Sunday, 30 April 2017

Rousseau on General Elections

"The English people believes itself to be free; it is gravely mistaken; it is free only during the election of Members of Parliament; as soon as the Members are elected, the people is enslaved; it is nothing. In the brief moments of its freedom, the English people makes such use of that freedom that it deserves to lose it". 

(Rousseau: "The Social Contract) 

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Lenin Returns to Russia; April 1917

The downfall of the Tsar in the “February Revolution” of 1917 caught Lenin entirely by surprise. He had not set foot in Russia for more than a decade, and his Bolshevik Party had played no part in recent events. Just a few weeks earlier, he had said publicly that he did not expect to see revolution in his lifetime.
   As soon as he heard of the revolution, Lenin was desperate to return to Russia. But how? He was living in exile in Zurich, surrounded by warring states: France and Italy, allied with Russia, opposing the German and Austrian empires. The intelligence services of all these countries would have known Lenin as an intransigent revolutionary who was intending to stir up trouble. The new Provisional Government in Russia had pledged to continue the war, but Lenin had opposed participation in the war from the very start. There was no way that the Entente powers; Britain, France and Italy; would want him to return to Russia.
   Germany was a different matter, and Lenin had a contact there: a left-wing socialist who was now helping the German government. He was Dr. Alexander Helphand, a Belarussian Jew better known by his revolutionary pseudonym of Parvus. He was now making vast sums as a war profiteer and was helping to spread defeatist propaganda in Russia. He pointed out to the authorities in Berlin that Lenin, especially if helped with substantial German funds, could do serious damage to the Russian war effort. A Swiss socialist, Fritz Platten, negotiated an agreement with the German minister for the transporting of Lenin to Russia.
   So on April 9th Lenin, accompanied by his wife Nadezhda Krupskaya, his friends Zinoviev, Sokholnikov and Radek, and more than thirty others, including some children, boarded the famous “sealed train” (technically an “extra-territorial entity”) and were taken across Germany, by ship to Sweden, and thence to Finland (officially part of the Russian Empire, but now starting to assert its independence), to arrive at the Finland Station in Petrograd a week later, after numerous frustrating holdups on the way. Without the friends and contacts of Parvus to make the arrangements, Lenin's party would never have completed their journey.
   Lenin’s agreement with the Germans soon became known, and led to accusations that he was a traitor and a German agent, receiving vast amounts of “German gold” However, it should be stressed that Lenin’s ambitions were not limited to revolution in Russia. He believed throughout that a Russian revolution would be no more than a spark that would set off a world-wide conflagration, and he always placed particular hopes on revolution in Germany itself.

Lenin’s Bolshevik Party had no fewer than 50,000 members in Russia when he returned. This small number was due to deliberate policy on his part. He had insisted on limiting party membership to dedicated and disciplined revolutionaries rather than mere sympathisers, and had broken with Julius Martov, the Menshevik Socialist leader, on this very issue. But unlike most socialists in spring 1917, Lenin was clear what he wanted. Whereas they, seeing little appetite or need for further revolution, were satisfied with a rather vague liberalism, freeing political prisoners, ending press censorship, and proclaiming Russia now “the freest country in the world”, Lenin had set out his ideas some years earlier in his most important book, “What Is To Be Done?” Left to themselves, he argued, the proletariat would never see the need for a full communist revolution. The role of the party, therefore, was to be a “vanguard”; leading and directing the workers towards revolution. He always despised and detested “bourgeois liberalism”.
   But in Lenin’s absence, the party leaders in Petrograd were uncertain what course to take. The first on the scene was a young man of aristocratic background, named Scriabin, who was to become much better known under his pseudonym, Molotov. Stalin arrived from Siberian exile soon afterwards; and for the rest of his life was forced to play down the embarrassing fact that under his direction the first legal issues of “Pravda” advocated co-operation with the Provisional Government.    

