This year’s 150th anniversary of the first vote under a working-class franchise needs to be remembered. In 1868 the first parliament elected by the working class achieved many anarchist socialist goals including a major reduction in the power of the centralised state. This and other achievements have been reversed over the last four decades, and it is not Labour or Conservative Party policy today to reduce the dominance that central government has reclaimed.
By reminding ourselves how the working-class franchise was won and what it achieved through local action, we can see what the country has recently lost and how to regain it.
It was the workers what won it
The Second Reform Act of 1867 nearly doubled the number of electors, making non-landowners the majority. The general election of the following year swept away the landed interest that had controlled the Commons for centuries. The closest parallel would be the end of apartheid.
The expansion of the franchise was not the best-planned Act of Parliament. Most parliamentarians wanted to enfranchise a limited number of working men, but poor statistics made it hard to predict how many would register under various scenarios. At the last minute the Bill was amended to enfranchise tenants who did not pay the ‘poor rate’ directly but whose landlords paid it for them and included the cost in the rent. This ‘leap in the dark’ created the working-class majority which could have forced through the nationalisation of land demanded by Chartists and communists. In the event, the new parliament achieved a remarkable compromise between the rights of landlord and tenant as we shall see.
Historians have been quarrelling ever since over which of the two Great Men of the era – Gladstone or Disraeli – gambled with the fortunes of the wealthy by enfranchising so many workers. But “freedom is never given. It is taken” and the credit should go to the 200,000 men and women who staged a banned rally in Hyde Park and terrified parliament by threatening another in Westminster. Radical MP John Bright, whose proposed ‘household suffrage’ most closely matched the final Act, deserves more credit than any other individual.
What the parliament of the working-class achieved
The new parliament elected by the working class quickly launched the welfare state. It implemented state-funded secular schools, sanitation, food standards regulation, public investment in gas and water utilities, environmental protection (under the Alkali Act) and slum clearance. Parliament gave new taxation powers to local government to fund all these in its 1871 Local Government Board Act.
Some legislation already existed, for example in sanitation, but funds were limited and expenditure had to be authorised by centralised government departments who imposed ‘one size fits all’ policies. Now elected Local Authorities were free to decide spending priorities according to voters’ willingness to pay new local taxes. Many communities did not spend money on slum clearance and sanitation, but it became clear that those that did were experiencing better health and that workers would pay higher rents when it enabled their babies to survive.
Before the removal of control from central government, half of all urban children were dying before their fifth birthday from epidemic disease. Life expectancy had been flat or declining since the start of the industrial revolution half a century before, as workers gravitated to the crowded cities. Under local control and taxation, national life expectancy increased by half, from 40 years to 60 before any medical treatment became available for the killer diseases
The devolution of public health enforcement and taxation proves the justice of the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin’s denunciation of the crippling power of a centralised state:
‘Every attempt of the county councils (Zémstvos) to take the initiative in any improvement – schools, teachers’ colleges, sanitary measures, agricultural improvement, etc – was met by the central government with suspicion, with hostility, – and denounced by the Moscow Gazette as “separatism,” as the creation of “a state within the state,” as rebellion …’
The devolution of public health was a coup engineered by two individuals outside Parliament. Conventional history indicts them both for having done nothing useful in this period, and even for having obstructed medical progress. Florence Nightingale lured Edwin Chadwick out of retirement and converted the ‘great centraliser’ to her localist beliefs. Chadwick’s correspondence shows exactly when the penny dropped, and between them they arranged the dismissal of the Chief Medical Officer and the transfer of his powers to local government. Nightingale, an avowed Chartist, republican, and religious heretic, went on to persuade the minister responsible to enact legislation forcing landlords to install mains drainage in all existing properties. This was the great compromise that saved private property. The landlords who would not comply lost their properties to compulsory purchase – i.e. nationalisation. Those who did comply are now Britain’s richest families.
Another forgotten achievement of the first parliament of the working class was votes for women. Yes, the year after the election parliament enfranchised women in local government elections. Today, with local government reduced to powerless ‘branch offices of Whitehall’ this is considered an insignificant step and all the attention is given to parliamentary enfranchisement in 1918. But after 1868 local government became collectively more powerful than parliament, and women must not be denied their democratic role in having launched the welfare state. John Stuart Mill’s proposed amendment to give the parliamentary franchise to women received a respectable number of votes under the old Conservative government, and if he hadn’t lost his seat to the undistinguished bookseller W. H. Smith in 1868 we might have seen it fifty years earlier. Even in 1868, women were not entirely excluded: although a man cast the vote, there was no secret ballot and votes were published so that one can assume that family negotiation took place beforehand.
