Pitt’s Speech Demanding the Suspension of Habeas Corpus During the French Revolution

Also going through the book, Your MP, by the pseudonymous ‘Gracchus’, I found Pitt’s speech of the 16th May 1794, asking parliament to pass a bill suspending Habeas Corpus in order to allow the government to round up subversives during the French Revolutionary War.

Now I’ve written a number of pieces on this blog about the origins of democracy in certain strands of theology that stressed the need for representative assemblies and which permitted Christians to overthrow a tyrant. One of the criticisms of this type of history, however, is that it misrepresents how difficult and arduous the process by which democracy emerged in the West actually was. Instead of a being a smooth development in which democracy finally flowered from long, historic constitutional roots, at each stage of the process valuable constitutional freedoms had to be fought for, and were only painfully won. And historians have pointed out that for much of its history, Britain was an authoritarian state, which was all too ready to dispense with its citizens’ ancient freedoms when it suited the governing classes. The classic example of this was the 18th century, when fear of the Revolution across le Manche spreading over here moved the British government to suspend Habeas Corpus and pass range of legislation severely limiting free speech and banning a variety of ‘seditious combinations’, including the nascent trade unions.

Here’s Pitt’s speech:

The monstrous modern doctrine of the Rights of Man … threatens to overturn the government, law, property, security, religion, order and everything valuable in this country, as it has already overturned and destroyed everything in France, and endangered every nation in Europe …

That great moving principle of Jacobinism, the love of plunder, devastation and robbery, which now bears the usurped name of liberty … the arrogant claims of the same class of men as those who lord it now in France, to trample upon the rich, and crush all; the dark designs of a few, making use of the name of the people to govern all; a plan founded in the arrogance of wretches, the outcasts of society …

With some qualifications because of its florid 18th century, this has a peculiar contemporary ring about it. The attack on the ‘Rights of Man’ for example. If you replace that with the European convention on Human Rights, which is based on the French Revolutionary tradition of les droits du l’homme, (excuse my French), then the sense is more or less the same. As is the rant about the ‘arrogant claims of the same class of men as those who lord it now in France, to trample upon the rich.’ With a few alterations, you could put this in the pages of the Daily Mail today and no-one would notice. Really. A few years ago the Mail took it into its tiny collective skull to publish a rant against the French education system. It particularly attacked the elite state schools, which educated the French technocratic and governmental elite. They were nasty, horrendous, undemocratic, and excluded the French hoi polloi. Which is probably true, I dare say. It then started to compare them negatively with the British public schools, which were supposed to be better, and the mark of a freer society. Some of us would argue that it actually shows the alternative.

In fact before the introduction of democracy over here in the form of the acts finally extending the franchise to women and the rest of the working class, the doctrine of universal human rights really wasn’t widely adopted over here. The ruling classes thought it was too abstract, and too French. Instead, they linked political rights to property qualifications and the ability to pay certain levels of tax and rates. And you can see that today. It’s carefully hidden, but there is definitely an attitude that if you’re rich, you should have more rights than the rest of us. Willie Whitelaw in the 1980s said that business owners ought to have two votes, as they were responsible not just for themselves, but for their employees. One of the High Tories about twenty years ago wrote a book arguing that we should ditch all the horrendous reforms of the 1960s, and get back to a more stable age before gender equality, the legalisation of homosexuality, when there was better respect for property. He wanted the property qualification restored for jury service, so that people with a responsible attitude to the protection of property would fill the court rooms, passing guilty sentences on those caught infringing the country’s property rights.

So it really doesn’t come as a surprise, given the long history of suspicion by the ruling classes against any doctrine of equality and universal rights, that Theresa May now wants to extend the powers of the surveillance state. Or even that in the last parliament the Tories and their Lib Dem enablers passed legislation providing for secret courts and massively extending the length of time a suspect could be held for trial during their investigation.

Britain considers itself one of, if not the great founding nation of political liberty. Pitt’s speech, and the ominous rise of the surveillance state under Major, Bliar and Cameron, makes you wonder how true this really is.

+69***++++66666
3.+

Advertisements

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: