The German Vaccine

We’ve just had our first ‘jabs’. We had to wait for them longer than we would have done in the UK, but English friends are congratulating us for having been given the Pfizer vaccine, rather than the Astra-Zeneca. I understand that doubts are being raised over the latter. And that as a result the tabloids in Britain have stopped calling it the ‘Oxford vaccine’: is that right? In fact the development of all these vaccines is tribute to internationalism, which the Right-wing press clearly don’t like. There was a Swedish input into Astra-Zeneca, but you don’t get people here calling it the ‘Swedish vaccine’. Nationalism really is a revolting thing when it tries to ride on the back of saving lives.

I know nothing about the relative merits of these vaccines, simply because it’s complicated and I don’t have the knowledge. It’s not because: ‘oh, you can’t ever believe anything these people say’, which seems to be a common response these days to just about anything that politicians, especially, tell us. It’s a lazy attitude, releasing us from the necessity of inquiring and checking. I can understand why it’s so widespread, in view of the number of times we have been fooled by Establishment figures in past history; and in view of the blatant lies and even crimes of Britain’s present set of leaders. ‘Dodgy Dave’ is the latest; how unjust that Dennis Skinner was removed from Parliament by the Speaker for calling him that just a few years ago! Boris is far worse, of course, and Rees-Mogg not much better. 

I wonder where these three learned their immorality? Perhaps at their schools….? – Wait a minute: isn’t that something they all have in common? Perhaps we should find out what that school was, and get it closed down? 

Otherwise, writing is going fast – 25,000 words so far – but I’m doing that thing I always do, in common, probably, with most writers: waking up in the night convinced that it’s all crap. My problem is that sometimes it is crap. I’ll take a break from it now, to recover from what everyone tells me will be my body’s reaction to the jab. (Or is that just Astra-Zeneca?)

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Paus

Immersed in my new book now (10,000 words under my belt!), so little time to blog. Hence the radio silence recently. There’s so much nonsense (in Britain) to write about, but I can’t see how I can add to what others are saying. We’re still on our island, having endured a whole winter here, which is rather heroic; but deliveries from Systembolaget have kept us going. (Two boxes of wine a week and a bottle of gin every fortnight – is that excessive?) We hope to go over to the UK in July – I need to check references – but that depends of course on the plague and travel restrictions. No jabs for us yet – we blame Boris for stealing all the EU’s Astra-Zenicas; but we’re hoping to get those next week. I’ll be back blogging sometime. In the meantime, here’s a rather good piece about the stereotypical picture of us ‘Ex-Pats’ I picked up on the net recently.

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Patriotic History

Started work on my new book. Title: A Patriot’s History of Britain. The idea of that is to lure and mislead Rightists into buying or borrowing it, after which they’ll either realise it’s not for them, and throw it away angrily; or stay with it to become enlightened. But it’s not just intended to deceive. One of the book’s underlying messages will be that ‘patriotism’ can be selective, and yet still give one the warm, proud feeling that a more uncritical kind apparently does. And it will carry the lesson that the highest form of patriotism is the one that makes you want to make your country better; and that to do that you need a realistic grasp of how it is presently, and was in the past.

It will be my answer to all this ‘flag’ rubbish. The book will be brief (200+ pages), and hopefully popular. (I can carry my learning lightly when I try.)  I’ve sent a proposal to Bloomsbury, who served me pretty well with my last book. Let’s see what comes of it. 

I thought this might make a good Introductory quote:

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The Wolf of Downing Street

One thing that the pandemic has taught us is the inadequacy of the ‘free market’ when it comes to crises. The fact that it’s the most Neoliberal nations in the world which currently have the highest per capita death tolls from Covid-19 may be evidence of this. In the UK, the grotesque failures of the government’s preferred policy of commissioning private companies – usually Conservative Party donors or personal chums of ministers – to supply PPE and other medical necessities to tackle the crisis, at the loss of millions of pounds to the Exchequer (i.e. to us), are by now notorious. Crises like this surely require socialism (of one kind or another) to get us through them.

