Brexit: sipping from the poisoned chalice

The referendum has exposed the divisions in our society and the rottenness of the political system. It’s as if an earthquake just took place. We are now surveying the damage. The structures of the political world are still standing, but some are unsafe to enter – their foundations have been shaken, their facades are cracked. Watch where you stand – bits are falling off.

Behold the Labour Party. The party is split between a progressive, metropolitan elite and a Corbyn-supporting camp, while its traditional heartlands have deserted. However the Westminster party settles its infighting, will it be anything other than a head in a jar, its existence unnaturally prolonged, but dead in any meaningful sense?

The Tories have shown a greater semblance of unity in the aftermath, but we cannot be sure this edifice will stay up long. Cameron is to go. Osborne is in hiding. Only Boris has a clear path to leadership, but he will have enemies, and anyway, what does he really stand for? Did he think he would win the referendum? Does he have a plan to extricate the country from the quagmire? Time will tell.

Not only the political parties have been shaken. The British people as well, the demos, is teetering. The middle class have been defeated by a working class revolt. The metropolitans, who as a rule know Barcelona, Madrid and Paris far better than Boston, Middlesboro and Preston, are horrified to find themselves outvoted by a mass of people they had pretended didn’t exist.

The Leave voters, however, lack leadership. They are not homogeneous in any case. An In/Out referendum reduces a complex matter to that binary choice. Once held, the simple A or B unravels again into its fiendish complexity.

Britain and the other countries of Europe, both within and without the EU must find a new settlement. This necessity has come to us now, because of the historical blunder made by the British government of Edward Heath to take Britain into the EEC based of a false prospectus.

There were always two models for European co-operation. There was the model favoured by the post-WWII British governments, both red and blue; inter-governmental – the Europe of nation states, in which sovereign countries work together on a voluntary basis. And there was the model at the heart of the so-called European Project; the supranational, federal model, the aim of creating a United States of Europe, where each sovereign nation would be subsumed, and would hand over its most fundamental power to the central authority.

Either model could be argued rationally, with advantages and disadvantages to be traded on both sides. In the case of the supranational, federal model, one of the disadvantages was always that the majority of the people of the various countries of Europe would not support it, and thus if it was to stand a chance of success, it would have to be advanced through cunning and disguise. This was never more so than with the UK’s membership. To this day, its most ardent British supporters will not make the case for a federal Europe. Rather, they usually scoff at the notion that this was any more than the goal of a few starry-eyed idealists. In truth it was the goal of the very architects of the EU, and remains so for the most powerful figures of its structure.

When the UK joined the EEC, EFTA – the European Free Trade Association – had seven members to the EEC’s six. Had Britain never joined, it is possible that EFTA could have developed alongside the EEC/EC/EU, offering a viable alternative for those nations that preferred not to “pool” sovereignty in the emerging superstate.

Despite the UK’s abandonment, EFTA has continued to exist. Its membership today comprises Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. It has agreements in place with the EU over access to the Single Market. As such, it could provide a relatively simple vehicle for the UK to extricate itself from the EU without crashing the world economy. Unless I am mistaken, this is the position advanced in the FLEXIT plan. It would require a compromise on free movement of people which would not satisfy some of those who voted to leave – but you can’t please everyone.

Thursday’s Event: Mark Littlewood on Brexit

Thursday’s meeting, for all of you who can get to The Two Chairmen,39 Dartmouth Street, round the corner from Parliament Square, Westminster, is going to be good without doubt.

Switching Sides on Brexit with Mark Littlewood

Mark Littlewood is the Director General of the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA) the UK’s most prominent free-market think-tank, a position he has held since 2009. He is a frequent commentator on economic and political matters, both in print and the broadcast media.

Mark studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Balliol College, Oxford from 1990-93 and was Campaigns Director of Liberty from June 2001 to April 2004. In 2004 he was one of the “airy fairy libertarians”, to use the words of the Home Secretary David Blunkett, who opposed the Labour government’s plan for national ID cards, and became one of the co-founders and first chairman of the campaign group NO2ID.

From December 2004, Mark served as Head of Media for the Liberal Democratic Party, a position he resigned from in May 2007, after making what the Independent newspaper called a “policy gaffe” by saying that proportional representation, one of the party’s most sacred tenets, should not be a deal breaker in any future coalition discussions with other parties. Subsequently he co-founded Progressive Vision, a think tank, which later evolved into Liberal Vision, a classical liberal grouping within the Lib Dems of which Mark was the first Director.

In 2009 Mark became the Director General of the free-market think tank the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), a position he continues to hold to this day. The IEA was established in 1955 by the Sir Anthony Fisher and Lord Harris, who served as its first Director General, with Arthur Seldon as the first Editorial Advisor. As John Blundell put it in “Waging the War on Ideas”: “Hayek advises Fisher; Fisher recruits Harris; Harris meets Seldon. In nine words, that is the start of the IEA.” In more than nine words, Anthony Fisher, inspired by his reading of Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom”, seeks out Hayek, who at that time – 1945 – was at the LSE. The advice that Hayek gave was: avoid politics; and reach the intellectuals with reasoned argument – it will be their influence which will prevail. This became the inspiration to found the IEA, which to this day continues to make the intellectual case for a free economy and a free society.

