Thoughts on the Disunited Kingdom and an English Parliamentary Republic "When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?"--attributed to John Ball
A few recent experiences have led me to reflect that this couplet, which was doing the rounds at the time of the Peasants' Revolt in England in 1381, remains as applicable today as it was during the calamitous fourteenth century.
Just before last Christmas, I was at a party to celebrate the tenth anniversary of a hip-hop culture magazine. While engaging various guests in conversation, I was approached by a young lady who asked me if I would be commemorating the three hundredth anniversary of the Act of Union with Scotland. She works for the Commission for Racial Equality, and was trying to drum up support for the idea of an Anglo-Scottish festival.
I had never thought about this issue. In the weeks after the party, I began asking friends and acquaintances in London if they knew about the tercentenary. Nobody was even remotely conscious of it. Indeed, they were not aware of the significance of the union of 1707 itself.
Then, at the May Day Bank Holiday, I was driving up the M1 to the Lake District for a few days' break. As I sped up the motorway, my eye caught slogans painted on the bridges that cross the road at intervals: "Freedom for England" and "English Independence."
Finally, a relative from New Zealand, who was visiting me recently, said that there is a strong movement in Australia to remove the British monarch as Head of State, but that in New Zealand the people are not agitating for such reform.
These various episodes might not appear to have much connection to the title of this article, but they set me musing on the general lack of interest in celebrating the United Kingdom and gave impetus to my own questioning of the monarchy's validity, in the context of the partial devolution of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Full or partial independence for different areas of the British Isles is certainly nothing new: there are many historical precedents for regional parliaments or assemblies, and there have also been independent kingdoms. The following is a review of some of the key dates and developments in the histories of the countries' various regional parliaments and monarchies. The idea of "One land, one Parliament, one King" is a fairly recent one.
During the Anglo-Saxon period, England was divided into the seven kingdoms of the Heptarchy: Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, and Sussex. By Alfred's time, Wessex had become the most important. The area which is now England was inhabited by the Anglo-Saxons. Although their kings fought each other, the land was basically settled and peaceful.
The term "parliament" for the royal council of the English kings came into use during the reign of Henry III, long after the Norman Invasion. The first Act of Parliament recorded was the Statute of Merton, so called because the council that passed it met at Merton Priory in Surrey.
Interestingly, at Edward I's Parliament in 1275, King Alexander III of Scotland sat on his right and Llewelyn of Wales on his left. Edward was the overlord of both countries, but these other monarchs still had their own royal titles.
The first English Republic
There is a precedent for an English Republic. Charles I ruled without Parliament for eleven years, after which, following Charles's execution in 1649, Parliament ruled for eleven years without a King, before the 1660 Restoration of the monarchy in the person of Charles II. The English Civil War (sometimes called the Great Rebellion or the English Revolution) led directly to the first and only English Republic, also known as the English Commonwealth. Unfortunately, it was neither representative nor democratic. It was probably the bad experiences and extremes of the first English Republic, more than any other factor, which led to the restoration of the monarchy. There will always be teething troubles in any republic and, after all, this was the product of a revolution, an immoderate form of radical change.
By 1400, the kingdom of the Scots had acquired most of what is now present-day Scotland. When, in 1603, James VI of Scotland became James I of England, he united the two countries in his own person, but not in law. James caused controversy when he ascended the English throne, by asserting that he ruled by divine right. He had manipulated the Scottish Parliament more or less as he had liked, but the English Parliament proved far less amenable, insisting that the monarch could rule only with its consent. The political union of England and Scotland, which James unsuccessfully tried to bring about while he was King of England, was finally accomplished in 1707. Is anybody celebrating this union in the tercentennial year, either in England or in Scotland? The Union came about because certain Scots realised that they needed free trade with England in order to prosper. In the negotiations which preceded the agreement to unite, the Scottish Parliament held out for and obtained free trade with England, money to pay off huge debts resulting from the disastrous Scottish colonial misadventure in Darien in Central America, and the right to keep the Scottish law courts, legal system, and educational system, as well as the Presbyterian Kirk. The resulting kingdom of England and Scotland was called Great Britain. In the combined Parliament, the English had a majority of members, but the Scots had more power in real (i.e. proportionate) terms. The Scottish Parliament was re-established in 1999, following a referendum in Scotland. What, we speculate, would happen if there were an English referendum? Ireland
England's involvement with Ireland began in the reign of Henry II. Before then the Irish provinces were ruled by a number of clan chiefs or kings, with a High King or Ard-Ri. In the fifteenth century, Henry VII sent Sir Edward Poynings to Ireland as Viceroy. Poynings called an Irish Parliament, which passed the Statute of Drogheda, also known as Poynings' Law. This stated that no Irish Parliament could in future be called without the consent of the English king, and that all laws passed in England should also apply in Ireland. This effectively ended Irish home rule for centuries. After Henry VIII had made himself Supreme Head of the Church of England, he turned his attention to Ireland. In 1541, at the instigation of a new Lord Deputy, Sir Anthony St. Leger, an Irish Parliament was called in Dublin. It conferred on Henry the title of King of Ireland. At that time, more than forty Irish chiefs and Anglo-Irish nobles surrendered their lands to the King and received them back as vassals, holding them on the same terms as those which governed the English barons' vassalage. In 1801 the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed, despite the fact that although the British Parliament was in favour, the Irish Parliament was not. The offer of peerages, pensions and other benefits induced a majority of Irish members to vote for union. Some independence was returned to the south of Ireland in 1922 with the creation of the Irish Free State, following the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921. Under the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, the island had been partitioned into north and south. A group of largely Protestant provinces in the North remained more closely tied to Britain, staying in the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland. The links between the Irish Free State and the United Kingdom were gradually broken down. Following the abdication of Edward VIII, Ireland removed mention of the Crown from its constitution, and in 1949 it proclaimed itself the Independent Republic of Ireland, or Eire. Because of the north-south partition, trouble was almost inevitable. In 1969 civil rights demonstrations in the north by the Catholic minority led to counter-demonstrations by the majority Protestants, who feared being brought into a united Ireland. Violence erupted in consequence. The Northern Ireland Assembly was established in 1998, and Westminster devolved local powers to Northern Ireland. Wales
Much as in England, Scotland and Ireland, during the early history of Wales there were many local rulers (chieftains or princes). However, in 1536 Henry VIII, himself of Welsh descent, had an Act passed uniting Wales with England. Another Act, of 1543, extended to Wales the right to send members to Parliament in Westminster. The Tudors also created the Welsh shires and imposed English law on Wales, with English as the language of the law courts. It was around this time that Monmouthshire became part of England. It remained until 1974, when, during the reorganisation of the counties, it was reunited with Wales, under its original name of Gwent.
