Posts Tagged ‘British Constitution’

Dictator Johnson Unites Country Against Him

September 2, 2019

On Wednesday there were demonstrations against BoJob’s proroguing of parliament the same day as he, or rather, the West Country’s answer to the Slender Man, Jacob Rees-Mogg, persuaded the Queen to sign his wretched order. Even more followed on Saturday, with people marching up and down the country holding banners and placards, making it very clear what Johnson is: a dictator.

Jeremy Corbyn spoke to protesters in Glasgow denouncing BoJob’s decision. The Labour leader also issued a tweet thanking everyone who had taken to the streets both their and across the country, and pledging the Labour party to oppose BoJob’s attack on British democracy and stop a no-deal Brexit.

In London, demonstrators marched on Buckingham palace to make their feelings very known about the Queen’s decision to give in to his demand to assume authoritarian rule. The were also demonstrations in Hereford, Staffordshire, Nottingham, Oxford, King’s Lynn, where the local radio station for West Norfolk, KLFM 967 came down to cover the demo; and in Trafalgar Square in London.

Please see Mike’s blog for the images peeps posted on Twitter of these demonstrations: https://voxpoliticalonline.com/2019/08/31/britons-take-to-the-streets-across-the-country-to-stopthecoup/

One of the most sharply observed was the banner at the beginning of Mike’s article, showing BoJob wearing a swastika armband and Nazi officer’s cap, flanked either side by the evil clown from Stephen King’s It, with balloons above them showing his and Rees-Mogg’s heads. This bore the slogan ‘Before 1933 People Thought Hitler Was A Clown Too…’. Yes, they did. One of the characters in Bernardo Bertolucci’s cinematic classic, The Conformist, makes that exact same point. The film’s about a man, who becomes a Fascist assassin after believing he has shot and killed the paedophile, who had attempted to assault him. In one scene, one of the characters reminisces how, when he was in Germany in the 1920s, there was a man, who used to go round the beer halls making speeches and ranting. ‘We all used to laugh at him’, the character recalls, and adds that they used to throw beer glasses at him. He then sombrely concludes ‘That man was Adolf Hitler’. And before he came to power, some Germans used to go to his rallies just for the fun of seeing who he would abuse next. Presumably this was in the same manner that people used to tune in to the genuine comedy character, Alf Garnett, although Garnett was very definitely a satirical attack on racism and the bigotry of working class Conservatism. Another banner made the same comparison with the Nazi machtergreifung: ‘Wake Up, UK! Or Welcome to Germany 1933′. Again, this is another, acute pertinent comparison. Everything Hitler did was constitutional, as was Mussolini’s earlier coup in Italy. Democracy collapsed in those countries because of its weakness, not because of the Fascists’ strength. And they were helped into power by right-wing elites in the political establishment, who believed that including them in a coalition would help them break a parliamentary deadlock and smash the left.

Zelo Street also covered the demonstrations against Johnson’s attempt to become generalissimo. The Sage of Crewe noted that not only were people marching in London, and large provincial cities like Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Brighton, but they were also occurring in middle ranking towns like Shrewsbury, Bournemouth, Cirencester, Lichfield, Stroud, Colwyn Bay, Clitheroe, Oxford, Swindon, Middlesborough, Exeter, Southampton, Derby, Weston-super-Mare, Falmouth, Bangor, York, Poole, Leamington Spa. Cheltenham Spa, Chester and others. ‘Places that do not usually do protests’. And the protesters are not, whatever BoJob’s focus groups say, going to vote for him.

https://zelo-street.blogspot.com/2019/08/stop-coup-people-speak.html

I doubt that the demonstrations will personally have much effect on Johnson himself. He’s a typical Tory, and so has absolutely nothing but contempt for popular protest. However, the march on Buckingham Palace may have made an impression on the genuine guardians of the British constitution. The monarchy is supposed to be one of Britain’s central institutions, like parliament. Prime ministers come and go, but the monarchy is a central pillar of the British constitution. And its guardians in the British establishment may not take kindly to Johnson dragging the Queen down with him. There may also be some hope in that it was popular demonstrations and dissatisfaction with an unjust policy – the poll tax – that culminated in the removal of Thatcher. I hope it isn’t long before BoJob goes the same way.

 

 

 

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When Were The Tories Ever the Party of the Poor?

March 14, 2016

Since David Cameron took over the Tories, they’ve been claiming that they’re the real party of the poor and the working class. Various Tory politicos have gone around speaking behind banners saying ‘For Hardworking People’. One of the leading Tory politicos made a speech, claiming that they were the party of the poor and workers, because they stood for tax cuts, which allowed the poor to keep more of their hard-earned moolah.

