Tag Archives: Politics

Policing by consent?

It took me completely by surprise to see two men armed with semi-automatic weapons heading straight towards me.

Of course that opening sentence – although true – is a deliberate attempt to grab your attention. I hope I don’t lose you by revealing further details: the two men were Authorised Firearms Officers of the Hampshire Constabulary on patrol in Winchester city centre. It was just by chance that I happened to be walking towards them with my family on a sunny summer Sunday afternoon.

Photograph of armed police officersSo it would seem that there ends the story, except… as our paths crossed I took a closer look at the gun of the nearest officer. The weapon’s magazine was made of a translucent material, and I could see the individual rounds within. And it struck me that it was possible that one or more of those bullets could be shot into me or my wife or my son, probably causing fatal damage. In the short time it took before my slow-thinking processes dismissed the idea as totally far-fetched, I felt my blood run cold.

Anyway, this short experience at the weekend led to certain lines of thinking: How flimsy is the barrier that separates the living me from the horror of a sudden, violent, mechanised death? How it has come to pass that some people can walk down Winchester high street on a Sunday afternoon carrying semi-automatic rifles, and others can’t? And, of course, what has all this got to do with the Middle Way?

I can supply a little more background information here, especially for any readers from outside the UK. In Great Britain police officers are not routinely armed and the public are, with a few exceptions, not permitted to carry firearms. I have seen British police officers armed with similar weapons before, but this was in high security locations such as Whitehall in London, or at Heathrow Airport. In contrast, the city of Winchester, where I crossed paths with these armed officers, was last year proclaimed ‘the best place to live in the UK’ due to its high employment, good wages, low crime and above average health and life expectancy. I assume they were patrolling as a kind of reassurance to locals and tourists that any acts of terrorism would not go unchecked, in the wake of recent atrocities in Manchester and London.

This paragraph from Chapter 6 of Robert M. Ellis’s book “Middle Way Philosophy 2: The Integration of Desire” helps set the tone for any discussion of policing in terms of the Middle Way:

The state’s responsibility, then, is to support the integration of desires by preventing the grossest expressions of conflict – those which would create an environment in which further integration is impossible. [… O]ur environment needs to strike a balance between security and challenge in order to prevent the arising of unintegrated desires, but that means that a basic level of security needs to be created by government. In order to do this it is obliged to use force to suppress those who would perpetrate conflict by violence or other coercion.

18815853363_c91b9befb4_oSo these armed police officers were one of the means by which the government ensures a basic level of security, so that I can, for example, feel free to walk up Winchester high street (pictured on the right) on a Sunday afternoon without needing to carry arms myself. If there were any people in the city centre who intended to perpetrate conflict by violence, or the threat of violence, then I would reasonably assume that these armed officers would use (possibly lethal) force in order to suppress them. In this way I am able to continue my business of becoming a more integrated human being.

I have little appetite for physical violence. I actively avoid it, and I certainly don’t have the physique or the weaponry to excel at it. I’m sufficiently appalled by the violence inherent in the food industry that I choose to eat a strict vegetarian diet. But if I tried to make the principle of non-harm an absolute – thou shalt not kill, ever (even if you’re a police officer) – then it isn’t workable, it doesn’t address conditions in which there are people who are willing to perpetrate conflict by use of lethal force.

A very similar sentiment was expressed (perhaps more bluntly) by Brad Warner in a blog post in March this year. He put it like this:

Human beings are fair and inclusive, when we have the resources to be. This ability to be fair and inclusive has a high price. A society that values fairness and inclusivity also has to be able to defend fairness and inclusivity. It has to be able to kick the shit out of those who threaten fairness and inclusivity.

I’m not saying this is a good thing. But it is a fact. I hope this is not always the case. I believe that someday, in the distant future, when neither I nor anyone else alive here in the year 2017 is around any longer, it is possible that this will not be the case.

But we will never get to that point unless we understand the real situation right now. Which is that if we want a fair and inclusive society (and I do), we need to employ people whose job it is to kill — or at least have the capacity and willingness to kill — other human beings who threaten fairness and inclusivity.

In short, monks need soldiers.“

So who are these people who have the capacity and willingness to kill on my behalf? I don’t mean this personally, I’m not questioning the virtue of individual officers – in fact two of my good friends from teenage years are now police officers, one of them a firearms officer, and I’m satisfied that both are competent and ethical individuals. I ask what is their status, and what do we have in common and what separates us?

