Saturday, 28 March 2015

Is the ‘Westminster system’ discredited? My thousandth post!

Looking back over the posts I’ve written over the last few years it seems appropriate, that having spent a great deal of time writing about the nature of and reasons for radical change in Britain, Canada and Australia and about how women and men struggled to get their voice heard by the political establishment, my thousandth post should be on the challenge facing contemporary British politics.  Nicola Sturgeon, perhaps the most thoughtful of the party leaders—and I mean this as a compliment-- today promised that her party would reform the discredited ‘Westminster system’ to meet the demands of ‘ordinary people’ across the UK. Though her agenda remains Scottish independence, she has articulated something that is blindingly obvious to anyone beyond the ‘Westminster village’—the current Westminster system is in need of radical reform.  Since devolution was introduced in Scotland and Wales in 1998, the major political parties have failed to address this issue.  Yes, they’ve tinkered round the edges but this has been largely cosmetic rather than ‘real change’.
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There have been moves on House of Lords reform but they appear to have stuttered to a halt.  Attempts at electoral reform and changing constituency boundaries foundered with the proportional representation referendum and party politics in Parliament.  Belatedly, the Conservatives have come to the conclusion that things like the NHS and local government cannot be managed from Westminster.  But, and it was exemplified on the debate on the use of the secret ballot in relation to the Speaker, many politicians do not recognise that what they do appears petty, corrupt and out-of-touch with the lives of ordinary people.  Insulated in their ‘bubble’, they only emerge when they need your vote and even then tardily if it’s a ‘safe’ seat.  Is the system ‘discredited’ in the eyes of many voters?  Well, if voter turnout is a good indicator, and I think it is, the falling number of people who bother to vote in any elections—local, national or European—makes clear just what people think of politicians.  Now, politicians have never been the most popular of individuals but in the last decade there has been a shift from indifference to what politicians do to one of visceral dislike.  They give the impression of a disregard for the electorate, in the public imagination borne out by the expenses scandal, and complete unawareness of the needs and plight of their fellow citizens.  We increasingly have a career cadre of politicians in all of the major parties whose experience of work is limited to being research assistants or running their own business, who have been educated in high-flying public or state schools and universities and whose motivation appears less concerned with helping the public than with helping themselves. 
Although there is a crying need to reform our public institutions—and I’m not just talking about the political ones—we should be clear that institutions are not in themselves the cause of the discredited system, it’s the people who inhabit and run them and it’s this as much as anything that explains why reform has not taken place.  Those within any political system have a marked unwillingness to reform it: it might affect them.  Take the House of Lords as an example.  Getting rid of the ‘hereditaries’ or at least most of them, was not a real problem as their position was and is indefensible in a democratic system but turning it into an elected House now that’s another matter.  Labour may call for this but, it appears, with little enthusiasm to push the matter through—it had thirteen years to do so and failed.  Having the ‘gift’ of being able to appoint life peers is, whatever your party, an important tool for managing Parliament.  Am I surprised that calls for a federal UK, something discussed at length in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum, have declined from an overwhelming shout to a quiet whimper in the past months?  Not really even though it is an obvious solution to the growing crisis in the constitutional legitimacy of government.  Whether it’s further devolution, Britain’s place in the European Union, austerity politics or the NHS, the fires of discordance are being stoked by politicians who want to scare us into voting for them because, as far as they’re concerned, everything will be fine if you elect their party into power.  The point, and Nicola Sturgeon recognises this, is that it won’t and before long the public, not easily roused from its constitutional apathy, will assert its democratic voice.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015

And the official campaign hasn’t started yet.