It’s a risible claim. The Tory party emerged in the late 17th century as the party of the monarchy, the aristocracy and the Anglican church. Its immediate predecessor was the Country party, who were disposed royalist gentry. Throughout the 18th and 19th century the Conservatives were thoroughly aristocratic, as indeed was parliament in general. It was also quite normal for the Prime Minister to be a member of the House of Lords, something that has since been forbidden by the British constitution. The modern Conservative party has changed its class composition slightly through the entrance of business people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who would earlier have been members of the Liberals. And there are one or two working class Tories on the green benches in parliament, such as Nadine Dorries, who apparently comes from a council estate. Working class support for the Conservatives was built up in the late 19th century by Disraeli. But despite this, the Tories still remain the party of the rich, the aristocracy and business. You can see that in the leadership of the Tory party – Cameron, Osborne and many others are pukka old Etonians.

‘Gracchus’, the pseudonymous author of the 1944 book, Your MP, also makes a point of the wealthy background of Tory MPs, listing a few. These include:

Arthur Balfour, who was among other things, director of the National Provincial bank, and who had not only his own company, but was also the chairman of two steel firms;

Lady Astor was a viscountess, and Col. J.J. Astor was given £1,400,000 in 1915 by his father. An exorbitant sum for the time. When he died, his father also left Astor and his brother a fortune of $40 million;

R.A.B. Butler married one of the Courtaulds. In 1928 the Courtauld Company gave its shareholders a bonus of £12 million, and the shares held by the family were estimated to have a market value of £11 million;

Sir Ronald Cross was a merchant banker and the grandson of the founder of the largest cotton manufacturer in Lancashire;

Brigadier-General W. Alexander (Glasgow Central), was a director of British Celanese, which had a capital of £9 million. He was also the deputy director of an oil company, and had been a director of Charles Tennant & Co. Ltd;

Irving Albery (Gravesend) was a member of the Stock Exchange, and senior partner in the family firm of I. Albery & Co. Ltd.

John Anderson (Scottish Universities) was a director of the armaments firm, Vickers, and the chemical company, ICI;

Ralph Assheton (Rushcliffe) came from one of the oldest aristocratic families in Britain. He married a daughter of Lord Hotham, also an ancient aristocratic family. Both families had been sending MPs to parliament since 1324, though Ralph Assheton had rather come down in their world, working as a member of the Stock Exchange.

Adrian Baillie (Tonbridge), was left a fortune of £140,000 by his brother. His wife was the daughter of Lord Queenborough, and heiress to an American multi-millionaire, Whitney. Lady Baillie owned Leeds castle in Kent, where Hitler’s racial ideologue, Alfred Rosenberg, was a guest in 1933.

Brograve Beauchamp (Walthamstow East) married the daughter of the Earl of Carnarvon. R.E.B. Beaumont was the son of Viscount Allendale, who bequeathed him £200,000. Alfred Beit (St. Pancras South East) was the director of a number of investment trusts, and was left £3,500,000 by his father. Lt.-Col. D. Boles (Wells), was an old Etonian, so obviously very rich. L.H. Boyce was chairman of the Gloucester Railway Carriage and Wagon Company, along with seven other firms.

R.A. Brabner (Hythe) was a merchant banker.

Major A.N. Braithwaite (Buckrose) was director of Guardian Eastern Insurance co. Ltd, as well as a number of brick companies, and a director of Sir Lindsay Parkinson & Co. Ltd.

William Brass (Clitheroe) was an estate agent, and director of the Guardian Assurance Company.

George Broadbridge (City of London) was a tin magnate and Lord Mayor of London in 1936;

Captain Bartle Bull (Enfield) was the heir of Canadian millionaire. His wife was a Miss Baur of Chicago, who herself inherited £500,000.

G.R. Hall Caine (Dorset, East) was a director of nine or ten companies.

Colonel W.H. Carver (Howdenshire) was a director of the LNER and a brewery.

R.A. Cary (Eccles) married the niece of Lord Curzon.

Somerset S. de Chair, (Norfolk South West) was the son of an admiral.

H. Channon (Southend-on-Sea) married Lady Honor Guinness, and was a friend of Ribbentrop’s.

Lt.-Col. R.S. Clarke (East Grinstead) also was the director of a couple of companies.

R. Clarry (Newport) was managing director of the Duffryn Steel and Tin Plate Works, and the director of a number of other firms.

Sir Thomas Cook (Norfolk North) was the grandson of the Thomas Cook, who founded the travel agency.

Duff Cooper is brother-in-law to the Duke of Rutland and nep0hew of the Duke of Fife.

