The 'Brexit' vote has taken the world by surprise. A shocked and outraged establishment is, at time of writing, reeling from the vote. The people, the demos, have done the unthinkable. When the polls closed at 10pm news channels were confidently predicting a ‘Remain’ outcome. Within about 30 minutes the tremors were being felt as results started to come through from post-industrial cities like Sunderland. Half way through the night it was clear that ‘Leave’ had won, largely through the votes of the English and Welsh working classes. The people who ‘power’ generally overlooks.
In the 1640s the King (Charles I) was the ultimate authority. And not in a good way. It has sometimes been said that the best form of government would be a benign King. Charles I was anything but. One of the King’s bishops, Kirkcudbrightshire-born John Maxwell (c. 1590–1647), published a booklet in 1643 entitled The Sacred and Royal Prerogative of Christian Kings, asserting the King’s right to do pretty much whatever he wanted to, sometimes referred to as the ‘Divine Right of Kings’.
Another Kirkcudbrightshire man, but with a very different perspective, was Presbyterian minister Samuel Rutherford (who has featured on this blog many times before), who had been minister at the little country hamlet of Anwoth since 1627. The year after Maxwell’s book, Rutherford published his own response – Lex, Rex, or The Law and the Prince; a Dispute for the Just Prerogative of King and People – which argued the very opposite - that the King was subject to God, to the law, and also to the people; that “power is a birthright of the people borrowed [by a ruler] from them … the people may recover this power”. It has been summarised like this:
1) God gives no moral power to the King to commit immoral acts. 2) Kings can and must be justly held to their constitutional oaths, no less so than the people. 3) God stamps no person with the imprint of king, leaving such a designation to the people. 4) All kings owe their offices and powers to Christ. 5) Obedience to kings in unlawful acts is rebellion against Christ.
The British monarchy was overthrown a few years later, but when it was restored again in the 1660s, Lex Rex was burned in public in Edinburgh, St Andrews (where Rutherford had been principal of the University) and London. Anyone found in possession was declared to be an enemy of the state. In England’s last official book-burning, at Oxford University in 1683, Lex Rex was among the flames, a ‘damnable and pernicious book’. Imagine a university campus being a 'safe space'...
It was of course a theological age and the concepts of power and state were being argued within a theological context. But the principles echo down the centuries to today. Should the people be allowed to upset the applecart, bring change, and thereby determine where the civic power is to reside? ReformationScotland.org has a recent article on this theme, available here. It presents the case that power flows from the people to the rulers, not from the rulers down to the people.
The actor/comedian David Mitchell's article in The Guardian argued that Brexit was far too big an issue to be left in the hands of the people, citing Richard Dawkins' comment "we live in a representative democracy not a plebiscite democracy". Frank Furedi's insightful article here is the opposite viewpoint, and in many ways closer to Rutherford - which is fascinating for a founder of the now-defunct Revolutionary Communist Party. His article resonates very strongly with me.
I have good friends on both sides - both Leave and Remain voters. The fallout from the result is throwing up some very interesting dynamics within our society. I have a feeling that the Brexit issue is far from over. I expect it to be challenged politically, socially and legally from within the UK, and to come under major international pressure, before it is ever implemented. As we in Northern Ireland know well, British governments and civil servants excel in fudge, dilution, ‘constructive ambiguity' and – here’s a big word – obfuscation.
• Various editions of Lex Rex are available online. Here is an 1843 edition, over 300 pages long, on Archive.org. The Preface summarises key themes which show its relevance for today.