Monday, 11 June 2018

Thomas Paine: champion of the common man

“The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.” -Thomas Paine

If the writer Thomas Paine, who died in 1809, were alive today, in the age of Trump, he would be a brilliant, uncompromising and effective voice of opposition, writing in a way that reaches the common man and woman. In his lifetime, much of what he wrote affected contemporary events. Much is still relevant to this unsettled world of 2018.

Often called the first international revolutionary, Paine’s weapon was his pen. He denounced government by one unelected individual or small elite, and argued for equality, human rights, freedom, representative democracy and social justice. In his lifetime, these were dangerously radical ideas. Paine challenged many of his society’s ruling assumptions. Slavery, monarchy and the Christian religion were just three of his targets.

Before Paine, educated people had written political works for other educated people. Paine was different, noting, “As it is my design to make those that can scarcely read understand, I shall therefore avoid every literary ornament and put it in language as plain as the alphabet." At a time when many people were illiterate, his works would be read aloud in coffee-shops, homes and taverns.

Paine was born into a family of modest means in England in 1737. He played an important part in the 1776 American Revolution (or the American War of Independence) and the 1789 French Revolution, writing later, “A part played in two revolutions is a life lived to some purpose”. He died in poverty and isolation in the USA, then still a new country.

Paine’s first thirty-seven years did not suggest that he would later become an important historical figure. They were marked by failure. He left school at 12 and was apprenticed to his father as a maker of ladies’ corsets. He later had a succession of jobs - corset maker, sailor, teacher, excise man, and shop owner. None were successful. Married twice, his first wife died in childbirth, as did the child; and his unhappy and childless second marriage fell apart. At thirty-seven, he was sacked from his job and sold everything he owned to pay off his debts. 

This was when Paine’s life changed. He took a boat across the Atlantic to America, arriving in December 1774.  The American colonies were then part of the British Empire. He arrived just months before the start of the American Revolution, which turned out to be perfect timing.

Soon after his arrival in America, Paine wrote a magazine article denouncing slavery, commenting“Our traders in men (an unnatural commodity!) must know the wickedness of the slave-trade, if they attend to reasoning, or the dictates of their hearts.” Such views were not popular with the American elite. Paine was, as he so often would be in the future, brave and ahead of his time.

What was to make Paine famous overnight in America was a pamphlet called Common Sense,published in February 1776, arguing for independence at a time when many Americans were unconvinced. He also argued that what was at stake in America was of universal significance, “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.”  Common Sense sold half a million copies and is credited with decisively changing opinion and paving the way for the Declaration of Independence in July 1776.

Paine attacked monarchy and ridiculed the hereditary principle. He also argued that the Rule of Law must be supreme, “But where say some is the King of America? In America, THE LAW IS KING.”

By the end of 1776, however, the fight for American independence was not going well. Paine wrote another pamphlet, Crisis, which was so powerfully inspirational that Washington ordered it to be read out to all his soldiers on the eve of battle. “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.” 

The Americans won the battle and it was a turning point in the war.
At the end of the war in 1783, Paine’s energies went in a completely new - and surprising - direction. He designed a new iron bridge and his (ultimately fruitless) search for funds to build it took him to France and then back to his home country of England.

In England, despite his role in the American Revolution, Paine did not face arrest, but the government targeted him with something that we can recognise today - a smear campaign. They made lurid claims: that Paine was a fraudster; that he beat his first wife to death when she was pregnant and - for good measure - that he had sex with cats!

In 1789, while Paine was in England, the French Revolution took place. Edmund Burke - now known as the father of modern Conservatism - wrote a book denouncing it and Paine took up his pen and wrote his most famous work The Rights of Man in direct reply. 

Paine insisted that men were free and equal in respect of their rights. “It is by distortedly exalting some men, that others are distortedly debased, till the whole is out of nature.”

He attacked monarchy as oppressive and absurd, and the aristocracy as useless “mere consumers of rent.”

Paine wanted to educate the common man. “Ignorance is of a peculiar nature: once dispelled, and it is impossible to re-establish it…though many may be kept ignorant, they cannot be made ignorant.” 

He also went into considerable detail about his proposals for what is in effect a welfare state, well before such a thing existed anywhere in the world. He produced tables setting out how progressive taxation and inheritance tax could fund support for the poor, for children, pensions for the aged and State education. 

In a later work, Paine advocated that every man and woman reaching 21 years of age should receive £15 (a significant sum) “to enable HIM or HER to begin the WORLD!”  This idea can be seen as an early version of modern proposals for a Universal Basic Income.

Paine was driven by a desire for social justice and abhorrence at great wealth co-existing with dire poverty. "The contrast of affluence and wretchedness continually meeting and offending the eye, is like dead and living bodies chained together.”

The Rights of Man made Paine a marked man in England. Facing arrest and likely execution for treason, he fled to France in 1792.

Arriving in France, as the famous author of The Rights of Man, Paine was immediately offered French citizenship, and elected to the Parliament of Revolutionary France.

Whereas, in England Paine had been seen as a highly dangerous radical, in Revolutionary France he was a moderate compared to the leaders of the Revolution. This moderation almost cost him his life.