Colonel George Courthope (Rye), belonged to another ancient aristocratic family that had owned land since 1493. He was a former chairman of the Central Landowners’ Association, and director of the Southern Railway, chairman of Ind Cooper and Alsop, the great pub chain.

Captain H.B. Trevor Cox (Stalybridge and Hyde) was another company director.

Lord C. Crichton-Stuart was the son of the Marquess of Bute. His wife was the Marchioness of Lansdowne, and inherited a cool million from his father.

J.F.E. Crowder (Finchley) was a member of Lloyds.

Against them, there were a number of Tory MPs from working class backgrounds. These were Sir Walter Womersley (Grimsby), Mr Denville (Newcastle Central) and Mr Rowlands (Flint). But, he concludes There may be another Tory MP or two who started with the advantages and disadvantages of ordinary men. Among the National Liberals, Mr Ernest Brown, part of whose job used to be to build us houses-in twos, or even in half-dozens-seems to have done so. Research fails to find any more.

This is not to say that the Tories haven’t been touchy about representing the interests of the rich and powerful. When Randolph Churchill, one of the two Tory MPs for Preston, said that the Conservatives in recent years had “had tended more and more to be identified with the propertied classes, and that those who dominated and controlled the Party had served the interests of a purse-proud, acquisitive and selfish minority”, the other Tory MP for the constituency, Captain Cobb, declared that his comment was ‘an insult to the electors’.

Well, Randolph Churchill’s comment was true then, and it’s just as true now. Winston Churchill himself declared, when he was a Liberal, that the Tories were the party of the rich against the poor. And in the century since, nothing has changed, despite the denials and slogans of Cameron, Osbo and co.

British Constitutional Theory and Blair and Cameron’s Surveillance State

November 2, 2015

Over the past few decades we’ve seen the powers of the secret state expand massively, and there are ever-increasing demands for increased powers of surveillance and data-gathering. A few days ago the government intended to pass a bill stipulating that the internet companies should keep browsing histories for a year, just in case the police or security agencies were interested. The power to look at these was to be granted by ministers, rather than judges. Cameron, however, backed down at the last minute, faced with what looks like another rebellion in the Lords.

If this is really what happened, then the Lords are right. And Cameron should know it, if he has any idea of British constitutional theory, or even a grounding in the Classics.

Which given the fact that he didn’t know what Magna Carta was, wouldn’t surprise me.

Since the Middle Ages there has been a long line of British political theorists firmly opposed to the expansion of the powers of the state to spy, prosecute and control. In the Middle Ages the percentage of criminal cases, which resulted in a conviction was low – about five per cent. Nevertheless, medieval English political theorists during the Fifteenth century considered that this was an acceptable price to pay for protecting the citizen from oppression and malicious prosecution by a tyrannical state. They compared the turbulent state of contemporary England with France. France was more peaceful, but this, they believed, had been purchased at the price of a despotic, absolute state.

This attitude continued into the 18th century. Blackstone, one of the greatest British constitutional theorists and historians, declared that it was better that ten thieves and criminals should escape, than one good man should be hanged.

And as someone, who no doubt has studied the Classics as part of their expensive education at Eton, Cameron should know very well the attitude of the Roman historians to the corrupt and brutal Roman Emperors, who ruled by fear, and had networks of spies and informers. Like Nero or Caligula.

This does not mean that there isn’t a very strong authoritarian strain in British politics. Britain became extremely authoritarian during the French Revolution, when all manner of legislation was passed against radical groups, popular assemblies and trade unions.

But this is counterbalanced by a political tradition firmly opposed to despotism, and which also stands opposed to the massive expansion of the surveillance state, which is increasingly demanding information on each of its citizens.

This is only a few sketchy thoughts on the issue at the moment. But it is an extremely worrying issue, which I intend to pursue further.

As for my own thoughts on crime and terrorism – I want criminals and terrorists to be caught and properly punished from their crimes in a court of law. I want the police to have sufficient powers to be able to do this. But I don’t want them to have more power than needed, at the expense of the liberty of ordinary people. This latter is what Cameron’s proposed reforms undermine.

And one other saying is important here: The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

Sir John Fortescue on Parliament, Taxing the Aristos and the Wealth of England

November 1, 2015

Part of this post is going to be in Late Middle English, which isn’t easy to read. Nevertheless, please bear with it. I’ll include a rough translation into modern English as well.

In my last piece, I blogged about how the Tories had started lying about the British constitution and the role of the House of Lords after their plans to cut tax credit for the poorest in Britain were thrown out by the Upper House. After listening to their rants, which essentially come down to ‘How dare they defy us! This ain’t democratic’, I thought I’d look up what Sir John Fortescue wrote about such matters way back in the 15th century.