The idea (in the UK, and many other nations) is that these people are citizens in uniform, rather than soldiers: their primary principle is to prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment. The soldiers mentioned above by Brad Warner are probably more relevant to conflicts between nation states. Note that the capacity and willingness to kill is part of a preventative process, which, if it is effective, is far preferable to resorting to repression by military force. The ideal is that in the act of prevention all citizens (uniformed and un-uniformed) are better able to maintain their integrity than would be the case during any after-the-fact violence.

439px-Robert_Peel_PortraitWhen I say that this is their primary principle, I’m referring to the so-called Peelian Principles which were set out in the ‘General Instructions’ that were issued to every new police officer from 1829. [N.B. The Peelian Principles were named after Sir Robert Peel (illustrated on the right) but apparently there is no evidence of any link to Robert Peel and the principles were likely devised by the first Commissioners of Police of the Metropolis, Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne]. This kind of policing is known as ‘policing by consent’ because the power of the police is supposed to come from the common consent of the public, as opposed to the power of the state. However there is the important corollary that no individual can chose to withdraw his or her consent from the police, or from a law.

If you’ve not come across them before, I recommend that you make the effort to find out more about them. I hadn’t heard of them until earlier this year, but when I started looking into them they made a lot of sense and helped to make more concrete the vague ideas I’d developed about the principles of policing in the UK.  It has also changed they way in which I relate to police officers – which has been increasingly helpful as I’ve continued to get older and the police officers get ever younger.

The issue of public consent is elaborated further in principles 2, 3 and 4. Specifically, the fourth stated principle is

To recognise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.“

So in my Sunday afternoon example, if I (a member of the public) see police officers carrying lethal weaponry, but refraining from using it because the situation does not call for it, then I am more likely to approve of their presence. It is not just for safety’s sake that they carry their weapons with the muzzle pointing towards the ground. The authority of the armed officers is not supposed to stem from the fact that they are armed, but because the public approves of the way that they conduct themselves whilst armed in the broader context of preventing crime and maintaining order.

There’s another issue involved in police officers being armed so that the rest of us don’t have to be: armed officers put themselves at greater risk of being harmed in the course of their duty of protecting other citizens from harm. This ‘ready offering of individual sacrifice’ is also mentioned in the fifth Peelian principle.

The sixth principle involves addressing conditions in an incremental way:

To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.

Again, the idea being that public consent will be maintained if police officers do their duty in an even-handed and proportionate fashion – and their duty does not extend to avenging individuals or the State, nor does it include judging guilt and issuing punishments (as it says in the eighth principle). The sixth principle urges the use of physical force only to the extent that it is necessary to address the specific conditions of a situation.

In conclusion, then, I’m reasonably satisfied that the Peelian Principles of ‘policing by consent’ are compatible with the Middle Way, and that only political extremists are likely to reject them as being a sound ethical foundation on which to organise the maintenance of civil society. The big issue, as ever, is to what extent the Peelian Principles are actually realised in the way that policing is carried out in practice. In my privileged (and compliant) position in society I’m pretty unlikely to find myself on the wrong end of an armed officer’s gun, so perhaps my role is more as a protector of the standing of the Peelian Principles. As I see the Principles as a valuable working system then I should speak out if I see them being flouted by corrupt individuals or being undermined or perverted or otherwise absolutised by political figures. What do you think?

Image credits

Further fodder for consideration

How to Solve a Problem Like John Lennon

‘Part of me suspects that I’m a loser, and the other part of me thinks I’m God Almighty’.


John Lennon was, with Paul McCartney, one half of the greatest song writing duo in history, and one quarter of the greatest bands in history: the Beatles (as very rare examples of absolute facts these, perhaps, represent the only time when Middle Way notions of provisionality, incrementality and agnosticism do not apply). Nevertheless, some would also have you believe that Lennon was a peace-loving, feminist icon who fought for the rights of the disenfranchised and the oppressed.  A man who declared that ‘all you need is love’ and dared to Imagine a world without war, nationalism or religion.  Others present him in an altogether different hue: as a violent, jealous and chauvinistic bully who abused his first wife, Cynthia and emotionally neglected his first son, Julian.  On one hand we have Lennon the hero and on the other we have Lennon the villain and in many cases he is presented as either/or, with commentators unable, or unwilling to negotiate this juxtaposition.  Sometimes, biographical accounts will even skim over, or ignore these conflicting characteristics entirely and instead focus solely on his musical career.  I remember watching a biographical documentary which, apart from briefly referencing his peace activism (and judging it to be an immature and naive embarrassment) did exactly that.

