Free Life Commentary,
A Personal View from
The Director of the Libertarian Alliance
Issue Number 187
20th October 2009
The Conservative Challenge
By Sean Gabb
(Text of a Speech Given to a Conservative Association
On Friday the 16th October 2009)
On Friday the 16th October 2009, I spoke to a Conservative Association in the South East of England. Though I did not video the event, and though – on account of the heated and not always good natured debate the followed my speech – I was asked not to identify the particular Association to which I spoke, I think what I said is worth recording. Therefore, I will write down my words as best I can recall them. I have suppressed all the questions, but carried some of the answers into the main text. Otherwise, I will try to keep the flavour of the original.
Because of transport difficulties that prevented many people in this room from arriving on time, I am beginning my speech an hour later than expected. I am honoured by the Chairman’s apology for the delay. However, the series of conversations and arguments with which those of us who were here entertained ourselves while waiting have given me the idea for a speech that is still on my stated theme, but that I think will be more interesting than the one I had in mind. Now, this theme – “The Conservative Challenge” – has been routinely given to speakers at Conservative gatherings since at least the 1880s. The question that must always be answered is how we can remain the free citizens of an independent country in ages that have been progressively hostile both to individual freedom and to national independence. I did have a plan loosely worked out in my head. What I will do instead, though, is take some of our bar room discussions and summarise or expand on them as seems appropriate. I will do this by giving short statements of what was said to me, and then by giving my responses.
1. This has been a bad Government
I disagree. Oh, if you want a government that defends the country and provides common services while keeping so far as possible out of your way, the Labour Government elected in 1997 has been a disappointment. This does not mean, however, that the Blair and Brown Governments have been a failure in their own terms. They have, on the contrary, been very successful.
The purpose of the Government that took power in 1997 was to bring about a revolutionary transformation of this country – a transformation from which there could be no return to what had been before. The English Constitution has never been set down in a written document, and there has never been any statement of fundamental rights and liberties that was protected from change by ordinary legislation. Instead, these rights and liberties were protected by a set of customs and institutions that, being legitimised by antiquity, served the same purpose as formal entrenchment. It can be hard, in every specific case, to justify trial by jury, or the rule against double jeopardy, or the idea that imprisonment should be for a specified time and no longer, or the right to speak freely on matters in the public domain. There are principled arguments that satisfy in the absence of strong passions. But, strong passions being granted, the best argument has always so far been that these things have always been in England, and that to change them would be to break the threads that tie us to the past.
It would be childish to argue that the Ancient Constitution was in good health until 1997, when it was suddenly overturned. Unless there is an catastrophic foreign invasion, constitutions are not destroyed in this way. Ours had been sapped long before 1997. To say when the tipping point was reached, and by what means, would take me far beyond my stated theme. However, what remained of the Constitution has, since 1997, been dismissed as a set of “outmoded” relics, and large parts of it have been swept away. Those that remain have been transformed beyond recognition.
Let me give myself as an example. My first degree was in History. Much of this was taken up with a study of late antiquity and the early middle ages. But some of it was given to English history between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. Of course, the Constitution changed within these periods, and had changed much since then. But I could take up the debates of the Cavalier Parliament, or a pamphlet written during the American War, or a case published in the State Trials, and find myself within a conversation of the English people. I was not in the same position as a French undergraduate, who, for anything published before 1791, would find himself in a world of institutions, and territorial names, and weights and measures, and monetary units, and general assumptions, as alien as those of a foreign country.
This has now changed. Anyone who, this month, has started a degree in History or Law or Politics will find himself in the same position as that French undergraduate. We have new legislative bodies all over the country, and new principles of administration, and new courts with new procedures and languages, and new lines of authority terminating in bodies outside the country. The work is not yet complete. But already, the conversation of the English people has been made largely incomprehensible to those born since I was an undergraduate.
Whether the changes can be justified as improvements – or whether they could have been made with more regard for economy and consistency – is beside the point. The main purpose of change has been to seal off the past. That past has been delegitimized in order to strip rights and liberties of the associations that used to protect them. Not surprisingly, we find ourselves in a country with a Potemkin democracy, where speech and publication are censored, where the police are feared, where we are continuously spied on as we go about our business, where we can be imprisoned without trial or charge for a month, and generally where we find ourselves having to deal every day with administrative bodies given powers that others who have not yet had felt them still cannot believe possible.
