In these times our souls are being sorely tried. Cost-of-living rises aside, the gnawing away of our democracy by successive acts of parliament undermines faith and trust in government. Civic and human rights won by campaigners over centuries past are under assault, and we have no written constitution to protect them.
In the small town of Thetford, the gilded statue of Thomas Paine shines in his birthplace; Bonaparte himself said that a gold statue of Paine should be erected in every city in the universe. Today few in England outside the town have ever heard of our campaigner and defender of democratic rights, author of Common Sense and The Rights of Man.
Paine might have been horrified by tiny electorate who have voted to elevate Elizabeth Truss, ironically Thetford’s current Member of Parliament, to be our new prime minister. She has been elected by 81,326 Conservative Party members as head of government in all four parts of the United Kingdom. At a husting before her election, she replied to a question on Scotland by saying that the best thing to do with the Scottish first minister is ignore her, she is an “attention seeker”. It is worth noting that the first minister of Scotland and her party were given a mandate to govern by 1,242,380 of Scottish voters at the last general election in 2019.
Changes to the Electoral Commission
This year the government made significant changes to the rules of the Electoral Commission, the independent organisation which regulates elections and election finance. Firstly, voters will now be required to show photo ID at polling stations before being allowed to vote. Those adversely affected are for the most part in disadvantaged groups, lacking passports or driving licences. And secondly, the Commission’s right to prosecute those who flout electoral rules and finance has been removed.
Bill of Rights
A Bill of Rights introduced in parliament in June this year will, if enacted, make it harder and more expensive for people to protect their rights. The much respected Law Society has listed examples, among them are: claimants will have to prove they suffer significantly as a result of a breach of their rights; courts will no longer have to consider the interpretation of a right by the European Court of Human Rights; claims of breach of rights arising from overseas military operations will be prevented; and courts will be required to give weight to the views of parliament when assessing the matter of rights.
To protest against these incursions on democracy and rights, or to publicly express an opinion now needs some courage. A new ‘Policing Bill’ gives police the power to prevent any protest action they deem a public nuisance, set rules about protest actions, and arrest anyone not following these rules. One lone veteran protester against Brexit was arrested the day the new Bill came into effect. The government plainly wishes to silence opposition to their view.
We English hold political education to be important, but many parents are now dissatisfied with its’ teaching in High schools. Somehow along the way, we have forgotten American philosopher John Dewey’s advice:
“Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.”
The writings of Tom Paine have much to teach us, but our three granddaughters who attend a state High School 40 miles up the road from Thetford have never once heard his name spoken in class. A polite letter of early June this year to the chief of education services for the area to ask why Paine is not taught has gone unanswered.
Could it be that more than 200 years after his death he threatens our establishment belief system? Yet there is hope; media organisations, trade unions and activist groups in England now articulate the mood of democratic rights once championed by Thomas Paine. Given fair winds, we might just cling on to democracy.