Which makes nonsense of the extraordinary claim made by Boris Johnson yesterday (https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-56504546), that the successful roll-out of the vaccine in Britain is proof – not only of the advantages of Brexit, which we would expect him to say – but also of the superiority of capitalism, no less; and more than that, of ‘greed’ (his word), so echoing the sentiment of the villainous Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVxYOQS6ggk): ‘Greed is Good!’ To me that sounds both stupid, and a possible clue to the path he’s leading us along.

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Buttered Crumpets

Some trivia!

We’re very lucky here, able to self-isolate together on this beautiful island; and unlikely to catch the virus, therefore, unless it can be spread – like a lot of diseases here – by the deers and badgers who are almost our only neighbours. We’ve got each other; and the telly, of course, and lots of ‘streamed’ programmes to watch – a terrible period drama on Netflix, sub-Jane Austen with added rumpy-pumpy; The Crown, which was OK; and The Detectorists, which we liked a lot – plus wi-fi and Zoom for our work and for Kajsa’s teaching. But we’ve been out in the sticks here for six months now, and are beginning to get just a little stir-crazy. Spring promised to come twice, but then disappointed, with more snow. And for me the last straw was running out of proper English marmalade. The stuff they make here is far too sweet.

Then, however, came salvation. First of all the local shop started stocking ‘Hasses Pomeransmarmelad’, which turns out to be made from Seville Oranges, and just like the marmalade I used to make dozens of jars of back in the day. Kajsa’s bought me six jars (50 kronor each). Apparently Hasse lives on the island. – And then we suddenly learned of a chap who makes crumpets, which I haven’t had for years. He’s an Englishman who used to be Chief Pastrycook at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm, no less. He’s going to post me some.

Good to see some resistance to Lady Macbeth’s Police Bill, though I’m not sure whether the violence in Bristol will hinder or help it. I wondered about agents provocateurs. I wouldn’t put it past this government to engineer a Reichstag Fire.

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Flags and Queens

Like many writers, I presume, my head and my filing cabinet are filled with opening chapters, paragraphs or just lines of books I thought of writing at one time, but never got round to. These began with an erotic novel I started on at the age of about 17, inspired I remember by Keats’s The Eve of St Agnes, but abandoned after I’d got the girl’s dress off, because Keats had given me no precise guidance as to what was supposed to follow. (Remember that 17-year olds were still virgins then.) After that I remember aborted works on the histories of anti-communism and anti-intellectualism; a full-length history of British travellers and residents in 19th-century Europe (in the end I managed to get a couple of articles out of this); a detective story set in the 1890s based on the pleasant fiction that Karl Marx hadn’t really died but was playing cricket for Gloucestershire (don’t ask); a biography of a Victorian indigo-farmer, cod philosopher and writer on Indian architecture called James Fergusson; a history of Sweden for Brits; a book on an early 19th-century Radical I discovered who had written Elementary school textbooks on dozens of subjects under the nom de plume of a fictional clergyman; a history of West Ham United football club; several autobiographies, left aside because I thought I was too boring; and probably some more projects I’ve thankfully forgotten.

The following is the start of a book proposal that I only thought of this morning. The title is intended to mislead Rightists into buying it. It’s for a short radical history of Britain, provoked by current events and a particular Tweet – mentioned at the beginning – that irritated me. Whether irritation is the best mood to write a serious work of history in is rather doubtful; as is my strength to undertake another substantial writing project at the age of 80. So this will probably go into the filing cabinet with all the other abortions. But in the meantime…

A Patriot’s History of Britain

‘Patriotism’ in Britain is usually associated with the political Right, and with allegiance to the Monarchy and the Flag. Recently a Conservative MP by the name of Lia Nici, representing the fishing port of Grimsby, tweeted that ‘if people are not proud to be British, or of our flag or Queen, they don’t have to live in the UK. Perhaps they should move to another country they prefer.’ My response to that, which will give an early clue as to the point of view to be taken in this book, is that I have indeed ‘moved to another country’ – Sweden, as it happens – but that I still desperately miss the old tolerant Britain we used to have before Brexit turned it into something I can no longer feel loyal towards. I think that could be said to make me at any rate a sort of ‘patriot’, if you don’t assume that Queen- and flag-loyalty are necessary for that. My allegiance is to another sort of Britain; not the entire essence of that country – I’m not claiming that this is the only way ‘Britishness’ can be conceived – but one of a collection of essences that together make up that complex multi-national entity.