When Mark took up this position, the founding generation were no longer around, and to some the IEA had lost its mojo. However, Mark quickly put his stamp on the organisation, re-energising its original mission, and nurturing an upcoming generation of libertarian activists and scholars.

Writing on Samizdata back in 2010, our own Brian Micklethwait described Mark thus: ” He has clearly always understood what classical liberalism and libertarianism are all about, and has done as much of them as he could, given the day jobs he has had.

He has always been a friendly and civilised presence, albeit rather too EUrophile for my liking.”

Given the title of Mark’s coming speech, it would appear that this last criticism may no longer be the case.

Passing thoughts on the Human Rights Act

Considering the traditional protections against the state that the individual has enjoyed in this country, I would mention off the top of my head; the right to a jury trial; the presumption of innocence; habeas corpus; the right to remain silent; the protection against double jeopardy; the right to self-defence.

I ask you; which of these was introduced by New Labour’s Human Rights Act? Of course, the answer is none. Rather these protections were established, through struggle and sacrifice, many centuries ago, notwithstanding how often they have been imperfectly upheld.

Not only do these protections predate the Human Rights Act, the very people so proud to have authored that legislation were during their time in government undermining and dismantling these age-old protections. It was New Labour that abolished the rule against double jeopardy and tried to limit jury trials. It was New Labour that sought to extend the period of incarceration without trial to three months, as well as implementing the European Arrest Warrant, both of which measures constitute a direct attack on habeas corpus. In all manner of ways, New Labour showed contempt for these traditional protections.

It should not be forgotten for a moment that this same contempt runs through our new government, as it ran through the government that preceded New Labour. As ever the case, only on the fringes of the major parties do you find people prepared to defend these rights, or recognise their significance, and it is upon these people we must depend to hold back the tide of authoritarian legislation.

It seems now the government is backing off its plan to scrap the Human Rights Act, wary that it may not be able to make up the numbers in Parliament. To the extent that this indicates the weakness of the government, it is a good thing. As the above indicates, I do not believe that the Human Rights Act is necessary to protect our freedom. Rather, the degree to which it serves any purpose marks the degree to which our old and better rights have been taken from us.

Anarchy and the Underpants Gnomes

I have made a number of comments on the thread of fellow writer Rocco’s post “Too Unlimited; Adventures in Constitutional Scepticism”, which, in the bloody ongoing feud between anarchists and minarchists, takes the side of the former. Much of the argument I can accept, as it is certainly the case that a constitutionally-guaranteed right does not necessarily stop a rampaging state, but pointing out the difficulties of limiting state power does not make the case for anarchy, especially when I am not entirely sure the anarchists know what they will either put in its place, or if the answer to this is nothing, how they will prevent others from filling the vacuum?

Thus I remarked: “I don’t really understand what you are proposing, and I’m beginning to suspect neither do you.”

To which Rocco responded;

“No monopoly rule-enforcer is required for men to live together. How precisely any particular breach of the rules would be handled in an imaginary “anarchic” situation is impossible to say a priori.”

This to me is not a satisfactory answer. Indeed it reminds me of South Park’s famous Underpants Gnomes, who were busily amassing underpants as a means to make a profit. Just how this was expected to do so, however, remained somewhat mysterious:

Returning to the subject of anarchy, the offer seems to be:

Phase one: Abolish the state. Phase two: ? Phase three; Harmony between men.

Whatever comprises Phase two, going by the quote from Rocco it must include agreeing a set of rules, for the statement to make any sense. As such, this state of anarchy will begin with some kind of social contract, however informal. If there is, per specification, no monopoly rule-enforcer, there must surely be some mechanism for enforcement of contracts, or if this is too strong, some kind of punishment through ostracism for defaulters.

Separate to contractual matters comes self-defence against violent aggression. Assuming each individual has the natural right to self-defence, then he also has the right to delegate this right, or to combine with others to form a mutual defence association. Thus, so far into the empty space left by the expiring state, we find a set of agreed rules, which I would call a social contract, and one or more mutual defence associations. These measures seem unavoidable if any kind of society is to exist, and if entered into voluntarily and only operating defensively, they are compatible with libertarian principles.

However, not everyone wants to live in peace with his neighbours. Without the apparatus of the state, there are other options to those above for the maliciously-inclined. Firstly, one may choose to be a petty criminal. Secondly, one may choose to band together in a predatory way in order to live by plunder. I shall call this the warlord option. Neither of these is permissible under the libertarian philosophy, but they are very likely to occur in a state of anarchy, as they do in a state with a functioning government, police force, legal system etc.

Based on the preceding, each individual has a choice of four options:

1)      Agree to a social contract and join a Mutual Defence Association.

2)      Keep aloof from the above, but try to live peacefully and possibly self-sufficiently.

