Monday, 16 September 2013

The World Turned Upside Down - Billy Bragg

SO FEW REMEMBER that the English, too, went through a revolution.

In this great number, Billy Bragg recalls the revolutionary group known as "The Diggers"  - read more about them here.

"You poor take courage, you rich take care"
The Digger's cause was but a logical progression from the ideas of the radically democratic "Levellers".

Their case was made with most force during the so-called "Putney Debates" - where the men of Cromwell's New Model Army debated the shape of England's new government and the rights of the people upon whose backs it would ultimately rest.

Responding to Oliver Cromwell's and Henry Ireton's argument that only those with a "fixed permanent interest" in the country - i.e. only property owners - should have the right to govern it, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough replied with what is generally held to be the first shot in the long battle for universal suffrage and equal civil rights:

For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.

As revolutionary a statement now as it was then - especially when the people take seriously the proposition that they "hath a life to live".

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.


Brendan McNeill said...

Chris, universal sufferage is predicated on the idea that the vast majority of stake holders in society embrace virtue and personal responsibility. If they don't, then you end up with Alexander Tyler's observation:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.

I'm not sure about a resulting Monarchy, but rule by a strongman or the army is almost certain.

The argument for reducing the franchise to property owners in today's context is that in New Zealand at least property owners understand self disciplne, personal responsibility, and are typically tax payers. Most don't arrive at that status simply by virtue of inheritance.

I suspect a better basis for the franchise would be limiting it to those who are net tax payers, thereby changing the historical cry of 'no taxation without representation' to 'no representation wihtout taxation'.


Victor said...

Billy Bragg is OK

But the Diggers wrote their own song back in the 1650s:

You noble Diggers all, stand up now, stand up now,
You noble Diggers all, stand up now,
The waste land to maintain, seeing Cavaliers by name
Your digging do distain and your persons all defame
Stand up now, Diggers all.

Your houses they pull down, stand up now, stand up now,
Your houses they pull down, stand up now.
Your houses they pull down to fright poor men in town,
But the gentry must come down and the poor shall wear the crown.
Stand up now, Diggers all.

With spades and hoes and ploughs, stand up now, stand up now,
With spades and hoes and ploughs, stand up now.
Your freedom to uphold, seeing Cavaliers are bold
To kill you if they could and rights from you withhold.
Stand up now, Diggers all.

Their self-will is their law, stand up now, stand up now,
Their self-will is their law, stand up now.
Since tyranny came in they count it now no sin
To make a gaol a gin and to serve poor men therein.
Stand up now, Diggers all.

The gentry are all round, stand up now, stand up now,
The gentry are all round, stand up now.
The gentry are all round, on each side they are found,
Their wisdom's so profound to cheat us of the ground.
Stand up now, Diggers all.

The lawyers they conjoin, stand up now, stand up now,
The lawyers they conjoin, stand up now,
To arrest you they advise, such fury they devise,
But the devil in them lies, and hath blinded both their eyes.
Stand up now, Diggers all.

The clergy they come in, stand up now, stand up now,
The clergy they come in, stand up now.
The clergy they come in and say it is a sin
That we should now begin our freedom for to win.
Stand up now, Diggers all.

'Gainst lawyers and 'gainst priests, stand up now, stand up now,
'Gainst lawyers and 'gainst Priests, stand up now.
For tyrants are they both even flat against their oath,
To grant us they are loath free meat and drink and cloth.
Stand up now, Diggers all.

The club is all their law, stand up now, stand up now,
The club is all their law, stand up now.
The club is all their law to keep poor folk in awe,
Buth they no vision saw to maintain such a law.
Glory now, Diggers all.

Anonymous said...

Brendan, I sometimes wonder where you get your ideas from. You are assuming that everyone votes out of pure self-interest, whereas in fact only the right do that. The idea of the propertied classes alone being allowed to vote, because they vote for the best interests of the country as a whole, (which is what I presume you mean) is laughable. You talk about stakeholders, but if you remove people's stake in society, why on earth should they co-operate with it? If people can't get their needs and some of their wants satisfied by the economy why should they bother with it? At the moment we have a huge number of people with very little stake in society. New Labour in Britain was of the opinion that this should be rectified. But of course it wasn't, because they are far too right wing, and controlled by big business through the purse strings. Restricting the franchise, or simply giving rich people more than one vote is used to happen in some local body elections is a recipe for revolution.

