Sunday, 31 May 2015

Protest in 1852

Protest had decreased in the early part of 1852 but the appalling winter conditions and the dramatic increase in crime led to its revival at Castlemaine and Bendigo. This was less an attack on the license system than a protest against Government inefficiency and especially the lack of protection from criminals. By September, there was so much crime that moves towards ‘lynch-law’ were made and on 30 September a Mutual Protection Association was formed that threatened to stop paying the license fee and use the money to pay for patrols. [1] The police were seen as ineffective at anything other than collecting licenses and prosecuting sly-groggers (illegal sellers of spirits). It is difficult to assess just how bad the problem of crime was in the Castlemaine area but news of the proposed export duty turned a small agitation into a mass movement.
On 23 October, a well-organised ‘monster meeting’ was held at Castlemaine. [2] The export duty was condemned, unless it replaced the license fee, as a grossly unfair additional tax. It was agreed that police protection was a ‘mockery’ and that any delay in dealing with the lawless state of the fields would be disastrous. A petition was sent to the Legislative Council and a deputation was appointed to visit La Trobe and that if no reply had been received by 15 November, further action would be taken though non-payment of licenses was viewed as a last resort. In Melbourne, a meeting of several hundred people welcomed the delegates and their attack on this ‘monstrous tax’ and the ineffectiveness of the police. La Trobe was conciliatory when he met the delegates almost apologising for the conduct of the police. The delegates reported back to the diggers and a resolution was passed that if the export tax was imposed, they would all refuse to pay the license fee and offer themselves for arrest. However, the following day unaware of this threat, the Council voted out the bill.
“Dancing Saloon and Grog Shop, Main Road, Ballarat, May 30th/55", by S T Gill
Victory on this issue is insufficient to explain the decline in the digger movement yet by the beginning of 1853 the main diggings were again comparatively quiet. In spite of this, the government did address their other grievances: the Castlemaine police were reformed and an assize court established in December 1852 and a start was made to a macadamised road from Melbourne. Nevertheless, a Select Committee of the Legislative Council also established in December, but despite the critical evidence of Chief Commissioner Wright and Commissioner Gilbert, produced a weak report supporting the license fee. Twice, diggers had successfully resisted proposals to increase taxation, yet the license system remained unchanged.
NSW had handled the gold crisis with ‘masterly commonsense’ and the mining license was effectively and more important sensitively collected with little organised opposition. Yet, in Victoria both the license fee and the ways in which it was extorted from the diggers was a source of growing irritation and resistance. Blainey called it ‘administration by the tape measure rather than the brain’. Without this decision, probably the ‘most mindless’ in the long history of appropriating Australia’s natural resources, he argues, ‘the rebellion at Eureka in 1854 would not have occurred’. [3] Although Blainey is right to focus on the importance of the license as a cause of resistance in Victoria, policing played a decisive role. The colony was policed to an ‘extraordinary degree’ in the 1850s, policing was regarded as an instrument of government and the police were active agents of an interventionist and regulatory state. [4]


The criticisms made of La Trobe during 1851 and 1852 by miners and politicians and in the press were largely justifiable. How far La Trobe was responsible for this situation is more difficult to assess. Temperamentally, he was better suited to acting as a subordinate able to gain acceptance of his decisions from his superiors but this option was no longer available once Port Phillip gained its independence. This combined with the maelstrom created by the discovery of gold placed him a challenging situation. Without a strong political base to support and force through his policies, La Trobe floundered from one pragmatic solution to another. He found himself in that most dangerous of political situations of reacting to circumstances rather than controlling them. His licensing policy, even though based on that introduced largely without difficulty in NSW, was poorly managed and failed to gain any real support of diggers. Insensitivity in application and enforcement by some corrupt officials and police turned licenses into a toxic source of growing political confrontation. Sir Charles Hotham may have been responsible for events in Ballarat in late 1854 but La Trobe’s previous mishandling of miners played a significant role in this catastrophic deterioration of relations between politically conscious workers and a seemingly intransigent colonial state.

