Partial transcript: Liberty, sovereignty and republicanism

Below is a selection of talks from the Liberty, Sovereignty and Republicanism session.

Quentin Skinner: Our topic is liberty in relation to republicanism and sovereignty and I want to address it in quite general terms rather than historically, because I think it is worth making a contrast which is a very strong historical contrast which people, if they wanted, could take back into a discussion of the early modern period -  what has come to be thought of  in our tradition as a republican way of thinking about freedom and consequently about sovereignty, and some contrasting concept which has tended as our political tradition developed to be various forms of liberalism. The republican and Levellers would be an instance of republicans, although not in the English Revolution – the only instance of those who adopted what I am calling a republican theory of freedom, because obviously republicans like John Milton and James Harrington, also adopted such a view – but republicans do crucially agree with their opponents in the seventeenth century and with the liberal tradition as it has developed – that if we are focusing on freedom, which is what they want us to do, then we are focusing on a concept which is already described as a negative one – that is the presence of freedom is always marked by an absence of something – hence negative. So the question for the theorists of freedom is  – the absence of what makes the presence of freedom? And that’s where our traditions have divided, in a division quite sharply to be seen if people wanted us to speak historically, in the mid-seventeenth century.  

One answer to that and the one that has really become hegemonal is that the absence which marks the presence of freedom must be absence of some interference with some power of yours. There is something which you can do which you are interfered with in the doing, and that interference I what marks your lack of freedom. Now that interference can be physical and bodily, but standardly in the liberal tradition the fundamental notion is that what takes away your freedom is coercion and that is the mechanism by which the law works, so coercion of the will is seen as the fundamental enemy of freedom. There is a great moment in the Leveller tradition when John Lilburne who emerges in the historical record as a petitioner for his rights – and he has been falsely imprisoned on the order of the House of Lords and writes a tract about his right under Magna Carta to be released, 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 if you think that what matters is your rights.” And that is the moment of division, that what matters for the Levellers and for the republicans of the English Revolution and for this rocky descent of republicanism as a contrast with liberalism is that that misidentifies what it is that is unfreedom due to the absence of something. What Overton wants to say to Lilburne is, “Don’t talk about rights. That is just a surface manifestation of a much deeper affront to your freedom. The real affront to your freedom is that you are dependent upon the will of arbitrary powers – the arbitrary powers of monarchy – or in your case the arbitrary powers of arrest which have been taken over by the House of Lords. The affront is that you are subject to an arbitrary power.  

Now the crucial distinction between the two traditions – and this is really what I most want to say -  is – notice that on that account there can be absence of freedom – your freedom can be taken away from you – even if there is no interference. That is something which I think people – certainly Lilburne in his initial debate with Overton – he was soon converted – had difficulty in understanding how that could be. How can my freedom have been taken away from me if there has been no interference with my powers?  – and specifically, no interference with your rights? 

Well, the answer that was given in the English Revolution and it is the Republican answer that has survived is that there are two ways in which your freedom can be undermined even if there is no interference with your rights. And one is, that if there is arbitrary power – so for example an arbitrary power of imprisonment – where that goes beyond the law – or any arbitrary power that is imposed where you haven’t consented to the terms of that power – then you are not being treated as a free agent. We are not in a space of reasons in which you are being offered reasons and are able to accept them as reasons (or not) for what is being done. So, crucially you do not freely consent or refuse to give your consent because in the sense of arbitrary power your consent is not sought. It is simply a power to which you are subject. And that is why in the common law – which is what Overton cites at this point – it would be said that if you are subject to  an arbitrary power, even if that power is never exercised – the reason that you have lost your freedom is that you have become a salve. And that is why the vocabulary of slavery becomes absolutely central to the Leveller and Republican case in the English Revolution. If there is arbitrary power, then our wills depend upon it, and if you depend on the will of somebody else, that is what it is to be a slave. Of course, that is actually said in the Magna Carta -  in the latin, liber homo – the free person is the person who is not either a vassal or a slave. That is the fundamental contrast. 

But a second point which actually in the English Revolution the Republicans were more interested in than the Levellers and Milton has a great deal to say about this in his Ready and the Easy Way is that if you are subject to arbitrary power – and this is something which I think we need to think about very solemnly in our own state and which Helena Kennedy spoke about brilliantly this morning – then you are very probably going to self-censor. Self-censoring in the face of arbitrary power is another, a second way in which the mere existence of that power undermines your freedom. It is not that you know that you are going to be interfered with if you do something. It is that you don’t know. And that is the position of the slave. You never know what is going to happen to you. So that dependence feeds into your perception of the situation. And as Milton says in The Ready and the Easy Way, “Then there will be no speaking truth to power. There will be the abject posture of a defeated nation. There will be cringing and bending of the knee” – and things that creep are always very sinister of course in Milton – serpents creep. Modern slang has retained something of the same contempt for ‘creeps’. 

