According to my long ago schooling the word democracy comes from two Greek words; demos, the people and kratia, power, rule, therefore the rule of the people. The Classical Age of Greece, two thousand five hundred years ago, regarded as the foundation of European civilisation. Greece along with most of Europe is again facing turbulent times. What are the dangers that face democratic systems in the twenty-first century? Do the people we vote for actually rule as our representatives or is there some powerful force hidden behind closed doors?
Democracy is not something which arrived fully formed like an eighteen year old walking into the polling station. No it was born after an extremely protracted struggle lasting in the United Kingdom some eight hundred years, Magna Carta and all that. The one who was ruling, King John had every intention of keeping it like that, even after he put his seal on the Great Charter. Like most rulers he needed money, taxes, if you give me the money I’ll give you some of the power. The nobles agreed and another Magna Carta was sealed. Its home is in Durham Cathedral, home of the Prince Bishops. The Barons were of course all men. The people were not consulted nor did anything change for them.
Women were excluded from any form of public life with three remarkable exceptions; Queen Elizabeth 1, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth 11. The first two were very interested in power, Victoria became Empress of India. There were moves towards democracy in Victoria’s reign in the Great Reform Act of 1832 although most working men were excluded and all women. Then the suffragettes decided to challenge the accepted orthodoxy and in 1928 women were granted the vote on the same terms as men. Almost a hundred years of organised activity, time spent in prison, hunger strikes and the horrors of forced feeding. A horrible history indeed.
Don’t relax in front of the TV, the story is not over. Behind closed doors there is a power waiting to overturn democracy, the men with the money, the power behind the politicians, you know who I mean. The word begins with B——. they overwhelm us with triviality and misinformation and as one young woman interviewed on TV said ‘I’m not really interested!!! I almost exploded, politics is everyones business or we are on the road to tyranny.
The word ideology is viewed with a degree of suspicion your first thought is probably that’s communism or Marxism some scary idea that the state controls everything: the jobs we do and what we are paid, newspapers, television, radio even the books we read. But ideology is defined much more neutrally in the Oxford English dictionary:
” a system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy. A set of beliefs characteristic of a social group: a critique of bourgeois ideology. —-”
As we see today right-wing ideology can be just as rigid and ruthless as any left wing view. There is a simplicity about our ruling elite, those Bullingdon Oxbridge pals, any institution which has the word public attached to it; the education system, public health care aka the NHS, public housing ( council or housing association), standards of health and safety, a public railway system and many more. These must by definition be wasteful and inefficient and worst of all none of our friends is making a profit out of them. And what do you known ever increasing percentage of the population is retired and many need Adult Social Health Care,( don’t tell them we are making huge cut backs and when they need someone to help them get dressed and have a hot meal, a carer will rush in for ten minutes)
What is needed is PRIVATISATION, OF COURSE WE WILL STILL USE TAX-PAYER’S MONEY BUT SOME OF OUR FRIENDS WILL MAKE A BIG FAT PROFIT. They will be consultants, and directors of health care companies, governors of schools and trade unions will be abolished. What a great idea! Of course some people will suffer, ordinary working people, families who can’t find a permanent home, people who have no jobs or a zero hours contract. But most of them don’t vote so we will be sitting pretty for another five years.
I’ve just read an amazing book by a writer I only heard of a few days ago:
W E B Du Bois 1868- 1963, ‘ The Souls of Black Folk ‘ . This is truly original, it is more like a collection of books in very different styles. Some parts are a straight factual historical account of slavery as it was in the Southern states two hundred years ago and the working and living conditions after the Civil War until 1903 when the book was published. His term for the complete segregation of black people was “the veil”.
Other parts of his book are written in wonderful poetic language describing his own personal life and the lives of other black men and the conditions under which they lived and died. This is the way men and women suffer when they have no representation in the political system and the police and the courts defend the dominant race entirely. His aim is to make you feel the daily horror of their lives and this he does with great skill.
He was a graduate of Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and was one of the first black students to be awarded a doctorate from Harvard, although he was not allowed to live in the university halls of residence. He later studied in Germany and on his return to the USA became a teacher and a highly esteemed writer. He was one of the founding members of the National Association For the Advancement of Coloured People. He makes the point that segregation in the common place activities of life, like buying a cup of coffee, going to school, standing in line at the post office is damaging for both the white and the black races.
I’m very grateful I was able to read this book on my kindle.
We in the twenty-first century congratulate ourselves that we have left behind the myths and legends of our primitive past. Modern, we are rational, clear-headed logical people who make informed decisions based a reasonable consideration of the facts. If only this were true. Alas our myths are simply clothed in new words and we have a devout faith that they explain the real world. In this the media misinforms and dissembles the truth so that the true facts are hidden from us. The ideology of the few distorts all our lives.