‘When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out… in’.

There’s a tendency to dehumanise those whom we cast as heroes or villains, creating one dimensional figures to be loved or reviled.  This tendency is apparent with the treatment of exceptional individuals throughout history, such as Saints, military heroes and political activists.  The recent rise of the celebrity (a term which often invites scorn, but is actually an umbrella term covering people with a wide range of skills and achievements, like Elvis Presley, Princess Diana or anyone who appears in any reality TV program) has provided john-lennon-487033_960_720another category.  There clearly seems to be a need for us to create simplified archetypes and doing so does appear to be useful, but to do this with historical people that have lived (or are still alive) can deny us a richer understanding of their, and consequently our own, humanity (and can also create real dangers, as chillingly demonstrated by the recent case of Jimmy Savile).

‘Well, you know that I’m a wicked guy
And I was born with a jealous mind’.

Lennon’s lyrics often seem like raw, unguarded confessions that reek of insecurity and contradiction.  He seemed to be keenly aware of the conflicting aspects of his personality and didn’t shy away from exploring them in the material he released.  He acknowledged both the good and the bad; the hero and the villain.  While he declared that ‘all you need is love’, he also put to song the disturbing words ‘baby I’m determined and I’d rather see you dead’.  Filling the space between these two extremes was a Scared, Jealous Guy who felt in serious need of Help!  A perfect example of this uneasy juxtaposition can be found on the Imagine album.  As well as featuring the well-known title track, which has become something of a secular hymn, it also contains the track How Do You Sleep?, a venomous attack on his former writing partner and friend, Paul McCartney, which couldn’t be any further from the sentiments expressed in Imagine.

‘Hatred and jealousy, gonna be the death of me
I guess I knew it right from the start
Sing out about love and peace
Don’t want to see the red raw meat
The green eyed goddamn straight from your heart’.

He admitted that he had been physically abusive to women – not just Cynthia – and that he had not been a very good father to Julian.  He admitted that he was a bully.  He also described his own experiences of childhood abandonment and later feelings of fear and insecurity, which he concealed behind a mask of buffoonery and violence.  Not that this excuses the behaviour of a grown man, but it does provide us with some sense of a complex human being.  Add to that his later promotion of pacifism, feminism and social justice and the asymmetrical mosaic grows greater still.  In the later years of his life he became a devoted parent to his second son, Sean – with whom he seemed able to attain some sense of atonement.  Unfortunately, his relationship with Julian remained strained and distant.  Maybe the old wounds would have healed, had he not been shot and killed at the age of 40, but perhaps his earlier behaviour had been too damaging.

‘I really had a chip on my shoulder … and it still comes out every now and then’.

There are those that might cry ‘hypocrite’ at such apparent contradictions, but that would be over-simplistic and unfair.  It’s quite possible for Lennon to have been all of these things over time (or even simultaneously), with some characteristics perhaps being the consequence of another.  For instance, it’s likely that his feminism grew, in part, out of a need for redemption.  That’s not to say, then, that the villain of the piece was defeated; forever to be vanquished by the upstart hero and his eye shatteringly shiny armour.  No, far more likely was that the two existed side by side in an on-going (and probably uncomfortable) process of conflict and negotiation.  Acknowledging someone’s flaws does not necessitate that one question the sincerity of their strengths.

‘Although I laugh and I act like a clown
Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown
My tears are falling like rain from the sky
Is it for her or myself that I cry’?

JohnLennon1963A minor deviation here, but I would like to comment on the supposed naivety and immaturity of Lennon’s political views.  First of all, I feel that this is a misrepresentation of what he actually said.  If we look at the two main points that critics tend to pick up on: the invitation to imagine everybody living in peace and the request to give peace a chance.  Both of these notions seem far from naïve to me, in fact they seem like reasonable suggestions for incremental change.  There is clearly no unrealistic demand for overnight change; just a suggestion that we consider an alternative way of conducting ourselves, with the hope that things might start to get better.  In the UK similar accusations are levelled at Jeremy Corbyn, and they grate with me for the same reasons.  I’m not suggesting that anyone has to agree with either Lennon or Corbyn, but the condescending disregard of their, perfectly valid, views strikes me as being unnecessary and spiteful.  Secondly, the generalised criticisms of Lennon’s political views assume a fixed ideology that just doesn’t seem to have been present.  He changed, altered and evolved his ideas all through his life, and was often critical of things that he had previously said or done.

