E.P Thompson, the Rule of Law, Brexit, Trump & the ‘Freeborn Englishman’
The late socialist historian E.P. Thompson was a great supporter of a united Europe, east and west, and had a strong political dislike of what in his day was known as the EEC. He supported those who wanted to be outside the EEC in the 1975 European Referendum.
He might well have voted to ‘leave’ in the June 2016 Referendum then, though he would certainly have polemicized against the right-wing ‘Brexiteers’.
The High Court judgement that the process of Britain leaving the EU should pass through Parliamentary scrutiny and possibly a vote aroused the wrath of the hard right gutter press- the Mail, Express and so on.
Again Thompson would have been engaged.
Not all on the left support the concept of a ‘rule of law’ but Thompson certainly did. A recent study by Carolyn Steedman of his correspondence with his research assistant EE Dodds (History Workshop Journal) shows Thompson to be fascinated by the law, judges and those who found their way into Court.
His book Whigs and Hunters is primarily about how the eighteenth century Black Acts, originally focused on poaching but extended more widely. He studies in detail how the law operated showing that it was contested but still provided an important framework for how the right or otherwise to hunt in places like Enfield Chase was dealt with.
Thompson had previously identified in his classic Making of the English Working Class, that the existence of a legal system was seen as an important part of his ‘birthright’ by the ‘Freeborn Englishman’.
Thompson wrote in The Making of the English Working Class:
‘Question of the limits beyond which the Englishman was not prepared to be ‘pushed around’, and the limits beyond which authority did not dare to go… The stance of the common Englishman was not so much democratic, in any positive sense, as anti-absolutist. He felt himself to be an individualist with few affirmative rights, but protected by the laws against the intrusion of arbitrary power’.
Thompson was no fan of judges but rather a strong defender of the jury system to keep their activities in check. In later years he wrote a number of critiques of judge based law- see the collection, Sir, Writing by Candelight, but that doesn’t take away from his belief in the principle of system of law.
In the age of Trump this may be very important