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Theresa May Creates a Constitutional Crisis

During the 2015 General Election campaign, Theresa May, as Home Secretary in the Con-Dem coalition, claimed that the emergence of a possible minority Labour government, backed by the Scottish National Party, would be the biggest constitutional crisis in Britain since the Abdication in 1936. May’s idea was met with derision.

In the recent General Election campaign, May and the Conservatives kept banging on about their offer of “Strong and stable government”. They contrasted this with the “Coalition of chaos” envisaged if the small Conservative majority was replaced by a progressive government led by Labour, with support from the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the Green Party. The Tories also consistently smeared Jeremy Corbyn, saying his dialogue with Sinn Fein – which eventually helped the Good Friday peace agreement for Northern Ireland in 1998 – equated support for IRA terrorism.

Now we have a minority Conservative and Unionist government, with the weak and wobbly May desperately clinging on to power, through an unholy alliance with their “friends”, the Democratic Unionist Party.

Jeremy Corbyn has said that Labour, energised by a positive campaign (Jeremy is too modest to add that he has been an inspirational leader) stands ready to take power. As a political activist who supports a written constitution for Britain, I have concerns about the vagaries of the current unwritten constitution.

The Hansard Society has produced an excellent briefing on possible scenarios in a hung Parliament.

The document is well worth a read.

I wish to draw attention to a few specific points.

If May’s government is defeated on the Queen’s Speech, convention suggests she should resign as Prime Minister, and advise the Queen to invite Corbyn, as leader of the second largest party, to attempt to form a government (see pages 11-12). This is only a convention, which means May could suggest that the Queen try to appoint another Conservative (is that Boris Johnson, the £350 million man, waiting in the wings?) as potential Prime Minister.

The whole possible process of May proposing a Queen’s Speech, being defeated on this, and a subsequent vote of no confidence, followed by a vote of confidence in a new government, means the current uncertainty could last several weeks. The reference on page 13 to a “technical drafting error” in the Fixed Term Parliament Act casts further doubt on the transparency of the process.

Much has been made of the regressive nature of the DUP, who oppose gay marriage and abortion, but support creationism being taught in schools. There are also suggestions that the Conservative and DUP agreement conflicts with the legal responsibility of the Conservatives, as the British governing party, to be neutral in dealings with the Northern Ireland parties, in line with the Good Friday Agreement. With the governance of Northern Ireland in limbo, following the collapse of the Sinn Fein and DUP administration earlier this year, this has major implications.

There is also the elephant in the mainstream media room. The DUP have consistently had close links with loyalist terrorist organisations. For many years, the mainstream media have not so much underestimated the extent and horrors of loyalist terrorism, as pretended it simply does not exist.

Now where did this loyalist terrorism start? Back in 1912, when the Unionist Party, as the Conservatives were then calling themselves, founded the Ulster Volunteer Force, as a private army that sparked civil war in Ireland, and derailed the plan of a Liberal government to give Home Rule to Ireland.

Back in 1912, the Unionists argued there was no mandate for the Liberal government’s programme, as they were a minority administration, only kept in power by the informal support of Irish Nationalist MPs.

A century later, May is arguing the complete opposite to justify her Conservative government!

I think Labour should be very clear about what is happening, remain united, and press the case that we have the solution to the crisis. By keeping our nerve, Labour can win power, either in the new hung Parliament, or by our momentum leading to victory at the next General Election – widely expected to be held within the next few months.

May and the Tories – who cried wolf about a crisis in 2015 – have suddenly plunged Britain into something that has potential to be the most severe constitutional crisis for over a century.


Why NOT Trust the CONservatives?

Sadly almost all of my political energy in recent weeks has been used fighting against suspension from the Labour Party. Among the many annoying aspects of the situation, it is taking me away from one of the things I do best, namely attack the Conservative Party. To partly redress the balance, thought I would post the final chapter of my critical history of the Conservatives, a book published last year. So here are my thoughts on a decade of Dodgy Dave as leader of the Nasty Party.

 We Are All in This Together 2005-2015

The Labour Party defeated the Conservatives in a third successive General Election on May 5 2005, obtaining a majority of 66. Labour won 356 seats, the Conservatives 198, the Liberal Democrats 62, and the others 30. The day after the Election, Michael Howard announced his decision to stand down as Conservative Leader. Following a review of the rules for Leadership elections, which did not lead to any changes, a contest began in October. Two ballots led to David Cameron and David Davis advancing, while Liam Fox and Kenneth Clarke were eliminated. The vote among party members saw Cameron defeat Davis by 68 per cent to 32 per cent. Cameron – educated at Eton and caught smoking cannabis there – had only been an MP since 2001. He struggled to establish a strong image as Leader of the Conservatives, being criticised by many for his relative inexperience, and faced difficulty uniting the party. A veneer of socially-conscious Conservatism alienated the right, despite Cameron’s clear Eurosceptism.

