Tuesday, 7 April 2015

'Our Democracy' from 1958 and 'citizenship' 2015 style

At the end of this essay of sorts I have copied copied pages from Our Democracy by Rowland W Purton, which was first published in 1958. In his Preface the author says the book (was) 'written primarily for the final year of the Secondary Modern School'. He goes on to say that 'while the text is suitable for the "A" and "B" streams, the diagrams are of great value in teaching "C", "D" and "E" children'.

I was one of those children and this book contributed to my realisation of what side I was on, for there were 'sides', even at 14. There were other influences, but school played a part, so when politicians and the media talk about 'citizenship' education today they should remember that this is not something new.

Last week Susan and I put up our first bookshelves and un-boxed a few books. Among them was Our Democracy and recent talk of teaching 'citizenship' in our schools had made think of the book, so seeing it again was quite timely.

It was over this book that I had my first political arguments at school and I remember, still, how the class divided. Little did I realise that I was within months of becoming a trade unionist and a member of the (Labour Party) Young Socialists. Looking back I should not have been surprised.

My distrust and dislike of authority began whilst still at junior school, where my left-handedness led to physical punishment from a teacher. I was glad to go to Alperton Secondary Modern, the same school my maternal grandfather, my mother and my uncles went to. By then it was for 11-plus failures, not that I knew that at the time, for the exam passed me by and I cannot remember a thing about it.

As schools went it wasn't bad. I left not knowing what a GCE or a university was, but I could read, write, add up and had a good sense of history. My grandfather saw a job he thought I would like in the London Evening News as a trainee animal technician at the Royal Brompton Hospital in South Kensington (which I got) and that was me settled for the next three years. I was paid £2 12s 6d at the end of my first week and within seconds of receiving my pay packet, a laboratory technician called Wally was standing beside me demanding 6d if I wanted to keep my job. Needless to say I paid up and what he said opened up a whole new world for me: 'You're in the AScW now and there's a meeting on Monday'.

I worked with people who fought in the First World War and the Second World War and people a couple of years older than me who had just completed their National Service. Every day at breaks and over lunch workmates argued about something, Chelsea (the football team) mainly, but politics too. I got to know and respect all manner of men and women and fell in love more than once.

I wrote letters to the Wembley News in my capacity as Secretary of Wembley South Young Socialists and I was even offered a job by the paper's editor if I gave up my political activities. Needless to say I didn't, and it is the only thing I wonder about sometimes, but the path I took led me to Susan and that, that is enough to tell me I made the right decision.

I tell you all this because here I am in Beeston within weeks of my 71st birthday and it all feels so natural. Our Democracy helped to make me the person I am and I just hope that citizenship teaching 2015 style encourages children to question authority in the same way as I did.

The dirty word when I was a child was 'communism' and today it is 'Islamists'. Communists in 1958 were seen as 'extremists', yet in my experience most were individuals I respected.

I look at the citizenship test those seeking to become a British subject have to pass and think 'rubbish'. I would not pass such a test. England failed the democracy test in 1958 and it does still in 2015 and always will in my book until we no longer have a unelected head of state and a House of (unelected) Lords. I came to that conclusion aged 14 after being given a copy at school of Our Democracy.

Reading through the book again it has stood the test of time well and its author, Rowland W Purton, has my thanks for helping to make me the person I am.

Every time I see a newspaper headline or hear a broadcaster talking about Islamic 'terrorists', I think back to the Spanish Civil War, the Republicans in Northern Ireland and the wars of liberation across Africa and Asia and their being part of an ongoing war against imperialism, once colonial, now blatantly capitalist. Our country and society is part of a global economic culture which has helped to create the 'terrorism' our politicians and media decry. I understand this and I believe many others do too, even though many stay silent.

Our government and media mock Iran and the idea of a caliphate across Syria and Iraq whilst ignoring the fact that our country has a state church and faith, with a unelected monarch at its head, and elected MPs who have to take an oath of allegiance to that monarch if they wish to occupy their seats in Parliament. I could not be an MP because the only oath I could take is to serve the people of my country to the best of my ability.

