The English Constitution
There is increasing concern in this country about the rising tide of immigration. At present, we do not control our borders, which are open to any citizen of the European Union. In addition, large numbers of people continue to arrive from other parts of the world, as students, refugees, economic migrants, workers and criminals coming illegally.
There are those who say that we have always welcomed immigrants – Huguenots, Jews, refugees from Germany and Spain in the 1930s, displaced persons after WW2, West Indian migrants coming to work, Asians kicked out of Uganda. True, but Migration Watch points out that there was little change in the numbers of immigrants in the overall population for 900 years after 1066, whereas between 1997 and 2010 the increase was nearly 4 million and in 2011, foreign-born resident population numbered 7.5 million.
In an attempt to integrate these people, the Labour government instituted a ceremony in which a person aged 18 or over might be given British citizenship, after a brief test of knowledge of life in the U.K. The ceremony includes a form of oath of loyalty and standing while the National Anthem is played. The oath or affirmation is to Her Majesty the Queen and includes a pledge of loyalty to the United Kingdom. Sadly, no oath is required by those under 18 and the knowledge test is only concerned with contemporary English life.
As you listen to the news, or read your newspaper or watch the heart-rending appeals for money for starving children on the TV, do you sometimes get depressed at the state of the world we live in? Do you get a feeling of helplessness and the impossibility of changing anything? Do you get angry that we borrow money to give to people overseas while we fail to protect the victims of flooding at home?
I want to point you to a bright spot amidst all this gloom – an unlikely bright spot some will say, but I don’t agree. It may be unrecognised, perhaps neglected by most of us, but I’m going to explain why I think that bright spot is the English Constitution. There are many who wish to keep that bright spot hidden.
I will leave aside the distinctions between England and the United Kingdom, for the English Constitution has been common to Wales since the 16th Century and adopted by Scotland with accommodation for the Church of Scotland in the 18th Century and later by Northern Ireland in its essentials. I shall mention the current Scottish situation later.
A Constitution is a statement of how an organisation must be run. It is how we keep everything on the rails. England also has a Constitution, but if you ask most people to describe how England is run, they will tell you that it is a Democracy – a Parliamentary Democracy. That is really not true, of course. Our form of government is not a parliamentary democracy. It is a Constitutional Monarchy. Those who favour Republics wish it otherwise and don’t use the proper description but focus on democracy. Does it matter? You bet it does!
The word on the street is that we have an unwritten constitution. This claim, much used in newspapers and by unscrupulous politicians, is used by those who don’t like our Constitution, or who wish to change its terms, because it is easier to change agreements which have not been written down. It is not true that our constitution is unwritten. Our Constitution has not been expressed in just one document, but rather in a number of deeply significant documents and because its terms are in writing, their meaning is not subject to denial. So let me remind you of what these documents tell us about how England is meant to be governed.
I begin with the oldest, The Law Code of King Alfred, written about 893 A.D. In this, Alfred referred to laws written before his lifetime and already in existence in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Britain, based on the Ten Commandments, for England was already a Christian country in Alfred’s reign. These laws are the basis of all our law and are called Common Law because they apply equally to rulers and ruled, to Monarch, Lord, Judge and citizen. They are quite simple. They state that everyone may enjoy God’s gift of freedom in all things, with just three exceptions.
- You may not cause physical damage to your neighbour.
- You may not take away your neighbour’s goods.
- You may not deceive your neighbour.
These rules are to be administered subject to precedence, i.e. how similar matters in dispute have been dealt with in the past. They are the blueprint which shows how trust may be built between individuals.
Within a hundred years of Alfred, these rules were already being broken by those in power. The Witan, (the Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the Privy Council) tried to appoint just kings, but kings do not always fulfil expectations. When a man named Dunstan from Mayfield objected to the law-breaking, he was banished for his pains, so he thought about how to cure the problem. Recalled by young King Edgar in 960, he became Archbishop of Canterbury, founded Mayfield’s church and the monastery at Westminster which would become Westminster Abbey and came up with an answer on how to control wayward kings.