3)      Join or form a predatory warlord militia.

4)      Live as a lone-wolf predator.

Options number one and three both represent systems which could evolve to take the place of the vanished state. The distinction between the two at the early stage is easy to see; one is voluntary and defensive, the other is predatory and offensive, and if both exist at the same time, the relationship between them will be that which exists between different nations, i.e. a Lockean state of nature, with the choice of ‘live and let live’ or ‘live and let die’.

No doubt I have overlooked and simplified many things. For instance option number one as stated sounds very individualistic, but it could take the form of a collectivist commune and still contain a social contract and a responsibility for mutual defence. Nevertheless, were the state to disappear, and ignoring the possibility of foreign intervention, it would most likely be replaced in a short space of time by a number of proto-republics and outlaw states, which would present us all with the same problems of governance and state gangsterism, but on a smaller scale.

When considering such things, more effort is needed to distinguish between what is the state, what is the law and what is government. It seems to me anarchists sometimes do not do this, and then must take refuge in vagueness, for fear of conceding anything which might drag them back towards the dreaded minarchist position.

The Leveller concept of individual sovereignty – Overton and Lilburne contrasted


(Part II of a series of posts on the Levellers. Part I can be found here and a speech I gave on the subject can be found here)

From the outbreak of the Civil War, the old constitution of England, wherein sovereignty resided somewhere within a sort of mystical triumvirate of King, Lords and Commons, was broken apart, although both sides were keen to deny such an obvious conclusion, keeping up the fiction that each was fighting to uphold and restore the traditional balance. However, by the old rules, without the approval of Parliament, the King’s actions were illegitimate, and likewise the Parliament’s acts without the King’s approval. If individuals were bound to obey lawful authority, how was anyone to judge what authority was lawful? (William Walwyn’s pamphlet “The Bloody Project” makes this point at the time of Second Civil War in 1648).

To a number of the Levellers, the collapse of the government into warring factions signified that the nation had returned to a state of nature, wherein it would be necessary to re-establish a legitimate and lawful government, the question being; upon what basis? Taking their lead from the arguments presented by Parliament’s supporters, informed by Sir Edward Coke’s conception of the common law, the Levellers developed their political ideas based on the following key principles: firstly, that each individual had, through the laws of God and Nature, certain inalienable rights and properties in himself, and that all legitimate authority, whether of King or Parliament, derived from the individual’s right to self-preservation. The Leveller position interpreted the notion of “Salus Populi Suprema Lex”, a notion asserted by Parliament’s supporters in justification of all acts which could not be justified by precedent, in a fundamentally individualistic way.

One of the most quoted Leveller statements of this viewpoint comes from Richard Overton’s work “ An Arrow Against All Tyrants”, (full title; “An Arrow Against All Tyrants and Tyranny, shot from the prison of Newgate into the prerogative bowels of the arbitrary House of Lords and all other usurpers and tyrants whatsoever”). Thus:

“To every individual in nature is given an individual property by nature not to be invaded or usurped by any. For every one, as he is himself, so he has a self-propriety, else could he not be himself; and of this no second may presume to deprive any of without manifest violation and affront to the very principles of nature and of the rules of equity and justice between man and man. Mine and thine cannot be, except this be. No man has power over my rights and liberties, and I over no man’s…”

“For by natural birth all men are equally and alike born to like propriety, liberty and freedom; and as we are delivered of God by the hand of nature into this world, every one with a natural, innate freedom and propriety — as it were writ in the table of every man’s heart, never to be obliterated…”

“It is nature’s instinct to preserve itself from all things hurtful and obnoxious; and this in nature is granted of all to be most reasonable, equal and just… And from this fountain or root all just human powers take their original — not immediately from God (as kings usually plead their prerogative) but mediately by the hand of nature, as from the represented to the representers…”

“And no more may be communicated than stands for the better being, weal, or safety thereof. And this is man’s prerogative and no further; so much and no more may be given or received thereof: even so much as is conducent to a better being, more safety and freedom, and no more. He that gives more, sins against his own flesh; and he that takes more is thief and robber to his kind — every man by nature being a king, priest and prophet in his own natural circuit and compass, whereof no second may partake but by deputation, commission, and free consent from him whose natural right and freedom it is. “

After comparing the relationship between the people and the government to that between the parents of a child and a tutor hired to teach that child (thus the tutor is empowered only in a strictly limited sense and can be dismissed and replaced if derelict in his duties) he goes on:

“It is in vain for you to think you have power over us to save us or destroy us at your pleasure, to do with us as you list, be it for our weal or be it for our woe…For the edge of your own arguments against the king in this kind may be turned upon yourselves. For if for the safety of the people he might in equity be opposed by you in his tyrannies, oppressions and cruelties, even so may you by the same rule of right reason be opposed by the people in general in the like cases of destruction and ruin by you upon them; for the safety of the people is the sovereign law”.

This principle of self-ownership is echoed fifty years later by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government, thus:

“Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself.”

The same idea, along with the notion that all just powers of government derive from self-ownership, is also asserted by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be [sacred and undeniable] self evident, that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive in rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing it’s powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

With self-ownership forming the bedrock of Overton and the Levellers’ political ideas, their stances on freedom of conscience, free trade, representative government, consent etc. naturally follow. It is also worth noting how such views struck at the very foundations of the existing government at the time, and that, given Overton’s position as a prisoner by order of the “arbitrary and tyrannical” House of Lords, it took a man of some courage to state it so unambiguously.

Similar ideas are expressed by Lilburne, which I will quote to illustrate the differences in writing style, as well as perhaps a difference in underlying philosophy, with Overton leaning more on reason than theology. The following is taken from “The Freeman’s Freedom Vindicated”:

“God, the absolute sovereign lord and king of all things in heaven and earth, the original fountain and cause of all causes; who is circumscribed, governed, and limited by no rules, but doth all things merely and only by His sovereign will and unlimited good pleasure; who made the world and all things therein for His own glory; and who by His own will and pleasure, gave him, His mere creature, the sovereignty (under Himself) over all the rest of His creatures (Genesis 1: 26, 28-9) and endued him with a rational soul, or understanding, and thereby created him after His own image (Genesis 1: 26-7; 9: 6). The first of which was Adam, a male, or man, made out of the dust or clay; out of whose side was taken a rib, which by the sovereign and absolute mighty creating power of God was made a female or woman called Eve: which two are the earthly, original fountain, as begetters and bringers-forth of all and every particular and individual man and woman that ever breathed in the world since; who are, and were by nature all equal and alike in power, dignity, authority, and majesty — none of them having (by nature) any authority, dominion or magisterial power, one over or above another. Neither have they or can they exercise any but merely by institution or donation, that is to say by mutual agreement or consent — given, derived, or assumed by mutual consent and agreement — for the good benefit and comfort each of other, and not for the mischief, hurt, or damage of any: it being unnatural, irrational, sinful, wicked and unjust for any man or men whatsoever to part with so much of their power as shall enable any of their parliament-men, commissioners, trustees, deputies, viceroys, ministers, officers or servants to destroy and undo them therewith. And unnatural, irrational, sinful, wicked, unjust, devilish, and tyrannical it is, for any man whatsoever — spiritual or temporal, clergyman or layman — to appropriate and assume unto himself a power, authority and jurisdiction to rule, govern or reign over any sort of men in the world without their free consent; and whosoever doth it — whether clergyman or any other whatsoever — do thereby as much as in them lies endeavour to appropriate and assume unto themselves the office and sovereignty of God (who alone doth, and is to rule by His will and pleasure), and to be like their creator, which was the sin of the devils’, who, not being content with their first station but would be like God; for which sin they were thrown down into hell, reserved in everlasting chains, under darkness, unto the judgement of the great day (Jude verse 6). And Adam’s sin it was, which brought the curse upon him and all his posterity, that he was not content with the station and condition that God created him in, but did aspire unto a better and more excellent — namely to be like his creator — which proved his ruin. Yea, and indeed had been the everlasting ruin and destruction of him and all his, had not God been the more merciful unto him in the promised Messiah (Genesis 3).”

Amen. Notwithstanding the more verbose style and faith-based phraseology, the underlying argument is much the same. It is interesting to note in the above how Lilburne defines what it means for a man or woman to be made in the image of God, namely, it is the possession of “a rational soul, or understanding”. Also important is the key notion of consent, that the only governmental power that can be justly exercised is that which derives from “mutual agreement or consent … for the good, benefit and comfort each of other, and not for the mischief, hurt or damage of any”. This notion of consent is found in one of the most well-known quotes from the period; Thomas Rainsborough, the highest-ranking army Leveller, speaking in the Putney Debates of the General Council of the Army, October 1647 (to be discussed in a later post):

“For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under; and I am confident that, when I have heard the reasons against it, something will be said to answer those reasons, insomuch that I should doubt whether he was an Englishman or no, that should doubt of these things.”

The above quote can be found in “Puritanism and Liberty” page 111

A great deal hinges upon what we understand by and how we define the term consent (coincidentally the subject of Thursday’s speech by Christian Michel at Libertarian Home). If the legitimacy of all or any government power derives from the consent of the people, the more literally it is taken, the more limited the government must be, tending towards the vanishing point of anarchism. However, it is republicanism rather than anarchism which the Levellers sought, although the latter was imputed to them by their enemies. The pamphlet “A Manifestation” signed by Overton, Lilburne, Thomas Prince and Walwyn (the principle writer) in 1649 during their captivity in the Tower of London, addresses this accusation;

“‘Tis somewhat a strange consequence to infer that because we have laboured so earnestly for a good government therefore we would have none at all, because we would have the dead and exorbitant branches pruned and better scions grafted therefore we would pluck the tree up by the roots.”