The leaders of the French Revolution wanted to execute the French King. Paine, brave to the point of foolhardiness, argued the King ought to have a trial and, in any event, should not be executed. He made powerful enemies and was later arrested and thrown into prison. Due to be guillotined, he escaped only because an “X” was marked on his door when it was open, and so was not visible to those collecting prisoners for the guillotine when the door was later closed. The very next day, the revolutionary leader, Robespierre, himself fell from power and was guillotined. Paine’s life was saved.

Paine’s motivation was not sympathy for the French King but his belief in the Rule of Law and his - then unusual - opposition to the death penalty.

Paine wrote his final famous work, The Age of Reason, in France. He made it clear that he believed in a God but launched a fierce attack on Christianity, deeply shocking many people. 

In 1802, Paine returned to the USA. The next seven years until his death were not happy ones. He was widely shunned because of The Age of Reason and also because he had furiously attacked George Washington, by now revered in the USA, for having abandoned him in the French prison.

In 2018, Thomas Paine has much still to offer the world. He would be appalled at what is happening in the USA. He would take up his pen - or tap his keyboard - and attack the assaults of the Trump administration on democracy, freedom, the Rule of Law, human rights and truth itself.

He would attack corruption and perhaps single out the particular evil of encouraging wars in order that some may profit. “That there are men in all countries who get their living by war, and by keeping up the quarrels of nations, is as shocking as it is true; but when those who are concerned in the government of a country, make it their study to sow discord and cultivate prejudices between nations, it becomes the more unpardonable.”

Additional Quotes

 On Paine challenging received wisdom
“A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right.” 

On Paine insisting on the Rule of Law, even for unpopular people
"He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

Paine on social justice
‘“When it can be said by any country in the world, my poor are happy, neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them, my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars, the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive, the rational world is my friend because I am the friend of happiness. When these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and government.”

Friday, 22 September 2017

A new kind of politics: a practical proposal to help the many and not the few set the political agenda and hold power to account.

All is not well with democracy in the UK. I propose improving it by letting a far wider range of people into the centre of the political process by means of a new programme – on TV or YouTube - on which party leaders would meet one-to-one with representative members of the public. The “reality TV element” is likely to ensure high ratings.

Just as for centuries, ordinary people were denied the right to vote, now they are excluded from the crucial democratic business of setting the political agenda and holding power to account. These roles are restricted overwhelmingly to a privileged few in our politico-media elite who almost always share all or most of the following characteristics - well-educated, well-off, middle-aged, white, London-based. Their agenda inevitably reflects their own background and experience.

On the proposed new programme, members of the public would be given proper airtime. They can have their say without having to yell a question to the PM visiting a hospital at election time or being packaged in a vox pop or shouting down from the audience to the panel on BBC’s Question Time.

Party leaders would meet a genuinely representative sample of the public, “the questioners”, in a monthly live show. The leader would be in one-to-one conversation with each of the questioners, one after another.  

If a questioner is shy, inarticulate or angry it will be for the leader to deal with the conversation as best they can. Leaders would demonstrate their own qualities such as empathy (or lack of empathy).

The programme would include all sorts of people from the whole range of our diverse population, who are not currently heard in the national political debate, such as: an 85 year old pensioner, an 18 year old single mother, a deep-sea fisherman, a paraplegic ex-soldier, a corner-shop owner or someone working hard on poverty wages and relying on a food-bank.

The proposal is rooted in the belief that everyone matters in a democracy and everyone has political concerns. It would dramatically widen the range of voices that are heard in the political debate, increase political engagement and help people escape their own information bubbles and better understand their fellow citizens.

In the same way that it is not necessary to be on Twitter to be aware of President Trump’s tweets, the programme would affect the political agenda beyond those who watch it.

Here are details of the proposal.
  1. UK would be divided into 12 areas and the programme would come from a different area each month.
  2. An independent body would select (like a jury) ten questioners per show from the area where the programme is based that month.
  3. The questioners should collectively form a representative sample from that area. The factors used to select a representative sample may, for example, include sex, income, race, age, religion and disability. The selection process must be rigorous and transparent.
  4. If someone selected does not want to take part, then someone else similar would be selected.
  5. Each questioner would have five minutes one-to-one with the leader. 
  6. There would be no chairperson and no studio audience. There would be the necessary security.
  7. The programme would go out live (with usual short delay) and there would be an edited version of highlights.
  8. An independent body would deal with any complaints or other issues.
Ideally, the prime minister, Theresa May, would agree to take part in the programme. Unfortunately, it is unlikely she would. She has shown an aversion to unscripted meetings with the public and the current arrangement suits her.

Jeremy Corbyn, however, should, I hope, agree to take part. The programme would be good for democracy and good for him too. He showed in this year’s election campaign how comfortable and effective he is talking to people of all ages and all backgrounds, whether or not they agree with his views.

Imagine if Corbyn is PM and under relentless attack from the media. This programme would enable him to bypass the media and go direct and unmediated to the public.