He put together a ceremony for the appointment of a king which took the form of a covenant, a contract. His design for the Coronation of our Kings and Queens is broadly the same today, as anyone old enough to have seen the Coronation of our present Queen in 1953 can confirm. It takes place in the context of Christian Worship, a Service of Holy Communion, in which, the Monarch-to-be first swears an oath to defend the peoples’ laws and customs and to maintain the Church of which he/she will be the Supreme Head. After that Coronation Oath, the people, both Lords and Commoners present, on behalf of the nation, pledge their loyal support in response to the Oath by a shout “God Save the Queen”. The Christian ideal of a leader being a servant is exemplified in the rest of the Service and symbolised by the gift of the Covenant Ring. That Coronation Oath is a written component of our Constitution.
Of course, individuals don’t always keep their promises. Oaths can be broken. Our national history has many examples, but such failures have led to Constitutional refinement. By 1100, William Rufus, son of the Conqueror, was imposing the continental law brought here by his father, claiming royal ownership of all land and people, with savage punishment for any opposition. He was killed by a mysterious archer while out hunting and the throne was claimed by his younger brother Henry. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was needed to crown the new king and who was a champion of freedom, persuaded Henry that the only way he would be crowned required a radical change to the way England was being ruled. Henry agreed to swear an oath which restored Common Law, known as The Charter of Liberties. In it, he acknowledged that the king was also subject to the same law as each citizen.
In 1102, Anselm called together the church leaders to a Synod resulting in the Statute of Westminster 1102, which, among its findings, outlawed slavery in England. After 1102, any slave who set foot on English soil was automatically free. Though called a Statute, it was not a Parliamentary Statute, for Parliament did not then exist. It took until the 19th Century for that law to go world-wide.
Ensuing years saw the same deterioration in standards of justice in England, culminating in the despotic rule of King John. This time is where the story of Robin Hood comes from. John was opposed by the knights of England honouring the code of chivalry and in 1205, William Marshall refused to fight for John in Normandy and others followed his lead. In 1213, King John surrendered England to the Pope, to avoid a French invasion and to give himself time to punish those rebellious knights. However, another Archbishop, Stephen Langton, having found the forgotten Charter of Liberties of Henry 1st, read it to the knights he had gathered at Westminster. They met in lawful rebellion at Bury St. Edmunds and marched to London, where they were joined by the Londoners to make their demands. The end result was a document of over sixty clauses, setting out specific freedoms, which John was forced to accept at Runnymede. That Great Charter of Liberty, called Magna Carta, gave us, among other things, trial by jury, so that honest men can undo bad laws, Habeas Corpus to prevent indefinite prison before trial, the individual’s right to own property, the right for reasonable taxation if it is with our consent and the right to freedom for the Church from government control.
In the later 13th Century, it was Simon de Montfort who opposed the misbehaviour of Henry III, defeating him in battle at Lewes in 1264. Although the knights under Simon were defeated at Evesham in 1265, it was not before he had called the first Parliament composed of knights and burgesses who had been elected in the shires, rather than Parliament being a meeting of men appointed by the king.
Through the 14th and 15th Centuries, attacks on freedom, particularly on freedom of thought came from another direction as well as from kings. With the beginnings of the universities and the growth of scientific thought came attempts by the Church of Rome to close down new thinking, often supported by God-fearing monarchs. Men like John Wyclif and William Tyndale, translated the Bible into English for ordinary people to read. Tyndale had to flee the country and was executed in 1536, while Wyclif’s followers, the Lollards, paid with their lives if caught. But the growth of knowledge and the desire for freedom was unstoppable and it issued in the Protestant Reformation right across Europe, from John Huss in Bohemia in the 14th century to Martin Luther in Germany at the beginning of the 16th.
Here, the Reformation was opposed by Henry VIII, himself a Roman Catholic. (awarded the title Defender of the Faith by the Pope, the origin of FID DEF or F D beside the Queen’s head on our coinage) but reform grew strongly under the boy king Edward VI, until under Mary Tudor, trying to re-impose Roman Catholicism, full scale persecution began, sparing neither Archbishop Cranmer and his companion Bishops, nor ordinary folk like those martyred at Lewes.
