‘The first chapter’: Magna Carta and British socialism’s struggle for freedom in late Victorian and Edwardian Britain

The Shadow Education Secretary, Tristram Hunt, recently announced that if Labour are returned in the upcoming general election every school will be required to teach the history of Magna Carta. He is keen to ensure that ‘every school child is taught the medieval past and modern power of this heroic charter’. Unsurprisingly, this declaration caused a variety of responses from those within his own party and those on the left more generally. For a number, Magna Carta should not be celebrated in this way, for it was nothing more than a tool of oppression, which merely entrenched an elitist system that cared little for the people. Others have supported the initiative, often arguing that what it did is not important, it is what it stands for that is significant. As such, Magna Carta should be seen as a potent symbol of the long struggle for the rights and freedoms of the British people. Clearly, for those on the left today, the charter’s legacy is a highly contested one. The Charter has thus come to mean many different things to many different people, embodying a wide spectrum of beliefs and ideas (see Peter Linebaugh’s review of the new Penguin edition of Magna Carta in this series for a contemporary example of this). Moreover, this debate is not new, with the nascent labour and socialist movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries contesting both the legacy and the contemporary relevance of this historic charter.

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The general election and constitutional reform: A look at the manifestos

One of the central problems with studying the politics of constitutional change in the UK is that the public does not care about the constitution. Unsurprisingly, constitutional reform does not figure prominently in the party manifestos for the May general election. That does not mean that these documents tell us nothing at all: they show that parties stick with their old policies; that the Conservatives seem to avoid any explicit reference to the constitution; and that all political parties appear to be willing to use the constitution to their own advantage.

In this blog post, I distil some of the constitutional issues in the party manifestos of the three largest parties in Westminster in the last parliament: the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats (if there’s time, I will do another post on the smaller parties’ proposals). I define ‘constitutional’ issues as distinct from ‘distributional’ ones, which involve reallocation of resources (and the regulation of behaviour). Constitutional issues are about how decisions are made, not about the outcomes themselves, and should be neutral between, say, more or less progressive (or conservative) substantive policies.

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The Cambridge Election Podcast

From the University of Cambridge comes ELECTION, a weekly politics podcast; asking the questions that no one else is in the run-up to the British General Election with the most interesting people inside and outside the political arena. Here below are the eighth, ninth and tenth podcasts.

#8 – Robert Tombs on Britishness, Britain’s place in Europe & the NHS

What makes our politics uniquely ‘British’? Why is there no EnglishIndependence Party? How did the NHS become a sacred cow? And will Britannia ever rule the waves again? David puts these questions to Professor Robert Tombs – historian and author of a new epic history of England – to discover the impact of culture and foreign affairs on British political life. The team also review David Cameronand Ed Miliband’s favourite books, the pros and cons of the fixed-term Parliament, the neglected but extraordinary Nigerian election, and what to expect between now and polling day.

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Between Nation-State and Ummah’s Appeal: The contradictions of Islamism in contemporary India and Bangladesh

Generally, Islamists believe in the Universalist concept of Ummah (Islamic community of believers), a supranational or transnational union. The Islamists’ call for unity of the Ummah is based on the belief that Muslims throughout the world should have a sense of solidarity among them cutting across the borders of the nation-state. In this respect, Islamism has justifications to oppose the concept of the nation-state. The Islamist ideologue Maududi (1993) was opposed to the idea of the nation-state, and citizenship based on nationality, considering nationalism to be divisive and as such incompatible with Islam (Maududi 1992).

Conceptually, ‘Ummah’ incorporates the Muslim community in the world as a whole. Therefore, Islamism always tries to claim itself as a ‘mass ideology’ instead of a ‘class one’. For a mass ideology, it asserts the unity of ‘Ummah’ where persons across class, national, linguistic and gender divides can become a part. As an effective tool of political mobilization, the universal concept of Ummah is absolutely crucial in Islamist political ideology. In Laclau’s (1996) terms, one can argue that in Islamist politics, Ummah acts as an ‘empty signifier’ around which different particularities are organized to claim a common universal identity. The idea of Ummah provides the ground for Islamists to take the challenge of rallying the entire Muslim community under a single political project, a project I call Islamist populism.

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Against Ad Hocery: UK devolution and the need for consultation, consensus and consideration

The newly published report on the Future of Devolution after the Scottish Referendum is a worthy attempt to bring some order to an often confusing and conflicting debate concerning where devolution goes after the election. Strikingly, the Committee notes that since the September 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, rapid developments have been made in bilateral ways which pay little attention to the overall nature of the Union.

