Sunday, 28 September 2014

If a week is a long time in politics…..

If a week in politics is a long time, then the last week must have seemed like an eternity in Westminster.  The referendum was won but then confused by the Prime Minister’s attempt to link further Scottish devolution with ‘English votes for English laws’.  Then Ed Miliband ‘forgot’ to mention the deficit in his speech on Tuesday, something that did little to suggest a Prime Minister in the making, and his attempt to resolve the problem of England by focusing on regionalism—he needs Scottish MPs to be able to vote in Westminster.  Then, on Friday, the House of Commons voted in favour of the use of British planes in Iraq against IS..a third Iraq war…Britain’s involvement in the Middle East is increasingly resembling the Hundred Years War.  Finally, a second Conservative MP defected to UKIP and a junior minister resigned after what appears was a newspaper ‘sting’—you would really think that they would have learned from past experience about these and yet politicians appear to fall for it every time--not an ideal beginning to the Conservative Party conference.

Looking at all these mistakes, errors of judgement, what many call betrayal, is it too much to suggest that the political system is in ‘crisis’?  I know that politicians have bad weeks but I find it difficult to remember when they actually had a good one.  It appears that they have come under the Voltairean delusion that ‘everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds’ or ‘things can only get better’!  Well, they’re not.  There is a profound and continuing disillusionment with the political system, politicians and everything emanating from Westminster.  It’s not simply that politicians get things wrong—we all do that—or that they appear out of touch with the lives of ordinary people—it has ever been thus—it’s a sense that something is fundamentally wrong with the body politic—something rotten in the state of Denmark.  It raises questions about what is the point of the United Kingdom in the twenty-first century?

One of the things that History teaches us is that societies in which there is a disconnect between the aspirations of its peoples and the credibility and legitimacy of its political elites is that it leads to growing economic, social , cultural and political pressures and that if these pressures are not reduced then those societies often fragment.  In the past, people have assumed that their political leaders have solutions to their everyday problems and, although there may have been different emphases among different politicians, to some extent they did.  The primary aim for politicians at least since 1945 was to make sure that people had work, were educated, had proper health provision and a good standard of living—they ensured that people’s aspirations were as least partially met.  There were always some who fell through the social net and welfare provision provided support for their needs.  At a time of growing globalisation and global tensions, British society—or more accurately English society—is turning in on itself, becoming less tolerant, more xenophobic, more clearly divided between the rich and the rest and unhappy with itself.  This, in part, explains why UKIP is gaining  increasing support across the political spectrum—you make a grave error if you think its appeal is simply to those with right-wing views,its jingoistic rhetoric appeals equally to white working-class voters on the left.  The mainstream political parties may ridicule UKIP—and much of what it says is easy to ridicule—but what it does and does very effectively is to speak for those who feel increasingly dispossessed in their own country for whom unfettered immigration and membership of the European Union are the fundamental causes of Britain’s woes.  The unwillingness of both Labour and the Conservatives to call a referendum on membership of the EU—despite saying they would—is a longstanding reflection of this disillusion that predates the formation of UKIP and is something Gordon Brown should have done over the Lisbon Treaty almost a decade ago.  We simply do not trust politicians to do what they say they’re going to do—something people are finding increasingly irksome. 

Monday, 22 September 2014

What does democracy mean in Britain?

Britain undergoes periods of democratic introspection about once every decade but what is often a frenzy of calls for constitutional change quickly subsides and the country returns to its normal state of constitutional lassitude.  Britain is not unique in doing this—crises in the body politic globally tends to lead to existing governmental structures baring the brunt of public opprobrium with the emergence of new political parties saying that they have the solution of the nation’s woes.  So what does democracy actually mean in Britain and why is our attitude to it so ambivalent?
For many in Britain, democracy relates to the right to express their opinion through the ballot box, a right that evolved between the Reform Act in 1832 and the Representation of the People Act in 1928—a process that took almost a century.  The extension of the vote to include those between 18 and 21 in 1969 marked an end to the democratisation of the electorate and the only way this could be altered is to extend the vote down to 16 and 17 year olds—something achieved with some success in the Scottish referendum.  Parallel to the extension of the vote has been the emergence of pressure group politics where interest groups seek to exert influence on government through parliamentary and extra-parliamentary pressure and party politics through which different sections is society seek to achieve electoral dominance.  So democracy in Britain can be expressed individually through participation in local, national, Union and European elections, through seeking to influence government policy through legitimate pressure and lobbying and from within political parties, processes made both more complex and more immediate by the twenty-four hour nature of the media and the emergence of social networking.  Politicians are now expected to be able to react immediately and often instinctively to emerging stories in the media with an appropriate and often inappropriate sound bites almost before events occur.  Today democracy is played out on the television screen, the tablet or smartphone—everyone it seems has an opinion—and there has been a ‘technologing’ of politics as never before.
The problem is that our constitutional and political structures have not been keeping pace with the changes in how people experience democracy.  In one sense that may not be a bad thing since constitutional change needs to be a considered process—rapid constitutional change is often poor constitutional change.  But the lag between people’s perceptions of how democracy works for them and a responding repackaging of constitutional structures to reflect those perceptions has resulted in a growing dissatisfaction with Westminster politics and its seeming inability to do more than adopting the classic ‘we know what’s best’ approach to challenges to its legitimacy.  This is reflected in the falling numbers of people who votes in elections, further reducing their legitimacy and the legitimacy of those elected to public office—why should we bother to vote when it doesn’t change anything?  Our democratic system is linked almost exclusively to the question of voting rather than taking a broader view of democracy as a participatory process—the campaigns in Scotland clearly show what the impact of active participation are and their effect on voter turnout.  Our representative system based on the notion that ‘if you don’t like what we’re doing you can vote us out at the next election’ is today insufficiently responsive to people’s democratic aspirations.  Whether an English Parliament is the solution to this is unlikely—it simply adds another tier of already discredited politicians. 

