From Representative to Direct Democracy – by Peter Cadogan

From Representative to Direct Democracy – by Peter Cadogan


– interview by Michel Marmin with Peter Cadogan
Peter’s activities
– search for democratic marxism 1943-1960
– Bertrand Russell and the Committee of 100
– the Biafran War
– Conway Hall 1970 – 1981
British political system
– feudalism to renaissance
– the civil war
– industrialisation, reform and trade unions
– the nation state
– representative or direct democracy
– small group
– neighbourhood and community
– the city-region
– international parliaments
Direct democracy
– conception of individual and society
– the family
– community
– European regionalism


About 25 years ago, at a meeting in London, I met Alain de Benoist from Paris. He was, and is, a writer, philosopher, editor and eco-political activist. It was from him that I learnt about an important development in France that had, and has, no equal in England.

Back in 1968 the student revolt in Paris was on such a scale that it came close to bringing General de Gaulle to his political knees. There were related developments in London, Berlin and elsewhere but hardly on the Parisian scale.

At the same time there was a group of young people in Paris, able writers all, who saw the revolt as raising questions of the deepest moment and so warranting the closest study. And of course France is a country where, in any case, ideas are taken seriously – unlike empirical England! So when the action on the streets came to and end, something else began. But it was not a retreat into academia. The discussion was to be ‘taken to the country’.

Groups were started all over France and GRECE began. GRECE stands for Groupement de Recherche et d ‘Etudes pour la Civilisation Europeenne. Last year, in January, the XXXIII Colloque du GRECE took place in Paris with over 1000 participants. They take the point that a movement is built round its press – in this case some three journals where the production matches the high quality of the writing. They are Nouvelle Ecole, Crisis and éléments. They are as European as they are French. It is a different world. To be sure, we too, in Britain, made something important of the years that followed 1968, but it was done in moral-empirical terms round the new feminism, the anti-apartheid movement, animal rights and ecology. The only significant movement in the direction of political ideas was round Marxism Today whose heyday was short.

I kept in touch with Alain over the years and in December 2000 received a letter from Michel Marmin, Editor of éléments, asking me to do an interview by post. He appended six detailed questions that indicated a surprisingly knowledge of my past and wanted my answers to have an expressly autobiographical character. So I did what I was asked to do and the interview will appear, so I am told, in the April 2001 issue of the journal.

Its publication in this country is not at present planned, so I have made a few copies for circulation to friends and the few who might be interested.

An Interview with Peter Cadogan (London)

QUESTION ONE: For more than 40 years you have been active in ecology, direct democracy, third world rights, civil liberties and the rest. Could you present yourself and tell us what have been your main engagements until today?

First I had to break out of the box of Moscow-style marxism. During the war, in 1943, in the RAF, I had read Lenin’s State and Revolution, a lethal confidence-trick of a book, and had been completely taken in by it. The first thing I did on demobilisation in 1946 was to join the Communist Party, to which I then, as one of the devout, l gave ten devoted years. I have never believed in doing things by halves.

By 1956 I felt that something was deeply wrong. But what? Then came Khruschev’s demolition of Stalin and I felt a great burden taken off my back. In the autumn of that same year, as Secretary of the Cambridge CP, I defended the Hungarian Revolution in the national press and was suspended by the CP for three months. The CP only intensified its Stalinism and I quit at Easter 1957 and joined the Labour Party.

In the summer of 1958 I was the Organising Secretary of the first nuclear base demonstration in Britain at the Thor Missile Base at Mepal, near Ely. This was undertaken jointly by three local Labour parties, those of Cambridge, Ely and Huntingdon. CND was only months old and not yet ready for action on this scale. The Cambridge Labour Party had earned its campaigning spurs two years earlier in its militant response to the Suez crisis. In 1958 I was one of the Cambridge’s two delegates to the Annual Conference of the Party.

But… I was still a marxist in search of some form of liberal marxism such as we knew in the Historians Group of the CP, with people like Christopher Hill and E.P.Thompson (which was dissolved by edict from on high in 1956). Predictably I took the Trotskyist bait and was recruited by Gerry Healy in time to become a founder member of the Socialist Labour League in 1959 – the SLL later changed its name to that of the Workers Revolutionary Party.

At that time the Labour Party had something called the Proscribed List of organisations banned to LP members. It has long disappeared. Having become a banned Trot, the Cambridge Labour Party was obliged to expel me. This they did with great reluctance, only to readmit me some months later. Of this the Party Centre took a dim view. I was promptly summoned to a special meeting in the House of Commons to be formally and finally cast out!

At the same time I found out that the SLL was only another mini-CP and just as dogmatic and intolerant. A small group of us, including the writer Peter Fryer and Ken Coates (later of END – European Nuclear Disarmament – and MEP fame) formed the Stamford Faction and led the first serious Trot split after 1956. Healy promptly expelled the lot of us!

Still in search of democratic marxism (!) I was then recruited by the Luxemburgist, Tony Cliff, and joined the Editorial Board of International Socialism. I wrote the first feature article in the first issue in 1960. Later that year The Socialist Worker was born and I wrote for that too.