In conclusion (for the time-being) the Levellers’ political philosophy is founded on the principle of individual self-ownership. That there must be a government is not doubted, however its legitimacy can only be bestowed by the freely-given consent of the governed. Given the inalienability of self-ownership and the over-arching “sovereign law” of the people’s safety, there are limits to what any individual can consent to and thus there are limits which no government can ever legitimately exceed – as Overton states above: “He that gives more, sins against his own flesh; and he that takes more is thief and robber to his kind“.

The Levellers, falsely so called 2.0 part 1

Some weeks ago I gave a speech to Libertarian Home on a subject of great interest to me, the Leveller movement from the time of the English Civil Wars and Revolution. For those who attended and for those who watch the video, I hope I managed to impart something of value, although, having watched it myself, I am aware of the flaws. I always saw my main problem as akin to trying to put a quart into a pint pot, given the complexity of the general political narrative, the time limits for the speech and my own propensity to go off on tangents. Therefore, what follows, here and in subsequent posts, is an enlarged version of the speech, where certain gaps are plugged, and with the addition of links to various sources on the internet for those whose interest was perhaps kindled.

The Context: The Revolution, the Interregnum and the Civil War which preceded it

In January 1649 the king of England, Charles I, was put on trial in front of a special tribunal, accused of treason, found guilty and executed. The monarchy was then abolished, the House of Lords was abolished and a unicameral Parliament was set up with the remnants of the House of Commons, later christened “the Rump” by its enemies. England thereby ceased to be a monarchy and became a republic of sorts, “the Commonwealth of England”. This lasted about four years until Oliver Cromwell, one of the chief instigators of the revolution and the most powerful military leader, dissolved Parliament and became, until his death in 1658, a sort of Caesarean military dictator, with the title of Lord Protector. As is often the case with dictatorships, the problem was the succession. When Cromwell died there was a brief attempt to install his son, Richard Cromwell (nicknamed “Tumble down Dick”) as Lord Protector, but he had nothing like his father’s prestige or power, so swiftly abdicated, at which point the Rump Parliament Cromwell had dissolved crawled out of the woodwork and attempted to reanimate the republic, but there was another military coup under General George Monck, who invited the son of the executed king back from exile, to be crowned Charles II in 1660. This period of eleven years, from the execution of Charles I to the restoration of the monarchy is known as the Interregnum.

What had led to the revolution was a struggle for supremacy between the king and Parliament which broke out into civil war in 1642. By 1645 the king’s armies had been largely defeated, and in 1646 he surrendered to the Scots, who were at that time occupying northern England and allied to the English Parliament. In early 1647, in return for a sum of money, with which they paid off their troops and went home, the Scots handed over the king to the English Parliament. The question then for the victorious Parliament was, with the war won, how to settle the peace? The two main obstacles to this were; firstly getting the king to agree to anything, especially given the risk he would renege on the deal once the opportunity arose, and secondly the divisions in the Parliamentary side, wherein two main factions are usually identified; the Presbyterians and the Independents, with the former dominant in Parliament at this time, and the latter within the most effective military force of the war, the New Model Army.

It is within this period, from 1647 to 1649, that what has been called the Leveller movement rose to prominence.

What is/was a leveller?

The original meaning of the word leveller was one who levelled fences, specifically fences enclosing land for private use which had previously been open to common use. This was not usually, I believe, common land per se, but rather land owned by the local squire or lord of the manor, over which the common people had certain customary rights of usage, such as grazing cattle or collecting firewood. In its original meaning, therefore, leveller conjures up the idea of a revolting peasant.

Prior to and during the Civil War there was certainly an amount of such levelling going on, as country folk took advantage of the disorder of the war to seize back what they considered to be their own, but by the time the word gets applied to the political radicals with whom I am concerned, the meaning has shifted towards the idea of levelling men’s estates, the implication being that the radicals were seeking some form of egalitarian communism. The Implication and the name itself were rejected by these newly-christened “Levellers”, who saw it as a deliberate attempt to misrepresent their intentions and to blacken their reputation with the public. However the name has stuck in the historical record, to the extent that today it only really means these radicals. In the same way, nobody thinks much about Irish guerrillas any more when they hear the word “Tory”.

Of the many examples of the Levellers repudiating the term, I would cite a pamphlet which is usually listed as “The Levellers Vindicated”; full title; “The Levellers (falsely so called) Vindicated”, or Richard Overton’s “The Baiting of the Great Bull of Basham” which is addressed especially to “the citizens of London meeting in the Whalebone on Lothbury behind the Royal Exchange, commonly (though unjustly) styled levellers. John Lilburne, the most important of the Leveller leaders, put it thus:

“This Conceit of Levelling of property and Magistracy is so ridiculous and foolish an opinion, as no man of brains, reason, or ingenuity, can be imagined such a sot as to maintain such a principle, because it would, if practiced destroy not only any industry in the world, but raze the very foundation of generation, and of subsistence or being of one man by another. For as industry and valour by which the societies of mankind are maintained and preserved, who will take the pains for that which when he hath gotten is not his own, but must be equally shared in, by every lazy, simple, dronish sot? or who will fight for that, wherein he hath no other interest, but such as must be subject to the will and pleasure of another, yea of every coward and base low spirited fellow. that in his sitting still must share in common with a valiant man in all his brave and noble achievement? The ancient encouragement to men that were to defend their Country was this: that they were to hazard their persons for that which was their own, to wit, their own wives, their own children, their own Estates. And this give me leave to say, and that in truth, that those men in England, that are most branded with the name of Levellers, are of all in that Nation, most free from any design of Levelling, in the sense we have spoken of.”