Tony Blair stepped down as Prime Minister in 2007, and was replaced by Gordon Brown, the new Labour Leader, who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer for the 10 years of Blair’s premiership. At the same time John Prescott ceased to be Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, but Harriet Harman, who replaced him in that role, was not accorded the additional position of Deputy Prime Minister by Brown. The premiership of Brown was undermined by the onset of an international banking crisis in 2007, which developed into a global recession, and the biggest crisis of capitalism since the depression of the 1930s. With the Labour government struggling to deal with a budget crisis, as vast amounts of public money were used to rescue private sector banks, Cameron and the Conservatives gained ground. In June 2009 the Conservatives won the European Union election, with 25 seats, while UKIP took 13 seats, Labour 13, the Liberal Democrats 11, and the others 10. The Conservatives now resumed their link with the Ulster Unionists, running a joint campaign in the Northern Ireland section of this election.

Public confidence in the British political system was severely reduced by the scandal of MPs making excessive, and often illegal, claims for expenses. A campaign by the Daily Telegraph, during 2009, highlighted failings by both Conservative and Labour MPs. After requests under the Freedom of Information Act had been blocked, due to lengthy resistance by MPs, the Telegraph leaked information. The newspaper largely used the expenses detail against the Labour Party, and in favour of the Conservatives. Being outside the public sector, the Daily Telegraph was exempt from Freedom of Information, and did not have to disclose how much, and to whom, it paid for the leaked detail. It subsequently transpired that the Telegraph bought the information for £150,000 from John Wick, a supporter of the Conservative Party, with former links to the security services. The deal was agreed by Will Lewis, the editor of the Telegraph, who moved the following year to News International.

The electoral pact between the Conservatives and Ulster Unionists led to an embarrassing rejection, as Sylvia, Lady Hermon, the only sitting Ulster Unionist MP, resigned from the party in March 2010. The reluctant Unionist alliance failed to win any seats at the subsequent General Election, and the pact was soon discontinued. That General Election, held on May 6 2010, led to a hung Parliament, with the Conservatives having 307 seats, Labour 258, the Liberal Democrats 57, and the others 28. The Conservative Party had failed to win a majority for a fourth successive General Election, which represented their worst sequence of results since the six successive defeats between 1847 and 1868. After several days of negotiations between parties, Gordon Brown and the Labour government departed from office, being replaced by a Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition. David Cameron became the Prime Minister, while Nick Clegg was his Deputy – a Con-Dem double act. Cameron, aged 43, was the youngest Prime Minister since Lord Liverpool, a Tory who took office in 1812.

The government quickly set about massive public spending cuts, with the Conservatives using a budget deficit as an excuse to attack public services. Cameron and the government told people “we are all in this together”, but the continuing problems of recession, aggravated by austerity, had a disproportionate impact on people with lower incomes, while the Conservatives rewarded rich people with massive tax cuts. The policy was overseen by George Osborne, a complacent Chancellor of the Exchequer, who had inherited a multi-million pound fortune. Unemployment increased to almost 2,700,000 by the end of 2011 – the highest figure since 1994.

A messy compromise between the Conservatives, who opposed electoral reform, and the Liberal Democrats, who had long been in favour of some reform, led to a referendum on the generally unsatisfactory Alternative Vote, in May 2011. The electorate rejected AV by 68 per cent to 32 per cent, a result which damaged the cause of electoral reform. Later that year the Coalition carried legislation to set a fixed term of five years for Parliament – unless there was a vote of no confidence in the government, or a majority vote of two thirds of MPs in favour of an early election. It appeared that the main motive was a wish by the Coalition government to bind the two parties making up the alliance, with a law that would force them to remain together, in power, for five years.

The Coalition government’s policies had an adverse effect on both the National Health Service and Sure Start. The Health and Adult Social Care Act 2012 led to major reorganisation of the National Health Service, with the Conservatives undermining the service through fragmentation and privatisation. Dozens of the Conservative MPs who voted for the legislation benefitted financially, through links to private health companies, which won contracts as parts of the NHS were sold off. The Welfare Reform Act 2012 unfairly disadvantaged many benefit claimants, particularly with the introduction of an under-occupancy penalty, generally known as the Bedroom Tax. Major cuts to Legal Aid were also imposed. In the light of these events, the Conservatives were regularly reminded of the “nasty party” tag by the Labour Party, led by Ed Miliband, who replaced Gordon Brown in 2010.