‘My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all’.

imagine-1913561_960_720While I probably wouldn’t go so far as to put Lennon forward as a Middle Way Thinker, I do think he provides a good example of how a Middle Way approach can be useful in the consideration of those whom we admire… and those we do not.  Gandhi (who has featured in Robert M Eillis’ Middle Way Thinker series) could, with some justification, be accused of misogyny and racism, but that doesn’t take away from his achievements or the legacy he left behind.  The medieval Saints of Europe become figures of greater interest and inspiration when their multi-dimensional and flawed humanity can be glimpsed beneath their holy veneers (a principle that, I have recently discovered, can be applied to Jesus too).  Of course, such figures need not be well known.  We also create heroes and villains in our day to day lives too; looking up to, or down upon family members or colleagues, for instance.  If we can recognise the messy middle from which others are composed and accept that people can be both good and bad, in different measures, at different times, then this might just enable us to become more open to those around us and more accepting of ourselves.  This sounds easy on paper, but can be difficult to achieve in practice.  I, for one, have a long way to go but the closer I look, the more complicated the picture becomes and the easier it gets.

‘We all have Hitler in us, but we also have love and peace. So why not give peace a chance for once’?

Songs Quoted (In Order of Appearance)

All You Need Is Love (Lennon-McCartney, 1967)
Revolution (Lennon-McCartney, 1968).
Run For Your Life (Lennon-McCartney, 1965).
Scared (Lennon, 1974).
Loser (Lennon-McCartney, 1964).

Pictures (In Order of Appearance)

Lennon Memorial Plaque, courtesy of Pixabay.com.
John Lennon Beatles Peace Imagine, courtesy of Pixabay.com.
The Beatles & Lill-Babs 1963, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Imagine John Lennon New York City, courtesy of Pixabay.com.

Order, disorder, reorder – part 2 of 3

It’s almost a simplistic metaphor, but … picture three boxes: order, disorder, reorder. … [I]f you read the great myths of the world and the great religions, that’s the normal path of transformation.

–Richard Rohr

493px-RichardRohrOFMThis blog post is part two of a three-part series inspired by the above quote by Richard Rohr (shown in the photograph on the right). If you’ve not read part one I recommend doing so now so that you appreciate the context of Rohr’s words and how they might apply to the great myths of the world. Here, in this post, I consider what Rohr’s three-box model might have to say about political polarisation in society, and what its limitations might be. In the third and final post I will frame my own ‘spiritual’ development in terms of Rohr’s model and make some concluding remarks.

A political perspective

What conservative people want to do is just keep rebuilding the first box, “order, order, order,” at all costs, even if it doesn’t fit the facts or fit reality. … So many progressive, academic, liberal, educated folks, they just keep sloshing around in the second box and almost resist any sense of order.

So, the context in which Richard Rohr is speaking here is that of the political situation in the USA: dominated by two parties, Republican and Democratic, conservative and liberal, traditional and progressive. We may have a different national political dynamic here in the UK, perhaps slightly less polarised, but it is broadly similar and people tend to position themselves one way or the other on the conventional political spectrum.

From Rohr’s choice of words here, he sees the difficulty with the individual maturing politically if that individual strongly identifies with one political orientation or the other. If you identify with the conservative ideology then you feel as if you’re being constructive in rebuilding the “order” box over and over, but in adhering so rigidly to the absolute belief that order must be maintained at all costs you’re blocking the path towards a more provisional, nuanced situation where you can better address conditions.

Conservative over-confidence?
I’ll tentatively suggest that the recent ‘Brexit’ result of the UK referendum (on continuing membership of the European Union) represents an example of this. I have to admit a specific difficulty here, though, as part of the large minority that voted to remain in the EU. The echo chamber and filter bubble of social media mean that I’m rather out of touch with views that might help me to understand why a majority voted to leave the EU in the referendum.

brexit-2185266_1280From the limited discussions I’ve had with ‘Brexiteers’ I get the impression that there’s a desire to put the country into a new order box that very closely resembles the one that existed before the UK entered the EU in the early 1970s (before my time!). Not that we were experiencing a period of disorder during the years of EU membership – and there was a long stretch of ordering along neoliberal lines during the Thatcher years – but there is a belief that once we’ve got through the process of leaving the EU the country will be able to construct a better order without ‘interference’ from Europe.

