Newport’s historical radicalism derives among other sources from the Chartists. The memories of their sacrifices continue to inspire each new generation of Newportonians. Rain-sodden, hung-over and exhausted after their night sleeping rough, badly organised and poorly led a group of Chartists charged trained soldiers lodged in the Westgate Hotel, Newport in 1839. At least twenty-two were killed. Every 4 November I recharge my political batteries by honouring the Chartist cause at the site of their unmarked graves at Newport Cathedral.
Five of the six reforms demanded in the original Charter were all won during the course of the nineteenth century (the call for annual parliaments being the only exception). The six points of 1839 were: annual elections, secret ballot, equal electoral districts, removal of property qualifications for parliamentary candidates, the payment of Members of Parliament and universal (manhood) suffrage.In 2009 the 170th anniversary of the Newport rising was celebrated, with glorious inspiring music and poetry in two weeks of glittering events. Wales’s national poet Gillian Clarke wrote a special poem on the ‘grudged gift of democracy’.
In my frequent visits to schools I retell the honoured tale of the noble sacrifice of the Chartists. Their memory is a constant inspiration. A core task of a Newport MP is to renew and rebuild the idealism and courage of the Chartists.
We need a new charter for the twenty-first century:
Point one: Make all votes of equal value. Our eccentric and irrationalelectoral system means that elections are decided by a small number of footloose votes of the weakly motivated and the least well informed. Voting in the second ballot at Assembly Elections is a gamble that often perversely elects the party the voter dislikes the most.
Point two: Use national funding to liberate parties from any dependence on outside interests. Lobbyists still infest politics, promoting the causes of their rich privileged clients at the expense of the needy and deserving. We have the scandal of foreign millionaires spending vast amount to buy victory in marginal seats.
Point three: Extend to all media the broadcasters statutory duty of balance. A handful of newspaper moguls abuse their massive power. They proselytise irresponsibly without the discipline of balance imposed on broadcasters. Meanwhile, regional papers are dying and begging for state subsidies.
Point four: Franchise for sixteen-year-olds. The election of a monkey in Hartlepool and more votes for Pop Idol than local elections proves that politicians are out of touch.
Point five: Make power the exclusive gift of the electorate, never to be inherited or bought. Only two countries in the world allow their hereditary chieftains to make laws: Britain and Lesotho. The hereditary principle must be finally buried.
Point six: Broaden political horizons to encompass all of humanity, one environment, and one world. The narrow local focus of politics accelerates the global neglect and looting of our environment. All decisions should be on a worldwide scale.
Chartist history gives my convictions an historic legitimacy. I fear I would not have had their courage in facing the guns but I recognise the idealism in the letter of George Shell to his parents the night before he was shot dead. He wrote, ‘I hope this will find you well, as I am myself at present. I shall this night be engaged in a struggle for freedom, and should it please God to spare my life, I shall see you soon; but if not, grieve not for me. I shall fall in a noble cause.’
Their story is a wonderful illustration to teach each new generation of Newport children to value their heritage of democracy. They warm to the heroism of their ancestors and empathised with the hope in the Chartist poems.
For ages deep wrongs have been hopelessly borne;
But despair shall no longer our spirits dismay,
Nor wither the arm upraised for the fray;
The conflict for freedom is gathering nigh.
We live to secure it, or gloriously die!
From my book the Unusual Suspect.