Saturday, 28 November 2015

Chartism and Jeremy Corbyn

The ‘Six Points’ of the People’s Charter is something that I have written about on many occasions in the last few decades.  They are central to any discussion of Chartism and formed the foundation for what was arguably the most widely supported working-class movement since the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381.  Millions of men and women saw in the Charter the solution to their economic, social and political woes.  Although Chartism was deemed a failure by many contemporaries, five of its six points were ultimately translated into law.  That we today have universal suffrage, the secret ballot, paid MPs, single member constituencies and no property qualifications baring anyone from standing for Parliament is a direct result of the Chartist agitation of the 1830s and 1840s.  That annual parliaments—the sixth of the six points—has never been implemented, has been largely forgotten.  Yet it was potentially the most revolutionary of the electoral principle adopted by Chartists and has a particular resonance to the current situation in the Labour Party.

Kennington Common, 10 April 1848

The essence of annual parliaments for Chartists was its participatory nature.  MPs would be elected by their constituents and their actions in Parliament would be closely monitored with, for instance, how they voted and how many sessions they attended would be published in the press.  To keep their seats, MPs would need to consult not just their own supporters but all who could vote in their constituencies regularly to ensure that they represented their opinions.  This did not mean that they were delegates mandated by their electors to vote in particular ways but certainly did mean that they would be held accountable for their actions by those electors.  The link between MPs and their electors would inevitably be more personal, more intimate and more defined. 

Although I suspect that annual parliaments are not part of his thinking, there is much in what Jeremy Corbyn has said in the past suggesting that he favours a more participatory approach to politics, an attempt to push decision-making away from Westminster and placing it more in the hands of the electors.  The Labour leader has sent out a survey to party members asking for their views on bombing IS in Syria and urging them to respond by the start of next week.  He has also told his MPs to go back to their constituencies this weekend and canvas the views of members.  Jeremy's supporters are convinced that his views are closer to Labour’s grassroots than those of dissenting MPs while his opponents suspect him of trying to bypass the parliamentary party and appeal directly to the members who emphatically elected him in September. 

But we do not have a participatory but a representative democratic system—one reason why annual parliaments have never been introduced.  Once elected MPs represent their constituencies as a whole not just the narrow number of activists who may have helped them get elected.  So MPs should not simply be canvassing the views of members, as Jeremy suggests, but seeking the views of electors from across the political spectrum before they make their decision on what is essentially a matter of ‘conscience’.  Even if the notion of a free vote can be seen as the only way Labour can get out of the hole they’ve constructed, when John McDonnell says that MPs should not be ‘whipped or threatened’ and that they should follow their ‘own judgement’ on possible air strikes over Syria, he is restating this long-established principle that there are some issues that are above party politics. 

Friday, 27 November 2015

Syria…bombing?

The question of whether Britain should be involved in bombings inside Syria to confront IS has in some respects been made easier by the massacres in Paris a fortnight ago.  Does IS pose a direct threat to Britain?  Yes.  Should IS be confronted in Syria and Iraq?  Again yes.  Will Britain adding its planes to those already bombing Syria really make a difference?  A marginal effect at best but of far greater symbolic importance.  Did David Cameron make the case for immediate bombing yesterday?  In part I think he did…though he was less clear about how this fitted into plans for defeating IS and he made some grandiloquent statements about the Syrian forces opposed to IS of some 70,000 fighters…I was reminded of Tony Blair’s statements about weapons of mass destruction over a decade ago.   Will bombing make Britain safer?  In the short-term, probably not as there will almost inevitably be consequences. 
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Jeremy Corbyn has made his position clear in a letter to Labour MPs.  This will not come as a surprise to his supporters or critics…he has long opposed Britain’s involvement in foreign interventions and has, in most cases, been right in his analysis.  The question is whether as leader of Labour, he has the luxury of putting his own well-established views before what many people see as the necessity for action to stem the threat from IS.  Those critical of his leadership see this as yet another example of the shambolic depths to which Labour has sunk and in a week with the Little Red Book dominating the news rather than Conservative U-turns over tax credits and police funding, the letter simply reinforces their view of him as a liability to both party and country. 
Public opinion has shifted since 2013 when 2:1 were against intervention in Syria—albeit against Assad—to 2.1 in favour…even amongst Labour voters though not amongst the Corbynistas of whom 71 per cent want a free vote on the issues.  The disconnect between the 300,000 activists and the 9 million who voted for Labour in May is very clear.  For MPs, their mandate comes from those who elected them in May rather than the minority of activists and therein lies the problem at the heart of Labour’s dilemma.  The choice appears to be between an activist-based party that lacks the numbers to win an election and Labour voters who are more ‘conservative’ in their views of a range of issues including Trident, welfare and education.  With Labour currently polling at 27 per cent—15 points behind the government—and with public opinion broadly behind bombing, by making clear his stance Jeremy threatens to make the divisions within the Parliamentary Labour Party even worse.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

