Generals won the day in any event (Foot:38-40). Leveller leaders were jailed, the dissenter printing presses stamped out, and any mutinous activity in the army put down with deadly force. In scenes reminiscent of the final paragraph of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm”, the country’s upper classes now hailed Cromwell as their saviour; since the executed King was no longer there to defend them and their property, Cromwell would fulfil this role as ‘Lord Protector’. (Foot:41-43)

The implications of democracy’s defeat

Cromwell’s first Parliament was entirely unelected. The second was chosen by a smaller electorate than had returned the last one under Charles. (Foot:43) In fact – save for the fact that the head (King, House of Lords and bishops) had been lopped off the English body politic – society continued much as before under the Republic, run as it was by the upper, middle and landowning classes of “the magistrates chair...county hunts..and..city counting houses” (Schama(a):175-7)

These men “invested far more time and energy in preventing any sort of radical change than in promoting it”. They were “businessmen of state, mercantilists, money-managers. And in their swaggering, beady-eyed way, fierce patriots” whose ideology was “the aggressive prosecution of the national interest”. This governing class built an empire for itself, not only on the British archipelago through Cromwell’s brutal wars on the Irish and Scots, but also overseas, in the North Sea, Baltic and Atlantic. “It was commercially rapacious and militarily brutal, beery chauvinism erected into a guiding principle of state .... [Britain and its new empire were now run] by a corporate alliance of county gentry and city merchants”. (Schama(a):178)

The death of Cromwell destabilised the new gentry/merchant-dominated state, depriving it of an authority figure to hold the competing interests together. The Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 was an attempt to place Charles II in this role, i.e. to pick up where Cromwell, not the previous king, had left off (Schama(a):201-3). The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was undertaken by that same new propertied, governing class to keep the monarchy in its place and ensure further continuity. With that accomplished, the ruling class was able, in its collective interest, to put the fratricidal violence of the seventeenth century behind it and getting on with the serious business of making money. Presided over by grandees-come-oligarch godfathers like Sir Robert Walpole, imperial expansion into the Americas and the Indian subcontinent proceeded, vast wars with Spain and France were undertaken to cement Britain as a new global power, and a kind of military-commercial complex began to emerge, creating “another kind of army ... bond-holders, tax-assessors and accountants; customs and excise men, thousands upon thousands of them”, tied together by patronage and collective self interest (Schama(a):277).

A further, critical source of growth for the new commercial aristocracy was the slave trade. “By the middle of the eighteenth century, the mercantile ‘empire of liberty’ was critically dependent for its fortune on the economic universe made from slavery” (Schama(a):343). Britain’s single most valuable import was the sugar produced by three quarters of a million West Indian slaves, generating huge personal fortunes and general enrichment which was in turn to transform both the economy and British society. The ports of Bristol and Liverpool developed and expanded significantly as a direct result of the transatlantic trade. The great library at All Soul’s College, Oxford was built thanks to a donation from the Codmingtons of Barbados. The banking houses of Barclays and Lloyds grew rich, and reinvested in manufacturing. And the nouveaux riches of the trade were now throwing their weight around in Westminster and the City of London.

By the latter part of the eighteenth century, the nature of the nation state that had been created by those who had defeated democracy, and their heirs, was reasonably clear. It was this Britain which would produce the 19th century empire that really set the scene for today’s global, informal empire.

Creating a World Economy

The “long nineteenth century”, dating from the French Revolution to the outbreak of World War I, has been described, most notably by Hobsbawm in his magisterial works on this period, as being the era in which bourgeois political, economic, cultural and ideological forms rose into the ascendency across the globe, remaking the international political economy in their image (Hobsbawm 1962, 1975 & 1987). Though, as noted above, a propertied class of oligarchs had been making its presence felt as a leading player in the governance of Britain from at least the days of the Cromwellian republic, it was in the “long nineteenth century” that the old aristocracy was decisively sidelined by a new, modern bourgeoisie. This was a development that was either completed, begun or at least had its presence felt across the globe. But as the country in which the industrial revolution originated, and whose imperial power and scope was most extensive, it was Britain – or to be more precise, the elites that governed Britain - that took the lead in this revolutionary process.

Britain set itself up at the centre of a global web of economic activity. As Giovanni Arrighi explains:

The recycling of imperial tribute extracted from the colonies into capital invested all over the world enhanced London’s comparative advantage as a world financial centre vis-à-vis competing centres such as Amsterdam and Paris. This....made London the natural home of haute finance – a closely knit body of cosmopolitan financiers whose global networks were turned into yet another instrument of British government of the interstate system” (Arrighi:54)

In addition, by opening itself up as the consumer market for the world’s producers, Britain made itself the indispensable hub of international economic activity; indispensable, in particular, to a growing international economic class who relied upon British finance to expand their businesses and British consumers to purchase their products. Arrighi notes that

the national communities that had risen to power in the Americas and in many parts of Europe [in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries] were primarily communities of property-holders....It was these communities that formed the “natural” constituency of British free trade hegemony” (Arrighi:56)

Property-holders remained the leading or governing force at the imperial centre as well as in the colonies, dominions, and areas subject to Britain’s effective control. Successive waves of popular protest against elite rule and in favour of representative democracy were beaten back by the British state (most notably in the wake of the French revolution, and again in the Chartist movement of the mid-nineteenth century) with the use of political repression and occasional outright violence. Political reform, when it did come, was piecemeal and aimed at buying off as small a sliver as possible of the propertied lower-orders so that the rest could be safely ignored. Universal male suffrage without any property qualification was only achieved after World War I, with female suffrage coming later still. The domination of British politics by property was near-total during the nineteenth century (to say nothing of its continuation after that) (Foot:45-237; Schama (b):13-109).

