Liberty, Sovereignty and Republicanism

Tom Griffin :┬áThere has been a lot said in recent months about democratic republicanism as a neglected tradition in British politics. If Saturday’s Convention on Modern Liberty is anything to go by, it is a debate which has struck a chord.

It was standing room only for the afternoon session entitled Liberty, Sovereignty and Republicanism: Can the Leveller Tradition Be Revived In The 21st Century? sponsored by History Today and OurKingdom.

The audience were not to be disappointed, with what proved to be a lively and rigorous debate about Britain’s republican past and its relevance today.

There were shades of David Davis as historian Quentin Skinner explained the role of Magna Carta in seventeenth century debates about liberty:

There’s a great moment in the Leveller tradition when John Lilburne, who emerges from the historical record as a petitioner for his rights, and has been falsely imprisoned on the order of the House of Lords, writes a tract about his right under Magna Carta to be released, and is sharply told by Richard Overton, in the Remonstrance of Many Thousand Citizens, July 1646. ‘Magna Carta is a beggarly thing.’ You have not got onto what really matters about freedom.

Skinner employed this incident as the starting point for a masterly exposition of the difference between republicanism and the mainstream British liberal tradition. For liberals, freedom is defined as the absence of coercion. For republicans, that is not enough. Arbitrary power can threaten our freedom even without direct coercion.

There are two reasons for this, according to Skinner. The first, which most concerned the Levellers, was that to be subject to an arbitrary power without your consent is tantamount to slavery.

The second which interested other seventeenth century republicans like John Milton, was that arbitrary power leads to self-censorship:

As Milton said: “then there will be no speaking truth to power. Then there will be the abject posture of a defeated nation. There will be cringing and bending of the knee.

Skinner ended by noting that the constitutional prescriptions of seventeenth century republicans remain remarkably relevant today:

If the very existence of arbitrary powers take away freedom, because they take away consent to power, then the first thing you have to do is to abolish abritrary powers, which have not been consented to at least by the represented will, at least by election.

So the monarchy has to go straight away. The House of Lords has to go straight away. All ministerial discretion with respect to statute has to go, straight away. Furthermore your most fundamental rights must be enshrined beyond the powers even of the sovereign and elected legislature. So there must be a written constitution as well. So there you have four features of a constitutional revolution, which were proposed at the time of the regicide and the establishment of the English Republic, none of which four features have we yet managed to establish.

For Geoffrey Robertson QC republicanism was the “elephant in the room” of the debate about liberty.

We have to square our belief in sex equality and religious equality and non-discrimination in a democratic society, with the idea of a white Anglo-German Protestant monarchy which currently occupies due, to the genes of the Electress Sophie of Hanover, the head of state of this country.

Robertson called for an elected head of state but nevertheless suggested that republicanism was not a practical political proposition in this country, and there would need to be a continuing role for the monarchy such as “keepers of the national palaces.” Similar suggestions came up in other sessions on the day. Perhaps it could be described as a call for the disestablishment of the monarchy, rather than its abolition.

Melissa Lane of King’s College suggested an important similarity between the Levellers and the Convention on Modern Liberty: their non-partisanship. The Levellers did not think of themselves as a political party, but nevertheless believed in the importance of political power.

They were as much, perhaps even more, characteristically concerned with the mechanism of electing parliament and controlling the legislature as they were with controlling the executive.

At various times they called for annual parliaments, sometimes biennial parliaments, a ban on what we would now call term limits, so that no MP could serve in successive parliaments and other forms, influenced by classical models, of recall and control of ministers and officers.

We’ve become very used both in this country and the United States to thinking about liberty as nourished by the culture of opposition, and the culture of civil society, and we’ve tended perhaps to forget about the very important route of electoral power. Electoral power is the fundamental source of power, and the electoral mechanism is therefore a fundamental mechanism that needs to be exploited in order to defend liberty.

The question and answer session got off to a lively start with a bold counterpoint from Phillip Blond, putting in a word for monarchy:

Somebody always rules. If you want a liberal plurality what you actually saying is that what will rule will in the end be what is most powerful. And in a liberal democracy what is most powerful is the manipulation of opinion. Unless you have a vertical pole or some notion of rule by the wise or the good, you will essentially get democratic tyranny. Unless liberals recapitulate the idea that you need the vertical pole of the one, as well as the horizontal pole of the many, all you are doing is repeating the errors of the French revolution.

Melissa Lane suggested that the flaw in the French revolution lay in its inability to “operationalise popular sovereignty” which should be seen as an ongoing process rather than a one-off event.

While it was acknowledged that the French revolutionary tradition was often seen as alien in Britain, one audience member argued that: “You don’t get to have a republican tradition that doesn’t have the French in it.”

The importance of developing a republican narrative was a key theme of the discussion. “I think we do need to embrace myth,” said History Today editor Paul Lay, who chaired the session. “There is a belief that myth is some form of a corrupted history, but I don’t think it is. I think it’s a means of aspiration in many ways.”

Robertson noted that influential narratives of British political narratives of British history, like that of the late Professor Bernard Crick, omit the revolutionary period completely.

It’s an abiding irony that a nation that has historically done more for liberty than any other should be so reluctant to acknowledge that past, to put republican heroes and liberty heroes on coins and statues, to teach our children about their birthrights. For all the complaining and handwringing we’ve heard today, I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere until we work out how to instil in our children a fierce pride in the achievements of our forebears, and what has been for centuries, and continues to be a struggle for liberty.

On Saturday’s evidence, there is a real appetite to hear that story.

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