Murder and assault

On the evening of Friday 6 October, James Scobie, a Scot in his late teens and his friend Peter Martin were returning to Eureka after an evening celebrating their reunion. In the early hours of the following morning, they saw a light still burning in the Eureka Hotel and probably hoping to buy more alcohol began banging on the door, but James Bentley, an unpopular ex-convict from VDL and publican of the hotel refused them admission. Both Bentley and his hotel had a bad reputation: ‘The worst characters lived about his place; midnight robberies were frequent, and life and property were not safe’. [1] Many diggers had been cheated and bullied by the hotel’s employees but because it was frequented by a number of goldfield officials, the hotel enjoyed immunity from regulations that applied in other public houses. An angry exchange followed, threats were made and a pane of glass was broken. Scobie and Martin then meandered off towards Scobie’s tent but a few yards from the hotel, heard voices in the darkness behind them and were suddenly attacked, Martin later maintained, by two or three men and a woman identified by other witnesses as Bentley’s wife. Martin was struck and ran off but when he realised that Scobie was not following, returned and found his friend either dead or dying as the result of a brutal blow to the head.[2]

S.T. Gill, Site of Bentley's Hotel - Eureka Ballaarat, 1855

Suspicion immediately fell on Bentley, who was brought before a Coroner’s inquest the following afternoon. Coroner David John Williams selected a jury of twelve men, many of whom had known Scobie to hear the evidence and the depositions presented. During the inquest, the Coroner interrupted the proceedings on a fairly regular basis and many questioned his decision to allow Bentley, to cross-examine the young witness Bernard Welch. Bentley swore that no one left the hotel and was supported by the barman, William Duncan, Thomas Farrell a clerk and Thomas Mooney, Bentley’s night watchman. [3] In his deposition Doctor Alfred Carr, who had conducted a post-mortem forensic examination of Scobie’s body, had concluded that death was caused by internal bleeding caused by a blow to the head and that Scobie’s drunken state would have rendered ‘the blow more dangerous & more likely to cause a rupture of the blood vessels’. However, he thought ‘the injury was inflicted by a kick & not by the spade now produced’. There was also a later suggestion that Carr’s medical evidence contributed to the verdict and that he ‘was a colluding associate of both Dewes and Bently’.[4]

Despite the evidence of witnesses, notably Bernard Welch and his mother Mary Ann Welch who saw or heard Bentley and one of his servants viciously attack Scobie, the jury found that there was insufficient evidence against Bentley and an open verdict was given. There was considerable disquiet about how the proceedings had been conducted and with the verdict and several individuals, including Peter Lalor, formed a committee to investigate further the proceedings of the inquest. This placed pressure on the Ballarat authorities for further inquiries into the circumstances of Scobie’s death, additional evidence was collected resulting in a judicial inquiry presided over by Gold Fields Commissioner Robert Rede, Assistant-Commissioner James Johnston and Police Magistrate John Dewes on 12 October. [5]

Many observers, including Charles Evans, thought Dewes favoured Bentley. It was widely believed that he was part-owner in the Eureka Hotel and his behaviour during the trial led to suspicions of collusion between the prisoners and the Bench. During an adjournment in proceedings Police Constables John Dougherty and Michael Costello observed Bentley entering Dewes’ office where he remained for ten minutes. Dewes was also hostile to prosecution witnesses but courteous to anyone appearing for the defence. Johnston was so uneasy with the proceedings that he disassociated himself from the verdict. Nevertheless, Rede thought the evidence inconclusive and his decision, with that of Dewes led to a majority for acquittal, a decision that could only inflame the situation. [6] In the later petition to the Governor, it was pointed out that the correct procedure in cases where prosecution and defence witnesses contradicted each other, was that the matter should be settled by a jury. [7] Bentley was not without supporters on the goldfield, three witnesses testified that neither Bentley nor his wife left the hotel but all were either Bentley’s employees or lived in the hotel and, according to the Argus were ‘equally liable to suspicion’ and he was discharged with ‘not a shadow of imputation remained on [his] character’. [8] For many diggers, this decision seemed to embody all that was oppressive and corrupt about the Government Camp. Evans commented later in the month:

