Republicanism in Britain: A Brief History Parts 1 and 2

1.  Introduction

It is ironic that the islands which have produced a disproportionately large number of republican theorists have retained a monarchical system for the majority of its inhabitants.  Since the middle years of the last millennium where our story starts, the fortunes of republicans and republicanism can be seen to ebb and flow on centuries long waves. 

The two great peaks of republicanism which occurred during the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries were separated by periods where the ideas were held in obeisance. But, as I will show,  this is far from saying there was no republican activity during these times. Using history as a predictor of the future is fraught with danger but as the twentieth century fitted into the pattern is is tempting to hope that our present century will witness a new peak.

The Many Facets of Republicanism

Superficially, the history of Republicanism appears to be no more than a straightforward chronicle of anti monarchism in Britain. But such a view overlooks the rich variety of republican thought, some of it only tangentially affecting monarchy.  

Indeed, at times writers who considered themselves republicans were quite happy with a monarchy; though one which was tightly constrained, knew its responsibilities and could be held to account. Some of these ideas approach the concepts embodied in the modern office of President of the United States! Likewise it would be impossible to consider the development of British republicanism without reference to wider social, economic and even global events. 

Of enormous influence to early British republicans were the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers Aristotle, Demosthenes and Cicero along with historians Livy, Tacitus and Polybius. Similarly, many Reformation English and Scottish republicans looked to more recent ideas flowing from fifteenth and sixteenth century Florence, with Machiavelli proving to be a particularly influential figure.

From the earliest times it is clear that Republicanism is not a single tightly defined concept but rather a loose overlapping collection of ideas and concepts on the nature of citizenship and the exercise of political power. It can also be regarded as a way of thinking or even a vocabulary articulating an approach to political and constitutional issues. At its core is a concern for freedom both for the individual and the state as a whole. 

Of importance is the fact that republicanism is most effective and successful when combined with a separate though related cause. In the middle of the seventeenth century this was a lack of religious freedom. Later in the first half of the nineteenth century the driver was economic oppression caused by the rapid growth of unregulated capitalism.

During much of this period the British Isles consisted of three interlinked kingdoms. In fact a United Kingdom of all the islands existed for a very short time in historical terms.  The nature of republicanism varied across time and across these countries but in only one, on the island of Ireland has the idea been thus far successful. 

Finally, many of the ideas and concepts behind republicanism have remained largely dormant for almost two centuries, being displaced by liberalism and libertarianism as the  dominant concepts of freedom. Recovering these buried concepts from past republican theorists demonstrates the great value we have lost in such a concept.t

2.  16th Century Reformation Republicans

Building on the past

It is very rare that ideas and concepts spontaneously arise with no antecedents. So it was with sixteenth century political theory. In England the fifteenth century lawyer Sir John Fortesque argued that monarchical absolutism was a problem for continental Europe rather than England.

Around 1470 he published De Laudibus Legum Anglie which was translated in 1567 by Robert Mulcaster as A Learned Commendation of the Politique Lawes of England. Fortesque followed the Greek philosopher Aristotle in viewing tyranny to br a monarch’s abuse of the property of their subjects with the desire to amass wealth solely for their own benefit at the expense of the people. Similarly, he articulated Thomas Aquinas in declaring:

…the King is gyen for the kingdome, and not the kingdome for the King.

Another Greek thinker, the historian Polybius, was a vitally important source of ideas. He was widely read in late sixteenth century England, influencing the debate by drawing attention to the written constitution of ancient Sparta which guaranteed limits on the power of monarchy. The key institution of the state was the senate which operated effectively because its members ‘were chosen on grounds of merit, and could be relied upon at all times to unanimously take the side of justice. 

European humanist works such as Laurentius Grimaldus’s The Counsellor, anonymously translated into English in 1599, endorsed Polybius’s praise of the Roman Republic. Grimaldus argued that the mixed state of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy directly resembled the parts of a man’s mind, making it a natural form of political structure.