The most recent BBC Poll of Polls puts both Conservative and Labour on 34 per cent with UKIP on 14 per cent, the Liberal Democrats on 8 per cent and the Greens on 5 per cent.  The narrowness or non-existence of a Labour lead before the campaign proper gets under way is confirmed across all of the major polls with a lead not exceeding 3 per cent.  Generally it is expected that, where a government is unpopular the opposition has a good lead as it goes into the campaign and that, as the incumbent party often improves its position during the campaign, it is often a case of the opposition trying to hang on to its lead up to Election Day.  In the more volatile, less two party oriented nature of British politics today, there seems to be less interest in the election itself than on the possible variations of what all the pundits believe will be a hung parliament and on the ‘honest’ but politically inept admission by the Prime Minister that he will only serve for one more term should he be elected spawning a feeding frenzy in the ‘Westminster village’ about his successor.  This is going to be an intensely negative campaign by the coalition parties and Labour.  The basic premise appears to be…we’ve had the pain of five years of austerity and, for the Conservatives, its a plea to ‘let us finish the job’ while from Labour ‘there are more cuts to come but we’d do it more slowly’.  So little innovative political thinking here.

If the assumption of a hung parliament is correct, and it’s far from clear whether this will be the case, the question is what form government will take beyond May.  Did the coalition represent the natural 'next step' in party dealignment and the evolution of multi-party politics? Was coalition in practice a historic innovation in itself, or did the essential principles of Britain's uncodified constitution remain untroubled?  The horse-trading has already begun.  Let’s assume that Labour is the biggest party but without an overall majority—likely given its parlous position in Scotland if the polls are right—it’s already ruled out a coalition with the SNP but a week is a long time in politics and the realities of its position after May may change things.  The problem with the SNP is that its agenda is clear—independence—and Mr Salmond has already said that he could bring down the government if Labour joined in, with David Cameron ‘locked out’. The Conservatives accused him of ‘trying to sabotage the democratic will of the British people’ though in reality this means the ‘English people’.  It is part of their continuing attempt to portray Mr Miliband as a weak leader whose strings are being pulled by Mr Salmond but it could well precipitate further moves towards Scottish independence.  The question is whether English voters—a demographic majority of the UK--would be prepared to accept Scottish voters and SNP MPs gaining benefits for Scotland at the expense of England, a case of the historical boot being on the other foot. 

alex salmond

The problem for the Conservatives if they form the largest party is equally fraught.  Perhaps the easiest option would be a continuation of the coalition with the Liberal Democrats.  Although it is likely that there will be fewer Lib Dem MPs—they will take the brunt of voter dissatisfaction with the coalition—the existing coalition has probably worked better than many people initially thought and the need for their support may well have blunted some of the more ideological policies of the Conservatives—well at least that’s the Lib Dem narrative.  It is also likely that the Conservative would have the support of UKIP, the only way it will get the referendum it craves, and also support from the more conservative Northern Ireland parties.  Although in the past, Irish MPs have determined whether a minority government could govern effectively, today the question is not whether this is possible—there’s no constitutional obstacle—but whether it would be acceptable to the electorate.  The issue is that without a federal constitutional structure that could legitimate this type of coalition, it appears simply as a pragmatic and somewhat crude way of achieving power.  But then this is a consequence of a multi-party state where small parties can punch above their numerical weight.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Victoria copes with gold, 1851

Until 1846, La Trobe’s government of Port Phillip proved effective and was the result of his close working relationship with Sir George Gipps and the clear instructions he received. Fitzroy’s approach was different as he expected his subordinates to act on their own initiative and did not maintain the same level of contact with La Trobe. Fitzroy was supported by his experienced Colonial Secretary, Deas Thomson who knew La Trobe well recognising that he preferred ‘to avoid taking responsibility’ with ‘his constant reference to the Head of the Government on points which he ought to settle at his discretion’, a major weakness in his management style. [1] This reticence would undoubtedly have posed a problem for effective governance in Victoria once it was separated from NSW but it was magnified by the discovery of gold.[2] Without clear instructions La Trobe floundered.

Initially, the discovery of gold created economic problems in Victoria. John Sherer reported:

No wonder that the small shop keeper was shutting up and abandoning his counter; no wonder that seamen were running away from their ships, printers from their type, doctors from their drugs. In fact everything has assumed a revolutionary character. [3]

Charles La Trobe

Wages doubled between 1851 and 1853 but even with these inflated rates it was difficult to find and keep workers while surface gold was plentiful. Squatters had considerable difficulty keeping their sheep stations going with both the shortage and cost of labour. Farmers were badly affected haemorrhaging workers though the harvest in January 1852 was saved and increased demand saw higher prices paid for the grain produced. However, continued labour shortages made profitable wheat-farming difficult for the next two years resulting in the bulk import of cheap flour. The few dairy farmers and vegetable-growers did well but between 1851 and 1853 the land under cultivation fell by 40 per cent. In the long run, however, during the 1850s the pastoral industry was extremely prosperous as wool prices rose and the diggers provided a huge new market for meat.

As people flocked to the diggings, Melbourne was deserted and La Trobe commented in October that of Melbourne’s 25,000 population ‘not one man is left’; 80 per cent of the police force had resigned and his civil servants deserted their posts.

Within the last three weeks the towns of Melbourne and Geelong and their large suburbs have been in appearance almost emptied of many classes of their male inhabitants…leaving their employers and their wives and families to take care of themselves[4]

Collins Street, Melbourne, 1851

Crime and poverty were rampant though La Trobe believed this was embroidered by the press. [5] In January 1852, of 35 ships in Melbourne, only three had full crews; 417 of their total crews of 816 men had deserted. [6] The city was described by an unsympathetic Sydney Morning Herald in very critical terms:

I must say that a worse regulated, worse governed, worse drained, worse lighted, worse watered town of note is not on the face of the globe…in a word, nowhere in the southern hemisphere does chaos reign so triumphant as in Melbourne. [7]

Experiences did, however, vary and other writers depicted the fledgling city in a more positive light. [8]

The discovery of gold exposed La Trobe’s limitations. In the twelve years he had been in the colony, its population had increased from 11,738 in 1841 to 77,345 in 1851 but by 1854 it reached 236,776. This derailed his plans for the development of the colony and created unstable conditions for his remaining months in Australia. He mistrusted social disorder and democracy and found the social instability created by the discovery of gold perplexing. Yet, he recognised in early July 1851, that his government of the goldfields must meet needs as they arose. [9] With increasing population and growing demands on the barely developed infrastructure, government expenditure dramatically increased and La Trobe readily adopted the licensing system already in place on the NSW goldfields to bring in revenue.[10]

Melbourne City, 1851

The choice of candidates on 15 July for the Executive Council proved disastrous in conditions that would have tested even the most effective colonial administration. [11] Captain William Lonsdale was reluctantly appointed Colonial Secretary, a post he held until 1853 and for which he recognised he was entirely unfitted. [12] Alastair McKenzie, the Colonial Treasurer and James Cassell, the Collector of Customs proved equally ineffective. The final place went to William Stawell, Attorney-General from 1851 to 1857 and the most able individual on the Council on whom La Trobe especially relied. [13] The Argus was effusive in its support for Stawell while suggesting: ‘Would that every other office of the new Government were as adequately filled!’ [14] Though he considered himself a liberal in politics, he was seen by many as impulsive and intolerant of opposition. La Trobe only nominated Lonsdale and Stawell to the Legislative Council; Cassell and McKenzie were ignored. This meant that the remaining three Government representatives were obliged to defend policies that they played no part in formulating. Serle concluded that: ‘indecisive leadership, inexperience and the narrow social sympathies which all displayed were quickly to discredit them.’ [15] La Trobe desperately needed money to fund additional policing, but found his hands tied by a legislature dominated by squatters who loathed the miners since the stampede of workers to the gold fields threatened their livelihoods.