[1] ‘Mount Alexander’, Argus, 2 October 1852, p. 4, ‘A Vigilance Committee at Mount Alexander’, Bell’s Life in Sydney and Sporting Review, 23 October 1852, p. 5.
[2] ‘Mount Alexander’, Argus, 30 November 1852, p. 4.
[3] Ibid, Blainey, Geoffrey, A history of Victoria, p. 44.
[4] Ibid, Gold seeking, pp. 75-77.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Policing lawlessness

Initially recruiting for the police was difficult. Wages bore no comparison to potential earnings on the diggings. Also, most possible police recruits were unreformed convicts, many lacking the honesty necessary for law enforcement. The diggers recognised ‘good’ authority when they saw it and were largely unimpressed with the new police. Despite the financial constraints imposed by the Legislative Council in 1851 and 1852, La Trobe raised daily wages from 2/6d to 6/- and accepted anyone who was willing to join the force. This attracted many young, inexperienced recruits and ex-convicts, who would prove to be harsh and corrupt as they collected the gold license fees. This lack of respect escalated into outright contempt when a force of 130 military ‘pensioners’ from VDL was used to relieve a regiment stationed at the Mount Alexander diggings. [1] Instead of inspiring respect for their experience and age, the response from the diggers as the pensioners arrived was laughter and derision. It was only a fortnight later that the Commissioner petitioned La Trobe for further troops.

Image result for policing Australian goldfields

Recruitment problems proved temporary. [2] By March 1852, the Melbourne force was at full strength. By mid-1853, there were 875 police stationed in Victoria and a year later 1,639 establishing the relatively high police to population ratio of 1:144 in the colony.[3] La Trobe’s government invested, if tardily, in badly needed bridges and roads for the diggings and recruited extra police, who were paid 12/6d a day, plus board and lodging. In September 1852, a new cadre of police ‘officers’ was set up to lead the disorganised troopers: educated individuals or immigrants who had found themselves unsuited to digging. [4] This new ‘gentrified’ police force further inflamed the diggers. Their methods of policing were clearly antagonistic, the result in part of what they saw as their superior social status, and they bore the brunt of digger contempt and cooperation between diggers and authority deteriorated further. In 1853, the government removed control of police from local magistrates and established the centrally controlled Victoria Police. [5] The reorganisation allowed the government to enforce its goldfield policies effectively and to check movements for reform that had emerged amongst the small independent miners. In September 1853, the Colonial Secretary wrote to the Chief Commissioner of Police asking that police attend political meetings on the goldfields: ‘it is very desirable that intelligent men should attend all public meetings to watch the proceedings and to take down accurately such words used as may appear to them desirable’. [6]

Policing sly-grogging

The Police Regulation Act of 1853 was modelled on the London Metropolitan Police Act, however policing in rural areas and on the goldfields continued to be militaristic. Large numbers of heavily armed police along with soldiers were dispatched to the goldfields; for example at Castlemaine in 1854 the ratio of police to population was 1:56. [7] The purpose of the show of force was to overcome resistance to the license fee. It was not only the license that was odious; the way the tax was enforced was also resented. Rather than combating crime, the police operated as a repressive tax-gathering and surveillance force. License or ‘digger’ hunts regularly interrupted work; police demanded to see licenses several times a day and forced even those not working to pay. This repressive, inefficient approach was compounded by the government’s decision to grant half the proceeds of fines for evasion of license fees and sly-grogging to those police responsible for convictions. As a result, the police concentrated on securing license fees and fines rather than combating crime and this led to widespread corruption. Many police, some accustomed to a system of convict discipline performed their duties in a rude, bullying manner. Others, like Superintendent David Armstrong, were brutal thugs. Armstrong’s habit was to burn the tents of suspects and beat those who questioned his methods with the brass knob of his riding crop. He was eventually dismissed, but left boasting that in two years at Ballarat he had made £15,000 in fines and bribes. This strategic concentration of resources was not seen as an attempt to contain increased crime, but a conscious attempt to control the civilian population on the diggings. When giving evidence to the Gold Fields Commission of Enquiry in 1855, Chief Commissioner MacMahon admitted that police at Ballarat were used primarily as tax collectors and could not operate efficiently as law enforcement officers while this remained their role. [8]