Anonymous said...

The difficulty with suffrage restricted to landowners is that land is a common. The land belongs to everybody unless, either, we decide democratically that private ownership shall be tolerated, or, the 'landowners' can back up their claims with armed force.

Anonymous said...

We've had over 100 years of democracy, and Tyler's prediction has been nowhere near accurate, probably on account of it being complete tosh.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Anon @2013 at 6:27 PM

I did have a chuckle over your suggestion that only those on the right of the political spectrum vote out of self interest. No doubt you are entirely altruistic when it comes to casting your vote, but judging by the promises being made by the Labour leadership candidates to the rank and file of the party, it would indicate their belief that some of your team are less generous.

I think we both agree that stakeholders should have the right to vote. The question is what qualifies you to be a stakeholder? Is breathing enough?

All franchise models have a degree of inequity. We are presently living under a model that facilitates the capture of politicians by sectional interest groups. This presents the kind of risks highlighted by Alexander Tyler in my initial post.

The system is unlikely to change any time soon, as politicians like it the way it is. However I would favour a system that was weighted in favour of those who funded the tax base, as opposed to those who consumed it. The democratic process has little ability to resist the demands of an electoriate whose appitite for consumption exceeds the ability of the taxpayer to fund it.


David said...

Billy Bragg's performance of this song is excellent but it is often forgotten that it was written by Leon Rosselson, not Billy.

Rosselson was a satirical songwriter for David Frost's That was the week that was.

Another great song of Rosselson's - the bitingly ironic "Palaces of Gold" - has recently been recorded by Martin Simpson. See his performance of "Palaces of Gold" here.

Davo Stevens said...

@Brendan, what you are suggesting is exactly what the Founding Fathers wanted in the US after the Revolution. The "We the People~" meant those Protestant, White men (not women) of Property, not what a later President James Madison referred to as the "Great unwashed Masses". Nor did it refer to Blacks or Indians both of whom were completely marginalised.

A Democracy has it's faults (and they can be many) but it's still the best form of Govt. we can manage. An example was the gerrymandering done by John Key and John Banks.

I am reminded of the qualative saying: "Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely"

You suggest a "Strongman" read 'Dictator' and John Key is as close to a dictator this country has ever seen since Coates.

markus said...

Even earlier than the Levellers and the Diggers was John Reynolds (aka 'Captain Pouch'). He led the revolt (involving a few thousand people at one stage) against the enclosures in the East Midlands in early 1600s (1608 ?, 1609 ?). Called for democratisation and egalitarianism (in the appropriate language of the day, of course).

He and his key supporters were - unsurprisingly - hung, drawn and quartered for their efforts.

Anonymous said...

Brendan – I'm glad I'm a source of innocent amusement. But my statement about the right, although perhaps exaggerated for effect contains more truth than any of yours. Partly because many working-class voters are not exactly sure what they're voting for, particularly these days. You are however correct about capture. But that's not just the nature of democracy. I suspect that the only form of government that doesn't have some form of sectional capture is fascism, as Hitler managed to keep the various interest groups at each others throats, but that was a very inefficient form of government. New Zealand itself has always been of honourable to interest group capture simply because of its size. And guess who has the most self-interested, most organised interest groups? The right – at least since the unions were gutted. And when you look at right-wing philosophy of courses very selfish – greed is good right? As to who should vote, we should have as wide a franchise is possible, because that to some extent mitigates the problem of capture. So yes I guess breathing does qualify you, but I think I'd also prefer the ability to comprehend in some form, what you are doing. :-) Because at least it gives the right wing interest groups a bit of competition.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Davo

You raise another good point about our democratic system and the corrosive effect of unbridled political power upon the human condition. Unlike the USA we have no checks or balances on the executive, and to that extent we do elect a dictatorship every three years.

John Key is a moderate by any measure. Helen Clark was much more of an ideological radical - a strongman if you will - who ruled her colleagues with an iron hand.

No leader since her departure has managed to keep the Labour caucus in line simply because they lacked her Stalinist touch. Is David capable of being Labour's new strongman?

Gerrit said...

Anon @ 7.32.

You are wrong about the right gutting unions. Unions (the cloth cap variety) disappeared because the employment demographic changed.

Gone were the large number employee workplaces (freezing works, car assembly plants, railway workshops, etc.) and unions never changed to suit the new employment demographic off many, many small workplaces staffed by smaller number of workers.

The simply did not adjust. Not helped by cloth cap ideals and (my assumption and opinion) a Labour party that understood the new employment demographic and the lack of ability, off the old style unions to adapt.

The return of the old style cloth cap unions will never happen as the employment demographic has changed. Unite has some success but again it is not really geared up to liaison with the many small employers and their small staff numbers.

Time for the unions to step up and be relevant to the employee again.

Starting by filling accounts as legally required and explaining to members where the missing millions are hidden/spent.

Anonymous said...

Helen Clark - Stalinist :-), thanks for reciprocating in the humour stakes Brendan.

Anonymous said...

Maybe there was an adaption problem, but it came AFTER gutting. How to adapt to workplaces where there is huge pressure on people NOT to join a union.

Victor said...


May I recommend that you read the recent bestseller "Why Nations Fail" by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.

The authors take a Grand Tour through human history in order to demonstrate an essential linkage between sustained prosperity and what they refer to as "inclusive institutions" (i.e. those that involve as much of the population as possible).

You could criticise Acemoglu and Robinson for too readily dismissing the kind of geographical, climatic or biological factors that Jared Diamond of Ian Morris see as central to economic success. And you could also criticise them for downplaying cultural factors.

Moreover, I find them excessively enamoured of market liberalism and tend to wince at their reverence for "creative destruction". You, I suspect, would be less annoyed by this tendency.

But their central argument about the link between prosperity and democracy is hard to fault and, if you take a reasonably long view, hard to deny.

And so is their contention that oligarchies characteristically fail to optimise the wealth of the nations they rule over.

Meanwhile, I would shudder at the thought of a franchise that, say, gave more weight to accountants and business graduates than to impoverished solo mums.

That's not because I have an unreasonable faith in the ability of impoverished solo mums to get things right. It's because I have absolute faith in the ability of accountants and business graduates to get things wrong.

Gerrit said...

anon @1.46

What pressure?

You suggesting that workers cant think for themselves and choose the best negotiated outcome in regards working conditions?

Smaller workplaces are not suited to overarching industry wide negotiation of workers conditions.

Each small workplace has individual needs and abilities.

Maybe, just maybe, people realise that the union membership is not the best avenue for representation to management.

People just maybe, have grown up to not need the union representation as defined by the actions of the current lot.

Time for a new union movement to meet the needs of not just the PAYE workers but also the huge number of independent contractors?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Gerrit, of course workers can think for themselves, but there is a complete power imbalance between them and the boss. And of course large firms don't mind unions as long as there are relatively docile, because that means they don't have to negotiate with every individual worker, but for those that don't like unions it doesn't matter anyway because they say 'here is your work contract sign it or fuck off.' As long as unemployment is kept artificially high, there is no problem for them. And if for some reason labour becomes very scarce, a right-wing government will do something about that too. :-)

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Victor

I've read 'Why nations fail' some time shortly after it came out, and it now resides on my shelf for lending to others. I enjoyed the text and felt the author had a valid contribution to make about extractive economies and those that are more open and inclusive.

We are fortunate indeed to be able to start and run businesses in the latter environment without the need of political patronage.

With respect to your reference to Solo Mums, they do arrive in that status via a range of circumstances, ranging from abuse and abandonment through to conscious choice. The former to be shown compassion whereas the latter perhaps something less charitable?