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Norfolk Island: A final flourish

There were minor disturbances in 1841, 1842 and 1843 but a more violent affair in 1846. [1] Joseph Childs, commandant from 1844 to 1846, proved to be no match for the hardened convicts largely because he had no experience of life in a penal settlement. [2] When Robert Pringle Stuart visited Norfolk Island, he reported that Childs was ‘a most amiable benevolent gentleman and honourable officer’ but that what was needed to avoid anarchy and insubordination was ‘an officer of experience in, or capacity for, government, judgement, energy, decision and firmness’. [3] Childs was recalled but, before he left, a group of convicts revolted in July 1846, murdering four officials. [4]

As was usual with new commandants, Childs had cracked down on discipline and removed some privileges that convicts had become accustomed to. On 1 July 1846, William Westwood, a convicted bushranger also known as ‘Jackey Jackey’ led a mutiny provoked by Childs’ decision the previous day to remove the prisoners’ tins and knives and other utensils used for cooking their food and that all food would in future be cooked for them. [5] He attacked and brutally killed two overseers, a guard who called out that he had seen it all and another guard who was asleep. In half an hour, the military restored order at the point of the bayonet and convicts who had joined the riot quickly returned to their cells. Sentenced to death with twelve others, Westwood was hanged on 13 October 1846 by Childs’ successor, John Price, who considered Childs responsible for the state of affairs that led to the revolt. [6] A contemporary report blamed the situation on Childs’ ‘utter imbecility’. [7] There was one last event of convict defiance when, in March 1853, some convicts seized a government launch and attempted to row to freedom. In July, news was received that the launch had reached the coast of NSW and some of the runaways had been captured.

From the mid-1840s, there was growing pressure to end transportation to VDL, something that was finally achieved in 1853. The cost of maintaining the penal settlement on Norfolk Island was growing and Port Arthur in VDL was seen as a less costly alternative. This combined with increasing criticism by magistrates and clergymen of the nature of penal rule on Norfolk Island led to the decision to abandon the island for a second time. [8] The process began in 1847 and was completed in May 1855 when the last convicts were moved to VDL. [9] There was a further factor that played a part in this decision. With some irony, in Britain, Earl Grey, the Colonial Secretary, saw Norfolk as a possible home for the inhabitants of Pitcairn Islands, descendants of the mutineers from the Bounty and their Tahitian-Polynesian wives. [10]

[1] On the attempted escape on the Governor Phillip, see Gipps to Lord Stanley, 15 August 1842, HRA Series I: Vol. 22, pp. 200-201.

[2] Barry, John V., ‘Childs, Joseph (1787-1870)’, ADB, Vol. 1, pp. 220-221.

[3] Ibid, Stuart, Robert Pringle, and Naylor, Thomas Beagley, Norfolk Island, 1846: the accounts of Robert Pringle Stuart and Thomas Beagley Naylor, p. 69.

[4] ‘Disturbances at Norfolk Island’, The Australian, 8 August 1846, provides an account of events.

[5] Rutledge, Martha, ‘Westwood, William [Jackey Jackey] (1820-1846)’, ADB, Supplementary Volume, pp. 404-405.

[6] The Australian, 14 November 1846.

[7] Rogers, Henry, (ed.), Essays, Selected from Contributions to the Edinburgh Review, 2 Vols. (Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans), 1850, Vol. 2, ‘Treatment of Criminals’, p. 506. The article was originally published in 1847.

[8] ‘Norfolk Island and Transportation’, The Australian, 18 February 1847, indicated that the ‘island establishment is to be immediately reduced to a very small scale’.

[9] Earl Grey to Sir Charles Fitzroy, 27 February 1847, HRA, Series I: Vol. 25, pp. 375-376.

[10] Murray, Thomas Boyles, Pitcairn, the island, the people, and the pastor: to which is added a short notice of the original settlement and present condition of Norfolk Island, (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge), 1857, pp. 363-428, provides a valuable contemporary account of this process. See also, Belcher, Lady, (Diana Joliffe), The Mutineers of the Bounty and Their Descendants in Pitcairn and Norfolk Islands, (Harmer & Brothers Publishers), 1871.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Finding a constitutional settlement

It’s barely twenty-four hours since the final result of the Scottish referendum and surprise, surprise, the three political parties are already daggers drawn over the future constitutional settlement.  Therein lies the problem—much as turkeys don’t vote for an early Christmas, politicians are not going to vote for any constitutional settlement that is dreamed up unless it protects their interests…what’s in the interest of the people or the country as a whole doesn’t appear to come into it.  Whether there’s a Constitutional Convention or a Grand Committee of the House or Royal Commission matters little because what will emerge will be politically neutral—a reflection of an evolutionary view of constitutional development—because that’s the only way Parliament will accept it. The result will not be the transformation of our increasingly out-dated constitution but tinkering around the edges while giving further powers to Scotland to dampen any further demands for independence.

