Archive for June, 2012


Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

By Mark Rogers

A Few Thoughts on the Democratic Consequences of a Constitutional Monarchy

In spite of the weather, the programme of events scheduled to celebrate the Queen’s reign of sixty years went ahead as millions of people turned out all over the country for occasions great and small.

The biggest was the river pageant in London. What is worthy of note is that the hundreds of boats were crewed by dedicated enthusiasts from all parts of the country, members of private trusts and museums and clubs established over many decades to preserve old boats. They are experts in what they do, knowing how to restore, care for and sail these boats. All over the country, there are the equivalents for trains, cars, steam engines, and all manner of engineering works. 

And all of these people knowingly work hard to keep their historical connections and interests alive and independent. In other words, there exists in this country not only the underclass of those who subsist on the benefits system and rely on the government for their needs, not only the excessive civil service, but also this parallel class of people from all sorts of backgrounds who, in a way, keep the ancient ethos of this country alive. It is they who turned out to salute the Queen on the river.

Another point of considerable importance in reflecting on the implications of the Jubilee weekend was that the events were paid for privately and were made possible through a massive infusion of voluntary effort. Only the security for the major events in London was paid for out of the public purse, which is as it should be.

What keeps the monarchy alive in Great Britain?

The immediate answer is the personality of the Queen herself which inspires affection. This affection may partly be induced by her longevity, and is also probably because of the way in which the public saw how the Queen quietly went about restoring the way in which the monarchy was seen after the disastrous period during which three of her children were divorced, accompanied by a media frenzy of “revelations” about the lifestyle of the Royals. She did so by manifestly not losing her head and by giving a few dignified speeches in which shortcomings were acknowledged.

But this is not, as it cannot be, all. The monarchy is sustained by a whole panoply of physical, historical arrangements: royal residences and their staff, and the armed forces, who owe their allegiance to the Queen as head of state, and in particular those elements specifically dedicated to the Royal Household.

And beyond these institutions, as the Queen Mother’s funeral, the Royal Wedding last year and this year’s Jubilee have demonstrated, there is the great mass of the British people, and beyond them the peoples of the Commonwealth.

“People Power” and the Monarch

Is it going too far to suggest that the body that is the strongest in underpinning the monarchy is the ordinary people of the realm? I do not think so: the great commentator and historian of the English Constitution, A.V. Dicey, temperamentally a conservative, had no hesitation in describing the power and validity of the constitution as ultimately deriving from the people: that the people are the ultimate source of sovereignty is what one would expect in a democracy, but it is indeed a lesson that has taken long in the learning. And Dicey wrote at a time when the reigning monarch was considerably more powerful than the present monarch.

In what does the power of the monarchy then consist? Is Walter Bagehot’s formulation correct? Bagehot famously divided the Constitution into its ceremonial and efficient parts, that is, the monarchy with all its lavish display and the workaday world of the politicians. This formula is probably a more accurate description of the present monarchy than it was during Victoria’s reign when Bagehot wrote. And of course the further one goes back into history, the less persuasive his formula becomes. This having been said, however, if one takes a Burkean view of these matters, the formula suddenly leaves much to be desired.

For what it leaves out is the historic dimension of the present, which is most vividly displayed in the ceremonies of monarchy – and which the British do so superbly! – which must be read as a symbol of what the monarchy embodies.

A Constitutional Monarchy

Historically considered, the monarchy has been slowly adapted and reformed to take its modern position as one of the branches of executive government. The others are the House of Lords, the House of Commons and the Judiciary, each with their separate competences and each sovereign in their own sphere. This is the origin of the checks and balances type of constitution, where each branch of the executive power acknowledges, at least in principle, a restraint on its powers in concert with the others.

If then the monarchy is seen as upholding this principle because of its historical acquiescence in these arrangements, it is but a short step to seeing how the monarch embodies the nation, at least in the sense of symbolising that history. Perhaps this can be most clearly seen in the deference paid to the symbols of Royalty in the courtrooms: when the Judge enters, the entire court rises and nods, not to him in his own person, but as the officiator at a tribunal presided over by the Royal crest on the wall behind his bench, and what is being acknowledged is the monarch as the upholder of the law because she herself is bound by the law and is not above it. This is the radical difference between the English Common Law and the civil law system of the Continent, derived from late Roman Republican Law, where to make law, it is considered necessary for the lawmakers to be above the law.

The great Lord Denning once declared of the Common Law: “Be you never so high, the law is above you.”