Of course I’d argue that Brexit does not represent an improvement, that it is not a synthesis after the years of pre-1973 order and the perceived disorder of the EU years; I personally view it as a step backwards to an outdated form of political order (that probably wasn’t so great anyway back then) and seems unlikely to adequately deal with conditions now. But then my political inclinations dispose me towards that kind of view. I imagine the stereotypical conservative Brexiteer to be clinging to a fragile absolute view (“it is right that the UK determines its own path” or “our greatest problems are caused by immigrants”), and that view cannot be properly examined because the lack of incrementality means that it wouldn’t survive the examination process… fear of disorder (where simplistic, absolute beliefs are recognised as being inadequate, or even harmful) holds them from making political progress.

Progressive pitfalls?
AntifragileOn the other hand, if you strongly identify as a progressive, as a liberal, then there’s the danger of only being able to see tradition and the existing order as an absolutised evil, and rejecting it wholesale, whether or not it actually addresses conditions. I’ve found the Taleb’s perspective to be of use here in helping me to challenge my own liberal, progressive views – for example, in his book Antifragile he points out that the longevity of a product, tool, book, idea or ideology is positively correlated with its age, since the products, tools, books, ideas and ideologies that don’t address the conditions of the real world don’t survive! Time, using his language, is the best creator of antifragility, as in the course of time unexpected events eventually occur and demolish the things that were fragile to that occurrence. This is also known as the ‘Lindy effect‘.

It is tempting for me to think that the Middle Way would involve a liberal, progressive politics – but since it seems to me like such an obvious, certain fact the Middle Way itself suggests that it is a belief worth critically examining in significant detail. The work of Jonathan Haidt on what he calls ‘moral foundations theory’ looks for common ground between the conventional camps of the political divide, which might be useful in finding a middle way that better addresses the current political conditions that we find ourselves in. The idea of synthesis also suggests that a better way lies beyond the dualism of conservative and progressive, and the Middle Way is a promising tool to guide us in examining and integrating our desires, beliefs and meanings.

fresco-379932_1280There’s also the problem of progressives taking the order-disorder-reorder model and appropriating it into an absolutised form. Consider, for example, the Russian revolution. The old order of the Russian tsars collapsed in the disorder of the first 1917 revolution, and eventually the one-party state of the Soviet Union emerged from the disorder. The party constructed the history as an inevitable progression from order, through disorder, to re-order – and then stifled any political attempts to challenge the re-ordered state by stating that history had run its course and the inevitable end-state had been achieved. In political revolutions the dis-ordered period is lasts a relatively short time – a likely sign that it’s not going to lead to a more synthetic, re-ordered situation but instead to more of the same order in a different guise. (Aside: see this excellent article by Nicky Case for more on the perils of and alternatives to political revolution.)

It seems likely, on an individual level, that adherence to a dogmatic left/right ideology is an impediment to our own maturation politically, as well as spiritually (whatever that means – more on this in the final part of this series). There’s a clear link here with the very Middle Way-ish idea of looking for a synthetic approach to dealing with apparent dilemmas: the thesis and the antithesis initially clash, but through some difficult process the two seemingly opposed ideas are somehow brought together into a more complex new whole. The  practice of critical thinking, and the processes by which we can encourage integration are prominent in the Middle Way: see this post by Robert about integration, for example.

Featured image of ballot boxes created using an image from pixabay.com (License: CC0 Public Domain)
Photograph of Richard Rohr from wikimedia commons (License: CC0 Public Domain)
EU/UK flag graphic and photograph of revolutionary fresco courtesy of pixabay.com (License: CC0 Public Domain)

The MWS Podcast 66: Robert M. Ellis on Politics and the Middle Way

We are joined today by the philosopher and chair of the Middle Way Society Robert M. Ellis. He talks to us about politics and how it might relate to the Middle Way.