I have heard the phrases ‘the genie's out of the bottle’ and ‘this is a transformative moment’ so many times in the last thirty years and yet our constitutional structures have—with the exception of devolution—remained largely unchanged.  We still have a House of Lords; there has been no change in the electoral system despite attempts to do so and the failed referendum; political power remains largely centralised in Westminster; the scandal of MPs’ expenses has not made MPs necessarily more accountable or less arrogant.  There also seems to be some confusion about constitutional matters.  Take for instance, the seemingly interchangeable nature of devolution and decentralisation in much discourse and yet they are very different beast.  The devolution of power means that Parliament gives up its sovereignty over say education to one of the current national parliaments that is then accountable to its electorate for education policy; the Westminster Parliament no longer has any responsibility for education at all.  Decentralisation does not involve the permanent transfer of powers merely the loaning of those powers to local authorities to carry out tasks previously done by central government; those powers are supervised by central government and can be taken back. 

There may be appetite for further constitutional change in Scotland but I’m not sure that the same can be said of England.  If the government resolves the West Lothian question by excluding Scottish MPs from voting on English issues, I would expect that calls for an English Parliament will rapidly fade.  It would also head off any residual threat from UKIP—one of the very effective results of David Cameron’s statement yesterday.  Whatever those in the ‘Westminster village’ think about the need for an English demos—and I agree with them--there is little evidence of a grassroots movement for constitutional change in England. 

Friday, 19 September 2014

What now?

With the votes counted and with a turnout of 84 per cent—unprecedented in modern British politics—it is clear that the United Kingdom is not about to be dismembered…well not in the immediate future.  The critical question was always going to be ‘what happens next?’ whether the vote for independence was won or lost.  Well it was lost and pretty emphatically.  The time has come to address the West Lothian question—why should Scottish MPs be able to vote on English matters and not vice versa.  One solution would be to complete the pack—give England its own Parliament in the same way that they exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—in other words establish a federal structure.  The role of Westminster would be relegated to being the national Parliament dealing only with issues that are common across the four countries in the Union.  So no West Lothian problem.  The fiction United Kingdom having a unitary constitution—today barely a credible proposition—would finally be ended.

At a stroke, you resolve a number of constitutional issues.  The English Parliament would be a unicameral institution like the other national parliaments.  The Union Parliament could retain two houses—making it something like the American Congress—or, more radically we could take this opportunity of abolishing the second chamber so that all parliaments in the UK have one chamber.  This could mean that the English Parliament meets in one of the current chambers in the Houses of Parliament and the Union Parliament in the other—good economics—or you could establish the English Parliament in say Birmingham centrally in the country.  You could also reduce the number of MPs to say 200 by having them chosen from within the national parliaments on the basis of say 1UMP per 100,000 of the population based on the proportion of parties within those parliaments; so Scotland with a population of about 3 million people would have 30 UMPs.  Each country would have its own First Minister while the Prime Minister would be the Union leader with a cabinet including the four First Ministers. 

Then there’s the vexed question of how MPs should be elected.  Proportional representation fell in the last referendum but a radical change in the nature of the British constitution will inevitably raise the question again.  I’m inclined to go for the system that apply in Wales combining first-past-the-post and the additional member system but the existing Scottish system with its regional dimension might be preferable.    Either way, the current electoral system needs a radical overhaul.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Finally, irrevocably it’s R-Day

The debate, one of the most dynamic I’ve ever seen, is over and voting is underway.  In less than twenty-four hours we’ll know whether Scotland has voted for independence or not.  Whether the ‘Stay Together’ campaign has done enough—just enough I suspect—to win, there really is no going back from the campaigns over the past two years.  The choice is between the visionary ambiguities of the Yes campaign and the equally ambiguous pragmatism of those calling for retention of the Union.  Given what most accept will be the closeness of the result, you have to ask what its democratic legitimacy will be.  What the referendum has done is to expose a fundamental ideological fissure within Scottish society that will, despite the weasel words from both sides, be difficult to heal.  I can’t see the two sides coming together in the immediate aftermath of the result however good natured the debate has generally been.
So, the referendum result may not be the end of the matter.  There are some who argue that, if the result favours independence, the rest of the UK should have a referendum on whether or not to accept the negotiated solution.  Now there is an argument for this especially as Scotland makes up less than 10 per cent of the total population of the UK and the result, whatever it is, affects all peoples in the UK.  Why, some have already asked, should Scotland be given special status and advantages over the other constituent parts of the UK?  The problem with a divorce is that, while the decision may be easy to make, working out the details of the split is always contentious and time-consuming.  I can’t see that being achieved by March 2016.  While the focus has been on whether there should be a monetary union between Scotland and the rest of the UK and what Scotland’s status will be in the European Union and NATO and what happens to Trident have long been the focus of debate, these are as nothing to untangling three centuries of Union.  The negotiations will be political horse-trading—you let me have X and you can have Y—they always are. Pragmatic politics almost always trumps political vision—remember that politics is the art of the possible.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Whatever happens in Scotland, constitutional reform is now inevitable

