Opinion: Revolution is not a dirty word


Revolution is not a dirty word: it is the honorific given to moments of dramatic change by their benefactors, which became suspicious in its connection to the prophecies of Marx’s illiberal inheritors who wished to usher in an era of benevolent totalitarianism.

Constitutional change is a common revolutionary cause. The American Revolution founded the world’s first Democratic Republic out of the writings of Publicus and Thomas Payne; the Revolution in France turned an agrarian feudal monarchy into an Empire in the mould of Rousseau’s Social Contract; and the Glorious Revolution established the supremacy of our Parliament in the vein of Hobbes’s Leviathan, until today.

Devolution, multi-party politics, European governance, and the tide of frustration that has risen since the financial crisis all call into question Britain’s constitutional settlement. Whether EVEL, the EU referendum, fiscal autonomy for Scotland, or electoral reform, Britain’s constitutional settlement has become its most contentious political battlefield.

There is appetite for change on every side of the political spectrum, except in the corridors of power.

Labour itself fought an election on the promise of a constitutional convention; the SNP continue to consider the UK to be antagonistic to Scotland’s interests; the Green Party and UKIP have found common cause in the reform of our electoral system. Even the Conservatives are dead-set on sweeping reforms to the status of English MPs.

Let’s hold Labour to their promise and invite all parties to form a constitutional convention, with the aim of authoring a new settlement for the whole country around which a range of parties can campaign.

Constitutional change has, since the age of Magna Carta, come from outside government. Certainly, governments themselves may reform, may change of their own volition, but the government of today is bent on gerrymandering their own conception of the social contract into the system.

UKIP and the SNP are constitutional parties, but the foundation of their success is that they have the ability to say they are impatient with the system: the people they represent deserve better. As a Liberal Democrat, I believe we all deserve better than this.

Let’s confront the elephant in the room: that 18th Century conceptions of what constitutes a legitimate government will not do in a country with 21st Century conceptions of democracy.

An 18th Century solution is a fitting response: the authoring of a constitutional document in an extra-legislative capacity to be used as a rallying point for reformists across the spectrum if it is not immediately adopted.

Labour has campaigned in favour of a convention and would need to accept the virtues of a Tory majority in order to decline: the Tories would have to explain why 37% of the vote is enough to give them the powers of an absolute monarch, or join.

There is no guarantee that we could write a constitutional settlement that will be universally endorsed (especially by the SNP): but a constitution that establishes the rights of a British citizen; the roles of our two parliamentary chambers; the proper devolution of powers to the political bodies of the UK; how the people will be represented in these bodies; and the conditions by which a nation may leave the Union would be a modest and achievable agreement on which the issues of the day may be fought.

Rejection of these terms by the UK government might not precipitate a revolution, but may create a nation-wide movement for reform.

* Toby MacDonnell is a Lib Dem member. He is a graduate in history from Sussex university reading Keynes and Baudrillard in preparation for postgraduate studies.

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  • The problem is that in the context of governmental change, revolutions are usually violent. In a democratic society, no matter how flawed that democracy may be, violent overthrow od the political system is not justified and talk of revolution is dangerous. Revolution almost always calls into mind the phrase “be careful what you wish for”.

  • John Roffey 6th Jul '15 - 1:47pm

    The result of the Greek Referendum should encourage anyone who believes that ‘revolution is in the air’.

    The time does seem right for a constitutional convention – and likely to gather significant support from the electorate.

    Cameron/Osborne/IDS might, and are likely to, introduce a significant number of measures that are greatly against the wishes of the vast majority – with their 37% share of the vote – and that is only of those who voted.

    A solution is needed and a constitutional convention seems a good place to start.

  • The american War of Independence was different; they started off wanting to send MPs to The House of Commons and enjoy the same rights as those living in the UK. The USA was run as a colony by the Kings . The inability of the Hanoverian Kings to realise that all the American colonials wanted was to send MPs to the House of Commons and a heavy handedness by Hanoverian troops turned, discontent into war. It was a typical example of the people at the centre of power not understanding what was happening at the edge of the jurisdiction, much like Iraq and Afghanistan.. Many of the aims for the colonials to send MPs to the House of Commons was supported by Whigs, especially, Non-Conformists in business.