Happily there are those independent journalists who write the truth, Owen Jones is one and my latest find is Kerry-anne Mendoza. Her book, “Austerity: the Demolition of the Welfare State and the Rise of the Zombie Economy” is the most shocking book I’ve read in a long time. Mendoza describes in chapter and verse how the things I have grown up with; the NHS, public education and the social security system are surreptitiously being privatised bit by relentless bit. If you care about our Social Democratic system order this book from your local library or on kindle or paper-back and read it. We are going back to a time at the beginning of the twentieth century when life for my grand-parents, and probably yours, was very harsh indeed or ‘nasty, brutish and short’. It doesn’t have to be like this if we inform ourselves and act. Here endeth the sermon.
Certain matters loom large at this festive time of year; have we bought enough food, should we put the holly over the mirror or on the mantelpiece, is there enough tinsel on the Christmas tree or too much? For those of us lucky enough to be living in a comfortable home, these very small things can assume an importance much greater than their real importance. Many figures are featured on the news ; the amount of money spent, the desirable presents and the undesirable, one particular figure stands out for me. Five million people are on the waiting list for a house. A generous estimate of the number of houses actually built in a year is two hundred thousand. The only way I can express the discrepancy between these two numbers is that it is huge! Roughly speaking it will take twenty years to build houses for those people who are currently on the waiting list. Where are these youngsters, these young families, disabled and vulnerable single adults living now? In overcrowded, unsuitable, decaying buildings or B&B accommodation. A rich, industrial, educated country like the United Kingdom is this the best we can do?
At the end of the 2nd World War in 1945 the government decided that building good quality housing at an affordable rent was urgently needed. Aneurin Bevan was the Minister charged with putting this plan into operation by the Labour government elected in 1945. In many cities thousands of homes had been destroyed by the bombing, my own was one of them. Of course we rented the house, to be exact two rooms on the ground floor with my grandmother and the younger members of her family living upstairs in three rooms and a single woman living in the basement. There was no bathroom and the toilet was at the bottom of the yard. We were all safe in the air raid shelter but the house was damaged and too dangerous to go back into. We found temporary accommodation with a relative. Empty housing was requisitioned by the council to provide temporary accommodation. My grandmother soon received the key to an empty house, it had a garden back and front, an indoor bathroom and toilet, a kitchen, living room and three bedrooms upstairs. My grand-parents were delighted and remained there until the end of their days.
My mother found my sister and me three empty rooms opposite a school, the formalities gone through we soon moved in. Where she got furniture from I don’t know, we quickly settled into a pleasant terraced street, a woman and her son occupied the downstairs rooms. Amazingly there was an indoor bathroom and toilet. The whole house was lit by gas and warmed by coal fires. Mother carried the coal upstairs and the ashes downstairs. Father was away fighting for king and country. A couple of months later in September 1943 I started school, a short walk up the street and round the corner into the school yard. The whole of my time in primary school we lived in the same street, the shops and the neighbourhood became very familiar.
After the end of the war in May 1945 and the election of a Labour Government led by Clement Attlee, council houses began to be built on the outskirts of the town. Just before Easter in 1951 mother got the letter to say there was a council house ready for us to move into. For the first time ever we had our own front door, back door and front and back garden and a bathroom. Thanks to Aneurin Bevan it was of the same standard as the very few private houses that were being built, although somewhat short on amenities such as a primary school and shops. The rent was affordable for a family on a labourer’s wage as most families were at that time.
House prices have now risen to a ridiculous level way beyond the average salary. The desperate need now is for decent housing to rent at an affordable rent. The country did it before who is stopping us doing it now, one word comes to mind, it begins with B——.
Yesterday I watched the film, “Little Women” made in 1994. I watched it in my living room on my television set. It may surprise you to learn that when I was a child there were very few television sets around and certainly not in my home. So I borrowed the book by Louisa M. Alcott from my library it was one of my favourite books. I was a child who loved reading, at this time books were in very short supply and the free library was a very precious asset.
To have a work of Art in my own home, a good film is just as much a work of art as a painting by Rembrandt or Van Gogh with the difference that a film is the work of a whole team of people not the product of a single genius. In my mind it is quintessentially a twentieth century work of art. There have been two other films of this book, one in 1933 and one in 1949, the second one is probably the film I saw as a child. The story has strengthens and weaknesses, Marmie is more of an angel than a flesh and blood mother and the sisters, Meg, Beth and Amy are not fully drawn characters in the way that our heroine Jo is. Of course like most girls I identified with Jo, I felt awkward, clumsy, unable to fit in. Winona Ryder is really too beautiful but somehow she conveyed the impression of awkwardness just enough to make it real. Of course Laurie falls in love with her, handsome, rich, charming Laurie, I should be so lucky! I never did understand why Jo refused him. I did understand the feeling of wanting to know more about the world I lived in. In the 1950s many men believed that women were unable to take responsible leading roles because they lacked intelligence and determination. I met a history teacher who sneered at the girls in his economic history class!
I don’t think that Gabriel Bryne’s character appears in Little Women, I think he is in the second book of the series. I thought the relative poverty of the family was well portrayed in the plain dresses of the characters and their awe of Laurie’s rich grandfather. I enjoyed the film hugely.