Reflections on the importance of the medieval English parliament
(Feast of Michael and All Angels, 2017)
What was the importance or significance of the mediaeval English parliament? This is a vast question and my thoughts on it are particularly difficult to articulate, but I think it requires a lengthy process of ‘setting the scene’ to begin with. To put the disputes between kings and representative institutions in their proper context, it is important to consider earlier mediaeval notions of law and kingship. The early mediaeval ‘customary law’ was not one of sovereignty, like the Roman law – whose famous maxim put it ‘whatever has pleased the ruler has the force of law’ – but one of compromises worked out according to a few immutable principles. In such an understanding, law – being the law of one’s fathers – was good because it was old, and old because it was good, and law was sovereign. The king was under the law, bound by it, and his very existence was predicated upon it. Indeed, the mediaeval Icelandic constitution functioned well without a king for centuries, with only one part-time ‘government employee’, a single lawspeaker. Furthermore, since ‘feudal’ relations were essentially personal ones of reciprocal rights and duties, territoriality, like sovereignty was alien to the mediaeval social and political order. As Frank van Dun has it in his essay Uprooted Liberalism and its Discontents, “…power rested on personal allegiances between freemen. Thus, the feudal lord-vassal relationship was not a transitive relation…” Tacitus’ words might well be applied to the early Germanic or barbarian societies, ‘Nec regibus infinita aut libera potestas’ (Their kings are not unlimited or free). (more…)
On the evening of 27th September 2017, I visited the boys at The Oratory School to give a short talk. I gave no title at the time, but a title which suggests itself retrospectively is ‘The medieval roots of European freedom.’ Here is a very brief outline of the 30 minute talk:
How do we explain freedom or liberalism? Any Little Englander will tell you that England is a bit special, but there are other such places in Europe worth investigating. Racialistic accounts, such as in Mein Kampf, and other accounts such as Max Weber’s, of how small countries like England and Holland came to dominate the world, are flawed. Explanations of the ‘European miracle’, too, are mostly confused, often lapsing into 19th century historicism. Rather, we must look to how our early and high mediaeval forebears thought about and practised law and kingship to come to a better understanding of liberal England and liberal Europe. After all, it was in the mediaeval period that the foundations of much that we hold dear – whether economic, political, cultural, or religious – were laid. Ideas and practices worth considering here are: strong kinship bonds; fealty; oath-helping/compurgation; the sovereignty of law; the absence of sovereign territoriality; the absence of the Divine Right of Kings; the consensus fidelium; the right of resistance etc.
“An institution which is for everyone is really for no-one. We should not apply universal standards of ‘inclusion’ and ‘discrimination’ to organisations without regard to their particular purposes.
What do the Church of England’s ordaining women priests, and London clubs’ relaxing their dress codes, have in common? They are both examples of the same problem: they take a peculiar institution and tidy away its peculiarity in the name of rationalisation, or ‘inclusivity’. Why might this be a bad idea?”
Subscribe to the Quad.
The Trump Presidency Will Not Be a Disaster
5th February 2017
Last night, I spoke at the Cambridge University Conservative Association’s staple event – Port & Policy – for a third time. The motion against which I spoke was that “This House Believes the Trump Presidency Will Be a Disaster.” The following was my argument, though not nearly so eloquently as written up here ex post facto:
It is an undeniable and perhaps regrettable fact that Presidents of the United States affect more people than just citizens of the United States. It therefore, sadly, matters to us which inadequate inhabits the White House far more than it matters who is currently President of Brazil. We are therefore required to pass judgement on US Presidents in a way in which we simply are not with regards to other world leaders.
When faced with the question of whether Mr Trump will be a disaster, I am reminded of a joke. Two economists in some faculty at some university are sat awkwardly making small-talk. Economist #1 asks, “How’s the wife?” Comes the reply from Economist #2, “Compared to what?” Mr Trump will be disastrous? Compared to whom – to James Buchanan, whose disastrous presidency led to the Civil War? Or to Warren Harding? Or to Ulysses S. Grant? Or, worse, to George W. Bush? Indeed, to the last three Presidents of the United States? Or more specifically to the last President?
Oh, but Mr Trump is imposing a ‘Muslim ban’! This surely means he is already “disastrous.” Well, no he isn’t doing any such thing, and the reality is rather more complex than this rather unhelpful term encapsulates. For the avoidance of doubt, many of my best friends are Muslims. One, indeed, I am particularly honoured to call my friend, a certain Dr Guelcin Imre, is the grand-daughter of an Ottoman sheik-ul-Islam no less! Those who know me will attest to the fact than I am no Islamophobe. But, I repeat, this is not a Muslim ban and for that reason I cannot summon up the same indignation as those who protested so recently were able to.