    The February 1917 was a broad coalition against the autocratic Czar groups as diverse as Kerensky who wanted a constitutional monarch to the Bolsheviks . The October revolution of 197 instigated by the Bolsheviks meant by 19018, The Cheka were murdering 40,000 a month. Those who obtain power through mass slaughter rarely want to relinquish power through democracy.

    The vast majority of revolutions soon evolve into mass slaughter and terror by one group in order to maintain power.
    As Orwell said.

    One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes a revolution in order to establish a dictatorship.
    Read more at http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/g/georgeorwe159423.html#oKf2VmlsxHvvloat.99

  • John Roffey 6th Jul '15 - 3:09pm

    TCO 6th Jul ’15 – 12:31pm

    “The problem is that in the context of governmental change, revolutions are usually violent. In a democratic society, no matter how flawed that democracy may be, violent overthrow od the political system is not justified and talk of revolution is dangerous.”

    Surely the idea of a ‘constitutional convention’ is to improve democracy so that a violent revolution is never justified. However, democracy is under threat as evidenced by the surprise Tory victory at the GE. This article by Suzanne Moore in the Guardian last week [Fear-mongering is the enemy of democracy – from Greece to Cameron’s EU referendum] – which starts:

    “Project Fear stalks Europe. In suits and ties and chaffeur-driven cars, in hurried meetings, in corridors blaring with strip lights, around the cabinet tables, in meetings where strategy is scrawled on whiteboards, in advertising agencies where earnest young people compete to unsettle us in the most effective ways.”


    Could be interpreted as – that when one party has the greatest resources and the support of the wealthiest – they are able to employ the most accomplished fear-mongers and implement their recommendations most effectively.

    Such activity might result, eventually, in those oppressed people rising up and engaging in violent revolution – if the necessary checks and balances are not put in place.

    A ‘constitutional convention’ would be one way to insure that this is the case.

  • (Matt Bristol) 6th Jul '15 - 3:24pm

    Agree with TCO about revolution through violence, but it should not be forgotten Liberalism in its origins had much to do with the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of the late 17th century when we exchanged one monarch for another in what (for English politicians in the short term) was a relatively bloodless way (but not of course bloodless for Ireland).

    But the concept of the right to resist an unjust ruler was once foundationary to this party — it would be hypocritical to deny that.

  • democracy is under threat as evidenced by the surprise Tory victory at the GE

    So… democracy is only not under threat if you like the result? You know what they call it when people say that elections are only legitimate if they produce the correct result, as determined ahead of time? Czechoslovakia, that’s what.

    (Unless you were complaining that ‘democracy is under threat’ when Labour won a bigger majority with a smaller share of the vote; were you?)

  • John Roffey 6th Jul '15 - 4:57pm

    Dav 6th Jul ’15 – 3:58pm
    “democracy is under threat as evidenced by the surprise Tory victory at the GE

    So… democracy is only not under threat if you like the result? ”

    If you re-read my post you will see that there are two ways that I am suggesting democracy is under threat. Firstly, through relatively low turnouts and an increasing number of parties sharing the vote under FPTP and secondly through acute fear-mongering.

    I am not a Labour supporter – and no I would not be content when any party takes power with a low share of the vote.

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Jul '15 - 5:46pm

    I agree revolution should not always be a dirty term (I support a peaceful revolution in Hong Kong, for example). However in the West it is hard to find a revolution that would be worthwhile after democracy. Now we have democracy talk about revolutions reminds me of extremism.

    I’m also against this idea that the current UK government is “illegitimate”. It is the most legitimate one considering the vote that we had, so whilst we have this system it is legitimate and dangerous to talk about it as otherwise.

    In the days of the internet I think the need for a constitutional convention is a bit unnecessary and frankly very unlikely to find agreement between the parties. We just need to advocate for electoral reform, whilst remembering that any proposals that much of its supporters struggle to explain are likely to fail. And yes, I am talking about STV. Presently most people seem to find it too hard to explain, which includes the Electoral Reform Society, that I believe does more harm than good for the cause of electoral reform.

