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.

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

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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”

Categorising the UK as a ‘Full Democracy’? Maybe the Expert-Bashers Were Correct After All!

Passing_of_the_Parliament_Bill,_1911_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_19609Occasionally a statement is made which is so far removed from reality it is rendered  meaningless. Such a moment occurred last week when The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) in its Democracy Index 2016 once again categorised the UK as a ‘Full Democracy’. In fact they regarded it as more of a democracy in 2016, rating it 8.36/10 than in 2015, when it scored 8.31/10, largely as a result of the EU referendum. This is enough to rate the UK at number 16 out of more than 160 countries examined and the anomaly is of such glaring proportions that it lends credence to the campaign tactics of populist movements around the world (most notably during the 2016 UK EU Referendum campaign by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson) of discrediting experts.

The full report can be accessed from The Economist website, but you have to sign your life away to get to it (they want to grab the details of as many professionals as they can, hence a telephone number etc). Alternatively, you can read a summary of the report on the World Economic Forum site.  Although the overall results are clear it is worth digging in a little to examine just how they came to this seemingly bizarre conclusion.  It is not necessary to sign up with the devil to do this as last year’s report for 2015 is freely available.

Stretching the definition of ‘Full Democracy’ beyond reasonable bounds!

For a start I am not sure what is meant by a ‘full democracy’ in the first place So here is the EIU definition:

Countries in which not only basic political freedoms and civil liberties are respected, but also tend to be underpinned by a political culture conducive to the  nourishing of democracy. The functioning of government is satisfactory. Media are independent and diverse. There is an effective system of checks and balances. The judiciary is independent and judicial decisions are enforced. There are only limited problems in the functioning of democracies.

Part of this definition applies (e.g. an independent judiciary) but lets compare it with the obvious basic anti-democratic features of the UK.  Our constitution (unwritten) allows for an uncontestable Monarchy, a House of Lords (including 92 hereditary peers and 26 Church of England Bishops), an autocratic Privy Council and a Royal Prerogative through which the government can bypass Parliament and judiciary.  On top of this there is a first past the post electoral system which has handed power to representatives elected by only 37% of people who voted, a hugely biassed press and a sophisticated corporate lobbying industry.  Bearing in mind this list could have been many times longer and a democracy score of 83.1% is already absurd.

Continue reading “Categorising the UK as a ‘Full Democracy’? Maybe the Expert-Bashers Were Correct After All!”

It Is Almost 50 Years Since Jack Ashley Became the World’s Only Totally Deaf Lawmaker – But What Has Changed?

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Last month (March 2017) Dawn Butler made history by becoming the first MP to use British Sign Language (BSL) to pose a question in the House of Commons. She asked whether the Government would give BSL a legal status alongside other recognised languages.  As Ms Butler said in a subsequent article :

We need to make parliament representative of wider society. One important part of this is to make parliament as open and accessible as possible.

Representation Means More Than Voting and Consultation

This is a crucial point. Vital in any inclusive political system is the ability for all groups in society to be represented and influence every aspect of Government policy, not just be called into committees when the members feel like it! Inclusion means having an input in the formulation of policy in the first place rather than being limited to commenting and voting on the agendas of others. In a review of political representation of women and BME communities Karen Bird quoted researcher Melissa Williams:

“…the only hope that marginalised group presence will have a lasting effect on policy outcomes is that decisions are based not only on the counting of votes but also on the sharing of reasons.”

The same argument, of course, applies to any other community group. But consider the figures. In the current House of Commons (April 2017) between 2 and 5 MPs are considered physically disabled, depending on the criteria applied.  Yet to be representative, on even the more narrow of definitions of diability, there would need to be 65 MPs.

Continue reading “It Is Almost 50 Years Since Jack Ashley Became the World’s Only Totally Deaf Lawmaker – But What Has Changed?”

When Replacing the House of Lords we Must Balance Democracy with Inclusive Representation

Thanks to a constitution where elections prevail throughout the system the United States now faces one of the most hazardous moments for individual liberty in its history.  It provides a warning about the dangers of a fully elected second chamber which is often suggested for the UK.

Currently in the US one party holds the Presidency and a workable majority in both houses of Congress. Moreover this is a party being dragged away from consensus politics by a charismatic leader intent on enacting policies which present a threat to the constitution itself. The situation is made worse by a willingness to appoint members to the US Supreme Court on a partisan basis which shows signs of destroying the balance of opinion for years or possibly decades.

There is now a real danger of what Alexis de Tocqueville in the nineteenth century called the ‘tyranny of the majority’, a situation where the Government takes action supported by the majority of voters which significantly harms the rights of minorities. To be strictly accurate, through a quirk in the Electoral College system the United States is in danger of falling into a tyranny of the minority! All this means that significant autocratic power (through Executive Orders and sackings of Government Officials) is being wielded by a President intent on pursuing an oppressive agenda.