Sir John Fortescue was one of the founders of English and British political theory. He was at one time Chief Justice of the King’s Bench, and one of the country’s leading intellectuals. Douglas Gray, in his introduction to the chapter on philosophy and political theory in prose, writes

In his various works he shows a concern for the continuity of traditional political values and for the need to define them and the institutions in which they took form. The Governance of England discusses with clarity and elegance English constitutional principles and suggests some administrative reforms. Fortescue has great faith in the English tradition of “limited” government by the king (dominium politicum et regale) as against the despotic rule of the French king. His view that the test of ‘limited monarchy’ is in its fruits leads him into an unfavourable discussion of the French system which makes us think of Chartier’s Lament of the Third Estate. Unlike many other contemporary works, The Governance of England shows an awareness of actual political conditions and of the way in which differing economic and social structures are reflected in a country’s political institutions.

Here’s the words of the man himself:

Sir John Fortescue: The Governance of England

The Fruit of Jus Regale and of Jus Politicum et Regale

‘And howsobeit that the Frenche kyng reignith upon is peple dominio regalie, yet St. Lowes sometime kynge there, nor eny of his progenitors sette never tayles or other imposicion upon the people of that lande withowt the assent of the .iii estate, wich whan thai bith assembled bith like to the courte of the parlemont in Ingelonde. And this ordre kepte many of his successours into late dayes, that Ingelonde men made suche warre in Fraunce, that the .iiii estates durst not come togedre. And than for the cause and for gret necessite wich the French kynge hade of good for the defence of the lande, he toke upon hym to sett tayles and other imposicions upon the comouns withowt the assent of the .999 estates; but yet he wolde not sett any such charges, or hath sette, uppone the nobles of his lande for fere of rebellion. And bicvause the comouns ther, though thai have grucched, have not rebellid or beth hardy to rebelle, the French kynges have yere withyn sette such charges upon them, and so augmented the same charges, ,as the same comouns be so impoverysshid and destroyed, that thai mowe unneth leve….

But, blessyd be God, this lande is ruled undir a betir law; and therefore the people thereof be not in such peynurie, nor therby hurt in their persons, but thai bith in welthe, and have all thinges nescessarie to their sustenance of nature. Wherfore thai ben mighty, and able to resiste the adversaries of this reaume, and to beete other reaumes that do, or wolde do them wronge. Lo, this is the fruyt of jus polliticum et regale, under wich we live.’

Roughly translated, this means that

‘although the French king reigns over his people due to royal dominion, St. Louis the Pious, the former king there, and his ancestors, never placed taxes or other charges on the people without the assent of the three estates, which when assembled are like parliament in England. And this order was maintained by many of his successors into later days, that Englishmen made such war in France, that the three estates did not dare to come together. And then because of that and from the great necessity the French king had for the good and for the defence of that land, he took it upon himself to place taxes and impose other charges on the common people without the assent of the three estates; but he would not set any such taxes, nor has he set them, on the nobles of his land, out of fear of rebellion. And because the common people there, although they have complained, have not rebelled or are not hardy enough to rebel, the French kings have every year since set such charges on them, and so raised the same charges, so that the common people are so impoverished and destroyed, that they may scarcely live…

But, blessed be God, this land is ruled by a better law,; and therefore its people are not in such penury, nor their persons hurt, but they are wealthy, and have all things necessary to their sustenance of nature. For that reason they are powerful, and able to resist the adversaries of this realm, and to beat other realms that do, or would do them wrong. Look, this is the fruit of the just politics and rule, under which we live.’

I’ve left out for reasons of length Fortescue’s description of the poverty of the French common people, as shown in their food, dress and so on.

The essence of his argument is that the French people are poor, because the common people have to pay all the taxes, while the aristocracy are exempt. But because in England everyone, including the aristos, pay tax, we’re wealthier, healthier, and better able to give Johnny Foreigner a good hiding if he tries anything.

Now Fortescue was a member of the aristocracy, writing when the monarchy had much greater powers than today. But there are clearly parallels to today’s situation, in which the government is trying to increase the tax burden on ordinary people in order to reduce it for the upper and middle classes. And as Fortescue could have told him, this has had an effect in making the common people poorer and their lives more miserable.

Clearly, Fortescue is another pillar of the British/ English constitution Cameron hasn’t read, along with Magna Carta. It seems Jeremy Corbyn’s right about the Tories being ‘overeducated and under-informed’.

Source

Douglas Gray, ed., The Oxford Book of Late Medieval Verse & Prose (Oxford: OUP 1988).

