Connecting With Our Roots

Published by at 4:15 pm under Constitutional Reform

If you were to blurt out something like “No taxation without representation” in Canada, you could well get tagged as too American and shoved out of the public discussion. But hang on for seven centuries. We have a right to that slogan, too.

I’m not even impressed with the claim that being like Americans is a Bad Thing, especially as the basis for an entire political philosophy. But never mind for now what currently has me lunging for my quill and parchment is that no taxation without representation, though a slogan of the American revolutionaries, is not an American invention at all. It is a part of our heritage because it is a principle of the British Constitution going back to 1297.

Yes, 1297. Edward I and all that. It was in 1297 that King Edward, in the face of popular wrath at his high-hhandedness, backed down and promised he would never levy taxes without the consent of the English people. By the time Washington and Adams and Jefferson and that crowd took up the cry, it was nearly 500 years old as a formal law and a lot older than that as a tradition. And I’m not just blowing mouldy old dust in your face here. I’m pointing out that we have a tradition worth remembering and standing up for in the face of a government that has gotten a lot too big for its hose in recent years. Yes, we. In1867, the British North America Act expressly gave us a “Constitution similar in Principle to the United Kingdom” by which they meant not just the mechanics but the underlying spirit.

Of course this spirit has experienced many challenges over the centuries, has undergone considerable institutional refinement, and has taken some pretty severe blows in recent decades. But if we want to sort out our public affairs it is well worth insisting that those of us who do not enjoy the embrace of the nanny state, and dislike the institutionally sloppy ways in which government has been escaping our control in the last 40 years, are not weirdos, interlopers, “foreigners” or outsiders. We aren’t the ones putting forward unCanadian ideas. Limited government, the rule of law and freedom from intrusive government are the deep and solid foundations of our constitutional order, not just specific institutions and laws but the whole spirit of Canadian self-government.

Don ’t get me going on Magna Carta…yet. But notice that the first English parliament to include commoners was summoned in 1265 and within a third of a century, in 1297, one of the most successful, and domineering, kings in our history, the hated “Longshanks” of Braveheart, made a promise not to raise taxes without the consent of parliament that no king except Charles I ever blatantly broke. And he got his head cut off!

It doesn’t matter who you are or where you or your ancestors came from, if you are Canadian you are politically the heir of the British system, including those who raised the standard of revolt against the Stuarts and those who insisted upon a reasonable settlement in 1689 when all the ruckus was done. A settlement that provided for the separation of powers, the protection of liberty and the principles later insisted on in the
American Constitution and its Bill of Rights. And whenever we find ourselves subject to administrative levies, taxes disguised as fees, or even something as simple as property taxes imposed in a way too complex for practical oversight by citizens, our ancient liberties are being trampled.

Sure, such talk can get you called a few unpleasant names.What can’t these days? But if you are, my advice is to volley back “ignoramus”, because these principles are central to our heritage whether or not they currently teach it in schools. How’d you like to boast of living in “A land, perhaps the only one in the universe, in which political or civil liberty is the very end and scope of the constitution”? OK, that at least is too American, right? Wrong. It’s William Blackstone, in the first volume of his famous Commentaries in 1765, describing England, and looking back with satisfaction on the settlement of 1689 in spirit we might do well to recall.

There seem to be people out there who actually think liberty is bad and any institution caught promoting it ought to be amended or abolished as quickly as convenient. But don’t let these scoundrels wrap themselves in the Canadian flag. Here we the people have insisted on our inalienable rights from time immemorial including, in 1297, reminding that uppity Plantagenet Edward what he’d better not try doing to free people.

Go head. shout it out.

23 The Landowner Magazine October/November 2008

by John Robson