A Dream of William Cuffay
One night in September 2014, William Cuffay appeared to me in a dream. Though sceptical of most things mystical and spiritual, I am also sceptical enough of so-called rationality and aware of how little I can understand of the complexities of cause and effect, not to ignore signs when they present themselves. I woke up and re-read my 75p Past Tense pamphlet, ‘The Story of William Cuffay’ (reprinted from ‘Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain’ by Peter Fryer) and decided to write a blog post about Cuffay for Black History Month. October came and went without my contribution, but as every month is black history month, as black history is part of all our histories, as before there was history there was black history etc., I don’t need to wait until next year to write this.
Cuffay (1788-1870) was born in Kent to a father who was a freed African-heritage St. Kitts slave and to a white English mother. In London, working as a tailor, he became a Chartist leader, at first with the Metropolitan Tailors’ Charter Association, then as the Westminster representative to the Metropolitan Delegate Council, and then as elected president of that same council after its original leaders had been imprisoned. He held various other posts in the emergent Victorian working class movement until he was found guilty of “levying war against the Queen” and deported for life to Tasmania. There he continued to agitate “strongly for the individual rights of working men”. He ended his life in a workhouse. Words from his last recorded public speech, spoken in the penal colony, explain why he never gave up:
“Fellow slaves, I’m old, I’m poor. I’m out of work, I’m in debt, and therefore I have cause to complain.”
The one portrait we have of him in his London prison cell by William Dowling, shows a smartly dressed man with a genial smile, a large balding forehead and hooded, intelligent eyes; an open window behind him. He was 4’11 with deformations in his spine and shin bones. He was not elected on the basis of his dashing good looks. Yet, the contemporary written accounts of him by those who knew him perhaps explain his popularity:
“When hundreds of working men elected this man … they did so in the full belief of his trustworthiness , and he never gave them reason to repent of their choices.” – The Reasoner
He was “loved by his own order, who knew him and appreciated his virtues, ridiculed and denounced by a press that knew him and not, and had no sympathy with his class, and banished by a government that feared him.” – Reynold’s Political Instructor
Or: “a strict disciplinarian, and a lover of order – he was firm in the discharge of his duty, even to obstinacy; yet in his social circle no man was more polite, good-humoured and affable, which caused his company to be much admired and earnestly sought for – honoured and respected by all who knew him” – Northern Star.
Or as The Times so eloquently described him, “Cuffay is half a nigger”.
However, the first three accounts give us a glimpse of this person. Committed, assured, tireless, combative but absolutely great company, his humour probably made more funny by the seriousness that drove him. Humble in that he took seriously the fact that he was entrusted to cause of the hundreds who elected him and the thousands more he represented, but proud in his abilities and convictions.
You may not have heard of the Chartists. Don’t feel bad about that. “I can’t believe I haven’t heard of that” can either be internalised as some kind of personal failure (as I used to do) or the facts dismissed (as I have also done) as not important because you surely would have heard about it otherwise.
In England and Wales in 1831 there were 366,000 eligible voters, about 3% of the population. Fifty-four years later, the franchise had been extended to nearly 8 million. Voting was still an exclusive club, but it was an option for any male occupying land or property with an annual rateable value of £10 and, for the first time, whom you chose to vote for was your own business. As always, these concessions towards democracy were not given away lightly. They were won through struggle, agitation and sacrifice. The end to restrictions on the right to vote based on property ownership were eventually lifted in 1918 for men over 21, when suffrage and the right to enter parliament were also granted to women over 30 years old.