Whether Scotland votes for or against independence on Thursday, the constitutional genie is now out of the bottle.  If Scotland votes for independence, the West Lothian question will not longer apply as there will no longer be any Scottish MPs in Westminster but if it’s a no vote and further powers are devolved to the Scottish Parliament, it remains unresolved.  What the Scottish debate has highlighted is the increasing disenchantment of the public with Westminster politicians and the need for fundamental constitutional change.

The problem lies in the existing unitary constitution.  Although there have been constitutional crises over the last thousand years—the reform crisis of 1830-1832 and the crisis between Commons and Lords between 1909 and 1911—there has only been one truly revolutionary moment—the English Republic between 1649 and 1660.  It is evolution rather than revolution that has been the primary feature of our constitutional structures and the problem with evolution is that it can look like tinkering with things or cosmetic change.  The British state evolved over a thousand years from the separate Anglo-Saxon kingdoms into the centralised English state that then by a process of coercion, conquest and often disreputable ‘persuasion’, in to the United Kingdom.  More and more power has been concentrated in Westminster and, until the acceptance that devolution was a necessary development, it jealously guarded and maintained that power.  Devolution has led to this unravelling.  The unitary constitution, if not already dead, is in terminal decline.

So where constitutionally does this leave the United Kingdom?  The question of an English Parliament  has recently been revived as one solution to the problem—English MPs for English issues.  But is again tinkering…it fails to address the critical issue that what Britain needs is a federal system of government in which its constituent parts are responsible for governing themselves while the federal authorities are responsible for issues such as defence—so small federal government and bigger regional government bringing power closer to the people, a shift from representative to participatory democracy.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Book review--Chartism: Rise and Demise

Chartism: Rise and Demise, Richard Brown, Authoring History, paperback, 2014, ISBN 9781495390340

Chartism, the mass petitioning movement for universal male suffrage, conveniently punctuated with intense bursts of activity around its three national petitions of 1839, 1842 and 1848, appears deceptively familiar to many students. These three fairly distinctive phases of the movement, have readily promoted analytical narrative approaches from R.G. Gammage, via Mark Hovell, J.T. Ward and Malcolm Chase, which have been supplemented by more thematic explorations of other aspects of the movement by a host of prominent historians who have focused on the roles of the government and public order (F.C. Mather); women and the family (David Jones and Dorothy Thompson) and individuals like Feargus O’Connor (Donald Read, Eric Glasgow and James Epstein) and Ernest Jones (Miles Taylor). Richard Brown, in a richly nuanced approach, deftly weaves into his narrative, which broadly follows the conventionally phased structure, discussion of these and many other themes. He explains, for example, how cultural dimensions of the movement though often divisive helped to sustain its momentum in the late 1830s and 1840s and indeed beyond. He also provides a more explicitly historiographical perspective than Malcolm Chase, which students will find particularly helpful, and takes a generally more sympathetic view of O’Connor than some other recent writers, recognising the Chartist leader’s failings, but attributing the successful development of the mass platform which underpinned the movement largely to his abilities as a platform speaker.

Brown’s three-volume review of Chartism, of which this is the second volume, is based predominantly but not exclusively on the undiminishing secondary literature of the movement, supplemented by some pertinent references to contemporary newspapers and archival evidence where appropriate to offer fresh insights into the movement. Brown readily acknowledges his debt to previous writers in the field commenting that Chartism has been exceptionally rewarded by ‘so many good historians who have taken up the Chartist mantle and whose innovative thinking has made the subject so popular’. Succinctly encapsulated within the title Chartism: Rise and Demise Brown’s aim is to give ‘greater attention to the radical context in which Chartism developed’ explaining why it emerged as a widespread political movement in the late 1830s and how it peaked reaching ‘a high water mark of active local and popular support’ in the strikes of 1842, which he suggests have been effectively airbrushed from the narrative of Chartism by some historians. He considers other hitherto neglected aspects of the final phase of the movement such as the Land Plan, commending the subscription lists as an invaluable source for the later history of the movement; the significance of the events of 1848 offering a revisionist view of so-called ‘fiasco’ interpretations; and exploring the movement’s links with socialism and its global impact. One of the most distinctive features of the book is Brown’s facility for drawing apt comparisons with international parallels, for example, he locates the depression that affected Britain after 1837 within ‘a broader crisis within North American and European economies’; notices parallels between tithings in Wales and hunters’ lodges in Canada in 1838-39 and makes comparisons between the Newport rising with the attack on Harper’s Ferry, twenty years later during the anti-slavery campaign in the United States.

