Old engraved illustration: King John signs Magna Carta (Image credit: mikroman6)
Artillery Row

Traditions of the future

Time to recover Britain’s Judeo-Christian constitutional heritage

The first UK National Conservatism conference starts in London on Monday. It will seek to present a vision for the future of conservatism that is rooted in tradition. Such an appeal to traditional values, history and national identity is sometimes accused of tending towards atavism and xenophobia — accusations aired not only by the usual Guardian-reading crowd, but even by some who define themselves as conservatives.

In fact, the Edmund Burke Foundation (which organises the National Conservative Conferences) was founded by a diverse group of conservatives from America, Europe and beyond. It is explicitly committed to the rule of law and democratic national governments, as can be seen in our statement of principles

Why is our effort to reemphasise the role of the Anglo-American tradition of politics and law necessary? Mainly it is because of increasing attempts to locate the roots of representative government, rights and the rule of law in the ideas of the liberal Enlightenment and the French revolution.

Anti-historical narratives are now fed to students at universities

For some decades, the Anglo-American tradition has been subjected to an attempt at “retro-fitting” into liberal Enlightenment principles. That is, some are claiming that the American and British constitutions were essentially born out of liberal enlightenment principles and that, previous to these, there wasn’t very much of value. Anti-historical narratives are now fed to students at universities and law schools, to the point that most of them believe the Anglo-American tradition means mainly Locke and Jefferson — the very people who sought its replacement with Revolutionary principles. 

With such an outlook, traditional constitutional elements like the supremacy of Parliament (or, in the US, the electoral college) and the common law, become window-dressing that might be thrown out at a convenient occasion. However, even a cursory look at the history of the common law and the English (later British) constitution shows that their essential roots are in tradition of the Judeo-Christian heritage.

Few today are any longer aware that the very beginning of the “law common to all England” was in a law code issued by King Alfred the Great (d. 899), at the heart of which is a collection of laws drawn directly and explicitly from the Bible — mainly from the book Exodus.

In the 13th century, Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury and the greatest English biblical scholar of his day, devised the chapters into which the Bible is divided. He also came up with the idea of ending the conflict between King John and his subjects by drafting a charter of English traditional liberties, which became the Magna Carta.

Some two centuries later, Sir John Fortescue presented in his influential “Praise of the Laws of England” (c.1470) a biblically-inspired acclaiming of the English constitution, combining King and Parliament.

A century after Fortescue, the reformation brought about demands for a separation between Church and State. It was answered by Richard Hooker, the theologian who more than any other defined Anglicanism, in his great “Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie”. He maintained that an English established church headed by the king was following the biblical model: “Our state is according to the pattern of God’s own ancient elect people.

In the 17th century, new continental rationalistic theories were undermining the common law and the English constitution by arguing that their particularism lacked universal value. They were answered by John Selden, the greatest common lawyer of his generation, in a series of great treatises based on his studies of Biblical and Talmudical traditions. He argued that universal values can be applied only through particular national laws.

We would strain our eyes in vain looking for statues of Locke or Bentham or Mill

In the 18th century, it was Edmund Burke who regarded the essence of the French revolution as a war of atheism against religion. He called for a great alliance of believers from all religions to stand against it.

As late as the Victorian age, these foundations of the English laws and constitution in the Judeo-Christian heritage were self-evident. Thus in 1882 when the new Royal Courts of Justice was completed, four statues were placed atop the building, symbolising the pillars of English legal tradition. They can be seen to this day. We would strain our eyes in vain looking for statues of Locke or Bentham or Mill. Instead, directly above the entrance, we find a statue of Jesus Christ, to the right a statue of King Alfred the Great, and to the left the statue of King Solomon. Situated behind, and symbolising their common foundation in biblical law, is the statue of Moses with his tablets.

How much better schoolchildren might appreciate their traditions if taught the actual roots of British values, instead of the vapid liberal version they are provided with today? How might we better combat antisemitism, for example, if they understood the shared roots of English culture, law and constitution in the Old Testament, instead of a mishmash of platitudes unconnected to their own culture? 

To many today, the Judeo-Christian traditions at the heart of the British legal and constitutional system are unfamiliar, sometimes to the extent of being incomprehensible. It is high time to recover and restore these traditions, or risk losing them altogether.

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