Tory Lies Alert! House of Lords Purpose to Check Taxation, Not Laws

November 1, 2015

Tory Lies Drawing

I’ve come to the conclusion that the Tory party is constitutionally incapable of telling the truth. They’re so used to lying that they’d tell the public that Paris is the capital of Luxembourg, or that Schleswig-Holstein was a type of beer brewed in Iowa, and that Boris Johnson was Qahless, Emperor of the Klingons, if they could get away with it. Or if one of their paymasters in big business paid them.

Last week they were firmly trounced by the House of Lords, which threw out their plans to cut tax credit for the very poorest families. As a result, they’ve thrown their teddies out their prams, and promised to go round the Lord’s to give them a good kicking. David Cameron started ranting about how ‘undemocratic’ the House was, and how he was going to flood it with good and loyal Tories, who would all vote his way in future, so there!

And yar, boo, sucks to the rest of us.

Have I Got News For You on Friday pointed out that the House of Lords already has 800 or so members. This is large enough without the further 100 Cameron is planning to pack in there.

They also showed a clip of a Tory official, giving his learned opinion on the constitutional origins and purpose of the House of Lords. By ‘ learned opinion’, I do, of course, mean ‘lies’.

The official stated that the purpose of the House of Lords was simply to revise legislation. It’s scope was strictly limited to taxation. The House of Lords had exceeded the scope of its functions, and needed to be reformed. QED.

Not quite.

The House of Lords is basically a remnant of the feudal grand council, going all the way back to the witangemot, in Anglo-Saxon times, which monarchs called to advise them. It is not limited to examining matters of taxation, and has always had the power to throw out legislation. It may only do this three times. It constitutional purpose is to examine and amend legislation passed by the Lower House, in accordance with the theory of the separation of powers. It is also designed to act as a constitutional check on the power of the monarchy.

It was the House of Commons that was originally set up to examine matters of taxation. It was established by Simon de Montfort during the thirteenth century. The English Crown wanted to raise taxes, and the aristocracy refused to do so unless they had a say in how it was spent. The House of Commons is basically one section of the feudal grand council, which has been amended so that its members are elected, rather than sit by hereditary right or the monarch’s pleasure. And its constitutional function was to check the oligarchic power of the Lords.

Of course, the Tories have absolutely no objections to oligarchy, and really want to bring it all back. Hence their reforms to the registration process, which will leave about ten million people disenfranchised. They do, however, have a problem with members of the House of Lords, who suddenly wake up and do their constitutional duty, rather than simply collecting their expenses and going home. Hence all the fury from the Tory benches.

Not everyone was taken by the guff the Tories have been spouting about the origins of parliament and the British constitution. On the clip shown by Have I Got News For You, the lady MP standing next to the Tory was most spectacularly unimpressed, as his lies flowed out of him. She responded by pulling faces. It’s probably the best response possible to this latest barrage of Tory lies.

Of course, they’re hoping that people will be taken in by it. After all, they’ve always considered themselves the natural party of government, and Tory clubs up and down the country have called themselves ‘Constitutional Clubs’. This assault on the constitution and the British people’s constitutional liberties shows that they aren’t. But they won’t tell you that, just more lies.

Resources for Constitutional History: Kenneth Mackenzie’s The English Parliament

March 9, 2014

Parliament Book Cover

Mike over at Vox Political has several times mentioned that there’s a need for books on parliament because of the way the Coalition has repeatedly interfered with it, or ignored it, when MPs have had the audacity to do something it didn’t like. Like demand a cumulative assessment on the impact of the government’s welfare reforms on the poor and disabled. Mike blogged on this live, as the debate was broadcast from parliament. What emerged from that debate was the government’s absolute and complete contempt for those who didn’t agree with it. They sent about three members of the Tory party to defend the government’s policies during the debate, which shows you precisely how far they feel they have to justify themselves to the nation’s elected representatives at Westminster.

I strongly agree with Mike about this issue. The past two decades have seen profound changes to the British constitution. The most obvious of this was Blair’s reform of the House of Lords, which has resulted in a partly appointed upper house. Other changes have been in the way consecutive prime ministers since Blair have begun side-lining or ignoring parliament. Blair’s administration was strongly criticised for the way he reduced Prime Minister’s Question Time to once a week, and appeared to attempt to stage manage his appearances before parliament as carefully as his other, public appearances were choreographed. The most notorious example of the offhand way Blair treated parliament was in his refusal to hold a proper debate in Westminster prior to the invasion of Iraq. Blair’s regime has been described, with more than a little justification, as ‘presidential’, which causes problems as this is a parliamentary democracy. The Coalition have continued this transformation of the office of Prime Minister into a quasi-presidency. This needs to be stopped, and more power restored to parliament as the expression of the people’s political will, and a check to the growing, arbitrary powers of the prime Minister.