Brown’s revised synthesis now constitutes the most up-to-date, detailed and wide-ranging of any overview of the movement produced for the general reader and will be an invaluable aid to students in tertiary and higher education engaging initially with Chartist history in all its complexity. No prior knowledge is assumed and Brown includes lucid explanations of such basic features of the movement as the origins and terms of the People’s Charter. Chartism remains one of the most stimulating and rigorously probed areas of historical enquiry, as enticing now as when I was first introduced to research into the movement under the guidance of the late Professor F.C. Mather many of whose informed, judicious assessments of the movement emerge from Brown’s analysis with continuing plausibility. Indeed, Brown concludes that Chartism was ultimately defeated not only by its own inner weaknesses but also by effective government control with the authorities in 1848 inflicting ‘a most damaging psychological defeat on the most significant, populist, radical movement of the century bankrupting the long tradition of the mass platform’.

John A. Hargreaves

Thursday, 11 September 2014

So yes means yes and no means yes as well!!

What is evident from the populist debate on Scottish independence is that David Cameron is probably rueing the day that he said no to ‘devo-max’ when he had the opportunity.  The result is that the debate is not over whether Scotland should be given what is effectively Home Rule—probably what most people wanted even some in the SNP—but on whether or not the country should secede from the Union.  The response from Westminster has been the hastily presented proposals made initially on Sunday and firmed up in the following two days…not a panic response according to No campaigners but, when a demonstrator ironically yelled ‘Don’t Panic’ as David Cameron left his emotionally charged f…ing meeting in Edinburgh, he was undoubtedly right.  By not including ‘devo-max’ as the third question in  the referendum, those unhappy with the status quo find themselves with only one option…voting for independence and belatedly making promises and a timetable for greater powers to Scotland may not be sufficient to alter the seemingly inexorable stampede to the constitutional door.
The reality is that most people in the United Kingdom do not wish to see the break-up of the Union—and probably a majority in Scotland—but such is the opprobrium in which Westminster politicians are held, it is a real option.  And even if Scotland votes ‘No’, the constitutional genie is out of the bottle.  Why, people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland ask, should Scotland be given extensive powers to rule itself but not us?  Such is the remoteness of politicians in London from the lives and aspirations of ordinary people that there will be demands for greater regional autonomy within the Union—power needs to be brought closer to the people if our democratic system is to retain popular support.  Unitary constitutional systems ultimately unravel when faced with demands for devolution; in fact, I would go further and argue that unitary structures are incompatible with devolution.  What we need is a United States of Great Britain and Northern Island within the EU…in reality the only solution to the current constitutional impasse.  This recognises that there are supra-national priorities, while some things, such as defence and fiscal policy, that are best done at the level of the state; others things, such as education—this is already the case—that are best organised on a national basis; while others should be regional and local…what is essentially a federal constitutional network.   It works in other countries, such as Germany, and there’s no reason why it should not work here. 
Now I’m certain there will be many politicians and civil servants in London who will argue that we don’t need to move away from the unitary system that has served us well—debatable—for so long.  This, of course, neglects the evolutionary way in which the constitution has developed over past centuries despite the warnings from those keen to preserve their own power or the status quo bleating that change will be a disaster—and for them perhaps it was.  The question is whether the British Constitution is ‘fit for purpose’ in the twenty-first century and clearly it is not as the response to the independence debate has made very clear.  Whether it’s yes or no next week, radical constitutional change is now inevitable.

Norfolk Island: Rebellion in 1834

Convict rebellions were a feature of Norfolk Island almost from its foundation but their incidence intensified after 1825. In September 1826, an attempt was made by convicts to escape from the island by boat, having been told that there was an island within a hundred miles where they could safely hide and never be found. While most of the soldiers were chasing two absconders, about thirty prisoners seized and bound their overseers, robbed the Stores for provisions and weapons and put three boats to sea, killing a soldier. The commandant, Captain Vance Young Donaldson and soldiers followed them to the nearby small and uninhabited Phillip Island, where they were captured. The ringleaders were sent to Sydney for trial, where they were sentenced to death. [1]

Lieutenant-Colonel James Thomas Morisset was appointed commandant of Norfolk Island in 1829. [2] During his period in office, the convict population grew from about 200 to over 700 by 1832 and there were several attempts at rebellion that were strenuously suppressed. Governor Darling was supportive of Morisset, regarding him ‘a very Zealous Officer’ whose duties were of ‘a most arduous nature’ observing that ‘the Conduct of the Prisoners has of late been outrageous in the extreme, having repeatedly Murder every one employed at the Settlement, and it is only by the utmost vigilance that they have been prevented accomplishing their object.’ [3] There was, however, growing criticism of Morisset’s rule within the more radical sections of NSW society. In 1832, Edward Hall, editor of the Sydney Gazette, wrote that the convicts on Norfolk Island had been ‘made the prey of hunger and nakedness at the caprice of monsters in human form...and cut to pieces by the scourge...have no redress or the least enquiry made into their suffering’. [4]

