We the People Surrender to You the People – It Happened Today, February 27, 2017

Here’s one I do like. On February 27, 1782, the British House of Commons voted to throw in the towel in the American Revolutionary War.

I like it partly because my sympathies are very much with the revolutionaries seeking to uphold their ancient British liberties, not with the King and his ministers trying to suppress them. And I like it partly because I can think of few greater affirmations of those liberties that, in such a difficult and embarrassing situation, it was the representatives of the British people who took the king by his frilly collar and said “Stop!” Once again, Parliament checked an expensive, oppressive hare-brained executive branch scheme which was, in large measure, the point of the British constitution essentially from Magna Carta onward.

This vote was no formality. Far from it. The King remained an important player in the British system even when he was obviously messing up badly. And despite the highly unfavourable state of the military effort in what had recently been the 13 Colonies after the crushing British defeat at Yorktown by a combined American-French force, the February 27 1782 vote was close, 234 to 215. And that narrow 19-vote margin was very important.

It set in motion a highly favourable chain of events leading to quick reconciliation between the former belligerents. Including that the American peace commissioners, the exalted trio of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and John Jay, proceeded to make a separate peace with Britain despite pledges to France, which had swooped on her old foe, not to do so.

Within an amazingly short period, and despite the stupid War of 1812, Britain and the United States were tacit allies in maintaining world order, an arrangement that persisted from the 1824 Monroe Doctrine with some bumps and bruises right down to their formal alliance in 1917. And while it took statesmanship to bring it about and maintain it, the structural basis was their shared devotion to liberty under law and to popular sovereignty. With, of course, the usual qualifications about unjust exclusion of some groups from the blessings of liberty, most spectacularly in the United States black slaves and then ex-slaves.

In the Capitol Rotunda in Washington there is a gold replica of Magna Carta that we were kindly permitted to film in 2015, given by the British Parliament in 1976 in powerful acknowledgement that two centuries earlier the greatest devotees of traditional freedom and the rights of the people had been on the west side of the Atlantic. But they were still strongly represented in Britain including in Parliament on that important date.

Liberty is often under siege. But where the roots are deep, it has enormous strength and manages to flourish despite and sometimes even during storms. Including Parliament yanking George III back to his so-called senses on behalf of ordinary Britons on February 27, 1782.

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When James Met Channel – It Happened Today, February 12, 2017

Perhaps only the sort of person who would make a documentary on Magna Carta would care that on February 12 of 1689 the “Convention Parliament” declared that in fleeing the country, crossing the English Channel to France, King James II had abdicated. Or perhaps not, if you’re still reading this second sentence. In which case I hope you’ll agree that it shows a remarkable devotion both to the practical reality of self-government and to the legal formalities that give effective and lasting shape to the passion for liberty.

We are of course in Glorious Revolution territory here. And getting rid of yet another would-be tyrant Stuart had created significant problems of the sort discussed by Jean-Louis de Lolme in his neglected masterpiece The Constitution of England, in that the entire British system was focused on the monarch not as anything remotely approaching an absolute ruler but as the formal locus of the powers of government. And therefore the refusal of the monarch to play his appointed role made a mess of the formal machinery of state.

James was of course wrong to believe that, given his technical powers and duties, he could stop the government from operating by taking his football and going straight home or, to be precise, throwing the Great Seal used to summon Parliament into the Thames river. Parliament could and did meet anyway. But he did create for them a rather complicated question as to why exactly, and how exactly, they could act outside precedent without themselves creating a precedent of arbitrary rule.

In this crisis the Parliamentarians did two important things. First, they decided that given the extraordinary circumstances they were not merely an ordinary parliament but, for the purposes of straightening out the Constitutional mess, a “convention,” that is, a meeting of the English nation with the power to make fundamental arrangements on behalf of we the people. Second, they debated at length whether the throne was in fact vacant.

William of Orange, who had helped chase James away by landing in some force at the invitation of leading Englishmen (who rallied larger armies to his side) and who was married to James’s responsible Protestant daughter Mary, played an important and responsible role here by refusing simply to seize the throne even though everyone who mattered understood that he was to be king. But how and why?

Some Whigs argued that by his “social contract” with the English people William was now king by popular consent. (Others wanted a “republic” in the sense of a government with no monarch rather than its proper meaning of a government of laws not men. But they were few and far between.) Meanwhile some Tories held that the departure of Mary’s wretched father had not left the throne vacant but rather immediately and automatically made her Queen, leaving her husband beside the throne not on it. Still others maintained that James had left the country without leaving the throne so what was needed was a Protectorate and maybe at some point restoration of a (har har) repentant James.

Parliament began to hack through this tangle by declaring in January that England was a Protestant kingdom and only a Protestant could be king, disposing of James and his new son. And while this resolve sounds bigoted to modern ears, like the protection of the right to arms in the 1689 Bill of Rights only for Protestants, a long association of Catholicism with disregard for Parliament gave it some plausibility at the time. But while it determined who was not king, it left the question of who was king or queen suspended in mid-air.

In February the Commons said the king had abdicated. But the Lords said there was no such thing as abdication in common law and that if James was no longer king Mary automatically was. However they soon folded, mostly because it was clear that Mary would not rule without William and Mary’s also Protestant sister Anne would not accept the throne in place of either or both. They proposed that William and Mary should both reign, which the Commons accepted on condition that William alone should rule.