So when we speak of British imperialism, we should consider the term as shorthand. It was not the miners of Merthyr Tydfil who dictated terms to Tipu Sultan of Mysore or the Khedive of Egypt, but a British state firmly in the control of an economic elite; an elite more given to collaborative political and economic action with similar classes than with its own compatriots.

This international class also possessed a legitimising ideology for the pursuit of its self interest. The British mode of imperialism, Arrighi goes on to say, “established the principle that the laws operating within and between states were subject to the higher authority of a new, metaphysical entity – a world market ruled by its own ‘laws’ – allegedly endowed with supernatural powers” (Arrighi:55). These laws were adhered to even at times when departing from them might have saved thousands, or millions of lives, as in the case of the Irish potato famine and the epic famines that gripped British-ruled India in the latter part of the nineteenth century (Schama(b):195-235). There seems little doubt that British officials such as Edward Bulwer-Lytton and Charles Trevelyan, who presided over these calamities, genuinely felt that to defy the market and simply provide relief for the starving was, though it is hard to comprehend it today, not the moral course of action. The strength of the legitimising ideology that accompanied British economic and imperial power was demonstrated by the fact that it was sincerely believed and religiously adhered to even when tested to obvious and total destruction.

Another key component of this ideology was the notion that British imperial rule was a form of altruistic missionary work whose purpose was not only to benefit Britain but to benefit its imperial subjects as well. Self-rule, in India for example, would be introduced just as soon as the country, in Britain’s judgement, was again able to stand on its own two feet as a fully-fledged member of the modern world. It was, it seemed, merely a happy coincidence that the point where India suddenly and mysteriously mislaid its ability to govern itself (after centuries of producing a succession of the world’s leading civilisations) was the very same point in history that Britain appeared on the scene, ready to nurse the patient back to health and, again entirely coincidentally, make an enormous profit in doing so.

It should also be noted that when the empire did eventually withdraw it did so at a point when it was no longer physically capable of maintaining control over the colonies in the face of strong pressure from highly mobilised and dedicated independence movements. Moreover, those independence movements often drew their liberatory philosophies from their own histories and not from the British tradition in which they were allegedly being educated. For example, in the case of India, Gandhi’s concept of ‘satyagraha’ – truth, and love even for one’s oppressor, as a liberating force – was very much an indigenous concept. Moreover, Gandhi not only rejected the version of modernity imposed by British rule, but hoped to liberate both the oppressed and, perhaps, even the oppressor from what he saw as the false idols of profit and power. There was a civilising mission at work here, but it was being instigated not by Whitehall, but against it (Schama(b):292). In the end, democracy in the former colonies was not an achievement of Britain’s liberal empire so much as a result of its defeat. And yet, though it is easy to be cynical, in hindsight, about oxymoronic notions of a liberating empire, there is little doubt that they were held by the likes of Thomas Macaulay and James Mill with as much sincerity as their freely expressed contempt for Indian civilisation as they found it (Schama(b): 199-212).

In summary, many of the key features of the today’s informal imperialism were present also in Britain’s more formal imperialism of eighteenth and nineteenth century: the role of commercial activity in binding countries and economies together in the specific interests of a certain, transnational class, with one particularly powerful state taking the lead role in the system, and with that system legitimised by an ideology that recast the intrinsically non-democratic exertion of economic and political power in the interests of that class as a high-minded civilising mission undertaken in accordance with liberal values.

Britain’s informal imperialism

Additionally, no review of the commonalities and continuities between Britain’s formal empire and modern informal imperialism could ignore the fact that informal empire was also a key part of British imperialism. As Gallagher and Robinsion pointed out

It ought to be a commonplace that Great Britain during the nineteenth century expanded overseas by means of ‘informal empire’ as much as by acquiring dominion in the strict constitutional sense. ... [To ignore this in our studies of British imperialism] is rather like judging the size and character of icebergs solely from the parts above the water-line” (Gallagher & Robinsion:1).

After all, as Gallagher and Robinsion go on to say

Between 1815 and 1880, it is estimated, £1,187,000,000 in [British] credit had accumulated abroad, but no more than one-sixth was placed in the formal empire. Even by 1913, something less than half of the £3,975,000,000 of foreign investment lay inside the Empire. Similarly, in no year of the century did the Empire buy much more than one-third of Britain’s exports. The basic fact is that British industrialization caused an ever-expanding and intensifying development of overseas regions. Whether they were formally British or not, was a secondary consideration” (Gallagher & Robinsion:5)

In those parts of the world informally subjected to the rule of the British led system – for example Latin America (Brown; Gallagher & Robinsion) and the Middle East (Onley) – the continuities between imperialism past and present are even more in evidence. Access to markets and raw materials was secured through treaties, the exertion of political and economic influence, and the ever-present threat, in the background, of military force. While Britain’s formal empire was later to be dissolved, these informal structures of imperial power were to persist through the twentieth century and into the present day, albeit under new management.