Thus the Socialist Workers Party, successor to the CP, was born. Cliff turned out to be yet another petty tyrant, but much more able than his deadly rival, Healy. They are now both dead, but the SWP is still riding high and profiting from disillusionment over Tony Blair’s Third Way. Needless to say my belief in the freedom of speech soon led Cliff to eject me. So it was that I qualified, at the time, as England’s most ex`elled socialist!

In 1959/60 it began to dawn on me that I belonged to a different world to that of received political parties. By that time the New Left had been around for over three years – launched by Stuart Hall and his friends in Oxford and by E.P.Thompson and his New Reasoner – both in 1956. But nothing had happened in Cambridge University. Distinguished dons like Eric Hobsbawm held back. In October 1959 I met three first-year undergraduates, just arrived from the same Sixth Form of Watford Grammar School.

At that time the Labour Club, an undergraduate society, was a very dull place used by intending professional politicians and devoid of ideas. The four of us formed The Left Group of the University Labour Club and set about transforming it. We were extraordinarily successful for some two years. We were wholly autonomous. Looking back I can now see how we were moving, in post-party political fashion, in the direction of direct democracy. We were answerable to each other and to no one else.

1960/61 – enter Bertrand Russell. In the summer of 1960 Russell came to the conclusion that nuclear war was virtually certain within twelve months unless extraordinary emergency action was taken. He therefore proposed large scale civil disobedience to be led, in person, by himself and a string of famous names and peace activists – a hundred in total. As he and his Secretary, the American Ralph Schoenman, saw it, if the exercise escalated and the jails filled, normal political life would be effectively interrupted and the conditions for unilateral nuclear disarmament obtain. At least that was the theory.

I went along with this because its mood was good and timely. I knew it was mistaken because back in ‘581 had heard the ex-US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, in Cambridge, expound the official US view of the balance of terror. He said: “When nuclear weapons equate, conventional war decides.” And that equation had just been established by Soviet success in putting up the first sputnik. There was not going to be any nuclear war. But almost no one knew that for certain at the time – and Russell’s prestige was huge and elicited a major response. The first big demonstration took place in February 1961. Later Russell, on camera, tore up his Labour Party card The Committee of 100s campaign climaxed in September 1961 with a vast demonstration in Trafalgar Square that had been banned by the Government. There were over 1,300 arrests. Russell himself, and some thirty others, were arrested and in prison by the time the demonstration took place.

We didn’t succeed in banning the Bomb – we have still got the damn thing – but the impact on public opinion was immense. When Douglas Home went to the country, on the Bomb, in 1964 he fell flat on his face. The story of the Committee of 100 has never been told more’s the pity. Some things are just too controversial for the telling.

In 1961 success was such that people wanted to get in on the act all over the country. In the summer of 1961 I took steps to set up the East Anglian Cttee of 100 and stumbled into a political gold mine. During World War 11, East Anglia, for obvious geographical reasons, was the focal point for both British and American Bomber Commands. During the Cold War those same airfields meant that most of both the British and American nuclear bases were concentrated in East Anglia. The situation fell into our laps. We were target-privileged.

Early in 1962 I became the Secretary of the Committee’s International Sub-Cttee. At Russell’s behest we went to the World Peace Council meeting of that year in Moscow and staged a free, unlicensed demonstration in Red Square against all Bombs including those of the Soviet Union. The police moved in immediately! It was the first free demo in that Square since the 1920s and made world headlines. I took steps to set up The Anti-War International. We had conferences in Amsterdam and in Paris the week-end of Kennedy’s assassination. At Easter 1963 an informal Cttee of 100 group known as the Spies for Peace revealed the truth about the Regional Seats of Government (some fourteen of them) that had been set up to take over the government of the country in the event of nuclear war. They were all in underground bunkers. There was a tremendous public uproar. The Spies had to remain incommunicado but from the National Cttee we launched a March Must Decide Cttee that more or less took over the great Aldermarston March. Because I was not one of the Spies I was able to be their public voice. The publicity was huge.

But the clouds were gathering in 1963/4. Russell’s estimate of the danger was proved to be quite wrong. Our VIP support fell away. The 1963 Test Ban Treaty was good enough for most people: the nuclear issue was defused. But worst of all was the fact that in the light of the impending 1964 General Election the Cttee all but collapsed. Convictions about direct action and direct democracy were seen to be shallow. Most people defected to the camp of Harold Wilson.

But a core remained and I became the full-time Secretary of the National Ctte in 1965 at our office in Goodwin Street, London N4. There were a string of small actions, one or two of them spectacular, but there was no recovery of the wider movement where the prevailing preoccupation was now Vietnam. In that area the initiative was in other hands – those of Tariq Ali’s Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. We had missed the boat and wound up in September 1968.

In May 1968 something special happened. A friend of my student days had named a Nigerian Ibo. She returned to London distraught at the horrors of the Biafran War, contacted me immediately and poured out the whole story. Would I help to defend and save Biafra? The Biafrans in London were well organised in the Biafra Union, but their demonstrations were all black and made negligible impact. I put the word about (there were many British expatriates in London and they were all pro-Biafra) and set up the Save Biafra Campaign in the Cttee of 100 office. We campaigned vigorously for over 18 months. All manner of distinguished figures supported us from Michael Caine the film star, to Freddie Forsyth the novelist (to be) – and eventually, as near as makes no difference, the whole national press. But all to no avail. The Foreign and Colonial Office was stuck with the Lugard doctrine of ‘one Nigeria’ and the Wilson Govemment, as usual, did what it was told. London supplied Lagos with all its arms, ammunition and military advisers. Moscow provided its Air Force and trained its pilots. (It was an unholy alliance to end all such alliances, comparable to the way in which that same FCO started the war in Vietnam in 1945 by putting Japanese prisoners of war into the field against our wartime allies, the troops of Ho Chi Minh.) About a million innocent people died of starvation in Biafra.

