Alphen, Netherlands. 23 January. Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester, is regarded as the father of the English Parliament. Seven hundred and fifty years ago this week he said, “You can maintain power over people as long as you give them something. Rob a man of everything and that man will no longer be in your power”. The January Parliament sat on 20 January, 1265 some fifty years after the 1215 signing of Magna Carta that in time became the font of all English liberties. Indeed, for the first time a Parliament comprised not just nobles but the knights and burgesses of the English shires. De Montfort’s aim was to confirm his power and constrain that of King Henry III after the latter’s defeat at the Battle of Lewes. However, the January Parliament also confirmed the two principles of freedom of conscience and freedom before the law established by the great William Marshal in the aftermath of Magna Carta. Over centuries the great political shifts of the thirteenth century established the very idea of freedom which England gave to much of rest of the world – government by the people, for the people and of the people. Today, those freedoms and liberties are under threat across Europe at several levels as freedom is traded in the name of security, function and ‘efficiency’.
At the oligarchic high bureaucratic level freedom is under threat from a European caste that believes they know best and that the over-concentration of power in a bureaucratic few is in the best interest of all. Yesterday’s decision by the European Central Bank to print €1.1 trillion may or may not help to stimulate dormant growth, although in the absence of structural reforms it looks an increasingly desperate measure by the European Mutual Impoverishment Pact (formerly known as the EU). Critically, there is no democratic oversight of the ECB and little accountability. Time will tell but Mario Draghi’s actions look very much like those of a man who is looking after his friends in southern Europe at the expense of the taxpayer’s and savers of northern and western Europe.
At the security level the threat posed by Islamic State to Europe is dangerous and growing. One reason for that threat is the utter irresponsibility of liberal elites in allowing such extreme beliefs to use liberal societies as incubators in the name of multiculturalism and political correctness. Now, be it the European Arrest Warrant or the sweeping new powers of surveillance demanded by states, elites are in a desperate game of catch-up to both mask and deal with the consequence of their own irresponsibility. Yes, the threat is such that the state and the super-state may indeed need new powers but who, how and what is going to hold that power to account.
Even at the popular level basic rights and freedoms are being eroded as power is ever taken ever more distant from the people in Europe. Politicians still routinely trot out the mantras that they are defending free speech and democracy but are they? Political machines seem far more interested in defending themselves, hence the almost universal obsession with the short-term by elites. Je Suis Charlie many be an emotive slogan but make so mistake the French state was uncomfortable with Charlie Hebdo. In England, the font of liberty, it is questionable whether the newspaper would have been even able to publish much of its work under the onerous hate laws that have been introduced in the past decade to mask the consequences of government responsibility.
Under pressure from above and without European society is increasingly self-censoring. Naturally, liberty also implies responsibility in what one says and does. However, there is a growing tendency to appease extremism on the grounds that it shows cultural sensitivity or because the Internet mob-rule, much of it generated by the sneering, censorious political Left, that is intimidating any dissent from their imposed ‘convention’. A mark of the extent to which British society is retreating from responsible liberty is the extent to which British police (yes, British police) now police thought as well as actions. Indeed, there was a time when English law could distinguish between criminals and idiots, but not it seems any more.
Eight hundred years on from Magna Carta and seven hundred and fifty years on from the January Parliament it is as vital as ever that responsible citizens challenge over-mighty oligarchies. Sadly such oligarchies are the stuff of power in Europe today with parliaments reduced to being little more than impotent fig-leaves for over-mighty executives.
Simon de Montfort lost his life on 4 August, 1265 at the Battle of Evesham slain by royalists. The absolute power of the King was restored and would not be so directly challenged until that great dissenter Oliver Cromwell established the principles of parliamentary democracy that endured until the 2007 Treaty of Lisbon. In 1654 Cromwell said, “In every government there must be somewhat fundamental, somewhat like a Magna Charta, that should be standing and unalterable”.
Power is again taking liberties and it must again be held to account.