Rule by decree of a ‘Lord Protector’: lessons from history

How bad can any pandemic be, that it causes our government to revert to Cromwellian-era distortions and disturbances of our natural liberties of there┬áproud isles? We do not know, because the institutions of government intended to serve as checks and balances one upon the other and upon which we hope and imagine we can rely, as in Cromwell’s era, have been disrupted and disjointed out of all common configuration.

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By Matthew Parish

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has recently decreed, on 9th September 2020, that by reasons of national emergency gatherings of more than six people are banned. This formidable restriction upon civil liberties was not subject to debate in Parliament. Nor was it subject to critique by Her Majesty’s Opposition, who let it go too quickly. 

This is a unilateral dictate, imposed by Statutory Instrument: a form of second-tier legislation driven by the executive rather than legislative branch of government. It thereby reduces the separation of powers between branches of government that the French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau identified as so important to the sustenance of a healthy democracy.

Nevertheless, this exceptional unilateral infringement of civil liberties is not unique in the constitutional history of the United Kingdom, a history of which British citizens are rightly proud. It has happened at least once before, under the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, the Protestant fundamentalist ruler of England, Scotland and Ireland between 1653 and 1659 after the end of the English Civil War and the parliament-approved execution of the Stuart King Charles I.

Although Parliament was the constitutional instrument in whose name the warrior Cromwell won the English Civil War against Royalists, he did not care for its stature. Cromwell abolished Parliament and ran the country we now call the United Kingdom as an autocratic republic. The period is known as the Interregnum, because Republican government did not suit England, Scotland and Ireland; and shortly after Cromwell’s death, hereditary Stuart King Charles II was invited to take once again the United Kingdom’s throne. After the Jacobite rebellion initiated by Scottish Catholic Royalty was ruthlessly suppressed, the United Kingdom would never again entertain dreams of Republicanism or violent changes of royal power. Rather our history would become one of gradual reform towards constitutional monarchy and democratic parliamentarianism. 

What does all this have to do with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s contemporary attempts to fight against Coronavirus? Cromwell ran a military government. Johnson is not there yet. But Johnson has issued decrees forbidding groups of people from socialising. He has done this without any substantial parliamentary oversight; and that is precisely how Cromwell ruled. Cromwell banned the singing of religious songs, as has Johnson. Cromwell banned the celebration of religious festivals, as has Johnson. Cromwell banned gatherings of more than five people; Johnson’s number is six. Cromwell is recalled as a tyrant. The track record of Johnson’s reign in that regard has yet to be determined.

Cromwell’s justification of these egregious infringements of civil liberties was public order and the public good. Although he cloaked his restrictions in the language of commitment to Puritan ideas, what he was really afraid of was dissent – expressed by the free-thinking British people informally, in demonstrations and political groupings (consider, as a contemporary parallel, the ‘Black Lives Movement’) – after Cromwell had abolished Parliament as an institution for the people of England, Scotland and Wales to convey their opposition to the steady and unrelenting consumption by Cromwell’s government of civil liberties and freedoms to which we are all so gratefully inured in these Sceptred Iles. 

Cromwell’s decisions to traduce our peoples’ civil liberties was not subject to meaningful review, because he had hacked away at the legislative and judicial branches of government as effective checks upon his autocracy through scandalous talk of fear and an ineffectual political opposition that too readily bought into his narrative. The contempt with which Prime Minister Johnson now treats Parliament, a neutered body unable to meet in anything near its full composition by reason of social distancing restrictions, is no small echo.

British history teaches us that when we give up our civil liberties, more often than not it is a voluntary process of acquiescence on the part of our citizens driven by the fact that our passions as citizens of a constitutional democracy are knocked out of place by the repetitive message of fear driven into the hearts of the common populace by those who govern in our name. We give up our liberties voluntarily in consequence.

How bad can any pandemic be, that it causes our government to revert to Cromwellian-era distortions and disturbances of our natural liberties of there proud isles? We do not know, because the institutions of government intended to serve as checks and balances one upon the other and upon which we hope and imagine we can rely, as in Cromwell’s era, have been disrupted and disjointed out of all common configuration. The Covid crisis has been far less fatal than the English Civil War, in the course of which perhaps some 200,000 people died (contrast 42,000 from Covid) at a time when the population of what we now call the United Kingdom was a fraction of what it is in 2020 (5.6 million then versus 68 million today). The scale of deaths is vastly lower, yet we are inflicting the same measures of restriction upon our historically valued civil liberties entirely disproportionate to the imagined harms we suffer today.

There is great peril directed at the civil liberties of our green and pleasant land; and it is fashioned by those who say they rule for us and in our interests. Our politicians are sleepwalking into their own misdeeds in their casual deconstruction of our cherished constitutional freedoms. Those institutions we trust, intended to present the most powerful of checks upon the clumsy totalitarianism of our failing elected politicians, are quietly impotent. 

There is no debate as we all know there should be; and our historical political tradition of discussion, negotiation and compromise stands washed away from beneath our feet. It is now imperative upon every citizen of our isles to demand a proper debate and discussion, placing the undeniable tragedies caused by this trenchant disease in context and proportion to the other threats and dangers to our rightly admired historical polity that we have rightly faced down through the multiple centuries of our proud historical traditions. We are, each one of us, duty-bound to stand up for the values we have inherited through the struggle and bravery of our antecedents so that we remain the country of which we are all proud to be citizens.

Should we fail in this mandate, there may be no future United Kingdom of which we all rightly stand so proud.

Matthew Parish is an international lawyer and scholar of international relations based in Geneva, Switzerland. He is an Honorary Professor at the University of Leicester; was elected as a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum; and has been named as one of the three hundred most influential people in Switzerland. An expert in UN reform, he is the author of several books and over three hundred articles. www.matthew-parish.com

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of TransConflict.


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