Britain’s decline and the transition to globalised informal empire

Whilst Britain’s dominance of the world system was undermined by the industrialization of its rivals, eroding its head-start in the race into the modern world, it was the catastrophes of the period between 1914 and 1945 that dealt the fatal blows to the world’s first global empire. Whilst a world economy (or at least the basis for one) survived, Britain’s capacity to manage and control it was gone. What is interesting here is that the hegemon which replaced Britain – the United States – did not seize control of the system from its predecessor by force. In fact, the handover of power (though arguably a reality that was in any event irresistible) was conducted in a positively consensual manner.

As collaboration between [Britain and the US] developed [in the first half of the twentieth century], an influential strand of British political opinion came to designate the United States not just as Britain’s partner but as its natural successor to the leading role in the world system”

“These elites were motivated partly by cultural and ideological affinities, but also by the perception that both states shared an interest in promoting the conditions for a liberal international order. There [was] … sufficient common ground [between them] to make collaboration possible and to encourage the idea, particularly on the British side, of a project to transfer the role and responsibilities which Britain had once exercised as a hegemonic power to the United States. In this way, a transfer of hegemony was engineered between the two powers, which rested on collaboration rather than conflict. …. The decisive historical choice, which Britain made in 1940…was in favour of …. an open world economy – which required the acceptance of United States leadership. … The importance of being at the heart of an expanding world economy was in the end judged more important than the preservation of a regional sphere of interest
” (Gamble).

Hegemony therefore was not seen as a zero sum game. For leading members of the class that were the principal beneficiaries of the world system, the maintenance of that system was more important than which state in particular took the leading role in its management; and this assessment was shared even by those state managers who were relinquishing their own hegemonic role. This remarkably strong consensus on shared class interests is a key link between the past and present imperial systems under discussion in this paper.

Britain therefore stepped back to play a role as a component part of the US-managed system. Its defence capability was integrated with that of the US and other leading states through NATO and through collaboration on nuclear weapons systems. It maintained a leading role through the City of London in global finance and insurance. And it played a collaborative role, along with the United States, in maintaining discipline in the system, bringing states that threatened to choose divergent paths (sometimes in accordance with the wishes of their electorates) back into line. To this end, Britain involved itself in US-led coups and interventions in Iran, Indonesia and Iraq, to name a few, as well as providing military and diplomatic support to allied states within the system (Curtis:2003 & 2004). Though formal, territorial control was for almost invariably eschewed in the new system, perhaps through concerns over costs and feasibility (Gartzke), the effective control that Gallagher and Robinson identified as being the real issue, whatever particular form it took, remained the key consideration.

In the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the most notable of these interventions to take place in recent years, talk of democratisation obscured the strenuous efforts made by the occupiers to ensure that the new Iraqi state would conform to their own designs. As noted above, this involved extensive economic reforms undertaken by US diktat prior to any Iraqi elections being held. It also involved the stifling of indigenous attempts to craft democratic forms of governance in the immediate aftermath of the invasion, lest the wrong Iraqis come to power (Klein;Wearing). The attempt to create a friendly, Iraqi state, dependent on Western military power, integrated into the broader economic and political system, and with its supplies of resources secured for the benefit of that system was, in most fundamental respects, entirely consistent with the previous informal imperialism practised by Britain in the Middle East (Onley).


My focus on the commonalities and continuities between these two imperial forms should not be taken as a denial of the significant differences that are apparent between the modern world and the world that was dominated by Britain a hundred years ago. The ability of the leading states to impose themselves militarily on other parts of the world is much diminished, as is the willingness of western publics to tolerate the misdeeds of their governments. It is inconceivable, for example, that a country where hundreds of thousands protested the invasion of Iraq even before it had begun would allow its government to be complicit in anything so horrific as the Indian famines of the late Victorian era, in which Britain can reasonably be accused of having a hand in the deaths of millions. And in addition to the diminished power of the leading states, we must also recognise the significant differences in the way power is distributed in the system. As noted above, economic activity takes place beyond the reach of the state system to an unprecedented extent. This in turn accentuates the leading role in the system of the elite transnational classes above and beyond the role of states.

Nevertheless, it must also be acknowledged that the thematic threads we can trace from the history of British imperialism right up to the present day represent fundamental aspects of empire that we would prefer to believe had by now been consigned to history. Large disparities in power and wealth, the ability of a relatively narrow elite to control the major social, political and economic institutions to serve its own interest, and in doing so to frequently deny self-determination or even a decent life to large swathes of the world population are issues of such urgency and importance than no meaningful agenda of research into the international political economy can overlook them whilst retaining its credibility. Though the distinctions between previous formal empires and modern, informal imperialism are clearly important, the ties that bind them are equally worthy of our attention.