Unfortunately, there appear to be very, very few books actually on the shelves of bookshops on parliament. Looking around the ‘Politics’ section of Waterstones, I can’t remember seeing a single book on it. There are any number of books on other, important political issues, such as the situation in the Middle East, Islamic radicalism in the UK, analyses of the structure of British politics, the European Union, the global policies towards the Developing World, analyses of race relations and tensions in Britain, and questions of poverty, entrepreneurship and so on, as well as books on various political philosophies and tendencies, like Neo-Liberalism. But no book could I see on parliament, what is and does.

One book on the subject I did manage to find was Kenneth Mackenzie’s The English Parliament (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1951). Subtitled ‘A survey of the historical development of parliament describing how and why it has come to work in the way that it does today’, it does indeed trace the rise and development of the English parliament from its emergence from the feudal grand conseil of the king’s feudal lords during the Middle Ages and its foundation by Simon de Montfort.

It has the following chapters:

1. A Court Becomes a Parliament, with sections on the feudal nature of parliament and the arrival of the House of Commons;

2. The Commons Become Legislators, with sections on the position of the commons, and petition and bill;

3. Liberty from Tyranny, with sections on freedom of speech, freedom from arrest, and the power to commit;

4. Rules, Clerks, Records, with sections on the early history of procedure, clerks and journals, and the publication of proceedings and debates;

5. Consent to Taxation, with sections on the final establishment of the consent of parliament to taxation, and the Commons’ gain of sole control over taxation;

6. The Ministry Becomes Responsible to the Commons, with sections on early attempts to control policy, and ministerial responsibility.

7. The Commons Represent the People, with sections on the early history of representation, the reform of the electoral system, and the party system;

8. The Modernisation of Procedure, with sections on procedural reform, 1800-72, obstruction and disorderly conduct, 1877-88, the pressure of business, and the government takes the time of the House.

10. The Commons Control Expenditure, with sections on the history of the attempt, and the modern system;

11. Parliament Delegates Power to Make Law;

12. The Second Chamber, on the House of Lords, which has sections on its composition, its financial and legislative powers, and its jurisdiction.

There is also a concluding chapter 13, The Secret Garden of the Crown, which assesses it history and considering some of the problems facing the future of parliament.

Each chapter is prefaced with a suitable quotation from that age’s leading politicians and constitutional theorists. The two quotes for the first chapter on the origins of parliament give a very good summary of its feudal origins and the role they have played in keeping Britain free from tyranny. The first is by the great 19th century Liberal constitutional historian, Lord Acton. Acton said

The one thing that saved England from the fate of other countries was not her insular position, nor the independent spirit nor the magnanimity of her people – for we have been proud of the despotism we obeyed under the Tudors, and not ashamed of the tyranny we exercised in our dependencies – but only the consistent, uninventive, stupid fidelity to that political system which originally belonged to all the nations that traverse the ordeal of feudalism.

Acton was an ardent advocate of constitutional liberty and an enemy of absolute tyranny. It was Lord Acton who coined the phrase, ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

The second quote comes from the Anglo-Norman legal writer, Bracton. Bracton was one of the magistrates responsible for founding the British common law tradition, in which law is influenced not just by abstract legislation, but also by custom and precedent. This quote runs

Moreover, the King has over him a court, that is to say the earls and barons; for the earls, as their name (comites) implies, are the companions of the king, and he who has a colleague has a master.

The word ‘comites’, which is translated as ‘earls’ in the above passages, is the origin of the modern English word ‘count’. it comes from the Latin word comes, companion. This became a technical term for a very senior Roman governor, as it stood for someone, who was the companion of the emperor.

That passage shows how, even during the Middle Ages when kings had massive powers and could rule for years without calling parliament, there was nevertheless a feeling that there were constitutional checks to the power of the monarch. Indeed, after John’s defeat by the barons at Runnymede and the issuing of the Magna Carta, there appeared a saying in Norman French. Translated into modern English, this read ‘This is the Commune of England, in which everyone has his own opinion’. ‘Commune’ was the term used in the Middle Ages for a town, which had acquired the freedom to govern itself. It’s a classic summary of English political liberty as it has descended from the Middle Ages. The monarchy has gradually been the subject of even further checks, so that they liberty of people under parliament has grown since the time that was uttered. Unfortunately, the Coalition are doing their level best to undermine it.

The book is very dated, but nevertheless it gives a good introduction to parliament in England. We need more books like this as parliamentary procedure is increasingly attacked under the guise of reform.