Ascending Versus Descending views of Power

Polybius’s works supported an ‘ascending’ view of the balance of power between Crown and Parliament which placed emphasis on the monarch being tied by the laws made in parliament. The rival ‘descending’ view subjugated the authority of representative chambers to the prerogative  of the monarch, reducing them to mere advisory bodies. 

These two interpretations lay at the heart of political debate of sixteenth century England and recur constantly. But even the ascending view was open to many interpretations with the result that the nature of republican arguments during this time were complex and frequently contradictory. 

This dichotomy is clearly visible in Richard Bacon’s 1594 Solon his Foliie, or. Politique Discourse touching the reformation of common-weales conquerred, declined or corrupted. Though dedicated to Elizabeth I it makes extensive reference to both Livy and Machiavelli. 

Heavily influenced by the latter, Bacon develops his commonwealth idea by citing examples from ancient Sparta and Athens, the 1579-83 Ulster Desmond Rebellion together with Machiavelli’s own Renaissance Florence. As the court of Elizabeth I sought to protect its prerogative and prevent discussion of the succession during the 1590s, such political treatises were naturally viewed as dangerous.

The Ancient Roman Republic provided a wide ranging and compelling model for sixteenth century political theorists. In his 1568 translation of the first forty books of Polybius’s Universal History, Christopher Warton includes a personal section clearly influenced by Somnium Scipionius., This was an account of the efforts of Scipio Africanus. Scipio, the most talented general of the Third Punic War (149-136BCE), in defending Rome against Hannibal. This raises him to the status of a republican hero.

The Idea of a Commonwealth

A major contribution to English political development was made by Sir Thomas Smith in his De Republican Anglorum; A Discourse on the Commonwealth of England published in 1583. Smith declared:

A Common Wealth is called a society or common doing of a multitude of free men collected together and united by common accord and covenauntes among themselves, for the conservation of themselves as well as in peace as in warre.

Later in the work, Smith articulates one of the fundamental principles of republican philosophy:

And if one man had as some of the old Romanes had (if it be true that is written) v. thousands or x. thousands bondsmen whom he ruled well and though they dwelled all in one citie or were distributed into diverse villages, yet that were no commonwealth; for the bondsman hath no communion with his master, for the wealth of the Lord is onely sought for, and not the profit of the slave or bondsman.

Surprisingly, despite these clear republican statements, Smith is not necessarily an anti-monarchist. Once again it depends on the regal powers being strictly circumscribed by a parliament or other representative body. He does, however, take pains to include even the lowliest sections of society, though as a means of emphasising that the English commonwealth is a collective project.

Drawing a Distinction Between the Office and Person of Monarch

A major impetus to republican theory in England was the heirless state of Elizabeth I. Her chief secretary William Cecil wrote a document which aimed to ‘tackle the potential problem of England without a monarch in December 1592, after Elizabeth suffered a bout of serious illness. It contained a clause which enabled parliament to establish a ‘conciliar interregnum’ and then nominate a successor. This established the all-important distinction between the two bodies of the monarch, the office and the person, in order to preserve the realm in a stable state. This distinction was to prove crucial during the 17th Century.

Cecil’s use of the term interregnum illustrates that following a short period of Parliamentary control, he fully intended that a new monarch should be crowned. This shows that politicians who used republican arguments were often just as repelled  by the thought of rebellion as more conservative thinkers. Furthermore it is important to note that republican ideas could be used to preserve as well as attack the monarchy.

Scotland in the Vanguard of Republicanism

Last but not least, a fertile breeding ground for republicanism in the British Isles during the 16th Century Reformation period was Scotland.  One of the most influential and original political thinkers. George Buchanan wrote three major works of political theory, De Jure Regni Apud Scotos (1579), Any detectioun of the dunges of Marie Queene of Scots (1571) and Rarum Scoticarum Historia (1582). All were familiar to people south of the border.

Knowledge Must Be Decided by Investigation and Debate, Not Determined By Government

The enemies of freedom have always charged its defenders with subversion. And nearly always they have succeeded in persuading the guileless and well-meaning.

Karl Popper: The Open Society and its Enemies

Since Theresa May was appointed Prime Minister in the summer of 2016 we have seen an unprecedented attack on citizens and organisations legitimately voicing opinions counter to Government policy. There was the spectacle of Theresa May claiming from the steps of Number 10 that anyone opposing her view of Brexit was a ‘saboteur’. This was followed by the horrendous traducing of Gina Miller for exercising her legitimate right to ask the judiciary whether the Government was acting within its remit to bypass Parliament when triggering EU Article 50. Judicial Review is a fundamental freedom which everyone enjoys.

Now we have Conservative MP Chris Heaton-Harris, a Government Whip no less, demanding that Universities divulge the names of any of their academics working in the field of humanities who may lecture on the possible implications of Brexit. This chilling and dangerous move is the most recent of Government attempts to stifle academic examination of their policies.  During the Brexit campaign there was Michael Gove attempting to trash the value of expert opinion.  A little earlier in 2016 it was revealed by the Observer newspaper (during February in this article) that the Cabinet Office was imposing new rules from May 1st 2016 which would effectively censor recipients of Government grants from using their results to lobby for a change in policy.  After a high profile protest by senior scientists, including the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees, the Government partly backed down (report here).

The Heaton-Harris attack bears a depressing similarity with the others.  The victim whether it be Gina Miller, an economics academic or simply a citizen exercising their rights of free expression, is accused of dark motives, of sabotage or subversion. The implication, often made explicit, is that the accuser, unlike the victim, is patriotic, democratic and the true defender of liberties.

Aside from the fear of persecution which this engenders, the general intellectual climate which this is producing is complete cynicism and disrespect for open debate. Attacks on academics damages a belief in independent inquiry and conviction arrived at by rational means. This means that knowledge becomes a political issue to be decided by Government rather than investigation and debate.

Heaton-Harris has been condemned and described as an ‘idiot’ for demanding information from University Vice-Chancellors.  But such ignorance cannot be accaptable for a democratic representative and Government Whip.  It is not often that you will find me mentioning classical liberal theorist F.A Hyek in this blog But in this case I think he was absolutely correct when he wrote in The Road to Serfdom (in a chapter entitled the End of Truth):

That in the disciplines dealing directly with human affairs and therefore most immediately affecting political views, such as history, law, or economics, the disinterested search for truth cannot be allowed in a totalitarian system, and the vindication of the official views becomes the sole object, is easily seen and has been amply confirmed by experience.

It is a mark of just how far liberal voices have been sidelined in  the modern Tory party to be replaced by an aggressive authoritarian conservatism. The fact that Heaton-Harris has not been relieved of his post is a testament to this fact.

 

 

Reform or ‘Revolutionary Acts’

In a short but hard-hitting recent post titled Our rotten state will be replaced, Richard Murphy advanced the thought that the economic impact of leaving the EU without a deal will be finally too great for many people to bear. Citing the example of Jacob Rees-Mogg he wrote:

The real opposition will come when people have simply had enough of the imposition upon them by a corrupt elite hanging on to power in an obviously illegitimate democracy that hands them authority in a way that society clearly does not want.

And:

…peaceful demonstration that makes clear that those who have thought themselves able to rule must give way to those with the publicly backed authority to do so will become too strong to resist.

Murphy goes on to fervently hope that the revolution will be peaceful.  I agree, but what I think he is getting at is not a revolution per se but  ‘revolutionary acts’. This is why.

It is popular on social media for people to call for a revolution. But as the comments on Murphy’s post point out, revolutions have a very low success rate when it comes to delivering a comprehensive lasting transfer of power and improvement in conditions for the majority. Revolutions which involve mass popular uprisings are bloody affairs, Syria being an example.  Although estimates vary it is likely that between 5% and 10% on the population was killed during the English (more correctly British) Civil Wats of the Seventeenth Century. That equates to between 3 and 6 million people in today’s terms. Alternatively, a revolution can come in the form of a coup enacted by a small powerful elite. But the chances of you or I benefitting are vanishingly small with a high risk of it resulting in a state which is tightly controlled and oppressive.  Finally there is the almost guaranteed counter-revolution which may come very quickly or many years later.  As examples look at the restoration of the English Monarchy while the American Constitution as sometimes regarded as a counter revolution which handed power back to a small elite following the egalitarian instincts of 1776..

