The English Constitution
Undoubtedly one of the greatest statesmen of the twentieth century, and defenders of Christian civilization, was Sir Winston Churchill. He once defined civilization as:
…a society based upon the opinion of civilians. It means that violence, the rule of warriors and despotic chiefs, the conditions of camps and warfare, of riot and tyranny, give place to Parliaments where laws are made, and independent courts of justice in which over long periods those laws are maintained. That is civilization – and in its soil grow continually freedom, comfort, and culture. When civilization reigns, in any country, a wider and less harassed life is afforded the masses of the people. The traditions of the past are cherished, and the inheritance bequeathed to us by former wise or valiant men becomes a rich estate to be enjoyed and used by all.[i]
Part of that rich estate, affording the civilians of Britain (and later the entire Anglosphere) a less ‘harassed’ life, was the Magna Carta, widely regarded as the foundational text of the British constitution guaranteeing basic freedoms that reflected the customs of the people. This year (2015) is the 800th anniversary of that great Charter. The legal codes of Saxon England which prepared the way for the Charter had made it clear that because all people are subject to God, even kings were subject to the law – something church leaders pointed out to rulers whenever they felt it necessary. At the foundations of English law were the laws of King Alfred which began by citing the Ten Commandments and various other Old Testament laws. The Bible had made clear that every person, including rulers, judges and kings, were subject to the higher laws of God (Ex. 18:24-26; Deut. 17:8-13; Ps. 2; Rom. 13:1-5). This understanding was to form a particularly English tradition of kingship. As Philip Quenby has put it:
From the moment it was granted, Magna Carta held out the promise of freedom – freedom from arbitrary rule, freedom from oppression, freedom from tyranny. That was the clear implication of clause 39, which spoke of no free man being imprisoned except by the judgment of his peers or due process of law. Those provisions in their turn opened the door to other freedoms such as freedom of conscience; for what greater tyranny could there be than trying to dictate what men and women should think, of seeking to rule the inner life as well as the outer? As soon as the Great Charter set about curtailing arbitrary or disproportionate exercise of royal power, the logic of a society which was not only formed by Christian values but had these embedded at the very heart of its laws, and as a central determinant of the relationship between citizen and state, made a compelling case for the Charter’s original liberties to be extended and then extended again.[ii]
Given this exceptional heritage it is of the gravest concern today that the Christian understanding of the relationship of citizen to state and of the state and citizen to God is being rapidly destroyed in the West. The outrageous absurdity in the incremental growth of oppression and harassment is that it is being done in the name of freedom, and, specifically in the U.K, of ‘British values.’ This is outrageous because, as the English historian Daniel Hannan has pointed out, as far as continental European thought is concerned, “the idea that the individual should be as free as possible from state coercion… is regarded as the ultimate Anglophone fetish.”[iii] For much of the non-Anglosphere, the idea that small government and the absence of state regulation in most areas of life might be the right and just state of affairs is largely seen as ridiculous. In other words, for anyone to appeal to the idea of ‘British values’ is to invoke the historic building blocks of precious English liberty: biblical law, Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, a reformed church, a parliament and monarch under Christ, evangelical piety, the elevation of freedom, the rule of law, the presumption of innocence, trial by jury and an Englishman’s home as his castle.
Indeed, the opening lines of the British hymn to liberty, Rule Britannia, speak of faith in a God-ordained destiny, ‘When Britain first at Heaven’s command arose from out the azure main.’ Britain and her commonwealth has not always lived up to the moral responsibility and obligation inherent in God’s gracious gifts of freedom bequeathed by the gospel, but these are nonetheless her historic values by any sane historical judgement. At the popular level, one need only tune into the Rugby World Cup to hear the English fans singing ‘Swing Low Swing Chariot,’ or the professional performers singing ‘Jerusalem’ to catch the keynote of traditional British values. This is not mere nostalgia. It is seen in our systems of rule; it is there in our architecture; it is engraved in our historic monuments and documents; it is manifest by the spires at the centre of every English village; and it rings out in our songs, even when men do not remember their significance. Historic British values were perhaps expressed best by William Wordsworth when he wrote, ‘we must be free or die, who speak the tongue that Shakespeare spake, the faith and morals hold which Milton held.’
In light of these historic realities, it is difficult today, when addressing increasingly oppressive state legislation, strategies and proposals, to know whether one is dealing with with ignorance, idiocy, malevolence, or all of the above in the corridors of power. Recently, there has been some press coverage of counter-extremism measures due to go through Parliament later this year, which include provision for ‘Extremism Disruption Orders’ (EDOs), the purpose of which is ostensibly the curbing of views and activities believed to go against ‘British values.’ Yet what seems to elude many of the contemporary political class and cultural elite is even an elementary understanding of what historic British values actually are – values that were exported to the entire Anglosphere!