In the above quote one can see an early iteration of what is usually referred to as the “incentive problem” in socialism, i.e. if everyone gets an equal share no matter how hard they work, why would anyone bother to exert themselves? (Or, as Murray N. Rothbard would put it; “Who will take out the garbage?”). One further effect of the use of the name was to introduce into the Leveller political programme a specific disavowal and legal prohibition against levelling men’s estates. Thus clause XXX in the final version of their proposed constitutional settlement, the Agreement of the People, (May 1649) reads:

“We therefore agree and declare, That it shall not be in the power of any Representative, in any wise, to render up, or give, or take away any part of this Agreement, nor level mens Estates, destroy Propriety, or make all things Common.”

The leaders of the movement

The Leveller movement grew up and coalesced around one man above all others; John Lilburne. Alongside him were two other men, Richard Overton and William Walwyn. Together these three produced the most important literary works defining what the Levellers stood for. It would, however, be a mistake to think of John Lilburne primarily as a writer, rather than a political leader. He certainly wrote copiously, but most of this was in prison. Had he not spent so much of his adult life behind bars, he may not have written so much. This is less true in the case of Overton and Walwyn, of whose lives we know much less, and who were less prominent public figures.

Differences of opinion can be found between Lilburne, Overton and Walwyn, such as in their religious beliefs, and their attitude to the law (particularly as to the extent to which the written law from Magna Charta onwards provided a shield from tyranny), but taken together one gets the impression of a great team, each with his own strengths. As to their different religious perspectives, given their firm adherence to the principle of freedom of conscience, any differences we may infer do not seem to have caused any disunity between them.

As writers, each has his individual style, which is fortunate, given the number of pamphlets published anonymously, pseudonymously or signed by more than one writer. Historians of the period are thus provided with a sport, to attribute such works to the pen of one or more of them. Lilburne tends to write at greater length than his colleagues, beating his readers into submission, with page after page and example after example, and quotes from the Bible and the law abounding. His writing usually contains a great deal of autobiographical detail. Indeed, Lilburne’s personal struggles are often portrayed by himself and others as exemplifying the tyranny under which the nation suffers – he is the canary in the coalmine, and whatever they can do to him, they can do to anyone else. Hence, a Petition of Women from 1649, whilst Lilburne, Overton, Walwyn and fellow leader Thomas Prince languished in the Tower of London, states:

“Would you have us keep at home in our houses, when men of such faithfulness and integrity as the four prisoners, our friends, in the Tower, are fetched out of their beds and forced from their houses by soldiers, to the affrighting and undoing of themselves, their wives, children, and families? Are not our husbands, our selves, our children and families, by the same rule as liable to the like unjust cruelties as they?”

One of his better and more succinct works is “The Second Part of England’s New Chains”, which is, incidentally, what provoked the Rump government to take the action noted above in the petition.

Overton tends to be the most satirical of the writers, often humorous, sharing with Lilburne the fiery rhetoric, but doing so with more clarity and brevity. His portrait of Cromwell and co., taken from “The Hunting of the Foxes” captures a great deal with few words:

“Was there ever a generation of men so Apostate so false and so perjur’d as these? Did ever men pretend an higher degree of Holinesse, Religion, and Zeal to God and their Country than these? These preach, these fast, these pray, these have nothing more frequent then the sentences of sacred Scripture, the Name of God and of Christ in their mouthes: You shall scarce speak to Crumwell about any thing, but he will lay his hand on his breast, elevate his eyes, and call God to record, he will weep, howl and repent, even while he doth smite you under the first rib.”

A good example of his work, quoted in the speech, is “An Arrow Against All Tyrants”.

William Walwyn is much more the quiet voice of reason. He very much believed that through rational discourse, people of good will could be persuaded. His habit of engaging in Socratic debate did however lead him to be accused of holding many opinions which he did not in fact hold, simply because he would often require his accusers to justify rationally why they themselves opposed such opinions, or why they held others, even those which he most likely shared with them. He was additionally, by all accounts, an effective political organiser behind the scenes, leaving the speech-giving to Lilburne and others. A good example of his style and his more pacific attitude is found in the pamphlet “The Bloody Project” in which he condemns all the warring parties in the Second Civil War of 1648, thus:

“To be short, all the quarrel we have at this day in the Kingdom, is no other than a quarrel of Interests, and Parties, a pulling down of one Tyrant, to set up another, and instead of Liberty, heaping upon ourselves a greater slavery than that we fought against…”

“The King, Parliament, great men in the City and Army, have made you but the stairs by which they have mounted to Honor, Wealth and Power. The only Quarrel that has been, and at present is but this, namely, whose slaves the people shall be”.

