Bastille Day equals Brexit Day
Stephen MacLean highlights the Remainers’ fear of freedom
Freedom lovers around the world celebrate Bastille Day (14th July) in recognition of the rights of man and ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’. As many on the Continent believe, the French Revolution was the pivotal event in the rise of the individual against the entrenched power of the Crown, the aristocratic court, and the privileges of the Roman ‘Gallic’ Church. But the irony is lost by those who fight Britain’s exit from the European Union, particularly the leadership in the devolved regions of Scotland and Wales, whose preference, it seems, is to live under foreign-dominating EU law than the domestic laws of the United Kingdom.
When the UK passed the European Communities Act (1972) to join the European Economic Community (as the EU then was), the act called for all British legislation to conform with EU law and, according to majority opinion, made EU law superior to UK law. This was one of the grievances that fuelled the exit referendum last year. Now, as the Government implements its Brexit agenda, it must ‘patriate’ its laws and cut jurisdiction and reference to the EU legal system through the instrument of its ‘Great Repeal Bill’.
For Brexit minister David Davis, the process is merely procedural. ‘We’re bringing into law 40 years of law. It is putting into British law what was European law. So then, after that, we can change it if we want to,’ Davis told a BBC interviewer. ‘Any material change will be in primary legislation. It’s only technical matters that will go through the statutory instrument and even then the House of Commons will have its say.’ But critics are less accommodating, calling it a ‘naked power grab.’ Most annoyed are leaders of two devolved regions, Scotland’s Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones in Wales. They argue that the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill returns authority from Brussels to Westminster and sidesteps their assemblies, contrary to assurances of co-operation from the Government — which is under no legal obligation to consult them. (Far better for prime minister Tony Blair, during the Westminster devolution period, to have returned more power to the people and rethought the wisdom of setting up additional power centres among the ‘united kingdoms’.)
One cannot help but marvel that this leadership was against Brexit, and now wishes to remain under the EU jurisdiction of the Single Market and Customs Union. But the irony of choosing to live under the European legal yoke would not have been lost on Margaret Thatcher. It is worth remembering the international brouhaha that broke out when she dissed the revolutionary credentials of the French ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen’, reserving the honour for Magna Carta’s assertions of an Englishman’s rights and freedoms, declared more than five centuries earlier. When asked during the French bicentennial if her views had changed, she replied, ‘No. They would hardly change because they were founded on historic facts’, citing the liberties enshrined in law by Magna Carta (1215), the Glorious Revolution’s ‘Bill of Rights’ (1689) and America’s Declaration of Independence (1776).
No doubt Mrs Thatcher had in mind the distinction raised by the eminent Oxford legal scholar A.V. Dicey, who wrote that the principles of justice (e.g. the rule of law and private property) permeate the English constitution by way of ‘judicial decisions determining the rights of private persons in particular cases brought before the Courts’; whereas on the Continent, ‘the security (such as it is) given to the rights of individuals results, or appears to result, from the general principles of the constitution.’
That is, English jurisprudence is based upon the common law tradition of ‘discovering’ the fine points of natural justice in real life situations when conflicts arose, while the practice of legislative law in Europe meant that rights and privileges were ‘imposed’ from above and officials and citizens expected to uphold them. This gave rise to the (mistaken) belief that rights were granted by the State, but Heaven help any legislator who tried to take away any Englishman’s (or American’s) God-given rights.
Regardless of the horrors unleashed by the French Revolution, the mob that stormed the Bastille prison that fateful day did so in the name of the individual rights and freedoms they believed were denied them. Brexit is celebrated as Britain’s own ‘Independence Day’, yet those who fight the referendum outcome inexplicably find comfort by clinging to their EU fetters.