The fact that women won the right to vote through the efforts of the Suffragettes is well-known. Yet this story of working class adult men winning the right to vote in Britain, despite the fact that it was finally achieved in the same act of parliament that gave women the vote, seems not to feature in national narratives, just as black British men like Cuffay get written out of pre- (and indeed post-) Windrush history. It seems to me that the stories a nation tells about itself are very much to do with its contemporary identity. The Suffragettes are now on all school curricula because they tell a good story about ourselves in the present: once we were backward in gender relations (like some other countries are today) but now we have achieved equality. Of course, in reality, sexism and gender-discrimination persist and in recent years have worsened somewhat, though there have been some definite advances that will be very hard indeed to turn back. Class we don’t like to talk about because exploitation continues. It would be nice if the Chartists had brought their sisters along with them but, unintentionally, they did so. They asked for something so radical – “a vote for every man twenty one years of age, of sound mind and not undergoing punishment for crime” – that their grand march on Parliament from Kennington Common brought the army out – 7000 soldiers along the Embankment, sandbags around the Bank of England, tens of thousands enrolled as special constables, Victoria packed off to the Isle of Wight for safety. The marchers never crossed the bridge – a victory for the state, achieved, as these things always are, with a good deal of so called ‘intelligence’ work. Yet, by organising so many people – two million people signed their petition – the logic of the Chartists’ arguments for equality, was inevitably extended and given momentum by some equally capable and intelligent women.
But even with the Suffragettes, the message of their movement is lost. Emmeline Pankhurst in her ‘Freedom or Death’ speech, spoken in 1917 during her money-raising tour of the United State, states quite clearly why she thought women should have the vote:
“We are not working to get the vote. We are not going to prison to get the vote, merely to say we have the vote. We are going through all this to get the vote so that by means of the vote we can bring about better conditions not only for ourselves but for the community as a whole.”
In Britain we have conflated democracy with suffrage. This is very convenient for a political class who basically represent the interests of the same tiny percentage of the pre-Chartist electorate, yet who can justify their legitimacy in a country of universal adult suffrage, solely on the fact that they have been elected to office. On a cynical day, it seems to me that the Suffragettes won the right to vote, while the conditions for “the community as a whole” remained substantially the same. Women can now, up to the glass ceiling of inequality, be equally exploited in the labour market, while still dragging behind them centuries of expectations of women’s role.
In Some Do Not by Ford Maddox Ford (an anarchist at certain stages in his life) published in 1924 and set in 1914, the protagonist Tory gentleman Christopher Tietjens eventually falls in love with Suffragette, Valentine Wannop. The two first meet briefly on a golf course where she is engaged in an act of sabotage and he is playing a round with his posh mates. The next time they meet they debate women’s suffrage: “You are not without sympathy with our aims,” Wannop suggests, “but you disapprove of our methods.” Tietjens replies, “What good did a vote ever do anyone? If all the ill-used, sweated women of the country had threatened the Under-Secretary, burned the pillar-boxes and cut up all the golf greens round his country house, they’d have had their wages raised to half a crown next week. That’s the only straight method.”
Real democracy would mean making decisions about how your workplace is organised, how your street or estate functions, being involved in the management of your local community’s resources and, if decisions are to be made on a national level, by having more say in them perhaps through a jury service-style second house or more regular referendums.
We have also forgotten some of our heroes. Heroes like Cuffay, who were never allowed to become the leaders that they should have been. Reynold’s Political Instructor boldly declared that:
“Whilst integrity in the midst of poverty, whilst honour in the midst of temptation are admired and venerated, so long will the name of William Cuffay, a scion of Affric’s oppressed race, be preserved from oblivion.”
Do we still venerate these things? Our most popular art celebrates riches and a lack of integrity. Much of the advice of self-help and pop philosophy is to succumb to temptation and just be yourself. Perhaps there are some merits in our values now. But what does it say about our civilisation that Cuffay’s name has been so nearly forgotten? There are probably fewer British people alive now who know who he is than there were men who had the vote in 1788, the year of his birth, a black Kentish tailor.