This policy and practice of policing generated hatred for the licenses, contempt for the force and ultimately resistance from the diggers. They were angered by the lack of policing of actual crime and outraged by a system that portrayed them as criminals. As J. B. Humffray observed:

Honest men are hunted down by the police like kangaroos, and if they do not possess a license...they are paraded through the diggings by the commissioners and police...and, if unable to pay the fine, are rudely locked up, in company of any thief or thieves who may be in the Camp cells at the time; in short, treated in every way as if they were felons. [9]

[1] The ‘pensioners’ were non-commissioned officers and privates who had agreed to serve out their army careers as convict guards in exchange for a grant of land and a cottage.

[2] Victoria Police, Police in Victoria 1836-1980, (Victoria Police), 1980, pp. 5-10, and Haldane, R., The People’s Force: A history of the Victoria Police, (Melbourne University Press), 1986, pp. 7-47.

[3] Ibid, Gold seeking, p. 75.

[4] Ibid, pp. 78-79, discusses this élite group.

[5] Ibid, Victoria Police, Police in Victoria 1836-1980, p. 7; see also above, Haldane, R., The People’s Force, pp. 29-30

[6] Colonial Secretary Foster to Chief Commissioner of Police, 24 September 1853, cit, Goodman, D., Gold seeking, pp. 74-75.

[7] Ibid, The Goldfields Commission Report, pp. 60-61, concluded that abolishing the license fee would reduce the size of the police force by between half and two-thirds.

[8] Mellor, G., ‘Sir Charles MacMahon (1824-1891)’, ADB, Vol. 5, pp. 189-190.

[9] Ballarat Times, 21 October 1854.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

The problem of lawlessness

How critical was the nature of policing to the development of resistance among miners in Victoria in the early 1850s? [1] The development of policing in Victoria was influenced by two traditions of law enforcement: a crime preventative, ‘civilian’ style of policing epitomised by the London Metropolitan Police, consciously non-military and unarmed, supposedly working in partnership with and with the consent of the local community; and the ‘paramilitary’ style of the Irish Constabulary, centralised, armed and kept away from the local community in barracks, whose function was to check social and political disorder and dissent, as much as crime. [2] The first model of policing was adopted in colonial Melbourne but the more militaristic style was applied to the goldfields. [3] The 1855 Report of the Goldfield Commission Enquiry neatly summed up the situation:

Instead of that happy accord between the police and the orderly citizen, exemplified everywhere but on the goldfields... [there was] a force requisite to defeat them [the miners], should their mutual irritation come to a crisis. [4]

Opinions vary as to the scale of crime on the gold fields particularly between 1851 and 1855. [5] An unknown journalist wrote that ‘All the letters from Mt Alexander dwell upon the lawless condition of the place and the deeds of rapine and bloodshed that disgrace it’.[6] Others, like the future Lord Cecil, were pleasantly surprised, finding ‘less crime than in a large English town, and more order and civility than I have witnessed in my own native village of Hatfield’. [7] Even within the same goldfield it is evident that there were local variations in the level of criminality. The problem is that the possible sources for this are all tinged with their own political agendas. The Argus, for example, probably exaggerated the level of crime to embarrass the Government, something repeated in the Sydney and Adelaide papers to discourage migration to Victoria. By contrast, La Trobe had a vested interest in playing down the extent of crime while his police officers often left him ill-informed about real levels of criminal activity.

The problem of lawlessness on the diggings was made worse by a drastic shortage of police in the early days of the gold rush. In July 1851, all but two of Melbourne’s forty police resigned and fled to the gold fields and there was considerable fear for public order. The ‘police’ presence at the gold fields was provided by a small contingent of Native Police. [8] Established in 1837, the Native Police played an important role in the discovery of gold and the early government regulation of the Victorian diggings. Native Police troopers escorted the first pack-horse convoys carrying gold to Melbourne from the goldfields. In January 1852, La Trobe reported of the Mount Alexander diggings: ‘The field now became the general rendezvous of…the most profligate portion of the inhabitants of this and the adjacent colonies…’ [9] He clearly needed to employ additional police, but the Legislative Council stubbornly refused to allow him to spend the government’s general revenue on any service connected to the gold fields except administration.