What the Committee has identified is the extent to which devolution is happening in the UK in an ostensibly ad hoc way. The sizeable body of evidence underpinning the Report highlights the extent to which the process so far has been piecemeal, rushed and segmented. All deterring from a reflexive and joined-up approach. Its recommendations include calling for a commission to review proposals for further devolution, a Convention for England to ensure representation of the public view and greater oversight of the intergovernmental machinery.

For historians of constitutional reform, such ad hocery comes as no surprise. It bears the hallmark of the British way of doing things. The absence of strategic thinking is explained away as a manifestation of the flexible British constitution. Of whiggish-like adaption to new circumstances, seeking out pragmatic ways that take account of the different requirements of the four parts of the Union. We would suggest that this approach to devolution is highly problematic for three reasons.

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Forecasting the 2015 British general election: three weeks out

Forecasters, academic experts, journalists, pollsters and the betting markets have long been forecasting a seriously hung parliament with both major parties not only short of the 326 seats required for an overall majority but even forecast to get less than 300 seats. Meanwhile, an SNP landslide is expected in Scotland which would be hugely damaging for Labour and have major implications for the government formation process. If the forecasters and betting markets are right in their central forecasts then Con+LD+DUP combined will be short of a majority and so a Labour led government should form if they can secure the support of the SNP and probably others, including the Liberal Democrats, will be needed too: a potentially messy and unstable situation but also one where there is sufficient similarity in ideological perspective for policy agreement on plenty of issues.

But there is uncertainty associated with all the forecasts and some forecasters are trying to estimate the extent of that uncertainty, which in turn can be used to calculate probabilities of particular events (hung parliament, largest party, etc.)

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The Loser Takes It All – The SNP after the referendum

If a political party were ever lucky enough to find itself in the SNP’s current position in Scotland, but across the entire United Kingdom, it would be heading towards the biggest landslide in British political history. The Nationalists are predicted to win around 45 per cent of the Scottish vote, giving them between 71 and 91 per cent of Scotland’s MPs.

The SNP offer candidates in only 9 per cent of Westminster constituencies yet are currently the British political party most certain of playing a role in the formation of the next government. The party’s current success comes against a backdrop of winning only 6 MPs in 2010, having as little popularity as the widely-loathed Scottish Conservatives as recently as 2013 and, in September of last year, leading a losing referendum campaign that forced a change in party leadership.

However, it is the referendum question that is now benefiting the SNP. The referendum campaign greatly increased support for independence, which is highly correlated with SNP voting in the General Election, as well as further dividing the Scottish party system, which was already split by attitudes towards independence. The closeness of the campaign has not extinguished hope amongst ‘yes’ voting Scots that independence remains a realistic possibility. Indeed, supporters of the SNP have become ever more fervent in their partisanship since September’s referendum.

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‘Devo Manc’: ‘Northern Powerhouse’ or ‘Northern Poorhouse’?

Manchester is a great world city which has long divided observers. In the mid-nineteenth century, what was for de Tocqueville a ‘foul drain’ and for Taine ‘Babel built of brick’ was for the Edinburgh Review, by contrast, ‘foremost in the march of improvement, a great incarnation of progress’. Most recently, with ‘devo Manc’, the city of 1980s de-industrialisation and indie music has been transmuted into a symbol of post-industrial regeneration and devolved government.

All this is being talked up as a matter of electioneering by the Treasury and Westminster politicians. After all, the coalition government must be seen to have a policy on ‘rebalancing the economy’. Devolved government initiatives in 2014 and 2015 for Manchester and the so-called ‘Northern Powerhouse’ are now being pushed as follow-ups to George Osborne’s 2010 ‘march of the makers’ (a march of course that never happened). After day trips to Manchester, London-based journalists are obligingly hyping it all. The planned devolution of responsibility for health and social care to statutory organisations in Greater Manchester was carefully choreographed; and the papers were then filled with admiring profiles of the Manchester deal-makers who had allied with the Chancellor to create the ‘Northern Powerhouse’.

The Manchester deal-makers have real achievements to their credit, but these do not signal a decentralisation of power or resources; they derive more from the shrewdness with which a small group around Howard Bernstein and Richard Leese (respectively Chief Executive and Leader of Manchester City Council) have played the game of extracting resources from a Treasury that manages what is just about the most centralised system of local authority funding in Western Europe. The planned devolution of social and health care is all of a piece with the Town Hall’s established style of deal-making. Devolution in Scotland followed a decade-long debate involving a wide range of organisations in civil society; ‘devo Manc’ is the result of confidential bargains between the Treasury and a small group of local deal-makers, mostly on the City Council.

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