When the elected become the GOVERNMENT

01 November 2008 Robert W Vivian, University of the Witwatersrand

In the previous article I argued that South Africa elects a political party to run the country, a system, as we will see, that was tried and rejected in England. This article will look at what happened when the elected, the Commons, took over the government.

In the previous article we established that in England, elections were held to send representatives to the Commons, not to elect a political party to run the government.

As previously indicated the society consisted of three institutions, the King, the Lords and the Commons. The King and Lords were not elected but were hereditary. The King ran the government, which was in any event very small at the time. The ability of the Lords to keep the King in check by force had ceased by 1600. The constitutional mechanism to keep the King in check then moved to controlling him by controlling the money supply to run the government.

Holding the purse strings

The King ran the government but the Commons controlled the money needed to do so. This resulted in two opposing forces. Firstly there was the desire of the King to be absolute, i.e. to tax by decree and, secondly, the desire of Lords and Commons to make it clear that they, and not the King, controlled the power to levy taxes and approve the grant, called the subsidy, to the King.

France and Spain, both Superpowers at the time had absolute monarchs - they had the power to tax. Absolute monarchs were best international practice! The tension between the King and the other two estates came to a head during the reign of Charles I who wished to follow the best international practice and have the absolute power to tax. The Commons and the Lords strenuously resisted Charles I’s effort to acquire taxing powers. The fight fell mainly on the Commons, the elected assembly.

Wanting more…

However, the Commons not only wished to control the King, they also wished to supplant the King - the Commons wanted to become the King. The elected wanted to take over the functions of the King. The Commons was spoiling for a show-down. During the reign of Charles I, the Commons thought, correctly as it turns out, that they were powerful enough to take on the King.

The Commons provoked a fight by deciding to withhold all taxes. Of course, no government can operate without money, so their decision not to agree to any taxes at all ensured the showdown would take place. In 1629, Charles I dissolved parliament and refused to summon it again. So, for 11 years he ruled without parliament. He had found a number of specific taxes, supported by the judiciary, which he could levy without calling parliament and in that way get by. However, when the Scots invaded England, he had to call parliament in an attempt to obtain money to raise an army to protect England. Up to that time, England did not have a professional standing army.

High Treason

The Commons on the other hand was interested in taking over the country, not funding the defence of England. Calling parliament solved nothing and the conflict between King and Commons deepened to the point where the Commons raised its own army to fight the King, an act of High Treason. The Commons Army was the New Model Army; England’s first professional army which beat the King’s traditional unprofessional army. The elected took over the government.

When the elected rule

Now for our purposes let us see what happened when the Commons gained total power, unconstrained by the King and Lords. They had passed a law, giving themselves perpetual existence. They became a law unto themselves. They dissolved the House of Lords. Without the Lords, traditionally there could be no law, even if the King remained. Sir Winston Churchill, the great statesman and a prolific writer, noted the role that the idea of law played in the English psyche; ‘Nothing is more characteristic of the English people than their instinctive reverence for law and tradition. Deep in the nature of the men who had broken the King’s power was the conviction that law in his name was the sole foundation on which they could build.’

Operating outside the law

Once the elected took over, England for the first time rapidly became a nation which operated outside of the law. Officers who surrendered in battle where simply shot. Once defeated in battle, whole cities were put to the sword. Dissent was outlawed. Entry to the Commons was restricted only to those who would vote as the leaders wished. They illegally levied taxes to fund the war. They did the very thing which they accused the king of doing, except what the King did with full regard to the law, they did illegally. They decided to execute the King. To do this, they established a committee of themselves as a “court of parliament” declared him guilty and executed him; in reality an act of murder. The law protected no-one, not even the king. In other cases they simply dispensed with the sham of a trial and passed a sham law for the execution of those they did not like.

After the Civil War the army was not disbanded. For the first time England had a permanent professional standing army. On April 20, 1653 Oliver Cromwell, who emerged as the leader, at the head of a troop of his soldiers went to what left of the Commons and kicked everyone out and closed down the Commons. England quickly, for the first and only time, had degenerated into a military dictatorship. Might, not law, was right. The function of the army was not to protect England but to oppress its inhabitants. Cromwell appointed major-generals to govern all the regions of England.

Restoring the rule of law

Cromwell became King in everything but name. He was sorely tempted to accept the crown offered to him, but feared his army may revolt if he did this. Cromwell, the uncrowned king, now ruled absolute. He had more powers than the King they murdered, ever had. He was now a king without the constraint of the elected Commons or Lords. When he died, England had had enough and restored, in the Great Restoration, the traditional constitutional system - King, Lords and once again an Elected Commons.

In so doing they restored the rule of law. They abolished the professional standing army and forever thereafter have regarded standing armies with suspicion. The purpose of an election was restored to electing persons to the Commons, not to run the country. The Restoration, as we will see, was not a complete success and the final piece in the structural puzzle came with the Glorious Revolution (1688), which will be dealt with in the next article.

South Africa’s failed structure

The thing which I find odd about all this is that South Africa structurally elects a party to run a country, not persons to go the National Assembly. This was the very thing which led to England’s military dictatorship. Electing persons to run a country - as indicated in these articles - was tried, ended in a military dictatorship operating outside of the law, and then rejected. It is not clear t to me why South Africa adopted this failed structure.

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