A degree of self-regulation became necessary, with some crimes receiving summary justice, and most disputes being settled between diggers ‘in a practical manner’. In February 1852, for example, the Miners’ Association tried to organise patrols by diggers at night in the Castlemaine area. The most frequent crime was theft and normally the punishment was banishment from the goldfields or lashings. Expulsion was no small matter: those punished felt ‘every mark of disgrace and ignominy’, and were considered a ‘pariah amongst diggers all over Australia’. Crime and punishment was widely publicised in newspapers to ensure such banishment was complete. Diggers’ justice was a response to the lack of formal policing on the goldfields and was a far from perfect legal model with punishments determined by the makeshift ‘jury’ at hand. It was an unarguably simplistic judicial system but one that kept a tenuous order over the goldfields.

[1] King, Hazel, ‘Some Aspects of Police Administration in New South Wales, 1825-1851’, Royal Australian Historical Society Journal and Proceedings, Vol. 42, (1956), pp. 205-30; Sturma, Michael, ‘Policing the Criminal Frontier in Mid-Century Australia, Britain, and America’, in Finnane, Mark, (ed.), Policing in Australia: Historical Perspectives, (University of New South Wales Press), 1987, pp. 15-34; ibid, Neal, David, The Rule of Law in a Penal Colony, pp. 141-165; Finnane, Mark, Police and Government: Histories of Policing in Australia, (Oxford University Press), 1994, pp. 3-30, provides a useful context for this issue.

[2] Brogden, Michael, ‘An Act to Colonise the Internal Lands of the Island: Empire and the Origins of the Professional Police’, International Journal of the Sociology of Law, Vol. 15, (1987), pp. 179-208; Anderson, D. M., and Killingray, David, (eds.), Policing and the Empire: Government, Authority, and Control, 1830-1940, (Manchester University Press), 1991.

[3] Taylor, David, ‘Melbourne, Middlesbrough and morality: policing Victorian ‘new towns’ in the old world and the new’, Social History, Vol. 31, (2006), pp. 15-38, provides an interesting comparative focus for the late nineteenth century.

[4] The Goldfields Commission Report, 1855, (Red Roster Press), 1978, pp. 17-18.

[5] Serle, pp. 35-36.

[6] Cit, ibid, Annear, Robyn, Nothing But Gold: The Diggers of 1852, p. 268.

[7] Scott, Ernest, (ed.), Lord Robert Cecil’s Gold Fields’ Diaries, (Melbourne University Press), 1935, pp. 18-19.

[8] Fels, Marie Hansen, Good men and true: the Aboriginal police of the Port Phillip District, 1837-1853, (Melbourne University Press), 1988, and Bridges, B., ‘The Native Police Corps, Port Phillip District and Victoria, 1837-1853’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 57, (1971), pp. 113-142, examine this issue.

[9] Cit, The Ragged School Union Magazine, Vol. 6, 1854, pp. 27-28.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The dog that didn’t bark!

Today we have entered that nether space between the end of the election campaign and the advent of its results.  Time to reflect perhaps on what was both  a ‘safe’—from the politicians’ point of view—and dull—from the public’s—six weeks.  I’ve seen ballets with less orchestration.  We were all waiting for something, anything to happen.  Early on we had Michael Fallon’s mention of Ed’s relationship with his brother when talking about Trident for which he was roundly attacked in the media and by his opponents for ungentlemanly conduct.  Then we had Ed’s stumble in the last TV debate but no tumble.  There were no Gillian Duffy moments as in 2010.  Politicians kept to the script—or were kept to the script—and unsurprisingly the polls did not really change dramatically with the nightly Newsnight poll showing up one seat, down two…with dull monotony.  And where were the politicians?  Yes there was 24/7 coverage of what the party leaders and their deputies were doing with the occasional outing for other leading figures but where were Theresa May, Vince Cable and the rest.  Well apart from sporadic interviews on television and radio when their particular departments were under scrutiny, they have been largely invisible.  The highlights (if that’s what you can call them) of the campaign were the TV debate when the ‘public’ finally had the opportunity of interrogating Cameron, Clegg and Miliband and the inexorable rise and rise of Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP.  Douglas Murray in his excellent article in yesterday’s Spectator is right when he argued that ‘This election campaign has shown a democracy in a horrible state of disrepair’.