Patriotism wasn’t always a conservative or reactionary thing. When Dr Johnson in 1775 famously called it ‘the last refuge of the scoundrel’, it was at a time when the term was more often used by democrats than by Tories, to describe their solidarity with peoples rather than with governments; and by the American revolutionaries of that day in particular. For much of the nineteenth century in Britain it was still seen as a radical or what today we would call a left-wing sentiment, probably until Disraeli appropriated it for his Conservative Party in the 1870s. It was then that ‘imperialism’ became associated with it too. Thereafter ‘patriotism’ never lost its right-wing connotations; which were, however, often disputed by radicals keen to emphasise the ‘British’ or ‘English’ historical origins of the anti-establishment causes they espoused. Usually those were placed in ‘Anglo-Saxon’ times, supposedly the fount of all Englishmen’s ‘liberties’, before they were taken from them by the Norman invaders (or imperialists) who still formed the basis of the British aristocracy. In the nineteenth century that was still being called ‘the Norman Yoke’. Anti-aristocracy, therefore, and by extension anti-monarchism, was – as in America – a ‘patriotic’ cause. It was the same in Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Lia Nici’s association of patriotism with royalism then would have seemed perverse.

Britain’s history in modern times (I’ll be beginning around 1800) can be regarded as a competition, or conflict, between these two kinds of ‘patriotism’. Sometimes they cohered together, as in the twentieth century’s two World Wars where ordinary soldiers’ loyalties towards their ‘mates’ fighting alongside them turned out to be perfectly compatible with their upper-class officers’ loyalties to King, country and Empire, so that the two kinds of patriotism could work effectively (or fairly effectively) in tandem: until they uncoupled, very obviously, once the wars were over. At other times they stood against each other, with Lia Nici’s ‘higher’ loyalties jarring with those of ordinary folk who were not persuaded that the Queen and the Union Jack represented their interests too. Of course there were many who were so persuaded, just as there were a few at the ‘higher’ level whose patriotism was more democratic; which will complicate the narrative that will be spelled out below. But the tension was always there, running through the whole of Britain’s history over the past two hundred years and more.

Although I’ve chosen it as my main theme, I don’t want to claim that it was necessarily the dominant one in this period. Nor were what one might call the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Norman’ perceptions of patriotism the only ones on offer at any time. ‘Patriotic’ appeals were often used and manipulated by other forces in British society, on both ‘sides’, to cover other intentions and interests, especially material ones; and to obscure a more potent dynamic that may have lain – and I shall argue did indeed lie – behind everything. But I thought it might be useful, or at least enlightening, if I gave a new account of Britain’s modern political and social history which emphasises the democratic-patriotic side of it as much as the other, and highlighting the radical and liberal aspects. One example – just as a taster – is the strong anti-imperialist thread that is – I would say – one of Britain’s main intellectual and political traditions; which might possibly surprise the many people, and not only the unlettered, who dismiss modern Britain as ‘imperialist’ tout court. Others are republicanism; various forms of socialism; pacifism and internationalism; feminism; and maybe – I won’t know until I’ve written the book – a dozen others.

Some of these trends are the ones that explain my affection for the land of my birth, and my loyalty to it insofar as that goes; which is as far as it conforms, at least in part, to the particular – though not exclusively – ‘British’ ideals that I so admire in its history. You could call it a conditional patriotism. Today (this is being written in March 2021) Britain appears to have strayed too far from those ideals to deserve my allegiance, let alone my ‘pride’ – which in any case is a nonsense with regard to a nationality one was born into; but I live in hopes that it may return. This explains my desire to bring those ideals, if not to the forefront of this account – that would be a falsification – at least to their proper places in Britain’s contested history.

[Added the next day.] Of course this is not at all an original approach. There are already several Histories of Britain focussing on the working classes, for example; and it could be said that the main tradition of British history writing since Hume, JR Greene and Trevelyan has been a ‘liberal’ one: concentrating on ‘progress’ and ‘improvement’, and glossing over the darker aspects – emphasising slavery abolition, for instance, rather than slavery itself. When I wrote the above I hadn’t given it enough thought – the penalty, perhaps, of writing whilst irritated. I’ll cogitate more, and either abandon the whole project – most likely – or get back to you.

