By Neil Davidson
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Is expenses row a ‘very British revolution’?

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Around Westminster and along Whitehall stand the statues of political and military figures that the British ruling class have thought it worth commemorating.
Issue 2153

Around Westminster and along Whitehall stand the statues of political and military figures that the British ruling class have thought it worth commemorating.

Of these, only two can be described as revolutionaries in any sense and one of those – Abraham Lincoln – was American.

The sole British or, more accurately, English, representative of the revolutionary tradition is Oliver Cromwell, who was a very late and not always welcome addition to this stone array.

Yet it is Cromwell who has been endlessly invoked since the storm over MPs’ expenses broke this month. Cromwell’s famous dismissal of the Rump Parliament in 1653 – “In the name of God, go!” – has been quoted on the front page of the Sun and by Telegraph columnist Simon Heffer.

The attitude of the Telegraph has been the most revealing about the contradictions of the ruling class in relation to its own history.

On 19 May the Telegraph hailed the resignation of Speaker Michael Martin in a telling expression. The popular anger that brought him down, this most old-style of Tory papers declared, was “a very British revolution”. It said, “In a characteristically British way… there have been no marches, no riots, no clashes with the police.”

Given that Cromwell’s actions followed 16 years of provincial revolt in Scotland, colonial uprising in Ireland, civil war within England, the execution of the King, the proclamation of a republic, the abolition of the House of Lords and the imposition of what was effectively a military dictatorship, the claim that peaceful expressions of discontent are “characteristically British” seems extraordinary.


This is not a new development. Unlike their French or even American counterparts, the British bourgeoisie has always tended to deny the role of class struggle in creating both the capitalist state and representative democracy.

Consequently, perhaps more than in any other country transformed by a classical bourgeois revolution, socialists in Britain have to preserve the revolutionary memory of the bourgeoisie from their own distortions.

Cromwell and the New Model Army acted as substitutes for a capitalist class which, although economically dominant within society, was not yet capable of assuming political leadership within the state.

It was for this reason, and not primarily because of MPs’ corruption, that he purged or dissolved parliament on three occasions between 1648 and 1653, before establishing his personal rule.

The restoration of the Stuart dynasty in 1660 was also the restoration of the parliament Cromwell had disbanded.

This was necessary for a ruling class united by a fear of social anarchy but unable to overcome its internal differences.

The roles designed for Charles II and subsequent monarchs were those of authoritative figurehead for the subordinate classes and arbiter of the disputes for the dominant, but one ultimately subject to the control of the latter through parliament.

The problem for the contemporary ruling class, is not, as it was for Cromwell, that the sitting MPs are incapable of effectively ruling in the interests of capital, but rather that they have done so too well.

So unquestioningly have they acquiesced in every demand that capital has made that the necessary illusions in representative democracy, which parliament exists to perpetuate, are in danger of being lost.

The decay emanating from Westminster is an expression of neoliberalism in political terms.

The anger this has aroused presents us with both a moment of danger and of opportunity.

We can agree that we require a modern Cromwell. But he will not take the form of David Cameron and his cabinet-in-waiting of Etonians.

The modern Cromwell will be a revolutionary collective committed not to rescuing parliament, but to replacing it with forms of genuine self-government unimaginable to those pundits who think that the debased spectacle on the north bank of the Thames is what democracy must look like.

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