I went out to Biafra myself to see the situation for myself. We took off from Lisbon with the cargo bay carrying the optimum load of ammunition from France and two cases of whisky. Our Constellation only just got air-borne. I was in Umahia, Biafra, for a fortnight, did a broadcast on Biafra Radio at Aba and was asked to appear on TV – but that evening the Nigerian army attacked and the whole population took to the road north in the middle of the night. I was offered a lift by the Brigadier in command of Biafra’s Medical Corps. I may well owe him my life. The day I arrived back in London was the day the Russians crushed the Prague Spring. We packed and blocked the street in front of the Soviet Embassy in London.

Biafra was forced to capitulate in January 1970. Our work was over. I predicted that Nigeria would become the most corrupt country on earth and that the only possible answer was for it to break itself up into authentic African parts. Both those estimates stand today.

In December 1968 I wrote an extended paper: Extra-Parliamentary Democracy and published it in a most modest hundred copies. I could not give it away.

From February 1970 to October 1981 I was the General Secretary of the South Place Ethical Society in its celebrated Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London. Founded as a church in 1793 it abandoned God in the 1860s, but kept going as an ethical congregation and built Conway Hall in 1929. It is known as London’s temple of dissent. It features Sunday Meetings and Concerts (of Chamber music). in my time I conducted some fifty weddings and funerals and a couple of naming ceremonies. There are nine rooms for hire, for up to 500 people and it is the best known venue of its kind in London. It is entirely free of any party political or religious-denominational connection. Its internal life is highly contentious! I had nearly twelve stormy years there and in 1975 wrote DIRECT DEMOCRACY: An Appeal to the Professional Classes, to the Politically Disenchanted and to the Deprived. The Case for An England of Sovereign Regional Republics, Extra-Parliamentary Democracy and a New Active Non-Violence of the Centre. This was the kind of title the Levellers and others used during the English Revolution of 1642/8 This text also pioneered the idea of the gift economy, when surplus replaces scarcity in our productive system and the market breaks down. I further discovered, at that time, that William Blake and Frederick Nietzsche had the answers that I had spent my life searching for.

In 1975, with the counter-economist James Robertson and others, I was a co-founder of TURNING POINT that examined breakdown and breakthrough in every aspect of our society by means of conferences, seminars and newsletters. In its final form it has just wound up in 2000.

Conway Hall is the jewel in the crown of English Humanism. Because of the size and location of its site, it is worth many millions. Members of the three other Humanist associations: The National Secular Society, The Rationalist Press Association and the British Humanist Association joined SPES. The result has been a considerable identity crisis. My task as General Secretary was, as I saw it, to defend the ‘rational religious sentiment’, the sense of the sacred, to which the Society is committed by its Trust Deeds. This meant fierce conflict with militant Secularists and Rationalists. As over Marxism, it seemed to be an argument about ideas – actually was an argument about power and property. I refused to organise a faction, lost a vote of confidence by four votes – and quit in 1981.

From 1981, until my retirement in 1993, I was a Tutor in the History of Ideas for the ExtraMural Department of London University, later fused with Birkbeck College, and two Districts of the WEA (The Workers Education Association. ).

QUESTION TWO: What is your opinion about the actual political system? You have been involved in several attempts to organise autonomous political units. In 1998 you were largely responsible for setting up The London Alliance, to urge or present independent candidates in political elections. What lessons do you draw from these experiences? How would it be possible, in your opinion, to reach a more direct democracy? What would be the advantages (and maybe also the inconveniences) of such a system? Would it co-exist with the classical representation system or would it have any chance to replace it?

Our political system in Britain is winding down, its life-cycle nearing its end. The House of Commons was originally a product of civil war at the height of The Middle Ages. In the year 1265 the Barons, led by Simon de Montfort the Earl of Leicester, were at war with King Henry III. They devised the House of Commons in order to secure the support of the counties and towns (separately represented) in the baronial cause. Simon lost the Battle of Evesham, in which he was himself killed, that same year. Subsequent monarchs sustained the Commons as a Royal Court of Parliament, an invaluable means of raising taxes. It had no sovereign powers, but it did provide a means whereby the King’s subjects might submit Petitions for the Redress of Grievances to the King and his Courts.

Largely due to the extraordinary success of large-scale sheep farming, pioneered in the C12th by monks of the Cistercian Order, money, the market and trade transformed English society and witnessed the growth of a substantial rural middle class that produced, in turn, a new magistracy. When the baronial class largely killed themselves off during the Wars of the Roses in the Cl5th, this new landed class was used by the Tudors from 1485 to set up the first nation-state in England. That process was massively underwritten by Henry VIII’s breach with Rome and his confiscation and sale of vast monastic lands and properties. The gentry and the yeomanry (successful farmers with 100 acres to their names) prospered mightily and from their most exalted ranks came the new Tudor aristocracy. The market towns throve comparably, made largely autonomous by Royal Charters since the C12th.