Elections for the Legislative Council took place in September though it did not meet until early November 1851.[16] Government nominees and the squatters’ representatives elected under a restricted franchise were supposed to control the Council. However, elected members were generally unsympathetic to La Trobe, the Executive Council and official nominees but lacked the organisation, discipline or clearly expressed policies necessary for effective opposition. Melbourne [17] elected the most radical members; Geelong [18] and the country towns were represented by moderate members with democratic leanings, while the country electorates were mostly conservative. There was a group of businessmen from Melbourne, North and South Bourke [19] and Geelong nominally led by William Westgarth, leader of the Melbourne business community and John O’Shanassy, a shambling Irishman and leader of Victoria’s Catholics. [20] ‘Democrat’ in temper, they were liberal in viewpoint promoting values associated with Chartism especially adult suffrage, directly elected representatives and above all, land reform. The squatters formed another grouping whose views were ‘anti-democratic’ and who sought a return to the hierarchical order of pre-gold rush society. Conservative in attitude, they saw the Legislative Council as a means of protecting land policy and leaned politically towards the government.

Although party organisation was almost non-existent, pressure group politics was already evident in 1851. The Chamber of Commerce in Melbourne acted as the focus for business interests and in Geelong, local farmers influenced local politics. Popular reform organisations also emerged in Geelong: a People’s Association in July 1851 of some three hundred artisans, shopkeepers and others formed to promote ‘the moral, social and political advancement of the people’ and met several times before collapsing when the gold rushes began. [21] It was ‘determined to maintain the rights of the people as British subjects’ and Serle argues that there was ‘obvious chartist inspiration’ since two of its aims were land reform and equal rights. [22] The Association was characterised by its opponents as ‘republicans, chartists, socialists’, and although it appropriated Chartist rhetoric, the context for ‘Chartist inspiration’ in Victoria was very different from in Britain and its direct influence should not be exaggerated. In September, a Reform Association was formed in Melbourne to work for responsible self-government, the ballot, an extended franchise, fair electoral districts, abolition of state aid for religion and a national education system but it too collapsed under the influence of gold. [23] These two organisations consisted largely of immigrants of working-class or lower middle-class origin who were outside the colonial establishment and were determined that the social inequalities of Britain should not be replicated in Australia. Supported by the Argus, they represented the beginnings of democratic opposition to the government in and outside the Council.


[1] Minute of Deas Thomson on La Trobe to Colonial Secretary, 7 June 1848: NSW Archives Office, 4/2823, 48/466, cit, ibid, Drury, Dianne Reilly, La Trobe, p. 217.

[2] La Trobe was installed as Lieutenant-Governor on 15 July 1851, Argus, 16 July 1851, p. 2.

[3] Ibid, Sherer, John, The Gold-finder of Australia: how he went, how he fared, how he made his fortune, p. 9.

[4] La Trobe to Earl Grey, 10 October 1851, ‘Further Papers relative to the Recent Discovery of Gold in Australia’, Parliamentary Papers, Vol. lxiv, 1852-3, pp. 45-47.

[5] La Trobe to Earl Grey, 2 March 1852, ‘Further Papers relative to the Recent Discovery of Gold in Australia’, Parliamentary Papers, Vol. lxiv, 1852-3, pp. 170-171, printed in Clark2, pp. 30-34.

[6] The question of desertion by sailors in Australia was debated in May 1852, Hansard, House of Commons, Debates, 14 May 1852, Vol. 121, cc.630-633.

[7] Sydney Morning Herald, 4 November 1852, p. 8.

[8] For example, Davison, Graeme, ‘Gold-Rush Melbourne’, in ibid, McCalman, Iain, Cook, Alexander, and Reeves, Andrew, (eds.), Gold, pp. 52-66.

[9] La Trobe to Earl Grey, 8 July 1851, ‘Further Papers relative to the Recent Discovery of Gold in Australia’, Parliamentary Papers, Vol. lxiv, 1852-3, 1607, pp. 219-221.

[10] Birrell, Ralph W., Staking a Claim: Gold and the Development of Victorian Mining Law, (Melbourne University Press), 1998, considers the problems faced in establishing equitable and workable mining legislation.

[11] ‘The Appointments’, Argus, 15 July 1851, p. 1, and ‘The Appointments’, Geelong Advertiser, 18 July 1851, p. 2; see also ‘Official Appointments’, Sydney Morning Herald, 4 August 1851, p. 2..

[12] Penny, B. R., ‘William Lonsdale (1799-1864)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 124-12.