Churchill once opined that the best argument against democracy was a five minute conversation with the 'average voter'. I'm not altogether convinced that our nation is well served by providing the vote, and thereby influence over taxation, and expenditure to those who make no contribution at all to the tax base.

That's a bit like allowing non union members to vote at union meetings and to make binding decisions regarding industrial action. (trying to keep the metaphors in keeping with this blog space). It doesn't seem all that rational, or at the very least, it distorts the outcomes in favour of those who have no financial stake in the enterprise.

I don't expect the idea to gain traction anytime soon, but history has a way of giving ideas that seem crazy a the time currency. Who would have backed gay marriage becoming a part of our political and cultural landscape fifty years ago?

Chris Trotter said...

I have to say, Brendan, I'm weighing up very carefully the pros and cons of allowing someone who rejects the basic tenets of democracy to go on commenting on Bowalley Road.

Honest disagreements over economic and social policy are one thing, but for someone in the 21st Century to reject the basic premises of social and political equality? Well, that requires a little more thought.

On your part - as well as mine.

Just what do you believe our parents' generation fought and died for?


Guerilla Surgeon said...

Great analogy Brendan considering it's the right that has allowed non union members to get the benefits of membership without doing anything for it :-).

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Chris

The converstation was intended to be more about the risks to democracy rather than its 'basic tenants'. We don't let prisoners vote for example, so excluding some members of society appears to be acceptable already, or would you argue for their franchise?

It's your blog, and you are free to uninvite me. It does feel a little illiberal however. :-)

Chris Trotter said...

FYI Brendan, I DO believe prisoners should be allowed to vote. They are punished by being deprived of their liberty - all their other civil rights should remain intact.

I would be interested to learn whether you support the efforts of Republican Party dominated legislatures in the US to disenfranchise students, the elderly and the poor by imposing unreasonable barriers to voter registration?

Victor said...


The arguments against limiting the franchise to taxpayers or whatever are, to my mind,as follows:

Firstly, there's no reason to think that the more affluent are wiser than the less affluent when it comes to cogitating about the running of the country.

I would agree that the more affluent tend these days to be those with marketable skills and relatively high educational attainments. But I see little evidence that these achievements result in people more capable of cogitating wisely and disinterestedly about the welfare of the nation.

Secondly,a franchise that excluded the less affluent would almost certainly produce policy outcomes far more favourable to the affluent than to others. This, in turn, would lead to burgeoning levels of dissatisfaction without legal means of redress....a sure recipe for social dislocation, violence and disruption.

Thirdly, the notion that taxpayers make a contribution to the common good whilst non-taxpayers do not, ignores the fact that, in a complex, long-established, peaceful, political community, none of us can possibly put more into society than we take out. We are all dwarves standing upon the shoulders of multiple previous generations of dwarves.

Fourthly, such is the complexity of most of our lives, that it is virtually impossible to define which of us puts more back into the reserves of social and financial capital on which we all draw. Paying tax is just the start of your obligation to society, from whence, of course, all wealth is ultimately derived.

To illustrate this point, just ask yourself which of the following is the most deserving; the chartered accountant who pays a lot of tax on monies earned helping clients to avoid tax OR the highly paid cosmetic surgeon who pays a lot of tax on income derived from using up the nation's health resources on unnecessary and possibly harmful vanity surgery OR the much less well-paid first response para-medic, who pays a lot less tax but is in the actual business of saving lives OR the poverty-striken solo parent (whatever the cause of their poverty or solo status) who pays no tax but spends every waking hour caring for the kids, whilst still finding time to help elderly neighbours with chores or volunteering at a local charity shop?

If you can answer that question, you are a wiser man than I, although I still don't think you should have voting privileges that I don't also enjoy ........because .......

Fifthly, "A Man's a Man for a' that"!

I don't personally subscribe to the notion that humans are born with "equal rights" or "equal abilities" in the same sense that most are born with eyes, lips or noses.

But, if the history of the twentieth century carries any message, it is surely that a decent society is only possible when the noble assumption of human equality is held sacrosanct.