Returning political exiles, like the veterans Plekhanov and Vera Zasulich, were given rapturous receptions on their arrival, and the same enthusiasm greeted Lenin when he alighted at the Finland station in Petrograd. It was nearly midnight on April 3rd in the antiquated Russian calendar (thirteen day behind the Gregorian calendar used in western Europe). A short speech of welcome was delivered by Chheidze, a moderate socialist representing the Petrograd Soviet. But Lenin, to general amazement and some discontent, climbed on an armoured car and called for further revolution, denouncing all compromise. Lenin then spent the night addressing Bolshevik party workers.
The next day Lenin delivered two speeches, setting out what came to be called his “April Theses”. These were summarized in a series of powerful slogans: Down with the capitalist ministers! All power to the Soviets! End the war! Give the land to the peasants! Even some in his own party were alarmed at this extremism.
   The Bolsheviks were only in a minority in the Soviet, and had very few members outside of a few large cities. In normal times Lenin’s revolutionary call would have made little progress. But in Russia in 1917 times were not normal. The main destabilising factor was the war. Over the next few months, the Germans continued to advance and the Russian army disintegrated. Anarchy spread through the countryside as the peasants murdered their landlords and stopped sending food to the cities. The economy spiralled downwards out of control, and the Provisional Government had no means of enforcing its will. This was the situation which Lenin and the Bolsheviks were able to turn to their advantage.

Image result for lenin-at-finland-station
Lenin at the Finland Station: sculpture by Sergei Yevseyev, 1926

Of those who travelled with Lenin on the “sealed train”, Zinoviev and his wife were shot under Stalin, and Radek, Sokholnikov and the Swiss socialist Platten died in the concentration camps. Lenin’s widow Nadezhda survived till 1939, but was bullied and blackmailed into silence. Parvus settled in Germany, where he died in 1924, but not before he had been denounced as a “betrayer of the working class”. Lenin himself was disabled by a stroke in 1922 and died two years later without recovering his health.   

  A recently-published book, “Lenin on the Train”, by Catherine Merridale, provides many fascinating minor details about Lenin’s journey. Among the exiles living in Zurich was James Joyce, who commented that the Germans “must be pretty desperate” to start negotiating with Lenin. Lenin himself, desperate to escape from Switzerland, even telephoned the American embassy in Bern to ask for assistance; but since it was Easter Day there was only a single young official on duty there, who told Lenin to ring back later. The young official was Allen Dulles, later to become head of the C.I.A. He never forgot the incident. 

Monday, 10 April 2017

The House of Lords and the 1911 Parliament Act; Part Two

(The first part of this essay described how the Liberal government elected in 1906 was frustrated in its reforming efforts by the Conservative majority in the House of Lords, culminating in the rejection of Lloyd George’s Budget in 1909. The Prime Minister, Asquith, then called a general election in early 1910 on the theme of “Who runs Britain: peers or people?” only to find his part lose many seats and end up equal with the Conservatives. If the Liberals wished to continue in office, they would henceforth be dependent on the support of the Irish Nationalist party, and the price for that support would be Home Rule for Ireland)  

Asquith now produced three Commons Resolutions on reducing the power of the Lords, which were to be embodied in a Parliament Bill. These were, in summary: The Lords were to have no control over Money Bills; If any Bill passed the Commons in three successive sessions, it would automatically pass the Lords without a vote; and General Elections were to be called every 5 years, instead of 7, as was previously the case (thus giving the electorate the final say in most cases). This package duly passed the Commons with a majority of about 100, the Conservative party voting against.
   In April the House of Lords passed the Budget without a division. But what if the Lords rejected the Parliament Bill? There was a precedent for such a crisis back in 1832, when the Lords refused to pass the Great Reform Act, and had to be bullied into submission by King William IV threatening to create fifty new government-supporting peers to vote the measure through. Would the monarch once again be placed at the forefront of politics? It would be a development all responsible politicians were anxious to avoid.
   King Edward VII died on May 10th 1910 (“Killed by Asquith!” cried the more extreme Tory backwoodsmen). The new King, George V, aged 44, was eager to prevent a crisis, and called a “Constitutional Conference” in June, which however broke up without achieving anything. Lloyd George suggested that instead of a fully hereditary House of Lords, peers should elect some of their own number. The Conservative Party leaders were prepared to consider this, but the backwoodsmen were irrevocably hostile.
   When the Parliament Bill passed the Commons but was defeated in the Lords, the King demanded a new General Election to gauge the country’s mood. This was held in November, and once again resulted in a hung Parliament, with the two main parties equal in strength and the Irish holding the balance. King George now gave his tacit support to Asquith’s government, letting it be known privately that if necessary he would create as many peers as were needed to enable the Bill to pass. Historians later found that a provisional list of 250 new Liberal-supporting peers was drawn up, including some very odd suggestions – Thomas Hardy, for instance. Meanwhile the humorous magazine “Punch” had fun with its own list of wildly unsuitable peerage nominations, complete with appropriately silly titles.

