Mr. Tony Benn has issued a book entitled Arguments for Socialism (Penguin 1980). One of his themes is that some of the changes which have taken place in Britain since the seventeenth century, changes generally regarded as significant advances toward freedom and democracy, are less substantial than is usually thought. They are, he argues, changes merely on the surface; the deeper realities continue much as they always were, the appearance of progress is largely illusory. In this article we take four of the examples he brings forward and consider their implications.
Mr. Benn locates three of these changes in the seventeenth century and one later. The first was the subjection of the monarchy to Parliament, the second the establishment of parliamentary control over the army, the third the winning of freedom of speech, the fourth was the recognition that the electorate was entitled to know what the government was doing, formalised in the publication of ‘Hansard.’ Mr. Benn is firmly on the side of freedom and democracy, he is not a man readily to be suspected of undervaluing the achievements of reformers and revolutionaries past or present, but he holds that on these four issues no solid, reliable advance has been made. In his own words: “We have got to fight many of those old battles over again.” (p.74)
Let us take the four issues one at a time. It is undeniable that the power of the monarch has been greatly reduced, and Mr. Benn does not attempt to deny it; he is well aware that Elizabeth II does not occupy the same position as did Charles I and his predecessors. But, paradoxical though it may sound, the crucial thing about monarchical power was not that it was wielded by the monarch; the objections to it would have been the same, and equally valid, if it had been exercised (as it sometimes was) by a Protector, a minister, or a Regent. The crucial thing was that this power was not under the control of Parliament, the great achievement of the Civil War was to render Parliament supreme over the monarch. What Mr. Benn shows is that although the monarchy is still under parliamentary control, the same cannot now be said of monarchical power. It has escaped. The power of the crown is no longer located with the monarch but with the Prime Minister. It is as independent of parliamentary control as ever it was, and it is no smaller than it used to be; rather has it increased:
The development of prime Ministerial patronage… represents a reversal of a trend which was first set when Parliament insisted on appointing the Crown’s advisers. Then the Cabinet ceased to be a royal coterie and was drawn from the leaders of the representatives in the House of Commons whose advice it was obligatory for the Monarch to accept. Now the powers of monarchy, except in its formal sense, have passed to the Prime Minister, and the massive scale of prime Ministerial patronage now represents a new centre of executive power… (p.170)
No medieval monarch in the whole of British history ever had such power as every modern British Prime Minister has in his or her hands. (p.126)
Another achievement of the seventeenth century was the establishment of parliamentary control over the army. The technique of control established in 1689 is used to this day; the money needed to operate the army is voted year by year, Parliament has in its hands the power to cut off supplies at a maximum of twelve months’ notice. This control was established then and is still in force today; is it then not true that here, at least, a solid, enduring advance was made? Mr. Benn’s reply is that it depends what you mean by an army. The army, then, comprised practically the whole of the coercive power at the disposal of the crown. Its main use was not, as it is now, in foreign affairs, but in the repression of internal disorder and resistance to the monarch. In order to convey, now, the meaning then carried by “the army,” we would need to use some such phrase as “the totality of the coercive forces,” and when we do that it at once becomes clear that the position today is net the one aimed at, and thought to have been achieved, in 1689. Since that date new coercive forces have bean developed and these are not responsible to Parliament. In Mr. Benn’s words:
The parallel between the old standing army and the modern security services is that in the old days armies were rarely used for foreign wars but were primarily instruments of domestic repression. When Parliament demanded control of the army it was actually saying it wanted control of the security Services. (p.176)
The control of a standing army which was finally settled in 1689 by the decision that the House of Commons would only vote money to the armed forces on an annual basis has been lost with the development of the security services, whose responsibility to Parliament is non-existent. (p.170)
Thirdly, freedom of speech – and not merely of private speech, the right to say what one likes to family and neighbors. What is in question here is freedom of public speech is the right to make one’s ideas known to people at large. In Britain this freedom was substantially achieved when licensing of the press was ended and the nonconformists won the right to be addressed by preachers of their own choice instead of ministers appointed by the establishment. Pulpit and Pamphlet were the communications media of the time. Freedom of printing and of public speech is now exercised without restraint by a multiplicity of parties, groups, movements, and sects, both religious and political. How, then, can it be maintained that this was not a solid advance?
The answer is that since the Civil War other communications media have been developed; with voices that overwhelm the pulpit and the independent press. Radio, mass newspapers, the cinema and above ell television. Beside these the voice of the independent pulpit, of the lecturer indoor or outdoor and of the press publishing unpopular opinions is all but inaudible.
Effective freedom of public speech, the ability to make oneself heard by the people at large, is enjoyed only by those few who control the media, and they, whether they be private people or “public” bodies, exercise this power to a great extent independently of Parliament. The right the rest of us possess, the right to stand up in public and say what one likes, is of little value when there are a few able to decide what shall be said to millions, and said to them not only in speech or in print but with all the added power of conviction carried by the use of living images.
