Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Monarchy, constitutions and republicanism, Part 2 - Parliament and the radical tradition

Part 1 - Magna Carta

Parliament assembles in the Painted Chamber of the royal palace of Westminster. The King, the Lords and the Commons all assemble together to hear the King's speech, in which he will lay out the "causes of summons" or the "points of the Parliament". This generally involves taxes that the King wanted to levy. Then the King announces, formally, that he will hear any petitions that anyone wants to present.

Following this opening of Parliament, the Lords assemble in one place, the Commons in another. They consider the business the King has outlined in his speech.

This isn't very different from the way the British Parliament conducts its business today. There is a Queen's speech in which the business of that particular session of Parliament is outlined, then the two chambers meet separately to discuss it. But the Painted Chamber dates my particular description. To when?

1340. In fact, this, Commons and all, was the system of Parliament by 1340. And although it is sometimes thought that the role of the Commons - the representatives of the cities and freemen of the realm - was only to bring petitions, in fact even at this early date they were required to answer the King's points. They were required to deliberate over the taxation the King wished to raise.

So was the structure of English governance set, almost seven hundred years ago. The King ruled, but had to summon Parliament to agree his taxation demands, and by so doing he was placed in a position wherein he had to hear the petitions of the Commons.

Exactly three hundred years after my slightly arbitrary date (slightly, because the first meeting called a Parliament met in 1240 and this was the centennial), in 1640, after a hiatus of a decade, an unpopular monarch who resented any restraint on his power summoned a Parliament to authorise taxes to support his wars against the Scots. Parliamentarians felt that if they were to consider taxes, the monarch should consider their petitions. Charles I disagreed, in fact he felt this was lese majeste, and he dissolved what we now know as the Short Parliament.

By November of that year his financial circumstances compelled Charles to summon Parliament again, and this time Parliament passed a law granting themselves the power to meet every three years even if the monarch didn't summon them. They passed a law forbidding the King to dissolve them, and ever since they have been known as the Long Parliament. This is, of course, the opening of the English Civil War.

What was happening, in a long view? Going back to the build up to Magna Carta, monarchical encroachment on the pockets and liberties of subjects had provoked a reaction. Most importantly, though, the subjects felt they should be consulted about decisions of state. If people are given a concession, it takes a further encroachment on their liberties - the ratchet has to click on a further notch - before they'll feel sufficiently motivated to take action. By the seventeenth century, it was the idea of the divine right of Kings, something that had taken root in the English monarchy in the reign of James I, that clicked the ratchet on this further notch. Charles I wanted money, but he felt no obligation to hear petitions - a part of the medieval contract forged in the thirteenth century.

Of course, reaction was not the sole prerogative of the King. And reaction can be radical. A radical tradition began, most clearly embodied in the Levellers, who issued a manifesto called the Agreement of the People. It's worth emphasising that this was not adopted by the republican government, which instead took the alternative offered by the opposing faction, the Grandees. Levellers were imprisoned by Cromwell. No criticism of the course the revolution took can reasonably be laid at the feet of the Levellers. So, what did they suggest?

* The right to vote for all men over the age of 21 (excepting servants, beggars and Royalists);
* No army officer, treasurer or lawyer could be an MP (to prevent conflict of interest);
* Annual elections to Parliament with MPs serving one term only;
* Equality of all persons before the law;
* Trials should be heard before 12 jurymen, freely chosen by their community.
* No-one could be punished for refusing to testify against themselves in criminal cases;
* The law should proceed in English and cases should not extend longer than six months;
* The death penalty to be applied only in cases of murder;
* Abolition of imprisonment for debt;
* Tithes should be abolished and parishioners have the right to choose their ministers;
* Taxation in proportion to real or personal property;
* Abolition of military conscription, monopolies and excise taxes.

Milton Friedman would have agreed with that. In fact, Friedman campaigned for the abolition of conscription, monopolies and excise taxes. They wished to limit the death penalty, extend the franchise and they emphasised the equality of all people. They sought term limits for MPs (an excellent idea), the prevention of conflicts of interest and the secularisation of the country (the abolition of tithes).

Parliament developed as a mechanism for limiting abuses of power by the monarch, and for involving the peers in the process of government. Even by the fourteenth century, Parliament included the Commons. As the monarch developed ideas of unlimited, divine power, so parliamentarians - not all of them, but some - developed the idea of a free society of free people, equally enfranchised, free from conscription and duress, taxed proportionately and moderately, with legal protections against excessive imprisonment before trial and against self-incrimination.

This radical tradition, which failed within a republican movement that was itself to fail, has been claimed by the left. That's actually reasonable. But it's also a reasonable claim for libertarians to make. At least, it is if those libertarians mistrust power and the people who are attracted to it and so seek term limits, if they hold every person to be equal, if they hold that the state and the law must always be subservient to the liberties of the individual so that, for example, nobody should be held without trial.

It's a radical tradition that we need to claim as libertarians. And it derives, fundamentally, from opposition to the idea of a monarch. After all, if every person is equal there can be no monarch.

UPDATE: I used the word "equal" casually there. It means, of course, things like equality before the law, equality of voting rights and so forth. There's no suggestion that any other form of equality, not least that of outcome (egalitarianism), was in this manifesto.


Anonymous said...

It probably soon after 1340 that you could reasonably start to call the aristocracy and royalty English - up until then they had been French. Any views on that?

Anonymous said...

For completeness, as they say. The first Parliament to be so called in Sotland was in 1173.

Unknown said...

Don't get hung up on the (french) word "Parliament". Prior to this the meeting of the wise men was the "Witangemot" and was being held well before the Norman Invasion of William the Bastard.

I suspect dearieme chose his words wisely (and well) when he used the phrase "to be so called" with respect to the Scottish Parliament. Because the same phrase applies also to this English "Parliament".

Peter Risdon said...

You could argue that after the loss of Normandy in 1204 the aristocracy and royalty of England were, necessarily, English, regardless of their language and self-identity. (I'm writing this in a purely English context, it's too complicated otherwise...).

I'm also talking about Parliament not as a council for the King - that's as old as monarchy itself - but rather as a restraint on the King, something that started explicitly with Magna Carta, as I argued in my first of these posts.