And I stand by what I’ve written about the history of ‘patriotism’. Apart from ‘mine is the only religion’, ‘my country right or wrong’ is perhaps the most dangerous idea in the world today.

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The Clown Prince

His ambition, we’re told, was to become the ‘World King’. Instead he has come Britain’s Clown Prince. This brilliant piece in the Guardian relates how. Read, and be amused – but also very afraid.

https://www.theguardian.com/news/2021/mar/18/all-hail-the-clown-king-how-boris-johnson-made-it-by-playing-the-fool.

Of course our present situation can’t be explained in terms of Johnson’s character alone. (I’m talking of the British ‘us’ here, not the Swedish.) We need to analyse how he became like this: his upbringing, education (Eton, of course), the other influences upon him; his appeal, in terms of the popular culture of the day; the political structures and maybe accidents that allowed him to attain his Princely position; and the nature and motives of the much less ‘clownish’ elements in society that exploited all these forces to raise him to the throne. Political analysts are no doubt working on these presently, as historians will in the future. By then, of course, it will be too late to do any good.

What we need now is a bloody great scandal – even greater than the ones that have been surrounding this government from its first days in power – which will both unseat him and his more po-faced Brexit-fanatic cronies; and at the same time alert the British people to the flaws in their political and perhaps educational systems that have elevated this pound-shop Falstaff to the position he holds today, and from which he looks likely to bring us all down. Any ideas?

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Priti and Protest

Yesterday Home Secretary Priti Patel’s Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill passed its second reading in the House of Commons, by 90-odd votes. The first reading (for those unfamiliar with British Parliamentary procedure) was a formality; the Bill now passes to its ‘Committee Stage’, when amendments can be made to it. Some of us are hoping that those amendments can delete what appear to be drastic curbs on the right of public assembly and protest, including the criminalisation of protests – even one-person protests – which are simply noisy or an ‘annoyance’ to people, and hefty prison sentences for damaging public statues. (I suppose it’s just a cheap jibe to point out that I find Priti Patel pretty ‘annoying’.) Not only the Opposition parties objected to these, but a few good old-fashioned Tories also seemed troubled, as one might expect of a party that professes to value British ‘traditions’, of which the right to protest has always been considered one. Maybe they will be enough to modify the Bill in Committee. And after that, there’ll be the funny old Lords, who are now in the curious and unprecedented situation of being the House that one relies upon to hold a reactionary government in check.

I watched much of the Commons debate. It made for depressing viewing. One problem was that most of the old-fashioned Tories have been expelled from the party, and hence from Parliament, on account of their position on Brexit; leaving mainly rabid Right-wingers and what used to be called the ‘young fogies’ of the Conservative Party on the Government benches. – A second problem was that the Bill is a huge one – 296 pages long – and pretty catch-all; with scores of measures that the Opposition could normally be expected to support, and indeed many of which had originally been proposed by Labour MPs. That allowed the Government to claim that by voting against the Bill the Opposition was rejecting these, which fitted in nicely with the ‘soft on crime’ image that the Tories like to throw at it. – A third difficulty was that the debate came just a few days after a vigil on Clapham Common, in memory of a young woman murdered by a police officer, was attacked with excessive force by the Police who were patrolling it; which allowed the debate to be diverted into one on the protection of women against male violence, on which the Bill in fact had nothing at all to say. Nonetheless this dominated the discussion, and made it look as though the Bill’s opponents were soft on gendered crime too. In this atmosphere, the proposed measures against ‘protest’, though objected to by one or two MPs, especially by the admirable David Lammy in his summing-up for the Opposition, were rather lost in the general outpouring of sympathy for the poor murdered woman, even from Tories who had never shown any empathy for women before in their lives. 

Clearly the question of policing ‘demos’ should have been the subject of a separate Bill. I imagine it was incorporated in this one in the hope of its getting through under the cover of these less controversial measures. But the right to assemble and demonstrate is different from ‘ordinary’ crimes; on a higher level I would say – the ‘constitutional’ one. It affects us all, not just criminals; bearing on our ‘freedoms’ and the nature of our ‘democracy’ no less. To bury it in 296 pages was like putting a poison pill in a plate of porage. 