(I should note that not every historian agrees over the authorship of all the works mentioned above.)

Separate from Lilburne, Overton and Walwyn, mention should be made of other important figures who did not leave behind a body of work, but certainly played a key role in the struggle, most notably Thomas Rainsborough, the highest ranking radical in the army, and Edward Sexby, one of the common soldiers’ representatives in the General Council of the Army. Both of these feature in the famous army debates held in Putney (discussed later), and were instrumental in pushing the army towards a peace settlement based on the Leveller programme. The death of Rainsborough in 1648 (under somewhat murky circumstances) robbed the Levellers of possibly the one man who could have resisted Cromwell’s derailment of the army’s radical agenda.

John Lilburne’s first struggle

John Lilburne first comes to public attention back before the Civil War, in 1637 (during the period in which King Charles ruled without calling a Parliament, from 1629 to 1640), when he is arrested in possession of a number of illegal books attacking the established church, which he has had printed and imported from Holland. He is taken in front of the Court of Star Chamber. This was not an ordinary court of law, but rather an instrument of the Privy Council, in which the usual procedures of the common law did not apply. He is required to take an oath and answer any questions that are posed to him. He refuses to take the oath and he refuses to answer any questions, on the grounds that he has a right under the law not to be forced to bear witness against himself. He demands that, if he has broken any known law, he should be charged and brought into an ordinary court to be tried by a jury of his peers.

This does not go down very well with the Star Chamber judges. He is sentenced to a large fine, and to be tied to the back of a cart and whipped from the Fleet prison (at the far end of modern Fleet Street) to Whitehall and put in the pillory. He bears his punishment with courage. With every lash of the whip he cries out to Jehovah for strength and fortitude, and when put in the pillory he sermonizes to the crowd, denouncing the bishops and challenging them to debate him. Somehow he manages to throw copies of the banned book into the crowd. The order comes down to shut him up, which he will not do, so they bind his mouth, but even then he stamps his feet and makes what noise he can. He will not be silenced. Such a stout performance endears him to the people, and from this point onwards, John Lilburne’s reputation as a man who will stand up for justice against the high and mighty is established. He languishes in jail for the next two years, until Parliament, finally called after eleven years, orders his release and abolishes the Star Chamber.

From this earliest stage in Lilburne’s “career” we can see the core elements of what will later become the Leveller programme. Firstly; freedom of religion. Secondly; freedom of the press. Thirdly; freedom of trade. Not only is a very rigid censorship in place, but publishing is engrossed under a monopoly, and anyone wanting to publish a book is required to pay dues to the Stationer’s Company. The forth element, which is central to so much of Lilburne’s struggle is the matter of law, and the liberties he claims, with reference to Magna Charta, Sir Edward Coke’s Institutes and sundry statutes, as a “freeborn Englishman”.

One important aside to make at this point relates to a very well-known ruling of the United States Supreme Court in the case Miranda versus the State of Arizona, affirming the necessity of informing a prisoner of his right to remain silent and to legal counsel, in the absence of which any information given by the prisoner is to be disregarded. Mr Chief Justice Warren, delivering the opinion of the Court, stated:

“We sometimes forget how long it has taken to establish the privilege against self-incrimination, the sources from which it came and the fervor with which it was defended. Its roots go back into ancient times. Perhaps the critical historical event shedding light on its origins and evolution was the trial of one John Lilburn, a vocal anti-Stuart Leveller, who was made to take the Star Chamber Oath in 1637. The oath would have bound him to answer to all questions posed to him on any subject. He resisted the oath and declaimed the proceedings, stating: “   no man’s conscience ought to be racked by oaths imposed, to answer to questions concerning himself in matters criminal, or pretended to be so.” … The lofty principles to which Lilburn had appealed during his trial gained popular acceptance in England. These sentiments worked their way over to the Colonies and were implanted after great struggle into the Bill of Rights. Those who framed our Constitution and the Bill of Rights were ever aware of subtle encroachments on individual liberty. They knew that “illegitimate and unconstitutional practices get their first footing . . . by silent approaches and slight deviations from legal modes of procedure.”

What is the law?

John Lilburne’s concept of the law was heavily influenced by the work of Sir Edward Coke, whose views on the Common Law contained primarily in his Institutes, however historically accurate or not, had been given official sanction as good law. Leaning on Coke, Lilburne was able to justify his claims to certain protections, such as the right to a jury trial and the right to refuse to answer questions which may incriminate himself, with arguments that could convince the layman, if not the legal expert. The Leveller programme contained a number of reforms to the law, such as insisting that the English language must be used throughout (it was still largely written in Norman French and Latin, a tangible instance of the infamous “Norman Yoke”!), a more humane sentencing policy towards lesser offences, with the death penalty reserved only for the most heinous crimes, an end to imprisonment for debt, and a removal of all privileges by birth or grant, to make all people equal in the eyes of the law and subject to the same rules.