On any normal assumptions, the country has been governed very badly since 1997. On the assumptions of the Government, things have gone very well indeed.
2. This country is ruled by people who have been corrupted by bad ideas.
Again, I disagree. For centuries now, England has been governed by people rather like ourselves. Sometimes, they have governed well, sometimes badly. But we have never had to doubt their fundamental good faith. This has changed. The people who now rule this country have not been led astray by bad ideas. Rather, they are bad people who choose ideologies to justify their behaviour.
There are ideologies of the left – mutualism, for example, or Georgism, or syndicalism – that may often be silly or impracticable, but that are perfectly consistent with the dignity and independence of ordinary people. These are not ideologies, however, of which those who rule us have ever taken the smallest notice. These people began as state socialists. When this became electorally embarrassing, they switched to politically correct multiculturalism. Now this too is becoming an embarrassment, they are moving towards totalitarian environmentalism. Whether in local or in national government, their proclaimed ideologies have never prevented them from working smoothly with multinational big business, or with unaccountable multinational governing bodies.
It is reasonable to assume that, with these people, ideas are nothing more than a series of justifications for building a social and economic and political order within which they and theirs can have great wealth and unchallengeable power.
They tell us they want to end “child poverty” and “build a more equal society”. In fact, they have employed an army of social workers to terrorise every working class family in the country – an army of social workers backed by closed and secretive courts, and that may even be selecting children for legal kidnap and sale to barren middle class couples. They have pauperised millions with policies that keep them from achieving any reasonable independence and subject them to the bullying of credentialed bureaucracies.
They tell us they want a more “inclusive” and “diverse” society. They have certainly welcomed the mass immigration that they enabled the moment they came into office. It has been useful for impoverishing the working classes – in their attitudes and behaviour once perhaps the most conservative people in the country. It has also provided much evidence for their claim that the old England into which we were born has passed away, and that we need a new constitutional settlement – a settlement much in need of censorship and endless meddling in private choices. Even so, they make sure to live in white enclaves and to send their children to private schools where class photographs look much as they did in 1960.
They tell us they want to save the planet from “climate change”. If they have made Phillips and Siemens rich from their light bulb ban, they still fly everywhere and drive everywhere, and light up their own houses and offices like Christmas trees.
These are bad people. They must be regarded as such in everything they do. And we must hope that they will one day be punished as such.
3. The country is misgoverned.
Let me go back to my first point. There is no doubt that everything done by these people has involved huge cost for little of the promised benefit. We have computer systems that do not work. We have new bureaucracies that do not achieve their stated purpose. The National Health Service, for example, has had its budget doubled or trebled in the past twelve years. Yet the waiting lists are as long as ever, and the hospitals are dirtier than ever. Medical incompetence and even corruption and oppression are now everyday stories in the newspapers.
Again, however, these are failures only on the assumption that money has been laid out for the purpose of improving services. It has not. The real purpose of washing a tidal wave of our money over the public services has been partly to raise up an army of clients more likely to vote Labour than anything else, and partly to give these clients powers that tell everyone else who are the masters now. On this assumption, the money has not been wasted at all. It has indeed been an “investment in the future”.
What is to be done?
I often speak about an electoral coup in which a genuinely conservative government came to power and set about undoing the revolution. This involves shutting down most of the public sector. I am not saying that poor people would no longer receive their benefits or medical attention free at the point of use. These are not in themselves expensive. They may have undesirable consequences in terms of smothering personal responsibility and voluntary initiative. But these are problems to be addressed over a long period during which no settled expectation need be denied. What I do say is that the bureaucratic machine that bleeds us white in taxes and grinds us into obedient uniformity should be smashed to pieces that cannot easily be put back together. It should be smashed because we cannot afford it. It should be smashed because it oppresses us. It should be smashed because it is an agent of national destruction.
I once wrote a book about why this should be done and how to do it. Sadly, it will not be done in the foreseeable future. We shall probably have a Conservative Government within the next nine months. But this will not be a government of conservatives. If we want a preview of the Cameron Government, we need only look at what Boris Johnson has achieved during the past year as Mayor of London. He has not closed down one of the bureaucracies set up by Ken Livingstone and his Trotskyite friends. The race equality enforcers are still collecting their salaries. The war on the private motorist continues. Rather than cut the number of New and Old Labour apparatchiks, he is currently putting up taxes. David Cameron will be no better. He may be forced to make some changes and to slow the speed of the transformation. The transformation will continue nevertheless.