Tudor rule was absolutist but not always tyrannical. The new individualism bred by the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Discoveries was surfacing. The defeat of the Spanish Armada, in 1588, yielded the new nationalism writ large in the plays of Shakespeare. Serfdom had perished in the early C15th and a new political class had emerged, but it had yet to find its constitutional form. That was the challenge of the C17th.

The new Stuart dynasty of 1603 faced three hazards. Firstly the demand for freedom of worship by the burgeoning puritan denominations: Calvinist, Congregationalist and Baptist and this meant, in turn, the freedoms of association, speech and the press. Secondly the assertion of the ultimate authority of the Common Law against the King’s belief that he was the law by virtue of Divine Right. Thirdly (not critical until later years): “No taxation without representation.” These unresolved conflicts mounted over the years. From 1629-1640 Charles I ruled by decree, sans Parliaments, thus invoking the third challenge over arbitrary taxation – it was to be his undoing.

In 1640 Charles I attempted his second invasion of Scotland in order to impose his Bishops on the Presbyterians. He was humiliatingly defeated by the Scots, who then occupied the north of England and refused to withdraw until he, the King, had paid them an indemnity for the cost of a war that was none of their making. Charles had no such funds and had no option but to call the Long Parliament of 1640. The English Revolution so began.

The Long Parliament indicted, condemned and executed the King’s two principal agents: the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Earl of Strafford. In 1642 he attempted to arrest the five leaders of the Commons – and failed. He resolved on war. He left London and from York issued his Commissions of Array, a medieval instrument for mobilising a militia. He summoned his troops to Nottingham, raised the Royal Standard, and set out to march on London to regain his throne on his own terms The first civil war had begun.. It ended with the King’s defeat in 1645 at the critical Battle of Naseby. That first civil war saw the emergence of Oliver Cromwell and his creation of the New Model Army – the first standing army in England. Its cavalry, manned by yeomen and officered by the gentry, was to prove decisive

The ideas and values of democracy were born of the Levellers of 1647/9 and their manifesto: The Agreement of the People (1647) . The heart of Leveller strength lay in the Baptist volunteer rank-and-file of the Cavalry regiments – the infantry were pressed men. They met Oliver Cromwell and his fellow officers in the Putney Debates of 1647 – the outcome was inconclusive, but was fully recorded in the shorthand of the time.

In the second civil war, of May to August 1648, the Scots, the English Presbyterians and the Navy changed sides and joined the King. The Scots and their English allies were defeated in the Battle of Warrington by forces led by Cromwell, while Fairfax besieged and took Colchester. On 9th December Parliament was purged of Presbyterian supporters of the King who was then put on trial, found guilty as charged and sentenced to death. He was executed at the Banqueting House (the only part of the old Palace of Westminster to survive to the present day) on 30th January 1649.

Cromwell and his associates then faced the extraordinary task of inventing a new kind of constitutional government. The decade of the 1650s was one of continuous experiment and of limited success. Then, tragically, England reneged on its own revolution and in the Restoration settlement of 1660 the Monarchy, the Lords and the Bishops (all previously abolished) were restored. It was left to the American Revolution, of 1776, to finish the English Revolution To this day, in England, there is a deep surviving antipathy between the Royalist and Parliamentary traditions. In a significant sense the Civil War is not over yet. Americans are ‘citizens’, the English are still ‘subjects’ of the Crown.

What emerged was a Parliamentary system in which both the franchise and candidacy were strictly subject to property qualifications. Parliament was specifically designed to exclude democracy and so it remained until the C19th reform movement. Beginning with the Great Reform Act of l832, which led finally to the universal franchise. In the C19th representative democracy replaced representative government.

The C19th had several new key features. Industrial, commercial and professional classes, new in scale and character, emerged with the industrial revolution (which can conveniently be dated, in England, to 1776 when Watt’s first multi-purpose steam engine came on the market). Their philosophy was Benthamite Utilitarianism and their goals were two-fold – the triumph of free trade and the transformation of the law, civil, criminal and constitutional to meet the needs of laisser faire society. They were effectively successful by the 1850s.

Trade unionism arrived, effectively, with the New Model Unions (of skilled workers only), in the 1850s. The organisation of the unskilled awaited the Great Dock Strike of 1889. The working classes got the vote with the two Reform Bills of 1867 and 1884 – their political mileage was taken up by the Liberal Party and a few working men entered the House on the Liberal ticket. In 1899 the TUC decided that enough was enough and they wanted their own candidates to stand for Parliament – thus the birth of the Labour Party in 1900. In the 1880s the ideas of socialism, fabian and marxist, took the field. Marriage with trade unionism was attempted. It never had much more than token success – except over the need for a welfare state to replace the horrors of the Victorian Poor Law.

The aristocracy finally abandoned its historic role in the governance of England, in 1886, over the great split prompted by Gladstone’s Home Rule Bill for Ireland. Rebel Liberal Lords went over to the Conservative (and now ‘Unionist’) Party.