So there’s the second point – no interference has taken place – but to be deliberately anachronistic – suppose you are a journalist and you want to broadcast something or to write something – but it’s just not clear what might happen if you did. It is not clear that something will – but you are very likely to think – well, I’ll play safe. And that’s increasingly happening… 

Well, if that’s the view of freedom, then constitutional implications about sovereignty immediately follow and I’ll close by just saying a word about how these were conceived in the English Revolution and amazingly, they remain issues for us here and now. 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 arbitrary powers which have not been consented to at least by the represented will – that is to say 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, and furthermore, your most fundamental rights must be enshrined beyond the powers even of the sovereign and elected legislature to tamper with them. 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.  

I just want to finish with one word about something which is constantly reiterated by critics of the republican position as it is now articulated, and which I think is completely pernicious. It is that in circumstances of crisis, you must of course be willing to give up some of your freedom in the name of security. Notice that according to the republican by contrast with the liberal position, that is a completely false dichotomy. Because what the republican is telling you is that unless you have security for your liberty – you don’t have liberty. There isn’t this dichotomy between liberty and security – secure freedom is the only freedom there is. So to be asked to give up the security of your freedom is to be asked to give up your freedom. And that’s the Leveller case. Thanks very much. 

Melissa Lane: I want to make three perhaps progressively less familiar points. The least unfamiliar develops Quentin Skinner’s point about freedom requiring the control of or the consent of the represented will. And what I wanted to say is that for the Levellers, that wasn’t just about controlling Executive privilege. It wasn’t just any represented will, but it had to be will represented in a very strictly controlled way. Characteristically, they were as much, perhaps even more concerned with the methodism of electing Parliament and controlling the legislative as they were with controlling the Executive. Indeed, it was through that control of the Legislative that is was thought it would become impossible for the corruption and the temptation of power to take root. So at various times they called for annual Parliaments or biennial parliaments; for a quiver of classical models such as the rotation of offices; removal and scrutiny of Ministers and officers designed to check ‘corrupt interests’; a ban on term limits so that no MP could serve in successive Parliaments.  Not only the fact of control by elected representatives, but the nature of that control, is a major Leveller concern which has clear ramifications for politics today.  That might spark us today to think about the need to control the privileges and advantages of incumbency, for example: also perhaps to think about the importance of individual MP accountability, not shielding behind the Party. I was very struck this morning when Helena Kennedy proposed that one mechanism to try and take this Convention forward is for people to very searching questions in the processes of selection of MPs coming up before the next general election. That intervention in the legislative is a crucial opportunity and method of control. 

Indeed, this again reminds us that we have become very accustomed in both 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 have tended perhaps to forget about the very important roots of electoral power. Electoral power is the fundamental source of power, and the electoral mechanism is therefore a fundamental means that needs to be exploited in order to defend liberty. 

My second point will sound less familiar in relation to the Levellers, and perhaps a little anachronistic. But I hope to persuade you that this is not so. It is a thought about post-partisanship. Scholars including David Wootton and Jonathan Scott have pointed out that the Levellers did not constitute themselves as a distinct party, preparing for power, or even see themselves as a distinct ideology which might be set against rival ideologies contending for power.  Scott comments (England’s Troubles: seventeenth-century English political instability in European context, Cambridge University Press, p.270) that ‘As a public phenomenon, “Levellerism” must be first understood as an activity’ – the activities of petitioning, pamphleteering, publishing, agitating and mediating.  They saw the principles they were defending as those of all like-minded (right-thinking) people, certainly of parliament as a whole in the age of its innocence, before it tasted the temptation (claimed to be necessity) of arbitrary and absolutist power from 1642 onward.  Their principles were not primarily a programme for using power (though they did agitate for the relief of the indigent and hard-pressed, and of course for specific benefits for the New Model Army).  They rather sought to define the proper relation to power, the framework, the constitution of power and its limits.   

What might this non-, or post-partisanship suggest today?  One’s thoughts turn inevitably to President Obama and the aspiration and travails of his aim to transcend or tame partisanship in the United States.  But there, the structural necessity of bipartisan negotiation within Congress and often between Congress and the Presidency, coupled (paradoxically? or for that very reason?) with the far more vitriolic and strident tone of partisanship in the public culture, makes the American example of only limited relevance.  Indeed, whereas President Obama’s call for post-partisanship at least makes sense in the American context, such a call might seem to be structural anathema in Britain, where partisanship itself plays an important and honoured role in structuring the division of power between government and opposition and also to a great extent in its responsible and accountable use in office.  And yet one of the most striking aspects of today’s Convention is its non- or post-partisanship: the fact that it is deliberately drawing on speakers and ideas from across the whole political spectrum.  