On that basis, and on their acceptance of the Bill of Rights and the rule of law, William and Mary were proclaimed King and Queen of England, Scotland and Ireland. William then dissolved the Convention Parliament and summoned a new one, which turned the acts of the former into proper law by passing Acts then signed by a monarch.

It might all seem like jiggery-pokery or theatre. But it mattered enormously to be sure that the rule of law was somehow being upheld even under circumstances where procedure could not run through normal channels, and not simply to accept things because everybody agreed they should happen or nobody dared speak up. Including, it turned out, this precedent of a legislature or specially elected assembly becoming a convention representing the people if the executive put itself outside the law.

For instance in Britain’s 13 colonies in the 1770s. And while it might seem the Convention Parliamentarians would have cause to regret their precedent given its used in the American Revolution, the fact is that George III was behaving toward his North American subjects very much as James II had toward his British ones. And in creating a robust extraordinary precedent for dealing with a rogue executive they helped the Anglosphere preserve self-government and liberty under law in the 1680s and the 1770s.

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Canada at the pinnacle of its historical destiny?

In my latest article for Convivium, a Cardus publication, I argue that whatever the merits of Canadian government today, and the society it has sought to create in its image, we are not now where Canada was always intended and indeed destined by History to end up for the edification of all humankind.

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Wish I’d said that – February 2, 2017

“The form of government based on representation, which now gives the political life of the whole civilized world its peculiar character, goes back in its historic origin to the medieval Estates-system of government.”

Otto Hintze in Bertie Wilkinson The Creation of Mediaeval Parliaments

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Defending Canadian free speech

A story in The B.C. Catholic describes my Jan. 14 speech to POGG Canada upholding freedom, including freedom of speech, as a founding Canadian principle.

P.S. If you’re interested in booking me for a speaking engagement contact Robert Abrams at Big Idea Speakers Bureau or email me at jr- at – johnrobson – dot – ca.

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When Simon Met Populace – It Happened Today, January 20, 2017

An event on January 20, by contrast with much of the rubbish cluttering up the pages of history, was no mere incident. On this date Simon de Montfort, leader of a baronial revolt against the hapless profligate King Henry III of England, summoned a parliament to legitimize his claim to control England. And to strengthen his position against his fellow barons as well as that of the rebels generally, he brought in the common people as full participants.

They were not, perhaps, equals in every sense early on. But they sat alongside the nobles and clerics and took part in the debates and the votes. And what is remarkable is that over the next couple of centuries instead of being squeezed out they continued to gain power and respect, including getting their own separate house within a century with control of its own affairs and primacy on money bills. And people mock the Middle Ages.

The nobles and clerics may generally have been displeased to find knights and burgesses tramping mud into the place. But as the various parliament-like entities throughout Europe succumbed to absolutist monarchs over the next three centuries, the wiser among them must have reflected that the deep roots of the English parliament among the actual people of England were a major reason it, and it alone, survived and flourished, becoming ultimately more powerful than the monarchs as the commons chamber came to dominate the lords.

There is much more to be said about it, including the possibly happy chance that early on the English parliament divided not into three estates as in France, with separate noble and clerical houses, but into two, the mucky-mucks and the ordinary Joes and eventually Janes. And that Montfort’s own motives may have been less than entirely pure, as his conduct was (not least in his vicious anti-Semitism, at once opportunistic and apparently heartfelt). But he deserves respect for what he did.

So does the political culture of the English, and the habits and actions of countless English men and women great and small, through which liberty under law went from success to success despite its challenges. Indeed, though Montfort himself perished horribly later in 1265 at the battle of Evesham where his corpse was nastily dismembered, when his conqueror Edward succeeded his father Henry III and became Edward I, he himself summoned parliaments to which he too invited commoners and to which he reluctantly but decisively surrendered power over taxation.

The history of mankind would be enormously different had representative government not taken hold in England. It is far from established universally and faces challenges even in its Anglosphere heartland. But it is a standing example, invitation and sometimes reproach to all regimes and people everywhere that lack it. And while a great many things contributed to its remarkable history, including the countless again great and small who made Magna Carta a reality and defended it down through the years, Montfort’s innovation of including the common people as full members of Parliament was an important turning point.

Without it things would almost certainly have been different and worse, then and later, there and elsewhere including of course in Canada.

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When Ontario imitates Kafka

In my latest National Post column I denounce the legal Juggernaut that has rolled over a blameless Ontario couple and increasingly menaces us all. (My bad: In the piece I misnamed the outrageous Ontario law in question; its actual Orwellian title is the Civil Relief Act.)

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Wish I’d said that – January 5, 2017

“There are few words which are used more loosely than the word ‘Civilization.’ What does it mean? It means a society based upon the opinion of civilians. It means that violence, the rule of warriors and despotic chiefs, the conditions of camps and warfare, of riot and tyranny, give place to parliaments where laws are made, and independent courts of justice in which over long periods those laws are maintained. That is Civilization— and in its soil grow continually freedom, comfort, and culture. When Civilization reigns, in any country, a wider and less harassed life is afforded to the masses of the people. The traditions of the past are cherished, and the inheritance bequeathed to us by former wise or valiant men becomes a rich estate to be enjoyed and used by all.”

Winston Churchill in 1938, quoted in Daniel Hannan Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World

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