In February 1911 the Parliament Bill was reintroduced into the Commons, passed all its stages by mid-May and then went up to the Lords, who amended it severely. The Conservatives were now divided by a diehard movement under Lords Halsbury and Willoughby de Brooke: the two groups being known as the “Hedgers” (the more sensible party leaders, who wished to hedge on the issue) and the “Ditchers” (who vowed to die in the last ditch rather than accept Lords reform). In July the Commons rejected the Lords’ amendments, and Asquith informed Lord Lansdowne, the Conservative leader in the Lords, of the King’s promise to create new peers if necessary to pass the Bill.
   On July 24th Asquith was howled down in the Commons by a group of extremist Conservatives, led by Lord Hugh Cecil, who shouted “Traitor! Traitor!” at him until the Speaker was obliged to suspend the session.
   The final Lords debate took part in very hot weather on August 9th and 10th. After some fierce exchanges, the Bill was passed by a narrow margin: 131 – 114. “We’ve been beaten by the bishops and the rats!” exclaimed a disgusted Ditcher peeress; and indeed examination of the voting showed that 11 bishops and 29 Conservative lords had voted for the government, including some very distinguished names.
   And so a major change was written into the constitution. But probably something even greater was intended. The preamble to the Parliament Act announced that the ultimate aim was to replace the House of Lords with an elected body. That was over a hundred years ago, and from that day to this the idea has been endlessly discussed but never enacted!

 The most immediate change was the ousting of the Conservative leader, Arthur Balfour, who was considered to have been no more than half-hearted in his opposition to the Parliament Act. He was replaced by a much more intransigent figure: a Scots-Canadian called Andrew Bonar Law.
   Bonar Law was to lead his party into very dangerous waters over the next few years. A Home Rule Bill for Ireland was duly put before Parliament in 1912. Under the terms of the Parliament Act, the House of Lords could only hold it up till 1914, but the next general election was not due till 1915. No matter how many by-elections the Conservatives might win, they could never stop the Bill in the Commons, for the Liberals were supported by the 80 Irish Nationalists and the 40 MPs of the new Labour Party. Instead the Conservatives encouraged resistance from the Protestants of Ulster, who were now threatening outright rebellion to prevent Home Rule. Soon arms were being imported from Germany, with vocal support from the Conservatives. Faced with this threat, Asquith’s government seemed paralysed.
  As it happened, Home Rule passed onto the statute book at the exact time of the outbreak of the First World War, which enabled its provisions to be suspended, probably to the relief of both the main parties. But the problem of Ireland had only been postponed.

(These events have been superbly described in a classic piece of historical writing: “The Strange Death of Liberal England”, by George Dangerfield) 

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The House of Lords and the 1911 Parliament Act: Part One

(Since the relationship between the House of Commons and the House of Lords has once again surfaced, this essay, which is in two parts, outlines the great battle between the two Houses in the years before the First World War)

In early 1906 the Liberal Party under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman won a massive victory in the General Election. They then formed one of the great reforming governments, including such ministers as Asquith, Lloyd George, Haldane and the young Winston Churchill, who had recently defected from the Conservatives. But despite their majority in the House of Commons, which on many issues would be reinforced by the 29 members of the new Labour Party and the 80 Irish Nationalists, the Liberals were unable to get many of their proposals on the statute book, because the Conservatives (who at this time called themselves the “Unionist” party, because of their opposition to Irish Home Rule) had an equally large majority in the House of Lords. As Arthur Balfour, the party leader and former Prime Minister, put it, “The Conservatives should still control, whether in power or in opposition, the destinies of this great empire”.
   Accordingly, although the House of Lords let through the Trades Disputes Act, which secured the power of the Trades Unions, they killed various other measures, such as an Education Bill, a Licensing Bill, various Bills for land reform and a Bill to end plural voting. Tensions rose: Campbell-Bannerman produced a Commons Motion proclaiming that, “In order to give effect to the will of the people, the power of the other House to alter or to reject Bills passed by this House must be restricted by law”, which was duly passed by an enormous majority; Lloyd George dubbed the House of Lords “Mr Balfour’s poodle”, and Winston Churchill warned, “They have started the class was, and they must be careful!”