By saying ‘we’, however, I also mean to indicate the limits of post-partisanship.  It cannot (as President Obama too is discovering) be allowed to become an excuse for lack of principle, for softening or abandoning core values.  As has been said today already: of course the defence of liberty is a much easier and a much more characteristic project to adopt in Opposition. It is very difficult, however, not to succomb to the temptations to abandon it when in Government. Here, we need to think of institutional devices, instances of what one philosopher would call ‘self-binding’. We need to think of ways to get the parties to commit themselves while in Opposition in such a way that it can be made too costly and embarrassing for them to renege on those undertakings.  There might be a variety of institutional forms of ‘self-binding’ to make their commitments more credibleand also to give people more opportunity to hold them to account.  I think that actually is a message from the Levellers. The defence of liberty is best understood as an oblique axis in British politics, running through each of the parties and forcing each of them to take a stand on how they will reconfigure their ideologies and platforms to respect it.  Not everyone is committed to that defence, however, and its friends must recognise that it has real enemies, even as they reach out to each other across party lines. As for the Levellers, the defence of liberty should be seen not as a partisan programme but as a structuring principle, a presumption, an orientation: a commitment which rules certain possibilities absolutely out of bounds while directing attention to the systematic effects of others on the universe of liberties which we value.  

The notion of the ‘we’ brings me toward my final point.  Here I want to respond to Paul Lay’s invitation in his introduction that we should think about religion and the Levellers.  My final point is about the linking of the cause of liberty to wider social ideals – how the Levellers did that and why I think it is important today. The ‘we’ of the Levellers was of course in very many ways different from ours: the ‘we’ of an overwhelmingly Christian society, a ‘we’ who argued passionately for freedom of worship from the standpoint of the recognised and ineradicable (except on pain of hypocrisy forced by compulsion) diversity of belief among the Christian churches and sects.  That argument for religious freedom and pluralism is both tantalisingly parallel to our own concerns with pluralism today and tantalisingly far from it.  But there is at least one respect in which I think we can learn from it, and this is the urgent need to embed the defence of liberty, as the Levellers did, within wider social ideals.  

If the republican content and knowledge of the Levellers has only recently been fully recognised, it has long been known that all of them were serious and committed believing Christians, whose engagement in politics was structured by their grappling with the implications of the proper understanding of their faith – Walwyn began by writing on religion, Lilburne ended as a quietist Quaker.  In their politically active period, theirs was a practical Christianity, which was as Walwyn put it a religion of love (’love makes you no longer your own but God’s servant’, quoted in Andrew Sharp, The English Levellers, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p.xix), and a fused Christian-classical notion of the ‘public good’ was the standard to which they repeatedly appealed: as Lilburne’s broadsheet of 1645 argued that ‘the letter [of the law] kills’, whereas it is the spirit of equity, defined as ‘the public good’, which ‘gives life to authority’ (Sharp, pp.3-4).  Leveller writers constantly invoked the public good: the purpose of consenting to government can only be the good, not the harm, of the people (Lilburne, ‘The Freeman’s freedom’, in Sharp, p.31).  Liberty was justified by God’s purposes and the nature of His creation, and it served those purposes, even as it was demarcated according to classical models.      

Again, the Levellers’ own broad social philosophy is not one that most of us can share today.  But I want to close by saying why articulating some sort of broad social philosophy – one that can make sense of liberty as a shared social value – is so important if the movement to defend liberty is to succeed.  As central to the Levellers as their defence of liberty was their vision of how liberty could be best employed.  They struck a chord in their own society because they were able to articulate what many people cared about, and why they cared about it: their many contemporaries who saw themselves as freeborn children of God could understand the value of religious toleration, for example, in light of their own highest values.      

In recent years, however, the defence of liberty has risked becoming – under pressure of circumstances – oppositional and isolated, involved in defending a bare list of rights, not a social outlook which connects with people’s wider values.  The Levellers’ pluralist defence of liberty – in defence of a broad and inclusive social good as they understood it – has been replaced in our day with a neutral defence of liberty, isolating it from any wider or deeper social values.  Even the list of martyrs is telling: very often today the celebrated cases of defending liberty are defending those with whom most people in society have little sympathy – the rights of people who may sympathise with terrorism but not engage in it, for example.  Now of course we all agree with Voltaire that we may disagree with people but we will defend to the death their right to say it. I don’t at all mean to say that such cases are not important, or should be abandoned.  But contrast such cases with the Levellers’ most frequent martyr for the cause, John Lilburne, who was himself a hero of the ideas and values that they themselves believed in, using his liberty to argue for what he and his fellows understood as the social good or others such as Sir John Maynard. These were people who were actually living up to the very ideals that the movement itself was espousing. They were admired.  

To win genuine popular resonance, the liberty movement itself needs to celebrate not just the liberty to do what others don’t like, but also those who make use of their liberty to serve the welfare of others and to advance broad social ideals – to show that while we will defend the liberty of everyone, we most value the liberty which is used to help others, not to harm them.  Otherwise liberty risks becoming seen as a cause only of the marginal, the eccentric, the disagreeable – while whereas it is indeed their cause, it is also everyone’s cause, and in the service of everyone’s good.  The moral is not to defend only the freedom of those whom we admire, but it is to link the active defence of the liberty of all with a story of why liberty is to be valued and how it features in the good life and good society.  One unsung lesson of reflecting on the Levellers is that, while liberty unused is at risk of being lost, liberty used (or seen publicly to be used) only for values which people do not respect or share is at risk of being too easily devalued.

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