Friday, 25 January 2013

Britain and Europe

Thinking about the question of Britain being 'part of Europe' or 'in Europe' it strikes me that there is a lot of history and not a few legal, attitudinal and political hurdles to address before this can be decided one way or another. There is no doubt that, geographically, Britain is a part of Europe. During the last Ice Age the first 'settlers' arrived on foot across the land bridge that is now the Straits of Dover and the southern North Sea. The Thames itself was one of many tributaries of what is now the Rhine. Yes, the British Isles are a part of Europe, but that doesn't address the mind of the people who live in them.

A glance at the history of these isles makes a fascinating study. The earliest inhabitants were soon pushed to the margins by a new wave of settlers and they, in their turn, by the next. The label 'Celt' was applied in the 18th Century to the people of Ireland and the Scottish Highlands by amateur archaeologists and historians, but they were actually wrong. Their 'label' was suitably 'romantic' but, as genetic researchers are discovering, not correct. The term "Celt" or more correctly "Keltoi" embraces just about every tribal group in Northern and Western Europe and part of the Balkans. The Irish are, more correctly "Gaels" as are the Western Islanders, and the Picts are the ones with the red hair, not the Celts, who tended to be fair and had the blue eyes.

All of that said, the last time Britain was 'ruled' by a European power was from around 4 AD to 410 AD when the last Roman Prefect left in somewhat of a hurry. After the Roman 'departure' - which was far from total - tribalism reasserted itself with numerous little 'kingdoms' all vying for supremacy and so disunited, the invading Angles (from Friesland) and the Saxons (from the area now known as Niedersachsen and Schleswig-Holstein moved in and picked them off one by one. The Angles and the Saxons had no use for 'cities' so those vanished and were replaced by what, in Ireland are called "Raths" and in Scotland "Duns." It took Alfred the Great, to unite the Southern Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms and to re-establish London which lay abandoned for a little more than 400 years. Between him and Edward the Confessor a succession of less able kings ended with the Danes establishing their overlordship over the East Coast up to Northumbria and to a Dane, Canute, ruling from London. But it was still far from a single "united" kingdom with Mercia in the West to name but one.

Some of these "tribal" divisions are still very much in evidence even now. Perhaps that's why the English are said to be so busy squabbling amongst themselves they don't pay much attention to who is actually ruling them. It took William the Conqueror to unite the whole kingdom and forge the country we now call "England"out of all the squabbling fifedoms.

Now some might argue that William and his Norman successors were "European Powers" ruling England, and as far as the first few Plantagenate kings were concerned it would be partly right. While some of them hardly ever set foot in England, they didn't actually impose a great dal o their subjects, more or less leaving them to rule themselves as long as thery paid their taxes. There have been numerous attempts to invade these islands since William the Conqueror, but none has succeeded, bar one. The one exception was hardly an "invasion" though as William III and his wife Mary II had been invited to do it by Parliament when they kicked out James II. The Spanish "Armada" of 1588 is perhaps the most famous of these grand failures (it was, in fact only one of six attempts by the Spanish Crown) and the French managed several landings on the South coast and even in Wales, but were smartly booted out again. The last "European" invasion was the failed Scottish invasion in support of Charles Stewart "Bonnie Prince Charlie" in 1745 and, since then, "The British" - which included the peoples of Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales, created the greatest Empire the world has yet seen.

So perhaps they have a bit of a right to want a bit more say about who dictates what to them from Brussels. After all, in the same period that the British were amassing an Empire, Europe was being torn asunder again and again by one would be "Emperor" after another. While the British have enjoyed reasonably stable borders for almost a thousand years (apart from in the North where the Scots repeatedly tried to annex Cumbria and Northumberland and then Ulster ...), in Europe at times when one woke up in the morning one first had to check which flag was flying over the local castle/town/hill as the governing Prince may well have changed overnight. To the British, for far too much of their history, Europe has been where either instability held sway, or, worse, there was some ruler hell bent on disrupting our trade with everyone else. Not for nothing did Napoleon refer to the English as a "Nation of Shopkeepers."