An act of the basest injustice on the part of the Camp Officials has inflamed the minds of the people to a pitch which will be remembered for a life time. [9]

Of the national groups at Ballarat, the Irish were the most cohesive. It was no coincidence that the wooden Catholic Church was situated on the Gravel Pits, on the edge of the Eureka field where the Irish lived in large numbers. Their spiritual needs were met by the young Irish priest Father Patrick Smyth and his crippled Armenian servant Joannes Gregorius, both of whom were widely admired in the community. Ministers of religion and their servants were exempt from having licenses but on 10 October, James Lord, an inexperienced constable apparently unaware of this demanded to see Gregorius’ license. Gregorius, who spoke little English attempted to explain that he was Smyth’s servant but Lord then dismounted, assaulted him and insulted the priest.

The real grievance seems to be a hasty and improper expression on the part of the Trooper, who is reported to have said ‘I don’t care a damn for you or the Priest.’ [10]

The fiasco was exacerbated when Assistant-Commissioner Johnston, who was riding past, also decided that the servant should have had a license. Yet, upon the arrival of Father Smyth, Johnston accepted £5 bail for the servant’s appearance before the Bench the following day. The Bench imposed a £5 fine on Gregorius for not having a license. However, Johnston realised that no license was required and made a bad situation worse by altering the charge to one of assault on Lord. Despite evidence of witnesses to the contrary, Dewes found the servant guilty as charged and fined him £5. After Mass on 15 October, a meeting of all Catholics was called to discuss the case but it failed to reach a conclusion and decided to meet again a week later on 22 October.


[1] Evidence of William Carroll, a digger and storekeeper reported in Ballarat Times, 13 October 1854.

[2] Argus, 9 October 1854. For depositions given at the inquest see, PROV, 5527/PO, Unit 1, Item 1.

[3] Proceedings before Coroner’s Inquisition, 7 October 1864,

[4] Sgiathanach, ‘Reminiscences of Ballarat’, Tuapeka Times, 17 January 1906, p. 3. See also, the discussion of Carr’s evidence, ‘The Trial of Bentley’, Argus, 20 November 1854, p. 4.

[5] On 20 November 1854, Dewes was dismissed as a magistrate and was subsequently blamed for accepting bribes to issue publicans’ licenses at Ballarat. His criminal activities continued in Victoria, British Columbia where he was appointed Acting Postmaster in 1859 and two years later absconded with £300 of public money. He is believed to have committed suicide in Paris later in 1861.

[6] ‘Ballaarat’, Argus, 19 October 1854, p. 5, prints comments written on 12 October: ‘it is thought that the decision (that gave unmistakeable offence to all who heard it) will not be final.’ ‘Ballaarat’, Argus, 23 October 1854, p. 5, includes the petition to Hotham requesting him to institute a new investigate into Scobie’s death.

[7] This position was based on the observations of Lord Denham in his charge to the jury at the Somerset Assizes in 1849, A’Beckett, William, The Magistrates’ Manual for the Colony of Victoria, (Printed and Published at the Melbourne Morning Herald Office), 1852, pp. 21-22.

[8] Ballarat Times, 13 October 1854, contained a testimonial for Bentley that hastened: ‘to express the pleasure and gratification we feel at the just judicial termination of the investigation of that unfortunate affair, and are assured that your urbanity and manly behaviour will still continue to guarantee to so well conducted a house, its full share of public patronage’.

[9] SLV, MS 13518, Charles Evans, Diary, 25 October 1854, p. 94.

[10] Rede to Foster, 2 November 1854, PROV 1189/P Unit 92, J54/12201.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Mixed messages and choosing the right words