In the old days the power of the medieval Church to put a priest in every pulpit of every parish on every Sunday to preach to the faithful the view of an established church reinforced the power of the Monarch. This was challenged by the dissenters who said ‘We want the right to elect our own lecturers.’ This is a battle which has o be fought and won again. (p.171)
Fourthly, open government, access by the Citizens to knowledge of the acts of their rulers, the knowledge without which their formal control over the government, even the franchise itself, loses the greater part of its value. How can the people pass judgement on their rulers at election-time if they do not know what those rulers have done?
Mr. Benn traces the struggle for this right to Edmund Burke’s efforts to have the proceedings of Parliament published, and goes on to show that this achievement, also, has been by-passed. The proceedings of Parliament have long been published in ‘Hansard,’ but many of the actions of the executive take place outside Parliament and these are hidden from scrutiny by the Official Secrets Act and the “Thirty Year Rule:”
(The Official Secrets Act) covers everything from espionage designed to undermine the security of the state, to the protection of all official documents covering the whole range of government work. (p.123)
Under (the “Thirty Year Rule”) more than a generation has to elapse before the citizens are allowed to know the thinking that lay behind even the most major government decisions which affected their lives… Democracy can be properly described as the institutionalisation of a process by which society can learn from its own experience and especially by its own mistakes. This being so, a thirty-year time gap before that experience and those mistakes can be published in full must necessarily mean that the learning process is at best ineffective and at worst almost useless. (p.124).
Mr. Benn goes on to point out that the revision of the Official Secrets Act now under discussion may not greatly improve the position. He says there is a school of thought, strongly held by the establishment, which “will not have… the entrenchment of the statutory right to know… ” (p. 124)
In each of these four instances the early advance has been rendered ineffective and in much the same way. The bridgeheads gained have not been lost; they have been bypassed. The rights won by Parliament and people they still retain, but these are no longer the decisive ones; the power that was the real issue has slipped through their fingers. The monarchy, the pulpit, the small printing press, the army, these were brought under democratic control, but now these institutions have been largely deprived of their importance. The power once attached to them has moved elsewhere and remains as independent of parliamentary or popular control as ever it was.
Mr. Benn supports his points with evidence and argument, and taken merely in themselves they are important enough. But our concern here is a wider one; If things are as Mr. Benn maintains, what implications does this carry?
Mr. Benn takes the view that the struggles in the seventeenth century and later to effect the changes which he shows to have been accomplished only in a superficial sense resulted from a movement by the people at large. He says it was mainly the Levellers who actively carried it on, but he regards them as representing the general body of the People:
The Levellers grew out of the conditions of their own time. They represented the aspirations of working people who suffered under the persecution of kings, landowners and the priestly class and they spoke for those who experienced the hardships of poverty and deprivation. (p.29)
He quotes with approval the summary given by one historian of “the views being advanced by the lower classes at the beginning of the Civil War”:
The common People have been kept under blindness and ignorance; and have remained servants and slaves to the nobility and gentry. But God hath now opened their eyes, and discovered unto them their Christian liberty.
He is not alone in this view. Reformers and revolutionaries generally, if asked for evidence that what they are attempting is possible, will point to past achievements. They hold that the people at large have already changed from one set of attitudes and beliefs to another – broadly speaking, from acceptance of autocracy to belief in democracy – and can therefore be expected to move further in the same direction. But Mr. Benn’s demonstration, that some of the changes which have taken place in the past have affected only superficial appearances, calls this view into question. He shows that in four significant connections the real condition of affairs, the way in which thing’s are actually done, is much the same as it was before the Civil War. The people in general accept the exercise of power by individuals now as they did then, and this indicates that their attitudes and beliefs have not substantially changed. They are, in their main features, the same note as they were then.
It might once nave been possible to argue that the people today would not accept the position if they were allowed to know the truth. But now apart from anything else Mr. Benn’s book has been published, it has been widely reviewed and is freely available in the shops and the libraries. If the people at large are now committed to a belief in freedom and democracy (as the reformers and revolutionaries understand these terms) then we have to expect a vigorous response to his revelations. But this has not happened. Arguments for Socialism has been received with widespread calm. There has been no public outcry, no roar of “to the barricades!,” nor even “To the demo!” Mr. Benn’s disclosures have not flashed from mouth to mouth, the people have not risen in their towering majesty to crush, this time for ever, those who have dared usurp the power that belongs to them alone. They are not in the least alarmed at learning that much of the power in our society is wielded by a few people who are not subject to parliamentary or popular control. They contentedly accept the position and there is no reason to believe they will cease to do so.
The effect of Mr. Benn’s argument is to demonstrate that the attitudes and beliefs of the people at large are in their main features the same as they were through the centuries prior to the Civil War. They have not significantly changed in the past and there is no reason to expect significant change in future. Reformist and revolutionary movements have developed, but they do not enjoy the support of the people at large, and there is no reason to believe they will come to do so.
from Ideological Commentary 9, February 1981.