Arrighi. G., (1994), “The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times”, (London:Verso)

Brown. M., "Introduction: Informal Empire in Latin America: Culture, Commerce and Capital", Bulletin of Latin American Research, 27(1), 2008, 1-22

Chomsky. N., (1993), “Year 501: The Conquest Continues”, (London:Verso)

Curtis. M., (2003), “Web of Deceit: Britain’s Real Role in The World”, (London:Vintage)

Curtis. M., (2004), “Unpeople: Britain's Secret Human Rights Abuses”, (London:Vintage)

Foot. P., (2005), “The Vote – How it Was Won and How it Was Undermined”, (London: Viking)

Gallagher. J., & Robinson.R., “The Imperialism of Free Trade”, The Economic History Review, 6(1), 1953, p1-15

Gamble. A., "Hegemony and Decline: Britain and the United States," in Two Hegemonies: Britain 1846-1914 and the United States 1941-2001, O'Brien.P.K & Clesse.A. (eds), (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing: 2002), p 127-140.

Gartzke.E. & Rohner.D., "To Conquer or Compel: Economic Development and Interstate Conflict", 2006

Hobsbawm. E., (1962), “The Age of Revolutions: 1789-1848”, (London:Abacus)

Hobsbawm. E., (1975), “The Age of Capital: 1848-1875”, (London:Abacus)

Hobsbawm. E., (1987), “The Age of Empire: 1875-1914”, (London:Abacus)

Hobsbawm. E., “The Development of the World Economy”, Cambridge Journal of Economics, 3, 1979, p305-318

Klein. N., (2008), “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”, (London:Penguin)

Onley. J., “Britain’s Informal Empire in the Gulf: 1820-1971”, Journal of Social Affairs, 22(87), 2005, p29-45

Robinson. W. I., “Gramsci and Globalisation: From Nation State to Transnational Hegemony”, Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 8(4), 2005, p559-574

Schama.S., (2003), “A History of Britain 2: The British Wars: 1603-1776”, (London: BBC Worldwide) – (“Schama(a)”)

Schama.S., (2003), “A History of Britain 3: The Fate of Empire: 1776-2000”, (London: BBC Worldwide) - (“Schama(b)”)

Strange. S., “The Westfailure System”, Review of International Studies, 25, 1999, p345-354

Wearing. D., "Britain's Failure In Iraq", Le Monde Diplomatique (English edition), November 2007.

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Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Israel's "right" to exist

A commenter on my last post draws attention to the political platform of the Israeli Likud party, likely winners of next week’s legislative elections. According to information on the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) website (which I assume reflects the current position), Likud still opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state.

Recall that when the Palestinians in the occupied territories elected Hamas to power in January 2006, Israel and its Western allies instituted a boycott against the territories on the basis that, amongst other pretexts, one cannot enter into dialogue with a group – Hamas - that doesn’t recognise the “right” of Israel to exist. That boycott turned into a blockade, condemned by leading aid agencies, which created a humanitarian disaster in the Gaza strip, with children becoming malnourished and people dying from lack of medical treatment. All because Hamas’ alleged extremism rendered it persona non grata at the high table of international diplomacy.

Put aside the fact that Hamas has long accepted the reality of Israel’s existence, dismissing the idea of doing otherwise as “infantile”. Put aside the fact that for Palestinians to go further than merely accepting Israel’s existence - for them to say that Israel has the “right” to exist - would mean them accepting that it was “right” for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to have been subjected to the brutal ethnic cleansing operation that brought the creation of the Israeli state on the ashes of the former Palestinian homeland.

Put all that aside and just consider the sheer, rampant hypocrisy. Israeli leaders (not just Likud) have consistently denied Palestine's "right to exist" as an equal state alongside Israel, not just in word but - crucially, given the vast power-imbalance - in deed. Despite this, no supporter of Palestinian national rights would argue that the Palestinians should refuse to negotiate and agree a peaceful settlement with the elected Israeli government. This illustrates pretty clearly, I think, which side of this debate has a genuine interest in peace and which side clings to flimsy excuses to avoid it.

Its worth saying something else about the "right to exist". Israel does not have the right to exist, and neither does Palestine. Things do not have rights, people have rights. My laptop, my biro, my tea cup, do not have rights. They, like states, have uses which they either do or do not serve successfully.

Jews and Arabs have the equal right as human beings to live in peace and security and with full self-determination. Whatever set-up you have in former Mandate Palestine - a Jewish and an Arab state side by side, a single democratic state for both peoples – is only justified in so far as it serves the purpose of safeguarding those human rights. The current set-up – an Israeli state that confers racial privilege on its Jewish over its Arab inhabitants, with the rest of the Palestinians either locked into dungeon-like conditions in modern day Indian reservations, or exiled altogether – has no justification in terms of any recognisable concept of “rights”.

Those who talk about Israel’s “right” to exist have forgotten a principle – that states are entirely subordinate to human rights – which has been understood by democrats for centuries.

Over two hundred years ago, the American founding fathers, when articulating the fundamental principles of democracy, said that:

"We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable; that all men are created equal and independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying it's foundation on such principles and organising it's powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness." [my emphasis]

According to these principles, it is quite legitimate to consider the abolition of the state of Israel, if that is what “shall seem most likely to effect [the] safety and happiness” of the Jews and Arabs of the region. There is no “right” for a state to persist in circumstances where it presents an obstacle to the honouring of basic human rights. As it happens, I don’t support calls for the abolition of the state of Israel. But the principles at work here need to be understood.

