Saturday, 29 May 2010

Blasts from the Past - J B Priestley on Democracy

Yorkshire is believed by many to be the cradle of civilization, and among it`s finest exports we find the writings of J B `Jack` Priestley, novelist, essayist and somewhat reluctant political activist.

This legendary literary grumbler made a passing appearance in this blog in `JBP Gets it Right` , 12 April 2010.

Schemes to extend and deepen democracy take many shapes and forms.  I suppose one could validly come up with a number of names, often from different and/or conflicting political backgrounds, all of whom could stake their claim with some justice. I personally would name-check W E B Du Bois, Manning Marable and Sam Webb, though in each case it would be a critical appreciation.

Having said that, there is one man who has been an influence on me for a much longer time than any of these, a man whose plays, essays, short stories and novels have obscured his credentials as a political thinker, and that`s our old mate Jack.

I`ll leave discussion of the various causes our grumpy literary lion embraced for another time, and concentrate for the moment on the views expressed in his wartime book Out of the People (1941).

At the time he wrote this book he had for a time been one of Britain`s most popular radio broadcasters, second only to Churchill in the people`s affections. This period of his life had lasted for six months before his programmes were cut due to complaints that he was becoming too political. He himself claimed to have received abusive letters from his detractors, though one assumes that a man who had fought in World War One was not unduly troubled by the odd crank letter.

Tellingly, when Priestley considers democracy, he does not see it as simply something that happens every few years, not merely a method by which people elect politicians and nothing else. Neither does he simply see it (as I tend to) as an ongoing process of representation and accountability. His version seems to be a more complete vision, taking into account the interplay of different and sometimes opposing forces.

In  the passages I`ll be quoting he looks at those factors in British life which seem to him to offer bulwarks against totalitarianism. In places he is obviously discussing a rather different world than the one we now live in, but his underlying message, in my view, still stands. I`ve edited out references that are very dated, but have left the substance of his remarks unaltered ;

Tellingly, his democracy is not in fact the democracy of politicians, but the democracy of, as the title of his book implies, the people. In the Britain of his day, he tells us ;

"A whole world of conduct and values persists outside...official authority. This means that although that authority might be as strongly organised and centralised here as it is elsewhere, the effect could not possibly be the same. There are Courts, those of popular and private opinion, where it`s writ does not run."

Leaving aside these slightly intangible factors, he goes on to look at organisations ;

"Fortunately too for Britain the central authority has not suppressed various large and powerful associations that are the first to disappear in a totalitarian state.

Among these of course are the trade unions...Some of us have always tended to deplore the direct political influence of trades unionism, on the ground that it is uncreative and really bolsters up the capitalistic system. The trade union official, after years of negotiation, is not easily transformed into a boldly constructive political leader. If he is a member of Parliament...he is apt to regard himself as having "arrived" more or less like the Tory politician who finds himself in the House of Lords, and may do little more than obey routine orders. Most of us have at some time or other condemned that political machine known as Transport House. But now I for one am glad that it still exists."

Remaining with the subject of the unions, he then looks at them from another angle ;

"The organisation of so many workpeople into powerful unions...does mean that such workpeople, no matter how wide the gulf between them and the real executives, do not feel powerless and helpless, mere cogs in a vast machine. There still exists a sphere in which they can to some extent assert themselves. They may find themselves dominated by the political machinery of Transport House, but at least this is another kind of machine, capable of resisting if necessary the power of the central authority."

Moving on, he turns his attention to the Co-Operative Movement (then rather different to the one we know today), and to professional associations ;

"Another example of a strong the Co-Operative Society, which might use its vast membership, elaborate organisation and wealth in a more boldly creative fashion than it has done up to now.

And then there are the various professional associations, some of which, notably the British Medical Association, could if necessary offer some resistance to any unreasonable and tyrannical government demands, and might prove very useful allies to any democratic movement."

He goes on to give what seems to me to be his strongest argument ;

"The fact that it is always one of the first acts of a dictator to suppress or control such associations as these only proves how fortunate we are still to possess such associations. But indeed the part they play in English life is very important, and most outside observers, concentrating too much on our Parliament and Cabinet system, nearly always make the mistake of underestimating their influence. The network of them gives a certain democratic toughness to the fabric of English life that is not perceptible to the foreign theorist. They are...capable of playing an even greater part in the new Britain."

Clearly these matters are important to him as a couple of pages later he returns to his theme ;

"Fortunately the network of associations, whether trade and professional or educational and cultural, remains with us. Their continued existence - and in spite of so many adverse conditions they are astonishingly alive - means that people can meet and freely exchange ideas and opinions. At these times they are all something more than servants of the machine. They are real citizens. They throw off any resemblance to the featureless folk of `the masses` and turn into real people. The true democratic spirit, which can only exist among real people, is born among them."

(The latter comment may seem a little odd. He is referring back to an earlier passage in which he argued that  Fascists and orthodox Communists view the population as an undifferentiated mass (`the masses`), rather than the infinitely varied body of people (`real people`) he himself encountered. )

There, for the moment, we`ll leave JB. The important thing here, to me, is not that he is arguing for an uncritical appreciation of the bodies he mentions - clearly he has his own criticisms of the trade unions and the co-operative movement, and I`m sure he could have found aspects of the work of the BMA he was unhappy with. His specific contention, that the organisations he referred to provide obstacles in the path of any tendency towards totalitarianism or over-centralisation seems to me to be well-made. More relevant today is to consider the role these organisations play and whether, each in their own way, they contribute to a healthy democracy.

We`ll return to JBP at some later date, right now, I`m going to have my dinner !

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