By the beginning of 1834, there were widespread rumours of rebellion across the island. [5] According to a convict named Laurence Frayne, Morisset was about to flog confessions out of the convicts, as the Reverend Samuel Marsden had done to Irish convicts thirty years earlier. Morisset was increasingly incapacitated by a head wound he had received during the Peninsular War in 1811 and had already decided to sell his commission. In practice, the running of the island was devolved to his second-in-command, Captain Foster Fyans. [6] Fyans was an experienced officer having served in Portugal and Spain between 1811 and 1814 and in India and Mauritius from 1818 until he arrived in Sydney in 1833. He was firm but fair in his attitude to convicts and later wrote of his experience as commandant of the Moreton Bay penal colony:

Five hundred convicts on this establishment were well and usefully employed; there was none of that lurking feeling in the men, and I may add that the settlement appeared to me not unlike a free overgrown establishment...I was always of opinion that mitigation to the deserving tended to good, and feel not sorry to acknowledge that I was instrumental to mitigating to a great extent seventy convicts, and well pleased often I have been in meeting some of these men doing well in the world as respectable citizens, and only in one solitary instance I failed in my hope. [7]

However, his view of Norfolk Island was emphatic: ‘to the latest hour [it] was a disgrace to England...the true discipline of the penal settlement subverted.’

Fyans was right to be concerned as an anonymous note, left in the soldiers’ barracks warned them to ‘beware of poison’. He had clear memories of a plot hatched by fifteen convicts two years before on the Governor Phillip to poison the ship’s company with arsenic in their food on the voyage to Norfolk Island. Fortunately this attempt was prevented by one of his fellow prisoners turning informer. Fyans was especially concerned by John Knatchbull in whose cabin a pound of arsenic was found though neither he nor the other convicts were charged. [8] Knatchbull came from a privileged landed background, the son of Sir Edward Knatchbull and his second wife. Educated at Winchester School, he had volunteered for the navy in 1804 becoming a lieutenant in 1810 and retiring on full-pay after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. [9] The Admiralty stopped his pay in 1818 because of a debt he incurred in the Azores. Convicted of stealing with force and arms in 1824, he was sentenced to transportation for fourteen years and arrived in NSW in April 1825. Initially, he adapted well to the colonial environment and was given his ticket-of-leave in 1829. However, two years later, he was successfully prosecuted for forgery but his death sentence was commuted to transportation for seven years to Norfolk Island where he arrived on the Governor Phillip in late 1832. [10] Knatchbull was central to the rebellion as the only way off the island was by ship and claimed that although he was unable to take part, he had offered to command a ship to South America if one could be captured.

On 1 August 1833, Knatchbull, George Farrell and Dominick McCoy agreed on a complex plan. First, it linked the convicts in the lumberyard and sawpits to those at the lime-burners’ kiln and the stone quarry and called for a simultaneous rebellion. At the dawn muster in the convict barracks yard, they would rush Fyans and his soldiers and overpower them.  If any of the guard managed to barricade themselves in the guardhouse, the prisoners would set fire to it and flush them out. Meanwhile the gaol gang, made up of prisoners under special punishment, would also rush their own guard as they were being mustered for work in the stone quarry. Secondly, the rebels would seize the apparatus of colonial rule. The two columns of convicts would then advance on Government House and capture Morisset, seize the 18-pound cannon there and turn it on the military barracks. If the soldiers surrendered they would be spared; if not, they would hang with the hated convict constables, overseers and informers. Finally, the convicts would escape from the island. They would force Morisset to hand over his codebook of signals, so that they could flag false messages to the next ship to anchor off the reef. They would get on board by wearing the overseers’ blue jackets and seize the vessel that Knatchbull would pilot to America, for ‘if he once got there, the Americans would not allow them to be given up again.’ In the months between the formulation of the plan and the rebellion, Redmond Moss successfully carried messages between the different gangs.

Shortly after 5 am on Wednesday 15 January 1834, men in the military barracks heard a ragged volley of musket fire. The rebellion had begun. At the dawn muster in the prisoners’ barracks thirty-eight men, an unusually large number, had reported sick and were marched off to hospital by John Higgins, a warder. Once inside the hospital lockup, they overpowered Higgins and locked him in a sickroom. The prisoners struck off each other’s irons, burst into the wards and armed themselves with weapons ranging from chair legs to scalpels and a poker. Some even found axes. They massed in the entrance of the hospital in silence, ready to fall on the guard when it came by. A hundred yards away this guard was mustering the gaol gang, about thirty convicts under the eye of a corporal and twelve privates of the 4th King’s Own Regiment. The guard corporal ordered the prisoners to march, but they would not budge. They stood there, rattling their chains. The signal was given. At that moment, Frayne looked toward the sawpits and cried, ‘Are you ready?’ Seconds later, forty convicts from the sawpits attacked the guards from behind, while the hospital gang burst from hiding and attacked their front. Taken completely by surprise, the soldiers could not get their weapons to their shoulders. The convicts ‘were within the bayonets of the Guard, before they were aware of them’ and for a few moments the convicts and guards locked, grappling for their guns. After a brief melee, military discipline prevailed and the guards now began firing as they backed into the gateway of the gaol, frantically loading and firing while their comrades kept the lunging convicts back at sabre-point. Several convicts, including Henry Drummond, one of the ringleaders went down and, as suddenly as it began, the fracas broke up.

