Serious diarists will have made two significant entries in the last few weeks: the marriage of Prince William and the death of Osama bin Laden.
The Royal wedding is a token of the Constitutional system that we have been so fortunate to have inherited. Those who are prepared to put their prejudices aside and contemplate the history and development of our Westminster system, will be aware that it has developed over centuries. Our system is too valuable to be promoted just for debate simply as a political distraction by a failed government or by the disgruntled few who cannot even name where else they would rather live. It is still “work in progress”, democracy being a system not an entity. It is one that should not be changed on a whim. There should be no temptation, even by those who dislike what they see is a “tyranny of a minority” currently in Canberra (apologies to that great English philosopher and libertarian, John Stuart Mill, (1806-1872)).
Few will mourn Osama bin Laden’s death. There will be the zealots. There will be the idealists with no desire to contemplate the pressures on the combatants who mounted the raid believing that he should have been brought to trial. Bin Laden’s objective failed even in his lifetime as evidenced by the succession of recent uprisings across the Middle East. They were seeking freedom and more of the democracy as we know it and not the establishment of a 7th century caliphate or whatever else was in bin Laden’s twisted mind. They have been presidential type regimes, usually overturned monarchies.
In our journey to democracy, few would have made a greater contribution or paid a higher price than the English Barrister John Cooke (1608-1660). He was the son of a poor Leicestershire farmer and was responsible for the introduction of many changes to improve legal practise. In 1646, he achieved the right to silence in proceedings. He also achieved the abolition of imprisonment for debt and probation for those that stole to feed their families. He advocated passionately and made prescient pleas for social justice (the term not used here as the political correct euphemism for “charity”) and the redistribution of wealth (and again the term is not used here to imply legalised stealing). He advocated legal ethics and law reform arguing for the fusion of law and equity, the establishment of a land registry, abolition of courtroom Latin and restrictions on the death penalty. He advocated that parliament set lawyers’ fees and those barristers be required to devote 10% of their practise to pro bono work for the poor thus making justice with their reach. However, it was his own “cab-rank” rule that resulted in the end to his demise, the requirement for barristers to accept the first brief offered.
After other barristers with less moral gumption had fled the Inns of Court, Cooke he was given the brief to prosecute Charles 1. There was no doubt that Charles 1 bore command responsibility for two civil wars which claimed the lives of one in ten adult males and was about to embark on a third. Today he could have faced a war crimes tribunal. However, I do not think anyone sought the King’s head rather they wanted him to agree to a Constitutional Monarchy where the people had democratic power through the parliament. We all know the result of the trial, the failed republic and the Restoration. After the Restoration, Cooke and all those that tried the King were brought to a “trial” of sorts then hung drawn and quartered, an ancient penalty which will be of especial interest to Freemasons. Geoffrey Robertson, QC in his magnificent 2005 book, “The Tyrannicide Brief”, describes the penalty in gruesome detail.
Such is one of the paths to democracy and the price paid by so many for the system we now enjoy. Sir Humphrey would say that it would be a courageous decision to take our present system asunder!