As with Lilburne, so with the king and Parliament, the issue was not so much what the law should be but what it actually was. The original dispute between king and Parliament centred on the relationship between his royal prerogative and the law. Did it float above the law, or was it contained within?.

Writing a century later Robert Molesworth, in his preface to the translation of Franco-Gallia, states:

“By the old and true Maxim, that the King can do no Wrong, nobody is so foolish as to conclude, that he has not Strength to murder, to offer Violence to Women, or Power enough to dispossess a Man wrongfully of his Estate, or that whatever he does (how wicked soever) is just: but the Meaning is, he has no lawful Power to do such Things; and our Constitution considers no Power as irresistible, but what is lawful.”

However, King Charles took a more literal view of the phrase, and, in the period during which he ruled without Parliament, with regard to the Ship Money case, the courts supported him. Furthermore, the king adhered, like his father to a belief in the divine right of kings, and considered himself answerable only to God.

The Parliament, seeking to constrain the king and aggrandise its own powers, were obliged to fall back from arguments based on precedent – they were seeking powers Parliaments had never possessed in the past – to making appeals to reason and general principle, such as “salus populi suprema lex”. However, framing the defence of their actions in the name of the people’s safety, begged the question as to the relationship between the Parliament and the people, and, by extension the relationship between sovereignty and the people. The king’s supporters were quick to spot how Parliament’s arguments led inexorably towards the concept of popular sovereignty, which was the last thing most of the Parliamentarians were calling for, seeing themselves not as the representatives of the people, but rather the embodiment of the people. Either way, as the cavalier propagandists noted, the vast majority of the people of England had no say in their election.

Notwithstanding the absence of support for popular sovereignty, in challenging the king’s prerogative and appealing to reason and the safety of the people, the Parliamentarians could not avoid opening the Pandora’s Box, out of which it climbed.

To be continued …

The Lunchbox Nazis Strike Again!

A six-year-old boy has been expelled from school and the nursery place of his younger brother has been withdrawn after he turned up with some crack cocaine in his lunchbox. No wait! It wasn’t crack cocaine, it was a packet of mini-cheddars.

The story will surprise few parents, who are well aware of the ludicrous petty tyrannies visited upon their children over the contents of their lunchboxes, which are often inspected by school staff, or in the case of a school I know, the “Green Team”, an environmentally-minded version of the Hitler Jugend, who are empowered to prey upon their fellow pupils and snitch to the teacher. This poor younger generation! They must have been deprived of the lessons I received from the Bash Street Kids and various other comic characters of my childhood on the correct attitude to authority and those who snitch.

Ostensibly this is about ensuring the children get a balanced, healthy diet, but it is clear from many anecdotes that the staff often have little knowledge of nutrition, and are really enforcing a control agenda which, when examined, rests on a vile, monstrous premise: that the state is primarily responsible for bringing up the children and the parents are only their custodians insofar as they are prepared to toe the line.

In order to justify this interfering abuse of power, those of a totalitarian mind-set will no doubt conjure up images of feckless parents stuffing their children full of nothing but sweets and fizzy drinks. Such parents exist, of course, but the underlying and usually unspoken assumption is that this is what most parents would routinely do, if it were not for the gauleiters of the school canteen.  As elsewhere, the intention is to make the exception appear to be the rule, and once regulations have proliferated over every nook and cranny of school life, a common sense, ad hoc approach to dealing with whatever exceptions occur is precluded and an arbitrary and often stupid, or stupidly-applied, set of rules substituted.

For the totalitarian, it is not the case that one is innocent (the rule) until proven guilty (the exception), but rather that one is always and ever suspect. In the first case, no prior restraint is necessary or wanted, for why should an innocent person be restrained?  In the second, restraint and surveillance are imperative. With regard to parenting, it is not enough to say that the parent is no longer to be presumed loving and responsible, even worse, the loving, responsible parent has been replaced by a loving, responsible Uncle Joe state as primary carer, with the parent relegated to an auxiliary role.

A bit overblown? Possibly, but a dispute with the school can easily escalate. All someone at the school needs to do is pick up the phone to social services, and now you have the child snatcher at your door.  You’ll be fine, as long as you kiss the boot and appear to like it. Just don’t act like a normal, well-adjusted mammal.

Now, a libertarian defence of the school’s action may run thus: a voluntary contract exists between the parents and the school, and if the school wishes to impose strict rules on lunchboxes, this is their prerogative. This is true, but only up to a point, because the contract between the school and the parents is not wholly voluntary. The state imposes the violence of taxation on the parents in order to fund the school. Therefore the school is not providing a service to voluntary, paying customers, and it is working for the (piper-paying, tune-calling) state first and foremost, serving its interests above the interests of any of the children in its care.

Children should be brought up to respect themselves and other people, not to kowtow to authority like snivelling cowards.  Nor should parents cede control of their children’s eating habits to the state. History warns us what kind of societies emerge when the state manages to insert itself between parent and child.