This began to raise the question of ‘the political class’. What and where was it? We are still wrestling with this question. By the 1890s the managerial class had begun to arrive and Sidney Webb was its prophet. His book: Industrial Society, was the Bible of his London School of Economics for the next thirty years. He would have every thing fixed by ‘experts’ including Civil Servants, business men and trade unionists. All the House of Commons had to do was to vote the money. It was an update on Bentham and a foretaste of Thatcherism. It is not to be taken lightly. We have yet to locate a workable alternative that embodies structured human and ecological values. This matter will come up again later. There is a formula at hand even if, at this stage, it is hardly more than embryonic.

That brings us round, finally, to the purpose of this hardly autobiographical historical departure. It is essential to our understanding of what is likely to be ‘next’. This kind of appreciation is not taught in our schools and Universities where a childish attempt is made to persuade us that the English Revolution took place in 1688 and that it was ‘Bloodless”. 1648 is a taboo date. We have recently had its 350th Anniversary and it passed wholly without notice in Britain’s media. Only the Cromwell Association did it honour. The French and the Americans are immensely proud of their revolutions. England’s is hid from the English. In a land littered with shattered monasteries and castles we are solemnly enjoined to believe in endemic gradualness!

But to the key point at issue… the future of Parliament and representative democracy. Both have become agencies of the nation-state. So the first question has to be: What is the future of the nation-state? In Western Europe it was pioneered in the C15th by Portugal, Spain, England and France. It turned on the creation of a thoroughly militarised central government (usually that of an absolute monarch) and an end to the internecine baronial-style governments of the Middle Ages. One result was 500 years of international war in Europe underwritten by rival empires throughout the world. That epoch ended at Hiroshima. Now we have the EU, the UN and global agencies without number and the last international war has been fought in Europe. This can only have a profound effect on the future of government. The likelihood is that of federal states (of regions approximating to those of Germany, Italy, Spain and Switzerland) in an European Union equally regionalised. At the end of the day extensive regional autonomy is the only answer to centralization and incipient tyranny.

There is nothing new about this. Back in 1787 when Madison and his friends were drafting the American Constitution, they saw to it that the powers of the constituent States were such that their Governors and Legislatures would never be the mere progeny or supplicants of Washington. And they had, of course, the vintage Swiss precedent. The Swiss could easily adopted language as their political base, but in choosing multi-cultural cantons they established a wholly different precedent. Alistair Cooke has recently paid tribute to this principle as the saving grace of political America.

England and France share a common problem. London dominates England as Paris dominates France. And things have got much worse in England in recent years as the consequence of the reduction of local government powers by Mrs Thatcher Tony Blair initiated a moves in the opposite direction in the cases of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Greater London. But today the pendulum is swinging back in the authoritarian direction over the proposed powers of elected, executive Mayors and Cabinets of professionals. We face a highly contentious future. It is time to think new thoughts.

We need, first and foremost, to clarify the differences between representative and direct democracy. Self-evidently representative government is government by representatives, i.e. by MPs nationally and Councillors locally. And they do it through centralised political parties with the help of the Civil Service and Local Government Officers. On paper it reads unexceptionably. In practice there are flaws with lethal implications.

In the C19th politics was the practice of men with private means. Certainly they stood to gain from the powers and privileges of office, but theirs was an unsalaried profession. Today substantial salaries and generous expense accounts are de rigueur. Politics has become a career. Office, promotion, perks are the names of the game and for these the approval of the Leader, the Whips and the Party machine are essential. Originality, imagination, dissent have become dirty words. Young idealists turn into agents of conformity.

There is another hazard of even greater proportions. Given that an aspiring politician achieves high office – what then? He finds himself in charge of a Department or Chairing a Committee served by a vast number of professional Civil Servants or Local Government Of fixers (as many as 12,000 in a single London Borough). His average term of office is of the order of two years. No sooner has he mastered his brief, he is moved on. He has no option but to accept major delegation of decision-making to his full-time staff. It becomes the function of the machine. No matter how good the intention, democracy has ceased to be feasible. The problem of scale has become insuperable. It is that problem we now have to solve – that is the challenge before direct democracy.

The answer has to be structural. Is it possible to have effective organization without hierarchy? If accountability is of the essence how does it work? If political parties are on the way out, what takes their place? How do we reconcile individuality with the collective? Given that any number of operations have to be on the large scale how can they possibly be conducted democratically? There are answers to these questions, but it is still early days. It will take decades of experiment to work them out. We are already surrounded by a complex of units in which direct democracy is implicit.


The small, single-figure group is the irreducible seminal base of direct democracy. It can be single-issue or multi-purpose. Such groups have always made history, they still do. Four people, with an answer, are worth more than four million with nothing to say. Seven seems to be the ideal number.

I came to this conclusion in June 1987 and wrote off my past political life and its twin absorbtions – party politics and ‘protest’. I had abandoned party politics in 1960 and launched the Abstention Party with a manifesto, or a non-Election Address, at every subsequent General Election. At first people thought it was a joke. No longer. At recent by-elections the abstention rate rose to over 70%. Our political masters are much alarmed.