The Conservative Party, along with their friends in UKIP, whipped up hysteria about immigration, undermining Britain’s multi-cultural society. Internal argument among Conservatives over Britain’s role in the European Union continued to influence the party leadership. At the start of 2013, David Cameron announced that a referendum on British membership of the EU would be held if the Conservatives won the next General Election. The death of Margaret Thatcher, in April 2013, led to widespread re-assessment of her legacy. While Conservatives lauded Thatcher as a saviour of Britain, many people saw that Thatcher had encouraged a form of capitalism that was in crisis, sold off important public assets, and divided the nation. A lasting effect of Thatcher’s policies was a drop in the level of support for the Conservatives, who only gained a majority in one out of the five General Elections between 1992 and 2010. In the Summer of 2013, the Coalition government’s plan for armed intervention in the civil war in Syria was defeated in a vote by the House of Commons, as the Labour Party led the argument against this course. Cameron, who misjudged the situation, had to pledge that the government accepted the will of Parliament.

In May 2014 the Conservatives were reduced to third place in the European Union election, with 19 seats. UKIP won the election with 24 seats ahead of Labour, who took 20 seats. The Liberal Democrats were left with a single MEP, while the other parties won 9 seats. After a protracted and damaging trial, Andy Coulson, formerly director of communications for David Cameron, was convicted of previously organising phone-hacking at the News of the World – part of the News International group – and sent to prison in July 2014. Cameron’s judgment in appointing Coulson, who had already been under suspicion, was questioned. July brought another scandal, with credible allegations that Conservative MPs were active in a paedophile ring, during the Thatcher administration, prompting Theresa May, the Home Secretary, to announce an inquiry into historic allegations of child abuse. The chair of the enquiry, Baroness Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, had to step down a few days after her appointment, due to public pressure, as her brother, Michael Havers, had been Attorney General in the Thatcher government.  Following this May blundered again, appointing Dame Fiona Woolf, who also resigned as chair, due to her friendship with Leon Brittan, who was accused of suppressing a dossier about paedophile MPs in 1984, when he was Home Secretary.

    An independence referendum was held in Scotland, on the initiative of the Scottish National Party administration. In the weeks leading up to polling in September 2014, the Conservatives were worried that the outcome would be a vote for independence. With the Tories and Liberal Democrats unpopular in Scotland, the government was reduced to leaving much of the detailed campaigning against independence to the Labour Party, with Gordon Brown taking centre-stage. The referendum rejected independence, at this point, by a margin of 55 per cent to 45 per cent. The government committed British forces to take part in air strikes against the Islamic State terrorists in Iraq, having received backing from the House of Commons in September. Meanwhile British military activity in Afghanistan reached an end, 13 years after this action, led by the USA, was started under Tony Blair’s government.

During the Autumn two sitting Conservative MPs, Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, defected to UKIP, and were returned to Parliament for the latter party at By-Elections. Nigel Farage, the reckless UKIP Leader, fanned fruitless speculation about other MPs defecting from the Conservative Party – which he had once been a member of. Many people were concerned about the openly racist, xenophobic, sexist, and homophobic comments regularly made by prominent members of UKIP. Besides a cynical approach to Europe, UKIP had an extreme outlook, bordering on Fascism. In 2006 Cameron said “UKIP is sort of a bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists”. After ruling out a Conservative pact with UKIP across several years, Cameron changed his mind in Autumn 2014. There was growing support among members of the Conservative Party and UKIP for the idea that, in the event of another hung Parliament, the right wing parties should work together. In late 2014, and the early part of 2015, Liberal Democrat members of the government, anticipating the forthcoming General Election, sought to distance themselves from the Conservatives. There was clear evidence that the Coalition was failing to deal effectively with the budget deficit, and national debt. The Coalition reorganisation of the NHS had left it in crisis, and the Labour Party’s rescue plan was growing in popularity.

After 13 years out of power, as Labour won three successive General Elections, the Conservatives sought to re-create Thatcherism. Cameron was portrayed by supporters as a modern Conservative, in touch with ordinary people. The reality of Cameron’s premiership was continuation of old themes, which had motivated the Conservative Party since its foundation in 1830. For nearly two centuries, the Conservative Party has been run by the wealthy and powerful, with the party focussed on keeping those people wealthy and powerful. The rich benefitted in a limited recovery from capitalist crisis after 2010 but, for most people, Britain was a poorer place, both morally and financially, under the Conservatives.

Ethelred the Unready: A Thousand Years

Amidst much national reflection today of the four hundredth anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, and celebration of Saint George’s Day, some people are also recalling Ethelred the Unready, a much-maligned monarch of England, who died a thousand years ago today.