In April 1908 Campbell-Bannerman retired, and died soon afterwards. The government was reconstructed, with Asquith succeeding as Prime Minister, Lloyd George as Chancellor of the Exchequer, and Churchill receiving his first cabinet post at the age of just 35.
   In his 1909 Budget, Lloyd George had to find money for such newly-introduced items as old age pensions, child allowances and labour exchanges, plus eight new Dreadnaught battleships and army modernisation; all of which required an extra £15,000,000: the largest increase ever in peacetime. He proposed to find the money from increased death duties, higher income tax (to be raised to the extortionate level of 6 pence in the pound in modern money!), a higher-rate “supertax” on higher incomes, car licenses and a petrol tax, increased taxes on alcohol and tobacco, and a new tax on unearned profits from the sale of land. It is noticeable that most of these were targeted on the richer classes; and it is hard to avoid the suspicion that the government was deliberately provoking a showdown with the Lords. The Liberals had been performing poorly in recent by-elections, and felt the need for a new and decisive issue.

Would the House of Lords reject the Budget? They had not done so for 200 years. Even before the Lords had even discussed the Budget, Lloyd George goaded them with bellicose speeches, accusing them of caring nothing for the sufferings of the old and poor. “Who made 10,000 people owners of the soil, and the rest of us trespassers in the land of our birth?” he cried; and again, “Should five hundred men, ordinary men, chosen accidentally from among the unemployed, override the judgement of the mass of the people who are engaged in the industry which makes the wealth of this country?” If it was his intention to provoke the Lords into resistance, he succeeded; because although the more responsible Conservative leaders now urged caution, large numbers of peers who rarely attended debates (nicknamed “backwoodsmen”) now turned up in large numbers, and in November 1909 the House of Lords rejected the budget by a large majority: 350 to 75. “We’ve got them at last!” Lloyd George crowed.
   Asquith put forward a Commons motion calling the Lords’ action “A breach of the constitution and a usurpation of the rights of the Commons”, and called a general election for next January, on the general theme of “Who governs Britain: peers or the people?” But in this election the Liberals lost many seats and the Conservatives gained many, so that the two parties ended up virtually equal in the Commons. It looked very much as if the government had dug a trap for the Lords and fallen into it themselves – though in fact it was usual at the time for governments to lose general elections.

The dispute now took on a completely new tone. With the main parties evenly balanced, the 80 M.P.s of John Redmond’s Irish Nationalist Party now held the balance of power, and it was obvious to all what price they would demand for keeping Asquith’s Liberals in office. The price would be Home Rule for Ireland.

Home Rule had been forgotten about for the past fifteen years.

Gladstone, the great Liberal leader of the 19th century, had been converted to the cause of Home Rule in the 1880s, and had produced two Home Rule Bills, in 1886 and 1893. The first had split his party and been defeated in the Commons, with “Liberal Unionists” under Joseph Chamberlain and the Duke of Devonshire leaving the party to merge with the Conservatives (who in consequence renamed themselves the Unionist Party). The second had passed the Commons but had been resoundingly rejected by the House of Lords. It was plain that the Lords would never consent to Home Rule; regardless of how the Commons voted.
   It is important to understand what was meant by Home Rule. Nobody except a handful of extremist republicans envisaged a fully independent Ireland. Redmond’s Irish Nationalists were moderates: what they demanded was no more than a measure of devolution, of the kind now enjoyed by Scotland. But of the 100 Irish seats in Parliament they controlled about 80, with such a stranglehold that in many cases their candidates were returned unopposed. Only Protestant Ulster held out against their dominance. It would have been sensible for the Conservatives to reassure Ulster that Home Rule would be no big deal, and would not threaten them in any way, but Conservative hatred of the Liberals was such that, in a move whose fatal consequences have haunted us ever since, they decided instead to fan the flames of Ulster intransigence. The famous slogan, “Home Rule means Rome Rule”, was coined: a devolved Ireland would be dominated by the Catholic Church, and Protestant Ulster would be persecuted. The moribund Orange Order was resurrected to combat Home Rule, by force if necessary.

In 1910 the Conservatives and the Ulster Protestants were still irrevocably opposed to Home Rule. But if the government now passed major constitutional legislation to reduce the power of the House of Lords to veto legislation, it looked as if Home Rule could no longer be prevented. What would happen then?

(To be continued)