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Jul '15 - 5:56pm

    Just to clarify: the only problem I have with the Electoral Reform Society is that they don’t explain STV properly. For as long as people are getting directed to their website to find out about STV there will be problems.

  • John Tilley 6th Jul '15 - 6:29pm

    Which bit of the ERS website page ‘Voting systems made simple” are you having difficulty understanding?

    Don’t ask me (or ERS) how this iPad works but voting systems in general and STV in particular are not complicated.

    With STV,
    You decide which candidate you like best and put a 1 next to their name.
    If you like any other candidate (but not so much) you put a 2 next to their name.
    If you like any other candiidate (but not so much as 2 or 1 ) you put a 3 next to their name.
    You keep going until you have no further preference or until you have voted for everyone except the person you really hate.

    Are you getting the hang of it ? 🙂

  • Richard Underhill 6th Jul '15 - 7:00pm

    The Single Transferable Vote is not the only thing we need to improve our democracy, but it is one which has been used in the UK. Northern Ireland uses it for most elections. They should be allowed to use it to elect MPs to Westminster if they want to.

    We also need a better electoral register, a reduction of the voting age to 16, improved voting rights for citizens of EU member states living in the UK and much tighter restrictions over money..

  • Eddie Sammon 6th Jul '15 - 11:42pm

    Hi John, I don’t think it makes clear whether it is a second preference or multi voting system. I had to find other websites in order to understand STV better.

    “Each voter gets one vote, which can transfer from their first-preference to their second-preference” http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/single-transferable-vote#sthash.wCyVGKYo.dpuf

  • I agree with Eddie actually that STV is quite hard to explain, and the ERS website by talking about “the quota” and a “single vote transferring” do not do a good job of that.

    However it is also very true, as John says, that once people get to try STV they do not have any trouble with it. And also that all of us are happy to use technological things like i-phones without any clue of how they work..

    So how about “STV lets you put all the candidates in order of preference. Several people from different parties will be elected in your constituency, so it is important to keep numbering until you no longer care you gets elected. The counting is complicated but ensures that your preferences count as far as possible. The result is more proportional than the first past the post system, and puts real power in the hands of the voters, not the parties. STV has been used in Ireland and N Ireland for many years, and in local government in Scotland, and has proved popular in all those cases”

    I have always been of the opinion that STV was the main engine of change in N Ireland which turned Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams into unlikely peaceniks… Basically voters let them know that while they would continue voting for a catholic or protestant party, they would prefer candidates from that party who would make peace..

  • (Matt Bristol) 7th Jul '15 - 12:55pm

    I agree with Ian Sanderston that the size of an STV constituency is key – personally, I think fixing it at 3-member constituencies may be easier to persuade people to, in our cutrrent situation, than variable numbers of MPs per constituency as has been proposed by some. This doesn’t exploit some of the full advantages of the system, but I would argue still has advantages over FPTP.

  • Violence is anything which brings us closer to death: our choices only have meaning in relation to the death of other choices.

    Killing violence is the ultimate act of violence: choosing non-violence is to chose not pacifism but passivity, non-choice. To cheat death by living out the afterlife.

    Pacifism is to live without choice in order to experience life as eternal, to mistake consistency for immortality, to mistake stability for justice, to mistake freedom for death, to create the sin of heresy: but all one experiences is wasted time and bad faith, for pacifism is a religious tenant (from India, popularised by Ghandi who had no other weapon) turned into a political credo by substituting a man’s code for the command of a God who died in 1883 (the publication date of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, where Nietzsche elaborates on his famous declaration that “God is Dead”).

    It is the simulation of freedom: for what is freedom without change, and how can one have change without changing one’s self, one’s circumstances, one’s state? No change is non-violent: non-violence is as violent as it is free.

    We are made powerless in the face of non-violent forces which still do us disservice, injustice, and damage which together amounts to oppression. By accepting the etiquette of non-violent oppression, by becoming non-violent ourselves, we keep death at arms length, and wonder why our society is haunted by terror: the spectre of sudden death, the ghost of freedom at its most radical and most terrifying.