We need to speculate on the purpose and nature of counter-revolution. It is useful to know what ought to be our long term purpose. It inspires us to action in an otherwise bleak present. But we need also to know what present actions are to be inspired. My advice is that we need, in all our thoughts and in whatever of our behaviour is prudent, to withhold our sanction.
Any system of oppression that does not rely on immediate and overwhelming – and usually foreign – violence requires the sanction of its victims. We cannot all have guns put to our heads all day and every day. We therefore need to believe, in some degree, that what is done to us is legitimate. We must believe this if we are to obey. We must believe it if those who oppress us are to keep their good opinion of themselves. I suggest that we should withhold that sanction. I do not say that, without our sanction, the illegitimate power that now constrains our lives will fall immediately to the ground. I do suggest, however, that it will be insensibly undermined, and that it may therefore collapse suddenly in the event of some unexpected shock. This is how Communism died in Eastern Europe. It may be how the New Labour Revolution will die here.
One of the myths, endlessly repeated through what is called “Middle England”, is that the Police are among the victims of Labour rule – that they have been forced to act in ways that they find abhorrent or absurd. But this is only a myth. The Police are no friends to respectable people in any class or race. When I was a small boy, I was reduced to tears by what seemed a gigantic policeman in a tall helmet. One glare of his bearded face, and I was straight off the municipal flower bed where I had thrown my ball. He spoke to my grandmother before moving to other business, and that was the end of my transgression.
His sort retired decades ago. They have been replaced by undersized, shaven headed thugs – frequently with criminal records – who take delight in harassing the respectable. If you are robbed or beaten in the street, they will be nowhere in sight. If you approach them to complain, they will record the crime and send you on your way. If, on the other hand, you try defending yourself or your loved ones, they will prosecute you. They will do nothing about drugged, aggressive beggars, but they will jump on you if they see you smoking under a bus shelter. These people have been given powers that move them closer to the East German Stasi than to the uniformed civilians many of us can still remember. They can arrest you for dropping a toffee wrapper in the street. Once arrested, you may be charged, but you will more likely be released after being fingerprinted and having DNA samples taken and stored. We do not know what other body or government will be given your DNA. We do not know what future oppressions it may enable. Regardless of any littering charge, you will have been punished already.
We should not regard the Police in any sense as our friends. They are not. This does not mean that we should have no dealings with them. There are times – insurance claims, for example, where things must be reported. There are times when the Police are needed, and when they may give some limited assistance. Even so, we should on no account behave to them as if they were uniformed civilians. They are an armed, increasingly out of control pro-Labour militia.
We were all of us born in a country where the phrase “The Law is the Law: it must always be obeyed” did not seem absurd. Yes, it may not have been quite as we were told. By and large, however, it was a law made by our representatives and with our loose consent – or it was made by Judges rationalising honestly from assumptions grounded in common sense notions of justice. It is that no longer. For all its blemishes, the old laws of England were there to stop us from knocking into each other too hard as we went about our business. Its function was reactive. The function of law nowadays is transformational. It is there to change the ways in which we think and live. So far as this is the case, the law has been delegitimised.
And this is how we are to regard uses of the law. At the moment, The UK Independence Party is being edged towards bankruptcy over some matter of a political donation. It seems not to have complied with the requirements of a law made in the year 2000 that effectively nationalises all political parties – and that may one day be used to control what policies they advocate and how they oppose measures with which they disagree. Again, there are complaints about how the BBC has invited the Leader of the British National Party to appear on Question Time. It is said that the BNP is currently an illegal organisation because of its internal rules. The alleged illegality is based on a novel interpretation of a 1976 law, as amended in 2000, that is itself illegitimate.
There was a time when it was enough for us to be told that someone had broken the law for us to think ill of that person. But times are altered. When the laws themselves are corrupt, they lose moral force. It is no longer enough for us to be told that someone is a law breaker. Whatever we may think of these parties for what they advocate, they are to be seen not as law breakers but victims of political oppression. To think ill of them purely for their disregard of the law is rather like calling Alexander Solzhenitsyn a jailbird on account of his time in the Gulag.