The idea that a state has the "right to exist" directly contradicts the principles set forth by the early democrats in their struggles against the monarchical tyrannies of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The man who led the intellectual counter-charge against democracy, Edmund Burke, said:

"The occupation of the hairdresser or of a working tallow-chandler cannot be a matter of honour to any person...Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression if such as they ... are permitted to rule" (Simon Schama's "History of Britain III", pg 43)

Consider the value-system set out here by Burke. The danger of the state oppressing the population must be balanced against the danger of the population oppressing the state.

Those who reject negotiations with Hamas to help end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, on the basis that Hamas rejects Israel's "right" to exist, are - in moral terms - taking the same backward, anti-democratic position as Edmund Burke two-hundred years ago, when he defended the old monarchies of Europe against the threat of the “swinish multitude”. The rights of people are subordinated to the alleged "rights" of the state. The right of the Palestinians for their desperate situation to be resolved, so they can live decent lives free from hunger, poverty and violence, is subordinated to the "right" of the Israeli state to exist in whatever form it chooses, whatever the human cost, and to have that "right" affirmed by its victims. Until the Palestinians bow down before the fake "rights" of the Israeli state, their actual rights will continue to be denied to them.

Israel likes to present itself as a bulwark of enlightened Western democracy, resisting the advances of the swarthy Islamic hordes. In reality, the Israeli state, and those who would see Palestinian lives sacrificed on the alter of its “right” to exist, are the moral equivalent of the pre-Enlightenment reactionaries of monarchical 18th century Europe. The barbarism of Israel’s recent massacres in Gaza is partially an outcome of the perverse morality that subordinates the rights of human beings to the “rights” of a state.

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Britain, 1789-1867: In the Shadow of Revolution

Continuing my notes on the evolution of the British political economy and Britain's foreign policy. I've now moved on to the third in Simon Schama's "History of Britain" books, and the following is drawn from the first three chapters of that volume, all quotes being Schama's unless otherwise stated (this time, I've included page references in the text).
As before, rather than just summarising the chapters in question I'm pulling out and offering my own comments on those parts pertinient to my PhD research, skipping the less relevant bits. While the following interpretation of events will inevitably be influenced by Schama's writing, it remains my own, so any inaccuracies or misjudgements are my responsibility.

A final introductory point: these notes concentrate on the battle for political reform in Britain during the period in question, and what's striking is that a battle is just what it was. We are given the impression by politicians and opinion-makers today that liberty and democracy are serenely interwoven into the very nature of Britain and Britishness itself. That while other countries arrived at democracy through the painful processes of revolutionary bloodbath or colonial instruction, Britain's liberty simply blossomed into being in the natural, unflustered and unhurried course of things. This is very much not the case.

Britain's becoming a democracy was a long-drawn out and deeply contested affair. It was, essentially, a bitter and protracted struggle, lasting well over a hundred years, between a cruelly-treated and increasingly agitated and mobilised popular majority, on the one hand, and on the other, the vested interests of the governing elite, who fought tooth-and-nail to maintain their decidedly non-democratic hold on power. This struggle occasionally saw Britain under what we would today describe as something tantamount to martial law or even a military occupation, as the authorities stamped down hard on the pro-democracy movement with all the force they could muster. Battles were fought, dissidents imprisoned, traitors executed. It should be understood that, at this time, the elites felt a genuine fear of popular revolution, and that these fears were well founded. Above all, the history shows that British democracy was not a gift from the great and the good but a victory won by the dedicated efforts of millions of ordinary people.

Far from being an age of linear “progress”, the long nineteenth century saw a range of competing forces at work. The most noted of these forces, the industrial revolution and the birth of modern capitalist economics and associated modes of production and social relations, was but one of many narratives, though others could, to an extent, be seen as reactions to it.

The Romantics – comprising a number of poets, philosophers, writers, artists – were repelled by the mechanisation of the times, and pined for an uncorrupted arcadian life of moral purity and simplicity. Their leading light was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who saw childhood as the humanity’s prelapsarian state, to be cherished, encouraged, and referred back to throughout one’s life.

The romanticisation of rural life was a natural reaction to the upheaval that was taking place in the country, where traditional ways of life were being swept away by the new economics, and at serious human cost. Acts of Parliament were being passed to enforce land “enclosure”, i.e. the transformation of commonly held and worked land into private property to be exploited on a large scale business model. These Acts were voted for by MPs who, like the tiny electorate permitted to vote for them, were themselves landowners. Those who lost the smallholdings upon which their families had relied for countless generations had no say in the matter. To justify this, the classic colonial rationale for landgrabs around the world was employed in a domestic context: those unable to make best use of the land are to forfeit it (“best use” to be defined by the expropriators). p30

The new landowers set about raising rents, pushing many tenents off the land and towards the cities, into new forms of work, such as manufacturing. This resulted, not only in pauperisation for many, but also in the transformation and destabilisation of the existing social and political order. “The country came out of the fiery years of food riots, troop mobilizations and hangings [in the late eighteenth century] with its institutions intact but with its faith in the paternalism and even the moral legitimacy of the aristocracy, the judiciary, shaken”. p33. The English landowning oligarchy that was busy accumulating ever greater economic and political power was now viewed with widespread mistrust, as was the established political order.

