The execution of King Charles I, of England  

One of my unsatisfied ambitions is to visit Australia, whose inhabitants seem to have a singularly robust spirit of self-reliance incongruously combined with left-wing populism that suggests the English originally deported not convicts but the rowdiest segment of the Labour Party to Botany Bay.

Regrettably the vast distance the English originally sent whoever it was makes plane fare from Canada problematic so I must content myself with speculation from a distance.

On the robust side, Australians invented the pickup, a classic only-in-America story even if their word is “ute”. They maintain armed forces a Canadian can only envy as our proud military tradition is ground down under politicians of every stripe. Australia’s taxes are fairly low by OECD standards. And they achieved internal free trade of a sort the Americans managed and we Canadians did not.

OK. Internal free trade is boring. But on the left-wing side, Australians submitted meekly to gun control and guns are not boring. In MercatorNet recently Zac Alstin wrote a perceptive piece arguing that the solution to mass shootings in America might be more, not fewer, guns in private hands.

But he said it was hard for Australians to understand the American attachment to guns given their acquiescence in strict control measures after a 1996 mass public shooting.

Perhaps it is. But actually those measures were not nearly as strict as popular mythology at home and abroad maintains. Australia still has something like the 20th-highest rate of gun ownership in the world per capita. Of course, like everyone else, they are way behind the United States, with more guns than people. But the Australian rate of 24.1 per 100 people is not far behind Canada’s 30.8. And like Canada, Australia has a remarkably low rate of gun violence, which makes it hard to understand how people can maintain, as they do, that gun violence correlates with gun ownership.

The same is true of Vermont, whereas Honduras, with just 6.2 guns per 100 inhabitants, has a firearm death rate six times the American one. And while gun deaths did decline in Australia after the 1996 buyback, they had already been falling for decades, while gun ownership has rebounded. (For more on all this see my documentary A Right to Arms.) The point is that most Australians are responsible gun owners and have been for centuries.

OK, that’s part of the point.

But what really intrigued me was Alstin’s statement that “for Australians our political rights have never rested on the threat of popular insurrection.” At the risk of invoking the dreaded “cultural cringe” I must say this view can only be maintained by insisting, as some Canadian intellectuals are fond of doing, that our or your history has nothing to do with that of Britain or the English-speaking world generally.

Australians have, I think, heard of Magna Carta. If not they need only visit Parliament House in Canberra, whose website boasts “The Magna Carta lies at the heart of Australian parliamentary democracy. Parliament House has a 1297 edition of the Magna Carta—one of only four in existence, and the only one in the Southern Hemisphere.”

So how did Magna Carta come about? The 1297 version was issued by Edward I, grandson of Bad King John who grimly and reluctantly sealed the 1215 original because otherwise… well? A nasty letter to the editor? A silent protest outside his Odiham hunting lodge? A folk song? No. Because otherwise the barons, knights and yeomen of England would have cut off his miserable head to the cheers of the clergy. John was dragged to Runnymede by an armed citizenry in full-blown popular insurrection.

Magna Carta was not a done deal in 1215, of course. John himself got the Pope to annul it and excommunicate the rebel barons, then raised an army before dying of dysentery in 1216. But while the Magna Carta was repeatedly reissued, various kings from Edward I through Henry VIII to Charles I and James II were impatient with the constitutional requirement to respect their subjects’ liberties. The wiser ones simply put up with it, even such a forceful man as Edward I who not only confirmed the Great Charter but also promised his subjects No Taxation Without Representation in the 1297 statute De Tallagio Non Concedendo.

Why? Some kings were perhaps just and pious. But all but the most foolish were afraid of the threat of popular insurrection.

The most foolish included Charles I, who blundered into the English Civil War by refusing to heed Parliament, indeed mounting an armed assault on the House of Commons in 1642 as a result of which in Australia, as in Canada, what you call the Governor General’s speech is delivered in the Senate chamber, the Queen’s representative being forbidden to ender the House.

That Civil War was an incredibly bloody affair, killing more per capita than World War I. And “Round II” ending the reign of the fatuous James II was called the “Glorious Revolution” for its essentially bloodless nature only because the threat of popular insurrection was by then so compelling that nobody believed James could attempt to fight it.

All these events are clearly part of the Australian political heritage. And there’s more. The Hanovers in the 18th Century had learned from the Stuarts in the 17th that a direct assault on Parliament as guardian of popular liberty was foolhardy. So they attempted by seduction what had proved impossibly by force. And they might have succeeded had not the American Revolution recalled the British to their senses about liberty, resulting not only in the military defeat of the Redcoats, but the intellectual defeat of the court party marked, among other things, in a House of Commons resolution in 1780, at the height of the fighting, that “the influence of the crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished”.

In Canada we had a kind of comic-opera replay of those momentous events in the 1830s, when British resistance to responsible self-government triggered revolts in Upper and Lower Canada that were fairly quickly suppressed with minor loss of life only because the British followed victory on the battlefield with surrender on the central issue, having belatedly learned the lessons of Lexington, Concord and Yorktown.

What has all this to do with Australia?

Well, when Australians sought nationhood in the late 19th Century, they did so in pursuit of the system of self-governing liberty that had arisen from Magna Carta, been defended despite Commonwealth excesses in the English Civil War, been championed explicitly by the American Revolutionaries and Canadian Rebels. And the British granted it to them because they neither wished nor dared to oppose it.

The entire history of Anglosphere liberty is precisely that of armed citizens unwilling to be oppressed by an arrogant overreaching state, and of a political class that gradually lost even the ambition to govern without consent, let alone the rashness to attempt it. And that history is also the history of Australia, including the American Revolution whose shot heard round the world was still audible in 1901.

Now perhaps some Christian readers of MercatorNet will find all this sword, pike and musket-waving history fails to turn the other cheek. But we are to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and that includes public order and the protection of the innocent. We are not commanded to turn someone else’s cheek.

Indeed, the only king in Australian history to be called “The Great” (to blunder into your republican debate while I’m at it) was Alfred of Wessex, a 9th Century warrior whose statues in England famously show weapon at rest and scroll in hand or sword inverted to form a cross because he was also a just and pious ruler.

It was the liberties of Saxon England to which the prelates, nobles and ordinary Englishmen who brought King John to heel were explicitly invoking, as were opponents of Stuart tyranny four centuries later. It was that liberty which we fought shoulder-to-shoulder to defend in the great struggles of the 20th Century against militarism, Nazism and Bolshevism.

And I trust we will strive to uphold those same liberties in the turbulent 21st Century, something I believe most Australians appreciate given the neighbourhood in which they live. But those liberties are only worth defending against foreign threats because we have successfully defended ourselves from domestic ones for more than a thousand years. And the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.

To say so is not to suggest that Australians must equip themselves with modern firearms or wake up in a week to find Genghis Khan, Ivan the Terrible, Hitler or even just Charles I making their laws. The habits of liberty are so deep that while modern governments may tax and regulate with a casual intrusiveness that Bad King John himself could only envy, we face nothing vaguely resembling an immediate threat of tyranny.

But we, and by “we” I do mean you too, enjoy this wonderful freedom from the menace that stalks most of mankind to this day precisely because of a long history of determined popular insurrection against it.

Popular insurrection in the name of liberty? It’s as Australian as the ute.

John Robson is a crowdfunded documentary filmmaker and freelance journalist in Ottawa, Canada. See his work and support him at www.johnrobson.ca.  

John Robson

John Robson is a documentary film-maker, columnist with the National Post, Executive Director of the Climate Discussion Nexus and a professor at Augustine College. He holds a PhD in American history from...