So  revolution is often associated with violence or open warfare.  But a revolution means changing the way a country is governed. This implies we can consider ‘revolutionary acts’ as involving the transfer of power from one person or group of people to another larger and more inclusive group. In Britain today this would mean a transfer of away from those who have usurped it (a Government elected on a minority of the vote; powerful ‘too big to fail banks’, to take merely two examples) or inherited it (the aforementioned Rees-Moggs or the oft-overlooked British aristocracy) to genuinely accountable representatives.

I agree with Richard Murphy.  Iceland, along with many other examples in recent history clearly shows that peaceful revolutionary change is possible. But it must start soon. Remember that our system is not broken.  It is working exactly as intended. It simply never was set up to deliver real power to you or I!

The Great Repeal Bill Irony; Not only Dangerous but Deeply Unpatriotic

L0019663 Burke and Hare suffocating Mrs Docherty for sale to Dr. Knox
Burking Poor Old Mrs Constitution by Wm Heath

But they who subvert free states, and reduce them to the power of a few, are to be deemed the common enemies of all the zealous friends of liberty.

Demosthenes: The Oration for the Rhodians

In previous posts (here and here) I considered the idea of patriotism as a vibrant sense of community along with the idea of patriotism as making your country a home for liberty.   In both cases I emphasised a clear distinction between patriotism and nationalism, pointing to a strong international and inclusive idea which patriotism emgemders. But while the ideas sound great, are they enough to support a robust sense of patriotism?

The Poet Shelley Laid Down the Principles of Patriotism……..

In my first post I showed how some lines from the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley cut through to the central issues of patriotism. I want to do so again but flesh out the ideas a little more fully and apply them to our situation today. Here is Shelley, once again from Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things:

Patriot, dissolve the frightful charm,
Awake thy loudest thunder, dash the brand
Of stern Oppression from the Tyrant’s hand

What is Shelley saying?  He is pointing out that citizens often need to be proactive in protecting their liberty. What is more, with the phrase dissolve the frightful charm he is alerting us to the fact that oppression can arise unseen until it is too late, something very relevant to our current situation. Now compare the above quote with the one from Mask of Anarchy which I used in my earlier blog post. Here is what Shelley wrote:

And shall no patriot tear the veil away
Which hides these vices from the face of day?

I argued that this version of patriotism views citizens as committed to a principle of openness and justice which requires strong accountable institutions to assist them. Further, this concept is inclusive because ethnicity is irrelevant while still anchoring us to a particular community with no prejudice to other communities. Note that in Shelley’s time two hundred years ago ethnic diversity was only a tiny fraction of what it is today and ethnicity issues were less prominent. So if anything this line has grown in significance. Citizens can join us as immigrants from other regions or countries and instantly be regarded as patriotic as long as they share our ideals of justice and liberty.

…..But Was it Enough?

Such a commitment to our freedom is essential but does it have sufficient motivation for citizens to act if their liberty is threatened? If it cannot stir the emotions then maybe something more is needed. To be fair to Shelley the second passage is prescriptive of what a committed patriot should do, but inspiring a spirit of patriotism in the first place is a different issue.  This is why the first extract is so important. Having revealed the vices by tearing the veil away then the second step is to take action.  It is a political imperative dashing the brand of stern oppression from the tyrants hand’.

Continue reading “The Great Repeal Bill Irony; Not only Dangerous but Deeply Unpatriotic”

The UK Government; A Good Show of Complacency and Unbroken Self Esteem

The persons who retained longest the values of an earlier time were the men who lived their lives in office

This statement was made by R.J. White in his insightful book Waterloo to Peterloo. He was writing about the British Government following the years after 1815 but he could easily be writing of our present time (albeit he would need to replace ‘men’ with ‘men and women’!).

