Tom Paine: of monarchs, presidents and the cult of personality

Rule of law is king


Various reasons over the past three months have sent me back to Tom Paine’s clear political ideas. They help to answer such disparate issues as the fight between Parliament and the courts over who is responsible for EU withdrawal; the need for more clarity over who rules the United Kingdom (so long as it remains ‘united’): Parliament (legislature) or the government (executive); and the mindless adulation which political characters as wide apart as President’s Trump and Putin on the one hand and Jeremy Corbyn on the other have attracted. The main purpose here is to explain why the cult of personality – of anyone, not just the three characters in the previous sentence – is primitive. It harks back to medieval times (and much earlier). Oliver Cromwell tried to rid this country of it; but unlike Gideon (see below) he succumbed; though he clung to ‘Protector’ as his title. The evils of cult are well illustrated by Tom Paine.


‘Monarchy’ means rule by one person. It is associated with hereditary monarchs; but it could as easily be applied to any system which concentrates a disproportionate amount of power in one person: a President, a prime minister, a party leader. It is the nature of their rule and the power they wield (eg choosing their group of adherents (cabinet)) which defines the extent of mon-archy (rule by one), not their constitutional trappings.


Paine was brought up a Quaker. His philosophy is none the worse for that. You don’t have to be a Christian to see that ‘Love thy neighbour’ should be the basis for any left wing political philosophy. Whether it was what a Jewish carpenter’s son said, or is part of the next development from an earlier system of Jewish law (the Ten Commandments) does not really matter. It is the political philosophy distilled in parts of the Bible which counts.


In his 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense, Paine illustrates his dislike of kings and the hereditary system by the Bible story of Gideon. When asked to be king by the Jews, Gideon ‘in the piety of his soul replied: “I will not rule over you neither shall my son rule over you, the Lord shall rule over you”’. And Paine develops this: Gideon was not turning down the honour. He denied the right of the people to give it.


If in the 21st century you replace Paine’s ‘Lord’ with the rule of law; and recognise that, as does the Miller Brexit case, it is the law not politicians which rule, then a constitutional equilibrium begins to emerge. As Paine said: ‘The law is king; not the king law’. It is a short adjustment between these two stand-points to say that the rule of law is law; and that the rule of an individual – literally a ‘monarch’: prime minster, president, party leader, duke or duchess – is wrong and must not be the law. Rule by one person in the 21st century – especially after our experiences of dictators in the 1930s and early 1940s – must be anathema.


Rule by the 21


So what is the alternative? Paine examines the earliest societies and points out that government is a ‘necessary evil’. It should be equality ruling freedoms (liberty) in the interests of society (fraternity/sisterliness) – but that is for another day. Government must be by a selected body – the ‘elected’, as Paine calls them – for the whole body – the ‘electors’. Society then works towards a true commonwealth as the Levellers would have understood the term.


In a way we have that elected body already, surely? Yes and no. We have a representative body (with some form of proportional representation it could be more representative). We still have the personality cult of a prime minister, who personally chooses his or her cabinet and all her ministers; and as we have seen with Mr Corbyn, he weeds out anyone who does not agree with him. Compare Atlee’s cabinet where all ‘wings’ of the Labour party worked together to produce the most effective modern government this country has probably ever known.


I would have the country elect the MPs (broadly as now). A majority of MPs (say, if the same system persists as now, a party) chooses 21 MPs from a list of those willing to be chosen. That 21 (‘cabinet’: a random odd number: it could be 17 of 23 (no more I suggest)) chooses the heads of government departments and other ministers. All the 21 chose, it is not left to one mon-archical figure (as now). The ‘cabinet’ then meets as regularly as need be to run the country; and at its first meeting it chooses a chair. If possible – this needs thinking through – the chair would be re-elected every few months (three to six, say); and there would be no president, or prime minister, or leader (no il duce: leader in Italian from which comes our duke).


I am sure if Paine had guessed that his beloved New Englanders would one day combine with other USA people to elect Trump as president, he would have kept his Gideon idea and have warmed to my cabinet rule idea. He would have rejected the idea of one president or leader.