Now you could argue that none of this is surprising in a political society dominated by the traditional and social media.  What the public knows or is allowed to know is tightly controlled both by the campaign teams and by what the media chooses to cover and social media is often characterised by pundits and politicos talking to each other.  The key was always to be on message.  So the Conservative narrative focused on the economy and persuading voters not to allow Labour to mess it all up (again).  Labour banged on about the NHS only being safe in their hands because of ‘creeping privatisation’ while omitting to say that there had been more privatisation between 1997 and 2010 than in the last five years, and how the better-off in society benefitted from Conservative government while the less well-off and especially those on benefits suffered from an aggressive and inhumane policy of austerity proposing to replace the inequity of the ‘bedroom tax’ with the morally superior ‘mansion tax’.  Conservatives promised to enshrine tax policy for the next five years in legislation while the recent ‘Ed-stone’ from Labour contained promises so vacuous that I’m reminded of the notion of ‘let he who is without sin throw the first stone’.  There has been a great deal of promises but very little substance of how any of them will be funded.


What has been remarkable in the campaign has been the failure of all those involved to address what many people regard as the central political issues.  Given the anger felt in many communities about unfettered immigration from the EU and whether or not Britain should remain within Europe—the silence has been almost deafening.  This is hardly surprising as neither Labour nor Conservative have a good record on either.  The upsurge of immigration took place under Labour’s watch after 1997 while David Cameron’s promise to bring down immigration to tens of thousands a year has spectacularly failed.  The Conservatives argued that the only way to get a referendum on Europe is to re-elect them but then focussing too much on the issue throws up the splits in the Conservative Party over Europe.  For Labour, no referendum unless there are treaty changes—well we’ve heard that before from Labour but we didn’t get a referendum over the Lisbon Treaty under the last Labour government despite the same promise.  The campaign was also bereft of any serious discussion of Britain’s place in the world apart from the Trident question and that’s settled anyway as both Conservative and Labour support Trident just disagreeing over whether it should be three or four submarines.  There was equally little discussion about Libya or Syria or Iraq.  Or law and order, the environment—apart from by the Greens—fracking and HS2…I could go on and on about the things that barely made it on to the political stage.  If an election campaign is to motivate the public, then it needs to address those issues that lead to political engagement and that has been largely missing from what has been a highly controlled, anodyne process. 

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Predicting the outcome—a fool’s errand!

The election is too close to call according to all the polls.  Some give Labour the edge, others the Conservatives but they are united in their view that Labour will be, as near as damn it, wiped out in Scotland by the SNP.  The consequent ‘hung’ parliament and the post election horse-trading will leave an unholy mess that we could be stuck with for the next five years under the fixed term parliaments something that I was always dubious about  with five as opposed to four year parliaments.  The Cabinet Manual, designed to address the hung parliament in 2010, will be dissected and deconstructed to provide justification for why, should the Conservatives form the largest party but do not have an overall majority in the Commons, even with the support of other parties, they should make way for a government led by Ed Miliband and his equally unholy alliance of the ‘progressives’.  The problem is, whoever ends up in Number 10, getting any policy through Parliament will be difficult and time-consuming with every vote on every issue contested.  That is not a recipe for effective government or good decision-making. 