MWS Podcast 66:Robert M. Ellis as audio only:
Download audio: MWS_Podcast_66_Robert_M_Ellis

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From Conflict to Integration – Social Change in 19th Century Britain

800px-London_2012_olympics_industrial_revolutionThe industrial revolution of Britain was not just technological in character– there was also massive social and political upheaval, of which we are still engaged in today. I have selected several examples to try and argue that this era provides a vivid example of how the integration of desires and beliefs can not only be of significant benefit to society as a whole, but provides the most effective framework from which to navigate seemingly incompatible ideas. This is written from my own, British, perspective and as such is focused on British politics and history, however I suspect that these events had significant consequences around the world and I am also sure that similar examples could easily be found in other societies. I will refer here to several individuals and ideologies, narrowly focusing on specific features; in no way do I intend to provide a full representation of any of them. Figures such as Adam Smith and were hugely influential for many reasons – of which several volumes could be written. Having said that, I sincerely hope that I have not misrepresented any individual or event in my brief summary of the economic conditions, social issues, and ideologies that have lead – in large part – to the world that we live in today.

Clearly, there has been much social and political conflict throughout the history of the British Isles, but the basic Norman social structure – of a strict hierarchical pyramid, with the vast majority at the very bottom with little concept of social mobility – survived, for centuries, in one form or another – with little significant change for the majority of the population.  Then, as technology rapidly changed throughout the late 18th and early 19th century, so did the living and working conditions of much of the working population, as they moved in ever increasing numbers to simultaneously spectacular and monstrous industrialized cities, such as Manchester – whose population had increased threefold during the first half of the 19th Century.  Life had never been easy for those living in the murky, parasite ridden depths of society.  Yet, with severe overcrowding, increased disease and dangerous, perpetually uncertain working conditions, things must have felt as if they were worse than they had ever been – a feeling that would only have been magnified by gazing, in a rare moment of free time, at the lucky people bathing in the rapidly improving, but ultimately out of reach shallows.

Those merchants, manufacturers, professionals and political classes were not blind to the suffering of their less fortunate contemporaries – and nor were they entirely unsympathetic. However, while in 21st Century Britain, I can’t help but find the general consensus for solutions, and the subsequent treatment of the labouring classes, callous and barbaric – at that time most of the people that could make a difference believed that not actively alleviating suffering was the kindest – and indeed, only legitimate – course of action. During the first half of the 19th Century it was widely believed that economic conditions should be allowed to operate freely, without restriction. This extended to fluctuations in wages and job availability – if the market demanded that wages drop, or a large proportion of the work force be laid off, then employers must be allowed to act accordingly. The belief seemed to be that, left unmolested – and pursued for ones own individual benefit – the rapid rise in manufacture and the massive profits that this generated would not only benefit the individual, but, eventually, the whole of society too. Any suffering caused along the way was regarded as unfortunate but necessary ‘collateral damage’. Displays of undue compassion and generosity might temporarily alleviate some suffering, but the collapse in the market which would surely follow would be a disaster: causing misery and suffering for an even greater number of people.

These economic ideas (which I think form part of Classical Liberal Economics) were inspired by earlier thinkers such as Adam Smith, who seemed to believe that a free market operated under the influence of absolute natural laws which were themselves regulated by a metaphysical ‘invisible hand’. Other ideas were being formed during this period, and chief among these were those of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. I’m not sure that either of these men disputed the claims of liberal economists, but it is clear that they anticipated a much different outcome. After visiting Manchester in 1842, and being deeply affected by what he saw, Engels first developed his ideas – of which one was the perceived inevitability of the working class rising up in violent revolution and consequently replacing the capitalist system with a new fairer, socialist society. In the following years Engels and Marx would greatly develop this idea and, as serious and violent attempts at revolution swept across the rest of Europe in 1848, they must have felt that they were right. These revolutions were not directly influenced by the writings of Marx and Engels (who probably exerted their greatest influence during the 20th century), there were probably many causes, often specific to different areas of Europe. Nevertheless, the desire for greater equality and political reform seems to have been a common theme and this often manifested in a demand for universal suffrage (although this did not yet include Women).

The events in Europe were not spontaneous; the turbulence was manifest in the decades leading up to this wave of disruption and Britain was no exception: from the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, to the action conducted and influenced by the Chartists between 1838 and 1850. The Chartist_DemonstrationChartists, who sought universal suffrage and the improvement of working and living conditions, not only inspired and encouraged industrial action but also published the Peoples Charter, which consisted of six primary demands for political change  and yet despite their popularity with the working classes, and the disruption that they inspired – they were largely ignored by the political and industrial elite, considered only as a mere nuisance. In 1848, although there had been several Factory Acts, that had legislated many improvements on working conditions (especially for women and children), there was little change to the social and economic structure; there was no revolution and the Chartists had failed – condemned to limp ineffectively along before disbanding two years later.