Although comments in today’s Sun criticising Jeremy Corbyn for not being ‘sorry enough’ about the atrocities in Paris last Friday are nonsensical—it’s almost as if a newspaper hardly sympathetic to him is saying that being sorry is not enough you have to be really sorry—his comments today have been, to say the least, ill thought.  His interview of Laura Kuenssberg revisited his attitude to military intervention in Syria on which little was added to his well-established views…what is needed is a diplomatic and political solution to Syria and bombing by Britain will do nothing to achieve this.  It was, however, his statement that he is ‘not happy’ with UK police or security services operating a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy in the event of a terror attack. He also declined to answer what he called the ‘hypothetical question’ of whether he would ever back military intervention against extremists: ‘I'm not saying I would or I wouldn't’, he said. But Mr Corbyn came under attack at a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, with Labour MP John Mann saying his niece had found herself trapped in a Paris toilet for three hours ‘thinking she was going to be murdered’. Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Home Affairs committee, said the shoot-to-kill policy was right and the special services do need that power in extreme circumstances…’We live in dark and dangerous times and the shoot-to-kill policy, specifically aimed at terrorists in a hostage situation, is the right policy given the emergency situation that members of the special services will find themself in.’
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Herein lies his problem and why his position as leader of the Labour Party will, I suspect, be short-lived.  Though people will be sympathetic to what he says, many others will find his timing thoroughly offensive.  Given that he repeated these things on Sky and other news outlets, he is clearly positioning himself as the conscience of the country.  That may be a perfectly honourable position to take as an oppositional backbench MP but not as Leader of the Opposition who could, in the future, be responsible for people’s security. 

Thursday, 5 November 2015

The beginnings of rebellion

It is not fines, imprisonments, taxation and bayonets that is required to keep a people tranquil and content. It is attention to their wants and their just rights alone that will make the miners content. [1]

Ballarat had not played as important a role as Bendigo and Castlemaine in the anti-license campaign in mid-1853 largely because of the prosperity of the goldfield. A year later things had changed. Yields from alluvial mining were declining and although deep lead mining had increased substantially, it usually took six to eight months to sink shafts onto the pay dirt. This meant that diggers were in contact with the same government officials, giving time for personal resentments to grow on both sides. For Blainey, this was the key to understanding why rebellion occurred in 1854.[2] Hotham’s decision to enforce all licensing laws rigorously brought simmering tensions between the diggers and authority to a head. His actions resurrected the simmering grievances of the Ballarat diggers who were experiencing growing poverty, license hunts, the corruption of the police and inadequate public services. [3]

There were growing concerns among officials over the political activities of diggers’ organisations by late 1854. On 9 October, in a confidential memorandum William Wright, the Chief Commissioner of the Goldfields required that a magistrate and two witnesses should attend all public meetings held for political purposes and to note down any seditious language. [4] In addition, police spies began attending diggers’ meetings to collect evidence. Although the revenue collected in the Ballarat District from license fees and storekeepers’ licenses was substantial reaching more than £96,000 by the end of 1854, only a small proportion of diggers and shopkeepers actually paid their fees. For Hotham, this represented a clear breach of the law as well as reducing potential revenue. [5] Hotham was rightly concerned by developing political agitation in Ballarat and, during October, the Ballarat Reform League emerged from a series of meetings and was officially launched at Bakery Hill on Saturday 11 November. By the end of November, Rede had concluded that the Eureka District was the centre of radical activity. What is extraordinary about events in Ballarat was the pace at which the situation deteriorated from resentment to open defiance to rebellion. Yet the signs were there in early October:

There are breakers ahead. If Sir Charles manages to avoid the reefs by which he is surrounded, he will prove himself a pilot of no mean ability. For the last week or so, the spirit of dissatisfaction has been rapidly increasing, and, unless a change for the better be speedily brought about, Ballarat, I fear me may soon cease to be worthy of praise from the lips of the Governor in matters of loyalty.[6]


[1] Ballarat Times, 28 October 1854.

[2] Ibid, Blainey, Geoffrey, The Rush that Never Ended, pp. 50-52.

[3] Walshe, R. D., ‘Bibliography of Eureka’, Historical Studies: Eureka Supplement, (December 1954), pp. 81-91, provides a summary of available primary and secondary material up to 1954. Of the myriad studies of Eureka, Gold, Geoffrey, Eureka: Rebellion beneath the Southern Cross, (Rigby Limited), 1977; ibid, MacFarlane, Ian, (ed.), Eureka From the Official Records, Fitzsimons, Peter, Eureka: The Unfinished Revolution, (Random House), 2013, and Molony, John, Eureka, (Melbourne University Press), 1984, 2nd ed., (Melbourne University Press), 2001, are the most useful. Of the earlier studies, Turner, Henry Gyles, Our Own Little Rebellion: The Story of the Eureka Stockade, (Whitcombe & Tombs Limited), 1913, retains its vigour.

[4] Blake, L. J., ‘William Henry Wright, (1816-1877), ADB, Vol. 6, pp. 444-445.

[5] ‘Letter of the Editor: Digger Hunting at Ballarat’, Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, 10 October 1854, p. 5, demonstrates the depth of feeling against the intensity and severity of license fee collection.

[6] ‘Ballarat’, Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, 11 October 1854, p. 4.