Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

Why I would still Defend the British Constitutional Arrangement: A Preliminary Argument

One must either be very brave or very foolish to defend something like the British monarchy or its constitutional arrangement. Attacks from the liberal-left are of course a given, anything which seeks of monarchies or descend are by default anathema. However, those on the right, and even the far right, also tend to see the defence of the British monarchy as something quixotic, as being substantially out of touch with reality. The British monarchy today does virtually nothing, the Church of England is a laughing stock, parliament is in the state of severe malfunction and paralysis, and the general political and economic health of Britain has been even surpassed by many of its own colonial children. (*cough*Singapore*cough*)

Why indeed defend, not only a crumbling nation, but a constitutional arrangement which barely exist in any substantial form today? Before I can make my actual defence, I have to bring to light first these hidden premises which, if accepted, cannot help but make my defence seem ridiculous.

Linear versus Cyclical Civic History

I have addressed this principle in greater detail in another note, however here I would like to bring out some of its applications. Westerners in general adopt the “linear” view of civic history. It is the nature of commonwealth to develop in a certain direction. The goal of that direction supersedes everything which goes before. This is why they keep saying things like, “We can’t turn back the clock”, or “we can’t go back to the past”. If something has “failed” or “doesn’t work” in the past, then we discard it and move on to the next new thing. Western political ideals and actions are always moving forward, trying one thing after another, discarding the past into oblivion when it has failed to work, etc.

If the Chinese had adopted such a mindset the Chinese commonwealth would have been irretrievably lost in the third century BC after its very first collapse. However the Chinese does not have a linear view of civic history, we tend to have a more cyclical view of history. Unlike the Westerners, we don’t collapse the is-ought distinction. Just because something has collapsed doesn’t mean that we should discard it or that it was meant to fail. The principles which constitute civic health are generally atemporal. It is not subject to historical revision and correction. What makes for righteousness and virtue are transcendent principles. To be certain each reconstitution of the Chinese Empire is not identical to the last, the application of those principles needs be sensitive to its immediate situation, but this idea that we can in fact revive a civic polity based on the same principles is inherent to the Chinese mindset and culture.

If we want to speak of a “movement” of civic polity, then it is not a movement in a direction forward in time but a movement upwards towards its principles and ideals. A commonwealth rises, flourishes, attains its height, then it declines and sometimes disintegrates. A commonwealth moves up and down, sometimes it falls beyond a certain threshold such that the civic polity fragments and collapses completely, sometimes the fall can be arrested by a renewal within the system. But always the culture as a whole looks not forward but upwards, towards the ideal of a unified China.

My generalisation is of course simplistic for the Western world has its tradition of cyclical historical thinking as well. (The genealogy of the idea is complicated and can be traced to the tension between Augustine and Eusebius, the former of whom severed the Roman Empire from any sense of manifest destiny, the latter had the two strongly converge.) The dominance however of the linear model is manifest and needs no further elaboration.

Turning back the Clock Completely?

The Western linear model of history has the appearance of the scientific method, when an experiment fails, you discard the hypothesis. The world is the stage for social or civic experiments, failed ideals or attempts are discarded, and with each historical experimentation we inch ever closer to the End of History. However, any history of science student knows that science itself doesn’t advance in such a crude linear way. Consider for example the discovery of Neptune. Using Newton’s theories, they charted the future positions of Uranus based on their astronomical data. However, the orbit of Uranus didn’t conform to those positions due to certain irregularities. They could of course have simply taken this as a refutation of Newton’s theory. However they instead hypothesised that there was in fact another planet interfering with Uranus orbit and thus Neptune was discovered.

Likewise, we don’t take every “failure” or collapse in history to be a refutation of our fundamental civic principles. We can however revise our application in the light of experience and the facts, but always holding fast to these principles which are a priori correct.

As such, one does not advocate for the reconstitution or renewal of the entire British arrangement back to the 17th century. We can advocate the principles or “spirit” of the British constitution without needing to revive every jot and title of the actions of the British government in the past.

A Sketch of the Fundamentals of the British Constitution

So what are the aspects of the British constitutional arrangement I think worth preserving? I would argue first the Aristocratic principle in the combined House of the Lords and Commons, secondly the Protestant Establishment principle, in the Acts of Uniformity, Settlement and Union, and finally the Protestant Act of Toleration whereby it is protestant principles (as largely sketched out by Locke) which inform us of the limits of religious tolerance.

Therefore it is really a matter of indifference to me whether the House of Windsor sits upon the throne or someone else. The Glorious Revolution showed us a way whereby a royal house can be disposed while the constitutional arrangement remains intact. I also don’t really care for the hereditary principle or the divine right of kings. Alternative arrangements can include an election or confirmation of the monarch by parliament from a set of candidates from the royal household or even a plebiscite to confirm the monarch for life.

What is important for me however as far as the aristocratic principle is concerned is that there is no substitute for good competent rulers, and the concept of aristocratic descend is a way whereby social and political capital is passed down. As for the established church principle, I defend them generally on theological grounds although I think we could have a much more relaxed religious test for parliamentary participation, e.g. subscription to the Apostle’s Creed, as well as additional religious test for those denominations with questionable civic theologies like the papists whereby they must affirm that the sovereign rules by the grace of God and the British constitution and not by the will of the Pope and by no means seek to subvert the constitutional arrangement of the UK.

The fundamental point however is that the principles of the British constitution, if they are to be defended, has to be defended upon a priori grounds, even transcendent grounds, because they are right or true, regardless of the “experiments of history”. If those principles possess intrinsic value, then they are to be realised regardless of how many times in history they have declined and collapsed. Naturally in the consideration of any principles its “empirical fit” with reality needs to be taken into account, however, some princples are just well neigh utterly impossible or too unstable to hold for any significant periods of time. However, I would deny this to be the case for the principles of the British constitution, although this note isn’t intended to be a full defence of those principles as such.

Conclusion: Looking upwards and not Forwards

It seems to me however that the UK is generally in better shape than most other European countries. Most of the ancient constitutional arrangements and institutions are intact. Unlike say France or Germany, there is no need to reconstitute wholesale the entire civic arrangement of the past. A renewal of the present institutions, pruning of its more absurd contemporary accretions, as well as the adaption of certain practice to contemporary conditions, seems to be all that is needed.

What I intend however with this note is simply the arrest the loss of nerve and the doom and gloom narratives which characterises most on the right. This is not a work which would be realised within most of our lifetimes, unless we are so unexpectedly blessed. However the battle has already been loss before it has began if we do not distinguish between is and ought, thinking that every decline is inevitable and meant to be, reversals ridiculous for the future itself has already barred us from the past.

We need to stop looking forward but look upwards, towards what is True, Right and Good, and we need to make our arguments cogently, sensibly, not denying the empirical facts, but not allowing them to dictate the truth either. If we ourselves do not believe in our own principles, nor advance them confidently in the public forum, can we blame others for not believing in what we do not believe ourselves?


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This entry was posted on April 6, 2015 by in Uncategorized.
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