Half a mile away in Quality Row, where the barracks and officers’ houses stood, Foster Fyans and his reacted quickly to the situation. They double-timed down the road to intercept the mutineers and when they charged again. Fyans gave the order to fire and, when the black-powder smoke cleared fifteen rebels were stretched on the ground while most of the others had plunged into the sugar cane that grew beside the road. Only the remnants of the gaol gang, hampered by their irons stood dumbly in surrender. Soldiers followed the escapees into the vegetable gardens and sugar cane. Fyans then led a detachment up the hill to deal with the convicts at the agricultural station at Longridge. They had lookouts where they could see the Kingston gaol buildings and signal the start of the mutiny. Convicts crowded exultantly around and Walter Bourke, their leader smashed the lock on the main tool chest and started passing out axes and pitchforks to the men. Crying ‘Liberty or Death!’ about eighty convicts followed him down the road to Flagstaff Hill. They expected to see a victorious crowd of fellow rebels surging to meet them. Instead they saw two men stumbling up the hill, one of them wounded pursued by redcoats. The soldiers fired a few rounds at the rebels, but the range was too great. Soon, they closed in and beat the rebels back to Longridge, taking twenty-eight prisoners on the way. With difficulty, Fyans kept the soldiers from bayoneting them to death on the spot, but felt later that ‘perhaps such lenity is ill bestowed’. Within a couple of hours, all the Longridge rebels were subdued and bound together with rope in a line, the soldiers marched them down the hill to Kingston.

By noon, Fyans had the mutineers confined in the main prison barracks, ‘nearly one thousand Ruffians’, he wrote later. A few were still missing, among them Robert Douglas, who was found later on the other side of the island at Anson’s Bay, still carrying a musket with ninety rounds of ammunition wrapped in a palm leaf. A bayonet thrust had destroyed his left eye and infection blinded the other a few days later. Fyans interrogated him daily in the hospital, but Douglas refused to say anything about the rebellion. The final tally of casualties was nine rebels dead and about fifty wounded.  No guard was killed until the night of 17 January, when two military search parties met in a cornfield while looking for rebels still at large and, each believing the other to be convicts, opened fire. One fluke shot killed both a civilian constable and Thomas York a young private of the 4th Regiment.

Captain Fyans adopted harsh measures against the rebels. It took blacksmiths nine days to make new irons for the prisoners. Rebels locked in the gaol awaiting trial were kept naked in a yard so crowded that not a third of them could sit at a time. For the next five months, while the reports went back to Sydney and arrangements were being made to send a judge to Norfolk Island, the rebels were kept locked to a chain cable. Mass floggings went on into the evening, until the ‘desperate lawless and listless mob’ had been scourged into submission. Some convicts, weary of their ‘acute and intolerable sufferings’ planned to commit group suicide, but never put their plan into action. It took Fyans and his staff five months to interrogate all the witnesses and take their depositions for trial. In this, Fyans was supported from March 1834 by Joseph Anderson, the new commandant of the island. Of those charged with mutiny, half were lifers and another third had sentences of fourteen years. In the course of the rebellion’s suppression, Knatchbull turned informer. 162 rebels were charged but the Attorney-General ruled that only 59 should be tried. The trials took place on Norfolk Island in July and twenty-nine rebels were sentenced to death. [11] Thirteen were eventually executed in front of their fellows on 22 and 23 September.


Lithograph on paper, 1844, artist unknown

National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

After the trials, Judge Sir William Burton severely reprimanded Fyans:

Most improperly, Sir, did you act as a magistrate, in accepting a confession from Knatchbull; neither should any deposition have been taken from him. Throughout the trials his name has been connected in every case: he was the chief of the mutineers, the man you should have named first in the Calendar. You have saved his life, or prolonged it. He never can do good.

Fyans blamed himself for saving Knatchbull’s neck by accepting his depositions and ‘for so gross an act, in setting this monster loose on society.’ Burton was proved right. Knatchbull returned from Norfolk Island in May 1839 [12] and gained his second ticket-of-leave in July 1842 but was hanged early in 1844 for the murder of Ellen Jamieson, a shopkeeper. [13] There had been little surprise at the outcome of his trial since he had been caught red-handed with £17 taken from the victim and the public called for the rope. Defended by Robert Lowe, later British Home Secretary, the trial was not delayed by Lowe’s attempt to get an adjournment to seek medical opinion on Knatchbull’s sanity. Since Lowe could not offer a defence questioning what happened, he chose to argue a novel case for moral insanity. [14] This was rejected both by Judge Burton and the jury that found him guilty, a verdict widely supported in the press and by the public. [15] His execution on 13 February 1844 was attended by at least 5,000 people with The Australian putting the figure at double that amount. [16]

[1] HRA, Series I: Vol. 15, pp. 596-597.

[2] Parsons, Vivienne, ‘Morisset, James Thomas (1780-1852)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 260-261. See, Huskisson to Darling, 19 May 1828, HRA, Series I: Vol. 14, pp. 192-193, and Darling to Sir George Murray, 12 February 1829, HRA, Series I: Vol. 14, pp. 641-642.