Here is a piece I wrote about Ethelred, included in the book Legends of British History.

A thousand years ago England was ruled by King Ethelred II, a man widely recalled due to his nickname, Ethelred “the Unready”. This suggests that Ethelred was simply not prepared for the responsibilities required of a king, but the meaning is more subtle. The familiarity of the name Ethelred “the Unready” contrasts with the confusion into which the fascinating events of his life have fallen.

Ethelred was probably born in 968, being the son of King Edgar, who had ruled England since 959. Edgar died in 975, and was succeeded by his elder son, Edward, who was still a child. The government of England effectively fell into the hands of the nobility, who were divided into factions. One group, refusing to accept the rule of Edward and his supporters, advanced the cause of Ethelred. In 978 Edward was murdered by members of Ethelred’s household as he arrived at Corfe, in Dorset, to visit his brother. Ethelred, aged about 9, was proclaimed king by his supporters who, along with his mother, Elfrida of Devon, governed the country in his name for several years. Ethelred was innocent of involvement in the murder, but the manner in which he became king was to undermine the new monarch’s rule. Within a few years of his death Edward gained a reputation as the performer of miracles. Ethelred was to recognise his brother as a saint in 1001, in an attempt at posthumous reconciliation, but treacherous nobles used the mythology surrounding the murdered king as partial justification for disloyalty to his successor.

During the middle of the 980s Ethelred assumed responsibility for the governance of England, and married Elgiva, the daughter of an English nobleman. Ethelred and Elgiva were destined to become the parents of six sons and five daughters. The sons were named Athelstan, Edmund, Edgar, Edred, Edwy, and Egbert. Three of the daughters were Edith, Elgiva, and Wulfhilda, but the names of the other daughters are no longer known. Ethelred and his family lived for most of the time in Hampshire, the traditional heartland of Wessex, with residences at both Winchester and Andover.

Ethelred understandably distrusted the nobility, and was unwilling to take advice from them. This was the source of the name Ethelred “the Unready”, which is a later mistranslation of “Ethelred Unraed”, the phrase coined during his reign. The name Ethelred meant “noble counsel”, while Unraed meant “no counsel”. The nickname referred to the way in which Ethelred frequently took important decisions without consulting the Witan, the body of nobles which acted as a council for the Anglo-Saxon kings, while also reflecting the fact that these nobles often failed to provide him with either advice or support. Ethelred’s rule was also undermined by indecision, as policy swung between appeasement of enemies and savage repression, without apparent consistency.

Amidst an atmosphere of mistrust and uncertainty, Ethelred battled to defend England from Danish invasions, which followed on from Viking raids referred to in the chapters on Egbert and Swithin. Large parts of the midlands and east were already under the control of noblemen from Denmark, who had established autonomy in an area known as the Danelaw over several generations. The weakness of England in the early years of Ethelred’s reign prompted forces from Denmark to launch new attacks. The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” provides a thorough account of the Danish raids. The entry for 980 records “Southampton was sacked by a naval force, and most of the citizens killed or taken captive”. Sporadic Danish attacks during the 980s were followed by regular invasions in the next decade. Ethelred stopped attacks in both 991 and 994 by paying the Danish army a large amount of money, known as Danegeld, to leave England. In 1000, during a respite from the Danish invasions, Ethelred led English attacks on Strathclyde and the Isle of Man. The Danes returned in 1001, and left again in the early part of the following year, as Ethelred made a third payment of Danegeld.

Elgiva, Ethelred’s wife, died at Winchester in February 1002. Ethelred immediately arranged to marry Emma, the sister of Richard II, Duke of Normandy. The marriage sealed an alliance with Normandy, by which Ethelred sought to bolster his position in the struggle against the Danes. It also marked the beginning of Norman influence in England, which was to pave the way for the arrival of William the Conqueror in 1066. Ethelred and Emma married at Winchester Cathedral on April 5 1002, and subsequently had two sons, Edward – who became King Edward “the Confessor” – and Alfred, as well as a daughter, named Goda. In the course of his two marriages, Ethelred fathered fourteen children, with all eight of his sons being named after men among his predecessors as kings of Wessex and England.

In November 1002 Ethelred organised the massacre of many of the Danes living in England, in a failed attempt to end the influence of their fellow settlers. Gunhilda, a sister of Swein, King of Denmark, was among those murdered, and the event provoked a further Danish invasion, which took place the following year. The next Danish incursion was launched in 1006, and halted in 1007 by a payment of Danegeld. Each time they received payment the Danes promised a lasting peace, only to carry out another attack within at most a few years, as they sought further plunder.

