Our national identity and values are closer to our Commonwealth cousins than our European neighbours

Our national identity and values are closer to our Commonwealth cousins than our European neighbours

A year before Brexit, there simply could not have been a better time for the UK to have hosted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Yes, it was a chance to broach the hope of new trade deals, but Brexit is about far more than just economics. It is about our national identity and values – and that is precisely why the Commonwealth is so important.

Go back to the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in 2015 and you will find a whole series of celebration events in Commonwealth countries: Australia, Barbados, Canada, New Zealand, even countries such as  India, Pakistan and Malaysia – but you will struggle to find any in Europe – even in the House of European History in Brussels.

There is a shared history that begins in these islands of the growth of freedom and democracy. Over the centuries, the various nations of the English-speaking peoples branched off, first the USA (1776), then Canada (1867), Australia (1901) and New Zealand (1907). By a whole series of events – some good, some bad – during this period the UK came to control and establish our laws and freedoms across the Indian sub-continent, large parts of Africa and elsewhere in the world.

In the post-World War Two era, as these became independent nations, their new constitutions were typically based on English law, with parliaments often modelled on the UK Parliament and frequently incorporating the English common law up to the date of independence into their own newly-established legal systems. By doing do, they institutionalised many of the values of the English-speaking peoples into their new countries. Indeed, many of the struggles that we currently see in countries such as India or Pakistan are between these values, which are exemplified by the Commonwealth and the values of those such as radical Hindutva extremists in India or Islamists in Pakistan who want to replace them with sharia-based legal systems.

So, what are those historic freedoms and values that the English-speaking peoples developed and spread out across the world? And equally importantly, how do they differ from ‘European values’?

1. One law for all with even the government being accountable to the law.

2. Freedom of the individual under the law. In English law it is an important constitutional principle that ‘everything which is not forbidden is allowed’. In contrast many European legal systems tend towards the opposite assumption that ‘everything which is not specifically allowed is prohibited’. This is why freedom developed in England centuries before France or Germany. It also explains much of the underlying frustration with EU regulations which fuelled the Brexit vote.

3. Democratically-elected government, with the ability to vote out a government. This contrasts sharply with the European Commission which voters can never vote out.

4. The independence of the judiciary from the government. The government being accountable to the law or, as Sir Edward Coke put it in the seventeenth century  ‘The king is under no man save under God and the law.’

5. The sovereignty of our country as a nation state with its laws being determined by our own parliament and crimes within it punished by our own judiciary.  That is why the UK has always struggled with the rulings from European courts.

6. The sovereignty of parliament. It is parliament that makes laws. While the common law represents a long history of judges setting legal precedents in areas where parliament had not passed specific legislation, parliament could always overrule these by passing a specific law on that subject. The attempt by the European Court of Human Rights to overrule democratic votes of our parliament on matters such as prisoner voting has been contrary to this important constitutional principle. This separation of powers of the government, parliament and judiciary is also one of the core values of the Commonwealth Charter.  

7. The right to own private property and not to have it arbitrarily seized by the government and for individuals to either retain or dispose of it as they wish.  This contrasts sharply with inheritance laws in countries such as France and Germany which require an estate to be divided among family members in specific proportions.

8. Freedom of religion. The first clause of Magna Carta states: ‘The English church shall be free’. From the sixteenth century we led the world in establishing freedom of religion, including by abolishing various Test Acts between 1719 and 1888 requiring those holding public offices to hold particular beliefs. When countries such as the USA, Australia and even India became independent, they wrote specific clauses into their constitutions prohibiting the introduction of any such Test Act in the future. In contrast to this, countries such as Germany were still enacting harsh restrictions on freedom of religion in the late nineteenth century. In fact, a significant number of the early European settlers in Australia were actually fleeing religious persecution in Germany.

9. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press including the right to express opinions which are critical of the government or the beliefs and actions of others without interference from the government. Together, these are one of our greatest gifts to the world and also expressly set out in the Commonwealth Charter.

10. Constitutional monarchy. The constitutional settlement of 1689 set a clear dividing line between our constitutional monarchy and the royal absolutism in continental Europe. Whilst not all Commonwealth countries have retained the Queen as head of state, she remains head of the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth is our family, who we shamefully neglected when we joined the EU. Now is the time to rebuild those relationships.