There is an obvious risk for any political leader in taking part. A questioner might launch a furious attack on them and they would be trapped for five minutes and it would all go out live. But the likely benefits for a politician should outweigh the risk and, as for the risk of a furious attack - even if the person attacking them is unlikely to be convinced, they can defend themselves and may persuade some of the watching public.

We should not fear the people, as those who denied them the vote once did. We should trust them to speak on their own behalf and to ask the questions that matter to them and to put their own issues on the agenda.

One day, a programme like this may well be seen as an essential part of any properly functioning democracy. 

If you would like to help turn this proposal into a reality, please email me on 

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Dealing with North Korea is significantly more difficult because of Libya 2011

The current confrontation over North Korea's nuclear weapons is probably the most serious such crisis since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Unlike in 1962, when the two main actors John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev could be expected to act rationally, the same does not apply to Kim Jong-un or Donald Trump.

Under any circumstances, the position would be highly difficult and dangerous. What happened in Libya in 2011 makes a successful resolution - of this or any future similar nuclear stand-off - significantly more difficult.

North Korea claims the same justification as the eight other known nuclear armed countries - the USA, Russia, China, France, the UK, India, Pakistan and Israel - for having nuclear weapons, namely that they are needed for its own defence. 

If the world community and in particular the USA is going to persuade Kim to give up his nuclear weapons, it needs to persuade him that North Korea will not then be invaded and that he personally will be safe.

However, NATO's action in Libya in 2011 makes this almost impossible. In a recent interview Gary Locke, a former US Ambassador to China and an expert on North Korea, gave his assessment of the thinking of Kim and the North Korean leadership  “they believe that as long as they have a nuclear capability, the United States and South Korea will not invade them. They look at what happened to Muammar Gaddafi [in Libya]. He gave up his nuclear weapons, and where did it get him? … North Korea feels like the nuclear weapons represent their safety net.”  

Why should Kim now trust any guarantees given by the US (let alone by President Trump)?

Between 2003 and 2009 the Gaddafi regime voluntarily disarmed its nuclear capability. There have only ever been five voluntary nuclear disarmaments and this was the fifth. The others were three ex-Soviet states which found themselves with nuclear weapons after the collapse of the Soviet Union and apartheid era South Africa which disarmed before black majority rule.

The US and the UK promised repeatedly that they would not attack a non-nuclear Libya. In 2011, they did precisely that and Gaddafi was killed.

If Gaddafi had retained his nuclear weapons, in all likelihood he would still be in power and alive today. From the perspective of the regime in Pyongyang, the way the West behaved with Gaddafi must look rather like a sheriff in the Wild West telling the bad guy that if he puts his gun down he will be safe; and then, when he does so and is defenceless, shooting him.

Here is some relevant history. 
  •   Gaddafi led a coup against the US-backed King Idris in 1969
  •   For the next thirty years or so, Gaddafi was an enemy of the West and was held responsible for a number of terrorist outrages such as the Lockerbie bombing in 1988
  •    Libya surprised the world by announcing that it would disarm its nuclear weapons on 19 December 2003. 
  •   The key part of the 2003 deal was George W Bush, fresh from regime change in Iraq, explicitly guaranteeing there would be no such policy in Libya. There were words of reconciliation on both sides. Tony Blair said: -“Problems of proliferation can, with good will, be tackled through discussion and engagement.” 
  •     Professor Jentleson, an expert in the field, wrote in the academic journal International Security in 2005, that in order to understand why Libya agreed to disarm : - “The repeated assurances the US and Britain gave Libya about not pressing for regime change were absolutely crucial.”
  •     When IAEA and US inspectors visited Libya in January 2004 they found that Gaddafi’s nuclear weaponry was significant and larger than they had presumed
  •     On 27 January 2004, a US plane left Libya with the first consignment from its nuclear arsenal. George W Bush attended for a photo op to celebrate the unexpected and welcome victory against non-proliferation. The White House hailed Libya for its co-operation and said its good faith in dismantling weapons would be reciprocated
  •     Libya became an ally in Bush’s “war on terror” and sanctions were lifted 
  •     In 2007, George W Bush sent the first US ambassador to Tripoli for 35 years
  •     In 2008, Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice visited Tripoli
  •     On 9 July 2009, Gaddafi shook hands with Obama during the G8 summit. The White House said that Obama ''wants to see cooperation with Libya continue in sectors such as Tripoli's decision a few years ago to give up its nuclear program, an absolutely voluntary decision that we consider positive."
  •      On 21 December 2009, a Russian plane removed the last nuclear material from Libya
  •       In March 2011, only 14 months after the six year disarmament program was finally complete and Libya no longer had nuclear weapons, NATO attacked Libya and effected regime change. Gaddafi was killed.
In 2011, the North Korean Foreign Ministry said, that what happened in Libya “fully exposed before the world that “Libya’s nuclear dismantlement”, much touted by the US in the past, turned out to be a mode of aggression whereby the latter coaxed the former with such sweet words as “guarantee of security” and “improvement of relations” to disarm itself and then swallowed it up by force.”

Whatever the justification for breaking the pledges made to Gaddafi, doing so has seriously harmed the chances of dealing with nuclear-armed "rogue states" - not only North Korea but potentially elsewhere too in the future.