Is it time to get Anglo-Saxon about England's local government?
- 26 April 2012
- From the section UK Politics
The government wants a new era of localism and civic engagement. But rather than thinking up new ideas, should they be looking back into England's distant past for inspiration?
Is it time to get "Anglo-Saxon" on our politics?
To go back to the days of "pre-England", when the rival kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia, East Anglia and Northumbria slugged it out for dominance of the lands abandoned in the early 5th Century by the Romans?
The period characterised by many as the "dark ages" is sometimes credited with a level of engagement in local politics that the Electoral Commission could only dream of.
According to its admirers, Anglo-Saxon government originated in "moots", meetings - perhaps held under oak trees - where small communities thrashed out their differences.
If this was not conclusive, disputes moved up to the shire court and, eventually, came up for discussion at "witans", great councils involving the great and good, including the king.
It was, supporters say, a glorious time of real, grassroots government, where the concerns of the lowest in society could efficiently reach those at the top.
This created a merry consensus in direct opposition to the repression introduced by the Normans after 1066, they add.
Matthew Innes, professor of history at London's Birkbeck College, is sceptical.
He said: "There's little evidence of an Anglo-Saxon golden age. I find it really difficult to believe these things were ever really representative or democratic.
"Five people on horseback might have turned up and told their fellows that they would be killed if they didn't do what they were told."
He added: "A lot of the issues dealt with seemed to revolve around cattle-rustling.
"They used to round up posses of people to deal with the criminals in a way that's a bit reminiscent of the wild west."
The idea that the Anglo-Saxons had a superior system to any which has followed formed an important part of the inspiration for pro-democracy movements, including the 17th Century Levellers and the 19th Century Chartists.
Its influence remains.
In May 2003, a group of people met in Birmingham to declare the reinstatement of the ancient, independent Kingdom of Mercia - covering most of central England.
It promised "an organic democracy, based on holistic principles".
A section from The Mercia Manifesto reads: "It is our assertion that the current political system in England is illegal and undemocratic and that the economy is grossly polluting and unsustainable.
"The Mercia Movement therefore aims to act as a catalyst in the removal of the Establishment and in the re-empowerment of the ordinary people of the country. Mercia remains a legally autonomous region and we intend to re-create its independence in reality.
"Anglo-Saxon England provides a vital historical model which proves that a society based on community, organic democracy and environmental harmony is not a dream, but an achievable ideal."
It states that in Mercia a "bottom-up" democracy will be created, adding that:
- Each community will choose someone to represent it at the next level of government: such as the folk, leet, hundred (roughly, groups of 100 households) and shire
- These will in turn send representatives to the regional assembly - the witan
In language reminiscent of the UK's recent wrangles with the European Union and the European Court of Human Rights, it adds that "matters as require a regional approach will be referred back to communities as advice by way of subsidiarity rather than directives".
An "acting witan" has been established and supporters are touring town centres around the Midlands to recruit more "citizens".
Jeff Kent, convenor of the acting witan, said: "The take-up has been remarkable. About 90 to 95% of people we speak to say they want to become citizens of Mercia. I was staggered.
"There's a much greater understanding of what Mercia is than I expected. If you look in the phone book, there are as many businesses using the name 'Mercia' as there are using the name 'Midlands'.
"That's almost 1,000 years after the kingdom itself was dismantled by the Normans."
Mr Kent describes most of the academic discussion of Anglo-Saxon history as the "victor's" - that is, the Normans' - version.
He stresses that, in the event of Mercia's secession from the United Kingdom, the witan would not be the most important body. Instead, communities could decide their own affairs as far as possible and be in charge of whatever form the witan takes.
Mr Kent said: "Our view is that the world is the wrong way up and we want to turn it the right way up."
He added: "In Anglo-Saxon times, witans deposed kings, who were supposed to be the servants of the people. People lived in communities.
"Too much of our history starts in 1066 - the names of kings and queens, for instance. Anything that comes before has been treated as barbaric, war-like and primitive, but it was a time when people here were among the most prosperous and enlightened in the world.
"It was also a time of great peace from 1016 to 1066."
The story of Robin Hood, enemy of the Sheriff of Nottingham, may or may not have been based on the exploits of an Anglo-Saxon opponent of the Normans.
Either way, that is what the legend of the bow-wielding man of the woods represents to many.
However, Professor Innes thinks the type of centralisation that the Mercian independence movement thinks has made true local democracy impossible was "an evolution over time".
He said: "Rather than the Normans introducing it, there's a sense that, in the 10th and 11th centuries, things are getting more centralised.
"When the areas held by the Vikings were reconquered, they started to organise them into shires.
"But the Normans started using sheriffs [meaning 'reeves of the shire'] more to go around and raise taxes, which was very unpopular. They got a terrible reputation."
The question that remains is how democratic, and equal, was Anglo-Saxon society?
Records suggest that at local meetings some people were deemed much more powerful than others.
Ryan Lavelle, senior lecturer on medieval history at Winchester University, said: "At one meeting the word of 12 people was said to be equal to the word of another in a dispute. There were some very powerful local bigwigs.
"There's not much that looks like true representation."
He added: "I suspect the communities were very inward-looking, in terms of their engagement with one another."
Prof Innes agrees: "It's very different from modern local government. In fact the meetings were probably more like neighbourhood watch groups or residents' associations getting together to discuss issues very close to home.
"In fact, it was a bit like the Big Society idea that the government has been promoting."
David Cameron and his supporters might smile at the suggestion that their efforts could help throw off the "Norman yoke".
Localism, however, is a force invoked by all three main parties, however convincingly or unconvincingly.
But solutions to local election apathy are less forthcoming.
Several English cities this week will hold referendums on whether they should get elected mayors, well-known, "go-to" municipal officials.
Professor Innes feels even this will not of itself reinvigorate voters.
"In modern democracy the pretext is that people are very interested in local, bread-and-butter issues, but as soon as you bring in party politics they get turned off. No party has found a way around that yet.
"So, even if it doesn't show a way forward for local democracy, the Anglo-Saxon idea at least strikes a nerve."