Clarion History 12

Hail Referendum!

Unless you’ve read the book I mentioned last time – or even more unlikely my UoS thesis on which it was largely based – you may be unaware how much advocacy there was of ‘direct democracy’ (Or what the Swiss would call ‘semi-direct democracy’; apparently for them you have to meet face-to-face in large field for it to count as ‘direct’.) It didn’t begin with the Clarion but the paper was an enthusiastic supporter of the ‘initiative and referendum’   The initiative meant that a certain (pretty large) number of people could demand and bring about a referendum on anything they wanted to

When the Social-Democratic Federation- the first modern socialist organisation in Britain at national level – was formed in 1884 it included as the second point in its programme ‘Legislation by the people in such wise that no project of law should become binding till accepted by the majority of the people’ while the next point demanded ‘The People to decide on Peace and War.’ All of which meant having a lot of referendums – even when there was no threat of war. The ‘peace and war’ point was something, incidentally, that Justice the SDF weekly reminded readers about both at the beginning of what was then called the Boer War and again in 1914.   As we will see in a moment  the referendum and initiative was also taken up -enthusiastically -by the Clarion

This enthusiasm for direct legislation was far from out of step with what was supported by other socialist parties of the time. In 1904 R.C K. Ensor – the future author of England 1870-1914 – published Modern Socialism, as set forth by Socialists in their speeches , Writings and Programmes. It ran through at least three editions before the outbreak of war in 1914 and showed, for example, that, like the SDF, the German SPD, the Austrian Social Democrats and the now united French socialists all included the referendum and initiative in their programmes.

In the case of the Clarion it was Alex Thompson (aka ‘Dangle’), rather than Blatchford, who took the lead -or at least did most of the work. But during the 1894 debate on ‘Real Democracy’ – which I gave a snapshot of in the 9th episode of this series – Blatchford wrote that the would ‘put the people into the place of the House of Peers so that every measure of importance should, after passing the House of Parliament, be referred to the nation for refusal or acceptance.’ This was very like the SDF’s second demand which I’ve already mentioned.

The following week – we’re at the end of 1894 and the start of 1895 – Thompson went much further and suggested that a system of direct legislation ‘would absolutely annihilate Parliament and the whole tribe of politicians.’ Always a popular cry. He went on to explain that during a recent visit to Paris he had met up with the prominent French socialist Jean Allemane. As a child – his parents were a 19th century equivalent of ‘strolling players’ who worked throughout Europe and Thompson always said that his first language was German – Thompson had been in Paris during the Paris Commune and the ‘Bloody Week’ that followed. Allemane had commanded the Communards’ barricade in the street where the Thompsons lived. During the 1894 visit Allemane had explained that he wanted every citizen to have the right ‘either to vote upon the law proposals of others or to initiate laws himself.’

The 1893 Congress of the Socialist International, held in Zurich, had endorsed the idea of the referendum and initiative and the time must have seem propitious for Thompson to take up the issue. Perhaps the fact that the Fabians had been the main opponents of this helped push things on. They were not popular in either the Clarion or the SDF. They were seen – not without a smidgeon of justification – as advocates of bureaucracy

The result of Dangle’s labours was the pamphlet Hail Referendum! The Shortest Way to Democracy. Blatchford fully supported this and in the summer of 1896 expressed, like Thompson had, his distrust of politicians – even radical ones. He suggested that the Reign of Terror during the French Revolution had come about because of ‘gangs of elected scoundrels’ and had been ‘the price “the people” paid for their folly in delegating their public duties to the rascals who made the most noise.’

Thompson went on to write two more pamphlets on this subject – both preceded by several Clarion articles – The Referendum and Initiative in Practice which took a very positive view of the Swiss experience with the initiative and referendum– was published in 1899 and The Only Way to Democracy a year later at the start of the new century.

I’d better leave it there although there was considerable debate about these issues right up to the outbreak of war in 1914. Anyone wishing to read arguments against ‘direct legislation’ from this period should have a look at the best ones – in my opinion – made by Clifford D Sharpe in 1911 in Fabian Tract No 155 The Case Against the Referendum.

Next Time   The First Easter Meet 1895

 

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