[13] Francis, Charles, ‘Sir William Foster Stawell (1815-1889)’, ADB, Vol. 6, pp. 174-177.

[14] Argus, 14 July 1851, p. 2.

[15] Serle, p. 13.

[16] La Trobe issued a proclamation in the Government Gazette including the date for the first session of the Legislative Council on 17 October, Argus, 23 October 1851.

[17] ‘City Elections’, Argus, 11 September 1851, pp. 2-3, ‘The City Election, Declaration of the Poll’, Argus, 15 September 1851, p. 2.

[18] ‘Geelong’, Argus, 8 September 1851, p. 4.

[19] ‘The Elections, South Bourke, Evelyn and Mornington’, Argus, 10 September 1851, p. 2.

[20] Serle, Geoffrey, ‘William Westgarth (1815-1889)’, ADB, Vol. 6, pp. 379-383, Ingham, S. M., ‘Sir John O’Shanassy (1818-1883)’, ADB, Vol. 5, pp. 378-382.

[21] ‘The People’s Association’, Argus, 30 August 1851, p. 4, detailed the second meeting of the Association.

[22] Serle, p. 17.

[23] ‘Melbourne Reform Association’, Argus, 20 September 1851, p. 2.

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Eureka and memory

In the immediate aftermath of the rebellion, two alternative views of Eureka emerged. Many Australian were reluctant to recognise the importance of events in Ballarat. By the early 1860s, there were few diggers left; mining was now the preserve of large mining companies. The prevailing conservative climate caused people to shrink from the memory of what happened at Eureka. One of Henry Lawson’s short stories demonstrated the mood perfectly describing how two old friends take a walk after dark, and allude to the events at Eureka twenty years before

And sometimes they’d get talking, low and mysterious like, about “Th’ Eureka Stockade;” and if we didn’t understand and asked questions, “what was the Eureka Stockade?” or “what did they do it for?” [1]

Eureka had become a whispered memory. Historians were also uneasy about the lawlessness of the Stockade and saw it as an alien aberration. The result was the development of pervasive myths about Eureka that persisted well into the twentieth century. Edward Shann said that the Ballarat Reform League ‘with clumsy obstinacy [it] repelled his [Hotham’s] conciliation and reiterated their ‘demands’ and gave no credit to the rebel side at all. [2] Ernest Scott and A. W. Jose blamed Eureka on ‘foreign agitators’. [3] For Jose, the Reform League was ‘an instrument of foreigners and political rebels’ and the police and military confronted a ‘body of rebels nearly five times as large’. This misrepresented both the composition and number of the rebels. [4]

Whether, as many have argue and still argue, Eureka was a ‘watershed’ in Australian politics remains contested. The constitutional changes that occurred in 1856 with Victoria’s new constitution were not a direct outcome of the rebellion but the changes, especially in the electoral arrangements in the colony and the rapid move towards universal male suffrage suggest that the principles of popular sovereignty that played such an important role in 1854 had taken deep roots. This is, however, not evident in the contemporary sources that played down the events in Ballarat that only achieved their significance in retrospect.


[1] Lawson, Henry, ‘An Old Mate of Your Fathers’, in While The Billy Boils, First Series, Sydney, 1896, pp. 6-10.

[2] Shann, Edward, An Economic History of Australia, (Cambridge University Press), 1930. See also, Snooks, G. D., ‘Shann, Edward Owen Giblin (1884-1935)’, ADB, Vol. 11, 1988, pp. 574-576.

[3] Ibid, Ernest Scott, A Short History of Australia, p. 178. Fitzpatrick, Kathleen, ‘Scott, Sir Ernest (1867-1939)’, ADB, Vol. 11, 1988, pp. 544-546 and ibid, McIntyre, Stuart, A History for a Nation: Ernest Scott and the Making of Australian History, 1994, provide important biographical material.

[4] Jose, A. W., Growth of the Empire, Sydney, 1897, pp. v-vi; Short History of Australasia, Sydney, 1899, pp. 154-156; History of Australia, 15th ed., Sydney, 1930, pp. 133-134.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

I say vicar…it’s a farce.