Because in the name of ‘British values,’ new measures that are supposed to be addressing the widespread problem of Islamic terrorism and radicalism in the U.K are threatening to strip away ancient liberties that could leave the preaching of the Christian gospel as the only way of salvation and vocal opposition to same sex ‘marriage’ or abortion being classified ‘un-British’ and subject to criminal penalties. These Orwellian recommendations represent a most dangerous overreach of the state, since the document in question defines the extremism it is targeting as “the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.” In the name of law, these plans would actually overthrow the rule of law; in the name of liberty, seek the removal of liberties; and in the name or respect and tolerance, openly persecute Christians.
By way of illustration, one British ‘values monitor’ (read thought-police) has claimed people will be able to believe homosexuality is wrong in their heads, but speaking it out loud could be illegal under the new proposals. Polly Harrow, Head of Safeguarding and Prevent at Kirklees College in Huddersfield, made these comments on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in a report on British counter-extremism policy. She says the British values strategy is seeking “not just tolerance but acceptance of difference in others.” For Harrow and her overlords, British values are ‘fundamental equality and diversity’ [iv] which involves accepting everything – except Christianity of course.
This language of ‘equality and diversity’ does not have reference to historic English liberties but to the diametrically opposed progressivist European doctrines of cultural Marxism that have been steadily undermining Christian civilization in the Anglosphere for the last fifty years. This is seen in the fact that the British government reportedly intends to tie its new provisions to the various protected characteristics of the Equality Act, like sexual orientation.[v] Supposedly this will target people whom the government says will promote or justify hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation and the like, but who are not currently breaking any law! Under vague and broad powers, the British state wants the power to slap an Extremism Disruption Order on someone at the mere request of police, which if breached (by speaking or assembly or social media) would potentially include penalties of prison sentences of several years! Out goes freedom of conscience, speech, assembly, the rule of law and trial by one’s peers; in comes the arbitrary oppression of the totalitarian state. These proposed measures are even more destructive of liberty than what the British government tried to do in 2014 when it sought to outlaw ‘being annoying’ in a public space, but thankfully the House of Lords destroyed that farcical law before it could be imposed.[vi]
Yet this is not all. In documents leaked to the Sunday Times last month, it was revealed that the British Home Office had planned, as part of their intended action on extremism, to require all religious figures to enroll in a ‘national register’ of faith leaders and be subjected to government-specified training and security checks. The Home Office intends to require all faiths to maintain a ‘national register’ of approved faith leaders with the state determining the minimum level of training and checks they will be required to have in order to join the register. Such registration would have been compulsory for all who wish to work with the public sector, including universities. These requirements would have covered the vast majority of priests, pastors, clerics, rabbis and imams.[vii] While the government has since backtracked on this particular element of their counter-extremism strategy, the fact that a register of this kind was ever under serious consideration indicates the changing mentality and extent to which the modern state is willing to go.
This would have been, in essence, an attempt to control the church (not just mosques) by ‘licensing’ state-approved religious leaders, with the rest banned from engaging the public sector at all – an area every Christian pastor’s ministry touches. To seek to undo the liberties of Magna Carta on the 800th anniversary of that foundational Charter is not mere idiocy, it is perverse. Thankfully there are a few speaking out against it, including many non-Christians fearing the loss of free speech. And in one amusing incident a Conservative peer told the Lords that these draconian orders might open the door to, “idiot police forces arresting a couple of ladies from the Women’s Institute and a traditionalist Church of England vicar who has said something radical - for example, that he actually believes in God.”[viii] But take heart. This isn’t the first time Christianity has come under censure, and it won’t be the last. “Counter-terrorism” measures come and go, but the kingdom of our Lord is an everlasting one, enduring to all generations (Ps. 145:13).
[i] Winston S. Churchill, Civilization in His Blood, Sweat and Tears (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1941), 45-46.
[ii] Philip Quenby, ‘The Case For Christian Freedoms: An Historical Perspective,’ in Magna Carta Unravelled: The Case for Christian Freedoms Today (Exeter: Wilberforce Publications, 2015), 56.
[iii] Daniel Hannan, Inventing Freedom: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World (New York: Broadside Books, 2013), 6.
[iv] “Opposing homosexuality ‘might be breaking the law,’” The Christian Institute, http://www.christian.org.uk/news/opposing-homosexuality-might-be-breaking-the-law/ accessed October 9, 2015.
[v] Heather Bellamy, “Extremism Disruption Orders,” interview with Simon Calvert, The Christian Institute: http://www.crossrhythms.co.uk/articles/life/Extremism_Disruption_Orders/56441/p1/ accessed October 9, 2015.
[vi] Bellamy, “Extremism Disruption Orders.”
[vii] Andrew Gilligan, “Imams will have to register and face security vetting under Home Office plans,” The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/terrorism-in-the-uk/11860993/Imams-will-have-to-register-and-face-security-vetting-under-Home-Office-plans.html, accessed October 9, 2015.
[viii] John Bingham, “Cameron’s extremism orders ‘could criminalise traditional Christian teaching,’” The Telegraph, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/11671547/Camerons-extremism-orders-could-criminalise-traditional-Christian-teaching.html, accessed October 14, 2015.