That the British monarch represents such a radical limitation of power is the foremost reason that the people respect the monarchy: it is an enduring historical symbol, alive in the present, of the system of laws and government that gave the British their liberties.

The ceremonial function of the Constitution is therefore to serve as a reminder of the centrality of that concept of government.

Is it then surprising that the people turn out in such great numbers to honour it, especially at a time when the other branches of government inspire considerably less loyalty, and even interest? In this year of Jubilee the idea has been seriously canvassed that those who fail to turn out to vote should be fined. Such is the desperation of the political class.

The gradual ceding of real powers by the monarchy, avidly campaigned for by politicians of various stripes ever since Lloyd George, has helped bring the other branches of the executive, especially the Commons, into increasing disrepute: the government of the day, sitting in Parliament as of right as elected MPs, able to control the House of Commons through its majority and its whips, and able to send its Cabinet members through the lobbies to vote on its own policies, disposes of more power than ever the Stuart kings did.

The Little Platoons

Edmund Burke knew that the health and constitutional vigour and reliability of our way of life was most manifest in what he called the little platoons of society: the family, private businesses, the private associations and clubs and trusts all of which formed the weft and warp of the national fabric. It was for this reason that he formulated his idea of the chain of being linking past, present and future. It was in disruptions to this chain and assaults on the little platoons that he feared lay the seeds of tyranny.

So the advent of all those voluntary associations on the Thames on Sunday afternoon was a heartening display by the little platoons; that it was to honour a well-loved Queen as well as the institution, suggests an historical bond between the sovereignty of the people and their sovereign which the political class would do well to heed.


Sunday, June 3rd, 2012

By Mark Rogers

This is not an oxymoron. It is unfortunate that we live in an age when it is perfectly possible to link these concepts in this way.

I have been writing for for six months now, and thought it might be an idea to try to summarise my outlook, or, as they say, where I “come from”.

I come from Hong Kong. And that simple statement has coloured my entire political outlook. Indeed, during my childhood and youth in the colony I suppose I scarcely had one beyond the knowledge that we were free, especially as we also knew what was just across the border.

I will go further and say that Hong Kong was the freest polity in the world during the twentieth century. We were certainly exceptionally free of politicians in the modern sense of the word. There was an elected Legislative Council, which was little more than a local government authority charged with managing the basic public amenities, and although there were occasional attempts to politicise it, they never got anywhere.

Hong Kong: no welfare state

And there was no poverty, though there were of course poor people: but poverty as it exists in places like India and South America simply didn’t exist in Hong Kong, indeed, beggars were exceptionally uncommon. The government may have contributed, for example, small grants to schools for one-off purposes – the provision of new text books, perhaps – but there was no welfare provision on the scale that we have become accustomed to in Europe – and which is all but destroying the latter.

Medical treatment was freely available to all who needed it, whether they could pay for it or not. All doctors were private, and the hospitals were chiefly operated by missionary or religious organisations. The latter provided very expensive private ward treatment for the wealthy, which in turn subsidised treatment for those who could contribute either a fraction or nothing of the cost. There were also imaginative schemes run out of hospitals, such as the despatch of teams of nurses into the low cost housing or squatter hut areas, to discover those who needed treatment, to administer it for as long as necessary and to try not to hospitalise patients (unless they needed surgery) on the grounds that people got better more quickly surrounded by friends and family.

Community Chest

Chinese families were strong, partly as a result of tradition, and partly reinforced by the greater solidarity brought about by family losses as a result of the persecutions of Mao’s China. These bonds in turn produced an exceptionally strong philanthropic disposition on the part of Hong Kong’s rich, which in the course of time resulted in the setting up of The Community Chest. This brilliantly conceived idea, originating in such business organisations as The Rotary Club and The Lions, was based on the Chinese sense of “face” and the need not to lose it. Practically, it was designed to collect on a regular basis routine charitable donations into one fund which then was able to distribute those funds according to the immediate needs of all the regular charities, thus ensuring that at any given time the most pressing needs of any given charity did not go underfunded.

The face came in thus: regular lists of the names of donors were published in the paper of record, The South China Morning Post, in descending order of generosity, but without publishing the amount. Hong Kong’s wealthy knew pretty well how much they were all currently worth, and could therefore calculate the likely donations of their business rivals from their position in the list – and could therefore work out how much more they ought to give to try to outdo their rivals!

