On Friday, the Government announced another U-turn, this time on the composition of the Grenfell enquiry panel. In December, May had rejected this request from survivors. It’s the latest in a long line of resistance by the powerful for ordinary people to have more say in the political process. Let’s examine a few examples from the last 800 years.
Grenfell Enquiry Representative Panel
The Grenfell panel is to be widened to include people with the skills to examine the cultural and community reasons behind the fire. This follows a prolonged period of pressure from survivor groups.
After six months of constant coverage by the Guardian, giving heart-breaking case study after case study, the Government finally admitted there was a problem with the Home Office’s hostile environment policy. But their solution was very, very narrow in scope indeed. They have commissioned Capita to set up a small, poorly trained group to handle any injustices that may have befallen this relatively small group of people. Everyone who has studied the institutional racism within the Home Office knows that the total number who may be affected runs to tens, if not hundreds, of thousands.
So far, May has done the absolute minimum required to keep the Daily Mail happy. How much more pressure needs to be applied, and how many more cases does the Guardian have to highlight, before the Home Office and May admit the problem is much wider? Grudging approach number two.
Lords Reform under Blair and Cameron
Now that the House of Lords has resoundingly defeated the government 14 times over plans to leave the EU, I find it highly amusing that the right-wing press has suddenly discovered that the Lords are unelected and therefore “undemocratic”! The leading exit extremists, including Rees-Mogg, were basically the same group who voted down attempts at reform under Blair’s New Labour and the 2010-15 coalition led by David Cameron.
Blair did succeed with a feeble compromise to reduce the number of hereditary peers to 92. Cameron’s attempts, half-hearted at best to appease his coalition partners, failed totally.
After over 100 years since the initial reform (see below), the Lords lives on as the largest unelected legislative chamber outside the People’s Republic of China. Resistance to the inherently corrupt Lords appointment system lives on.
End of Empire
After the costs of fighting World War Two, Britain was skint and heavily in debt to the USA. Our ignominious rush out of India and Palestine is well-documented elsewhere.
We did some pretty awful things as we finally left our colonial past, particularly in Africa. Here are a few examples of British Empire atrocities to be going along with. Independence for our former colonies, particularly those with majority non-white populations, was given grudgingly and often bloodily.
NHS Introduction 1948
Despite the lack of money and the high level of UK national debt, Nye Bevan pushed forward his plan to introduce a National Health Service, free at the point of use. He did this in the teeth of opposition from the Conservatives and (initially) the doctors’ professional body, the BMA.
Over time, as the people came to love – and treasure – the NHS, the Tories have tried to forget this part of our history. During the 1950s the Tories grudgingly accepted that the NHS was part of the fabric of our society.
Lords Reform 1911
The Parliament Act 1911, introduced by the Liberal Government, was passed in the face of bitter opposition and resistance. Its effect was to reduce the powers of the upper house and in its powers over budget setting. The preamble to the Bill included the words “it is intended to substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation“. You can say that last bit again! I’m sure the original 1911 reformers would never have dreamt we would still be debating this issue 100 years later.
Once again, change was resisted and introduced grudgingly.
The Representation of the People Act 1918 finally brought the franchise to women over the age of 30 and extended male franchise. A vicious rearguard action against the suffragists and suffragettes had been waged for decades before; the issue was often bound up in Parliament with horse-trading over independence for Ireland. Measures, including the infamous Cat and Mouse Act 1913 and forced-feeding meant that women were subjected to treatment that would be classified as torture today. Resistance took on a very sinister tone.
Universal suffrage came very grudgingly!
The fight for Irish Home Rule was resisted by the establishment at every turn, often entangled in the “and Unionist” element of the Tory Party. The Government of Ireland Act 1920 introduced the controversial border which created Northern Ireland as part of the UK from six northern counties of Ireland. We live still with the consequences of this decision.
True independence for the Republic of Ireland came in stages and finally in 1948. The changes were resisted for decades and the UK has never fully understood the colonial nature of its earlier relationship with the people of Ireland. Grudgingly again.
Electoral Reform 1830s
The 1832 Reform Act was the first small step to widening the franchise, passed by a Whig Government and fiercely resisted by the Tories at the time. It did also do away with the notorious “rotten boroughs” and introduced constituencies with roughly the same populations.
The number of people allowed to vote increased only by a tiny amount – grudgingly.
Abolition of Slavery
Practically everyone knows that compensation was paid to the slave owners, not the slaves, when slavery was abolished by the Slavery Abolition Act 1933. The bribe was huge: £20 million: 40% of Government income for the year. It was paid as part of a grubby scheme to overcome resistance of those in the establishment who had benefited from the slave trade and slavery.
The so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 saw King James overthrown by force and led to the Bill of Rights. Although much bound up in Protestant – Catholic antagonism, it was a case of Parliament challenging the absolute power of a monarch. During the machinations, James turned to the Tories for support.
Runnymede by force
Even in 1215, Magna Carta would never have come about voluntarily by King John. Although hardly a revolution by “the people”, the rebels used force (and the threat of it) to force the king to sign.
Tories inheritors of this tradition
None of the above is exactly news. And the last two examples pre-date political parties and are more examples of aristocracy versus absolute monarchy. But my general point is this: all progressive reforms have come about by fierce – and often bloody – pressure and have been resisted by authority figures. You can be assured that May’s recent grudging acceptance of the inevitable in relation to the Grenville Tower fire enquiry is just the most recent example of whose side the Tories have always been on. And it’s never the side of those pressing for reform.
If we want to see Britain as an open European-orientated, welcoming, diverse, multicultural country, we need to fight for it all the way.