All I have to contribute to this debate as a historian – and a historian of ‘counter-subversion’ in particular – is the observation that this, the right to protest publicly and even loudly, is a principle that has been struggled for in Britain over many centuries; and so must qualify as a basic ‘liberty’ which is essential if Britain wants to define itself as a ‘liberal’ State. It’s effectively an extension of the wider and much-prized principle of ‘free speech’. It got me wondering whether Priti Patel had been taught any British history at school (Westfield Technical College in Watford), or as part of her higher education in Economics (at Keele and Essex Universities)? If not, this might explain her blindness to this crucial – historical – aspect of it.

In the debate that preceded this one Boris Johnson, waffling on about Britain’s ‘global role’, made a great deal of the importance of projecting ‘our ideals and principles’ in the world, of which this is surely one. It must come ahead of increasing Britain’s stock of nuclear weapons, which Johnson announced in the same statement to the Commons. That was the non-waffly bit. It was probably intended to make the Opposition look ‘weak’ on defence, as well as on crime. 

Indeed, these whole two days of debate revealed a government hell-bent on exploiting traditional Conservative – and it was hoped working-class – prejudices: against rowdy young left-wing protesters, ‘woke’ (a new and somewhat artificial target), gypsies (also included in the bill), pacifists, do-gooders… and the army of subvert enemies of virtue and patriotism described so brilliantly in the tirade from the Reginald Perrin  series I referenced in an earlier post: https://bernardjporter.com/2021/03/07/second-comings/. Whether it will appeal  equally to the ‘red wall’ of working-class voters – the ones who defected to Johnson over the issue of Brexit in 2019 – has yet to be seen. Boris doesn’t seem to be doing so badly in the opinion polls just now. And that’s without the demon Corbyn to put people off.

What these two debates reveal, in my view, are the latent and instinctive authoritarianism of Britain’s new political order, together with – of course – the weakness of the parliamentary opposition to it. In ordinary times the latter might be counter-balanced by extra-parliamentary opposition: if it weren’t for the Coronavirus, which is making people scared to leave their homes, and prohibited from mingling in large crowds; and this new Police Bill, which will make it impossible to protest effectively even in defence of the right to protest. 

Is this outcome deliberate? Boris, I think, isn’t clever enough. Dominic Cummings undoubtedly is. He has left Number 10, hasn’t he? – But wait: what about the shake-up of the civil service that’s expected in a year’s time, to make it more ‘efficient’ (that is, subservient to Ministers): https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/mar/16/radical-shake-up-of-civil-service-comms-to-be-in-place-by-april-2022? That has the fingerprints of Dominic all over it. And all this together – the Police Bill, the nuclear weapons, the civil service reforms – mark a clear stage in the transition to a more authoritarian Britain in the near future, which some are already labelling neo– or at least proto-Fascist. As a historian, I’m holding my fire on the nomenclature. But whatever it is, it will greatly undermine the ‘traditional British liberties’ which Priti Patel should have learned about at school.

PS (Next day.) Apparently the Committee Stage of the Police Bill is being delayed. A hopeful sign?

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The Spectre of Fascism

The possibility of a form of Fascism’s seizing hold of Britain and the USA soon – if it hasn’t done so already – used to be dismissed and even ridiculed as Leftist alarmism. Now it’s being taken more seriously. Here’s a current American analysis – if you can get it up. (I had to subscribe to do so.)

https://eand.co/americans-are-trapped-in-a-fascist-society-cc6e59bb6bbe

I wonder how many Republicans have read Nietzsche?

Today in the UK they’re about to have a debate in parliament on Priti Patel’s new police bill, which among other things would – apparently; I’ll have to check after the debate – ban even peaceful demonstrations if they are noisy, and would make damaging a statue subject to more serious penalties than physically attacking a woman.

Priti really is a witch! (Or is that sexist? Or mediaevalist?)

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A New People’s Charter?