The difficulty England faced arose because of the conflict of authority between Monarch and Pope. Remember that the Pope has a political, as well as a religious position. It was resolved when Queen Elizabeth I ratified, in 1571, the findings of the 1562 Synod, which set out the beliefs of the Church of England in 39 Articles of Religion (printed at the back of the BCP.) These Articles are also a Constitutional Document, since Article 37 states quite clearly that the Monarch is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign jurisdiction. External attack came from the Armada, followed by the internal attempt by Guy Fawkes to kill King and Parliament, but both were defeated.
The next attack on our freedom came from within - from our own king. Charles Ist, after he came to the throne in 1625. He claimed Divine Right to do as he pleased with regard to taxation and loans. The response came from Parliament in 1628 in the Petition of Right, referring to the terms of Magna Carta. Lawful rebellion followed with the Civil War and the execution of the king after he was found to be plotting with the Scots, then a foreign nation. The military dictatorship which followed, under Cromwell, was ended by the Glorious Revolution of 1660, when military dictatorship as a government was rejected and Charles II was invited to return.
If only James II, his brother, had held to the Constitution. Instead, he took steps to reinstate the Roman Catholic faith and fled the country to avoid the consequences. He was succeeded by William of Orange and his wife Mary. William was a staunch Protestant and Mary was the eldest daughter of Charles I, so an invitation to them suited the country’s mood. That mood was exemplified by the statement based on the Petition of Right called The Declaration of Right which was presented at the Constitutional Convention called by William in March 1689, when he and his wife were officially invited to rule jointly. It laid down limits to Royal power and asserted the rights of individuals. It included statements about the Royal Succession, Royal Supremacy immune from foreign jurisdiction and claimed to be binding for all time. At the end of 1689 it emerged as a Statutory Document named The Bill Of Rights 1689.
Following the failure of William III and Mary and also Queen Anne who followed them to produce any surviving offspring, the Act of Settlement transferred the Succession to the Electress Sophia of Hanover, who had a family connection with the Stuarts and had Protestant offspring. The Act was designed to ensure that the Monarch remained a Protestant, in view of the place the Monarch holds in the Church of England and to avoid the Monarch having split loyalties. The Act is another Constitutional Document. Despite the Act of Union of England and Scotland in 1707, the 18th Century saw attempts by supporters of the Stuarts to re-install Roman Catholic rulers in both Ireland and Scotland, James II with French help in Ireland and Bonnie Prince Charlie in Scotland.
With the French Revolution, the attack on our freedom came from Napoleon directly, but through the 19th Century, Republican views grew among some politicians and grew louder with the writings of Karl Marx.
You might think that the greatest attacks on our freedom in the 20th Century came in two World Wars. In many ways you are right, but a more subtle attack also began in the early 20th Century, aimed at our Constitution. In some ways, it was even more dangerous than war, for it came from within, it was hidden and it was self-inflicted. As a result, it has nearly achieved complete victory – but there is still a spark of brightness there for us to fan into the flame of freedom which our Constitution was designed to preserve, not just for us, but for others as well.
I am not going to refer to the best-known written Constitution – that of The U.S., written during the 18th Century, beyond saying that it was founded on the English Constitution, on Magna Carta and it contains a citizen’s right copied from our Bill of Rights, which has been taken from us, namely, the right to bear arms. You may think that is a good thing. There are others who point to the fact that taking away this right has done nothing to reduce gun crime here and we now have a police force (although its name has been changed to police service) in which numbers routinely carry guns. It is a fact that the greatest massacres of innocent people have been carried out by governments against their own citizens, for example, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Bashir Assad. It is not private citizens who pose the greatest risk to the loss of freedom.
Returning to the history of our own Constitution, you may have noticed a pattern emerging over the years. Some enlightened guide or rule arises from the actions of an individual or group which has clear benefits for our society. Then, gradually, the guide is forgotten and the rule broken and society and life deteriorates until that guide or rule is reinstated.