Much more about him here: http://cuffay.blogspot.com.au/
The Chartists today
So where for parliament now? Russell Brand memorably shook things up by saying on Newsnight 18 months ago that he doesn’t vote because “I don’t get my authority from this pre-existing paradigm which is quite narrow and only serves a few people and I look elsewhere for alternatives that might be of service to humanity.” I am sympathetic to this view. It’s probably fair to say that parliamentary democracy serves corporate interests while preserving the illusion of choice. A mass refusal to take part in elections, a turn-out so low that you couldn’t simply dismiss it as apathy would be a huge victory for democracy. The first-past-the-post system is absurd, made more so by party whips. Even if it were possible to represent the interests of all the people of your area, MPs are in fact required to support their party above their constituency while voters can only vote regionally. Anyone outside of a few contested regions will have their vote discounted. In my constituency, Diane Abbot has more than a 13,500 majority. Unless I want to vote Labour, my choice is discounted. And the increasing lack of difference between the two main parties makes KRS One’s line that ‘You either vote for the mumps or the measles / When you vote for the lesser of two evils, you vote for evil’ look even more relevant in the UK. Government without the legitimacy of voter turnout is stripped back to what it is – an illusion of democracy. It should be no surprise that in the last election, with Labour sure to lose, David Blunkett said that the real challenge is get people to turn out for the election. It was a point he repeated after Brand’s Paxman interview, saying in a lecture at Bristol Uni, “‘we need to find imaginative ways of persuading people that politics can really make a difference, and ….- like it or not – that political parties and processes do matter’. More important than winning is keeping parliament legitimate.
Nevertheless, I am going to vote in the next election. Parliament is not the only place of power in this country, but it is one point. If, as Mark Fisher has eloquently pointed out, we keep our hands clean of corrupted institutions – avoid and ignore parliament and mainstream media – then we only let the enemies of the people take them over without us. When the Alternative Vote referendum came around I think we massively missed a trick by not pushing more strongly for it. It was by no means a perfect system, but it was quantitively better than what we’ve got. I heard people on the traditional left say ‘I’m not voting for it because I only want full P.R’ as if they’re going to give us a chance of that in the near future. ‘We offered you a change in the voting system and the people chose to keep things the same’. Or I heard the more conspiracy-minded stoner-rebels say ‘I’m not voting for it because that’s what the government want’. What can you say to that?
Personally, I think there is no hope in the Labour party, the heirs to the Chartist movement. It’s too late for them now. I joined the Green party before the 2010 election and I am pleased to see that their membership numbers are continuing to rise. Many Green parties, in Germany or Canada for example, have been turned into neo-liberal parties like the rest of them and of course it could happen here. Which is even more reason for left-minded people to join them and stop that drift to the right. At present they are the best option for political change on the parliamentary level in this country and they have shown, by pledging their support for Scottish independence while Labour and the Coalition all pleaded and connived together to keep the Union, that by going against the political grain you can actually become more popular. It is a lesson lost on Labour. They should take note of Hunter S. Thompson’s verdict on George McGovern’s failure to overturn Nixon in the US Presidential election of 1972. McGovern, like Ed Milliband, was a surprise winner of his party’s leadership election, precisely because he was seen as different to the party norm. In the presidential election he then lost support as he tried to prove how unthreatening and conservative he was, thinking that he could keep all the radical votes and win over a few of the ‘middle ground’. Instead, the press turned on him, and in Thompson’s words, “he was perceived as a dingbat – not as a radical. That radical image didn’t really hurt him at all. … There were a lot of people who liked him, liked what he said but who wouldn’t vote for him, because he seemed like a bumbler.” (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, 1973). Labour should take note. Except, one feels, they don’t want to.
William Cuffay, of course, has the final words
“If we do not get what we want before a fortnight, I, for one, am ready to fall; and if the petition is rejected with scorn, I will move at once to form a rifle club [cheers] … This clapping of hands is all very fine, but will you fight for it? [cries of ‘yes, yes’ and more cheers]” – William Cuffay at a Chartist meeting, as reported by a police spy.
“I wish it to be understood that I do object to this jury. They are not my equals. I am only a journeyman mechanic.”
“I expected to be convicted, and I didn’t think anything else; but I don’t want any pity. No, I pity the Government, and I pity the Attorney-General for convicting me by means of such base characters. The Attorney-General ought to be called the Spy-General, and using such men is a disgrace to the Government, but they only exist by such means. I am quite innocent. … Every good act was set aside in Parliament – everything that was likely to do any good to the working classes was either thrown out or set aside, but a measure to restrain their liberties could be passed in a few hours. I have nothing more to say.” – Cuffay’s final speech at his trial.
“The time has now come for work.” – William Cuffay
 Nearly universal. The vote is denied to convicted prisoners, people previously convicted of corrupt or illegal election practices and patients detained in psychiatric hospitals because of their crimes.