Resisting Cameron’s Contempt for Parliament: Books Giving a Historical Perspective on British Democracy and Constitution

January 17, 2014

This evening I’ve reblogged Mike’s piece over at Vox Political commenting on the Coalition’s response for parliament’s call for an inquiry into the alarming rise of poverty in the UK. Cameron has ignored it, despite the fact that it was passed by a majority of 127 to 2. Mike and the commenters to his blog have justifiably viewed this as the death of democracy, the day when parliament’s ability to the hold the government of the day to account was finally suppressed. At the moment this isn’t quite true, but it does not bode well for the future. Tony Blair’s tenure as prime minister was harshly attacked by the Conservative press for its very presidential style. The Tories particularly objected to the way Blair ignored parliament when it suited him, quite apart from his reform of the House of Lords. The Conservatives saw him as a real danger to the British constitution and our ancient liberties, and there were a number of books by right-wing authors and journalists proclaiming this very clearly on their covers. Cameron is continuing and possibly accelerating this process and the transformation of the post of prime minister into something like the American presidency, and in so doing running over the constitutional checks to the power of the prime minister.

One of Mike’s commenters has said that for people to be able to challenge this gradual accumulation of power by the prime minister, without recourse to or check by parliament, they need to be informed of how parliament actually works. I haven’t quite been able to find a book I bought a while ago on parliament. I have been able to find a number of books, which give an important historical insight into the development of democracy and the extremely long struggle for a truly representative, democratic parliament. Here are the books I recommend:

Eric J. Evans, The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain 1783-1870
(London: Longman 1983)

Forging Modern State

This is a general history of Britain. I’ve selected it here because of its chapters on the constitutional changes which vastly increased the electorate in the 19th century. These were the Great Reform Act of 1833, and then Disraeli’s further expansion of the franchise in 1870, and the agitation and popular movements that demanded them, such as the Chartists. These show just how hard won the vote was, though it wasn’t until 1918 that every adult in Britain had the vote. The 1870 electoral reform enfranchised most, but certainly not all, working class men, and still excluded women from the franchise.

The book also describes the other major events and crises of that part of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, including the establishment of something like a public educational system in Britain, the enfranchisement of religious Dissenters so that they could participate in politics, the repeal of the Corn Laws, industrialisation, the Factory Acts, and poverty. The 19th century is very much a part of political discourse today by both the Left and Right because it was the age in which modern Britain really took shape, and the debate over ‘Victorian Values’ introduced by Maggie Thatcher. Evan’s book as an overview of Britain in the period offers valuable information on that crucial period.

John Miller: The Glorious Revolution (London: Longman 1983)

Glorious Revolution

This was an other vital period in the creation of British parliamentary democracy. It was when the Roman Catholic, Stuart king, James II, was overthrown and the crown given instead to William of Orange. It is obviously an immensely controversial topic in Northern Ireland, because of the way it cemented the exclusion of the Roman Catholics from power, which was held by a very narrow, Protestant elite. Back in 1988, the year of its tricentennial, Margaret Thatcher’s government deliberately chose not to celebrate it because of its highly divisive legacy in Ulster. It’s importance to British democracy lies in the fact that it gave real power to parliament. True, Britain was still a monarchy, not a republic, but its kings and queens now ruled by the consent of parliament. Furthermore, William of Orange was forced to reassure his British subject that he would not override parliament and the traditional constitutional checks and liberties by issuing a Bill of Rights. This became one of the founding documents of the British Constitution during the 18th and early 19th century.

J.W. Allen, A History of Political Thought in the Sixteenth Century (London: Methuen)

16th Century Politics

This was first published nearly a century ago in 1928. Nevertheless, it’s still a very useful book. The 16th century was the period when politicians, theologians and philosophers across Europe began to inquire into the origins of their countries’ constitutions, and debate the nature of political power. It was an age of absolute monarchy, when it was considered that the king had total power and whose subjects had no right to resist him. This view was attacked by both Protestant and Roman Catholic political theorists, who developed the idea of popular sovereignty. St. Augustine had introduced into Christianity the ancient Greek theory of the idea of the social contract. The theory states that right at the beginning of human society, people came together to elect a leader, who would rule in order to protect their lives and property. As well as claiming a divine right to rule, medieval kings also claimed the right to rule as the people’s representative, given power through this original contract between the primordial ruler and his people. Under theologians and philosophers like the Spanish Jesuit, Suarez, this became the basis for a true theory of national sovereignty. Just as kings owed their power to the will of the people, so the people had the right to depose those kings, who ruled tyrannically.

These are just three of the books I’ve found useful in presenting the history and development of some of the aspects of modern British theories of constitutional government and parliamentary democracy. I intend to post about a few others as well, which I hope will keep people informed about our democracy’s origins, how precious it is, and how it must be defended from those modern politicos, like Cameron, who seem intent on overthrowing it.

