August 30, 2015


Liberty And Sovereignty (DANIEL JOHNSON, September 2015, Standpoint)

In Britain we have just celebrated two great anniversaries: Magna Carta and the Battle of Waterloo. To us, these two milestones in our history represent two of the most important British contributions to Western civilisation. Magna Carta symbolises liberty under the rule of law; Waterloo symbolises the defence of a free society against tyranny. 

Magna Carta is all about the rights of the "free man": "No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any way destroyed . . . save by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land." The King too is subject to the rule of law, the integrity and impartiality of which he is also obliged to uphold: "To no one will we sell, to no one will we deny or delay, right or justice." In much of the world today, including parts of Europe, the rule of law cannot be taken for granted by individuals. Even within the European Union, it is by no means always and everywhere clear that the state is indeed beneath the law, or that the judiciary is impartial and incorruptible. The punishment of Nazi war criminals, for example, has been delayed in some cases for up to 70 years; many escaped justice entirely; others who were put on trial were acquitted or sentenced far too leniently, while their victims and their heirs have in many cases been denied restitution of their property (for example works of art) or adequate reparation for their suffering. 

Waterloo, for the British, is all about the independence of the nation state from the domination of an imperial despot. The British fought Napoleon Bonaparte, not merely to preserve their own freedom, but that of Europe as a whole. In a famous debate in the House of Commons in 1807 George Canning, the Foreign Secretary, justified a resumption of hostilities with France in pragmatic terms: "The single rule for the conduct of a British statesman is, attachment to the interests of Great Britain." But he went on to explain why British and European interests must coincide in the defeat of Bonapartism. "The country has the means, and I am confident it has the spirit and determination, to persevere with firmness in a struggle, from which there is no escape or retreat; and which cannot be concluded, with safety to Great Britain, but in proportion as with that object is united the liberty and tranquillity of Europe."

This refusal to accept any domination of the Continent by one power has been the biggest British contribution to European peace and prosperity: we saw it in both world wars and in the Cold War. [...]

The continuity of British foreign policy means that periods of isolation, splendid or not, are a necessary price to pay for upholding our principles. The EU has its own continuities, but at present it is unclear whether its members are prepared to adapt its rules sufficiently to enable the Union to survive into a new era. The British choice is an unenviable one, but in the past they have always chosen to preserve their own principles and traditions rather than surrender national independence. Just as Churchill felt that appeasement was a betrayal of everything that Britain had stood for, so the British today will not vote for the EU at any price. Just as the British must not expect our partners to give up their vital interests to keep us in, so Europe must not expect Britain to sacrifice principles that we regard as permanent aspects of our national identity.

Posted by at August 30, 2015 11:24 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus