Rees-Mogg’s medievalism may have been meant as a diversion, writes Mike Macnair, but it raises real issues
On July 12 Jacob Rees-Mogg commented that Theresa May’s white paper on Brexit is “the greatest vassalage since King John paid homage to Phillip II at Le Goulet in 1200”.1
This strikingly obscure reference has given rise to extensive sarcastic comment. Marc Morris, freelance historian and broadcaster (and biographer of King John), said for Metro (July 12) that “such treaties of submission were routine at the time”. And that “If you reach for a superlative, you look stupid. I suppose it’s the stupid person’s idea of what a clever person looks like.” Scottish nationalist Pat Kane remarked in The National:
… it could easily have been a line in a Python sketch (spoken by someone in a suit of armour, holding a rubber chicken). Yet the true horror may not be that Mogg is being authentic, and that the upper class has returned with a vengeance. It’s more that he’s consciously cultivating an eccentricity that cuts through the modern media maelstrom.2
More substantively, academic and trans activist Natacha Kennedy pointed out that the Treaty of le Goulet did acknowledge John’s sovereignty over England. It merely required that John acknowledge French king Philip Augustus’s suzerainty over the parts of France (Normandy, Anjou, Brittany, Aquitaine) which John held.
And architectural historian and broadcaster Jonathan Foyle remarked:
Perhaps he means May 13 1213, when England became a vassal state of the papacy. Le Goulet just asserted the ownership and borders of Normandy, etc.
We’re all waiting for his take on the medium-term effects of Langtonism and the 4th Lateran Council on that vassal status, and to what extent they encouraged or dispelled nationalism or subjugation.3
There is just a little more which can be said. Looking behind the reference, what we see is the systematic dishonesty of both Brexiteers and ‘remainers’.
In the first place, Pat Kane is probably right to say that Rees-Mogg is engaged in a sort of showing-off analogous to Boris Johnson’s classical references, or those of Enoch Powell before him: ‘Look, I can point to an obscure medieval event. I’m an Eton man and a Trinity College historian!’ By doing so, plus his young, fogeyish style of dress and speech, Rees-Mogg offers a specific brand of Englishness which marks him off from the ‘bland leading the bland’ of the official centre ground of British politics.
Second, Foyle is right that 1213 would on the face of things be a much better reference to a surrender of sovereignty.
On the one hand, no-one ever really doubted that Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine were parts of France: both John’s father, Henry II, and his brother, Richard I, had done homage to the relevant French kings for their possessions in France (in broad terms agreeing to be the French king’s man - his vassal - in return for his support4). Philip Augustus was in a militarily stronger position in relation to John than he had been in relation to Henry II or Richard I, and was able at Le Goulet to extract both a large amount of money and some strategically important castles, as well as controls on John’s dealings with people Henry and Richard had claimed as their vassals.5 But the acceptance of vassal status as such for Normandy, Anjou and Aquitaine was not new.
On the other hand, in 1213, King John surrendered the kingdom of England and the lordship of Ireland to pope Innocent III, to receive them back as fiefs held as a vassal of the papacy. He undertook to pay the pope 1,000 marks - about £247 million in modern money - per year6 in lieu of all feudal services. The point was to get the pope on John’s side in his disputes with the archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. Writing a few decades after John’s death, historian Matthew Paris called this a carta detestabilis - a detestable charter.7 This looks like a much better example of “the greatest vassalage” or surrender of sovereignty than le Goulet.
There is another and larger point which makes 1213 a better example than 1200. This is that secular “vassalage” is not the relation between lord and peasant, but between king or higher lord and lower lord as vassal. And in this context, the lord was under feudal practice expected to act through the court of his ‘honour’, composed of his vassals; the senior vassals, the ‘suitors of the court’, made the judgments in individual cases; the court made the rules. Kings had more leeway, but even Henry II, who was in an unusually strong position, made laws through great councils, at which important vassals were present or represented. King John’s failure to act through consultation was a critical element in allowing dissidents to raise the civil war against him, which led to Magna Carta in 1215.8
The pope, in contrast, claimed to have the unlimited personal legislative powers of a Roman emperor - princeps legibus solutus (the emperor is not bound by statutes) and quod principi placuit legis habet vigorem (what pleases the emperor has the force of statute). Or, alternatively, according to some papalist theorists, god usually acts through rules (physics and so on), but sometimes acts arbitrarily (miracles), and he has delegated the power to act arbitrarily to the pope.9 The pope made a great deal of law on this basis.
Bringing the analogy home to Brexit, the UK in the European Union might be considered to be in some sense a “vassal”: it is bound by rules made by the EU institutions, analogous to those of the honour, and it only has its own voice and vote - just as the individual vassal had only his (or occasionally her) own voice in the honour court.
Once the UK leaves the EU, however, under Theresa May’s white paper it will stand in the same sort of relation to EU legislation that the English government did to papal legislation in the middle ages. It will be technically bound by it, but have no voice, vote or right to consultation whatever, when it is made.
If Rees-Mogg can remember Le Goulet in 1200 (or have enough vague memory of John’s reign to look it up), he must certainly remember the much more famous 1213 surrender and regrant of the kingdom of England by which John made himself a vassal of the pope; and 1213 is on its face a much better example for Rees-Mogg’s argument.
So why not use it? A plausible guess is that Rees-Mogg thought first of King John surrendering sovereignty to the pope in 1213. But he then realised this choice would open up the possibility of his political opponents using against him his own very explicit ultra-reactionary Catholicism, which rejects the sovereignty of the state in relation to abortion, contraception, homosexuality and so on. Reference to 1213 would as a result be too easily presented as hypocritical. At the very least it would distractingly raise the issue of religion. So he had to find another “vassalage” involving King John - and picked up on Le Goulet.