The immense commercial success of Hong Kong

This depended fundamentally on two things: its harbour and, in its modern history, its Financial Secretary, Sir John Cowperthwaite. He certainly did not suffer interference gladly:

“Asked what is the key thing poor countries should do, Cowperthwaite once remarked: ‘They should abolish the Office of National Statistics.’ In Hong Kong, he refused to collect all but the most superficial statistics, believing that statistics were dangerous: they would lead the state to fiddle about remedying perceived ills, simultaneously hindering the ability of the market economy to work. This caused consternation in Whitehall: a delegation of civil servants were sent to Hong Kong to find out why employment statistics were not being collected; Cowperthwaite literally sent them home on the next plane back.” (From an obituary which can be found here; there is another, fuller one, here.)

The economic success of the colony was also, of course, underpinned by the English Common Law. And the legal system operated in an unusually “pure” form; unencumbered by having to cope with government intervention at every level of private and public life, the lawyers and judiciary were able to work on the basic principles of the common law, precedent and equity. This was complemented (especially in the rural areas of the mainland and outlying islands) by recourse to native law and custom where either the parties requested it, or the magistrate thought it more appropriate. There is a marvellous account of life as a Magistrate in the rural New Territories of mainland Hong Kong: Myself a Mandarin, by Austin Coates (Frederick Muller, London, 1968, subsequently reprinted, Heinemann Asia, Hong Kong 1980; Oxford University Press Hong Kong 1987; and Oxford Paperbacks 1988).

The Law and Order Anarchist

This background, filled out over the years by my reading and my experience at close quarters of the British welfare state (the family courts, where the state is especially intrusive), has given me a deep distrust of welfare as a political process. Indeed, in the light of my observations and recollections of Hong Kong, the Welfare State seems to me to be truly the oxymoron: in order for the political class to establish and administer welfare systems, they must have onerous tax regimes which end up destroying the financial base upon which the welfare systems depend. Better by far to leave people alone to look after themselves, as indeed they did, through friendly associations, credit unions and the like (all of which flourished in Hong Kong) before the welfare state took over.

So, the problem with the modern polity is that by increments, state intervention destroys wealth creation and so destroys the ability of governments to “look after” people and equally destroys the ability of people to take care of themselves, until, reaching the very nadir of intervention (Nazism and Communism), huge numbers of people are themselves destroyed.

Another lesson from Hong Kong is that the legal arrangements come first and must be based ultimately on respect for property and freedom of contract. If the state takes over the administration of private life – from business and manufacturing, to education and health, to sports and the arts, and all other private spheres – then the legal basis of society is eroded, and, amongst other things, governments themselves become harder to render accountable.

I am, therefore: an anarchist when it comes to the size of the state; a liberal – and how sad and revealing that that once robust concept now has to be qualified – a liberal in the nineteenth century Gladstonian sense, because I believe in freedom; and a conservative because I do not believe that freedom is an abstraction: it must be embodied in institutions, which of necessity are anchored in their histories, and the most important of these is the law: historically the Anglosphere’s Common Law is the most productive and protective of individuals and their livelihoods.

The Border between Freedom and Tyranny

This must have happened when I was eight or nine. It was the time of the Cultural Revolution. Those who could, fled to the border with Hong Kong; the government’s policy was that anyone who crossed the border was welcomed (as had been the policy at the time of the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s and the revolution itself in 1949). The border was composed of a closed off portion of Hong Kong’s territory which consisted largely of villages and their fish farms, and then the river which constituted the border itself. In this low lying district, there was a hillock on top of which was the Police Border Post.

My father had some influence and was able to wangle a visit to this Post one midnight, taking me with him. In that part of the New Territories there were hardly any lights: all was black, with a few stars and in the greater distance the high and remote mountains of southern China dim against the horizon.

The ordinary soldiers of the Red Army border patrol had been assisting refugees to escape across the river during the daytime; when word of this got back, Peking sent in the teenage Red Guards to stop it.

As we stood on the Border Post, we could see far to the east and the west along the length of the river, little flashes of light, flicking on and off, on and off, like fireflies. But they were not fireflies: they were flashes of torchlight – under the cover of darkness, the old soldiers of the border patrol were still assisting their fellow Cantonese to escape.

Those little golden glows, flicking ever so swiftly and surely on and off, guiding people to the freedoms of Hong Kong: work and prosperity and a sense of human dignity, the opposite of all the socialisms that have destroyed human purpose so often throughout the twentieth century – and still threaten. Hong Kong, the moral and political gold standard.



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