The Law is no longer the Law. It is a set of politicised commands made for our destruction as a free people. It no longer deserves our automatic respect. Yes, the laws that protect life and property are still to be respected. But it is now rational to inspect every law thrown at us to see which do bind in conscience and which do not. I know that this is a dangerous principle to announce. There are many people for whom the law is a unified thing: say that one part has no binding force, and all parts are weakened. But this is not our fault. We have not made the law disreputable. We are simply facing a state of affairs that has been called into being by others.
I have already mentioned the remodelling of the Constitution. As a people, we have long amused foreigners with our respect for titles and old forms of government. I once chaired a meeting addressed by a Member of the House of Lords. This was before the Internet, and I spent nearly an hour in a library clarifying that he should be introduced as – let me change the name – John, Lord Smith of Wilmington, rather than Lord John Smith or Lord Wilmington. This was all good fun. It also had a serious point. I was helping maintain one of those innumerable and seemingly absurd customs that among were the outer defences of our rights and liberties. Our Ancient Constitution may have struck outsiders as a gigantic fancy dress ball. But it covered a serious and very important fact. This was an imperfect acceptance of Colonel Rainsborough’s claim that “the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he”.
But, again, times are altered. The more gorgeous events of the fancy dress ball have been retained. But the underlying substance – the protection of rights and liberties – has been stripped out. This being so, all obligation of deference has lapsed. I will not defer to the man whose name has been changed by a sheet of parchment sealed with wax to Baron Kinnock of Bedwellty. Nor will I call Peter Mandelson other than “Mr Mandelson. Nor, unless I am in his court, and he is likely to take more against me than he naturally would, will I address the former Communist Stephen Sedley as “My Lord”. Nor will I acknowledge his Knighthood out of court. I am not yet sure if it is appropriate to stop recognising hereditary honours, or those granted before 1997. But I certainly regard all honours granted since 1997 as void. They have the same legitimacy as those conferred by Cromwell during the Interregnum. No – Cromwell was a great man who did honour to this country and who deserves his statue outside Parliament. Recent honours have the same status as those conferred by James II after he ran away to France. They are to be seen as a badge of ridicule and disgrace on those who have accepted them.
Now, this may seem a pedantic and self-indulgent point. But it is not. These people should not be allowed to wrap themselves in any remnant of the associations that once bound us to the past. And they evidently enjoy playing at nobility. I once did a radio debate with a police chief who had been recommended for a Peerage by Tony Blair. He was annoyed by my substantive arguments. He was reduced to spluttering rage when I addressed him as plain “Mister” and sneered that his title was a sham. Bearing in mind that it is not illegal to drop their titles, and how it upsets them, I think it worth doing on every convenient occasion.
And it is part of what I would see as a more general approach. Conservatives often denounce what is being done to us as a “breach of the Constitution”. It is really no such thing, because the Ancient Constitution has been abolished. As said, the fancy dress ball continues in something like full swing. But “the poorest he that is in England” has been stuffed. We do have a constitution in the sense that every organised community has one. Ours says that whoever can frogmarch a majority of placemen through the lobbies of the House of Commons can do whatever he pleases. I did hope, earlier in the present decade, that the Judges would intervene to limit parliamentary sovereignty. The Labour response, however, was to pack the bench with their own people. Therefore, since it has been destroyed, or has been suspended, we are in no position to claim that the Constitution has been breached. The obvious result is that we should not regard ourselves as morally bound to recognise any of the authority that is claimed and exercised over us.
And if our people ever get into power through the electoral coup that I mentioned earlier, I see no reason for recognising any purely “constitutional” limits to the nature and speed of our counter-revolution. For example, regardless of the withdrawal mechanism in the Lisbon Treaty, I would be for just repealing the European Communities Act 1972 as amended. That would be complete and immediate withdrawal. If any Judges tried to block this, I would have them removed. I might also be for passing an Act voiding every previous law made since the first session of the 1997 Parliament. Otherwise, I would prefer to declare a state of Emergency under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, and then repeal hundreds of laws by decree. A slow revolution can take place when those at the top have the numbers and staying power to take it slowly. When there has been a revolutionary or counter-revolutionary seizure of power, change must be swift and determined if it is to be a success.
