Locke, Schmitt and Carroll

Glen Newey

‘Which is to be master?’

John Locke, commonly seen as a founding father of liberalism, also foretokened the political thought of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt. In chapter 14 of his Second Treatise, Locke turns to the notion of the prerogative: 'This power to act according to discretion, for the public good, without the prescription of the law, and sometimes even against it, is that which is called prerogative ... therefore there is a latitude left to the executive power, to do many things of choice which the laws do not prescribe.' This is Locke's version of Schmitt’s Ausnahmezustand, usually translated (no version is perfect) as ‘state of exception’, which obtains when the sovereign deems it necessary to override the law.

Schmitt's version of the idea is sometimes apposed with Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, disastrously invoked by Hindenburg after the Reichstag fire in 1933 and exploited by Hitler to hasten dictatorship. This is, to be sure, the sort of thing that gives emergency powers a bad name. It often happens on the plea of defending the constitution, as with the US National Socialist Movement, who have reportedly dispatched plain-clothes vigilantes to monitor supposed voter fraud at today's polls on Trump's behalf. Locke's version cites, more agreeably, the Ciceronian tag ‘Salus populi suprema lex’, though that leaves the small matter of who authoritatively determines what the public good is. For example, who decides whether the public good lies in Britain's remaining part of the EU? The British public themselves were recently asked this question, and various reasons have since been given – before they answered, not so much – for not treating their answer as authoritative.

Last week's high court ruling that the government needs parliamentary assent to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty was widely greeted, by Remainers at least, as a reaffirmation of the rule of law over the use of the prerogative. Some commentators who endorsed the verdict cited A.V. Dicey, the 19th-century theorist often invoked as an authority on the UK constitution. Their lordships quoted Dicey too: ‘The judges know nothing about any will of the people except in so far as that will is expressed by an Act of Parliament.’

Unfortunately, Dicey is not entirely at one with himself on this issue. On occasion, he remarks, there may be ‘fair reason to suppose that the opinion of the House is not the opinion of the electors … A dissolution is allowable or necessary whenever the wishes of the legislature are or may fairly be presumed to be different from the wishes of the nation.’

Brexiters might fairly take this as describing the situation that will come about if the government’s appeal to the Supreme Court is thrown out and the Commons refuses to trigger Article 50; it might be thought of as Dicey’s version of the exception that proves the rule of law.

Remainers have pointed out that Brexiters campaigned for Westminster to take back control; Brexiters have observed that Remainers have suddenly grown fond of the parliamentary sovereignty they'd happily ceded to the EU hitherto. Inconsistency is the warp and woof of our collective lives. This seems as true of the three High Court judges who handed down last week's ruling. ‘The most fundamental rule of UK constitutional law is that the Crown in Parliament is sovereign,’ they said, and ‘there is no superior form of law than primary legislation.’ This rule is so fundamental that it has only ever known one exception: the European Communities Act 1972, ‘which confers precedence on European law’.

Richard Rorty, flagging philosophers' tendency to nod at their own inconsistencies, liked to quote J.L. Austin: ‘There's the bit where you say it and the bit where you take it back.’ Whose exception? Which authority? ‘The question is,’ Alice says to Humpty Dumpty, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ No, he says, ‘the question … is which is to be master – that's all.’ Or, if not all, it’s always a question worth asking.


  • 8 November 2016 at 11:44am
    Joe Morison says:
    One of the great lies of the Leave campaign was that the UK has ever lost any sovereignty to the EU. There has never been a moment when, in a single day, the Commons and Lords could not have passed a bill negating all EU law, and the Queen sign it. From that moment, all the sovereignty lent to the EU would have been taken back.

    All international treaties, such as the WTO trade rules, involving our lending sovereignty; but it is impossible as things stand for us to lose it.

    • 8 November 2016 at 12:44pm
      Greencoat says: @ Joe Morison
      That is pure sophistry. There are many things that are theoretically possible but in practice could never be enacted.

    • 8 November 2016 at 10:09pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Greencoat
      Not sophistry at all, but merely an observation that takes note of the political fact that treaties (or any other agreement) are only as solid as the willingness of both parties to enforce them or carry out their obligations (we all know that the moment often comes when they are suddenly "a scrap of paper".) Your agreement partner's good will cannot be taken as permanent, and neither is your own.

    • 9 November 2016 at 5:50am
      Joe Morison says: @ Greencoat
      Of course it could be enacted; we wouldn't, bar some bizarre emergency, because it would be utterly catastrophic for our international standing and trade. - A more drastic case of what's happening now we've chosen to leave in a slightly more orderly fashion.

      In practice, pulling immediately out of most of the international agreements to which we've lent our sovereignty would exact a high price. If we end up, when we leave the EU, using the WTO rules, that's a temporary ceding of our sovereignty that it would be madness to pull out; but I don't hear the Brexotics calling that a threat to our independence.