Without it, we're on the slippery slope to pre-1994 Soweto (or pre-1945 Auschwitz). To deny the franchise to a sizable segment of the population is to deny that principle. It's also to disrespect some of your fellow mortals.

Does this mean that I think you should be denied access to Bowalley Road? Certainly not.

It's up to Chris what he does with his website. But he's given space to people with rather more objectionable views than yours in the past, including a Holocaust apologist and a couple of Ageists who didn't seem to think the notion of Human Rights applied to people with grey around their temples.

Besides, you serve a very useful function in forcing the rest of us (and we're a very diverse bunch)to articulate exactly why we disagree with you.

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Chris

You asked:

"I would be interested to learn whether you support the efforts of Republican Party dominated legislatures in the US to disenfranchise students, the elderly and the poor by imposing unreasonable barriers to voter registration?"

I'm always facinated how quickly we tend to sterotype each other. For the recored, I'm no water carrier for the Republican party. I think they are just as venal as the Democrats. Watching a grinning Senator McCain parade in a photograph in front of a bunch of Islamist thugs in Syria is enough to make any reasonable person's stomach churn.

But to answer your question, my understanding is that illegal immigration is considered to be a significant problem in the USA. Most of the illegals vote Democrat because of Obama's committment to provide all illegals with citizenship. The republicans therefore proposed that anyone presenting themselves to vote, must first provide proof of citizenship, a drivers license, a social security ID, a passport etc.

I'm not sure if you consider that to be an unreasonable imposition?

I'm not aware that this requirement would penalize the young or the elderly or the poor in the way you suggest.

I'm sure we agree that citizenship is an important status becuase it carries responsibilites as well as rights. If we abandon that concept, then effectively we run open boarders. I know many Americans do not consider that to be a good thing. I know I don't.

Kind regards

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Victor

Those are sound and reasonable arguments you make, as always. :-)

The problem I see around me is that power of the ballot box is being used to forcibly transfer wealth from one section of society to another. Not only that, but Governments are being forced to borrow in order to satisfy the insatiable demands from the electorate for more wealth transfer and State funded services.

If the recipients of this wealth transfer had attempted to initiate this themselves it would be called theft, and they would imprisoned. However by colluding with like minded politicians they have been able to effect legally through the power of the State what they could not have done otherwise.

The left call this 'social justice', however I'm not convinced that forcibly taking the wages and potential savings legitimately earned by one individual and giving them to another who has not earned them is fair or just in any sense of the word.

While it's easy to make a case for helping the most disadvantaged in society, the reality is that it doesn't end there. We now live in a situation where 12% of working age Kiwis are entirely dependent upon the wages earned by their neighbours, and hundreds of thousands more are partially dependent upon their neighbour's income.

This type of wealth transfer has a deleterious affect on both those from whom income is taken, and upon those who receive it. Over time it cannot help but encourage the wrong behaviours in people, and foster unhelpful attitudes towards work, wealth creation and even our fellow citizens.

It creates an entitlement mentality in the recipients, and does nothing to alleviate the potential for resentment and bitterness on either side of the wealth divide.

It also fosters the myth that it's the Government's money that is being redistributed, rather than their neighbours, and that the Government is effectively an unlimited source.

It's this abuse of the democratic process that has plunged much of southern Europe into economic crisis, and has lead us to borrow $1.0B per month for years now.

My concern is that once you get this mind set imbedded deeply in the population it is almost impossible to turn around. Surely Alexander Tyler's observations are being played out today in Southern Europe, and will equally be played out here if we continue on the present course.

There are compassionate alternatives, but the electoral risks are so high that I doubt any of our existing politicians have the courage or the will to progress them, even if they had the necessary insight.

Hence the conversation about the franchise. If there are more recipients of wealth transfer than those generating the wealth, then our democratic end is predictable; it's simply a matter of timing.

Kind regards

Chris Trotter said...

Stepping perilously close to the edge there, Brendan.

The argument you advance takes absolutely no cognisance of either the exploitation practised by some "neighbours" upon other "neighbours" and the gross inequality this gives rise to; nor does it factor in the economic impossibility of constructing the infrastructure so vital to a civilised community without a significant measure of income redistribution.