There must be a return to constitutional norms – and the extraordinary measures that may enable this return must not be allowed to set any precedents of their own. Nor – let me emphasise – do I hope that our reaction will involve violence. But if conservatives are to bring about a reaction, so that we can again be a free people in an independent nation, we have little positive to learn from Burke’s Reflections. There comes a point beyond which a constitution cannot be rescued. I think we have reached that point. There can be no patching up this time, as happened at the Restoration in 1660, or after the Revolution of 1688. By all means, we should not innovate just for the sake of neatness. But we shall need to innovate. We shall need to create new safeguards for our rights and liberties that take into account the country in which we live.
This means, I increasingly believe, a republican constitution. There is nothing wrong with the principle of hereditary monarchy. I suspect that the division of authority and power that took place between 1660 and 1714 contributed much to the freedom and stability of England during our classical period. The problem is not the institution of monarchy, but the person of the Monarch.
When she came to the throne, Elizabeth had what seems to have been almost the universal regard of the people. She has spent the past 57 years betraying the people. Whatever the constitutional lawyers may claim, there is a contract between Monarch and people. We pretend to treat whoever wears the Crown as the Lord’s Anointed. The wearer of the Crown agrees in turn to act as a defence of last resort against tyrannical politicians. That is the truth behind the phrases of the coronation oath. The Queen could, without bringing on a crisis, have blocked the law in the early 1960s that removed juries from most civil trials. She could have blocked the subsequent changes that abolished the unanimity rule and the right of peremptory challenge. She should have risked a crisis, and refused her assent to the European Communities Bill, or demanded a fair referendum first. She could have harried the politicians of the past two generations, reminding them of the forms and substance of the Ancient Constitution. She had the moral and legal authority to do this. Had she spoken to us like adults, she would have had popular support. She did nothing. I believe she bullied Margaret Thatcher into handing Rhodesia over to a communist mass-murderer, and made repeated noises about South African sanctions. And that was it.
Whatever her failings in the past, she had every legal right to demand a referendum over the Lisbon Treaty. This had been promised by every party at the 2005 general election. When the promise was withdrawn, she would have had public opinion and much of the media behind her in refusing to give assent to the Treaty’s Enabling Act. Again, she did nothing.
We are continually told about the Queen’s sense of duty. All I see is much scurrying about the country to open leisure centres – and otherwise a total disregard of her essential duties. If the Constitution was in decay before she was even born, she has spent her reign watching all that was left of it slip between her fingers.
It may be argued that she is now very old and will not remain much longer on the throne. The problem is that her son will be worse. She has been lazier than she has been stupid. He is simply stupid. So far as he insists on using his powers, it will be to drive forward the destruction of England. His own eldest son might easily be an improvement – but he could be decades away from the Crown. We are in no position to wait on what is in any event uncertain. The Queen has broken the contract between her and us. Her son will do nothing to repair the breach. We live in an age where hereditary monarchy must be strictly hereditary or nothing at all, and so we cannot waste our time with new Exclusion Bills or Acts of Settlement. If, therefore, we are ever in a position to bring about a counter-revolution, we shall need to find a head of state who can be trusted to do the job of looking after our new constitution.
I could go further on this theme. I know that many conservatives – and a few Conservatives – have lost faith in democracy. Undoubtedly, representative democracy has thrown up a political class that is separate from the people, and that is increasingly hostile to the rights and liberties of the people. But I cannot think of a lasting new settlement based on Caesaristic dictatorship or a limitation of the franchise. My own suggestion would be to select most positions in the executive by sortition – to choose rulers, that is, by a lottery – as in ancient Athens, and to settle all legislative matters by local or national referendum. Most judicial business that had any bearing on the Constitution could be put before juries of several hundred people, chosen by the same random process as criminal juries now are.
But, you will agree that this takes me far, far beyond my stated theme. It would make what has been a long speech longer still. I will close by observing that if you want to be a conservative in an England broken by revolution, you need to look beyond a rearguard defence of forms from which all substance was long since drained.. The conservative tradition may have been dominated since the 1970s by Edmund Burke. But it does also contain the radicals of the seventeenth century. And – yes – it also has a place even for Tom Paine. If you want to preserve this nation, you must be prepared for a radical jettisoning of what is no longer merely old, but also dead. The conservative challenge is to look beneath the plumage and save the dying bird.
NB—Sean Gabb’s book, Cultural Revolution, Culture War: How Conservatives Lost England, and How to Get It Back, can be downloaded for free from