Originally published in leftbucket.com, 2017

[To determine] a standard of Social and Industrial Legislation with
a view to a general and lasting improvement in the conditions
under which the working classes live and labour.
Democratic Programme of the First Dáil

How about a republic?

After three elections in which we couldn’t bring ourselves to elect a government, the coronavirus has given us space to pause and think about what that means. It’s clearly impossible to say what will happen next in a once-in-a-century event, but there’s no harm in relieving the boredom of whatever remains of the restrictions by imagining the kind of world we could create from what’s left of the old one.

We could start with George Bernard Shaw’s advice that it’s past time to see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ It’s time to dream of what never was and ask ‘Why not?’ Why not a first-class, single-tier healthcare system to which we all have equal access? Why not a first-class single-tier education system to which we all have equal access? Why not a state building programme that will house everybody who needs housing? Why not a tax code that makes the rich pay their share?

Could the answer to all of those questions possibly be because we’re no longer citizens of a republic but units in an economy that’s run in the best interests of those with the money and the power and the influence? Could it be because the richest 10% of the population own more of the nation’s wealth than the other 90% combined while the poorest 10% own less than nothing at all?

And could it be that we’ve gone along with it because we’ve bought into the deluded belief, or bad-faith argument, that those with the money and the power and the influence create wealth that showers down on the unproductive rest of us? That’s what we’ve been told, but French economist Thomas Piketty shattered the myth of trickle-down economics in 2014 when he pointed out that following the explosion of billionaires in the US during the nineties and noughties, national per-capita income growth halved, falling from 2.2% to 1.1% (Capital in the Twenty-First Century). The very rich are harmful to the general economy, where most of us live.

Immodest government

So, let’s start again. Why not a republic? And on the subject of things that never were, why not a republic that fulfils the promises of the First Dáil? Easily enough said, but realistically, how do we get there from here? We could start by taking a look at Clement Attlee’s post-war UK Labour Government.

Within six years of ousting the national war hero and arch Tory, Winston Churchill, from office, Attlee’s Government established the National Health Service, the National Assistance Act, and a ‘system of social insurance covering every citizen regardless of income’. In short, they created nothing less than a ‘cradle-to-grave welfare state’.

They introduced free compulsory secondary education and nationalised ‘the Bank of England, the fuel and power industries, inland transport, and iron and steel’. (Derek Brown, theguardian.com).

Churchill once described Attlee as a ‘modest man with much to be modest about’, but there was nothing modest about the revolutionary reforms his Government introduced. They changed the lives of ordinary British people, particularly the poorest. They were healthier, better educated, and better housed. Their children grew up to be the first generation of working-class students to flood the universities that were now tuition free[i]. And incidentally, as members of the first television generation, young people in general were more—if not necessarily better—informed and happy to shout about it. Welcome to the sixties.

The last puff of smoke

Albert Einstein said that we can’t solve problems with the same thinking we used to create them. Though we do keep trying. Swinging endlessly between governments formed by either one of two parties that come from the same socially conservative, right centrist, and redundant tradition of party politics got us into the mess we’re in. And take Einstein’s word for it, it’s not going to get us out of it.

The emergent political landscape anticipated by those unresolved elections is, roughly speaking, populated by two contrasting and equally discontented factions: those who want to stick to fiddling with the neoliberal deck chairs with different people doing the fiddling but they don’t know who, and those who want to deal with the iceberg problem and change course but don’t know which way to turn.

By general consensus, the establishment parties have failed the country. The multiple roots of the disillusionment are visible in the loss of influence of the institutional Church, an ongoing fall in the numbers who still vote according to Civil War loyalties, and a vocal, active, and savvy youth vote who aren’t buying the old narratives of church, state, and mammon.

But the anger and the cynicism directed at the terrible twins of social conservatism speak of more than dissatisfaction with the old stories. The disillusionment that came with the collapse of those familiar framing narratives has left us with a growing dislocation from an inauthentic politics in which spinning and fudge are more than just rhetorical devices, they’re intrinsic to political discourse. Spinning factoids distract us from the process by which wealth is steadily transferred upward in unregulated neoliberal logic. And as money rises and coagulates at the top, so too does power and that doesn’t trickle down either.

