Parliamentary Reform: What Would Tom Paine Do?

A slightly revised version of my post over at Liberal Conspiracy.

‘To be a successful candidate, he must be destitute of the qualities that constitute a just legislator, and being thus disciplined to corruption by the mode of entering into Parliament, it is not to be expected that the representative should be better than the man.’

Thomas Paine, Rights of Man Part the Second (1792)

The bicentenary of the death, on June 8 1809, of Thomas Paine, England’s most famous republican polemicist, falls at a time when our political leaders, and much of the media, tell us that Parliament is on the brink of a revolution. However, viewed in the context of historic radical movements, the ‘big change’ heralded by David Cameron really amounts to small potatoes.

The furore over MPs’ expenses has thrown up a number of proposals for political reform. From Gordon Brown’s call for an independent audit unit, to Alan Johnson’s proposal for a referendum on proportional representation, to Cameron’s and Clegg’s arguments for fixed-term parliaments, our politicians are suddenly all engaged in a game of ‘more radical than thou’.

Just how radical they truly are is a moot point. Fixed-term parliaments, for example, rather than being a political neologism of the Youtube generation, have been a staple demand of British radical movements going back to the Levellers of the mid-seventeenth century.

(Cameron has, in any case, been typically slippery about the fixed-term parliaments, saying this is something that the Conservatives would consider as an ‘option … when there’s a majority government’. One wonders just how much consideration will be given to this option should the present opposition be elected with a massive parliamentary majority.)

Even those proposals of a more recent vintage, such as those over electoral reform, have essentially involved dredging up the 1998 report of the Jenkins commission. Johnson’s reactivation of AV+ represents less what the Electoral Commission has called ‘a breath of fresh air’, more the fetid stench of political flop sweat.

If this desperate debate demonstrates anything, it is that British political discourse has for a long time been bereft of serious, informed discussion of constitutional reform. Nothing offers greater evidence of this than the utterly unwarranted applause for Douglas Carswell’s proposal for ‘open primaries’ – a plan so unworkable that it has now been taken up by Tessa Jowell – which rests on a complete misunderstanding of how the American primary system works.

But the fundamental problem with all these proposals is not simply the constitutional ignorance of most British politicians. It is that though a more transparent expenses system, fixed-term parliaments and electoral reform might deliver change in the short to medium term, these proposals offer no long-term remedy for the root cause of the ills of British democracy: Parliamentary sovereignty.

We’ve tried fixed-term Parliaments before: the 1641 and 1694 Triennial Acts guaranteed new elections every three years. But both were fundamentally compromised by subsequent acts of Parliament – most famously the Septennial Act of 1716 which required new elections only every seven years and which ushered in the notoriously corrupt Hanoverian electoral system.

There is surely, as Paine remarked, an irreconcilable paradox ‘in the idea of vitiated bodies reforming themselves.’ Until some check is placed on Parliament itself setting whatever rules it sees fit – whether over MPs’ expenses, the length of parliaments or the nature of the electoral system – reform will remain ultimately subject to the whims of the majority party.

It is time, as Paine said, to lay the axe to the root of this rotten tree. We do not need a one-off referendum on piecemeal electoral reform. We need a convention to deliver substance at last to that phantasm, the British constitution. For, as Tom Paine noted over two hundred years ago, ‘a change of ministers amounts to nothing. One goes out, another comes in, and still the same measures, vices and extravagances are pursued. It is signifies not who is minister. The defect lies in the system.’


A Radical History of Britain – out now!

At least according to Amazon. Publication date brought forward from 4 June to 29 May. Buy! Buy! Buy!

Think radical, drink radical pt. 2

Well, sort of,

I noticed this rather interesting vintage for sale in a fancy delicatessen in Paris. (This old label is rather dull, the current one has a nice picture of the Chevalier half in man’s clothes and half in a dress.)

The Chevalier D’Eon features in my new book as the reputed lover of John Wilkes (although that rumour was almost certainly an unfounded attempt to smear the staunchly heterosexual libertine) and as one of Mary Wollstonecraft’s female heroes (alongside Catherine the Great).