So what did happen and how does this all relate to the Middle Way? With the violence and turmoil erupting over the channel, the obvious suffering of a great number of people on this side of the water, and the signs of growing impatience from the labourers (who’s efforts formed the unwashed foundations of the wealth of the few) – many, from the circles of society that could make an actual difference, began to question the status-quo. There have been philanthropists and socially conscious do-gooders throughout history – with evangelical Christians and Quakers, whose efforts may have helped to inspire the thoughts of others, deserving special mention during this period of British history.  However, it was only as ideas of altruism came from wider sources that real change began to occur.

Philosophers, such as Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill (who has featured in Robert M Ellis’s ‘Middle Way Thinkers’ series) were both early proponents of, what seems to me to be, an extreme free-market system – yet both became important critics who argued for increased state intervention and rights for workers (As an aside, Bentham had always been opposed to Smiths idea of natural laws governing economic systems).  Additionally, writers such as Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell were also increasingly outspokenElizabeth_Gaskell_7 about social conditions, both in their writings and – especially in Dickens case – their public engagements. As the voices of dissent, from the mouths and pens of so called reputable sources, increased, so did the interest of parliament – after all, these voices actually had a vote. Consequently, some politicians began to wonder if technological/ economic progress couldn’t also be conducted with, what we would call today, a social conscience – which would not just benefit the hypothetical population of a utopian future, but also the very population that were toiling relentlessly to make such progress possible at all.

Parliament fiercely debated these issues and what began to emerge, as a continuation of the earlier factory acts, was an integration of competing desires. Starting from accepted economic dogma, having also considered the possibility of total and violent social revolution, and musing over the possibility of altruistic policy,  a series of reforms continued to increase the electoral franchise and improve the living and working conditions of the previously unheard majority – with the development of universally available civic amenities, such as public libraries. The European social revolutions of the 19th century were largely unsuccessful, with things returning to much as they were before – perhaps even worse, and the economic and industrial systems did not collapse with the increase of certain state interventions. That is not to say that the suffering stopped, we are still navigating through these extremes and sometimes veer a little to close to the edge, yet we have so far steered the ship in a largely progressive and beneficial direction – things in Britain are much better than in the 19th Century and I am confident that we will continue precariously in this direction.

In many parts of the world, however, these issues are painfully relevant and it appears that the free-market is pursued at the tragic expense of a silent majority. Perhaps, given time, this system will provide significant benefits for all involved, but is the suffering of today worth the prize? I don’t think so, but nor do I wish for a radical overthrow of the whole system. Of the six demands made by the Chartists, and ignored by everybody that could have made a difference at the time, five have since been passed as law (and in fact society has gone much further, with the rights of women to vote as one important example). If those in power had not been so enamoured with a dogmatic status-quo and had been willing to consider the views of those that opposed it, these reforms might have happened not only sooner, but more rapidly.

I also believe there are lessons here for the leaders of multi national corporations and the leaders of the (rapidly) developing nations – if better working conditions did not cause the collapse of the Victorian economy, then why should it theirs? It is easy to feel helpless when faced with the plight of many of our international neighbours, but as individuals and consumers we can make choices; like the manufacturers and merchants of the 19th century, it is us that now benefit from the suffering of others. Perhaps by making the right kinds of choices we can play a small part in encouraging, not a radical overthrow of the system – but the nurturing of a Middle Way where profits can still be made and, more importantly, social conditions can be wilfully improved. Of course the political leaders of the more economically developed nations can also exert an obvious influence too.

Another lesson that I see here is this: as voters and participants in the political system, we should use our hard won privileges to ensure that domestic politics does not fall into a stagnant status-quo. I am deeply suspicious of the so called ‘centre ground’ – which is sold to us as a kind of Middle Way: not too far right and not too far left. As our politicians all scrabble around for this goldilocks politics, those who do not conform are pushed out of the system and as parliament appears increasingly bland, people are, understandably, attracted to the voices calling from the peripheries – these are often unpalatable, but others (as I think the Chartists were) might be making important and useful points. It is not the job of parliament to tell us where the centre is, it is the job of parliament to take a representative selection of views – often seemingly diametrically opposed – and navigate it’s way between them.

If a more explicit Middle Way approach had been employed in the eighteen-hundreds then perhaps progress would have been sooner in coming, we may never know, but we can try to apply the Middle Way to contemporary issues at home and further away. However, as with politics, we should not expect to find some mythical centre; rather we should navigate through the extremes as best we can.

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons