Home Schooling: A British Perspective
Sean Gabb
(Chapter 13 of Homeschooling in Full View:
A Reader, ISBN 1593113382)

Home schooling can be loosely defined as any education provided otherwise than by formal schooling outside the home. Such education may be provided by parents or guardians, or by tutors engaged by parents or guardians. So defined, home schooling has a long history in England.

Historical Background

What to Do About AIDS
by Sean Gabb
First published by the Libertarian Alliance,
London, 1989 (ISBN 1 870614 30 5)

Gun Control in Britain
by Sean Gabb
Published as Political Notes No. 33 by the Libertarian Alliance,
London, 1988, ISBN 1 860614 10 0

On Wednesday the 19th August 1987, an unemployed Hungerford labourer named Michael Ryan, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, and in a mental state unknown to us, went through his home town, shooting anything that moved. He shot and killed 14 people., including his mother His suicide a couple of hours later, and the subsequent deaths of two of the 16 wounded, brought his total to 17.

Thomas Erskine: Saviour of English Liberty
Sean Gabb

Published in 1990 as Libertarian Heritage No. 1
ISBN 1 870614 98 4
by the Libertarian Alliance, London

THOUGH largely now forgotten, the name of Thomas Erskine (1750-1823) deserves a place in the heart of everyone who values freedom and the rule of law. But for his resolute stand at a moment of crisis, the subsequent course of English history might well have been very different - and very much less of an inspiration to other peoples. 

Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet

Issue Number 107
5th June 2003

Farewell to the Lord Chancellor:
A Brief Comment on the Continuing New Labour Revolution
by Sean Gabb

Brian Micklethwait has suggested that I should comment—no matter how briefly—on the announced abolition last week of the office of Lord Chancellor. Being the resident Jeremiah at the Libertarian Alliance, I suppose I have a duty to complain. So I will.

Last Thursday, Tony Blair reshuffled his cabinet. Those Ministers who had performed badly by his standards were dismissed. One of his main loyalists resigned under circumstances that have given rise to much private speculation. Mr Blair then moved some of his remaining Ministers around, and appointed a few more to fill up the gaps.

This is normal practice for a government as old and strained as this one now is. I have lived long enough to see it happen many times before. What makes it worthy of comment is the unexpected changes to the way in which the judiciary is managed. The Lord Chancellor was dismissed, and instead of being refilled, his office has been announced for abolition, its main functions being put out to commission or being eventually regathered into a Ministry of Justice. At the same time, the senior Judges are to lose their seats in the House of Lords and will be given their own Supreme Court over which to preside. The immediate reason is a political crisis for Mr Blair. I cannot know the details, but it is obvious that he is under severe pressure; and the changes may have been meant to draw attention away from the sorry fact that he is running out of loyalists, and that those he has are not very good.

The principle of the changes, though, is not bad in itself. In standard constitutional theory, the Lord Chancellorship is an anomaly. He is a Judge. He appoints all the other Judges. He is the Speaker of the House of Lords. He also sits in the Cabinet as a creature of the Prime Minister. The modern doctrine of the separation of powers—as most notably expressed in the American Constitution - was derived in the 18th century from observation by Montesquieu and de Lolme, among others, of the British Constitution. They plainly did not observe very well.

Of course, there is no reason for correcting an anomaly simply because it is. There is no reason to suppose that any of the potential conflicts of interest for a Lord Chancellor have produced actual evils. Even Lord Irvine, the last holder of the office, was never accused of political bias in his legal functions. He appointed judges with the traditional impartiality, and defended them against attack by his colleagues in the Cabinet. He was similarly impartial in his judgments.

This being said, the potential for conflicts of interest has been greatly increased in the past few years. The steady growth of judicial review since the 1950s, plus the Human Rights Act 1998 - plus the seizure of review powers over primary legislation in the Thoburn case of last year—have transformed the judiciary. Increasingly, the Judges of the civil law are no longer mainly doing justice between subject and subject, but are ruling on the legality of executive actions and even now on the constitutional validity of Acts of Parliament. Leaving the Lord Chancellorship untouched might be dangerous. Evils that in the past were potential, and that as such gave no reason for change, might easily soon become actual. Now that the evolution of our laws is taking us towards a Supreme Court—and bearing in mind that this is an entirely welcome evolution on liberal grounds—the time may already have come for making the Lord Chancellor into something less of a constitutional hybrid. I say this, even if it seems that the present changes have not received proper consideration.

My objection is not to the principle of reform, nor even really to its attendant lack of consideration—this lack can be supplied given reasonable discussion. My objection is to the change of names. There was no good reason to abolish the office of Lord Chancellor. The most fundamental legal reforms in English history were carried though during the third quarter of the 19th century. First, there was the fusion of law and equity. Then there was the setting up of a proper system of law reporting and the movement of the civil courts from Westminster Hall to the New Courts in the Strand. Then there were the Judicature Acts of the 1870s. These abolished the jumble of competing jurisdictions inherited from the middle ages that had made justice into an expensive lottery, and replaced them with a single High Court of Justice divided in its business on rational lines and with a codified procedure. In its substance, what the Government announced last week is nothing compared with this.

Yet, for all its radicalism, the Victorian reformers did all they could to preserve the old associations. Even if the substance was entirely replaced, the names of Queen's Bench and Chancery were retained. The New Courts were built to look old. Within a generation, I doubt if anyone but a legal historian really noticed what had been done. The present set of reforms is quite different in its regard for old associations. A few years ago, writs became claim forms and plaintiffs became claimants. There are proposals to stop the Judges from wearing their horsehair wigs. Now, there is to be no Lord Chancellor. The office has existed in England for at least 800 years, and began as a sort of secretaryship to the King. It is older than Parliament. Thomas Beckett was Lord Chancellor to Henry II. Thomas More was Lord Chancellor for Henry VIII. The office was satirised in Iolanthe. It has always been around in English history, and its holders have been some of the great men of English history. Even before the proposed abolition, the cumulative effect of these reforms has been to advertise a break with the past. Let another generation go by, and only a legal historian will be able to understand the mass of obsolete words contained in law reports from before the present century. Threads of continuity will have been snapped. The past will seem more of a foreign country than is needed.

That is my objection. It may seem trifling to argue over words and appearances, but these are part of our national identity. These are part of what of what it means to be an Englishman. They help to tell us who we are and what we were. Had our history been as unfortunate as that of most other European countries in the 20th century—and usually before—it might not be bad to advertise a break with the past. Throughout the old Soviet Empire, for example, I can think of no objection to the renaming of towns and streets during the 1990s, to the pulling down of statues and to the restructuring of the functions and the names of political institutions. But, as I keep insisting, the most important protection of English liberty is the apparent continuity of our institutions. Take away our grounds for conservatism, and we are left with a set of new institutions that may have a splendid future, but which are now too evidently new to attract the unthinking loyalty that is their surest source of strength.

I could be wrong, but I believe there is a conspiracy among our political masters to destroy our national identity and with it our ancient freedoms. I say I could be wrong because I remember the absurd conspiracy theories put forward in the 1980s by the opponents of Margaret Thatcher. Socialists like Ruth Levita and Martin Jacques claimed there was a coherent project to bring about a "free market and a strong state". Except there was little actual freeing of markets, this was an accurate description of what happened in the 1980s. It was, however, an unintended consequence. Thatcherism was never a coherent ideology, but was instead a muddle of quite separate ideologies. There were the free market libertarians, the traditionalist conservatives, the middle way social democrats, the social authoritarians. These all got part of what they wanted, though in a pretty random way, and the result was the toughened big government machine that New Labour eventually inherited.

Perhaps the same reductionist analysis can be applied to all that has been done since 1997. Perhaps there is no New Labour project. Certainly, there is no unity within the Government on the main issues of the day. We have seen them fall out over the war with Iraq and the Euro.

But while I could be wrong, I do believe there is more here than just a set of unintended outcomes. This is a government above all of philosophes. For all it has put up taxes and increased the burden of regulations, this is not a socialist government. Considered in themselves, many of its acts have been rather liberal—always granting that many other have not. It passed the Human rights Act. It accepted the judicial coup announced in the Thoburn judgment. It has been no more friendly in practice to the claims of the European Union than the Conservatives were in office. It has tried to reform the public services on market principles—and if it has failed in this, it is because of a deference to vested interests and a lack of economic understanding for which it may be fairly blamed but not denounced.

The general problem is that the New Labour turn of mind is frankly contemptuous of the past. Mr Blair's "forces of conservatism" speech in 1999 was an accurate expression of how these people regard the English past. They want a New Britain, and regard all that is left of old England as an embarrassment to be cleared away as soon as possible. Some New Labour people, I accept, have the fairest intentions. I have eaten with these people. They often have more sympathy for libertarian concerns than Conservatives have ever had. But many of their seniors are malevolent. They have no liking for liberties whether ancient or modern. They want a politically correct police state and a corporatised economy. Ordinary people are to have the appearance of freedom, but little of its substance, and the world is to be made safe for an elite of politicians, big businessmen and their pet intellectuals. What joins these different factions is their contempt of the past. And this is fatal to the benevolent strain within New Labour. By ripping up every old association on which they can lay hands, our masters are turning a nation into a frightened mob. They may be doing to us what the revolutionary governments did to France after 1789. And, while the men of 1789 had some excuse for not understanding the consequences of their remodelling, their modern successors have no excuse.

I note with surprised approval that the Conservatives have rejected the abolition of the Lord Chancellorship. They have decided to leave their existing system of shadow portfolios, complete with a shadow Lord Chancellor. They seem committed to undoing the abolition once they are back in office. I am glad. Generally speaking, I have been reasonably impressed by the Conservative performance over the past few months. The strategy of revival that I thought I could see in the spring and summer of last year has re-emerged, and this time in opposition to a much weaker and more discredited Government than was the case last year.

But this is another matter.

Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet

Issue Number 129
27th November 2004

Home Education: Do It Yourself, Do It Better
Sean Gabb

Education in this country is a mess. The complaints roll in. The children are taught less than their grandparents were, but are more pressured by tests and the meeting of other arbitrary targets. They play truant. They are bullied—around 20 children every year commit suicide because of this. They take too many drugs and have too much sex. They are force-fed political correctness. For the past month, the politicians have been issuing competing promises to sort out the mess—as if they had not made it in the first place. We can be sure of one thing: nothing will improve. Of course, if you can move to the right catchment area, or join the right religion, your children may get a semi-decent education. If you have the money, you can go private and get them a good education. For everyone else, though, it is a matter of what the Prime Minister, with uncharacteristic honesty, calls the "bog standard comprehensive".

Or is that it? The answer is no. There is an alternative.

The law on education in this country is clear. Parents have a legal duty to educate their children, but no duty to send them to school. Section 7 of the Education Act 1996 reads: "The parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time education suitable: (a) to his age, ability and aptitude, and (b) to any special education needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise." The meaning of this is that you can educate your children at home.

Until quite recently, home education was a common alternative to school. Noel Coward, for example, was educated almost wholly at home, briefly attending the Chapel Royal Choir School. Agatha Christie had no formal schooling before the age of 16. She later wrote that her mother believed "the best way to bring up girls was to let them run wild as much as possible; to give them food, fresh air and not to force their minds in any way". C.S. Lewis had only two years of formal schooling as a child—part of this at Wynyard School in Watford—a place he later called "Belsen".

By the middle of the last century, home education seems largely to have died out. Recently—partly because of the collapse of standards in the state sector, and partly following the American example, where the home schooling movement is huge—there has been a revival of interest. No one knows how many children in England are being educated a home. The estimates range between 84,000 and 150,000. The only agreement is that the numbers are growing fast. They include children who have been bullied or otherwise harmed at school, the children of the devoutly religious, and the children of parents who simply do not like what formal schooling has to offer. They are from all social, educational, ethnic and religious backgrounds.

One reason why we cannot know the numbers is because the law is so astonishingly liberal. You do not have to seek permission from the Local Education Authority to educate "otherwise"; nor inform the Local Education Authority that you have children of school age; nor have regular contact with the Local Education Authority; nor have premises equipped to any specified standard; nor have any teaching or other educational qualifications of your own; nor cover any specific syllabus; nor have any fixed timetable; nor prepare lesson plans of any kind; nor observe normal school hours or terms; nor give formal lessons; nor allow your children to mix with others. The only requirement is that children receive a "suitable" education. In a landmark decision from 1981, this is defined "one such as to prepare the children in life for modern civilised society, and to enable them to achieve their full potential". And that is it. You can sit your children down in a room full of books and maps and reproduce a school at home. Or you can tell them Bible stories as they help make bread. Or you can let them run about, picking up whatever learning takes their fancy. There are no controls.

You might suppose that children not committed to the care of professional teachers would become illiterate barbarians. There is no evidence at all that they do. Indeed, what evidence there is shows that children educated at home do significantly better. In 2002, Dr Paula Rothermel of Durham University published the largest study ever made in the United Kingdom. She found that 64 per cent of such children scored over 75 per cent in standard tests, as opposed to only 5.1 children nationally. Other achievement levels were far above the national average. She found that "home educated children were socially adept and without behavioural problems. Overall, the home educated children demonstrated high levels of attainment and good social skills".

She also notes that the children of working class, poorly-educated parents were doing better than middle class children. While five and six year old children from middle class backgrounds scored only 55.2 per cent in the test, they scored 71 per cent.

Of course, just because it appears to work is no reason for the authorities to approve of it. The law remains unchanged in England. But there is pressure for change. We can be sure the teachers hate anything that shows them in a comparatively poor light. In June this year, one of the main teaching unions heard calls for regulation. Apparently children educated at home were "the only group… who have no consistent level of monitoring or inspection yet are the only group taught in the main by those with no qualifications". One can almost hear the nervous shuffling of bottoms.

If this were not enough, we live in an age where the authorities just cannot let anything alone. During the ten years to the beginning of October 2004, the phrase "completely unregulated" occurs 153 times in the British newspaper press. In all cases, unless used satirically, the phrase is part of a condemnation of some activity. We are told that the advertising of food to children, residential lettings agents, funeral directors, rock climbing, alleged communication with the dead, salons and tanning shops, contracts for extended warranties on home appliances, and anything to do with the Internet—that these are all "almost completely unregulated" or just "completely unregulated", and that the authorities had better do something about the fact.

Then there is the ideological agenda. Schooling is only partly about teaching children to read and write and do basic sums. It is mainly about teaching them to think and do as the Establishment desires. When the Establishment was broadly conservative, children were taught how sweet and fitting it was to die for the country: would ten million young men have marched semi willingly to their death in the Great War without the prior conditioning of state education? Nowadays, the Establishment is almost solidly of the left. Children now are taught how guilty they must feel if they happen to be white or male or middle class, and how they must accept the anti-western, anti-rational, anti-Enlightenment values of political correctness. And this is even thought a basic human right. In its own draft bill of rights, the National Council for Civil Liberties asserts the "right to an education that prepares them… to respect diversity and human rights".

Given this fact, the Establishment sees home education as a challenge to its ideological hegemony. The academic literature is filled with denunciations of "neoliberals, neoconservatives, and authoritarian populists" who seek to frustrate the noble efforts of teachers. Home education is seen as an example of "individualized behaviour" that "threatens to undermine the quality of public education".

There has been no concerted attack in England There are ugly stories to be found in the newspapers. It seems that some authorities are trying to conflate home schooling with truancy. Individual officials have been accused of threatening parents known to be educating their children at home—saying that their children would be put on the "at-risk" register. There is one story of a school that informed a mother that it was illegal for her to take one child out of school following the suicide of another who had been bullied there. But none of this yet reflects official policy.

There has, however, been an official attempt in Scotland to make home education less easy for parents. In 2002, the Scottish Executive, proposed that local authorities should be able to use details from the United Kingdom Census, from birth registers, from medical records, and from other confidential sources, to identify those children being educated at home. These proposals were bitterly fought by the home education movement—not just in Scotland, but also in the United Kingdom as a whole, and also from America. The law remains unchanged, but the proposals have not gone away.

But, for the moment, home education is perfectly legal in this country. It is expensive: at least one parent must be at home at least some of the time to look after things. On the other hand, it can be brilliantly successful. So if you are really think your children are not getting the best at school, stop looking to the politicians. They either have no idea how to make things better, or are planning how to make them still worse. Do it yourself—and almost certainly do it better.

Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet

Issue Number 131
14th March 2005

The Jaws of the Trap Are Closing:
Hunting, the Courts and the Constitution
by Sean Gabb

At the end of last week, the new Prevention of Terrorism Act came into force. Pushed through with the most indecent haste, and justified throughout its passage by what has become the usual pack of lies about vague but tremendous dangers, this gives extraordinary powers to the State. It allows indefinite house arrest for those suspected of certain intentions, together with electronic monitoring and restrictions on Internet and other correspondence. All this is allowed without charge or trial, and on the basis of unsworn evidence given in secret.


It has, then, been a bad week for liberty in this country. Rather than turn, however, to an examination of the new Act – and the newspapers for once have already done this very well – I prefer to discuss what grounds we might have for optimism. And there are grounds for optimism. If we look away from the raucous pantomime that is the House of Commons, and look instead to the more sedate proceedings of the civil courts, not all is yet lost. Undoubtedly, the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 is a constitutional disgrace. The legal historians, though, may one day agree that the most important constitutional change of this year was effected by the judgment given on the 16th February by the Court of Appeal in the case of R v Attorney General ex parte Jackson & Ors

The case was brought to test the validity of the Hunting Act 2004, which makes hunting with dogs a criminal offence. This Act had been passed, after much resistance in the Lords, by using the procedure of the Parliament Act 1911, as amended in 1949, which allows Bills rejected by the Lords in two consecutive sessions to pass straight from the House of Commons for the Royal Assent. The Appellants went into court to argue that the 1949 Act was an ultra uires use of the 1911 Act, and that all legislation passed using the 1949 Act was therefore void. If they were hoping that the Judges would strike down the ban as somehow unconstitutional, they must be disappointed. It was ruled good law, no matter what it might be in moral and political terms. The legal challenge being lost, the ban came into force on the 18th February.

But while the immediate cause of action was lost, this judgment, taken as a whole, was a victory for the forces of conservatism. It can be read in full on the Internet – available at: http://www.courtservice.gov.uk/judgmentsfiles/j3073/the_queen-v-hm_attorney_general.htm—and, though long, is both highly readable and highly unusual. It dispenses with the standard form, where each Judge in turn gives his opinion, agreeing with or dissenting from the others, and the majority opinion is taken as the main judgement. This judgment is one piece of extended prose, and gives the agreed opinion of the Lord Chief Justice, the Master of the Roles and Lord Justice May. If it often reads more like a manifesto than a judgment, that is because it is a manifesto. It is a further instalment of the legal counterrevolution that I described three years ago after having read the “Metric Martyrs” judgment. It is another of those rulings our Judges have begun to make, in which the Government is given victory in the immediate cause of action, while having the whole constitutional framework remodelled against it.

For those who cannot be bothered to read what I said three years ago on this revolution – the article can be found at: http://www.seangabb.co.uk/flcomm/flc063.htm—I will briefly repeat myself on the causes and progress of the counterrevolution.

According to the orthodox theory of the British Constitution, Parliament is sovereign – Parliament being defined as the combination of Crown, Lords and Commons. Whatever these three agree on enacting has the force of law. Parliament, if it pleases, can make gambling in Monte Carlo a criminal offence. It can repeal the Government of India Act and appoint a new Viceroy. It can order every left handed man in the country to have his head cut off. No matter how immoral or unwise or simply impossible they may be, whatever Acts are made in Parliament are to be regarded as the supreme, unquestionable law of this country. We have no written constitution, nor any formal division of powers, nor any supreme court charged with upholding some entrenched bill of rights. Instead, the latest expression of parliamentary will is law. If even accidentally, some section of a Road Traffic Amendment Act should abolish the Magna Carta, the courts will be obliged to enforce the later Act. Parliament is sovereign in a manner that no other legislature now existing approaches. It is perhaps the only body in the world to which the maxim of Ulpian can be applied: quod principi placuit legis uigorem habet.

During its first two centuries of orthodoxy, this theory of the Constitution was attended by none of the inconveniences that might in the abstract be imagined of it. During those centuries, indeed, England was the freest and wealthiest and most powerful country in the world. It was and its recalled example remains the inspiration for the constitutional arrangements of every other civilised country. Freedom and legislative despotism were reconciled by the fact that the rulers of this country did not try to insist in practice on the fullness of their power. They accepted the restraints of custom and of prudence, and the implications of their theoretical sovereignty were matters for the lawyers to reflect upon and the more intelligent conservatives to fear.

The problem is that, during the past hundred years, our rulers have increasingly insisted on their full powers. They have made so many laws that whole forests have been cut down to feed the government press. They have legislated in defiance of common sense and ancient right. They have taxed. They have regulated. They have centralised. In doing so, they have squeezed much of the life from what used to be our defining customs and institutions. They have placed us in various ways under the rule of foreigners. They have just largely abolished habeas corpus, and are taking the first unambiguous steps into a police state.

There was a time when the internal balance of Parliament might have served to check what can only be called a naked will to power. But, during the past hundred years, these balances have failed. Because of their understandable but unwise opposition to the programme of the Asquith Government, the Lords had their absolute veto removed by the Parliament Act 1911. They were left instead with a temporary veto during three consecutive sessions. The Parliament Act 1949 – passed using the procedure of the 1911 Act – reduced the delaying veto from three to two consecutive sessions. This was hardly a necessary amendment. Knowing their constitutional weakness, the Lords have tended since 1911 not to provoke the use of the Parliament Acts. They will amend and harry and protest, but will normally defer to whoever controls the lower house of Parliament.

The Commons will not resist. They did once, but this has not been their main function since the end of the 17th century. The main function since then of the House of Commons has been to form a caucus acceptable to the current public opinion, and from which a government has been drawn. It did much incidentally to hold our rulers to account, but was chiefly the place where the governing class competed for office. It now serves neither function. In its days of greatness, it was filled with conspicuous ability and integrity. It has now declined into a rubber stamp for bureaucratic despotism. Its less ambitious Members, by and large, are controlled by a combination of financial and sexual bribes combined with blackmail. With a few exceptions, they owe their seats to party machines that reward pliability. In one of the divisions the week before last on the Terrorism Bill, the Government majority was cut to 14. The Members may now congratulate each other, and the media give praise. But this division can hardly be taken as proof that parliamentary supervision is a living force. Bearing in mind the contents of that Bill, it is a scandal that the Prime Minister could count on that many votes, let alone that large a majority.

As for the parliamentary leaders, these emerge not through any display of abilities in Parliament, but because of connections possessed elsewhere and a fluency in modern public relations techniques to lie directly to the people. Though they stand in the chamber where Disraeli and Cobden and Churchill and F.E. Smith once stood, they possess all the spontaneity and persuasive force of a Kremlin teleprinter. Their speeches are written for them, their jokes rehearsed. In any real parliamentary body, they would sit silent and justly ashamed of their mediocrity.

For generations now, the more conservative lawyers have watched this decline of political quality with increasing distaste. At first, the Judges paid continued respect to the notion of legislative sovereignty. But while accepting every Act of Parliament as the highest law, they refined their modes of interpretation so that these Acts could often be given a meaning that they projectors had not intended; and they brought the increasing volume of secondary legislation within the scope of judicial review.

Then, in 2002, the Judges saw their chance. In 1995, the Government had made a law to criminalise the use of the English system of weights and measures and to impose the metric system in its place. This came into effect in January 2000, and a market trader in Sunderland was prosecuted for selling bananas by the pound. His case might otherwise have been an unreported act of oppression. Through some legislative oversight, however, the law by which he was punished had been made under the enabling clause of the European Communities Act 1972; and this, his lawyers went into court to argue, had been accidentally repealed at least in part by the Weights and Measures Act 1985.

According to what seemed the settled doctrine of our constitution, in which any conflict between Acts is resolved by giving precedence to the most recent, the metrication law would be struck down as ultra uires. Since the 1985 Act allowed the use of English measures, no power to abolish their use could be admitted from the 1972 Act. But this otherwise obvious conclusion could not reached. That would have entailed the political and diplomatic necessity of admitting that the country was in fundamental breach of the Treaty of Rome and might therefore have been withdrawn from the European Union since the passage of the 1985 Act. The only other alternative seemed to be for the judges to claim that the European Communities Act was uniquely exempt from repeal, and that formal sovereignty had passed out of the country.

What the Judges did, however, and to general astonishment, was to decide the case on their own motion. Without having heard any submissions on the point, they revived the apparently obsolete doctrine of fundamental law. There were certain laws, they said, so important – either to the structure of the Constitution or to the protection of liberty – that they occupied a special place. They could be amended or even repealed by Parliament, but only if Parliament should first make this explicit. No implied amendment or repeal would be recognised. The European Communities Act was placed among these fundamental laws – together with all the great constitutional statutes of our history. The implied repeal in the 1985 Act was ignored, not because the European Communities Act had passed sovereignty to Brussels, but because that Act was, by the rules of our own Constitution, given a special but not supreme status.

While the metrication law was upheld, this judgment was the first legal victory for the forces of conservatism. The protection of the European Communities Act was of no consequence, since the first euro-sceptic government we have in this country will leave the European Union by explicit repeal. The significance of the judgment is that it prevents the politicians from shredding the Constitution by stealth. Under this judgment, they can still shred it, but only by openly acknowledging what they are about.

The hunting judgment of last month must be seen as a continuation of this legal revolution. The use of the Parliament Act 1911 to force through the Parliament Act 1949 was ruled a proper use of the 1911 Act – it had been argued for the Appellants that an enabling statute should not be used for its own amendment—but only because the shortening of the veto from three sessions to two was neither a disproportionate nor, considering the parliamentary debates of 1911, an unexpected use of the Act. The main point in the litigation settled, the Judges then went on to announce two new and surprising constitutional doctrines.

First, they ruled that any Act passed using the procedure of the 1911 Act, as amended in 1949, is not primary but merely delegated legislation. The consensus of legal opinion in the 20th century was that such Acts were identical in status to Acts passed in the traditional way. Now, we have been told, they are not. Acts passed in the traditional way, of acceptance by Commons and Lords and then of Royal Assent, are valid in themselves. Acts passed using the procedure of the Parliament Acts draw validity from their having complied with the procedural requirements of those Acts. This being so, such Acts may be challenged in the courts on the grounds that they do not comply. They are as open to judicial review as any Statutory Instrument or local authority byelaw, and can be set aside if ruled a defective use of the legislation that enabled them.

Let me clarify what has been done. Under the old doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty, all Acts of Parliament were absolutely binding on the courts. Any conflict was resolved by taking the more recent Act as an amendment to or repeal of the earlier. Since 2002, we have three classes of Act. There are constitutional Acts, which can be amended or repealed only by the explicit wording of a later Act.. We have ordinary Acts, which can be impliedly amended or repealed, but until then are absolutely binding, unless they touch a constitutional Act. And we have Acts made under the Parliament Acts, which are not absolutely binding, but may be reviewed by the courts, and even set aside if they do not comply with the procedure laid down by the Parliament Acts.

Turning to the procedure, we come to the second new doctrine. The 20th century consensus set aside, the Parliament Acts cannot be used to force through any law whatever against the wishes of the Lords. The Judges explain:

The purpose of the 1911 Act was to establish a new constitutional settlement that limited the period during which the Lords could delay the enactment of legislation first introduced to the Commons but which preserved the role of the Lords in the legislative processes. In our view it would be in conflict with the 1911 Act for it to be used as an instrument for abolishing the House of Lords. This would be so whether or not there was initially an attempt to use the 1911 Act process to amend the 1911 Act to provide an express power to abolish the Lords. We would view such an endeavour in the same way as an attempt to delete the prohibition on extending the life of Parliament. The preamble of the 1911 Act … indicates that the 1911 Act was to be a transitional provision pending further reform. It provides no support for an intention that the 1911 Act should be used, directly or indirectly, to enable more fundamental constitutional changes to be achieved than had been achieved already.

Thus, it does not necessarily follow that because there is compliance with the requirements in the 1911 Act, the result is a valid Act of Parliament. Following the reasoning in the previous paragraph, if, without amending the 1911 Act further, the Commons attempted to extend the life of Parliament in excess of five years without the consent of the Lords the attempt would be ineffective and, if necessary, the Court’s jurisdiction that we are now exercising could be invoked.  (para. 42-43)

The politicians cannot use their majority in the House of Commons to force through amendments to the Parliament Acts allowing elections to be delayed. Nor can they use the Acts as they stand to force through an abolition of the Lords. Nor can they use the Acts to make fundamental changes to the Constitution. What is the nature of these changes the politicians cannot make? In their final paragraph, the Judges observe:

What, if any, further power of amending the 1911 Act that Act authorises should not be determined in advance of an attempt to make a more significant amendment than that contained in the 1949 Act. It is, however, obvious that on our approach, the greater the scale of the constitutional change proposed by any amendment, the more likely it is that it will fall outside the powers contained in the 1911 Act.” (para. 100)

We need just one more judgment like this to be told that the constitutional Acts named in the 2002 judgment are in fact beyond amendment or repeal using the machinery of the Parliament Acts, and that the Lords have their absolute legislative veto, apparently taken away in 1911, restored where such Acts are concerned.

Either we have, or we are acquiring, a new constitutional settlement. Formal sovereignty remains in Parliament as a whole, but the House of Commons has been deprived of its supreme legislative competence. It must share power to some degree again with the Lords – but much more with the Judges. This is, I strongly believe, a welcome development. Look at the evil or simply absurd Acts of Parliament made over the past generation. Look only at the Bills now being hurried through the formality of their readings. Unless it is to be destroyed in whole, some remodelling of the Constitution is inevitable. Since there is neither will nor ability to make some internal correction to the abuses of Parliament, we must be grateful that the Judges have begun their own remodelling.

But though to be welcomed, this judicial remodelling may not be wholly the saving of the Constitution. The Judges have provided us with a new set of mechanisms to challenge the secretive despotic state that masquerades as the ancient Crown in Parliament. But such mechanisms can only be effective if there is some feeling that public opinion is on the side of the challengers. This does not require mass demonstrations. It does not mean that the overwhelming majority of people need to be against the Government. I doubt if politics in any time or place have worked in that way. Unless it is in matters that affect them directly and unambiguously – and perhaps not even then - most people are either ignorant of, or simply indifferent to, what their rulers have in mind for them. What I mean by public support is that the majority of those connected with or interested in the process of government should have at least a vague preference for the challengers. There must be some feeling on the part of our rulers that their actions are not popular. Let that not be present, and no constitutional balances, however ingenious, can be effective.

Now, it seems to be that public opinion wants the Government to provide services on a scale that requires an enlarged and broadly absolute state. Where the removal of our historic rights and national identity are concerned, the habits of thought and language of challenge seem to have been forgotten among all but an educated minority. Or it could be that the public at large is so intimidated by political correctness, or so deceived by lies about the dangers to be avoided, that the anger that I find in just about everyone I meet – an I meet several hundred people a week—cannot find its usual expression. Whatever the case, the Judges will not resist if they think they are acting alone.

A further difficulty is that while the Judges, and the House of Lords as revived by the Judges, have the right now to challenge the Government, they are both subject to packing by the Government. During the past eight years, Mr Blair has removed most of the hereditary Peers from the House of Lords, and in their place has appointed more life Peers than any other Prime Minister before him. The Government is also talking about making judicial selection more “inclusive” – which plainly means that it wants to appoint Judges from groups that are favourable to its project of cultural and political transformation. This is a dangerous weakness to our remodelled Constitution. But I am not sure if it is in the short term a very dangerous weakness.

When the hereditary peers were replaced after 1998 by hundreds of new life Peers, I assumed that the House of Lords would cease to be a problem for the Government. I was wrong. The traditions of the House remained strong enough for the newcomers to be largely assimilated Mr Blair has found to his cost that patents of nobility and ermine robes have mostly turned friends and clients into political opponents. There is the possibility that the Government will turn from packing to flooding the Lords with new Peers, and then legislating without further need of the Parliament Acts. But this would bring the Crown into politics. Though on the advice of the Prime Minister, every peerage is created by the Crown. If the power of creation were plainly being used to subvert the Constitution, it would be the sworn duty of Her Majesty or of her successor not to create the requested peerages. It may be Her customary duty to act only on advice. But it is Her legal duty, as set forth in the Coronation Oath, to respect our constitutional liberties. If that oath were to be so openly broken, it would be arguable that the Constitution as a whole had been dissolved, and that any citizen or group of citizens was at liberty to throw off such despotism, and to provide new guards for their future security.

Where the Judges are concerned, the weakness may also be more theoretical than real. Without any disturbance to the process of modern government, the House of Commons could easily be filled with people resembling the extras in one of Mr Romero’s zombie films. The Judges are a different matter. They are needed most of the time to adjudicate efficiently on what are often complex issues of law. No matter how wide the net is cast, there are only so many people at any one time qualified by education and ability to do this; and these are the people who already tend to become Judges. Our last ruler who resolutely tried to pack the Bench was James II. He found himself with a few able villains like Jeffreys, but otherwise with non-entities who failed their first real test, when they let themselves be overawed by the barristers.

A more likely weakness to the new scheme of things is that the Judges will not use the new powers they have given themselves to preserve the Constitution, but will attempt subversions of their own. They might follow the lead of their American counterparts, and begin finding “emanations” in our constitutional documents, so that Magna Carta might one day be found to give lesbian asylum seekers the right to abortions on demand paid for by the National Health Service. Already, some of their judgments have been of this nature. If in lesser degree than the politicians, the Judges have their own taint of political correctness. Democracy has been made a rubber stamp for despotism by absolute whim. There is no reason why judicial review should not similarly be corrupted.

But while this is possible, the real threat now to life, liberty and property comes from whoever controls the House of Commons. When the problem faced now is so great, future problems arising from its solution must be left to the future. For the moment, the Judges are creating a set of checks and balances against a system of legislative sovereignty that has been an occasional danger for over a century, and that, with this government of former student radicals, has become a daily nuisance.

The headline news is grim. We have just had imposed on us a Prevention of Terrorism Act more subversive of due process than any law made in peacetime since the 1650s. Add to this the Civil Contingency Act, the abolition of the double jeopardy rule and the allowance of similar fact evidence made by the Criminal Justice Act 2003, the Proceeds of Crime Act, and all the lesser invasions that have come and are yet to come from this current Parliament, and we might suppose all was already lost. And look before this Government, to the Thatcher and Major Governments – those, to be fair, laid the foundations on which the present structure of despotism is now being raised. But look beyond Parliament, to those quiet places where the lawyers gather and discuss what the politicians have in mind for us, and there is a counter revolution under way.

It may be worth giving our support and best wishes to those charismatic outsiders who are now beating on the doors of Parliament. It is still more worth while, though, to thank and support those old men in wigs, whose often pedantic and always long decisions about pounds of bananas and hunting bans are restoring to fact what once seemed the theory of a limited constitutional order.


Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet

Issue Number 132
25th March 2005

Tax, Public Spending and Everything Else:
The Sorry Truth about The Conservative Hidden Agenda
by Sean Gabb

After several weeks of appearing to do well, the Conservatives have, by general agreement, just wrecked their pre-election campaign. Apparently, the Deputy Party Chairman – a man called Howard Flight, of whom I had previously never heard – gave a speech last Wednesday evening to a closed meeting. During this, he promised his audience that the true scale of spending cuts intended by a Conservative Government would only become clear after winning the general election. This promise was somehow reported to the media – first rule of speaking to a closed meeting: there is no such thing as a closed meeting: every statement is as much on the record as if made in a television studio – and the man has had his political career ended as a punishment. He has been sacked from his job and deselected from his seat in Parliament. His colleagues are now running desperately from studio to studio, putting on their usual headless chicken performance.

If I still had any intention of voting for these people at the election, or any hope that they would win, or that they would do anything worth calling conservative if they managed to win, I might share the dejection of my Conservative friends. But I long ago gave up all hope in the Conservative Party, and I am instead in my rather gloomy way amused. The Government and its Enemy Class allies in the media are glorying in the revelation and are speaking solemnly about the Conservative “hidden agenda” of real spending cuts. The evident truth, however, is that so far as the Conservatives have any hidden agenda, it is not to have an agenda.

The Conservative strategy for winning the next general election has two elements. The first is to hope for the Labour vote to collapse. There is some reason to hope for this. The white working classes are beginning to realise that Labour is not their party. Its economic interventions are determined far more by the desire of big business for cartelised markets than by the stated wishes of ordinary people for security. The rest of its domestic policy is dictated in part from Brussels, and for the rest by the needs of a politically correct cultural revolution that is stripping us all of our ancient liberties and our national identity. As for its foreign policy, this is run wholly from Washington, and the most energetic and patriotic young working men are regarded simply as potential cannon fodder. At the same time, the Moslems, who are most cohesive and electorally important group among the ethnic minorities, have been alienated by a war of military aggression against Iraq. Why this war was launched my Moslem friends cannot agree. Was it the security needs of Israel? Or was it the greed of the big oil companies? Or was it some hubristic stab at empire by the American ruling class? There is no agreement on reasons. But one consequence of the war has been a disengagement of the Islamic interest from Labour. The more politically active of these two vital members of the Labour electoral coalition are looking round for other parties to support. Many of the rest will not vote at all. Labour may therefore go into the next election sure only of firm support from within the public sector; and while this has been greatly expanded since 1997, it is still not a decisive electoral force.

This element in the strategy, however, is one over which the Conservatives have no control. The second element is within their control. This is the traditional “Quisling Right” approach. The Conservatives are hoping to mobilise their own core voters to turn out by implying promises without making them and by making promises that they have no intention of keeping. The two key issues among core Conservative voters are immigration and Europe – and when these people complain about the former, let us be honest, they are not thinking about Poles getting off a coach to find work as builders or waitresses, but about dark faces in the street, regardless of how they got here. This may be an uncharitable prejudice: it is, even so, a burning issue among increasing numbers of people, and there are votes to be had in promising to do something. Nevertheless, it is perfectly clear that, behind their tough rhetoric, the Conservatives intend nothing of substance on either issue. 

The promise to renegotiate some of the European treaties is backed by no commitment to withdraw from the European Union if the stated demands are not met. It amounts therefore to an undertaking to behave like an aggressive and foul-mouthed but paraplegic beggar – all demands for performance, without the means to compel it. How anyone was able to take the Conservatives seriously on Europe would defeat my understanding, if large numbers did. Fortunately, large numbers do not take them seriously, and my understanding remains undefeated.

As for immigration, even if seriously intended, the quota system would be unworkable. There would be institutional pressures for the limit to be exceeded every year: there would always be “exceptional” circumstances. The proposed points system, whereby better educated immigrants would be substituted for the mass of welfare claimants who presently are coming in, would be corrupted in no time. If a genuine British passport can be bought for £2,000, how much for an Indian MBA? Or for a Chinese degree in computer science? And there are no significant proposals to deal with secondary immigration by dependants. And the Conservatives are barely talking about what for many is the far greater problem of tertiary immigration via the higher birth rates of the immigrants already here.

Labour may play along with these Quisling Right initiatives, by warning of the costs of leaving Europe, or denouncing the Conservatives for “playing the race card”. But we can be assured that no changes are proposed in either issue to the established trends – or in any other issue of importance. For the Conservatives, political success means no more than that they sit in the official cars, and they preside over the next round of national destruction. That a Conservative Government should be a government of conservatives is no part of their strategy.

I tested this hypothesis, by the way, when I had dinner last month with a senior Conservative politician. I asked him if his people had any plan to abolish bodies like the Commission for Racial Equality and the Health and Safety Executive. Would they shut down large parts of the ideological and repressive state apparatus, thereby making our lives better and even paying for a few extra tax cuts? He pulled a sad face and said that nothing like this had even been discussed, and that, bearing in mind the sort of people who run his Party, he personally saw no point in trying to trying to get it discussed.

And so we are able to explain the otherwise inexplicable digression the Conservatives made earlier this month into abortion law reform. Why did they do this? Why, in a country where hardly anyone seems to care either way, were they talking about limiting the time for legal abortions? Were they copying the tactics of the American Republicans without considering the very different state of public opinion in England? The answer is no. This was a Quisling Right approach to groups previously overlooked. Though most people in this country would rather not think about it, there may be several hundred thousand Christians, Moslems and Jews who do care about the number of viable pregnancies terminated because they are inconvenient. Were they to win the next election, the Conservatives would, of course, leave the law unchanged. But the issue was raised and discussed; and while most electors have probably forgotten it was ever raised at all, many within the targeted groups now think the Conservatives have promised to change the law.

This was a smooth and probably successful raid on an electoral interest. What happened this week was of the same nature, but failed. It was another Quisling Right approach, this time to a group that was thought to favour cuts in government spending. The assumption is that most ordinary people like to see about half their income taken and spent on their individual and collective ruin. This being so, cuts must never be promised in public. The most that can be discussed is how to trim the rate of increase in spending to below the rant of general economic growth. But some groups are known even by Conservative politicians to want lower taxes, and these must be kept on side. Hitler used to specialise before 1933 in making different promises to different groups in closed meetings. Either he was brighter than our Conservatives – and this would not be hard – or closed meetings were more closed in his day. Whatever the case, the Conservatives have had their Easter break ruined.

And they richly deserve their present embarrassment. They are political frauds. By continuing to exist and to show some prospect of being able to win an election, they attract funding and votes from genuinely conservative parties. Yes, this Labour Government is dreadful. Yes, Tony Blair is personally and politically the vilest wretch who ever lied his way into the House of Commons, and his colleagues are a gang of traitors who deserve hanging from the nearest lamp post. But this is not good enough reason for thinking that another Conservative Government would be in our long term national interest. We need to destroy New Labour. Before then, though, we need to destroy the Conservative Party. The Enemy Class media has its own reasons for kicking the Conservatives down. But this media should be regarded in this respect as objectively allied to the forces of conservatism. 

I know some of my readers will think my closing sally disrespectful. But I really cannot help myself. The Conservatives have been crucified today. Is it too much to hope they will not be resurrected on the third day?

Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet
Issue Number 143
22nd January 2006

Mark Oaten, Rent Boys and the Secret Police:
A View of How England is Governed at the End of its History
by Sean Gabb

At a dinner party last Wednesday, I fell into conversation with a friend who is also a friend of Mark Oaten. He—for those of my readers who do not live in England or in the present—was at the time the home affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrat Party, and was standing for the leadership of his party. I heard from my friend that Mr Oaten's office had just been burgled. We passed an interesting ten minutes speculating on which of his rivals had commissioned the burglary, and what might have been found. We agreed on looking forward to Thursday morning for the newspaper reports.

Except for a paragraph in The Guardian, there were no newspaper reports of the burglary. The big news instead was that Mr Oaten had withdrawn from the leadership contest. The lack of coverage of the burglary, together with concentration on its probable effect, suggested some involvement by the secret police. But why should it matter to them, I asked, who led the Liberal Democrat Party? And what was the nature of the dirt they had found in his office and used against him?

The second question was answered this morning by The News of the World. This revealed how Mr Oaten had been consorting for some time with male prostitutes, and that these had on at least one occasion been paid to humiliate him with what the reporter described as "a bizarre sex act too revolting to describe". Bearing in mind what sexual acts do get routinely described, and even shown, in the British media nowadays, the mind reels at what Mr Oaten must have been doing. Not surprisingly, he had already resigned from the Liberal Democrat front bench, and his political career is probably over.

I turn now to the first question. Why should the secret police take any interest in fixing the election to lead the Liberal Democrat Party? Why destroy Mr Oaten? His views, after all, were about the closest of any of the candidates to those of the other party leaders. He would in no sense have promised any radical departure from the consensus. Yet he has been destroyed, and with a memorable brutality. Why?

My answer is that Mr Oaten was destroyed because he was foolish enough to stand in the way of the latest stage in the reshaping of our politics. He fell victim to a conspiracy.

I grant—I have no factual evidence for what I am about to say. No one has taken me aside and whispered into my ear, or given me classified documents. Aside from having heard about the burglary last week, I have no more information than anyone else. This being said, the facts as we have them do suggest a hidden cause. I could state the facts and reason back to this cause. However, I am not writing for some learned journal, and I find it more entertaining to assume the cause, and then show how it provides a scheme of explanation for the facts.

I assume that the ruling class of this country—or a significant group within it—has lost confidence in Tony Blair as Prime Minister, and in the Labour Party as a governing force. This, if true, is the main fact in our politics. Indeed, it has become the connecting thread for the whole present narrative of politics in this country.

Now, some of my friends—and one was with me at that dinner party of last Wednesday—believe that there is something called "The Blair Project", and that the content of this is determined by and connected with nothing more than the momentary electoral convenience of Mr Blair. They laugh at me if I insist that there is any more significant connecting thread for events.

For all they laugh, they are wrong. It is possible to see, during the past 25 years in at least this country, a movement towards a new settlement in politics. This movement has continued regardless of who has occupied which office, and regardless of what party has won which election. It is clear that the ruling class—or that loose coalition of politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, educators, and media and business people who derive wealth and power and status from an enlarged and active state—wants an end of liberal democracy. The desired new settlement is one in which those at the top or with the right connections can enjoy the most fabulous wealth and status, and in which their enjoyment of these can never again be challenged from below. We, the ordinary people, are to be stripped of our constitutional rights—no freedom of speech, no personal or financial privacy, no procedural safeguards in the criminal law. We are to be taxed and regulated to what counts in our own culture as the edge of the breadline. This is on the one hand to provide incomes for clients of the ruling class, and on the other to deprive us of the leisure that might allow us to understand our situation, and of the confidence that might allow us to challenge it. In any event, every organ of the ruling class is at work on promoting ideologies of boundless submission to the new settlement.

At the same time, structures of accountability that emerged in the 17th and 18th centuries are to be deactivated. Their forms will continue. There will be assemblies at Westminster. But these will not be sovereign assemblies with the formal authority of life and death over us all. That authority will have been passed to various unelected and transnational agencies. And so far as the Westminster assemblies will remain important, our votes will have little effect on what they enact.

We are passing into the sort of world that existed in much of Europe before the French Revolution—a world of diverse and conflicting sources of authority, all equally unaccountable. The great simplification of authority that happened in Europe after 1789, and that had happened over two centuries earlier in England, was a product of nationalism; and simplification was followed by accountability and then by liberalism. This sort of reaction is in future to be made impossible by promoting movements of people so that nations in the old sense disappear, and are replaced by patchworks of nationalities more suspicious of each other than of any ruling class.

The progress of this counter-Enlightenment can be seen in the statute book— from the removal of the unanimity rule in jury trials in the Criminal Justice Act 1967, to the European Communities Act 1972, to the subsequent Criminal Justice Acts, to the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002, to the Civil Contingencies Act and the Terrorism Act 2005. In these, we have a clear movement towards despotism. This movement did not begin in 1997. The Election of the Blair Government marked no change of direction—but only of pace. The policies of state we have at present have not been set because they suit the electoral convenience of Tony Blair. Mr Blair became Prime Minister because he seemed at the time best suited to carry forward policies of state set by others.

But his usefulness is at an end. He is no longer wanted by those who matter, and his party is no longer wanted.

Therefore, the Conservative Party has been brought back from the dead. It has been given a leader who has accepted almost everything done by Labour since 1997, and whose objections are confined to those areas within which the ruling class is itself divided. Because of what he is—or of what he says and does— Mr Cameron has been cried up by our controlled media as a man of outstanding charm and vision. In contrast, the Government is every day reviled in the media for some new dereliction—alleged "paedophiles" allowed to teach in schools, or complicity in the use of torture by the Americans, for example—that would once have been discussed in terms too restrained to cause instability.

My advice to anyone who likes to gamble is to bet on a Conservative victory at the next election. Do not suppose that this will be a government of conservatives. Just as the Labour victory in 1997 caused no break in continuity, so the replacement of Labour will in turn change nothing fundamental. But there is to be a change of faces at the top.

All that stands in the way of a Conservative revival is the effect on our electoral system of the Liberal Democrat Party. This has benefited since 1997 from the oblivion to which the ruling class and its media condemned the Conservatives. It holds several score seats taken from the Conservatives, and splits the anti-Labour vote in scores of other seats.

Therefore, Charles Kennedy was forced earlier this month to resign as Liberal Democrat leader. The cover story was that he was a drunkard and had been useless in his position, and that the challenge came from Menzies Campbell. So far as I can tell, he had been pretty effective—more so than most party leaders. As for Mr Campbell—let us, by the way, stop recognising the titles handed round within the ruling class: now that our Constitution is no longer liberal or democratic, its honours are to be regarded again as mere feudalistic baubles—I doubt he is bright enough to tie his own shoe laces. Mr Kennedy was forced out because he was too effective as party leader for the Conservatives to recover. He was threatened with a personal destruction so horrible that he resigned on the spot and was glad to call himself a drunk in public. Mr Campbell was then told to get ready to preside over the electoral collapse of his party.

Then Mark Oaten announced he would run for the leadership. Given his public views, he might have thought himself the preferred candidate of the ruling class. He misread the situation. He was probably warned, in the usual elliptical way, that he should withdraw from the contest. He did so too late. The reporters had already been briefed, and the front pages cleared. By then, he had been too much of an irritant, or was too unimportant, to save.

The nature of his sexual tastes had no bearing on the decision to break him. I have never met a Member of Parliament who was not obviously into drink or bribes or unconventional sex. The secret police make sure that no one who cannot at the right moment be pressured into conformity will come close to being elected to Parliament.

Nor have the Liberal Democrats been the only minor party targetted for destruction. The UK Independence Party is dead as an electoral force. There is a limit to how much infighting a political party can survive. UKIP has been torn apart by agents of entry and of provocation, and is headed for collapse. Because of its authoritarian structure, the British National Party is less open to such attacks. Therefore, its leader has been put on trial for political offences that carry a maximum sentence of seven years. Since I believe Mr Griffin is himself an agent of the secret police who has gone beyond his brief, I suspect the present trial in Leeds will end in a compromise. Do not expect the BNP to continue offering in future the sort of challenge to the new settlement in our politics it seemed until recently on the verge of offering.

So, lucky Mr Cameron. All he has to do now is ensure the ruling class remains disenchanted with the present Government, and hope that enough of the electorate fails to see what is being done to the country and will continue to legitimise a settlement that in its sordid authoritarianism taints the preceding thousand years of English history.

But if what is happening in England now is distressing and even shameful, it is also compulsively interesting.

Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment
published on the Internet
Issue Number 148
14th June 2006

The Inaugural Meeting of the Property and Freedom Society:
An Incidental Record
by Sean Gabb

The Property and Freedom Society was set up in August 2005 by Hans-Hermann Hoppe. Its Opening Declaration reads as follows:

The Property and Freedom Society stands for an uncompromising intellectual radicalism: for justly acquired private property, freedom of contract, freedom of association—which logically implies the right to not associate with, or to "discriminate against," anyone in one's personal and business relations—and unconditional free trade. It condemns imperialism and militarism and their fomenters, and champions peace. It rejects positivism, relativism, and egalitarianism in any form, whether of "outcome" or "opportunity," and it has an outspoken distaste for politics and politicians. As such it seeks to avoid any association with the policies and proponents of interventionism, which Ludwig von Mises had identified in 1946 as the fatal flaw in the plan of the many earlier and contemporary attempts by intellectuals alarmed by the rising tide of socialism and totalitarianism to found an anti-socialist ideological movement. Mises wrote: "What these frightened intellectuals did not comprehend was that all those measures of government interference with business which they advocated are abortive...There is no middle way. Either the consumers are supreme or the government."

As culturally conservative libertarians, we are convinced that the process of de-civilization has again reached a crisis point and that it is our moral and intellectual duty to once again undertake a serious effort to rebuild a free, prosperous, and moral society. It is our emphatic belief that an approach embracing intransigent political radicalism is, in the long run, the surest path to our cherished goal of a regime of totally unfettered individual liberty and private property. In thus seeking a fresh and radical new beginning, we are heeding the old but frequently forgotten advice of Friedrich Hayek's: "We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. What we lack is a liberal Utopia, a programme which seems neither a mere defence of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty..., which is not too severely practical and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible. We need intellectual leaders who are prepared to resist the blandishments of power and influence and who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote�..Unless we can make the philosophical foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue, and its implementation a task which challenges the ingenuity and imagination of our liveliest minds, the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost."

When I read it, this struck me as a fine declaration of intent. Here was a new international libertarian movement that promised not to descend into a clique of efficiency experts for the State, and not to accept the narrowing of the boundaries of debate that is the deal many libertarians strike with our politically correct masters. Even finer perhaps was that I was invited to attend and speak at the May 2006 inaugural meeting in Halicarnassus, otherwise known as Bodrum.

Except I once spent an hour on a runway in Constantinople, I had never visited Turkey, and I was interested to see the country. I was interested because, together with Athens, the Ionian coast was the cradle of our civilisation, and its ruins, I have always read, are a wonderful sight. In particular, Halicarnassus must always be of interest to the historian, as it is where Herodotus was born.

I was also interested because I grew up with a strong prejudice against the Turks. They were the leading representatives of The Other. They had nothing to do with the first explosion of Islam that took Syria, Egypt and North Africa from our civilisation. But they did, from the eleventh century, swallow up all that remained of the East Roman Empire. They took Constantinople. They took Greece. They got twice to the gates of Vienna. They were, until they declined and we progressed beyond all hope of competition, a continual standing threat to Christian Europe. Mention the Turks to me, and I tended to think of the Crusades and the siege of Constantinople, and the Battle of Lepanto, and John Sobieski. I thought of oriental despotism, and bottomless decadence, and Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail. As a European, I thought, and I shuddered.

And I shuddered because the Turks were a threat not in the sense that the Mongol Hordes or the Soviet Empire were threats. They were so threatening because what they had to offer was often so very attractive. They were relaxed in matters of nationality, and they were tolerant in religion. So long as the appropriate taxes were paid and respect given, they allowed each ethnic and religious group to govern itself. That last, heroic defence of Constantinople was undercut by the unwillingness of many Orthodox Christians to pay the cost of remaining in Christendom. I am not sure if the Western powers were able in the fifteenth century to give the effectual help the Byzantine Government was so desperate to obtain. What I do know is that the price of any support was too great for the Orthodox—involving as it did submission to Rome in all matters of doctrine. It was Lucas Notaras, the last Byzantine Grand Admiral, who said "Better the Sultan's turban than the Cardinal's hat".

Under the Turks, the Greek Church remained free to continue its own doctrinal evolution. The modern Greeks tend to emphasise how they suffered under the Turks. They say nothing of how they collaborated with the Turkish invaders against the Venetian rule of Crete. Even the fairly neutered Inquisition allowed by Venice was worse than some Pacha who cared nothing either way about the Filioque. Indeed, one reason why Hungary is the only country in Central Europe that has a large number of Protestants is that it was only recovered by the Hapsburgs from Turkish rule after religious persecution had begun to go out of fashion.

What ruined Turkey was partly the Scientific Revolution and the general miracle of Western Europe, and partly the defects of oriental despotism. Given a bright, energetic Sultan in Constantinople, the wealth and power of Turkey were at once a marvel and a terror to European travellers. But there was none of the constitutional order that sustained Byzantium until the end. Let a fool or a weakling rule in Constantinople, and all security for life and property was at an end.

I knew that the Turks had made an admirable recovery after losing the Great War. They had reformed their laws to imitate the West, and had made a determined—if neither right nor wise—attempt to impose an imitation of Western manners on the people. The Turks I had known in England were generally fine people. And for all my impassioned Hellenism, I had come to despise the modern Greeks—a shifty, disreputable people, like a beggar in the street holding up their often self-inflicted sores for pity. Their constant whining about the Elgin Marbles, and more recently about the Turkish revenge for what they did to the minority in Cyprus, disgusted me. They have turned Athens into a sewer, and seem to derive much of their national income from frauds on the European Union. In London, even the kebab shops are better when run by Turks. One day, I shall consider giving up what is now the affectation of using the Greek names for Turkish places.

But Turkey was The Other. I set out on my journey there with mixed feelings that I have only partly described above.

My first impression of the Turks was decidedly good. In Heathrow, as I was disrobing and feeding my hand luggage through the scanners that are supposed to protect us from terrorism, someone stole my wallet. Since this contained £300 in cash and all my credit cards, I was more than usually agitated. The security staff muttered into their radios and looked panicky, but showed no inclination to do anything for me. It was the Turks also queuing for the flight who jumped into action. Within a minute, they had caught the thief and recovered my wallet. Left to their own justice, they might have kept the lower class Englishman who had "mistakenly" acquired my property and beaten him to jelly. Instead, they handed him to the security people, who promptly let him continue his own journey.

However, for all their supposed thoroughness, the security checks in Heathrow overlooked a certain item I had forgotten was in my camera bag. This should have been apparent to the most casual glance at the scanners. But I managed to travel with it unchallenged all the way to Constantinople. There it was discovered. As the official there pulled it from my bag with a flourish and a twirl of his moustache that reminded me of Hercule Poirot, I nearly fainted with horror. I wondered how many years I might spend in a Turkish prison. Instead, the official took the item, filled out a form, got me to sign it, and sent me on my journey to Halicarnassus with detailed instructions on how to recover my property at the airport there.

As I came through security, I was met by a young lady who had my property for me in a paper bag. She got me to sign another form, then handed it over with a reminder that I should consider packing the item in my main luggage for the journey home.