Look at our misbehaving Monarchs. William II was shot, out hunting in the New Forest. John, brought to book at Runnymede; Richard II and the Peasants’ Revolt; Richard III, hacked to pieces at Bosworth; Mary Tudor, who died in time to avoid the outcome of marrying Philip of Spain; Charles I, executed in Whitehall, James II, who threw the Great Seal into the Thames as he attempted escape to France in 1688, thinking that government was impossible without it, but it was netted by a fisherman and used by William and Mary in 1689. Nearer our time, it was in 1936 that Edward Viii abdicated the Throne to marry Wallis Simpson. That was painted as his decision, but it was not. Since marriage to a divorcee was contrary to the Constitution, he could not marry her and rule. That abdication upheld a constitution already under attack.
So, what was the hidden attack on our freedom that began just one hundred years ago?
At a time when revolution was in the air abroad and socialism an increasingly popular idea at home, the Liberal Party won a huge majority in the 1906 General Election and in 1908, embarked on an expensive welfare program to go with the expensive arms race with Germany. The tax effects on landowners, which included members of the House of Lords, resulted in resistance to the program, but the liberal majority in the House of Commons were determined to succeed.
By dint of garnering the support of Irish Nationalists, they were able in 1911 to pass The Parliament Act, ratified by the newly crowned George V, though it had been resisted by Edward VII until his death. Two of the terms of this Act were contrary to the Constitution. The first major change was to remove from the House of Lords the power to send back to the Commons any Government Bills related to finance. This clause was designed to push through the government’s Budget against Lords opposition. What it also did was to change the equality of status of Lords and Commons, removing a check on government spending. It didn’t stop there. The Act also took away the monarch’s right to veto legislation which was unconstitutional by stating that in future, the monarch’s approval of Bills would be automatic, since the Royal Prerogative had not been exercised negatively since Queen Anne’s reign. That was untrue, but large majorities can overawe opposition. With the ferment of the War, the Russian Revolution and the Irish Rebellion, no-one made a fuss. When the King wished to invite his cousin Tsar Nicholas and the Russian Royal Family to safety here, he was dissuaded in case it led to revolution here.
That unconstitutional action set in train a process which has continued and increased in significance until now, when our basic freedoms are under assault on a daily basis.
Membership of the House of Lords increased rapidly in the 19th and 20th Centuries, as Prime Ministers tried to get their political support increased. It was under Harold Macmillan that we saw politically appointed Life Peers flood into the House of Lords. Lords Reform became a parrot cry as the folly of previous actions became apparent. Most Hereditary Peers were sacked in 1999 under Blair, as was the Lord Chancellor. We now have a grossly-inflated House of Lords, some 760 strong, full of political cronies and the cries have changed from ‘Reform’ to ‘Abolition’.
The next major change after the 2nd World War came when the Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, signed the European Communities Act in 1972, taking us into the common Market. I remember hearing him assure us that it had no effect on our sovereignty, though legal advice had been given him to the contrary. Our membership of the European Union as the Common Market became is directly contrary to the Declaration of Right. Our Queen is now a citizen of a European power, governed by unelected bureaucrats. Our Courts are subject to European laws. Much of the legislation affecting individuals is not scrutinised by our own parliament, but imposed by Statutory Instruments from Brussels. This legislation is based on the European system known as Corpus Juris, which states that your freedom consists in what the government has decided to allow and is contrary to Common Law. Since European Commissioners are immune from prosecution, they cannot be made to answer for their own law-breaking. That immunity is shared by European police.
Look at just some of the law which has been imposed. The European Arrest Warrant means that our police are required to arrest and extradite English people accused elsewhere in Europe, with no right to see the evidence supporting a charge against a person who may be, and has been, imprisoned for extended periods before a trial, even for actions which are not contrary to English law. What price Habeas Corpus, law here since 1215? We are not allowed to deport foreign criminals, here illegally. We will be fined if we do not give criminals in prison a vote. Acts of Parliament can be overturned by European Judges. There have been changes to the Laws governing the Royal Succession. The chairman of the Privy Council, the Body of Royal Advisers, is Clegg, an atheist.