    To recoil from the violence intrinsic to the world is to misunderstand the nature of the contest we are involved in: to reject violence while accepting the legitimacy of force used to sustain the status quo is to accept defeat before one has even begun. A truly political pacifism would reject any state founded on implicit violence and would passively disobey the system in order to undermine it: but good luck in passively disobeying a withdrawal of government support for health and welfare. I’m sure people in education would relish the chance not to get their qualifications. So how do we meet a non-violent antagonist?

  • If war is an extension of foreign policy by other means, revolution is the extension of the domestic agenda.

    We sign our lives away to a ‘legitimate’ government without acknowledging that it is our signing which makes government legitimate. We act as though we are a democracy, because we universally secured the franchise of the 18th Century ruling class: the Glorious Revolution established that parliament was sovereign, not that the franchise, or the people were. So long as we seriously believe that government is legitimate because violence is bad, we are abdicating in favour of Leviathan.

    This article was not about voting reform: it was about taking advantage of Labour’s trauma as the scales fall from its eyes in order to convene a cross-party convention on what democracy should look like in today’s Britain, and how inconvenient that would be if either the Tories or Labour had to wheel out Thomas Hobbes as their ideological defence.

    We could just take non-violence lying down, but in the Cold Revolution destruction is not mutually assured: it breeds cold people and cold rulers, who are dead only so long as they do not acknowledge that they are alive. That is to say: that if a state is predicated on not revolting as the Cold War was predicated on not going to war, we are going to end up in the same psychotic, paranoid culture that the Cold War bred: this can be avoided by confronting death head on, and in so doing realising that our political economy is oriented toward distracting us from this fact, and thereby enslaving us to ignorance and conformity.

    Revolution is not a dirty word, because it is not a curse: it is a threat. When every avenue for change within the system has been exhausted there should always be one final resort.

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Jul '15 - 2:59pm

    Toby, the thing about revolutions is that you better make sure you succeed. I wouldn’t necessarily fall on the side of a democratic revolution if I thought a bunch of political anorak’s had hatched together a plan that the quiet majority didn’t really want. A revolution is the last resort to be used once the clear democratic will of the people is ignored. For instance: if Scotland voted to leave the UK and we ignored them.

    I also believe in fundamental rights that cannot be taken away, such as the right to self-defence (which the US extends to gun rights, which I think is taking it too far).

    An interesting debate to be continued another time, but there have been plenty of failed revolutions, such as the Communist one, and some that failed at first, but succeeded eventually, such as the US slavery abolitionist movement.

  • I don’t think you’ve contradicted me there, Eddie. I certainly haven’t been refuted.

  • Come to think of it, anoraks? Really?

  • I agrre with central premise. Low turn outs are indicative of a worrying rejection of democracy. It’s nothing to do with not liking the result. It’s to do with the fact that 37 per cent of the vote even with a high turnout is hardly a ringing endorcement of a government, but when 40% of the electorate doesn’t even vote and the actual result is a government elected on 22-24 % then there is a threat to democracy. No one is suggesting storming the palace gates what we are talking about is reengaging people with politics so that governments actually have to have a real majority to govern. Low public trust, low turn outs and fracturing political parties is much more likely to cause dangerous instability than acknowledging there is a problem and trying to do something about it. As for the idea that a democratic revolution would lead to a stitch up by electoral anoraks I’d say this is already what happens as various polls and talking heads talk about governments having clear mandates with the support of considerably less than 50% of the population. The two party system and FPTP worked when those parties could command an actual majority . When votes are down and decreasing it plainly doesn’t work. The old adage if it works don’t fix it is fine if it isn’t broken, but if it is broken why not fix it?

  • Eddie Sammon 7th Jul '15 - 5:05pm

    Toby, I’m just trying to urge caution, that is all.


  • Richard Underhill 7th Jul '15 - 9:29pm

    The Single Transferable Vote is as easy as 1, 2, 3
    Most people are voters who put the candidate they like most at one and the candidate they like least at the bottom.

    Enid Lakeman once told me that it abolishes tactical voting. It does not. In a secret ballot you can vote how you like, but if you do the person/s you voted for may be elected.

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