It’s blindingly obvious from recent political events in both the UK and the US that our respective political systems are almost irreparably broken. This is not only because they have both thrown up Right-wing governments, which a Leftie like me is bound to regret; but also because, quite irrespective of their outcomes, their procedures seem imperfectly democratic in several respects, and are open to manipulation by un- or anti-democratic forces, with occasionally disastrous results. This time in the UK it’s Brexit; four years ago in the USA it was Trump; but next time it could be anything or anybody. So this is not an essentially partisan point, although the Right, which has done most of the manipulating recently, might be more likely to resist it. Aside from that, however, the reforms to our system(s) that I’d like to propose (below), ought to be acceptable in principle to all democrats.

There’s a historical precedent for this. The biggest mass movement for democracy in Britain was born in 1838, and revolved around a ‘People’s Charter’, which called for six specific reforms of the parliamentary system as it stood then. They were: votes for all adult males; secret ballots; no property qualifications for voters; payment of MPs; equal-sized constituencies; and annual elections. All these save the last were eventually achieved, at least in a rough-and-ready form, and one of them – the first – was even extended, age- and gender-wise. So what is left?

It strikes me that if there were to be a new ‘People’s Charter’, aiming to repair the deficiencies in our present systems, it should have three major, essential and non-partisan ‘demands’, with others being added if there were enough support for them. (That support could be expressed, of course, through the new and reformed legislatures that would be created as a result of the first three demands.) Here they are: nothing terribly original, and in fact all pretty obvious, I’d say; but none of them achieved as yet.

  1. Electoral Reform. We have to bring in proportional representation for all important elections. Apart from anything else, it would allow new parties to form and grow, and so opinions outside the ideologies of the two major parties in the state (three in Scotland) to be ‘proportionately’ represented. It would also make compromise easier – indeed, probably essential. (That’s why the ‘conviction politician’ Thatcher was so much against the idea.) Personally, I’d be sorry to see the end of the close connexion between constituents and their local representatives which is the outstanding feature of ‘first past the post’; but there are, I believe, ways of combining the best features of both – as I’ve suggested before: https://bernardjporter.com/2016/02/29/first-past-the-post/. That should be comparatively easy.
  2. Democratising the Media. At present 80% of the UK’s print Press is in the hands of extreme right-wing billionaires, with agendas of their own, and an obvious impact on the ‘news’ they publish. Much of it is sheer propaganda. A ‘free press’ is not the same as a ‘free market’ press. The previous Conservative government promised an inquiry into this – Leveson Stage 2 – but then reneged on it. Press reform, in a way that can’t be seen to inhibit its real ‘freedom’, will be trickier than electoral reform; but other countries manage it. How do they do it?
  3. Restoring ‘checks and balances’. This has become a particular problem with the present UK government, which is seeking to override, and in many instances has already overridden, many of the institutions that were always meant to prevent unsafe laws or procedures being passed without proper scrutiny: the law courts, the House of Lords (yes: even them!), and the rules of the House of Commons, presided over by the Speaker. The same ‘Reform’ could also restore traditional Parliamentary sanctions against Ministers who tell lies. This should be relatively easy, as it’s essentially a ‘conservative’ – even a ‘reactionary’ – reform.

These should do the job, in Britain at least (America has other well-known problems it needs to address), and for a while, until those clever Rightists have found new ways of subverting the system that emerges. Beyond that, one could add some more demands, which might however be more controversial. I suggest the following:

  • State funding for political parties, to replace donations from big business or trade unions; and accompanied by strict – and low – limits on political advertising.
  • Educational reform – to encourage rational, logical and critical thought in the electorate. I can foresee a number of objections to this, some of them quite valid. (‘Whose rationality do you choose?’)
  • Equal opportunities written into law, especially with regard to representation in Parliament.

Those would bring us up to the original Chartists’ ‘Six Points’. (And there are other political desiderata that could supplement these.) But it’s the first three demands that bear most directly on our parliamentary systems, and are the most urgent. If we had them in place today, just think what a change they could have made to both our countries’ present political situations!

Anyone want to start up a new Chartist movement? I know that there are other modern organisations that have taken on the name (I once signed up to a Swedish-based one, as it happens). But none of those, I believe, had as close an affinity with the first one.

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