It may very well be that the biggest losers in this slow-motion shuffle will be Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael; forming a grand coalition was always a risk for the two of them. The threat isn’t political, economic, or biological: for two parties whose main political platforms have been built on not being the other lot, it’s existential. Either one or possibly both could disappear in the last puff of smoke to come out of the Civil War. Because if they stand too close together, it’ll become obvious that the only ideological or practical difference left between them is who shot Michael Collins and they’ve agreed to let that lie. The rest is just bickering and the steady unpicking of the stitches holding the bland coalition together.

The independents, by and large, have let us down; some of them even got as far as the Cabinet table and made not a blind bit of difference for all their occasional bluster—we still got pure Fine Gael/Fianna Fáil pro-corporate, pro-landlord policies.

And as for the left, we’re too busy fighting wars of ideological purity to take advantage of what could be a watershed moment in our political history. If we act before the apathy takes hold of us all again, there’s a tide to be caught right now similar to the tide that carried Clement Attlee’s Government all the way to ‘nothing less than a cradle-to-grave welfare state’. 

If we leave it too long either Fine Gael will eat Fianna Fáil or the other way around and the result will be a monster as unbeatable for the next century as the duoligarchy of the Grand Ole Parties was for the last.

The left’s asleep

If one accepts the existence of the commons—the common resources
bequeathed to us as society—then one should accept that . . .
there has been organised plunder of the commons by privileged
private interests at the cost of all of us as commoners.
Patrick Allen, Basic Income as Common Dividends

The space between wanting to deal with the iceberg and not knowing which way to turn is the natural home ground of the progressive left and it’s been lying empty. Nature may abhor them, but fake news loves an ideological vacuum and has flooded the space with misinformation, disinformation, hate speech of one sort or another, and the toxic oversimplification and outrage to be found in certain corners of social media.

The left needs to reclaim that space. And right now, we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to political parties and independents from left of centre to centre-left to radical left—demonstrating both the diversity and the perversity of progressive opinion. And most importantly, we also have a clear appetite for change among the electorate.

In order to catch this tide, the various left factions have to stop scoring points against each other. We need to work together on building a consensus approach to solving specific problems through cooperative action across and outside of party-political lines, and across lines of racial, class, and cultural identity.

Not a coalition

Obviously, this won’t be a coalition, where smaller parties go to die, but an alliance or cooperative—a Commoners’ Co-op—made up of progressive thinkers from all parties or none coming together for a single term only, with a fixed programme of government composed entirely of shared non-negotiable red lines. They might include:

  • Building houses so that we all have equal access to a home.
  • Nationalising the hospitals and implementing Sláintecare, or a variation thereof, so that we all have equal access to healthcare.
  • Nationalising and properly resourcing schools, colleges, and universities so that we all have equal access to education.
  • Implementing an urgent programme to deal with climate change so that we can all enjoy a habitable planet into the future and so that we all have equal access to clean air and water now.
  • Introducing a wealth tax or a third income tax band, because revolutionary change doesn’t come cheap.

Those red lines can’t be limited to promises or broad policy outlines; they have to be fully worked out and costed plans for achieving each of the agreed policies, or a specified part of one or more, over five years. The cooperative would hold itself responsible for any shortfall or over-run and would dissolve itself after that single term with all members going their separate ways.

Outside of those non-negotiable red lines, individual members of the cooperative would agree to differ, with a firm commitment to ditching the whip. Members would be free to bring forward Private Members’ Bills for a democratic vote, devolving some of the power now resting within the cabinet to parliament and to the democratic process. That should shake things up a bit and, hopefully, change the electoral maths forever.

So, what are we waiting for?


[i] Universities stayed free until 1998 when fees were reintroduced by Blair’s New ‘Labour’—by people who had themselves benefitted from free university education. Blair’s descendants are busy right now ransacking what Attlee’s Government put in place.

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