Your position is thus so simplistic, so deaf to the complexities and responsibilities of civilised living, and so utterly transparent in its intent to secure for the wealthy all possible avenues of effective political action, that your presence in the company of honourable democrats is now a live issue.

How do other commentators feel?

Brendan McNeill said...


If I may be allowed to answer the legitimate concerns you have raised.

I believe that we can have a just society without exploitation, and we each have a responsibility to work towards that. However, we have to recognise first of all that the desire to exploit others is an inherently human condition, and is not the sole domain of the wealthy. Poor people are equally capable of exploitation, usually of others who are also poor.

The Government can do something to limit the ability of employers and employees from exploiting each other, but the law is a blunt instrument, and can never be relied upon to change the human heart, or to compensate fully for its failures.

Our increasing secularisation, and the repudiation of our historical Christian faith is in some measure responsible for the growth of irresponsible behaviour from all sections of society. I only mention that to give some context to the issue of exploitation you have raised.

For example, I understand that the CEO of the Warehouse recently raised the wages of his retail staff who have been employed for more than 2.5 years to the 'living wage' solely because of his Christian faith. He saw it as an issue of justice.

What we believe matters. It affects how we live and how we treat others.

It seems to me that the issue of wealth transfer, and exploitation are not of themselves directly connected, unless you assume that the majority of wealthy people have obtained that status by means of exploitation.

I trust that's not what you believe.

I have not argued against taxation, or the requirement to fund the defence of the realm, infrastructure and legitimate Government services. These are all necessary for the functioning of civil society.

My concern is about our lack of political will or collective democratic ability to resist the demands of an electorate whose appetite now exceeds it's ability to pay its way. There are simply not enough rich people in NZ to fund the demands on the tax payer, even if they chose to stay and be taxed even more than they are now.

If the system is to endure, it must be accepted as being just, and equally importantly it must be sustainable. Right now I'm not confident that its either of those things.

To that end, I am keen to hear suggestions from others.

Victor said...


I believe Brendan to be an honourable and well-intentioned man but not a convinced democrat.

If you use belief in democracy as the essential touchstone for participation on Bowalley Road, you will, I trust, also feel the necessity of denying this privilege to those on the extreme Left (who may be equally honourable and well-intentioned but) who regard parliamentary democracy as a sham.

Likewise, you will, I trust, feel the need to exclude all those who regard "Treaty Partnership" as a more important principle than democracy.

And I take it as read that all those who deny the siblinghood of our species will also be excluded, as they have not always been in the past.

Chris Trotter said...

I'd simply invite you, Victor, to imagine the real world consequences of any attempt to disenfranchise close to 50 percent of the present electorate (possibly more if the stake-holder barrier is set high).

If Brendan's suggestion is a serious one, then he is advocating for a policy which would touch off a civil war.

If he's not being serious, well, such intellectual frivolity marks him down as dilettante of the first order.

I'd also invite you to substitute "black" or "women" for the economically weak upon whose shoulders he lays the calumny of thief and extortionist.

But then the economically weak are already overwhelmingly black and female - so no substitution is required.

Surely you can see that an attack on the franchise, no matter how it is justified, is an attack on every progressive achievement of the past 250 years?

Is that truly an honourable political stance to take?

Victor said...


I, of course, agree with your entire argument (apart from your last line). Indeed, your argument is very similar to that which I put forward a little earlier on this thread.

But it was you and not I who introduced the word 'honourable' into the discussion.

Personally, I don't regard ideas as either 'honourable' or dishonourable'. In my book, they're either 'right', 'wrong' or (most often) 'questionable'.

People, however, can be honourable even if their ideas are wholly wrong. Conversely, they can be dishonourable even though their ideas are wholly right.

And, as I have indicated, if you're going to ban 'wrong' ideas, I think you could be a bit more even-handed. After all, Brendan is certainly not the only denier of democracy to find his way onto your website.

But I'll leave it to you and others to decide what you want to do about the Brendan problem.