‘Protest’ began, for me, in response to the Suez and Hungary crises in 1956. It was timely. It was also wholly negative – saying ‘No’ to something. Saying ‘No’ to Suez; the Bomb; Vietnam; over Biafra; the Poll Tax; crime; drugs; terrorism… There never seemed to be any end to the things to protest about – but no one thought seriously about answers. This was the light that dawned on me in the summer of 1987. In 1984 I had been personally responsible for one of the biggest demonstrations, ever, in London. Reagan was in town for a summit meeting. CND had resolved to do nothing. I formed a small group – Action ’84 – and put preparations for action in hand. CND had to go into reverse or lose the initiative. Some 100,000 people turned out in a three-part demonstration. The police stopped all traffic in much of the West End. There were some 120 arrests including my own. I thought we were riding high again. On the contrary, we were a spent bullet. It took me three years to realise that the age of protest had drawn in at last. In future we had to have a positive message to offer, an answer to the situation we were protesting about – Seattle, much later, was to become a good case in point, urging the impossibilities of Third World debts, demanding solutions and proposing them.

From June 1987 to April 1991 I went in search of half-a-dozen people who would be interested in forming a group of thoughtful activists, an unheard of category in pragmatic England! It was so difficult that it took nearly four years, but it was eventually done successfully. For some months we had no name but eventually came up with V&V (Values and Vision). We discussed whatever we pleased. We had no agenda, no officers, no subscription; but I was the convener, host and editor of the commentary that preceded every six-weekly meeting. When we needed money for publication purposes we passed the bat round and people were so generous that we never had any financial problem. Food and drink were an important feature of every session.

At the same time I was a member of a local group limited to Kilburn, the part of London in which I live, called Kilburn 2000. Its concern was, and is, community regeneration. Again it was half-a-dozen people. As between the two groups we scored some modest but very satisfying successes. Kilburn got Xmas Lights the full length of its Roman Road, our High Street. Our local Park, Grange Park, virtually derelict, was thoroughly restored. We mapped the vast Borough of Camden to show that it consisted of fifteen clearly identifiable communities, and in 1998 V&V undertook a successful pioneering exercise in setting up the London Alliance to support independent candidates in the 2000 Greater London Elections.

It is important to add a rider at this point. The two groups, V&V and Kilburn 2000, are post-party political, but small group practice has no bounds. During the 1990s I was, for six years, the first Chairman of the William Blake Society and am today its Vice President it had a small excellent Committee and put on a fine programme of lectures and other activities related to the understanding and enjoyment of the works of Blake, who is second only to Shakespeare in the canon of English literature. I have just recently been commissioned by the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) to give one of their lunch-time lectures to go with their current impressive Blake Exhibition. My subject was the meaning of Blake’s Jerusalem. Blake had no time for politics or economics and said “Where there is money, there is no art.” In my judgement his reading of the human psyche is fundamental to the future.

I am also a long-time member of the Gandhi Foundation’s Executive Committee and responsible for work in connection with the Troubles of Northern Ireland, over which I have been much engaged since 1976. For some years now I have been part of the small London group of the Macmurray Fellowship that studies the work of the great but greatly neglected philosopher, John Macmurray, who turned Descartes upside down, by asserting “I act, therefore I am.” Action contains thinking but the reverse is not the case I am a less active member of The Sea of Faith, a body of people who have ceased to believe in ‘a God up there and are looking for new answers – inspired by the books of Don Cuppitt lately of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. This is, of course, what happened to the South Place Ethical Society 150 years ago – so I know about it.

Life is multi-dimensional and it is important to think about that. I have heard it alleged that the reason why the great French slogan: Liberty, Equality Fraternity yielded less than it might have done in the event, was because it was given too much of a political-administrative definition and the personal-spiritual element was omitted or played down? Whatever be the case, any such omission in future spells the failure of the cause.


This is the second level at which direct democracy needs to operate in its own distinctive way i.e. involving people directly in whatever is to be done. Experience shows, in London at least, that the meanings of neighbourhood and community are all too commonly confused. They are quite different animals. A neighbourhood is small and intimate or potentially so. TV Soaps are based on neighbourhoods centred on a single street, a cul-de-sac, a pub, a market place or a village. It takes twenty neighbourhoods or more to make a community. A community is focussed on a substantial shopping centre, it is served by a large variety of services and facilities, social, cultural and political (like a Town Hall), it provides extensive employment, public transport and a College. It provides for most of the needs of most of its people. It has or out to have a Community Council and the power to charge a local tax or rate it is or ought to be the basic political unit. In France it is the commune In England, especially in London, it is mostly missing and a major democratic deficit.


This is the largest unit of direct democracy. Its scale, that of a single city and its rural hinterland, means that everyone can go to a meeting and get home in a single evening. The possibility of face-to-face relationships is thus geographically feasible. That is the test.

The question of power turns upon the act of the levying and spending of taxes. Under the conditions of direct democracy this is vested in the regions or devolved by the regions to communities. Two things follow. The first is that the need for defence expenditure either no longer exists or is reduced to the costs of UN peacekeeping forces that can well be borne by the regions. The second is that the minimal costs relating to what is still required of national and international government are equally well carried by precepts on regional income. Direct democracy is only possible with the eclipse of war and the passing of the nation-state.

In England today we have a form of regionalism devised by the Civil Service for its own administrative convenience. There are nine such regions. They have nothing to do with democracy, either representative or direct. Just as we need a Boundaries Commission to work out the number and shape of the urban parishes or communities of our towns and cities so we shall need another Commission to work on the number and boundaries of our regions under the conditions of direct democracy. It cannot be done in isolation because each local decision bears on the fortunes of immediate neighbours


Since ultimate sovereignty, the political control of public funds, rests in the regions, matters concerning wider parliaments, their administration and their powers tend to be resolved at source. Their task is to do the regions bidding.