“That Parliament needed reform [in the 1780s] was obvious. The electorate was actually 3 per cent smaller than it had been before the Civil War; there were rotton boroughs, like Old Sarum with an electorate of seven, which still returned a member. ‘Placemen’ bought their seats on the understanding that they would vote with the government; and the newly populous towns were grossly under-represented.” p35

Joining the Romantics in their concern over social and moral issues such as poverty and slavery were the non-conformist churches such as those of the Unitarians and the Methodists. These played a major part in a general political awakening which saw debating societies springing up all over the country, “including some in London expressly for women”. p36

The establishment was represented by the two-party system of Tories and Whigs. For the Tories, it was absolutely correct that the monarch, Church of England, and Parliament of property owners should govern the land, and that the people should obey their natural masters. For the marginally less illiberal Whigs, the toleration and regular elections instituted by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 were all the reform that was needed.

But the ideas of Thomas Paine and the American revolutionaries, of sovereignty resting ultimately with the people and of government as a task contracted out to those capable of performing it and only for as long as they were so capable, were finding a receptive audience amongst radical Whigs and yet more radical groups outside of Parliament. These sentiments were not marginal but widely popular – outside of the narrow governing class – and when the French Revolution came in 1789 it represented a profound and immediate new source of inspiration (and, for the elite, fear). There were now competing claims on the patriot-myth of England/Britain as history’s beacon of liberty, with the new democrats portraying the establishment as, essentially, traitors to the national spirit; less authentically “British” than the American and French revolutionaries.
In his “Reflections on the Revolution in France”, Edmund Burke poured scorn on the Romantic philosophy that had supported the overthrow of the ancien regime. Burke rejected the idea of universal rights born of nature. Nature, for Burke, was something quite different, represented by the established order, tried and trusted over centuries, which the Romantics would seen done away with and replaced with the tyranny of the baying mob. Burke pointed to the ugly turn events had taken in France to make his point that the “swinish multitude” neither had the right, nor were they fit, to govern. Burke declared:

“The occupation of the hairdresser or of a working tallow-chandler cannot be a matter of honour to any person...Such descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression if such as they ... are permitted to rule” [my emphasis] p43

The liberals responded to Burke with equal force. Mary Wollstonecraft in her “Vindication of the Rights of Man” wondered aloud where Burke’s attachment to hereditary monarchy had been when he had supported, with some haste and enthusiasm, George III’s being replaced by the Prince Regent, who also happened to be Burke’s patron’s patron. When Burke had claimed that God had hurled King George from his throne, had he not sounded a little, well, French? p45 Thomas Paine’s reply to Burke, “Rights of Man”, massively outsold “Reflections”, becoming the best-seller of the century. Part II of that book set forth a radical welfare state agenda, advocating resdistribution of wealth through progressive taxation.

There was now a real groundswell of radical politics, not just in London but in the ‘new Britain’ of Glasgow, Manchester, Sheffield, Derby, Nottingham and Newcastle. The 282-41 defeat in Parliament of a very mild reform bill in 1793 only served to strengthen the revolutionary strand within this movement against their more reformist comrades. The government responded with brutality to the new popular politics, banning “seditious” assemblies, arresting the movement’s leaders and shipping them off to Australia p51. Prime Minister William Pitt warned of “bloody revolution” if Paine’s ideas caught on p52. When war with France began in 1793, the opportunity was quickly grasped to brand the radicals as traitors.


Mary Wollstonecraft followed up her attack on Burke with “A Vindication of the Rights of Woman”, proposing a feminist element to the liberal revolution. “Many of [the book’s] insights – the conditioning of girls to correspond to male stereotypes – of the doll-playing, dress-loving minature coquette; the surrender of independence of mind and body for the slavery of idolization; the assumption that their anatomy disqualified them from serious thought – have since become commonplaces of the feminist critique of a male ordered world. But when Mary Wollstonecraft set them out they were still profoundly shocking, even to those who thought themselves on the side of Progress and Liberty” p59. The latter point was especially true since Wollstonecraft had attacked the Romantic’s patron saint, Rousseau, for his espousal of the notion of biologically-determined female subserviance.

Wollstonecraft, like Paine and others, moved to revolutionary France as a sort of political-philosophical pilgramage, but soon became horrified by the bloodletting and terror and disillusioned with what the revolution had become. Paine, though he had publically opposed to execution of Louis XIV, stuck with the revolution longer than Wollstonecraft. Indeed, he was even nominated by Napoleon Bonaparte to be head of the government in a post-invasion Britain. But as time went on and Bonapartist tyranny revealed itself, Paine renounced Napoleon in strong terms and left France.