So what will we end up with on 8th May?  The Conservatives will end up with 288 seats, the Liberal-Democrats 31 and UKIP 3—I’ve always thought that the polls have underestimated Lib-Dem and UKIP—that would give a 322 seats and that’s not taking account of the Irish parties.  In parliamentary terms this would be more messy than in 2010 but would ensure the continuance of a Conservative-led government.  In part, this outcome depends on a degree of tactical voting in constituencies where Conservatives and Lib-Dems are the leading parties.  You could well argue that there’s little point in the two parties fighting each other in these areas while in constituencies where Labour is the challenger then Conservative and Lib-Dem voters ought to be voting for the candidate more likely to defeat Labour.  Labour will end up with 267 seats, SNP 48, Plaid Cymru 4 and Greens 1 or 320 MPs.  Labour or SNP voting intentions do not alter the political arithmetic in either current Labour or SNP controlled seats even if they change hands to the other party.  The consistent position of the SNP in the polls does not necessarily mean that this will be translated into the large number of seats predicted.  In the isolation of the polling booth, people do not always vote as the polls predict.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Sitting on a knife edge or negotiating legitimacy

Whether or not a single political party can form a government has constitutionally been determined by whether or not it has a majority in the House of Commons, has the 'confidence of the House' and is consequently able to get its political programme through..  If not, then the party with the largest number of MPs is given the first opportunity of trying to establish a working relation with another party to provide that majority.  This is what happened in 2010 when the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats established a formal coalition that, to the surprise of many commentators, lasted the full five year term.  There had been previous coalition governments: the Conservative-dominated one under Lloyd George from 1916 to 1922 and the wartime coalition under Churchill and Attlee during the Second World War.  But it was the National Government formed under Ramsay Macdonald in 1931 at the beginning of the depression in the 1930s that is the closest parallel with the government after 2010.  Coalition governments have traditionally been formed to deal with some sort of national emergency: the effects of a global economic slowdown or the threat posed by Germany in 1914 and 1939.  Once that emergency ended, so did the coalition government—though after 1918 it did continue for a further four years.  In each case, some within the political parties involved demurred and went into opposition, something that did not occur after 2010.  No one suggested that these coalitions challenged the constitutional legitimacy of parliament.
Graphic of Newsnight Index
When the pundits say that the winners of last night’s ‘audience with the party leaders’ was the audience itself, it demonstrates just how detached many people feel—even at this stage of the campaign—that politicians are from ordinary voters and how little their ideas and proposals have been challenged by the public—largely because the public has really not been given the opportunity to do so.  Meetings, with the exception of the SNP’s, have been rigorously managed and packed with sympathetic faces.  With the emphasis on getting your core voters out, there has been little engagement with people other that supporters and this has made the whole campaign predictably gaff-free and rather dull.  The policies that have been put forward and their potential costs have not been spelled out in any real detail.  We still do not know which departments will see their funding cut under either Labour of the Conservatives…it’s really a case of voting on a wing and a prayer.  Whoever gets the largest number of seats—and every indication is that neither Labour nor Conservative will get an overall majority—government will only be possible by forging some deals with the smaller parties and the bookies’ favourite to do this is Labour.
David Cameron
The target for forming a majority government is generally regarded as 326 seats.  In practice, however, the figure is lower than that.  Of the 650 MPs elected, you can discount the Speaker and also any Sinn Fein MPs elected as they do not attend Parliament since they refuse to swear allegiance to the Crown.  This has been the case since 1918 and there is no indication that the party intends to change this.  If Sinn Fein gets five seats, this would mean that having the confidence of 322 MPs would be sufficient for form a majority government…just.  Tonight's Newsnight Index suggests that a combination of Labour (269), SNP (50), Greens (1) and Plaid Cymru (4) would get them over the 322 figure and that's without taking the Northern Ireland parties into account.  The Conservatives (280), Lib Dems (26), UKIP (1) plus support from the Northern Ireland parties would probably get to around 316 MPs.  This has already raised questions about the legitimacy.  The former Labour First Minister in Scotland, Jack McConnell, has warned that public opinion might not accept the next government unless it is led by the party with the biggest number of seats.  He said: ‘even if Cameron was to lose a few seats, if he still has a few seats more than Labour then public perception will be that he has won. Therefore the SNP argument that everybody else could gang up on him will not work.’