There is a key background factor that needs to be kept in mind. For centuries we have been much preoccupied with money and all its ramifications. This is because we have been landed with the problems of scarcity, supply and demand, interest rates, investment, money supply, inflation, class differences and the rest. Today, by way of total contrast, Europe is teetering on the brink of surplus. It is already critical in the motor car industry and the appalling condition of farming in Britain today is primarily the result over over-production in relation to demand, brought about by a subsidies system the implications of which have never been properly worked out. As with the CAP the matter has been pushed to one side in the extraordinary hope that it will ‘go away – never happen’. It will not so oblige. We have now to start to face the alarming truth that the system of money and the market that has served us since the C12th may now be winding down through its sheer success. If and when surplus destroys scarcity we shall need to devise a wholly new accounting system to cope with the implications of a gift economy. If John Maynard Keynes could see this coming as long ago as 1930, it is time for us to catch up. It is a vast imaginative challenge.

The immediate prospect is that monetary considerations, traditionally problems of everlastingly monumental proportions, are now about to shrink. They will become less and less important. This can only have the deepest implications for our political future.

There is no way in which national and international parliaments and administrations can meet the requirements of direct democracy. In the nature of their scale and isolation there can be no face-to-face relations between the governors and the governed. They, and we, will have to live with the old limitations of representative government and bureaucracy. Their saving grace will lie in the tiers of direct democracy that yield a critical and dynamic public opinion.

If the transformation to direct democracy is to take place, how will it happen? One thing is certain. Nothing is more powerful than custom, inertia, so much so that most people can be induced to love their chains. Representative government will last as long as it has mileage left within it, so long as its results remain acceptable. If there is to be a breakdown will it be piecemeal or climactic? The usual response is likely to be correct i.e. that for in most situations, for most of the time, piecemeal change will obtain; but climactic traumas, rare but decisive, remain in the pipeline. So for the time being, and for an unknown period, the received traditions will prevail, but it will be increasingly apparent that a parallel complex of political institutions is developing alongside the old order. This is what did not happen when the communist satellite governments collapsed, almost overnight, in 1989 following demise of the Berlin Wall. No one was ready for it, there was no prepared intelligent replacement, just a rather crude, pragmatic return to representative democracy and to the market, western style it had nothing to offer the future. It is imperative that we do better than that.

Back in the 1970s the feminist movement came up with the slogan: “The personal is political.” This is the quintessential clue. The political institutions of representative government are deeply impersonal because in the last analysis they are based not on people, but on considerations of properly and power as ends in themselves, instruments of the privileged few. This is self-evident from their history. To elevate persons-in-relation to the critical centre is to totally transform political society. So be it!

QUESTION THREE: Twenty years after Margaret Thatcher’s immortal proposition that there is no such thing as society, what is your conception of society and of the relationships between individual liberties and the association of individuals in small groups? In a time when individualism seems to be extended everywhere by the logic of the market how do you see the role of these small groups in the near future? What are the general perspectives of local action in comparison with party politics?

My conception of society, in line with the above, has been simply put by William Blake.

“Man is made for joy and woe,
And when this you rightly know
Then through life you safely go.”

It is axiomatic that all great truths are simple. And this is one of them. To know joy, to know despair, is to live as an authentic human being. The sad, even terrible thing, is that millions of people, oppressed by religious, political and economic systems, merely cope with life rather than live it; and their prevailing emotion is fear. What is at issue, therefore, is personal/spiritual emancipation on an utterly unprecedented scale. As D.H.Lawrence put it in his poem Manifesto:

“Then only to be will be such delight
That we cover our faces when we think of it.”

As to individual liberties and small groups, this is an difficult and important matter. For any number of people individualism is such that they cannot relate to groups at all. They are commonly compulsive talkers who cannot listen, yet at the same time they can also be very talented and creative. They are best left to their own devices. So it is that small group success turns very much on personal temperament. Do the people concerned like each other, enjoy each others company, have fun? This is why hand-picking is so important and group meetings need to be closed, plus perhaps one invited guest.

The human psyche is a polarised affair. We need society and we need solitude. These are not contradictions, they are mutual support complexes functioning as polarities. We need both.

Not only is party politics power based, centralised, authoritarian, bureaucratic and therefore, ultimately, has no time for the individual with a mind of his own; it is also deeply socially divisive. It takes a group of people have all the makings of a community and breaks them up into Left, Right and Centre with class differentiations to boot. It further teaches them that democracy consists of a quinquennial cross on a scrap of paper and for the rest – abdication. The politics of direct democracy, on the other hand, means daily involvement at the group, neighbourhood, community and city-regional level, in whatever forms of activity are relevant to the given individual.

QUESTION FOUR: Over recent years you have been especially interested in the situation of the family. While families have profoundly changed in the recent past, the traditional nuclear family appearing everywhere more or less crumbling down, you believe that new kind of blood-based extended family will emerge in a not so distant future. Could you elaborate?

The question of the past, present and future of the family has to be fascinating and frustrating at the same time. It is a very personal matter and no two people are in the same boat. There are, however, two new developments worth looking at.