Ethelred achieved occasional success, despite the troubles that dominated his reign. He oversaw a strengthening of government administration, which enabled the Danegeld to be repeatedly raised, and paid over to the Danish invaders. These payments appeared to represent weakness on Ethelred’s part, but offered hope of preventing the complete conquest of England by the Danes. During the majority of Ethelred’s reign, England was a prosperous country compared to its neighbours in northern Europe, a point made by Robert Lacey and Danny Danziger in “The Year 1000: What Life Was Like at the Turn of the First Millennium – An Englishman’s World” (published in 1999). This book, with an impressive multi-layered title, provides an excellent survey of life in Engla-lond, the name by which the country was known in the latter part of the Anglo-Saxon period. Ethelred took a notable interest in law-making, and produced enlightened legislation, although his actions did not always match the theory. In 997 Ethelred issued the Wantage code, which consolidated the legal practices of the Danelaw, and accorded full recognition to local customs.

Another of Ethelred’s projects was a major expansion of the English navy, which took place during 1008 and 1009. Unfortunately most of the new ships were destroyed by the Danes when they launched an invasion during the latter year. The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” entry for 1009 writes that the Danes “ravaged and burnt, as is their custom, everywhere in Sussex and Hampshire, and also in Berkshire”. This was the start of a sustained onslaught, with the Danish army remaining in England until 1012, showing a military superiority that undermined English morale, before leaving in return for a huge payment of Danegeld. In 1013 Swein carried out a new invasion, by which he aimed to conquer England. An efficient campaign by the Danes secured control of the Danelaw, followed by the surrender of Winchester and London. At the end of the year the nobility accepted Swein as king of England, while Ethelred fled from London to the Isle of Wight, where he spent Christmas, before taking refuge in Normandy. The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” lamented “At this time nothing went right for this nation, neither in the south nor in the north”. Ethelred had become the first king of England to lose his throne to a foreign invader, having ultimately failed to emulate earlier monarchs, most notably Alfred – his great great grandfather – in thwarting the Danes.

Swein only ruled England for a few weeks, as he died in February 1014. Ethelred soon returned to England and regained his crown, having promised the nobility that his rule would be more just, but continued to be surrounded by problems. In 1015 Canute, a son of Swein, conquered Wessex, while Ethelred’s son Edmund established himself as ruler of part of the Danelaw, following a rift with the king. At the start of 1016 Canute invaded the Danelaw, and Ethelred was reconciled with Edmund, as the father and son planned to defend London together. The strain of events, combined with an illness, overwhelmed Ethelred, and he died in London on April 23, aged approximately 47. The “Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” reflected that “He ended his days on St George’s Day, and he had held the kingdom with great toil and difficulties as long as his life lasted”.

Ethelred was buried at the Church of St Paul the Apostle (the original of St Paul’s Cathedral), but his tomb was to be destroyed in 1666 by the Great Fire of London. The surviving site most closely linked with Ethelred is Corfe Castle. This ruined castle, which was virtually destroyed in 1646, following its capture by Parliamentary forces in the Civil War, dates from the Norman period. Remains of an earlier Anglo-Saxon building have been found within the grounds of the castle, and it is believed this was the home of Elfrida and Ethelred during the latter’s childhood. In August 2000 I visited Corfe Castle, which is managed by the National Trust, and was struck by the atmospheric setting of the ruins, set at the top of a hill, towering above the adjoining village. A few months earlier, the start of a new millennium had prompted me to look back to the England of a thousand years earlier, and write the original version of this biographical sketch of Ethelred. My essay on Ethelred was featured in “History For All” magazine a few weeks after I visited the castle. Part of my material on Ethelred was to be re-published in 2002 in an educational text book, being bracketed with a poem by Rudyard Kipling entitled “Dane-Geld”. The piece was also used in the advance publicity for the text book on the publishers’ website during 2001, thereby becoming my first piece of writing to appear on the Internet.

The remarkable story of Ethelred’s life provides a tantalising glimpse of English history before the Norman Conquest. Much of the history of that period is beyond our grasp, but we can treasure the knowledge we possess, and reflect upon the continuity of the national heritage. The names of many residential areas, including Ethelred Gardens at Totton, in Hampshire, are derived from the Anglo-Saxon kings. Ethelred was king of England for thirty eight years, apart from an interval of a few weeks, making his reign the longest of any Anglo-Saxon monarch, and he remains one of the few English sovereigns to have both lost and regained the throne. Nevertheless Ethelred “the Unready” is mostly recalled because of a nickname for which the real meaning has been lost in translation. I wonder how King Ethelred II will be viewed a thousand years from now.


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