EP Thompson on blacklisting & the Secret State

In Uncategorized on July 27, 2018 by kmflett

EP Thompson on blacklisting & the Secret State

The extract below from EP Thompson’s essay The Secret State (1978) is a reminder why Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Jon Trickett is firmly in the best democratic traditions of the labour movement in demanding to know if the 1980s practice of investigating the political views of civil servants still continues.

Thompson notes that the nineteenth century British working-class disliked the intrusion of authority from above and the role of a centralised police force. The twentieth century saw Labour embrace a Statist politics but the libertarian origins of the labour movement live on:

The insurgent British working-class movement took over for its own the old Whiggish bloody-mindedness of the citizen in the face of the pretentions of power. Even when labouring under the manifest class discrimination of the Combination Acts, the secretary of an illegal trade union branch of framework knitters in Mansfield in 1812 was able to protest against a clause in a Bill proposed by the workers’ representatives themselves, which authorized the search for shoddy goods in the houses of manufacturers : ‘if iver that bullwark is broke down of every english mans hous being his Castil then that strong barrer is for iver broke that so many of our ancesters have bled for and in vain.’ The workers had appropriated the democratic precedents and practices of past generations for their own; the ancestors were not ’theirs’ but ’ours’.

And this was how matters continued for at least one hundred years. The Chartist, Radical Liberal, Irish Nationalist and formative Labour movements were distinguished by their sensitivity to libertarian issues, and their suspicion of the polity of statism. When the police forces were enlarged and rationalized (or, as some would have it today, ’modernized’) in the mid-nineteenth century, this was a victory for bourgeois utilitarian bureaucratic policy in the face of intense resistance extending from old Tory localism through Radical Liberalism to outright Chartist opposition— for Chartists and trade unionists very well understood what kind of imperatives dictated government policies. As a consequence of this opposition, the presence of the police in British public life remained unusually subdued. They must be seen as ‘servants’ of… either the gentry or ’the public’, and they must in no circumstances exhibit a brash public presence. And, as a more concrete evidence of the old libertarian tradition, which endures to this day, the British police (at least in Britain) must go about the streets unarmed.


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