Meanwhile in Britain, the authorities were clamping down hard on dissent. Advocating republicanism or even male suffrage were now classed as treason. Habeas corpus was suspended, and hundreds imprisoned. But the combination of a failing war effort, an economic slump and food shortages made Britain a difficult place to control. Mass protest meetings were held, riots broke out, and, in a near-echo of events in France, the King’s coach was attacked by a mob, with King George barely escaping with his life p67-8. Pitt responded by extending the sedition laws yet further.

“Not surprisingly, the combination of propaganda, gang intimidation, genuinely patriotic volunteer militias, censorship, political spying and summary arrests [deployed against the dissidents] succeeded in stopping the momentum of democratic agitation” p69.

How best to crush the threat of democracy was by no means Pitt’s only concern. Bonaparte’s France now controlled Europe, while Ireland - Britain’s swinging back-door - was becoming unstable. Concessions to the Catholics, aimed at forstalling the threat of their becoming a strategic asset of France, only succeeded in angering the Protestants; and when moves towards greater Irish autonomy were hastily withdawn, no-one was happy. There was enough discontent for a revolt to start but, even with France’s help, not enough to expel the British. Instead, a huge wave of violence erupted before Ireland was eventually absorbed fully into Britain in 1801.

The real threat of invasion in 1804-5 rallied the public to the cause of King and Country, but by 1807 the dissenters were back, ending the slave trade (though not slave ownership) in the Empire with a huge petitioning campaign.

At the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson had ended the threat of invasion, but not Napleon’s power in Europe. Britain was now shut out of European markets. Continental industruy thrived under this protection, but the British economy staggered and stumbled. Unemployment and food prices soared, “Luddites” expressed their outrage by smashing machinery and a ruined businessman assasinated Prime Minister Perceval.

By 1813 “[s]ome 12,000 regular troops – more than Wellington had to use against the French – were stationed at home to deal with the marches, riots and machine-wrecking that had become a regular feature of British life” p92.

When Napoleon was finally defeated altogether in 1815, the potential gains in terms of lower food prices were negated by the Corn Law protection granted to landowners, which allowed them to enrich themselves further while the poor – their ranks swelled by war-veterans – went hungry.

These social iniquities drew the ire of writers such as Williams Hazlitt and Cobbett, who attacked a governing class that claimed itself inheritor of England’s rural tradtion even as its enclosures and Corn Laws drove the people of the countryside into destitution. There was an audience for these views in both urban and rural areas, since “the industrial towns of Lancashire, Yorkshire and the Midlands were crammed with first-generation migrants from [the new] capital intensive, labour-extensive, commercialized countryside. Both [urban and rural dwellers] were now suffering” through lack of work and poverty wages p98. Cobbett noted the correlation between agrarian reform, private wealth and public squalor, since it was not in the north and north-west but in “the grain-belt of the Home Counties and East Anglia, where land had been most heavily exploited to maximise profit [that] the condition of the labourers was worst” p99.

Though no saint - and in fact a pretty vicious racist towards Blacks and, especially, Jews - Cobbett was also, through his ‘Weekly Political Register’ which sold in vast numbers, a major force behind mass political mobilization against (other) social and economic injustices in Britain. And when, in 1819, soldiers charged with swords drawn into a crowd of 50-60,000 in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, causing 11 deaths and 421 serious injuries (the latter number including 100 women and small children) in what became known as the “Peterloo massacre”, it was clear that this popular mobilization, and the backlash from the authorities, was to be no sideshow in British politics. Even a further round of state repression, and the imprisonment by the end of 1820 of most of the democratic movement’s leaders, could not mask that fact, at least not for long.

Political movements augmented by the non-conformist churches and now organised as pressure groups in the recognisably modern sense formed to take up the causes of civil rights for Irish Catholics and the abolition of slavery. It is now believed that one in five adult males signed an abolitionist petition in 1787, 1814 or 1833 p104. Elite claims that political dissatisfaction was confined to the margins and got up by extremists and foreigners – which Schama says were even echoed in the school textbooks of his childhood – were a self-serving fantasy. Dissidence of whatever colour was the political mainstream. It was Parliament that was at the margins.

In 1830, more high prices, unemployment and continued poverty wages brought the southern counties out into open revolt, which the authorities put down with force. 19 rebels were executed with a further 200 death sentences commuted to transportation to Australia.

The fear of revolution was now causing many in the ruling elite to think seriously about pre-emptive political reform. Tory Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington, ruled it out, despite having previously backed down on Irish Catholic emancipation, but he was soon gone, replaced by a Whig administration promising serious changes. Riots in Derbyshire, Nottingham and Bristol served to further concentrate their minds; the town of Merthyr Tydfil had even been briefly occupied by the rebels. Lords reform was effected to remove that barrier to franchise extention,and the Reform Act was finally passed in 1832.

The Act was one of establishment self-preservation, not democratic emancipation. The vote was only extended to men holding £10’s worth of property which, as the Whigs calculated correctly, was enough to split and weaken the democratic movement, albeit temporarily.

So Britain was still not a democracy, and nor would it be for the better part of a hundred years. But the efforts of this revolutionary generation had not been for nothing. In 1833 Britain outlawed slavery in all its colonies “at a time, notwithstanding recent historical writing, when the demand for slave-products was actually increasing and not diminishing” p108. The monopoly of the Church of England was weakened by the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act. And, most important of all, the voices and concerns of ordinary people had, through their own self-organised and sustained actions, become impossible for the ruling elite to ignore. Their struggle was far from over.


