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Cate Blanchett in Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Frank Taylor argues that if liberty is to be preserved, we need a dynamic tension between centres of power but today we have one centralised wrecking ball swinging without a counterweight. This article appeared originally in the December 2007 issue of Sovereignty.

Right:In the old days, Parliament provided a counter-balance to the Royal Power of Elizabeth I -- or was it the other way around -- portrayed here in the 2007 film, by Cate Blanchett.

To understand the present decline of Parliament, it is necessary to understand its original role in providing the counterbalance to Monarchy.

On the one hand the Monarch's prerogative powers were considerable. On the other, Parliament alone had power to raise taxes and provide supply.

It used this power to enact legislation which might not always be to the Monarch's liking -- a case of no law, no money, Your Majesty. Parliament had its privileges, especially freedom of speech and freedom from arrest, at least while Parliament was sitting! These were not always respected.

The Magna Carta had a chequered history. The ink was hardly dry on this great document when King John himself sought to repudiate it. There were not a few others ready to follow this pattern. In general, kings grew fond of the Magna Carta, and would reaffirm and re-issue it, when in need of revenue. Once they had their revenue their attitude might change.

Thus the pendulum between Royal and Parliamentary power swung over the centuries, not being finally resolved until the Glorious Revolution. During Tudor times a form of institutionalised stand-off developed. Henry VIII was a supporter of Parliament. The dispensation of the Magna Carta that the King is himself bound by both statute and common law was not directly challenged.

The quid pro quo was that he expected fealty and obedience. The lubrication of this arrangement lay in the bounty and patronage to be had from sequestered monastic estates. Thus the boundaries between Parliamentary privileges and the Royal Prerogative gradually became better defined.

Elizabeth continued with this tradition. Like many Monarchs she had no liking for Parliaments and kept them few and brief. But provided Parliament kept its feet off her turf she would keep her feet off theirs. Now and again an excessively vocal Parliamentarian might be invited to cool his heels in the Tower, but such incidents were comparatively rare.

The fact that although Elizabeth was entitled to preside over the Star Chamber she never did so, underlines her attitude and the nature of this mutual, almost unspoken, understanding between herself and the organs of her state.

Matters changed with the accession of James I.

One of his first acts as King was to summarily hang a cut-purse without trial. Constitutional eyebrows were soon to be further raised by his enunciation of the Roman Law dictum that Law is the King speaking.

Here lay a direct, frontal challenge to the Magna Carta and to the Common Law. Here began a forty-year battle by an increasingly assertive Parliament against Royal Absolutism. This crisis deepened in successive stages as Charles succeeded James with all his father's obstinacy but none of his wit, experience, diplomatic skill or appreciation of realpolitick.

But for the leadership of Sir Edward Coke and a band of Parliamentarians, England might well have gone the way of France or Spain, where the States General and the Cortez had fallen into utter desuetude.

Instead it ended in civil war.

The object of this crude, thumbnail sketch of history is to illustrate how fundamental the role of Parliament was in acting as a brake on Royal Prerogative power.

Royal and Parliamentary power operated as polar opposites. Indeed, the necessity of such a tension is to be found in Roman Law. Whilst Law is the King speaking, that law also tells us that the King shall not be tyrant.

In turn that tells us that the underlying principles of law -- of the moral corpus out of which a society must be constructed -- run deeper than the momentary whims of any particular ruler.

The problem is that both dicta place absolute Royal Power at centre stage with little heed to any counterbalance which might be provided by any other interest or institution of state. So the Romans often resolved this tension by assassination and civil war. So it was to be in England.

The Glorious Revolution and the Bill of Rights of 1689 sounded the death knell of absolute Royal Power, a process accelerated by the emergence of cabinet government in the 18th century and by Parliamentary reform and the progressive widening of the franchise in the 19th.

Thus, executive government became the legatee of that Royal Power. The trouble was -- and is now written in spades -- that the government was built out of, and emanated from, the very Parliament whose entire raison d'Ítre was to stand in opposition to that power.

As the modern party political system developed, so executive government -- underwritten by a developing notion of Parliamentary absolutism which had its origins in the Bill of Rights of 1689 -- pulled the draw strings around Parliament ever tighter in a strangling noose.

Now Parliament is no more than an arm of the Executive. According to the prevailing constitutional dicta, it now wields the absolute power once held by Monarchs.

The whips ensure that the will of the Executive is the will of Parliament. Effectively, the Executive is the mouth, whilst Parliament is the megaphone.

The constitutional balance which ought to be provided by having two countervailing centres of power has been eroded to the point of non-existence.

As this new dispensation settled and then calcified during the 20th century, our affairs were more or less governable, more or less within our own borders.

Little or nothing happened that could not be reversed at a subsequent General Election.

To a certain degree the popular vote, as expressed in an apparently real choice between different party ideologies, provided a sort of limited counterbalance.

