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Slave People or Free People – the real referendum choice

David Green, 11 April 2016

In our revolutionary century a monarch was overthrown in 1649, a republic was tried out until 1660 when it was abandoned in favour of a restored monarchy, then the monarch was overthrown again in 1688 and parliamentary democracy established. The great writers of that era, such as John Milton, James Harrington and Algernon Sidney, interpreted those events as a struggle by a slave people to become a free people.

Much influenced by writers of the Roman republic, they argued that a nation could not be free if a power – whether it be king, emperor or otherwise – could overrule its preferences at will. They thought the comparison with personal slavery was apt because the crucial distinction between a slave and a free citizen was that the free citizen had equal protection under the law. A slave could be treated well or badly by his master as he saw fit, but if the master chose cruelty over kindness there was no legal remedy. It missed the point to show that life was good for many slaves. They might be treated with fairness for long periods, but their masters could turn on them at any time. The free citizen, however, enjoyed the protection of laws that applied to everyone, the employer included.

Writers like Milton argued that, while the British people were governed by a king with arbitrary power, they were a slave people. Milton argued in Eikonoklastes that when the King entered the House of Commons in 1642 with ‘about three hundred Swaggerers and Ruffians’ he was attempting to prevent the representative body of the people from debating the affairs of the nation. As Milton later put it, ‘If our highest consultations … must be terminated by the King’s will, then is the will of one man our Law, and no subtletie of dispute can redeem the Parliament, and Nation from being Slaves’.[1]

The ‘glorious revolution’ of 1688 ended the possibility of deploying any such power. As Edmund Burke was later to argue, the bill of rights of 1689 was intended to avoid arbitrary rule. Often thought of as a conservative, Burke was a lifelong Whig, who supported two other revolutions against established authority on similar grounds: the 1776 American war of independence; and the 1781 rebellion by the Raja of Benares against the East India Company. The passing of the Prohibitory Act in 1775 put the American colonists outside the protection of the king and utterly subject to his will. Similarly, the systematic injustice and the arbitrary conduct of the East India Company in Benares justified rebellion.

Can we say that Britain under the EU is subject to the same type of arbitrary power? The white paper issued by the British Government in 1967, well before we joined the EEC (as it then was) acknowledged as much. Paragraph 23 admits ‘The Community law having direct internal effect is designed to take precedence over the domestic law of the Member States.’ But paragraph 22 is unambiguous in stating that more than simple legal supremacy was entailed. Acceptance of unpredictable, arbitrary power was being proposed. It said that new legislation would have to be passed:

‘to cover both provisions in force when we joined and those coming into force subsequently as a result of instruments issued by the Community institutions. No new problem would be created by the provisions which were in force at the time we became a member of the Communities. The constitutional innovation would lie in the acceptance in advance as part of the law of the United Kingdom of provisions to be made in the future by instruments issued by the Community institutions – a situation for which there is no precedent in this country.’ (Emphasis added.)

When the 1972 European Communities Act was passed it was accepted that the wishes of Parliament in the future could be overruled by EU legal instruments, whatever they might be. English writers of the seventeenth century would have seen instantly that this was like allowing the king to overrule parliament when he saw fit, something explicitly forbidden by the bill of rights. And it would have been obvious to American revolutionary writers that the 1972 Act was no different from empowering King George III to tell the colonists what they must or must not do whether they had given their consent or not. It’s a pity that the current US president is so unfamiliar with his own nation’s history that he can’t see the resemblance.

We must now choose whether we want to be a free people or a slave people.

[1] Quoted in Quentin Skinner, Liberty Before Liberalism, Cambridge University Press, 2012, p. 49.

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