It is for these reasons that while replacing the House of Lords is an urgent task, to make it a fully elected Chamber would be a mistake.  Instead a new upper-house Senate should be only part elected with the majority of Senators appointed – but by a system vastly different from the present one. This would enable us to give legislative responsibility to groups which at the present time are grossly underrepresented in Parliament.  Underrepresentation may occur for any number of reasons, for example, disability or prejudice against being selected by major political parties as candidates.

Appointed Senators will allow us to balance experiential gaps in the lower chamber. At present such groups are only consulted on specific pieces of legislation as expert witnesses.  But it would be far more effective to have the possibility of every piece of legislation reviewed by, say, a  group of blind or wheelchair-bound Senators.

Clearly the size of the new Senate must be greatly reduced from its current bloated size stuffed as it is full of toadies, oligarchs and the left-overs of an autocratic past.  For this reason the second Chamber would have specific responsibility for liaising with special interest and civil society groups outside Parliament. Finally the appointment of Senators must be taken out of the partisan political domain with citizen nominations to the Senate overseen by an appointments commission. Such a commission would have a specific remit, for example, to check that nominees are resident in the UK for tax purposes. Nominees who do not meet these criteria will not be considered further.

Final selection would be undertaken by a citizen panel which would be drawn in a similar way as a jury but on a national basis.  Appointments would be made for a fixed period, for example 8 years, which could be renewed once by agreement of the citizens panel.

The existence of such a Senate would mean the Government working much harder to ensure legislation is fair to all sections of the community. While certainly not ruling out wealthy Senators, the possibility of decisions hinging on people such as Andrew Lloyd Webber flying in for the express purpose of passing oppressive acts (such as the Tax Credit Cuts) would be eliminated. Likewise the increase in Senators committed to doing a competent job will mean the body is fully able to examine evidence on the effectiveness of enacted legislation and hold the Government properly to account. This is currently a woeful inadequacy of our system

It would also mean the feared suppression of rights which may occur in the United States over the next four years would be minimized!

Fixed Term Parliaments; Reform Needs To Go Much Further

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on the unwholesome contract between the royals and senior politicians which lies at the heart of our unwritten constitution. Briefly, the monarch retains certain powers which in practice are exercised by Government, sometimes directly and sometimes via the Privy Council. In exchange for these so-called prerogative powers the monarchy gets to retain its remaining wealth and privileges. The royal prerogative thus allows the Government to exercise arbitrary control of dubious legality without the authority of Parliament. In a 2007 report, Gordon Brown’s government attempted an audit of these outrageous anti-democratic powers and concluded that their extent was effectively unknown. One, however, was known for certain: the ability to dissolve Parliament and appoint a new Prime Minister which gave the incumbent a great advantage. It allowed him or her to take full advantage of serendipitous events (a small war, for example) to catch the opposition off-guard and call a snap election.

The 2011 Fixed-term Parliaments Act changed all this and removed the power for the first time. It was sometimes claimed by opponents of the Coalition Government that the 2011 Act was a dark deed intended to shore up an unpopular administration for 5 years. Against this two points must be noted. Firstly, fixed term Parliaments were also a 2010 Labour Party manifesto commitment (along with starting work on a written constitution). Secondly, with the dual powers of dissolution given to Parliament nothing has happened thus far which would not have happened under the old system. It is, however, interesting to speculate whether a Fixed Term Parliament played a part in the Government deferring to the Commons over bombing Syria in 2013 (the first vote, which it lost) knowing that it could not take advantage of a temporary patriotic surge in popularity! The present concern is with the opposite problem. With the recent transfer of power from David Cameron to Theresa May and the appointment of a wholly new Government without submitting a manifesto and subsequent test at a General Election there are objections raised about the democratic legitimacy of the present arrangement. But this transfer would have also happened under the old prerogative arrangement!

Unfortunately there are other anomalies which the 2011 Act did not address. Some of these are highlighted in this excellent 2010 report from the Constitution Unit at University College, London. Importantly, although the focus has been on the term of Parliaments, other election and transition arrangements need to be formalised. The writ for calling an election is currently issued by government ministers rather than an independent body such as the Electoral Commission. Similarly the monarch under advice appoints the incoming Prime Minister who decides the date of the first sitting of Parliament. This must be regularised by making the first sitting a fixed time after the election during which an ‘Investiture Debate’ decides who forms the Government and implicitly appoints the Prime Minister. As the UCL document affirms, these changes would actually insulate the monarchy by further distancing it from possible electoral controversy. But in this case the concern is with misuse of arbitrary prerogative powers not by the monarch but by a Government or Prime Minister.

With numerous difficulties confronting our democratic system including poor representation, lobbying, corporate control of media outlets, etc, fixed term Parliaments might not have been top of the list of remedies. But Fixed Term Parliaments have been demanded by reformers since the 17th Century and my main criticism is that it did not go far enough! Clearly I continue to demand the removal of the monarchy in this country. In the meantime any steps taken to regularise and remove arbitrary powers are welcome. This would include the posited War Powers Act following two votes in the Commons on bombing Syria!