I often find much that’s despicable in the news, but hardly ever anything that’s surprising. When one has lived for… well, a long time, one can’t help becoming somewhat jaded.
Hence I must thank Sarah Broughton, the head of consular affairs at the Foreign Office, for shaking me out of my torpor. In a few clear, unequivocal words she left me speechless, with my mouth open wide enough to accommodate my heart and what’s left of my other internal organs.
The words that had such a shattering effect appear in Miss Broughton’s letter to the lawyers acting for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliff, a Briton of Iranian descent languishing in a Tehran prison on a trumped-up charge.
British subjects, explained Miss Broughton, “have no legal right to consular assistance” or the government’s diplomatic protection even if falsely accused and tortured. This is the most revolting statement I’ve seen emerging from the government, and the list of candidates for that distinction is long.
It has been assumed since time immemorial that any British subject arrested oversees has the right to at least consular access. If falsely accused (like Mrs Ratcliff), the subject must be secure in the knowledge that the government will seek every possible diplomatic and legal redress to secure his release.
Such is the nature of the ancient compact between the state and the citizen: protectio trahit subjectionem, subjectio protectionem (protection entails allegiance; allegiance, protection). The Foreign Office statement breaks the compact, leading to a logical conclusion: if the government withdraws its protection, we can withdraw our allegiance.
Interestingly, HMG won’t do what it asks of others. Here, I’ve opened my passport to read these words on the inside cover: “Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State Requests and requires in the Name of Her Majesty all those whom it may concern to allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary.”
Not only requests but also requires, eh? If I were a foreign official, I’d just say “Look who’s talking. Why should I assist and protect waylaid Britons if even their own government won’t do that?”
If the aforementioned legal principle is now null and void, we should campaign for the posthumous rehabilitation of William Joyce, known as Lord Haw-Haw. In 1946 that Nazi propagandist went to the gallows on a technicality.
Though Joyce was a US and Irish citizen, he managed to obtain a British passport on false pretences, developing a phony upper-class British accent in the process. That was the passport he used to travel to Nazi Germany, and that was the accent he used when becoming Goebbels’s Anglophone voice.
The prosecution was able to charge Joyce with treason and invoke the principle of protectio trahit subjectionem, subjectio protectionem. Since he used a British passport to go to Germany, Joyce was entitled to the protection of the Crown, while the latter was entitled to his loyalty.
Had he used one of his other passports, he would have got off. Since neither the US nor Ireland was at war with Germany at the time Joyce went there, he couldn’t be judged a traitor to those countries. And Joyce couldn’t be a traitor to Britain because, as a non-subject, he didn’t owe her any subjectio.
What I found as astounding as the FO statement itself is the muted, nonchalant reaction to it. Thus The Times only mentioned that “the government’s position has profound implications for all British citizens travelling abroad”. I daresay those implications go quite a bit wider than that.
The government’s position brings into question the very nature of government, along with the factors of its legitimacy. It breaks the bilateral compact balancing rights and duties that lies at the foundation of any civilised state. This position implies a unilateral arrangement hitherto associated only with tyrannies: the citizens owe the state everything, while the state owes them nothing.
I’m not trying to distract public attention from genuflecting to the thunderous din of Black Lives Matter. All I’m trying to say is that other things matter too, and some, at the risk of being smitten with a woke lightning, may mean even more.
Prime among them is the constitutional relationship between the state and the people. When that disintegrates, so do a whole raft of erstwhile certitudes on which statehood rests. Its legs buckling, the state may go plop on its belly, crushing us all under its weight.