So much for all that intrusive and expensive security. The only reason, it is clear, why no one hijacks aeroplanes out of Heathrow is that no one particularly wants to.

I could mention that the Turks mislaid my main luggage in Constantinople, and I had to wait for it to come down on the next flight. But these things happen everywhere, and I was filled during my fairly short wait with about a gallon of Turkish coffee while an old man in the airport security told me stories about his grandfather, who was a private soldier on the Ottoman side in the Gallipoli disaster. The only point of difference between us there was that he thought better of Winston Churchill than I did.

The drive down to Halicarnassus took about an hour and was of great interest. Looking out of the window of the special car sent to collect me, I could see the coastal terrain of Asia Minor. I had never realised how mountainous it was, and how relatively easy it must have been for the coastal cities to defend themselves against the larger continental powers inland. Otherwise, there was Don W. Printz, a retired dermatologist and longstanding friend of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. We spent much of the next week together, and our conversations on history, economics, syphilis—he used to be an expert on sexually transmitted diseases, in which I have some academic interest—and related matters, all began on that drive through the dramatic landscape.

Except it is prettier and more relaxed, Halicarnassus looks like any other resort on the Mediterranean coast. Whatever may be their race or religion or general manners, the various nations looking out from the shores of that remarkable sea all seem to possess a similar culture. And it is a most attractive culture—or so it is to an outsider—with its wine and salads and tobacco and relaxed view of life. In this, the coastal Turks are the same as the Spaniards, the Italians and the Greeks. I am told that travelling inland, past those mountain ranges, you will find a progressively alien world. But Halicarnassus might pass for a gentler, more tasteful Hagios Nikolaos. My only reminder of being outside Europe was that I was, for the first time since 1991, in a country where I could not understand the local language.

The conference was to be held in the Hotel Karia Princess. This is owned and run by Gulcin Imre, whose doctoral thesis was on the economics of Ludwig von Mises. The hotel is a splendid place—luxurious yet welcoming. Mrs Imre is fluent in both English and German, and has a good line in intellectual conversation. And I would say this even if she had not been kind enough to buy one of my books and praise it. Her Head of Public Relations, by the way, is a Slovak. A shame Mrs Gabb was unable to attend. She would have loved every minute.

What can I say of Professor Hoppe? Some call him the greatest libertarian philosopher of our age. Others shudder at the mention of his name. Many, I have no doubt, manage both. I had read and admired his book, Democracy: The God that Failed, and many of his articles. I like his general vision of a libertarianism made compatible with the conservatism of the English world— after all, what is libertarianism but a systematisation of the English Way? I am less convinced by the philosophical rationalism he shares with von Mises and others of the Austrian tradition in social thought. I am too immersed in—or perhaps was too early corrupted by—the thought of David Hume. But I found him a charming and tolerant leader of the Property and Freedom Society. And he is, like most foreigners who learn our language, one of the few people who can speak fluent, grammatical English. With a cigarette between his fingers—and they are dirt cheap over there—he is a first class raconteur.

I am aware that I ought now to move to a detailed account of the conference. It was a good one, and I particularly enjoyed the speeches of Paul Belien and Paul Gottfried. Even the short contributions of the panellists told me much of interest about property rights in other parts of the world and about the contributions, actual and potential, of religion to the institutions of civil society. I learnt that, in spite of all I read in the newspapers, Turkey can be expected to become a more truly liberal place for the return of Islam to its politics. But the surroundings were so overpowering, and the conversations over dinner and on the various trips were so interesting, that my enduring memories of the conference have been overlaid by these other things.

I have already mentioned Dr Printz, whom I look forward to seeing again. Then there was Paul Belien, there with his wife Alexandra Colen and two of their children. Dr Belien founded the Centre for the New Europe, which was until recently run by my friend and partner in the Libertarian Alliance Tim Evans. Dr Belien is a Flemish nationalist and his wife sits in the Belgian Parliament. Just before leaving Belgium, Dr Belien was hit with a major smear by the Establishment of the country. he had written the sort of article about the right to keep and bear arms for defence that I write every year or so. Where my articles in England simply get me on the wireless and into the newspapers, this got Dr Belien into potentially serious trouble. Some youth had got a gun and gone on a killing spree, and everyone in politics and the media had decided that Dr Belien was somehow to blame. He had been forced to take the article down from his website, and was now facing the threat of criminal proceedings. I listened to the story with incredulity. I thought England had gone rotten. I was not aware that Belgium was more rotten still. With its laws against free expression, and its systematic discrimination against its most enterprising nationality, the country hardly ranks as a liberal democracy. For what little it may be worth, Dr Belien has the full support of the Libertarian Alliance in defending his right to freedom of speech.

Then there was Paul Gottfried. His speech was a denunciation of the American conservative movement very similar in tone and content to my own of the Conservative Party. We agreed on loathing Tony Blair as a worthless and malevolent creature. Over lunch one day, he expressed a certain impatience with "victim nationalities". He mentioned as examples of these the Irish, the Greeks and Jews of East European origin. His admiration is for strong, self-confident peoples for whom past misfortunes are not the material for present obsessions. No wonder, he has little time for the modern English and Americans. He also gave me what seemed a penetrating insight into the mentality of the Jewish neoconservatives in Washington. I was wrong, he told me, in thinking that these people had any dislike of Islam. They actually felt closer in their general outlook to Moslems than to the Christian Zionists, who are the real authors of the catastrophe that is American policy in the Middle East. The latter they regarded, he said, as "stupid gentiles". Their one point of difference with the former was the existence of Israel. Let that be settled, and the serpentising televangelists might continue baying for a nuclear Armageddon followed by the Second Coming. But the flow of coherent Islamophobia would be turned off like a redundant bath tap.

Then there was Stephan Kinsella, who subjected me during a boat trip around the Ionian coast to a friendly but probing examination of what I thought about Ayn Rand and epistemology. I am not sure if he approved of all I gave in answer. Even so, the surrounding conversation was enjoyable. He was scathing about Objectivism. He noted that David Kelley is an improvement on the official movement. "But when someone has to write 15,000 words on why it is permissible to be nice to others, or to tolerate disagreement" he said, "there must be something wrong with his underlying philosophy".

Then there were all the old friends who were also there—Frank van Dunn, Christian Michel, Josef Šima, Robert Grözinger, and others. But I will not give a full list: it would be the whole conference programme. I say this even though Christian gave one of his most polished and elaborate speeches. I hope he will publish it, as I can recall only its main heads.

Nor will I say much about my own speech. It was my usual idle effort. Until five minutes before I was due to start, I had no idea how to start. Once I had started, I had little idea how to continue. As ever, despite the uncertainty, I kept up a logical flow and finished on time. What I said went down well, and I suppose it was fair enough. One of these days, I am assured, my reliance on inspiration will fail me. I shall stand up, my mouth will open, but nothing coherent will come out. Fortunately, that did not happen in Turkey.

Professor Hoppe gave the closing speech. He explained that he had started a movement that would meet every year, and that would push the libertarian movement towards the open discussion of issues presently thought too controversial to discuss. Obviously, there is the question of border control: is this another statist intervention as harmful as price control? or would the movement of peoples be so free of internal cost in a world without states as it now generally is? Then there are the revisionist histories of the Great War: even today, nearly everyone looks at the events of 1914 as if it were still 1945. Or there is Hitler's War. How monolithic was his dictatorship? How much was its more notable beastliness personal to him and a few colleagues? Would that beastliness have survived him had he lasted until about 1950? Might it have been restrained had there not been that war of attrition with Soviet Russia? Then there is so much about contemporary politics and economics and sociology and religion that is worth discussing in places where the Thought Police do not operate, or where they have other concerns.

After this, there was the boat trip already mentioned. I was told the Aegean was cold in May. But I am a strong Northerner, accustomed to walking out of my house in summer to swim in the English Channel. I threw myself bravely into the clear waters. It took only a week to recover from the sunburn. In the evening, we had the belly dancers. I have a video record of Professor Gottfried dancing along topless. I have none of me. I remained fully clothed—but, having no notes to give her,  fumbled most embarrassingly to fit £7 in change into the dancer's bra.

That is all I will say. The next conference will be in Halicarnassus next May. I hope for another invite. I enjoyed this one, and I regret not being able to visit the ruins of Ephesus or spend time in Constantinople. If you are interested in attending, or in supporting the work of the Property and Freedom Society, you should contact Professor Hoppe—and do so quickly, as the conference is already being planned.