Many people regard Magna Carta as the first Constitutional guarantee of the basic liberties of the English-speaking world.
Fewer people know that Magna Carta wasn’t imposed on King John just because he abused his power (which after all has been true of most kings and governments throughout history), but because he had handed away the sovereignty of England to a foreign governing institution in Europe. That institution was The Holy Roman Empire.
John had unilaterally handed England to Pope Innocent because earlier arguments with Rome had left England under an interdict (a kind of nationwide ex-communication), so John was facing the possibility of an invasion from a strong, Catholic France with a papal blessing that would have made finding allies impossible and inevitably led to John’s defeat. To split his enemies, and peel away the Church from France, John gifted the pope sovereignty over his entire country and leased it back as the pope’s vassal. For a time, Britain was ruled from Europe.
For the barons at Runnymede, that was the last straw: they responded to the fundamental transfer of power out of their country and forced Magna Carta on John.
More than 500 years later, the (British) founders of the USA, in the very tradition of which Magna Carta was an early part, would make explicit the intuitive principle on which the Barons had acted then, and many have acted since: that the power to govern is delegated by the people governed, in whom it entirely resides. But that principle is so deep in the Anglo cultural psyche that even the barons who faced King John at Runnymede were not the first to state it in some way or another: the Charter of Liberties of Henry I had already formally established in the year 1100 that the rule of the king was by consent and that those who made the Law were not above it.
By this long-standing principle, power is lent by the people, in whom it resides, for a limited time to those in government for the purpose of protecting the rights of those people. A British prime minster today has not more right to give his country away to a foreign power than King John had to give the country away to a pope, and it makes no difference how the prime minister is chosen. And no king or prime minister has any more right to do either than a tenant of my house has to sell or give my house away just because he is temporarily living in it. Power to govern is no more possessed by those who are allowed temporarily to exercise it, than my house is possessed by the person temporarily allowed to live in it.
The argument today for moving power further away from the people upward to a trans-European super-state is wrong on its face: it rests on the idea that legitimacy follows from the fact that the representatives who gave away that power are democratically elected, as if democratic election gives them something they can never possess, or the right to give away something that can never be theirs.
Since that idea is false, the European Union as currently conceived is anti-democratic and anti-liberal by definition.
Moreover, as has been said many times, since democracy is the exercise of kratos (power) by the demos (people), there can be no democracy without a demos . Britain, France, Spain etc. all have their own demos . Europe does not. Setting up an election and putting lots of people from many countries in one building on fat salaries does not make it so.
A weaker claim to self-justification made EUrophiles is that the “important” decisions in the EU are made by unanimous consent … indeed, they point out, didn’t Prime Minister Cameron recently veto some proposed regulation that would hit London’s financial center?
The response from principle is two-fold. First, the British government retains a veto only in some areas of policy that affects Britons. In the rest, Britain carries a weight of about 8% in the making of decisions, so if the British want control over their waters for the purposes of fishing, for example, even if every single Briton and every single British representative voted in Europe to keep what is theirs by international law and convention, then it would make no difference if most of Europe would rather keep taking it. This is exactly why the demos is important: lack of demos is what turns a situation in which five sheep or five wolves are voting on what to eat for dinner into one in which four wolves and a sheep are taking exactly the same vote.
In this fishing example, if the British had 0% of the decision-making power in the EU, because it was out of it, it could keep 100% of the rights to its waters and its fish. The British people know this, even if many cannot articulate it in those terms: they know they don’t need to be “in Europe” to persuade the European masters with only 8% representation, to stop doing things that hurt them – when the only reason for the discussion in the first place is that their government gave away their national resources and right to properly demo(s)cratic representation.
Evidently, based on the results of elections throughout Europe last weekend, the demos of other nations feels just the same way – as they should.
The drawing of a line at the giving away of governmental power is a very basic, human and healthy self-protective instinct, which has been evident at many more points in history than just 1215. In 1258, for example, the Provisions of Oxford against Henry III, which established parliament, was also a response to the King’s giving away power to a foreign European aristocratic class. Hundreds of years later, the Glorious Revolution would follow the exiling of a king on account of his desire to bring French law and religion to England. And as the normal, healthy act of a real demos , UKIP’s victory in the UK’s European elections is a similar reaction to a similar travesty.
UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, was recently called a bigot on account of his remark about being able to understand people’s discomfort at a group of Bulgarians or Romanians to move in next door, and many have sought to insult his supporters with the same accusation.
I have traveled much of the world and I am convinced Britain is one of the most tolerant nations in it. What Nigel was getting at, albeit clumsily, was that the lack of power of the people to control even who comes into their country is a very serious thing indeed. Bulgarians and Romanians are the current placeholders because they are the latest groups who non-British politicians have determined should be allowed into the British nation, regardless of any consequences for the people who are already there. It is the latest, highly visible symbol of just how completely the kratos of the British demos has been given away.
Britain has welcomed foreigners and diversity for as long as I have been alive. It’s not that Bulgarians and Romanians aren’t welcome there. To use the metaphor of the rented house again, it’s not that the owner doesn’t welcome guests: it’s that basic fairness and common sense demands that the owner should be the one to choose whom he welcomes and on what terms – rather than the current situation in which the person who chooses who enters the house and on what terms is some foreign chap who got hold of it in a fraudulent sale by a recent tenant who never owned it.
With respect to Farage’s notion that Britons might be more concerned about an influx of Bulgarians than of Germans: as history shows, it’s human nature to feel more concerned when the uninvited people in one’s house are less familiar, appearing, rightly or wrongly, to have very different house rules and fewer means to support themselves – especially when the owner is no longer allowed to decide who may or may not take out of the family’s rainy-day fund that has been carefully built up over generations.
In summary, none of this is about ethnicity or race. It is about fairness, rights and their flipside, responsibility .
Kipling said it best.
The Saxon is not like us Normans. His manners are not so polite.
But he never means anything serious till he talks about justice and right.
When he stands like an ox in the furrow, with his sullen set eyes on your own,
And grumbles, “This isn’t fair dealing,” my son, leave the Saxon alone.
Voting UKIP doesn’t make someone a bigot. It makes him human, with a wish to protect his fellow countrymen, what is good in his culture, and what has been earned by a demos at great cost over a long time. A UKIP voter is likely drawing the line exactly where it has always been drawn throughout history: where those who are temporarily delegated power by one demos give away the kratos that is not theirs, to those who are part of another demos altogether.
It’s not bigoted to resist that. It is right. Moreover, in historical time, liberty and democracy both depend on it.
No. A bigot is someone who, as a result of their own prejudices, treats members of a group with fear, distrust or hatred. A much better example of one would be a person who treats those who vote differently from himself as inferior based not on knowledge of them as individuals, or of the reasons why they see their country as they do, but on a simplistic assumption about them made only because of the political party they support – allied, perhaps, with a poor sense of history or, for that matter, democracy.
Those who enjoy irony, or historic parallels, or both, will appreciate the following.
King John, after signing the Magna Carta, immediately appealed to the Pope to annul that pesky referendum on, and limitation of, his power. Pope Innocent gladly obliged; he would have made a good President of the European Union today, refusing to accept any of the national referendums that rejected the European Constitution.
That act of bad faith by John, rejecting the will of his people in favor of the will of his European overlord, caused the barons to revolt, and open war to break out in England …
By that standard, and the standard of most of history, UKIP’s electoral victory seems like a very minor protest indeed.