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Friday, September 25, 2020
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Our supine MPs and the surrender of freedom

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ON the fifth of November 1688 the Dutch Stadtholder William, Prince of Orange, landed with an army on English soil. The invasion was different from any other in history, for this ‘conqueror’ came to defend the rights of the people and their ancient liberties against their indisputably legitimate King. He carried with him invitations from the great lords, spiritual and temporal, of the realm. Indeed, James II’s support after years of usurping power, abusing his subjects and attempting to rule without Parliament, had become so weak that of his original army of around thirty thousand, barely four thousand remained when William reached London. Aside from some minor skirmishes, not a single battle was fought. At length, the King fled.

The crisis had arisen over James’s attempt to overrule laws passed by the English Parliament. Issuing a declaration unilaterally dispensing with those laws and attempting to force the Anglican clergy to conform to his own Catholic disposition by means of an illegal ecclesiastical commission, he had left even his most loyal subjects in fear. They had reason: experience had shown how arbitrary power could be turned against even the most subservient of ciphers when they elicited the displeasure of him who wielded it. The Glorious Revolution was particularly directed against this arbitrary exercise of power; from that time forward the law would declare, in explicit terms, that government without consent of Parliament was illegal. Neither the King, nor any agent of the King, could dispense with or enact any law without leave from Commons and Lords.

The events of 1688 and the succeeding Bill of Rights of 1689 ought to be more widely known; for it is here that our parliamentary system first takes definite form, and the dreams of despots bent on absolute rule die. The terms on which the throne was offered to William the Third established, beyond doubt, the supremacy of Parliament. Without the crises of the seventeenth century, the government of our country would look vastly different, and our rights, even in law, could not protect us from the arbitrary exercise of power by would-be tyrants. The question then animating King and subject, lord and commoner, was how far a duty of obedience to the executive extended. Was the King above the law? Could he dispense with laws duly voted and enacted by Parliament whenever they happened to conflict with his policy? And, if the King should act in a way deemed illegal, what recourse did the subject have to redress?

The question of our time, though it shares the aspect of liberty against tyranny, cannot be rendered so straightforwardly. In the present, we see a Parliament whose authority has been nullified. With the passage of the Coronavirus Act, Parliament granted to the government unprecedented authority to execute its will independently. In this Act are contained powers that extend into every facet of society and render contingent civil protections long thought unassailable. Whilst supporters of the Act will remind us that it is limited – to two years, with renewal every six months – it remains unprecedented in modern times that a Parliament should grant such power, for such a time, with so little scrutiny. The government can rule effectively by fiat, and whether it does so for good or ill, it is not within Parliament’s ambit while this Act remains in force to question or correct it.

By their supine acceptance of the government’s exercise of power, by their toleration of the dubious use of the Public Health Act 1984 to quarantine healthy people, they have abrogated the one duty that everyone who loves freedom would want them to perform. They have abrogated their responsibility to their electors, to hold the government to account, to retain the prerogative to obstruct ministers who act in a way incompatible with the good of the country. We can argue about whether the government is justified in any particular policy, but without the power to censure with the force of law, Parliament is a toothless guard dog. The question we must ask is by what right Parliament, whose members are ostensibly elected to represent their voters, can discard the very power by which it is able to fulfil its constitutional role?

That the passage of the Coronavirus Act was legal, according to the letter of parliamentary procedure, is beyond dispute. Without a vote, but with Parliament’s ostensible consent, it passed and was enacted; legality, however, is not and never has been the sole means by which questions of right are settled. Many of our constitutional laws were considered at the time of their writing to be little more than explications of principles already established, of the reassertion of rights recognised before the collective memory of the present generation had even begun its record. This was the age of Locke and the ‘state of nature’. In James II’s case, Parliament declared that by fleeing he had in effect abdicated. This was a fiction: there was no such legal provision. The commons and lords made the law conform to those rights which, they held, superseded the rights of a king. Owing to the relative strength of support for the competing prerogatives of monarch and Parliament, the commoners’ interpretation of those rights won the day. Parliament was finally able to grant to itself ultimate authority on all matters of law.

Parliament’s fundamental rights, however, rest not in law, for James’s acts had been illegal even while they were dutifully carried out by venal ministers. Their authority rests predominantly with their claim to represent the interests of their voters. The electoral mandate, not that of the political parties, but of a Parliament filled with individual members who can claim legitimacy through the direct support of their constituencies, is what makes that body able to dictate terms to any minister of the crown; yet they now surrender their hard-won authority without caveat. How can they pretend to be fulfilling their role when they ignominiously surrender any right to analyse, let alone gainsay, what the Government is doing? In a system governed by precedents, this one grants back to the executive everything that was surrendered three hundred and thirty-two years ago.

Who are these members to turn their backs on centuries of struggle? Who is Sir Keir Starmer to bow low to ‘high words’ from the government demanding his capitulation? It is remarkable, and possibly unprecedented, that the opposition should find nothing objectionable in the government’s policies other than the manner of their implementation. MPs have the right to hold and express whatever opinions they like, and vote on matters however they will. While we may express consternation at some of their decisions, we must accept them; however, when those same MPs resign their power to make a meaningful decision, they do so not merely for themselves, but for all their constituents. When the leader of the opposition fails to rebuke a Prime Minister so enamoured of his own virtue that he views all opponents as mere troublemakers, he fails not only his party, but also the democratic system that supports him.

The same Parliament that was wont to obstruct every avenue towards leaving the European Union has now obstructed every means by which bad policy might be prevented. They would take their honours, their status, their pay and all the trappings of former glory but accept none of the responsibility which in normal times should accompany them. Eager to appear useful, our MPs have handed over all the tools they possessed which might have made them of any use to anyone. Gulled by meretricious slogans about saving the NHS and the common good, they have weakened our greatest defence against tyranny to the point of virtual redundancy.

Even as the government continues to encroach on the very bases of all our modern freedoms, so precarious in earlier times and cherished the more for that reason, most MPs choose to remain silent. Perhaps they fear the coming storm and the accusations of callousness that their opponents will level at them for the audacity of daring to speak of constitutions and procedures and ancient freedoms while people die. Perhaps they think the people will not forgive their heartlessness in seeking to protect those rights that make ours one of the freest, most tolerant nations on Earth. Perhaps they imagine that their unsympathetic attitude towards the wholesale destruction of our way of life will cost them more than they could bear to part with. Who knows? But all our MPs ought to reflect soberly on the magnitude of what the government has done and their role in it. Perhaps they should ask themselves in earnest: what is freedom worth? 

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Michael Hegarty
Michael Hegarty
Michael Hegarty is a PhD student in philosophy of technology.

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