The Government of Wales Act 1998 created the Welsh Assembly. The Government of Wales Act 2006 extended law-making powers to the Welsh Assembly, on purely Welsh issues, although the British Parliament still has a veto.
The British Commonwealth
In 1931 the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster, which clearly defined the independent status of the Dominions within the Commonwealth. The Crown was then, as now, the unifying factor, and the monarch is still the head of the Commonwealth.
In 1973, Britain joined the Common Market following the passing of the European Communities Act of 1972. Paradoxically, more and more countries are now joining the European Union, yet more and more regions are asserting rights of self-determination in local assemblies, producing inevitable tensions. A United States of Europe looks very unlikely, while a loose alliance for specific common purposes increasingly appears to be the best long-term formula to adopt.
As matters now stand, the Queen in the British Parliament is the only legal sovereign body that can make laws covering England, with the exception that the European Parliament is superior to the British Parliament in certain legislative matters, and can force Britain to implement European Directives by legislating nationally in the British Parliament.
England is the only country in the UK and the EU without its own parliament. If it had its own parliament, the relationship between the English Parliament and Europe would be similar to that which currently exists between the British Parliament and Europe: the English Parliament's powers could potentially create conflict over European Directives, in the same way that British parliamentary policy does now from time to time.
English Devolution---Why Not?
Issues of proportional representation and constitutional reform surround the debate concerning an English Parliament. Majority rule within a democratic society is the paradigm that allows the maximum freedom for the greatest number of people, but this must be balanced with self-determination for distinct regional communities, so that the wishes of minorities are not overlooked by the majority. This is why Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish devolution has occurred.
We should recognise that there has historically been an ebb and flow of union between countries in the British Isles, and that the reasons to unite have often been defensive or economic. There is no reason why there should not be free trade between the countries of Britain, but what about international policy beyond mainland Britain? Who should make treaties with foreign countries? There remains an excellent case for a British Parliament to speak on behalf of a united Britain, providing strength in unity over issues such as security. For such limited purposes, the British Parliament should continue to exist alongside the national Parliaments, but it should represent a league or coalition of the disparate nations.
Some argue that since English MPs dominate the British Parliament in terms of numbers, there is no need for the already well-represented English to have their own national representative body. That is quite beside the point, however. If the Northern Irish, Welsh and Scots have their own national bodies, why should there not be an English equivalent? Why should the interests of regional communities not be paramount? This is precisely what has motivated the Welsh and Scots, and the English cannot now be criticised for wanting to follow suit.
Clearly, the issue of English devolution will not disappear. Many previously passive English people are now asking why they do not have a body to represent them nationally, without representatives from the Celtic countries being allowed to influence decisions on purely English matters (such as top-up fees).
English devolution would not need to proceed at an alarming rate. The first English Parliament would have limited powers, similar to those of the first Scottish and Welsh equivalents. After it had gained experience, its powers could be extended in the same manner as those of the other bodies. The English are certainly not afraid of being left on their own, and, it seems, would like to determine their future independently. Indeed, more and more English people are expressing the view that this is the natural state of affairs, and that we should revert to it after the long experiment in unification.
What type of country should the independent England be? It is my belief that we need a meritocratic, republican democracy. Welsh and Scottish devolution already render the British monarchy obsolete, and a devolved England would certainly not need a monarchy either. The monarchy is said to be a link with the past, representing continuity and living history, but that history is in fact one of invasion, repression and bloody murders, for England as for the other countries of the British Isles. Hereditary peerages are also no longer acceptable in England; indeed, the House of Lords is already on the way out as a collection of peers, gradually being replaced by an Upper or Second Chamber in the correct relationship to the Commons. The entire system of titles should be abolished, and those honours that are retained should be renamed. We would not even have to find a new anthem to replace God Save the Queen/King. The national anthem for the English Republic is already in place: William Blake's Jerusalem.
These are the reasons why I have come to the conclusion that the English need a parliamentary republic that is all their own.
No fiefdom, No kingdom, But freedom, And wisdom.--Alexander J. Betts