However, this “vassalage” analogy does not really make sense. Further, as soon as we explore it, we see the dirty secret of the Brexiteers. No, not the fact that Vote Leave committed breaches of the referendum funding rules,10 but the fact that the Brexiteers systematically presented their nationalist argument as an issue of democracy - by pretending that EU legislation is made by civil servants, when in reality it has to pass both the elected EU parliament and the council of ministers, where weighted voting actually favours the UK (though, of course, there used to be a complete veto, which now only applies in a limited class of cases).
On the other side of the coin, the Brexiteers did not complain of the fact that the court of justice’s interpretations of the EU treaties can only be overturned by new treaties (which do need unanimity). They were never concerned about making the EU more democratic, and they never wanted to give any ‘hostages to fortune’, which might have been met with the idea that the EU should be made more democratic.
Once they got their referendum result, it became clear just how much the Brexiteers’ democratic pretensions were worth. They were going to ‘restore parliamentary sovereignty’ - but spent six months and £1.2 million in the Millercase and related litigation defending a claimed right of government to act without parliament under the royal prerogative. Moreover, once the proposed legislation to implement Brexit came before parliament, it became clear that the Brexiteers were fighting tooth and nail for the maximum possible delegation of discretion away from parliament to the ministers: in effect, for legislation written by civil servants with no more than token parliamentary oversight - exactly what they were complaining about in the EU’s constitution.11
You can’t fool all the people all the time. But in referenda, you only need to fool 4% of the people 2% of the time.
But it is not just the Brexiteers. The ‘remainers’ are equally unwilling to face up to the undemocratic features of the EU constitution - or, for that matter, the undemocratic features of the British constitution.
To give a single example, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberalism in the June 22 issue of its paper Solidarity comments: “Immediately, nothing in Labour’s 2017 manifesto would be blocked by single market rules” - weasel words, since this is precisely true because of the extreme timidity of the 2017 manifesto.12 And, assuming a more radical manifesto, the AWL says a little earlier in the same article:
… the EU is a loose confederation, not a state. Reprisals for breaching its rules would be the least of worries for a workers’ government in Britain which really challenged capitalist power. That workers’ government could expect - and would need - much more in the way of cooperation with European labour movements inspired by its example.
This deliberately evades the point that EU law is directly applicable in the UK courts under the European Communities Act 1972. So radical measures could be blocked by civil servants, and British judges would back them on the basis of EU law. Or judges could directly rule against reforms to anti-strike laws under employer litigation in the UK courts, applying the rules laid down in the ECJ in the Viking and Laval cases.13
The point is not that the ‘Lexiteers’ (left Brexiteers) are right. They are not. Physical production is on an international scale, and the UK is, for example, dependent on imports of food.14 A real alternative to capitalism will need the working class to take power on at least a European scale.
The point is that the economism of the ‘remainers’ (by no means just the AWL’s) - their desire to shut up about the structures of both the EU and the UK constitutions - is just as delusive and evasive as the Brexiteers’ pretence of democracy.
It is necessary to fight now - before the question of a government which “really challenged capitalist power” is posed - against anti-democratic constitutional structures, and in particular against regimes of judicial supremacy. Without that fight, “a workers’ government in Britain” would find itself unable to act effectively, and would lose popular support due to the ability of the judiciary to block or delay practical actions. Propaganda and agitation to delegitimise the constitutional order is a matter of present honesty - but also of very practical politics.
From this point of view, Rees-Mogg’s medievalism may be meant to be a diversion; but it turns out to raise real issues.
3. Both at https://twitter.com/bbclaurak/status/1017382871466733569. There is a great deal more there; I selected these two pairs of tweets for their particular interest.
4. There is an outline discussion of homage in 1230s English law in the treatise called Bracton (http://bracton.law.harvard.edu/Unframed/English/v2/228.htm) and the following pages. On English kings doing homage to the king of France for French possessions, see J Gillingham, ‘Doing homage to the king of France’ in C Harper-Bill and N Vincent (eds) Henry II: new interpretations Martlesham 2007, pp63-84.
5. WL Warren King John London 1961, pp70-72.
6. www.measuringworth.com/calculators/ukcompare/relativevalue.php. Use the ‘economic power’ calculation and a starting point of 1270 provided by the web page. However, this tends to understate the modern value, since there was significant inflation in the 13th century (see https://thehistoryofengland.co.uk/resource/economic-and-social-history-charts-1000-1485).
7. http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2015/07/papal-overlordship-of-england-the-making-of-an-escape-clause-for-magna-carta.html. See WL Warren op cit p230 for the quote from Matthew Paris; Warren argues that in 1213-15 the arrangement was, rather, seen as a smart move on the king’s part.
8. JC Holt Magna Carta Cambridge 2015; P Brand, ‘Henry II and the creation of the English common law’ in C Harper-Bill and N Vincent (op cit) pp229-31.
9. Roman emperor: Justinian Digest 1.3.31 and 1.4.1.pr, both from the early third century CE jurist, Ulpian. Physics and miracles: K Pennington The prince and the law 1200-1600 Orlando 1993, especially chapter 2.
10. A Lusher, ‘Brexit: will the EU referendum be rerun after Vote Leave was referred to police for breaking electoral law?’ The Independent July 17.
11. See my discussion in ‘Labour tails Tory rebels’ Weekly Worker December 21 2017.
13. There is a brief summary at www.elaweb.org.uk/resources/ela-briefing/laval-viking-line-and-limited-right-strike.
14. Eg, ‘Dairy products “may become luxuries” after UK leaves EU’ The Guardian July 18.