Who is responsible for this wholesale wrongdoing? It is not the European Union, although they have not had their accounts signed off for over eighteen years and have sacked any employee who drew attention to it. We need to look closer to home. In reality, there are two groups of people responsible.
The first group are the Members of the two Houses of Parliament, who have claimed to give away the sovereignty of this nation, though it is not theirs to give. You will hear politicians talk of the sovereignty of Parliament. There is no such thing, Sovereignty belongs to the English people, who choose who is to govern them. The people embody that sovereignty in the person of the Monarch AFTER the Monarch-to-be has promised to govern according to the people’s laws and customs, i.e. Common Law and the Constitution. That sovereignty is loaned to Parliament on a temporary basis, for a maximum of five years, after which, the people can dismiss Parliamentarians who have misbehaved, or whose policies are not agreeable. That maximum of five years is now the required minimum, since the law was recently made for fixed term Parliaments.
Policy was meant to be subject to the House of Lords’ scrutiny, but what has happened to that House? The hereditary Lords have been all but eradicated and instead the House is packed with those appointed by prime Ministers – those with the ‘right’ political views, donors to his Party funds, etc. It is now bigger than ever, even though it is less effective.
I have already mentioned how the check on bad legislation, previously open to the Monarch, was destroyed in 1911. The House of Commons is now effectively a dictatorship, run by four individuals – Prime Minister and Chancellor, Conservatives and Deputy Prime Minister and Chief Treasury Secretary, Liberal Democrats. All career politicians. Most M.P.s of all Parties are simply vote-fodder, voting as the Party Whips tell them. The Labour Opposition shares the same aims as the Government Parties – more integration into the European Union, with no voice for those opposed to it.
If you think back to the expenses scandals of just a few years ago, you will know about the quality of our representatives. Of the hundreds cheating, how many went before a Court? Was it 2 or 4? What has happened to Common Law? But it is not just politicians who are responsible for the disgraceful way our Country is being governed. The other group responsible is US! You may remember a recent campaign about village shops and Post Offices The campaign literature said “USE IT OR LOSE IT!”.
The same applies to our freedoms. If we take no interest in what our representatives are doing in our name, if we do not bother to vote at Election time, if we just vote as our parents voted or as we have always voted we bear some of the responsibility for what is happening.
The right to trial by jury stands as one of the most effective checks against the tyranny of government - it is, as Winston Churchill put it, the "supreme protection invented by the British people for ordinary individuals against the state". The right to trial by jury is enshrined in the Magna Carta and is, according to that constitutional document, an everlasting birthright of the people of this land.
The significance of jury trial is that guilt or innocence is not decided by a judge administering a law. A jury may decide that the law is a bad law (and there is no shortage of bad law) and decide that an accused person who has broken a bad law should be found innocent, whatever the judge has said.
Now we are being told that evidence in some cases is so complicated that ordinary people on the jury cannot understand, so those trials should be conducted without juries. So-called Family Courts are conducted by judges acting on their own, without juries, without Press or spectators allowed, sometimes with the accused not allowed to speak. Police now conduct trials at the roadside with on-the-spot fines and cautions.
So much for our present state as a nation. Of course, we are told that it is right that the Scots should be able to decide if they want to remain part of this nation. But the Act of Union was an agreement between two sovereign nations, so why are only Scots in Scotland having a say?
Is it any surprise that Blair, following the desires of Scottish Nationalists in the Labour Party, set up the Scottish Parliament in 1997. Is it surprising that Blair also downgraded the punishment for treason from death to life imprisonment in 1998? Is it surprising that those legislators who have continued to act unlawfully, continue to press for constitutional reform?
That is why the English Constitution is so significant and why it provides that bright spot in a current gloomy scene. It cuts through the lies and deceits which are used to remove our freedoms. Until we return to it and the Common Law which underpins it we shall continue to lose our freedom as individuals and our freedom as a self-governing nation. We all have a part to play in that restoration and our part begins as we call our representatives in Parliament to account for their treasonous actions which are contrary to our Constitution.
© John Wrake 2015