The Heads of Grievances of 1689: The Origins of the British Bill of Rights

July 6, 2013

After William of Orange’s invasion and accession to the British throne in 1689, Parliament met to present him with a list of grievances. These were a mixture of the constitutional violations that had been made by James II, which they wished to see corrected and removed, and further provisions strengthening parliamentary liberty and placing constitutional limits on royal power. The second half of the list of grievances was dropped completely, but the first was amended to become the Declaration of Rights and then the Bill of Rights. This last is the closest Britain has to a written constitution.

The List of Grievances

The said Commons so elected, being now assembled in a full and free representative of this nation, taking into their most serious consideration the best means for attaining the ends aforesaid, do in the first place (as their ancestors in like case have usually done) for the vindicating and asserting their ancient rights and liberties, unanimously declare,

That the pretended power of dispensing or suspending of laws, or the execution of laws, by regal authority, without consent of Parliament, is illegal;

That the commission for erecting the late court of commissioners for ecclesiastical causes and all other commissions and courts of like nature are illegal and pernicious.

That levying of money for or to the use of the crown, by pretence of prerogative, without grant of Parliament, for longer time, or in other manner, than the same is or shall be granted is illegal.

That it is the right of the subjects to petition the king and all commitments and prosecutions for such petitioning are illegal.

That the raising or keeping of a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace, unless it be with consent of Parliament, is against law.

That the subject which are Protestants may provide and keep arms for their common defence.

That election of Members of Parliament ought to be free.

That the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament.

That excessive bail ought not to be required; nor excessive fines imposed; nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

That jurors ought to be duly impanelled and returned; and jurors which pass upon men in trials for high treason ought to be freeholders.

That all grants and promises of fines and forfeitures of particular persons before conviction are illegal and void.

And that for the redress of all grievances and fort he amending, strengthening and preserving of the laws, Parliaments ought to be held frequently and suffered to sit … And towards the making a more firm and perfect settlement of the said religion, laws and liberties, it is proposed and advised … that there be provision by new laws … to the purposes following, viz.

For repealing the Acts concerning the militia and settling it anew;

For securing the right and freedom of electing members of the House of Commons, and the rights and privileges of Parliaments, and members thereof, as well in the intervals of Parliament as during their sitting;

For securing the frequent sitting of Parliaments;

For preventing the too long continuance of the same Parliament; boroughs and plantations against Quo Warrantos and surrenders and mandates and restoring them to their ancient rights;

None of the royal family to marry a Papist;

Every King and Queen of this realm at the time of their entering into the exercise of their regal authority, to take an oath for maintaining the Protestant religion and the laws and liberties of this nation; and the coronation oath to be altered;

For the liberty of Protestants in the exercise of their religion; and for uniting all Protestants in thematter of public worship, as far as may be;

For regulating constructions upon the statutes of treasons, and trials and proceedings and writs of error in cases of treason;

For making judges’ commissions quamdiu se bene gesserint; and ascertaining and establishing their salaries, to be paid out of the public revenue only; and for preventing their being removed and suspended from the execution of their offices, unless by due course of law;

For better securing the subjects against excessive bail in criminal cases and excessive fines and cruel and unusual punishments;

For reforming abuses in the appointing of sheriffs and in the execution of their office;

For securing the due impanelling and returning of jurors and preventing corrupt and false verdicts;

For taking away informations in the Court of King’s Bench;

For regulating the Chancery and other courts of justice, and the fees of officers;

For preventing the buying and selling of offices;

For giving liberty to the subjects to traverse returns upon habeas corpuses and mandamuses;

For preventing the grants and promises of fines and forfeitures before conviction;

For redressing the abuses and oppressions in levying the hearth money;

And for redressing the abuses and oppressions in levying and collecting the excise.

The British List of Grievances and American Guns Rights?

Looking through the list it struck me that the provision, that British Protestant could keep guns for the common defence is, shorn of its sectarian conditions, the origin of the American 2nd amendment: that Americans have the right to bear arms. The American Constitution was strongly influenced by Locke, and 17th century British theories of constitutional government. It seems to me that the strong feeling amongst the American Right, that people should have the right to own guns ultimately has its origin in this clause, which was intended to protect British Protestants from persecution by an absolute and tyrannical monarchy.

While the anti-Roman Catholic nature of these grievances meant that it was not until the 19th century that Roman Catholics enjoyed civil rights in Britain, and led to immense hardship and oppression in Ireland, nevertheless the List of Grievances can be seen as one of the fundamental elements of modern, British constitutional democracy.