In terms of the functioning of the constitution, if not of the very real controversies that assailed the country, we had a sort of benign period of mutual stand-off as in Elizabethan times. In that time, therefore, nothing that was not a highly visible external foe threatened the internality of the country -- our sovereignty, liberty, economy, or the dispensation of the Magna Carta.

During the past three decades that situation has been radically transformed.

The EU, the WTO, the debt-money system together with its globalised neoliberal offspring -- along with the enormous power that system places into corporate hands -- have come to utterly dominate our governance.

So powerful are these fangs of the same beast that the mere threat of their bite is sufficient to ensure the total conformity of all elements of the political and economic system. As a result, our mainstream political parties are now all but indistinguishable.

In turn, as these parties pretend to govern what they no longer control, the entire process of government degenerates into a hollow charade of sham, spin and gimmick from which the public increasingly recoil.

Not only this, we are confronted by an Orwellian agenda to systematically erode and reduce our liberties and our privacy. What fate awaits our scattered, tatty band of those who refuse to kneel and kiss the corporate, globalised ring remains to be seen.

Where once we had pocket and rotten boroughs we now have marginal seats and safe seats -- a minority of seats where votes count, and a majority where they don't. Patronage reigns supreme. If an MP -- no doubt still parroting the hollow nostrum that Parliament acts as a check against the executive -- is obedient they will be offered ministerial posts, quango memberships, directorships, Euro posts, diplomatic postings and a peerage when they retire.

If, on the other hand, they are amongst the brave few who stand against the light, they will be excluded from such preferments. Instead of a time in the Tower hidden hands might orchestrate the pack hounds of the media against them. Perhaps they may be thrown into the Dungeon of Deselection.

The corridors of government are packed with lobbyists -- every corporate, technocratic, bureaucratic and professional snake-oil salesman -- intent on enforcing their profitable, self-interested writ by law where persuasion will not work.

So we have executive power with no effective brake or counterbalance, a situation which permits all these denizens of the New Simony (See Sovereignty, June, July, Aug 07) to occupy our political space as cockroaches might occupy the voids in a building. Like Stalin's minions our Parliamentary lobby fodder are told what to think, say and do -- frequently to be told to stand on their heads within days or even hours. Their role is reduced to that of so many human tiddlywinks.

Might it not be the more honest course to dispense with the Parliamentary charade altogether? Then we might directly elect a national chief executive who appointed ministers to govern by proclamation, which is more or less the situation we have anyway! Even further, those ministers might be chosen by the corporates. Coca-Cola and MacDonalds could hold a competition as to who might run education; Asda and Tesco could bid against one another to run agriculture. How about either Ford Motors or Ryanair for transport, Ladbrokes or BetFred for culture and sport, Barclays or Citibank for the Treasury, Boeing or BAe Systems for defence? In a glorious orgy of ersatz competition between the corporate clones, the globalisation project might finally reach its consummation -- with all votes finally traded for pelf.

It is as if we have been projected back four centuries to the beginning of the Stuart era. At that time, we faced a simultaneous external threat from Spain and its papal backer, together with an internal threat from the Stuart challenge to the Magna Carta and the Common Law. Now for Spain and the Pope we have the aloof, arrogant, secular papacy of the European Union; instead of the Stuarts we have New Labour and its opposition clones.

To restore power and liberty to where it rightly belongs -- we, the people -- will require a new constitutional dispensation. Such a new dispensation cannot, and must not, be imposed from above by a cabal of legal draftsmen whether in Westminster or Brussels. For assuredly such a process will create more chains than liberties.

All sound and enduring constitution building -- in 1215, 1628, 1689, and in America from 1776 -- has flowed from acts of rebellion, where a diverse but related group of grievances came together and fused to create a momentum for change, and at such a time when the pips stopped squeaking and started screaming. A time when it was perceived that so many grievances flowed from excessive concentration of power, and of the abuse of that power. This is such a time!

The condition of the people in general is not encouraging. There are any variety of stupefying influences. From a mass media which interleaves the utterly horrific with the hopelessly inane in rapid succession, to booze and drugs; from the great comforting surfeit of junk merchandise and the constant appeal to the exclusive self to the febrile, neurasthenic obsession with every minor risk or flaw in the pursuit of the chimera of the perfect system, a social gestalt is being drawn by chance or design in which collective action becomes very difficult. Yet at the same time there are many angry people out there, even though many of them cringe, abandoned and hopeless, like Seligman's dogs, in their debt hovels.

We rebels are few in number and hopelessly scattered. We are assailed simultaneously by many fangs of the same jaw biting in from apparently different directions. We are running short of time.

At this juncture all people of democratic goodwill must come together, lay aside petty differences, open their minds to the common central core of our grievances, and work together for the common good.

Otherwise all will be lost!

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