As much as it pains me to make such a comparison, I feel it must be made: the lot of Muslims in this country, while far from easy, is as nothing compared to that of Jews in Israel. Here we must again ask just what the motion about the Trump Presidency means. Disastrous compared to whom? And disastrous for whom? For Israeli Jews, and by implication the world over since brazen attacks on Israel give carte blanche to brazen anti-Semitism elsewhere, the Obama administration has been disastrous. Indeed, the Simon Wisenthal Center cited US abstention on the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel for settlement construction, in contravention of a decades-long US policy of vetoing such resolutions, as 2016’s top anti-Semitic incident. Anti-Semitism has been on the increase of late, whether in the American Alt-Right yet also in the far-left, or in the British Labour Party and National Union of Students. Indeed, on Thursday, on my way to dinner, just outside Queen’s College I heard three female students talking about this issue in quite an alarming manner. “Oh, the Zionists just, like, went in, and conquered Palestine, and like, they’ve been killing brown people ever since,” went the potted history lesson. While I accept that there is a legitimate distinction to be made between criticism of Israel and a dislike of Jews, in practice this distinction is often blurred. What begins as “anti-Zionism” becomes anti-Semitism after a bottle of wine in most cases I have known. Now, is all of this Mr Obama’s fault? No. But is it at least partially enabled by the approach taken by the US towards Israel over the last 8 years? Oh, yes.
When I came out as a conservative back in 2009, I never in my wildest dreams thought that the US – and by extension the world – would once again have a President on the one hand firmly committed to a peace process and on the other hand to renewed and firm friendship with Israel.
Indeed, I never in my wildest dreams thought that there might one day be a President willing to appoint SCOTUS justices so apparently committed to overturning Roe vs. Wade, thereby putting the world one small step along the road towards ending the genocide of perhaps 50 million babies a year. I never in my wildest dreams thought that there might one day be a President who would pledge to cut regulation by as much as 75%, or a President who would talk frankly about immigration and, more importantly, aim to deliver on it, or a President actually willing to criticise – in the sharpest, most cutting, most unfiltered way imaginable – what, when pressed, even the most hardcore neocon will admit to have been US foreign policy failures.
To end where I began: A disaster? Compared to what? And in what sense? Donald Trump may indeed be politely described as a piece of shit, morally speaking. But then what politician isn’t? For democracy is a system which rewards the production of demagogues. As a conservative, of course I love the free market and its corollary, competition. But competition is only desirable in the production of ‘goods’, that is, things that people want – milk, bread, cheese, cars, and port for that matter. In these cases, free entry and free prices will tend to drive up quality and drive down prices. Competition is most certainly not desirable, however, for the production of ‘bads’, that is, non-goods, and in these the State has a veritable monopoly – taxation, regulation, enslavement, war, etc. Competition in the production of these things will tend to continually worsen society.
Moreover, what else can we expect other than megalomaniacs running the show? As J.R.R. Tolkien argued, no man, least of all he or she that seeks the opportunity, should have the job for which no one is fit: that of bossing others around. In such a system, the worst always rise to the top, that is, he or she who is the most effective demagogue or manipulator of the system. And as far as demagogues go, Mr Trump, with his distinctive bluntness of speech and his radical departure from the ways of his immediate predecessors, is a breath of fresh air. Mr Trump’s critics rarely if ever claim to dislike democracy, when in fact they are every bit as anti-democratic as I am. You might not like what he is doing, but you have to at least concede that he is doing it, and it is what he promised to 63 million Americans he would do, and what he earned the ‘right’ to do by winning 306 electoral college votes in November. Democrats: put up, or shut up!
Why was Charles I executed?
By Keir Martland
I am what might be jokingly termed a ‘crypto-Anglican.’ Often, I attend some of the more ‘High Church’ services in the Church of England, principally at my College Chapel when ‘on duty’ as a Warden, alongside my regular attendance of Roman Catholic services. This is partly out of a spirit of ecumenism and partly out of an aesthetic appreciation of Choral Evensong and Anglican High Mass according to the Book of Common Prayer. Indeed, there is much to recommend this kind of Anglicanism to the aesthete. Firstly, the Church of England owns – or rather, is in possession of – all the old Catholic churches in this country, and these churches are invariably the prettiest in the country. Secondly, there is something charming, but also interesting on an academic level, about the Cranmerian English of the Prayer Book, such as in the archaic and foreign-sounding “spare thou them.” Thirdly, the Anglican choral tradition is hard to compete with, and Choral Evensong – at least, at my College Chapel – is a delight for those who enjoy early Stuart and Restoration Era “Mag & Nuncs” and anthems (the works of Orlando Gibbons and Pelham Humphrey are particular favourites of mine). It is this rich tradition that the Personal Ordinariates established by Pope Benedict XVI seek to preserve.
And yet I digress already, for it is in a spirit of ecumenism (an entirely benign effect of Vatican II) and not aestheticism that I write today. Today is the 368th anniversary of the execution of the Anglican Martyr King Charles I. 368 years ago, Charles I was executed outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall following two Civil Wars, also known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. Charles had lost both Civil Wars and had failed to reach a settlement with the Scots, Parliament, or the Army, and eventually the latter took the initiative to break the deadlock, put him on “trial” following a royalist defeat in the Second Civil War, and murdered him. But why did this happen? (more…)