Whether it is a failure to understand the multiplicity of forces unleashed during the Brexit referendum or the alienation of people living in high rise tower blocks the remoteness of our leaders from the lives of the majority of citizens is leading Britain along a disastrous path.  This is before we take into account the pace of change in technology which will eliminate a large proportion of relatively well-paid middle-class jobs within a generation.  For example the availability of cheap on-the-fly and almost 100 percent accurate digital language translation services will render human translators virtually extinct within the next five to ten tears.  Similar stories are to be found in many areas of technology.  Yet no acknowledgement let alone preparation to meet this advancing cull of jobs is made by the Governing class.

Complacent commentators will point out that we have faced this situation before during the past three hundred years and that other jobs will inevitably appear to replace those lost. They omit, however, to mention those new jobs were directly or indirectly fostered by Government investment.  The widespread development and renovation of London in the late eighteenth century, the huge boost to industrial progress via a massive naval build-up and the expansion of Government administration are merely three examples. Set against those projects, HS2 hardly rates a mention!  But can we really expect toff Boris Johnson or any of the Oxbridge PPE professional political class to really understand the forces which are shaping the modern world.

It would be untrue to say that the current cabinet bore an exact relation to their early nineteenth equivalents of the Waterloo to Peterloo (which occurred in 1819) period of White’s book, but there is a strong resemblance being composed almost largely of upper middle class and recently ennobled aristocracy . Likewise, the fatal flaws of archaic attitude also pervades the current incumbents.  Maybe there is something about the British political system which drags back even the most progressive of intentions. It is an issue which those who advocate the value of tradition frequently miss.

Tradition not only works for the already privileged, by definition it does so by maitaining an atmosphere of archaic smugness.  It enables Theresa May to run a Government desperately trying to return to the financial rules which dominated her professional life in banking from 1977 to 1997, long before the financial crash and brutal austerity. It also provides her with a sense of self-destiny engendering an arrogance that Brexit can be delivered by a few handpicked people who are clearly out of their depth. This may precipitate as big a disaster as any which befell a nineteenth century British administration.

Wrining of the final retirement of that Government which included the disaster of the Peterloo massacre which the poet Shelley railed so passionately against in Mask of Anarchy, White wrote this equally telling statement.

They rode the whirlwind without pretense of controlling the storm.  They continued to hold office with a good show of complacency and they left office at the last with unshaken self-esteem.

A similar epithet may be written about the current Government.

Crown, not Crown; The Duke of Lancaster Is Not What He Seems!

DucyLancsThe Duchy of Lancaster is what is known as a Corporation Sole or a corporation with a single person as beneficiary. That person is the Duke of Lancaster, none other than Elizabeth Windsor; but gender is the least important ambiguity we shall encounter. The Duchy is also a County Palatine which means it can exercise powers normally reserved to the Government.  Herein lies the problem.

Where There’s No Will There’s a Way!

It is a fundamental of English law that all property must have an owner.  But occasionally it happens that no title can be established for property, for example when a person dies with no family and not having made a will. Then it is the duty of the Crown (Government) to dispose of the assets.  This normally means selling off the asset and passing the proceeds to the Treasury.  That is unless you die on land owned by the Duchy of Lancaster (or the Duchy of Cornwall, controlled by the Duke of Cornwall, Charles Windsor). Then your property becomes their property (known as Bona Vacantia). The Duchy’s own site describes it thus:

Whatever remains undistributed from a person’s estate is the property of The Queen in Right of Her Duchy. Gifts may be made, on the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster’s authority, to those who might reasonably have expected to benefit on a deceased’s death. 

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is someone I shall return to in due course! The proceeds of bona vacantia are then distributed to charity which sounds fine.  But remember that the Duchy of Cornwall has the same arrangement and Charles Windsor has been known to give money to his old school chums the exclusive Gordonstoun! Some charity!