Currently, the EU is frequently blamed, rightly or wrongly, for the demise of much of Britain's industry, for the collapse of the fishing industry and the manner in which traditionally "British" waters are now being fished to extinction by massive Spanish trawlers and by almost everyone else. Added to that is the ease with which lawyers now appeal to the ECHR to get decisions made in British Courts and under British law overthrown by "European" legalism.

The one really big change William I made was to establish a single "bench" of justice where previously each local magnate had done more or less his own thing, now only the King's law applied, and it applied to everyone. It is in this that we find the origins of English "Common" Law.

Put simplisticly, the courts 'interpretted' and applied the law according to precedents set by higher courts in the land. Thus, a 'magistrate' is bound by decisions in the 'Crown" court, the Crown Court is bound by the inter[retation of the same law by a High Court judgement and so on. In a sense this is a pragmatic system, and for almost a thousand years it has worked, by and large, reasonably well. But it is this legal system which gives rise to one of the biggest problems in our age with the attempt to be "in Europe" and "part of Europe." Under the Common Law system English laws have to be written with a degree of what I shall call 'felxibility' built into them. You have to make sure that when you write something along the lines of "it is an offence to pick your nose" that you build in all the possible caveats to say that it is only an offence if it is (a) in public, (b) done in a manner likely to offend, (c) where someone can see you do it - which might have to include CCTV cameras, and (d) that person is offended by it ...

Until someone is actually charged with picking his nose under this law and a court rules on a, b, c and d, a law enforcer can only use his judgement and try to enforce the law as rigorously as possible. Once a body of "Case Law" is established enforcers know that "public" doesn't include the top of Ben Nevis (in Scotland anyway!) but does include the pavement in Oxford Street, that "a manner likely to offend" includes doing it in a manner that is both ostentatious and intended to draw attention and so on. Therein lies a major conflict with European Law in that in Europe, a Napoleonic Codified system pertains. The law means exactly what it says and the courts are interested only in (a) has it been broken, (b) is it proven that the accused broke it deliberately, and (c) what is the penalty. (Again I've oversimplified, there are as many, if not more, safeguards in the majority of European legal systems as in England). It can therefore be said that in Europe laws are written strictly and interpretted liberally, while in England the reverse applies - the law is written with every caveat and exception and then applied very strictly.

This is why there is almost always a problem in applying an EU Directive in England. A single A4 Directive can become 20 pages of "Regulation." Add to this the fact that the English have the very quaint system of sticking amendments to totally unrelated Acts and Regulations in any new Act or Regulation and you have a recipe for "gold plating" which Whitehall exploits ruthlessly. (For those not acquainted with the UK's rather odd government structure "Westminster" is the Parliament, home to some 654 elected MPs and around 1,400 Lords which includes the Lords Spiritual, Lords Justice, Life Peers appointed by the various Political Parties and some 90 Hereditary Peers elected by their fellow hereditaries. "Whitehall is the term applied to mean the Government Departments, infested the domain of the Civil Service, unelected, unaccountable and the real rulers of the UK.)

For those of us of British heritage who live in Europe, the refueled arguments about "in" or "out" hold some interesting challenges. If Britain did leave, how would that affect our continued residence in a host country? Probably adversely, just as it will impact on travel to any European destination for everyone from Britain. One of the great unanswered questions is surely the economic impact of such a decision. A Banker yesterday pointed out that London would swiftly cease to be the Financial Centre of Europe as it is now, since the relationship with the European Central Bank would change and it would pay banks to change their location fairly swiftly. That would impact the Treasury which, according to their own figures, currently gets 16% of its tax revenue from banking and the financial market. So there are a lot of very complex and trcky questions that need answering before the Referendum Mr. Cameron has promised. It remains to be seem whether he can secure the support he needs for the changes he wants to make in the EU, there are certainly some, including the current German Chancellor, who shares some of his ambitions, but whether they can get all 27 members on board is another questions.

And if not, what then for Britain?

Despite the history, despite the differences and despite my pride in being "British," I do feel strongly that Britain's future is with Europe, in Europe, not alongside it or on the periphery, but full engaged and in it. Perhaps it's time to turn the page, start thinking along new lines and even take a long hard look at why our legal system has become so complex and convoluted. After all, if we want to amend a piece of legislation, surely the best way to do so is to do as is done elsewhere - repeal the whole and replace it with a completely new document?