Conceptualising Men: Collective Identities and the ‘Self’ in the History of Masculinity 27-28 July 2009, University of Exeter

Plenary Speakers: Joanne Bailey (Oxford Brookes) & Karen Harvey (Sheffield)

Call for Papers

Current understanding of the history of masculinity is restricted by two major factors: periodisation and conceptualisation, both of which further complicate one another. Phrases, such as ‘manhood’, ‘manliness’, ‘masculinity’ and ‘masculine identity’, have been utilised differently according to the period of study. Medieval and early modern scholars have been reluctant to adopt the term ‘masculinity’, seeing it as an anachronistic expression, which is alien to pre-industrial periods of history, whereas the term ‘manliness’ appears to hold very different connotations in post-1900 studies than those of earlier periods. The conceptual language adopted by those researching within the traditional parameters of periodisation has the potential to hinder otherwise necessary considerations of long-spanning chronologies in the history of masculinity. In order to achieve a fuller understanding of the concepts, theories, practices and experiences of men in the past, the history of masculinity would benefit from crossing the boundaries of periodisation. Moreover, the nuances of conceptual, terminological categorisation need to be scrutinised more carefully before being imposed on individual and groups of men in the past. This colloquium aims to promote interdisciplinary and cross-chronological discussion of these issues. In particular, it will explore the relationship between conceptual categories of ‘manhood’, ‘manliness’, ‘masculinity’ and ‘masculine identity’. Furthermore, it will consider the extent to which men in the past engaged with culturally constructed collective identities or created their own sense of a masculine ‘self’. Early career and postgraduate historians of any time period, whose research engages with the history of masculinity, are invited to present their ideas.

For further details please contact Dr Henry French (

See also here

Please submit your abstract proposal of no more than 300 words by Monday 8th June 2009. Participants will be asked to submit a short synopsis (3-pages maximum) of how these issues relate to their research, by Monday 20th July 2009, which will be pre-circulated. The colloquium will involve round-table and small-group discussions, rather than the presentation of formal papers.

No Paine, No Gain

My article on Thomas Paine is just out in the latest issue of BBC History Magazine. US and Canadian readers of this blog can catch a modified version of this article (complete with obligatory photo of Barrack Obama) in the latest BBC Knowledge Magazine. I’m also on BBC History Magazine’s podcast later in June talking about Paine (link to follow.)

The Paine-related fun doesn’t stop there. Aside from my talk at the Thetford Tom Paine festival on 6 June, I’ll also be taking part in the Tom Paine readathon on the same day at 3.30.

All this, of course, to tie in with the publication of my A Radical History of Britain on the 4th June.

Radical Manchester: William Gladstone, Feargus O’Connor … er… Hazel Blears?

I found this quite some time ago. Leaving aside the fact that apart from Ernest Jones, none of the historic ‘radicals’ listed really have obvious Mancunian connections, I couldn’t help feeling that it was maybe a bit presumptious to include Hazel alongside Gladstone. Perhaps the authors of the page meant that she had developed a radical re-intepretation of the law concerning capital gains tax.

A Radical History of Britain – the Facebook Group

My new book (due out June 4) now has its very own Facebook page. Join up and get all the latest news (including prizes, competitions) about A Radical History of Britain.

(Ok, I made up the bit about prizes and competitions.)

The Plantation of Ulster, 1609-2009: A Laboratory for Empire

25-26 June (Goldsmiths, University of London); 3-5 July 2009 (University of Ulster, Magee) and 23-25 October 2009 (Trinity College Dublin). Between 25-26 June, 3-5 July and 23-25 October 2009, Goldsmiths, Trinity College Dublin and the University of Ulster will convene a series of three major academic conferences to mark the 400th anniversary of the Ulster Plantation. This importance of this event to the shared histories of Ireland, Britain and the British imperial world would be difficult to overstate. It copper-fastened the English and British conquest of Ireland, and dramatically transformed Ireland’s physical, demographic, socio-economic, political, military and cultural landscape. In effect, the plantation became England, Britain’s and the City of London’s first successful attempt at plantation and the latter’s vigorous attempts to protect this investment would have enormous implication for the collapse of the Tripartite Stuart monarchy in the 1640s. Furthermore, it provided a successful template for British conquest, plantation and imperialism in the Americas, the Caribbean and the Indian sub-continent. Finally, its historical, political, cultural, environmental and visual effects have impact on the two cities and islands until the present day.

Scholars from Ireland, Britain, Europe and the American will re-assess the plantation and its disputed histories and heritages in its various local, national, international and global contexts. This conference will commence in London (25-26June 2009), proceed to the Plantation Citadel of Derry/Londonderry (3-5 July), a fitting location given its subsequent importance as a blueprint for plantation in the first British Empire. Finally, it will conclude in Trinity College Dublin – a major economic beneficiary of the plantation and archival receptacle for its cartographic, historical and literary records, on 23-25 October 2009 with a conference on the 1641 Rebellion.

Dr. Ariel Hessayon (Goldmiths) Dr. Éamonn Ó Ciardha (Ulster) Dr. Micheál Ó Siochrú (TCD)

Further details here