Hedge Funds, Interest Swaps and Property Investment

I have blogged before about the disingenuous myth promoted by Buckingham Palace that Elizabeth Windsor is politically neutral. Most certainly this applies to the Duchy of Lancaster which feeds her personal wealth and is anything but neutral.  The public image of the Duchy is one of cosy tradition with picturesque images of such assets as castles, hillsides where smiling farmers tend their flocks and babbling brooks feeding placid lakes. But the reality is very different  and it is worth taking a look at just one aspect of the Duchy’s activities.  Along with an analysis of Hedge Funds and Interest Rate Swap dealings the 2016-17 Report and Accounts mentions:

The portfolio, acquired in September 2016 for £34.25m, comprises four distribution warehouses (Basingstoke, Harlow, Redditch, Alcester) and one industrial estate in Swindon. The Duchy of Lancaster has been steadily building its distribution warehouse network in recent years, acquiring Wardley Industrial Estate in Greater Manchester in 2015 and both Estuary Commerce Park in Speke, Liverpool and Units A and B at Walker Park, Blackburn in 2014.

Bear in mind that this is only one small part of a corporation with over £600 million of assets, But note that unlike a commercial investment and property company the Duchy is not subject to Corporation Tax. In an arrangement which is available to few other individuals Elizabeth Windsor is allowed to voluntarily pay (she has a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ with the Treasury) income tax on her earnings from the Duchy, though how much she actually pays remains secret.  Moreover, it also means that changes in the laws governing warehouses and the employees are of direct interest to the Duchy and may affect its profits. Areas such as health and safety, customs, food storage regulation and planning permission are all relevant, to name but a few. Because of secrecy we are not allowed to discover whether these issues come up in conversation between Windsor and Prime Minister.

Throw in a Murky Chancellor, a spot of Tax Dodging and Secrecy!

The quasi public/private nature of the Duchy of Lancaster highlights much that is wrong with our system. The Duchy exists to provide a personal income for the Sovereign from which Elizabeth Windsor personally benefits.. Yet as a Palatine it takes on various rights and responsibilities of Government. For example, It has its own ‘Attorney General’  the law officer of ‘the Crown’

Continue reading “Crown, not Crown; The Duke of Lancaster Is Not What He Seems!”

Tax Cuts, the DUP and the Conservative Party Libertarian Counter-Revolution

Peter Brooks Tories
Source: Peter Brooks from The Times Newspaper

The deal the Conservative Party struck with the Democratic Unionists to retain their Commons majority raised some interesting issues about the Neo-Conservative project. Moreover, viewed in the context of their election campaign confusion over tax cuts the deep Tory fault lines are laid bare.

In earlier blogs I described the abrupt change in the nature and direction of the Conservatives since the accession to the leadership of Theresa May.  In these blogs I pointed to a close meshing of ideologies  between Donald Trump in the United States and Theresa May.  You can read these posts here and here but the essence of my argument is the Conservative abandonment of the pursuit of neo-Libertarianism to a largely Neo-Conservative outlook.

Although the situation is a complex one the difference hinges on the size of the Government.  Neo-Libertarians want to shrink the State and cut taxes, with the austerity policies of David Cameron and George Osborne providing a perfect cover.  Neo-Conservatives, however, favour a much larger state (though not at the citizen level) with higher taxes to support it.  Like the Neo-Libertarians they want the state withdrawn from the business of extendeing personal rights and protections (the Welfare State) and see a big project (Brexit for example) as the best way of mobilising patriotism, maintaining social cohesion and justifying the destruction of those rights.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this

What went wrong? In my posts I pointed to an influential figure in American right wing politics, David Brooks.  A central plank of his idea ifs that you cannot rely on consensus or inclusive politics to drive through a neo-Conservative programme, but instead it must be spearheaded by a closr-knit family (the Trumps) or a strong (and stable!!) individual (supposedly, Theresa May).  To the disappointment of the neo-Cons, in the US Trump is proving too incoherent, unpredictable and ill-disciplined to really make an effective impact.  As we have seen in our UK election, Theresa Mat has proven to be uninspiring, uncharismatic and incompetent. Any similarity between May and a Boudicca/Britannia figure evaporated very swiftly during the campaign and she proved to possess almost no talent to persuade anyone to follow her in a bonfire of rights in exchange for national greatness.

Continue reading “Tax Cuts, the DUP and the Conservative Party Libertarian Counter-Revolution”