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The Principles of the Glorious Revolution

William Blackstone, in his ‘Fundamental Laws of England,  published in 1760, enumerates a stream of signal documents which declare what he saw as the “absolute rights of Englishmen.” It was these rights which the American colonists believed they had taken with them to the new land, and it was those rights which they claimed King George III was infringing.

He saw these documents, all of a constitutional nature, as the spring from which parliament and the common law came. They begin with Magna Carta, its various confirmations, the Petition of Right and the Habeas Corpus Acts under Charles 1. They culminate with the Bill of Rights, 1689 and the Act of Settlement of 1701.

Let us go to the Bill of Rights, of 1689, “An Act Declaring the Rights and Liberties of the Subject and Settling the Succession of the Crown.” 
In summary, the Bill of Rights established the fundamental principles of government in what is the first version in England of a modern constitutional monarchy, which I shall call the Constitutional Monarchy Mark 1. In this model the King agrees that only the King-in-Parliament can legislate, the King thus having a power of veto. Unlike the present Westminster system, the King also retained control of the executive government.  This is the model on which the American Republic is based, an irony to which we shall return.

The Bill of Rights was a revolutionary document in that with the landing of Prince William of Orange, the stadholder of the Netherlands United Provinces, the legitimate King, James 11 fled to France. It was William who called what became known as the Convention Parliament, and it was that Parliament which offered the throne to William and his wife Mary, James daughter.

Constitutionally this was irregular, to say the least. If James did in fact abdicate, the Crown would have gone to the young Prince James, the Prince of Wales who was with him in France, and not to his daughter, the Princess Mary, William’s wife. Hence it is properly called a revolution, but in comparison to most, a mild one.

The Bill of Rights begins with a recital referring to the Declaration of Right which was read to the Sovereigns before the Crown was formally offered to them. Then follows a general accusation against James II, that a “by the assistance of divers evil counsellors, judges and ministers employed by him, did endeavour to subvert and extirpate the Protestant religion and the laws and liberties of this kingdom.” This was no doubt recorded to justify the constitutional irregularity in the offer of the Crown to William and Mary. This device was followed by the American revolutionaries in the accusations made against King George III in the Declaration of Independence.

Then follow thirteen specific allegations, principally that he claimed the power to dispense with the laws of England. Among the accusations is one which will interest Australians, that of  “levying money for and to the use of the Crown by pretence of prerogative for other time and in other manner than the same was granted by Parliament. “  In other words, James is accused of raising taxes without parliamentary approval and ruling without supply.

This is forbidden both under the Westminster system and in the United States, but with different consequences. In the Westminster system, a government which cannot obtain supply must advise a general election or resign.

Thus on 11 November, 1975 the Australian Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, withdrew the commission of the then Prime Minister E.G. Whitlam for trying to do this, to govern without a grant of supply.

In his reasons Sir John said:

“Because of the principles of responsible government a Prime Minister who cannot obtain supply, including money for carrying on the ordinary services of government, must either advise a general election or resign. If he refuses to do this I have the authority and indeed the duty under the Constitution to withdraw his Commission as Prime Minister.”

In summary, and in case anyone doubted the illegality of  King James’ actions, the Bill of Rights declares that all of these “are utterly and directly contrary to the known laws and statutes and freedom of this realm.”

Then follows the justification for the invitation to William and Mary to take the throne, and the calling of the Convention Parliament.

This was that after William landed, and so many went over to William, that James burned most of the writs prepared for the new Parliament, cast the Great Seal into the Thames and then fled to France. 

Parliament debated as to whether he had thus abdicated or, alternatively, was incapable of acting. There was talk of regency, but this was rejected when it was realised that under a regency, James could always return to the Throne.  He was now even less acceptable, living, with the young Prince of Wales, in France under the protection of Louis XIV, who had revoked the Edit of Nantes which had allowed the protestant Huguenots some liberties.

Accordingly, the Bill of Rights declares that the “late King James the Second” – almost as if he were dead – “having abdicated the government and the throne being thereby vacant, his Highness the Prince of Orange (whom it hath pleased Almighty God to make the glorious instrument of delivering this kingdom from popery and arbitrary power)” had called an election for the House of Commons which met and formulated the conditions under which they would offer the throne to William and Mary.

The Bill of Rights then records that “their said Majesties did accept the crown and royal dignity of the kingdoms,” and that certain principles were accepted. It was noted in particular that the King and Queen could not, under the prerogative, dispense with the application of the laws, that a standing army will not be maintained in England without parliamentary consent, that the Monarch would not interfere in elections, nor rule without supply, that subjects were would be free to petition the King, and that they were to be protected from cruel and unusual punishments, and fines and forfeitures without trial. Parliamentary privilege was established and Protestants were entitled to bear arms for their defence.

The Parliament had clearly tired of the Stuart Kings. They looked across the Channel and they did not care for what they saw, the absolutist France of Louis XIV.  In particular they did not like the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which led to the persecution and flight of the Huguenots. They linked their problems with the Stuarts to Roman Catholicism, and so Roman Catholics were to be barred from the Throne, Parliament claiming that experience had demonstrated “that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this protestant kingdom to be governed by a papist prince."

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