Who was in charge?
Modern Liberals claim W.E. Gladstone, the Prime Minister of this most effective government of all time, for one of their own but the word ‘Liberal’, even with a capital ‘L’ did not yet represent an organised political party. It meant economically liberal in the sense of not supporting policies or public expenditure that favoured the landed aristocracy – such as tariffs on imported corn or taxes to fund foreign wars and the established Church. Gladstone himself was officially known at the time as a ‘Liberal Conservative’. His Cabinet included several better-established parties including Whigs and Radicals. He had few policies of his own, although his personal emphasis on religious freedom was very popular. He let members of his Cabinet ride their own hobby horses to a free vote. Only the Conservatives had a strong system of whipping, and the Commons became a true deliberative representative assembly capable of finding creative compromises between opposing interests.
Having abandoned the Commons’ traditional role of taxing the poor to support the rich, it was easy for more radical members to push liberalism further left and allow Local Authorities to tax the rich to support the less well-off.
Taking back control
The recentralisation of some of the local government power was inevitable as the innovative competition between different local areas revealed optimal solutions. Definitive sanitation standards became compulsory nationwide. But there were more sinister centralising forces at work, deriving from what sociologist Robert Michels described in 1910 as ‘the iron law of oligopoly’, that made the central state jealous of the independence of local government. Local government existed at the whim of the government in Whitehall, not under any sort of constitutional guarantee. Why should it have power to make policy independent of Whitehall? As the two leading political parties developed into national machines for delivering the vote and enforcing party unity, they began to treat local councils as a training-ground for aspiring parliamentarians, and local policies no longer reflected local concerns but only what interested the national party.
Finally in the 1980s central government stripped Local Authorities of their last significant tax-raising powers. From now on they would be funded by central government grants, and with fiscal policy now centralised in Whitehall a Conservative government could begin its decades-long program of reducing public spending. The Labour Party could stall this program when in power but did not abandon its new absolute monopoly of control by returning fiscal autonomy to Local Authorities who knew how to innovate. Instead of independent Local Authorities vying with each other to find solutions to new and unsolved social problems both main parties adopted ‘one size fits all’ policies that ignored anything that needed local innovation.
That was until the European Charter of Local Self-Government. This was belatedly ratified by Blair in 1998, possibly his second anarchist mistake along with the Freedom of Information Act. According to Britain’s leading constitutional historian this treaty is the first and only instrument under which local government is recognised in Britain’s nebulous constitution. Parties to the Charter must translate its principles of subsidiarity and autonomous local tax-raising into national law, and the Localism Act of 2011 is the only result so far. The Act’s removal of the absolute cap on council tax increases was momentous but has not come close to satisfying the Council of Europe. EU politicians are on the UK’s case, which raises a new question about the latest Whitehall obsession with ‘taking back control’. Is local government the real enemy from which Whitehall wants to take back even the smallest vestige of control? Will Brexit lead to the revocation of the Charter and the repeal of the Localism Act?
How did Britain achieve so peacefully the reduction in central state power that Kropotkin dreamed of in Russia in the quotation above about the powerless local councils, the Zémstvos? Prosaically, the new railways that brought so many working people (one percent of the entire mainland population) to London for the Hyde Park rally must have helped. On a more theoretical level, Kropotkin by the time he wrote his memoirs may have become so Anglicised that he regarded British local government as a model for the world. This would be far distant from his youthful admiration for the Nihilists and their desire to abolish the state. He now favourably compared the British workers’ appreciation of any ‘palliative concessions’ that made society less unjust, and their interest in concrete reorganisations in the direction of workers’ control, with the continental preference for all-embracing ideal solutions to the problem of the unjust state.
This more practical view of anarchism is compatible with the mainstream view of modern British anarchist thinkers like Colin Ward and David Goodway. According to Ward, ‘an anarchist society, a society which organises itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow, buried under the weight of the state and its bureaucracy, capitalism and its waste, privilege and its injustices, nationalism and its suicidal loyalties, religious differences and their superstitious separatism.’
A more synergistic analogy than ‘seeds beneath the snow’ might see anarchism as the mortar that holds the bricks of the state together. A hierarchical, inegalitarian organisation is hard to impose on humans who evolved by becoming cooperative and rejecting the dominance hierarchy of most large-brained primates. Anarchism, far from being the force that will overthrow the state, may be the almost invisible compound that stops it from collapsing when perturbed. As construction engineers note: “an ideal mortar accommodates movement of the structure”.
If British anarchism were today looking for a practical way to advance its traditional ideas, dismantling the most centralised government in the developed world would be a goal to match the achievements of its nineteenth-century forebears.