Passing Bull 146 – Some bad rights

 

If I agree to paint your house for a fee, and after I start the work, I make it clear that I will not perform my part of the contract, then the law says that you can put an end to the contract and make other arrangements free of any further obligation to me.  If you do that, the law says I have ‘repudiated’ the contract, and that by ‘accepting’ that repudiation, you have brought the contract to an end – by the operation of the law.

In broad terms, that is what happened in the English Revolution in 1689, the American Revolution in 1776, and the French Revolution in 1789 and later.  The people said to their king, with the force of arms – ‘You have broken your word and you have not done your job.  We dismiss you and we will set up a new form of government.’  Indeed, the great French historian Marc Bloch said that the contract between a feudal lord and his vassal was a genuine contract to the same effect.  ‘If the lord failed to fulfil his engagements, he lost his rights.’  Bloch foresaw how this doctrine might be applied in the political sphere – ‘it was reinforced by the very ancient notions which held the king responsible in a mystical way for the welfare of his subjects and deserving of punishment in the event of public calamity.’

During the course of events that we label the French Revolution, the French had a go at defining what they called the rights of man.  They did it in 1789 and again in 1793.  People now generally go the 1789 model, when hope and innocence reigned.  By 1793, France and the world had seen the terrorism of the Jacobins.  They had to face the familiar problem of those who come to power by force: how do you stop others doing the same to you?

Article 25 of the 1793 French Declaration of the Rights of Man says:

When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people and for each portion of the people the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.

This provision was not in the original version.  History suggests that it was most unwise to purport to give a legal formulation and blessing to a right of insurrection – the right to revolt.  Who will rule on the issue of whether the right has crystallized?  The answer can only be force of arms – if you win, you are the government; if you lose, you get executed for treason.

But some kind of claim to a right of insurrection was instrumental in a string of revolutions that cruelly bedevilled France for a century after 1789.  And it still works to stand in the way of reform in France.  Industrial action there is a form of insurrection.  Social positions get entrenched as matters of status to an extent that is medieval – or even feudal.  That was not what the revolution was about.  The result?   The public sector consumes 56% of GDP in France; train drivers can retire at 50; and the nation braces itself for more insurrection against the reforms of President Macron.

A century beforehand, the English had used a different tack.  Article 6 of the Declaration of Rights prohibits the raising of a standing army except with the consent of parliament.  If it is hard for a king to drive a program without money, it was even harder for the king to conduct a coup without an army.  The king had been neutralised, as history has since shown.  But the Declaration goes further than ensuring that the king would have no army.  In Magna Carta, the barons were in a position to dictate that the king would sign up for a truly life-threatening security clause that could be invoked if he were to misbehave.  The barons could in effect appoint themselves receivers to enter into and seize crown property.  Well, that would hardly do nearly five hundred years later, and William and Mary were in a much stronger negotiating position than King John.  Besides, English lords or knights from the shires would hardly have had any interest in or any capacity to take over affairs on Chesapeake Bay, or from the Begums of Oudh.  So, Article 7 provided, and still does, that ‘the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defence suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law’.  .

The incoming king was an experienced man of arms and a seasoned man of affairs. There can be no doubt that he appreciated the inevitable consequence of Articles 6 and 7 of the Declaration of Rights. ‘Your Majesty shall have no army unless we agree, but we shall remain armed whether you agree or not.  If there is a disagreement about how you discharge your obligations, and we cannot resolve that disagreement by negotiation in good faith, and our differences have to be resolved by the arbitrament of arms, we shall prevail and you shall lose.  Your best option then will be exile.’  If they had been in a mordant frame of mind, they may have given Prince William a sketch of the shed where they kept the axe.

Sir Jack Plumb said:  ‘The Bill of Rights had its sanctions clauses – there was to be no standing army and Protestant gentlemen were to be allowed arms; the right of rebellion is implicit.’   The phrase ‘right of rebellion’ may make constitutional lawyers blush, but Sir Jack may have had in mind the right of the innocent party to accept the conduct of a guilty party as the repudiation of a contract, so bringing it to an end.  Plumb had also said that:  ‘the power of the 17th century gentry was sanctioned by violence’ and that ‘by 1688, violence in politics was an Englishman’s birth-right’.

Or course, now that English political society has ceased to treat violence as its ultimate sanction, these constitutional provisions have become a dead letter, as they clearly should be so regarded in any civilised society.  This is not so across the Atlantic, where the American version of the right to bear arms serves to keep the United States in the race for the title of the murder capital of the world.  There they have, but refuse to confront, the problem facing the French after 1789.  A right simply to bear arms is useless unless the citizen can lawfully claim to use them.  Who decides that? The lethal American answer is the gun.

What is the point?  Declaring rights broadly is bloody dangerous.

Bloopers

 

‘Qantas objecting to what Folau is saying about homosexuality is beyond laughable.  I don’t agree with Israel but I’ve told him most explicitly that he must not back down.’

The Australian, 13 April 2018

Alan Jones with his characteristic humility.

Speaking later with reporters aboard Air Force One as Mr. Trump headed to Florida, Ms. Sanders added that ‘the president has been clear that he’s going to be tough on Russia, but at the same time he’d still like to have a good relationship with them.’

Another White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal deliberations, said Mr. Trump had decided not to go forward with the sanctions. Mr. Trump concluded that they were unnecessary because Moscow’s response to the airstrike was mainly bluster, the official said.

The New York Times, 17 April, 2018.

Well, he can recognise bluster when he sees it.

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