I know there will be some who disagree with me, but I do think it is time we stopped trying to "go it alone" and punch above our weight. We could be a major player in Europe - but only if we stop arguing over everything and accept the views of others on some things at least.


  1. As usual, the Monk has hit several nails squarely upon their collective head. His comments about the English and the British are perfectly valid, the only thing that will stop pseudo-tribal in-fighting is a common enemy. His comments about the English legal system are equally valid, it is a liberal system of law applied harshly, Scotland, on the other hand has something more aligned to most of Europe in that it has harsh laws, applied liberally; their system of public prosecutors, the “Procurators Fiscal” have to weigh up not only the factors mentioned by the Monk, but also the concept of “Public Good”. Accordingly their Sheriffs see few marginal cases, the Fiscal having already tested the evidence, their police strive to maintain public order not to search for technical offences and their solicitors and Advocates are as poor as church mice by comparison to England's equivalent.

    This is why it was so dangerous for Bliar, a barrister of Lincoln's Inn, to attempt to involve victims in English criminal court cases; the victim is totally divorced from the process it is R-v- defendant, R for Rex or Regina, the Crown prosecutes, as was the case in William the first's time. The law of England and enactments of Westminster that apply in Scotland are, however much anyone may dislike it, deemed to be the “will of God, enacted by the hand of Majesty and by the permission of Parliament.”

    In his latest mud-stirring, Cameron has increased the likelihood of a “Yes” vote in 2014 for Scottish independence, he has not even considered the possibility that for a referendum in 2015 it is conceivable that Scotland may be independent and applying for membership of the EU in its own right; both its population and its economy are larger than several of the current members. Nor has he considered the fact that... (the age related demographic here is a little complex as “history” lessons today relate to World War 2.) … If you ask the man on the Clapham omnibus who the French are, he may well reply “the old enemy”, whereas anywhere from Auchterader to Auchtermuchty or from Gretna to Groats, the answer will include the phrase “the auld alliance”. The Scots have always had a much closer affinity with the continent in general than the English, whose ports tended to sail to the seven seas rather than to continental neighbours. In the stretch of the south bank of the Forth from Mussleburgh to North Berwick, all older buildings are tiled with Dutch red pantiles, brought back in their millions from Holland as ballast on boats trading from Leith, prior to the railway age, Aberdeenshire's grain and cattle would be bound for Holland, Denmark and Germany rather than England, the crossing of the North sea being somewhat less likely to suffer piracy than the drover or carter passing through the relative wilderness of the border counties on either side of the wall. It is a beautiful but bleak 100 miles from Edinburgh to Newcastle.

    The Monk has explained why the English legal system gilds every lily-pad on its statute books and regulates to the “n-th” degree every action, it is so that the court can weigh up the severity of the offence and find accordingly, in Scotland, it is effectively the Fiscal's office, (technically the Crown office but locally administered) who decides who will and who will not face the Sheriff; only the guilty see the inside of the court-room, perhaps not quite the Algerian French justice of “l'Etranger” but far closer to it than the English system which, since time immemorial has been run for the enrichment of Barristers, many of whom have connection with either Whitehall or Westminster, thus perpetuating the hegemony.

    Unless “England” is able to address its own identity and submit itself to the weighbridge before entering any conflict, it will always be on the edge of Europe, never “in it”. To that end, perhaps an independent Scotland might make for a better Europe...

  2. It appears that there has either been an outbreak of common sense, or the police force of Devon and Somerset are in neglect of duty... four men pounce on a man who subsequently dies, therefore a homicide has been commited and those four men are implicated, the fact that he was brandishing a gun and disguised by a gas mask would not normally be a defence in Enlish law. The lawyers will be most displeased, in fact may demand action... watch this space!

  3. If its an outbreak of common sense, it is to be welcomed and encouraged. As for walking into a shop of any sort, in a town that is home to naval ratings and Royal Marines, serving and ex-service waving a gun and attempting a robbery, you are asking to have someone take you down. I'd actually say it was a suicide rather than a homicide.