As a fourteen year old in 1958 I could not square being taught that I lived in a democracy with the fact that we occupied other countries and denied the people who lived in them the same rights. The legacy of empire brings with it responsibilities we cannot escape, nor should we wish to.

I much prefer the mixed society of 2015 to the more insular, superior, world of 1958. I can see the changes from the perspective of a native and I can also see how confusing our national quirks must seem to many. Young men and women are encouraged to join our armed forces to fight for 'Queen and country' and their sacrifices are celebrated in state faith cathedrals in services led by archbishops and attended by royalty, yet those young people who see justice in similar causes in other parts of the world are branded 'terrorists' and their own faith leaders are vilified.

Our young kill with sophisticated weaponry and drones directed from bunkers somewhere in Britain or from the cockpits of heavily armed jet fighters, whilst those we fight execute their victims in person. I do not understand the difference. I am equally horrified by both.

Ordinary people around the globe are victims and I would argue with all who turn to violence that the thing our masters fear the most is civil disobedience. War and brutality is what the ruling classes do best. My opposition to violence as a solution owes itself as much to Rowland Purton and Our Democracy as anything else. To quote from his chapter forty-five, 'Your Duty':

'Let is remind ourselves what democracy is. Remember firstly, that it is the rule of the people themselves; that the people are directly responsible in some measure for those things which happen in Parliament and in your local authority; and that by the way in which you decide to vote, you may be able, with others, to alter the result of the election'.

Those who cannot vote to change their worlds deserve our support and understanding. When we go to vote on 7 May we should ask ourselves 'What are we voting for?' and to accept that if the old order continues it is because we have failed to persuade enough others to join us in voting for radical change and that over the coming years we need to work harder than ever.

Just look at some of the pages I have copied from a book published in 1958 and ask yourself 'What has changed?'. A good few things, but far from enough!

We should take this building and turn it inside out.

In 1958 voters understood why this was important. My maternal grandmother was born in 1894 and was not able to vote until she was 28 in 1922.

In 1958, candidates did not have a (party political) description or logo against their name on a ballot paper. 

The Chartist Movement set out its aims in 1838 and did not mention women. As the page points out, it was not until 1928 that all women had the same voting rights as men.

The Tories and Liberals going into government together in 2010 was a return to the old order of things, when there was no opposition as such. Nothing new here then.

In 1958, socialism and communism were seen as being similar. There was no mention of social democracy or libertarian socialism. Now even the Labour Party has become fearful of being called 'socialist'. Socialism should be seen as a practical faith, for that is what it is to me, firmly rooted in life and not eternity.

1958 could be 2015, except we now have unelected 'life' peers as well as hereditary peers and it is still the monarch's government - not our government.

Now Acts of Parliament usually include a clause allowing ministers to change laws without any reference back to Parliament. Since 1958 we have gone backwards.

In 1958 there were more levels of local government and all had more powers than their 2015 counterparts. Another example of how we have gone backwards and how we, as voters, have allowed this to happen!

This was how citizenship was seen in 1958. At 14 I was beginning to question 'God', although I continued going to church until I was twenty-one. It was a fellow 14 year old called Geoff at the Church of God in Wembley who sowed the doubt with his question to our Sunday School teacher Les Hardy (a librarian from Ealing who I still remember with warmth and affection). The question was 'Is God vain?'.

I also remember seeing this page at the time and asking about our 'duty' to our fellow workers (my Uncle Dave in Harlow was Secretary of the Plumbers Trade Union in the town and staying with him and my Auntie Nannie I saw lots of men come to their house with problems, so I knew from an early age that trade unions were important to workers).

I am sure this page has changed since 1958, but I am not sure how I would draw it in 2015'.

Our Democracy is a book full of such illustrations, with over 200 pages of accompanying text across forty-five chapters. I wonder if anyone planning citizenship lessons in 2015 has ever looked at this book? If they have, I suspect it will have been dismissed as being dangerous.

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