Assembling for democracy: part 1, learning from the Blanketeers – by Dr Peter Evans for OpenDemocracy

Throughout Britain’s history her people have had to organise and assemble to fight for meaningful democracy. Blanketeers, Chartists, and Radicals; trade unions and the labour movement; suffragists and suffragettes – all of these movements over the past 200 years emerged as the people of this country recognised that they were being denied a political voice, and excluded from exercising meaningful political power.

In 1793 a Convention was organised at Edinburgh called ‘The British Convention of the Delegates of the People associated to obtain Universal Suffrage and Annual Parliaments’ – an assembly for democracy. As its title declared, its purpose was to discuss how best to achieve Universal Suffrage in this country (albeit to be exercised by males on behalf of family units). It was quickly shut down by the government, and the participants were arrested and put on trial for sedition (seeking to overthrow the government). They were show trials. In the case of Joseph Gerrald, for example, the case was presided over by a judge candid in expressing his belief that calling for universal male suffrage constituted sedition, or worse. The jury was hand-picked: each one a member of a group that had already publicly denounced Gerrald for his political views. Needless to say he was found guilty, and sentenced to 15 years ‘transportation’, i.e. exile, to New South Wales, where he died from tuberculosis. Along with the other ‘Scottish martyrs’ became the example the government wanted – evidence of the consequences of seeking democratic reform for political empowerment. Read more

Wanted: A Magna Carta for the 21st century

The attacks on the rule of law and access to justice – two key principles of the Magna Carta – by successive governments should lead us to rethink the existing relationship between the state and citizens and then to reimagine democracy.

Eventually, everyone came to enjoy the rights enshrined in the constitutional settlement between King John and powerful barons signed at Runnymede 800 years ago. This was no smooth process, however. The mass of the people had to struggle over many centuries for the rule of law – as opposed to the unbridled power of the state – to apply to them and their activities. Continue reading