[3] Darling to Goderich, 26 August 1831, HRA, Series I: Vol. 16, p. 339

[4] Sydney Gazette, 4 December 1832.

[5] Kercher, Bruce, Outsiders: tales from the Supreme Court of NSW, 1824-1836, (Australian Scholarly Publishing), 2006, pp. 109-124 considers violence on Norfolk Island. R v. Douglas and others, Supreme Court of NSW, July 1834, printed in Sydney Gazette, 13, 20, 27 September, 1834, provides the detail,

[6] Brown, P. L., ‘Fyans, Foster (1790-1870)’, ADB, Vol. 1, pp. 422-424. See also, Memoirs recorded at Geelong, Victoria, Australia by Captain Foster Fyans, 1790-1870: transcribed from his holograph manuscript given by descendants to the State Library, Melbourne 1962, (Geelong Advertiser), 1986.

[7] Cit, ibid, Brown, P. L., ‘Fyans, Foster (1790-1870)’, p. 424.

[8] Sydney Gazette, 4 December 1832, detailed the ‘diabolical conspiracy’.

[9] ‘Knatchbull, John (1792?-1844)’, ADB, Vol. 2, pp. 65-66, and Knatchbull, John, Life of John Knatchbull. Written by Himself, 23rd January-13th February, 1844, in Darlinghurst Gaol, first pub., Roderick, Colin, (ed.), John Knatchbull from Quarterdeck to Gallows, (Angus and Robertson), 1963.

[10] See, ‘Diabolical Conspiracy to murder the crew and guard of the Governor Philip transport on her passage to Norfolk Island’, Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 4 December 1832, and the report in Hobart Town Courier, 4 January 1833.

[11] The trial of the rebels, R v. Douglas and others, Supreme Court of NSW, July 1834, printed in Sydney Gazette, 13, 20, 27 September, 1834. The Sydney Herald and Australian gave no formal reports of these trials, although the Australian listed them on 22 August 1834.  The Sydney Herald reported the second to seventh trials on 27 September 1834. Bourke to Spring Rice, 15 January 1835, HRA, Series I: Vol. 17, pp. 638-639, provides the only ‘official’ discussion of the rebellion and trials.

[12] By 1839, fifteen years had elapsed since his initial sentence and Knatchbull assumed that his absolute pardon would follow when he wrote a most eloquent petition informing Governor Gipps after his return from Norfolk Island. His hopes were dashed by the note the Barracks clerk, Thomas Ryan, penned on the back of the document, repeating the unproven claim that Knatchbull had tried to poison the ship’s crew on the Governor Phillip. Ryan also drew the governor’s attention to the regulation that recommended a colonial conviction should not be served concurrently but be added to the original sentence. Rather than being released, Knatchbull was re-transported to Port Macquarie

[13] See, NSW State Archives, Supreme Court: Police report on John Knatchbull, 1844, 9/6329, No. 135.

[14] Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January 1844. See also, ‘Mental Epidemics’, The Australian, 1 February 1844, and ‘Monomania’, Sydney Morning Chronicle, 3 February 1844. The debate over Lowe’s novel defence continued after the execution, see Morning Chronicle, 8 June 1844,

[15] On R v. Knatchbull and the defence of ‘moral insanity’, see Woods, Gregory D., A history of criminal law in New South Wales: the colonial period 1788-1900, (Federation Press), 2002, pp. 159-162.

[16] The execution was reported in Sydney Morning Herald, 14 February 1844, and The Australian, 15 February 1844.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Is the logic of devolution independence?

With less than two weeks to the referendum on Scotland’s independence, a recent poll suggests, for the first time, that the Yes campaign is winning the argument—albeit a poll than did not include those who remain undecided or who do not intend to vote.  Should this come as a surprise?  I think not.  The No campaign, though working hard to get its message across, lacks the charismatic appeal of those campaigning for independence.  Individuals such as Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown, though undoubtedly ‘big’ political beasts, do not have the same populist clout as Alec Salmon and Nicola Sturgeon.  Gordon Brown may be right when he suggests that the Better Together camp was finding it ‘difficult’ to win over Scots because of anger over coalition policies including changes to housing benefit and tax cuts for the wealthy but there also appears to have been a haemorrhage of Labour supporters to the No campaign as well. 
One critical problem for those calling for Scotland to remain in the United Kingdom is that the logic of devolution in a unitary constitutional system is independence.  Devolution only satisfies some of the aspirations of those areas given devolved powers, so you give the areas more devolved powers but in a unitary system you can only go so far.  What those who originally thought constitutional devolution was a way of satisfying calls for greater regional control over their own affairs either failed to recognise or recognised but ignored that while devolution within a federal system might  stem demands for independence, in a unitary system it would not.  If Scotland votes for independence on 18 September, one of the reasons why this will occur is that politicians who gave devolved powers to Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland failed to then abandon the unitary constitution and establish a federal constitutional system.  Arguing for ‘Better Together’ and at the same time saying that if there was a ‘no’ vote, further powers would be devolved to the Scottish Parliament demonstrates the weakness of the unitary Unionist case in an increasing devolved political environment.  The logic of devolution need not be independence but it is more rather than less likely if you then retain a unitary constitutional structure.