Traditionally we have had three kinds of blood-based families – extended, nuclear and single-parent. They all assumed the values of monogamy (whatever the actual practice may have been). In the Sixties that changed, partly because of the arrival of the Pill. Vast numbers of people lived with their unmarried partners and were no longer described as ‘living in sin.’ Further it began to be recognised that a very large proportion of the population could expect to have two or more partners in the course of their lives, with the marked possibility of children by more than one partner. Serial monogamy was born and since it seems to have a future of indefinite duration it will be as well to accept it with good grace and think it through.

What then is the family yield of serial monogamy? We now have or can have, as much the rule as the exception, step-parents and step-children, half-brothers and sisters, multiplying grandparents and cousinly relationships of extraordinary complexity. And we have a new name for the newcomer – the blended family.

There is a further complication. The employment situation being what it is, most people ‘get on their bikes’ not just once, but several times, during their lives. The inevitable result is family dispersal – with the dutiful Christmas reunion. Then things are not helped by the generation gap that is also inevitable in a rapidly changing society. The situation is so bad, there is so much apparent alienation, it is commonly and unkindly observed that ‘if we cannot choose our families at least we can choose our friends.’

Strong families have, nevertheless, survived; but it is at the same time true that large numbers of people see much more of their friends than they do of their blood relations. There is bonding beyond blood. So what we get are virtual families that give more meaning to life than genetic relationships. Blake again: “A bird, a nest. A spider, a web. Man, friendship.” We are back with the small-group thesis that, above all things, underpins direct democracy.

QUESTION FIVE: Everywhere in the world, communities seem to be back. Postmodernity has even been defined as a time of nets, communities and continents. Do you think this tendency will be confirmed in the next years? What is your definition of a community? How do you see such concepts as autonomy, self-reliance, subsidiarity etc.? What is your own experience of group activity? How do you think the communities should be effectively organised and for what can they hope?

Autonomy, self-reliance and subsidiarity are all part of community practice, but they all have the mark of the passing era of individualism upon them! I hey will only make sense, they will only work, if they are set in a new and different context suggested by words like trust, friendship, belonging and loyalty. Maybe it is time to make a new look at the High Middle Ages when these words were invested with vast meaning. The enigma of the great Gothic Cathedral will not go away, nor should we want it to – it has something important to say to us.

For some 200 years we have asked the question, consciously or unconsciously: What to put in the place of heaven and hell, what to put in the place of God? The pre-Socratic Greeks asked the same question in the C6th BC. How to replace Olympus and Homeric myth? In the course of devising answers they invented western civilisation. The charge we bear is hardly less. Their final word was: “We worship Athens and our belonging. Our very citizenship is divine. For that we live and for that we are prepared to die.” They created a holistic personal-politics, undivided between heart and head. The challenge before us is much the same.

John Macmurray makes the critical distinction between ‘society’ and ‘community’. A society is any body of people who are served impersonally by the same functions – for example the law, taxation, shared media, currency, wholesaling and retailing etc. Personal relationships are not involved. In a community, personal relations are central, be they actual or potential.

QUESTION SIX: For some years the general organisation of the United Kingdom has been largely reshaped round new statutes for Wales, Scotland etc. While the case of Northern Ireland is still not clear this seems to be a more and more general trend. What is your view of regionalism? What is your position towards federalism and a united Europe?

This matter has been partly addressed, inadvertently, under QUESTION TWO. It is a vast subject, so there is something to add. The twentieth century was appalling, arguably the worst ever visited on homo sapiens: two World Wars, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, seventy years of Totalitarianism, the depression, the Cold War and the holocaust reborn as ethnic cleansing. The best one can say of it, is the lessons we have learnt the hard, brutal way, through the death and suffering of millions. Maybe it was Armageddon, the ghastly prelude to the millennium? We can read and make it so. Otherwise it was all in vain?

But we have seen the burying of the old European imperial hatchet, the waining eclipse of the imperial nation-state, the birth of the UN, the Common Market and the European Union. The pity is that so many people take them for granted. After 500 years of inevitable and interminable European wars, we find ourselves in a period of European peace without precedent. Most people take it as read! It is difficult, today, to grasp the greatness and importance of Jean Monnet’s vision of the future of Europe. His Memoirs, translated into English by his English colleague and friend Richard Mayne, are an invaluable key to the twenty-first century.

The enemies of the EU (powerful, at least, in the UK, make much of the real or alleged bureaucratic centralism of Brussels. To that there are doubtless some piecemeal remedies, but to have lasting substance the solution surely lies in a Europe of the Regions. Germany, Italy and Spain are well down the road of regional autonomy. Britain and France are dragging their feet, with London and Paris enjoying an internal dominion now out of date and deeply hostile to regionalism. That we have to remedy.

A concluding word about our shared European sickness – dualism. Not to resolve that problem is to lose all else. Dualism in our western culture is the division between the heart and the head, the arts and sciences, theory and practice. It brings us close the heart of the matter – the politics of the personal. The arts and religion are about the personal, just as the sciences are about the physical and the organic. They provide us with our definition of human nature and objectives. Without that, science and technology are adrift and the mere tools of the powerful. Direct democracy, like the arts, is about the supremacy of the personal, the heart of citizenship.

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Categories: Politics & Democracy


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