To say that the current state of play over TV debates before the General Election is a complete farce is an under-statement.  No one has come out of this slow-motion disaster with any real credit.  The broadcasters clearly did not think through their plans sufficiently by initially excluding the Greens but, having addressed that issue, they are still denying the Northern Irish parties any role in the planned debates.  So they still haven’t got it.  Either you include all the political parties with MPs in Parliament or just forget it.  The DUP is still considering taking legal action and I think—based on even the tightest legal definition of ‘reasonableness’—that they have a good chance of winning.  If it is ‘reasonable’ to include the Greens, then it is undoubtedly reasonable to include the DUP which had many times more MPs. 

I can’t see how the group of broadcasters responsible for coming up with the plan for the debates failed to appreciate just how unfair and unreasonable their decisions have been, when the solution was blindingly obvious.  The critical distinction is not whether political parties have MPs in Westminster but whether those MPs are members of a UK party.  This means that the UK debates should be between the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens and UKIP.  This does not mean the other national parties are excluded from debate but their involvement should be confined to televised debates in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  This is so obvious a distinction that I’m surprised that no broadcaster appears to have come up with it. 

Politicians have been equally culpable.  David Cameron, a staunch advocate of the debates in 2010, had done just about everything he can to stymie them in 2015.  His argument appears to be that if the debates are held during the campaigns, then they’ll ‘suck the air out of them’.  The threat of the empty podium, one response from the broadcasters, is simply childish and is something that equally might be challenged in the courts.  Ed Miliband, the Martini man…any time any where, any place…is little better and was quite prepared to accept that the Greens not be included…he can hardly claim the moral high-ground on the issue. 

The problem is that politicians of whatever party want the debates to be structured to benefit them while the broadcasters want good television and neither should, on the basis of the fiasco that has evolved, be left in charge of anything to do with it.  Far better for a body like the Electoral Commission to draw up the structure of the debates and that political parties and broadcasters have no right of veto over them.  Having the debates is something that the electorate overwhelmingly support but I fear that the issue has become so toxic that it might be better if they did not take place at all.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Reaching a thousand

I’ve been blogging regularly since July 2007 on my two blogs Looking at History and the History Zone, putting the posts I write on both.  Both sites are designed to promote history as a subject as well as providing me with a vehicle for putting forward my own ideas on the subject as well as on current political issues.  History Zone began life as a blog on Windows Live before migrating to WordPress at the beginning of October 2010; Looking at History has used the Google blog platform from the outset.  The only reason for having two blogs with broadly the same material is the result of a comment from a friend who said it would allow me to maximise audiences.  He was right…Looking at History has had over 830,000 hits in the intervening years while History Zone  has had a mere 71,000…such is the influence of Google as a search engine. In many respects the blogs acted as first drafts of material that later found its way into some of my published books and though marketing was not one of the reasons why I began blogging, it is now an integral part of my marketing strategies. 

Both blogs are now within spitting distance of a thousand posts, an average of 125 posts a year or just over two a week.  This reinforces the point made by many professional bloggers that the key to building and retaining an audience is to post regularly and, in the case of political comments, make them current…little point in commenting on the question of tuition fees two weeks after politicians proposed to reduce them from £9,000 to £6,000 should they win the General Election.  That, and their subject matter, has resulted in building a large audience in the UK, United States, Canada and Australia but also in Germany, France, Ukraine, Russia, Spain and India.  At this moment, the blog is being looked at in the UK, Australia, United States, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Algeria, Kenya, the Netherlands and the Philippines using computers, phones, tablets and iPads.  The blogs have become truly global in their audience, have been referred to on other blogs and have even found their way into several academic books.

Many people begin blogging with good intentions only to fail after a few posts or the posts become so irregular that the blog ends up lacking an real coherence.  I was lucky in that I had a pretty good idea about what my intentions for the blogs and, though they have evolved over the years, those intentions remain largely unchanged.  So I plan to continue doing what I’m doing and what I enjoy and hope that my audience agrees.