Though the Great Exhibition of 1851 was intended to showcase a nation singing in harmony – unifying the rural and the urban, religion and technological progress, the ‘quality’ and the great unwashed - fear of mass revolt was still never far away. The now octogenarian Duke of Wellington, as commander of the garrison of London, judged that the capital would only be secure at any one time with no less than 15,000 troops on stand-by, backing up a huge police presence p115.

The Duke was right to be nervous. The preceding decade had seen enormous political unrest, made even more threatening to the existing order when seen in the context of events on the continent, where revolutions were forever bubbling under or exploding through the surface. The 1832 Reform Act, predictably since it had not empowered the general population, had not resulted in an improvement in their conditions. Cities like Manchester, for example, were the scenes of appalling levels of squalor. In that city, the life-expectancy of ‘mechanics and labourers’ in 1842 was, statistically, 17. For ‘professional persons’ it was 38. Unemployment stood at between a quarter and a third. Disease and ill-health was rife. p133

The attitude of the Victorian ‘quality’ towards its inferiors was not one that we are entirely unfamiliar with today. There was a keenly perceived moral hazard to be avoided in allowing the poor any kind of social safety net. Poverty was, after all, clearly the result of some moral failing such as sloth; a view which, based as it was on the assumption that economic outcomes were a reflection of virtue, had the happy side-effect of casting the well-to-do in a semi-saintly glow. What measures were therefore taken to prevent the poor from simply dying altogether needed to be as harsh as possible, so as not to encourage idleness. The result was the workhouses, popularly known as the ‘Bastilles’ whose inmates were brutally shorn to make them instantly identifiable on the outside. A society which claimed to see the family as the first school of virtue saw fit, in the workhouses, to seperate husbands from their wives and parents from their children. The ‘Bastilles’ were designed to replicate prisons so closely that people would take any kind of legitimate work to avoid them. In this sense, they must have helped underwrite the most exploitative employment practices. Employers like the Manchester oligarchs saw profits, not the condition of their employees, as their primary concern. Low wages were simply an economic fact-of-life since higher wages would threaten business, and where would we all be then?

This was how the higher classes rationalized a status quo that they so happened to benefit enormously from. But their worldview did not go uncontested. In 1839, 1842 and 1848, millions signed petitions in favour of a People’s Charter demanding universal male suffrage with no property qualifications, equal votes, annual Parliaments, paid MPs and the secret ballot. The rationale was put succinctly by Bronterre O’Brien, editor of the ‘Poor Man’s Guardian’:

“Knaves tell you that it is because you have no property that you are unrepresented. I tell you, on the contrary, it is because you have no representation that you have no property” p135

With their demands ignored by Parliament, a distinction (though not a schism) became visible in the Chartist movement between reformers (favouring “moral force”) and revolutionaries (favouring “physical force”). In the autumn of 1839 armed uprisings in South Wales and Yorkshire resulted in “the largest loss of life inflicted by a British government on its own people at any time in the nineteenth or twentieth centuries” when 15 were killed and at least 50 seriously injured in a battle with Chartist rebels at Newport. The 1840s saw the Chartists develop into a well-organised, centrally co-ordinated pressure group, with individual active units answerable to a central office.

So when the massive Chartists demonstration on Kennington Common, south London coincided – in April 1848 – with the ‘springtime of the people’ in a Europe set ablaze by revolution, the governing class, for all its patronizing sniggering at the jumped up hoi polloi, was, in truth, plain scared. London had to be defended, lest the demonstrators decide that they would not be going home until they had got the democracy they came for.

“Some 85,000 men were sworn in as special constables to supplement the 4,000 Peelers of Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police and 8,000 regular troops. Government offices were barricaded with crate-loads of official papers and copies of Hansard. Guns and cannon were posted at critical sites: the Bank of England and the Tower of London. The Stock Exchange volunteered some 300 of its own employees as ‘specials’ to defend the bastion of captitalism. Defenses, complete with light artillery, were set up on the Mall to prevent access to Buckingham Palace. (The royal family had in any case, on the advice of the government, taken themselves off to the Isle of Wight to avoid anything disagreeable.)” p140-1

In the end, determined to prove themselves emphatically not the bloodthirsty Jacobins of elitist scaremongering, and perhaps less than confident in their ability to successfully effect an armed revolution in any event, the Chartists’ demonstration passed off for the most part peacefully. This may have proved the high water mark of militant Chartism, but the energies generated by the movement did not fizzle out. Rather, they were channeled into trade unionism, cooperatives, friendly societies and other vehicles of working class empowerment and self-determination. Schama argues, plausibly, that it may have been this new, less confrontational manifestation of discontent amongst the masses that caused Parliament to allow household male suffrage in the second Reform Act of 1867, less fearful perhaps than it had been nineteen years earlier, of letting in the Jacobins by the backdoor. It is also possible that the improved economic conditions of the years between 1848 and 1867 drew some of the militancy out of the pro-democracy movement. In any event, the mobilised general public had won another victory from their masters and Britain had taken another small step towards democracy.

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